Once a Month Cooking: How do you start?

I truly believe that Once a Month Cooking (or OAMC) can save hundreds of dollars when done right. People are shocked when they hear how much I spend in a single month on groceries for a family of 5 (with 3 extra visitors over every Wednesday for a meal). It's an easy concept to consider, but with it comes a lot of questions.

The first is: How do you start?

That answer is pretty easy: Just do it!

Use what you have and make it work for your family. You will need Gallon-sized bags and remind yourself that there will be days that plain old spaghetti will just have to cut it, and don't stress.

First thing you must do is figure out what type of meats your family enjoys. Pick two meats that you will use this month. Yes, only two. The reason, when you buy this meat in bulk at the SuperStores (Costco, Sam's, Walmart, etc) you save a ton and you will only need two!

For the sake of argument of what meat is best, I am going to pick two for you for this example.

Ground Beef

Now we need to make a list and this is a list you will want to keep handy for the future. I have spiral notebook for this. Make your paper two columns and write Ground Beef on the top of one and Pork on the other.

Now under each heading write as many meals as you can think of using these two meats. If you need help, Google "Ground Beef Recipes" and "Pork Recipes" and see what might work for your family.

Please note, most recipes can be converted to freezer meals but one's with PASTA have a bit of tinkering to do. Most cooked pasta doesn't retain it's texture after frozen, so you have to make the MIX for the freezer and label your meal with what pasta you need to MAKE the day you cook.

Now that you have your list of meals, it's time for a little review of recipes. If you have the time and resources, collect your recipes and evaluate. If you can print them from the computer, use markers or highlighters to highlight SAME ingredients (dont bother with pantry staples like olive oil, salt, or even the main meat or pasta). This is ultra important to keep your costs down. For instance, if four recipes need Rotel Tomatoes, it's sometimes much cheaper to buy the large can and separate. The objective is to find enough meals for the family while using the same general sets of ingredients.

If you are short of time and have a great mental capacity (unlike me) you can just take stock mentally... so that you can see what recipes use basically the same ingredients.

Now it's time to pick 10-12 recipes that you want to make... Note that you can pick 5-6 and just have duplicates of the same recipe. This is also a time saver and money saver if your family is cool with having the same meal in the month. It's awesome! OR you can get together with your good friend and swap dishes. ;) Also awesome.

When you choose, pay attention to how you need to cook the meats. For ground beef it's pretty easy. You brown the whole lot in batches and separate for the meals. For the pork, it can be more difficult, but just pay attention to how they are cooked (and with what spices) and you will be golden.

Okay so for the sake of argument, I am going to pick Ground Beef: Chili, crockpot Taco Meat, Baked Penne, Stroganoff, and Goulash. And for the Pork: BBQ Pork, Mexican Pork, pork stir fry, pork chops, Pork Enchiladas.

As long as each ingredient is used more then once, I am ready to shop. Note, pastas, rice and tortillas are usually cheap enough that you don't have to repeat the starch for that meal.

After I shop, it's time to plan out my assembly. You will need at least 2-3 hours to complete all these meals. But if you spend 2-3 hours TODAY on your meals for the month, do you realize how much time you are saving?! Ooodles!

So I am going to do the ground beef recipes first... All of the recipes call for ground beef with sauted onions. Upon looking, I realize one of them DOESN'T call for garlic but the rest do. Use an executive decision here and decide if this odd ball recipe would taste okay with some garlic. What doesn't taste good with garlic? Uhhh, nothing so it's a triple WIN! There goes my first time saving step, I will saute and brown all my meat in garlic and onions... win win win!

Now I mentioned above that my family (sans me and my husband) doesn't like onions... easy fix, onion powder and garlic powder. But sometimes, I just make them deal. You should too ;)

So I've browned all my meat time to separate into reciprocals. This time, I am lucky as a clam because all the meat can go into into already labeled gallon sized bags instead of any pans. Makes for a more organized freezer. Huzzah! Label the bags with meal name, size and location of recipe just in case.

Now it's time to add all the other ingredients to the bags. REMEMBER to leave out ALL PASTA or RICE! Instead you can write on the bag that you need 1 box of elbow noodles, 3 cups of Rice, etc.

In this months recipes, the Stroganoff calls for sour cream. Sometimes my recipes can be frozen with the sour cream, but I am going to leave this one out because it calls for it LAST in the recipe itself. If it would have called for it during cooking, then I would just add it here. Instead, I will write on the bag, Needs 1 cup sour cream during cooking. Also, my baked penne needs a ricotta cheese mixture, totally freezable, so I won't worry about that one.

When all my ingredients are in the bags, I seal and double bag. If you are worried about your husband making this meal when you aren't around, attach all recipes to the refrigerator and remind him. Same goes for the wife if the man is the cook ;)

Now you freeze and you are golden! You have meals ready for easy prep whenever you need them!

