Wednesday, March 11, 2015

adventures in “once a month meals”

hello, hi, how are ya? long time, no see, kiss kiss and all that jazz.

it’s been so long since i wrote here that i’m not entirely sure i even remember how. my computer was like what? whoa! what are we even doing here? is this real life??? but blogging—and conversely, Not Blogging—are a two edged sword. Not Blogging has been sad, because i missed it, but also at the same time freeing and exhilarating. and the more time i spent Not Blogging, the easier that Not Blogging became.

lots has changed over the last year, and lots has stayed the same. there have been many things i seriously, like for realsies cross my heart almost but not quite fully considered blogging about. what inspired me to finally dust off the ole laptop and put pen to paper fingers to keyboard is my first foray into the world of once a month cooking. or, as one commenter on my instagram account put it “cook for a day, eat for a month.”

let’s be real: dinner time is the pits. cooking for a large family consisting of one vegetarian, one gluten free, one threenager who’s stock answer is“i don’t like it” to everything you put it front of her unless it’s a gogurt or mac and cheese, and 7 different palates, plus just being busy…ugh.
i’ve always tried to shop for 2 weeks at a time, with a menu, plan and list in hand. but so many nights jeremy would come home from work to a cold stove and a wife with no clue…and then suddenly it’s 7:30 and everything’s going to take too long so let’s just order.

what really pushed me over the edge was 2 separate incidents occurring in the last month.
o1) we went on a 2 week vacation. TWO. WEEKS. two glorious, sunshine-y weeks full of ME NOT COOKING. do you know how hard it is to get back in the swing of things after 2 weeks of all your children picking their meals from—literally—a buffet of options every day? that you didn’t need to cook or clean up? let me tell you: REALLY REALLY FREAKISHLY HARD.

DSCF0126whaddaya mean mom’s not serving prime rib AND lobster tail tonight?

it feels like every day since we’ve been home i’ve said to myself okay, this is it. time to get back in the swing, back on the saddle, back in the groove, back somewhere that includes schedules and regular meals. but then every night it’s dinner and i’m all let’s get dressed fancy and go to the dining room where our waiters will serve us and sing! wait, what?

20150208_150511hello incredible beach where i don’t have to cook. how i miss thee…

and then…
o2) when i finally did my major post-vacation food shopping trip, we missed a bag. one bag, not a huge bag in terms of size, sat in the living room for an entire evening, then overnight, until the next morning when i went to do the school run and found it there. it was the bag with all the meat. (cue crying and wailing). chicken, roast, ice cream…about $50 worth of food—and the staples for about 1/2 of my planned meals—garbage. i never made it back to the store for replacements, so more nights than are healthy we were scrambling for meals.

SO. obviously something needs to change. we need a reset, with a new plan of action.  a family can not live on pizza and mac and cheese alone. no matter how much certain 3 year olds wish that to be so.

with that in mind i stumbled across and it is AWESOME. (***also, you should know i’m not sponsored or paid in any way for this. people who don’t blog for a year aren’t exactly raking in the big sponsors lolz. this is just a girl, telling a blog reader, how she feels.)

i signed up for the “pro” plan which gives me the option to customize my menus. at $16/month, about 1/3 of the cost of one pizza night for us. (they also have a regular plan for $10/month)

when you figure out your menu, you select how many servings you need and then you get EVERYTHING. i mean, EVERYTHING:


those links on the right take you to printable sheets for EVERYTHING. did you hear me???? EVERYTHING.  on the left is the top of my menu. i swapped out one breakfast i was sure no one would like for the blueberry breakfast grilled cheese, because duh.

when i want to swap, i can specify what i’m looking for: another gluten free vegetarian easy assembly breakfast anyone?


they make it fairly idiot-proof. and that’s saying something. so, proud owner of one Brand Spankin’ Shiny New Pro Membership i set off on my first EPIC COOKING DAY…day…day…day… <---because there really should be an echo to make it more dramatic, dontcha think?

wanna know how it went? read on…

STEP ONE: the planning

i picked a mix of dinners: some vegetarian, some meat, some gluten free. i chose to cook 8 servings of each because 1) teenagers ya’ll and 2) maybe leftovers?
i also built a custom gluten free menu for gigi (oh yeah, gigi bear has been gluten free for about 4 months now and it’s worked wonders but we’ll talk about that later) and cooked 2 servings of each of those meals. that way i’d have a nice little stockpile of meals and snacks just for her, for when the rest of the family is gorging on gluten. also, breakfasts have been the toughest with this. so i’m hoping some solid pre-cooked GF options in the freezer will help us steer away from the expensive GF bars that have been a fallback.

