I’ve always admired Tricia from Once a Month Mom and Jessica from Life as Mom for their uber-organized approach to meal planning and preparation. Both of these women are vast proponents for Once-a-Month-Cooking, wherein you prep enough food to last for a month, then freeze it so that all you need to prepare for dinner is grabbing a pan from the freezer and put it in the oven. It is like buying a whole cart-full of microwaveable frozen dishes, only a lot healthier.
The concept appeals to me, and every time I read about it, I nod my head in agreement and think to myself, “Yeah, that’d be great!” I even grocery shop once a month, so it’s perfectly feasible for me.
Or so one would think. It turns out that I am either lazy, inept, totally unorganized, or just plain chicken. For the life of me, I cannot even begin to garner enough motivation to begin the process of OAMC, as it is called. It involves compiling the menu, checking for ingredients, making a grocery list, shopping for all the food, and then setting aside a time to prepare the food. I’m wiped out just thinking about it, let alone doing it.
One of these days, I will tackle the concept of OAMC, and I will do it, if only to prove to myself that I can. But that’s somewhere off in the distant future. For now, I’m content with my limited version of practice, which is to make ahead and freeze meal components rather than entire meals.
I may not be capable of planning out an entire month’s work of individual meal plans. But I am able to see that, at some point in the next few weeks, I’m going to be making a meal that will require rice, pasta, or ground meat of some kind. Therefore, I can save myself a little time in the long run, by cooking extras of the basics beforehand. Then they are ready to use, when I am ready to use them.
I think it’s easier to fix a large batch of rice than a regular portion. And since rice seems to take forever to cook (especially brown rice, my rice of choice), I might as well prepare extra while I’m at it. I’ve found the easiest way to figure out the appropriate rice to water ratio when cooking up a large batch is to pour the rice into the pot, and then stick my finger on the surface of the rice. I pour the water (or broth, for added flavor or nutrients) into the pot until it reaches my first knuckle. Then I cook as usual. When the rice is done, it’s easy to freeze the leftovers in a zippered plastic bag or any other freezer-safe container.
Since, as I mentioned, rice takes forever to cook, this is a whopping time-saver for those nights when you still want a healthy meal but don’t have time to do it all from scratch. Just defrost the rice and stir it into a casserole or add it to the soup. Red Beans and Rice make a substantial cheap meal, and pre-cooked rice makes it fast! Or you could make a quick rice pudding for a healthy dessert or snack. One of my favorite things to do with pre-cooked rice is to create a mock pilaf: I just heat some oil with garlic and chopped onion in a large frying pan, then add the rice. I stir and cook everything until it’s hot and the flavors are blended, and then add additional herbs, salt and pepper to taste. You can also use the pre-cooked rice to make a quick stir-fry on crazy weeknights.
I typically only use half a box of pasta when cooking for one meal for my family, so for me, it’s no biggie to dump the whole package of pasta into the pot. After it’s cooked and drained, I cool half of the portion and then freeze it in freezer-safe bags. Like the rice, the pre-cooked pasta can be added to a large variety of dishes, especially casseroles and soups. Try this crock-pot Pizza Pasta, for example. Or you can make a simple pasta salad, like “Not Your Grandma’s Ham & Pasta Salad” or you can even just reheat it and serve it with your favorite sauce.
Ground Meat, Sausage or Bacon
If you only use half the package in one meal, then cook up the whole package. If you use a whole package, then cook two. If you use two, well… you get the picture! If you’re going to the trouble of cooking, you might as well make full use of your time, and cook up some more.
Ground meat is perfect for adding to chili or Sloppy Joes. It can also be added to casseroles, baked pasta, or as a pizza topping. One of the easiest things to do is to add it to Homemade Pasta Sauce for a hearty meal served over noodles, rice or baked potatoes.
Depending on the shape of the sausage (patties, links, or crumbled), it can go in a variety of different dishes: omelets, scrambled eggs or use it as a topping for pizza. It adds some pizzazz and additional flavor to chili, soup and casseroles, too! If you have patties, you can save them for breakfast sandwiches, like this Waffle Breakfast Sandwich. One of the most creative uses of sausage I’ve ever seen is this Spicy Butternut Squash Pizza, which would come together so quickly, if you have pre-cooked sausage on hand.
I love to keep a bag of cooked bacon in the fridge, so that I can crumble some pieces into whatever dish I am cooking. For instance, Potato Soup tastes delicious, when mixed with a bit of bacon. Like sausage, it goes well in omelets and other breakfast dishes. You can even include it in muffins for a savory twist! Finally, you can serve the cooked pieces as they are alongside some pancakes, waffles, or biscuits.
If you’re going to the extent to soak and cook dried beans, you might as well make extra! Cooked beans will freeze exceptionally well. They are also extremely versatile. You can add them to ground meat to stretch it a little further, or you can make bean patties. Puree them and bake them into treats (like White Bean Vanilla Cake! Yes, cake!). Of course, beans are always great in soup (Try this Healthy Stoup - and no, “stoup” is not a typo!)! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention baked beans, the quintessential bean dish. All of these dishes can be made significantly faster simply by cooking the beans ahead of time and defrosting them when you need them.
This is just scratching the surface. The vast majority of meal components can be safely and effectively stored in the freezer or pantry to be used when you’re ready for them. Determine which ingredients appear frequently in your meal plans and recipes, then make double every time you cook them. Store the extra and be one step ahead of the game next time!
For extra help you can get some ideas from this Pantry and Freezer Staples Guide with Printable Checklist.