26 October 2011

Mega meal planning

It’s no secret that I’m an obsessive meal planner for our tiny household of two. And I daresay, I’m becoming a meal planning evangelist. At the risk of launching a political debate (PLEASE NO JUST NO KEEP IT TO YOURSELF), I’ll mention that I saw this article and was somewhat startled to realize that Mr. P and I spend about as much on groceries as those on a food stamp budget. Huh. And while some of that can be attributed to the fact that we eat simple meals at home and save the pricey stuff for eating out, much of the savings has to do with having a plan: only buying things on the meal plan, cooking everything we buy, and eating everything we cook (unless I really screw up, and yes, that happens frequently enough). That business in the article about buying ramen noodles to stay within that budget? Ridiculous. What, are they eating steak one day and ramen all the others? They need meal-planning guidance, STAT.

However, I’m well aware that saving money by meal planning takes time – not only in figuring out what to eat and creating a comprehensive grocery list, but also remembering to prepare this on that day, but only cook half because you need the other half later, and et cetera et cetera. And when I don’t take the time to follow the plan – like when I was flying around for interviews, ahem – it all falls apart.

(We got takeout a few times that week, unfortunately.)

So, I decided to remove all that from my mind for the next month when I need to be focusing on my work – meaning while I’m writing a dissertation, going on more job interviews, and figuring out where to move next year. The solution: FREEZER COOKING, popularized by OAMM and others. But I’ve never really wanted to try of freezer-cooking, for several reasons: first, nonstop casseroles seems unhealthy and boring, second, we don’t have a giant freezer, and third, it’s a lot of money upfront, only to find you’re stuck eating food you don’t want or wasting money.

Still, this month was a appropriate month to try it, at least adapted to our tastes. So I created my own menu based on things we like to eat, planned carefully to try to avoid the above scenarios, and then I did some freezer-cooking! Which basically means I’m now hoarding an insane amount of food in our freezer.

That is about half of it. I mean, my usual meal planning seems crazy enough, so this feels downright apocalyptic. If society collapses tomorrow, you know where you can come for dinner!

Here’s the entrees I made (not everything is pictured above):

(3) pesto alfredo sauce with chicken (to stir in linguine)
(2) beef tamale casserole
(2) creamy Italian chicken
(2) sriracha (a.k.a. "rooster") chicken
(2) chicken enchiladas
(2) tuna noodle casserole
(2) coconut chicken
(3) baked ziti
(1) Monterey chicken (actually 2, but we already tried one)

I also froze some chicken breasts in Italian dressing-based marinade, for Mr. P to grill, and I cooked the ground beef and shredded chicken for chili and quesadillas, so they will be faster to make later on. (Note I also have a beef stew in a freezer bag up there, which is actually tonight's dinner and wasn't part of this mega meal planning!)

I have a menu plan below that incorporates all of those things, but first, here’s how I did it, based on those things I wanted to avoid:

1) Preventing a casserole overload

There’s definitely some casseroles and casserole-esque dishes in there – tuna noodle casserole, beef tamale casserole, even baked ziti. But I also prepared a LOT of chicken, in a variety of styles, to be prepared in a variety of ways – baked, grilled, and even pre-cooked in sauce (to stir into pasta). This meant that we bought the chicken in reduced-price bulk packs, which was easy on the wallet (although we usually buy in bulk at reduced price – but if you don’t usually do that, it’s a bonus).

I also reasoned that instead of putting the vegetables or noodles IN all the dishes, like true casserole fashion, why not boil pasta or frozen veggies that night to serve on the side? It takes all of fifteen minutes, which is far less time than it takes most of the entrees to cook, and feels more like our normal eating habits. Casserole crisis averted!

2) Organizing the freezer

This plan helped us remain economical with our dollars; in total, it came out to under $50/week for everything, though we'll also purchase things like milk and fruit weekly. Still, I also had to be economical with space. We don’t have a separate deep freezer, and I didn’t really want to overstuff our only modestly-sized freezer to the point where it became a crazy disaster zone. So because we don’t use our icemaker (and chill beverages in the refrigerator instead), I took out that space-consuming tray, and cleaned out any old food to make room for freezer cooking. I mean, duh. But an important step. And if we spontaneously wanted ice cream, there's room for it. Just saying.

Then I made sure I didn’t waste the existing space. I bought aluminum pans, but not in a bigger size than Mr. P and I needed (they can hold dinner for two, plus a serving or two of leftovers for lunch). I eschewed the domed plastic lids, which each waste at least an inch of vertical space, in favor of covering with aluminum foil or flat cardboard lids. Of course, the domed lids are good for preventing crushing the food inside the dish, but I got around that by “flash-freezing” the squishable dishes:

By that I mean I stuck them in the freezer, uncovered, until they were frozen solid, then covered them with foil to stack. Again, maybe that’s a “no duh” tip, but it helped me stack things without worrying about squishing or the food freezing to the foil.

Also, when I could, I used quart-sized freezer bags instead – for chicken in marinade for grilling, for pre-cooked meat to put in chili, and for sauces, which easily freeze flat (as you saw here with my frozen sauce square).

And finally, I labeled everything, so that it would be easy to locate what to thaw. In retrospect I should have also labeled the sides... oh well.

3) Actually eating what we bought and made

Honestly, my biggest fear with freezer cooking was skipping over things that just “didn’t sound good” and, in the long run, wasting food. So because Mr. P and I are already used to eating from a meal plan, I made a very extended version, using up everything in the freezer:

(The menu name, by the by, is a play on National Novel Writing Month and National Blog Posting Month, which both take place during November as well. I'm calling this “NaDisWriMo” instead.)

And then to avoid skipping meals because I forgot to thaw something, I also made this borderline-obsessive prep plan, with grocery lists. Writing it out now, while I’m thinking about it, means less thinking about it later (and fewer mistakes)! I plan to print this out and hang it on the fridge, so I left some space to add notes. And lest you think I’m off my rocker, this essentailly is the same thing I do every week, just far in advance. Wait... that makes it worse.

I think – I hope – we have enough to get us through the month without giving up and relying on takeout, like we did a few weeks ago. If not, it's not like grocery stores will cease to exist – and getting takeout occasionally is fine, of course. And if we somehow have too much food, the beauty of this plan is that it’s easy to skip individual meals without worrying about the food going bad.

So! How long did it take? Well, the planning and grocery shopping took a little extra time, especially since I stocked up on all the ingredients I didn’t need to wait to purchase (noodles, frozen veggies), but honestly not that much more than usual. Then I spent two evenings on two different weekends in the kitchen, cooking up everything I could. Here’s one evening’s work, or half of the freezer stock:

Yes, that’s nearly 9PM on the clock, when I finally finished. I started cooking around 4, but also prepared that evening’s meal and joined Mr. P at the dinner table. Plus I clean up the kitchen as I go, so when I was done at 9PM, I was done – nothing worse than a sense of accomplishment ruined by a giant mess, amirite?

I’ll try to remember to report back how it actually goes, and give you some of the recipes for the items I made (any requests?)! I’m not sure I’m truly a freezer cooking convert, but it was interesting, if not fun, to try it once. Any other freezer cooking tips you have to share? Favorite recipes? Other than soup, which Mr. P won't eat (I know, it's a freezer cooking staple!). I can still use any help you have to offer!


AK said...

this is so impressive!