on the hardware side of things: i borrowed 2 crockpots (because i broke mine, but i only used one in the end) and took a ride to IKEA for a new large stockpot (which i needed anyway) and some more measuring spoons and cups. you honestly can’t have enough measuring implements during EPIC COOKING DAY.

that’s easy: break it up. i figured since i was only doing 2 servings for gigi’s menu i could squeeze it in. but what that meant was i was cooking 8 servings of 10 meals and 2 servings of 10 other meals and snacks, each requiring prep and cooking and packing and freezer space. it was a lot, and i’ll definitely continue making separate meals for gigi, but on their own day.

STEP TWO: the shopping

we shopped on friday. no kids, just jeremy and i (yes, it was glorious) and my printed out lists. we started big and worked our way down: we hit up the local restaurant store first, where we snagged a 40 lb. case of chicken breast for $1.36/lb. my menu called for 31 lbs., and he usually cooks up a couple pounds a week for his lunches. that was a no-brainer. we also got a good deal on ground beef and a few other things. next up was sam’s club, where we got our roasts and some other staples. 3rd stop was aldi’s for the bulk of the “regular” groceries. a quick run in the local korean market for our herbs and sauces, and finally a breeze through the super wally for the last remaining items.
this may sound like a lot, but the restaurant depot and sam’s are next to each other, and the other stores run in a straight line to my house, all on the same road, and about a 3 mile drive to the furthest point.
it took us about 4 hours to shop, and maybe another 45 mins to unload and put everything away.

WHAT ABOUT THE COST???? okay, i’ll share some figures with you, because who cares it’s the internet.
my monthly grocery budget is currently hovering around $900. this includes all our food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, dog food, etc. it has grown substantially in the last 2 years as our children grow. yes, it’s more than my mortgage payment. so while you’re probably all HOLY GIANT GROCERY BILL BATMAN!!! remember we’re feeding 7. it’s about $30/day, so about $4.29/person/day for breakfast lunch & dinner. so take your average month and times it by…whatever. i actually don’t think we spend all that much, relatively speaking.

on friday, all told we spent about $580—and this includes a solid $40 worth of “packaging supplies”. we bought a case of quart freezer bags, a case of gallon freezer bags, industrial sized rolls of parchment paper and foil, etc. things i won’t have to buy again for a few months.
i am going to have to buy a few things in a couple weeks (think milk, fruit, etc.), but i’m guessing i won’t spend more than $200 at the high end.

SO that means—if this works, and this genuinely feeds our family for an entire month, we stand to have saved at least $120, or almost 15% shaved off our monthly food bill. looks like momma needs a new pair of shoes.
BUT…that remains to be seen as the month progresses. will update.

WHAT ABOUT STORING ALL THAT FOOD???? i put away all the “normal” groceries, but all of my EPIC COOKING DAY items went on the counter. we lined them up neatly and i even had ava label the tops of the cans so i could see it all at a glance.
we have a fridge on top/freezer on bottom type refrigerator and a small chest freezer. we cleaned both of those out before we went shopping, getting rid of old items and mystery meats. all of our purchases fit, with some creative jengatetrising, which is totes a word i just invented but should be a real thing. i do it all the time. 

honestly, can’t think of much. i checked some sales ads, but we got better prices the way we did it. so score one for us.

actually, i take that back because i just thought of one minor thing: i went by the shopping list as gospel, and it all worked out fine, but there were a few things that were slightly off. like for some reason i had to buy 13 packets of taco seasoning?!?!?! which killed me not because of price (they’re like 34 cents each) but alllll the sodium! yikes! i couldn’t imagine any recipe that would require 13 packets of taco seasoning? in the end i only needed 2 1/2 packets, which a) calmed my heart and b) left me with a LOT of extra taco seasoning it will take me years to use up. so next time i’ll go over my list a little more thoroughly and double check some of the amounts. taco seasoning is NBD because i wasted like $2, but i’d be pretty angry if i bought 11 extra blocks of cheese or something.

and on a related note…anyone need any taco seasoning? 25 cents a packet!