You can go the extra step if you want and actually COOK these meals and freeze. Then you just have to heat in microwave to serve... but I prefer no microwave methods when I am around, but my husband prefers it. So when I will be away, I make sure its cooked and microwavable (Labeling it with full instructions).

When in doubt about the freezer and your meal, google it. Google, "Is it safe to freeze ____?" Most of the time the answer is yes, but freezing does change the texture of most things. Not a bad thing, but its different then being fresh.

Now, it's time for the Pork. This one is more difficult. Because you have to work with some raw materials. So do it separate from your ground beef. It is MUCH cheaper to buy a large slab of pork shoulder or butt at Sam's and cut it yourself. You will save up to $2.00 a pound!

And if your meet is cooked before you freeze, also a huge time saver. SO we are going with that minus the pork chops and pork stir fry. I will buy a pork loin from Sam's and cut my own chops/pieces. Usually I get three or four meals out of this cut. So I would bag each of the chop-meals and add the marinade/spices to them, then straight into the freezer, raw. Because the Stir Fry requires me to brown the meat before I add everything together, I would bag the raw meat separate from the veggies or brown it up before I stick it together.

Now it's time to cook the rest of the meat for the other recipes. Cook the large hunk of meat with any seasonings you want really. I usually salt, pepper and garlic it, just to have some flavor outside of the recipe.

When it's done, I take it out and shred it into piles per meal. The enchiladas will be in a pan, but the rest will go into the gallon bags. Labeled of course. I make the enchiladas like I would if I was making it for today and freeze. Add all the other ingredients for the meals to bags with their ingredients. Seal and double bag and you are done!

Hopefully you made it this far and realize even with all this text/instructions, it really is easy! The hardest part is picking your recipes and that can be fun! Just try to keep to two meats... and you have already saved a ton!

I know this sounds daunting... but do it once or twice and you will be a pro.

Lasagna 24+ servings

Lots of folks don't like making lasagna because its expensive and it's a time-suck making it. However, if you make it in large batches to freeze, it doesn't take any more time then it takes to make 1... Well maybe a little more time, but certainly not more then 5 extra minutes.

If you make your own spaghetti sauce, this recipe will even be cheaper. But we make it pretty cheap and it sure is yummo-licious. All the plates are licked clean... almost literally.

Now, my children hate onions, so I don't use onions in my recipe... but it would be amazing if you did. So this recipe is WITH the onions but I leave them out for the kids sake. I pick my battles.

What you will need:

2 - 9x13 dishes (or 4 8x8 dishes)
Foil or pans with airtight lids

1 large onion (and some olive oil to caramelize)
2-3 pounds of sausage (or a meat you want in your lasagna)
3-4 cans of hunts spaghetti sauce (any flavor. The reason I use hunts is for price)
2 boxes of traditional cooked noodles (I tried the no-cook with all the trick, texture NEVER comes out right. I always get complaints)
Lots of Mozzarella cheese (like 8 cups ish?)
4 cups of Ricotta
2 Eggs

Boil the noodles according to package directions.

Caramelize onions in olive oil... make sure they turn nice and brown... they are yummy that way.

Add sausage and brown. Don't break the sausage up too much, I love finding the big chunks in my lasagna. When sausage is almost all brown, just a bit pink left, drain off as much of the grease as you can and add the 3 cans of hunts to the pan.

Now you can do two things. If you are strapped for time, just blend it well and you are ready to go. If you have an hour or more that you can check your email, facebook, and twitter, then go on to this step. Turn the heat on low and let it simmer for a good hour so the flavors can all combine and be excellent. Hunts sauce on it's own is fine, but the flavors of the sausage and onions will mix brilliantly and make the sauce even better!

Mix ricotta and the two eggs together in a separate bowl. Add a tablespoon or two of parsley and half the cheese.

With the noodles done, the sauce simmer and brilliant, the ricotta mixture, the cheese ready... you are ready to assemble.

Put a little meat sauce in the bottom of the pan and line pans with noodles. Spread ricotta mixture over the top and top with noodles. Spread meat sauce over top and top with noodles. Continue doing this until all the mixtures are gone. Last layer being the meat sauce. Top with the remaining cheese (and more cheese if you have cheesy lovers).

To freeze I suggest you cover with foil a few times. This will keep in the freezer for at least 6 months. But I suggest 2 months to retain the best flavors. When you are ready to cook it, you can either cook from frozen for 2+ hours... or defrost and cook covered for 45 minutes at 375. Remove cover the last 10-15 minutes to melt cheese on top ;)

This meal makes 24 large servings or tons more if you have a small belly. ;)