It’s been a wild summer for us, between The Worst Short Vacation Ever, loads of sickies, A Really Nice Vacation, scads of pipe band stuff, church camp, trying to clothe little girls who keep growing, and keep up with real-life work in the corners. We’ve relied on take-out food more than we like, and after sitting down with ourselves, we’re truly at a “put the foot down” point.
The Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal fellow I married said, “What if we take a day or so and just fill up the freezer? Sure, it would be a lot of work, but the next few months will go better, right?”
(He’s looking ahead to our school plans, more pipe band, more gym, more music lessons, another vacation, and a book launch, and being pretty practical, actually.)
Putting together a big cooking session isn’t something you do at the drop of a hat… or at least, I don’t do it at the drop of a hat. We have four available prep and assembly cooks, plus two bitty kids for running, so it’s a matter of coordinating the efforts of six people in one kitchen with limited counter space, limited pots/pans, and limited freezer space, and still making sure everyone eats, bathes, and makes it to band practice along the way.
So, though my Beloved mocks me gently, I make lists. (He always bows down and lauds the list before we’re through, so I am satisfied.)
List 1: The Menu
The first list lines out what sorts of things we think we’ll be making. I like to streamline as much as I can, even at this point, so if there’s one item that required crock-roasted meat, I try to come up with at least one other crock-roasted meat item. If we want to do up breakfast burritos for the freezer, I also want to do up meat, bean, and cheese burritos at the same time. If we have one item with ground beef, let’s come up with three, and do them all at once. The planning also lets me tailor my Big Cook to our current budget and tastes. If we need to focus on the cheapest proteins, we can; if there’s wiggle room, we can get the biggest flavor bang for our buck). This round’s menu list looks like this:
Stuff in Pans: 3-cheese florentine lasagna; stuffed chicken breasts in sauce (this time around, it’s basil and sun-dried tomato chevre stuffed chicken breasts in a tomato cream sauce… sounds fancy, but is really easy to make!)
Breakfast Stuff: egg, sausage, cheese burritos; egg, cheese, and ham English muffin sandwiches
Lunch and Dinner Cylindrical Food: (because we can slide geometry lessons into anything) tamales; beef, bean, and cheese burritos
Lunch and Dinner Round Food in Pastry: (see? Told you so!) Scottish meat pies; Chicken UFOs (so called due to their shape… you’ll see)
Party and Midnight Snack Food: pork potstickers
Things of Meat: seasoned beef patties for the grill, Italian meatballs, seasoned nacho meat
Side Effects: broth from the crocked meats (pork, chicken, and beef) get frozen by the 2-cup bag for future soup bases and gravy.
If I’m feeling froggy, I may also do up some Cheeseburger Pockets for the freezer, but that’s still undecided, as I already have two things that require a rolled crust. I may save those for a secondary Cooking, and do pizza crust and pocket sandwiches at the same time.
You’ll notice things are a bit meat-centric (except for the lasagna, but don’t tell my Beloved, as he hasn’t noticed in fifteen years of eating it.) Never fear: these items are only the meal foundation. I prefer to do things like soup fresh (using frozen broth!) To any one of them, we’ll normally add things like fresh or frozen fruit, steamed and/or raw veggies, green salad, rice, or breads. But those things tend to go together very quickly, and can be done by any of the Minions. Having main items prepped speeds everything.
List 2: The Quantity List
Not only are we cooking multiple recipes in one day, we’re cooking tripled or more recipes of each, so knowing the quantities to purchase is very helpful! One of the best ways I’ve found is to do up recipes on a chart. Doing that for each recipe, I can make a ingredient quantity list. It’s helpful to know that I’ll need 3 pounds of shredded beef, so I can buy 4 pounds of roast to crock and shred. Since I have other shredded beef items in the list, I add those to the quantity chart, and I can be sure to buy enough.
To make this list, I start with a blank chart and headings:
Item Recipe Totals Shopping Total
Then I start down the menu plan, top to bottom, and list all the ingredients in the first recipe in the Item column, and the recipe quantity in the Recipe Total column. I like to do this on the computer, so it expands easily. I’m a bit OCD about my lists. It’s a “thing.” (It’s also why our last Chinese dinner was hilarious: my fortune cookie said, “It is not the plan, but the planning that is important.” I have sarcastic fortunes.)
When I’m done with that recipe, I go to the next; if it has repeated ingredients that are already listed, the quantity gets listed in the Recipe Total column; new ingredients are added to the list and it just keeps going. When all the recipes have been listed out with their quantities, it’s easy to do the shopping total. For this trip, I discovered I need 24 cups of grated cheese (18 cups of mixed cheddar, colby, jack, whatever, and 6 cups mozarella). Knowing that 8 ounces of cheese makes about 2 cups of shredded cheese, I can calculate how many pounds of brick cheese I need, plus a little extra, because everyone swipes a bit while we prep.
Some of my quantities are estimates; depending on how full I make burritos, we’ll get a few more or less than I plan, and that’s okay. I’ll have a final tally to post on the freezer and use as my inventory list (see, there are the lists again!)
(If this whole process is starting to sound very intimidating, take heart: you can start with Small Big Cooking. Simply plan to double a few of your most freezable recipes, and build up a small stock of at-home convenience options in your freezer and pantry.)
List 3: The Shopping List
With the quantity list in hand, I can make up a quick shopping list, with all the items grouped properly (produce, dairy, meats, etc) to speed our progress through the store and make it easy to send Minions off with a section of list to fill.
List 4: The Work List
Some of the work of bulk cooking can be streamlined by grouping tasks. For instance, the first thing we’ll do with this cooking session is get the crock-roasted meats going; then we’ll portion and wrap any plain meats (for later Sunday roast dinners) and get them in the big freezer. That clears some of the big stuff out of the way, leaving room to cook up all ground meats. While the ground meats brown, we can prep cheese and veggies around the table. Planning out what work can logically overlap or combine, and writing it down, helps avoid chaos and confusion, or worse: recipes with missing or ill-prepared ingredients! We plan to assemble one recipe at a time, but the prep work will overlap quite a lot. I also have sessions planned to utilize the oven and high heat cooking only at night, when we can open up the whole house to evening breezes and cooler air. (And while things bake or steam, we’ll prep meat pie and potsticker fillings, which can rest in the fridge overnight.)
Because I choose to own limited pots, pans, and baking containers, planning out the work avoids delays. It also engenders a lot of gentle mocking from my Beloved, but then, this is the first Big Cook he’s involved in start-to-finish. Usually, he helps with shopping and big cuts/grinds, and then trots off to work. Now that he’s home full-time (yay!) (and I mean that in an entirely un-sarcastic way), he’s doing something new, and I think it may astonish him that yes, all those lists his wife chooses to make can really make a difference.
Before we hit the grocery store, there are a few needful things to take care of. We will
- Do a good clean-out of the fridge, wiping down shelves and interiors, and de-cluttering. Any Zombie Food gets tossed, and containers bleached.
- Take a freezer and pantry inventory to make sure we’re rotating things properly. For instance, I have some canned goods that will go into this cooking batch, but I’ll buy replacements for the pantry; I also have some roasts to use in shredded meat recipes, for which we’ll buy replacements.
- Do a general house tidy-up, so we can focus on cooking and basic maintenance and the house won’t go to Hades.
- Make a 2-3 day menu plan so we’ll still be eating regularly while we bulk cook. It’s a little too ironic to do bulk cooking, then grab fast food for supper.
So, there’s Part One: The Organizing. Don’t be scared. It’s only intimidating the first time. I promise. (And, it’s not the only way to go about it.) Next up, the results of some of our Big Cooking schemes!