STEP THREE: the prep day

they stress and stress the importance of “prep day”. don’t think you can just roll that into your EPIC COOKING DAY. prep day needs to be a day on it’s own. and this is absolutely the truth.
sunday morning it took ava, jeremy and i about 90 minutes to do all the prep. this is pre-cutting, slicing and dicing veggies, pre-cooking some rice, pasta and chicken, etc. this makes EPIC COOKING DAY run much more smoothly.

jeremy cut up 14 onions. ha. dude was straight-up sobbing by the end of it. but he volunteered for that job and i love him for it.

i also made sure the kitchen was clean, looked over my lists one more time to double check i had everything, and then banned everyone from setting foot in the kitchen. don’t. even. think. about. it.

two major things:
1) more prep. there are things they didn’t specify to prep that i wish i had—and i’m not saying it’s their fault. for instance, we bought block cheese instead of pre-shredded, and i didn’t think to shred it on prep day. that took a big chunk of my time on EPIC COOKING DAY. so next time i’ll look over my menus a little more carefully and make sure i’ve really done all the prep work i can.

2) label amounts on the prepped items. there were times a recipe would call for xx amount of something, like cilantro. so i pull out my bag of pre-chopped cilantro and i’m thinking, well it says 1/4 cup, and this looks like 1/4 cup, so is it this whole bag? or no? (spoiler: i put in the whole bag. and i shouldn’t have, i needed some for another recipe. oops.) same thing with onions…2 sliced onions on prep day is listed as xx amount to go in my recipe. a little more or less in this won’t kill anyone, so i go to dump in the whole thing, but wait! do i actually need 1/3 cup of sliced onions somewhere else down the line for another recipe? obviously i could just measure, but this process is all about efficiency. having to slow down and find the measuring cup to double check is annoying, when i could just pre-mark the amounts. so yeah, next time i’ll just label everything.


okay, so i was literally dreaming about cooking the night before, i was that worked up. i was equal parts scared to death and stoked to get cracking. (yes, stoked.)
i woke up at 7 and got dressed—hair up, bra on, comfy shoes on. this is another thing they recommend, and i think it’s a good one. my typical M.O. would be to just jump in with both feet and no bra, but that’s a decision i’d be sorely regretting 10 hours later. i brushed my teeth and drank my coffee and got going.
and went…
and went…
and went…
it took me 15 hours start-to-finish. i sat down one time for 5 minutes to say a prayer with everyone before dinner. around 2 i took a 10 minute breather and drank another cup of coffee and threw a green smoothie down my throat.
now, realize that part of the excessive amount of time is because i saddled myself with 2 menus. like i said i plan on changing that up. from what i’m reading average is around 8-12 hours, but yes 15 is possible. a lot depends on the menu you choose and the amount of food you’re making. things that go in muffin tins took longer because i had to do 2 cycles in the oven, whereas if you’re making 4 servings you may get it all baked in one go. i browned 5.5 lbs. of ground beef, which takes longer than 2 or 3 lbs. so everything was stretched out a bit for me.
i think the key to this endeavor is organization. i taped up my cooking day schedule on the cabinet where i could easily see it.

here’s some cruddy phone pics to illustrate: (and note—this is exactly how the instructions print out for you. step by step. ev-ree-thing.)


i did use my tablet for the recipes and that worked fine. i tried to keep things grouped together: salt, pepper, baking powder all in one place so when i used them they went back and didn’t get lost in my mess. i tried to wash my measuring cups/spoons/pans/pots/etc. as soon as i was finished with them, and stay on top of wiping down the counters and stove. if you don’t keep up with it you’ll have a destruction zone on your hands in no time. i had at least 2, sometimes 3 different recipes going at the same time and it took all of my brain power to keep it straight.
i had an area for all my “groceries”, an area designated for cooling items, and just outside of the kitchen i had a little table set up with all my aluminum pans, foil, freezer bags, parchment paper, etc. so that stayed together. see, organization is king. oh, and i clipped my permanent marker to my shirt. but i still lost it approximately 542 times.


this is the picture i posted on instagram, and like i said it truly is “organized chaos”. i’m fortunate to have a decent sized kitchen, but i still think this is doable in a smaller kitchen, especially if you’re not cooking quite as much. i did use up every square inch of my counter space though.
what about having help? these instructions are really written for one person, in my opinion. i think if there was more than one person doing this it would get confusing and annoying. that said, when ava came home from school she helped me roll all our galumpkis, and it was nice, because i was really flagging at that point. but later when everyone was kind of just…IN the kitchen, it made me crazy.

