Every evening, all around the world, the same dilemma faces many homemakers. What can be prepared for tonight’s dinner with a minimum of fuss that will be filling and nutritious?
With a little forward planning, you can have a month of meals waiting in the freezer, ready to be thawed and heated. All you need to do is add simple side dishes or a salad.
This approach is known as Once-A-Month Cooking (or OAMC for short). The basic principle is that you take your family’s own favourite meals, adapt them for freezing, and then spend a couple of days a month doing all your cooking.
OAMC saves in many ways. It takes very little more time or energy to make, say, four meals of lasagne at one time than it takes to make one. But it would take a lot more to make one meal of lasagne on each of four different days.
You can take advantage both of specials at the market and of gluts in the garden. You can improve the health of your family by not relying on pre-made ingredients or on fast food.
I don’t recommend you try new recipes for Once-A-Month Cooking. It would be terrible for your family to have to eat four meals of a dish they don’t like, and nothing will put them off the idea of OAMC faster. Adapt your family’s favourites and you can’t go wrong. If you want to try something new, make it on a small scale first and make sure it is a hit.
The actual OAMC process is spread over three days, once a month. Let’s look at it in a little more detail.
Day One - Preparation and planning
The first day of my OAMC, I go to the shops. I check what is on special, and what is in season. I take note of what does not look good, too. I come home and check what is in the garden that is in peak condition to be used. This is my research phase.
Next, I clean out and defrost the freezer. I keep a written inventory of what I have in the freezer, and this clean-out helps me to check the inventory is up-to-date.
While the freezer is defrosting, I check my family’s calendar for the next month and count how many dinners I would like to freeze. Then, with the knowledge I gained from my research earlier, I make up a list of what I will cook, and how many meals of each.
The next step is to make up a shopping list, broken up according to where I will be buying each food item. The last stage is to make myself lists showing what I will need to do to prepare and cook the food.
Day Two – Shopping and Chopping Day
The next day is broken up into two distinct phases. I like to get to the shopping centre early in the day while it is still not too busy. I buy all the food I will need, making sure to keep perishable items like meat cool by putting them in a cooler bag as soon as they are purchased.
After coming home and unpacking, I can start the second phase of this day. This is when I peel and chop all my vegetables except onion and garlic (they smell if cut too early), and trim and dice the meat. This is all stored in the refrigerator overnight.
The last job for Day Two is to freeze any meals that will not require further cooking. For example, I like to make Fish Parcels. This is where I place a boneless fillet of fish on a square of aluminium foil and top it with a little butter, lemon juice, herbs, garlic, chilli (or whatever flavorings I like at the time). The fish is wrapped in the foil and frozen. To cook it, I simply place the fish parcels straight from the freezer into a pre-heated oven. I add frozen garlic bread to the oven to heat at the same time, and prepare a simple salad.
Other ideas for meals that can be frozen without being cooked first include marinated chicken wings, lamb chops in marinade, hamburger patties, and so on.
Day Three – Cooking Day
The third day of the OAMC is the big one. But it is made much easier by having so much of the preparation work done the day before.
I start the day by cutting up all my onions and garlic and browning them. Then I brown all my meats. I can do several different kinds of meat simultaneously to save time, but I do them in small batches to avoid over-crowding the pans.
The next step depends on what you are making. Many dishes are fully cooked before being frozen, so they must be assembled and cooked. Others are only partially cooked, and are perhaps properly cooked in a crockpot (slow cooker) after thawing.
But whatever you are cooking, it all goes into labelled containers in the refrigerator to thoroughly cool before being frozen. I use rigid plastic containers, because I have been doing this for years and have bought a few at a time. A cheaper alternative is to use food-quality plastic bags to line a foil or plastic box. The bag is popped out of the box after it is frozen, so the box can be used again.
Using the meals
Once you have your freezer full of dinners, you will find there very little effort required to cook up some pasta to go with the frozen Bolognese Sauce, or some rice to have with the Beef Curry. Since I put tomorrow night’s dinner in the refrigerator to thaw each evening, there is little left to do but re-heat the main course. A salad fresh from the garden is a great accompaniment to any meal and quick to prepare.
Some people might be concerned about the possible loss of so much food in the event of a power failure. The trick is to keep your freezer as full as possible. It doesn’t have to be full of food – I put soda bottles half-full of water in the empty spaces. The idea is that the more frozen volume there is in the freezer, as opposed to air pockets, the longer it will take for the contents to thaw if the power goes off. This approach also makes the freezer work more efficiently, since it will turn on and off less often.
In summary, by concentrating your time and effort (and mess!) into a big cooking session once a month, you can have a freezer full of your family’s favourite meals. This will give you more time, save you money, and give you peace of mind that your family can eat a proper meal every evening.
Christine has written a course on OAMC. This is available at her web site www.geckogully.com/oamc or write for more details to Gecko Gully, PO Box 1201, Werribee Plaza, Victoria 3030, Australia.