this is tough, because there are some major things. our regular freezer is dying a slow, lingering death. stuff isn’t completely frozen, but ice cream is great. so in an ideal world? i’ll have a new one before then. i’d also like a bigger stand up freezer. the chest freezer is kind of a pain to organize.
on the not as major side, i probably won’t bother printing their labels again. they were finicky and i couldn’t get them to print correctly so i ended up just writing about 1/2 of my labels with permanent marker.
obviously, as discussed, i won’t cook 2 separate menus in one day.
also, because neve and harrison are both home during the day (cyberschool) i didn’t make arrangements for elliot to go somewhere. i regret that now, because she spent her day in front of the tv, and i wish i had set up at least a few hours playdate for her.

STEP FIVE: the aftermath

because i cleaned as i went, the kitchen was surprisingly not terrible when i was done. while my last things were cooking i loaded the dishwasher one more time (for a total of 3 runs that day), gathered up one last load of trash (for a total of 3 full bags and 2 recycling bags that day)and wiped down the counters. then i piled up all my food and organized it between the 2 freezers—some dinners on the bottom of the chest freezer for later in the month, snacks and quick meals for gigi in the kitchen freezer, etc.
and i took this awesome picture:


yeah, i’m a little bit proud of that. want the run down?
12 breakfast blueberry grilled cheese sandwiches
48 bacon cheeseburger bombs
50-ish baked ravioli bites
2x bean enchilada casserole
2x drip beef
3x grandma’s galumkis (about 40 of them)
2x lemon garlic dump chicken
16 peaches and cream waffles
1x slow cooker chicken sandwiches with roasted pepper aioli (and another serving that they ate for dinner that night)
2x slow cooker salisbury steaks
2x swiss cheese chicken
2x thai chickpea pasta
2x thai salmon tacos (which we changed to tilapia because harrison got sick once after having salmon and now it’s a no-go for him)
10 freezer poptarts
48 egg cheese & veggie breakfast tarts
12 GF cereal bar cookies
36 GF sausage cheese breakfast muffins
2x GF chicken noodle soup
2x GF mac & cheese
2x GF spaghettios
GF cheez-its
GF sweet potato snacks
20 GF chicken nuggets
and for the life of me i swear there’s something else and i can’t remember it now.

BUT HOW DOES IT TASTE? well, so far we’ve tried almost all the breakfast foods (hey, some break while you’re cooking), and most of the lunch/snack foods, and they’re all quite yummy. the chicken sandwiches they had for dinner got good reviews, but maybe less onion next time. the galumpkis were delicious tonight. gigi’s GF mac and cheese was good, considering it’s gluten free.
which brings me to…

some recipes i won’t bother with again: the GF chicken nuggets were a joke. they were complicated, expensive (3 lbs. of ground chicken, at over $3/lb, plus gluten free bread crumbs) and they refused to stick together. i tried everything i could think of, refusing to let that much money be wasted. in the end they’re passable, but they’re more like medium sized patties vs. nuggets, and i’m not sure how much gigi will eat them.
and there are some recipes where the effort vs. reward scale is skewed. the sweet potato snacks were kind of annoying (cook the sweet potato, add a bunch of ingredients, roll out the dough, bake, reroll the scraps, bake more, etc…) and didn’t make very many. and they’re not great. so scratch that one.
but those are things that can happen with any recipe, so i think it’s just a matter of trial and error.
we’ve been in a dinner rut—feels like i’m constantly making the same things, so i’m trying to branch out and be a little more adventurous /with my choices in this process (thai chickpea pasta, anyone?). i’ll most definitely have some fails, but we’ve already had some wins.


will i do this again?
one thing i read on the site basically said that by the end of your EPIC COOKING DAY you may hate this and swear you’re never, ever doing it again. and that’s totally understandable. but come back to me 3 or 4 days from now and see what you have to say about it then.

dude, my body HURT last night. i had to take tylenol pm to sleep. i was wiped out.

BUT. tonight’s dinner was popped in the oven, and my kitchen is cleaner than it’s been after a weeknight dinner in months. tomorrow’s dinner is thawing in the fridge, and wednesday’s dinner is on the blackboard menu so i’ll know what to pull out of the freezer for thawing tomorrow. and the next day, and the next day….

and hey, look, i even had time to blog.

i think i can say definitely YES, i’ll see you next month

any other questions? ask away…i’ll try to answer ;)

Pin It!


Related Posts with Thumbnails