Sunday, November 17, 2013

Freezer Cooking Adventure #2

It seems like Fall is the craziest season of the year for me. At work, clients are wrapping up their programs for the year and beginning to plan their Q1 initiatives. In Tupperware, it's vendor fair season with lots of craft shows and Christmas bazaars. And in the Masonic organizations the Big Guy and I are members of, there are numerous Fall fundraisers and events, our annual Shrine circus on Thanksgiving weekend, and week after week of Christmas parties on the horizon. It seems that every weekend is jam-packed with activities, and the weeknights aren't much better. Folks like to think couples without kids have all this free time on our hands, but life is what you make it. And the Big Guy and I make our non-working days and nights full of friends, fellowship and opportunities to give back to this world that has given us so much.

All of these long working hours, meetings, events, and activities make for busy weeknights and the temptation to grab takeout or go out to eat, because even though it takes just as long to drive to a restaurant and eat there as it does to cook at home it just seems easier to let yourself be waited on than to stare into the fridge wondering what the heck to make, spend a half hour on your feet in the kitchen preparing something and then deal with the clean-up. Add to all this the fact that we both now go to bed by 8:30-9:00 each night because we're getting up at 4:30 for work (Big Guy) or the gym (me), and our evenings are maddeningly brief. But all this eating out and takeout food gets expensive! Plus, I'm trying desperately to lose all the weight I accumulated in my 20s, so I really want to gain more control over the type and quality of food I'm putting in my body.

As I wrote about before, these factors led a few friends and me to try the freezer cooking method of dinner planning. Our first session was a little crazy and we learned a lot of valuable lessons about what worked well and what didn't. So when we started planning session #2, we went in with all our notes about our previous experience and worked hard to make this session go more smoothly. The biggest lesson I learned from our first experience was that, even though freezer cooking days are long and challenging - and your body tells you about it the next day - it is so worth it! I came home with a couple of weeks' worth of heat-and-eat meals that were much more nutritious than takeout and nearly as easy. The Big Guy is a fan because neither of us is stressing out over dinner, and it's budget-friendly. Yes, the initial investment is high because of the volume of food being prepared at once. But spread out over all the meals you end up with in the freezer, the savings are incredible - especially if you plan your shopping right and take advantage of major grocery store sales on meat and staples.

Here's a summary of the lessons learned and applied from Freezer Cooking Adventure #1:

  • Planning sessions are a must! 
    • The first go-round, we did have a planning session that went very well. Where we hit a bump, though, was that only 3 of the 4 planned participants attended, so the fourth person was not quite up to speed with the game plan. 
    • Tip: Planning sessions don't have to take much time. Our first one was a couple hours long, but we were all new to this and there was lots to discuss. Our second one only took one hour early on a Saturday morning. We all met at a centrally located Starbucks, had coffee, mapped out our plan, and then went our separate ways to kick off our weekends.
  • No additional participants may be added after the planning session.
    • Part of what made our first freezer cooking day awkward and difficult was that the person who did not attend the planning session decided to invite one more person to join us. No big deal, right? Wrong. During planning, we carefully multiplied and divided to ensure we were making the same amount of each recipe for each family. We shopped for exactly the right amount of ingredients. We showed up for cooking day and were surprised to find one more person there expecting to exchange meals when we had not planned for her. She was a lovely person and we enjoyed cooking with her, but the division of meals ended up being off. Some people were shorted and everyone was a bit uncomfortable. 
  • Create a place for online collaboration and tweak it until it works for your group. 
    • We began planning our first session through Facebook private messaging. This was good because it allowed everyone to be in on the conversation, but the downside was that if you added anyone after the conversation started, the new participant couldn't see the conversation history. Plus, all the scrolling and back and forth was hard to keep up with. 
    • For the second go-round, we created a private Facebook group. This allows us to share recipe and planning files under a single tab, have separate conversations under individual posts, create events with maps (helpful when not everyone knows where everyone else lives), share recipes and ideas, and add new people without having to recap information for them. Once they're in the group, they can see the entire group history and all files.
    • If you're Pinterest-obsessed (like me), create a group board to share recipes and ideas. Click here to visit ours!
  • Pay attention to grocery store ads and "loss leaders," then plan your recipes accordingly.
    • Loss leaders are those incredibly deep discounts stores offer from time to time to bring shoppers in the doors. If you have a large freezer, stock up on expensive items like meat when they're on sale cheap. For instance, Schnucks had leg quarters in 10 lb bags for 49 cents/pound several weeks ago. I bought 20 lbs and separated them into gallon freezer bags for later use. Later they had whole chickens cut up for 99 cents/lb. I bought three packages and did the same thing - flash froze the pieces and individually bagged each chicken. I kept the wings and backs out separately and put them all together in their own bag to make chicken stock later. So, when planning this latest freezer cooking day, I had the 20 lbs of bone-in chicken I needed already on hand. Just thawed in the fridge before cooking day and I was ready!
    • Tip: Do not freeze, thaw and refreeze raw ingredients. It diminishes the quality and taste. Only freeze your meat before cooking day if you're going to thaw and COOK it like I did. Once it's cooked, you can refreeze it without hurting the quality or taste.
  • Create multiple work areas to keep from tripping over one another.
    • Last time we had one very large table in the kitchen for all of our ingredients, prep, assembly and packaging. There was no counter space, and while the table was enormous, it just wasn't sufficient or effective for our needs. We were constantly on top of one another.
    • This time we had four distinct work areas: 1) stove and surrounding counter space - for cooking and cooling; 2) sink and surrounding counter space - for keeping up with dishes throughout the day; 3) prep table & snack table in the kitchen - normally a breakfast nook, the existing kitchen table was pushed to the corner and became the snack/drink zone, the big bay window became the equipment storage area, and a small folding table became a prep station for cutting meat and chopping veggies; 4) long folding table in dining room - for staging/measuring ingredients, labeling bags/packaging, assembling meals and planning.
  • Start planning your next freezer cooking day during downtime in your current cooking day - like when you stop for a lunch break. You may or may not work out all the details at that time, but it helps to get a jump start to keep you on track.
Kitchen prep area - small folding table and
big bay window (and wine, of course!)
Stove prep area - remember to take into consideration
how many large burners you will need!
Dining room staging/assembly/planning area

This was an incredibly long day, and more valuable lessons were learned (which I'll recap for you next time), but in the end we each walked away with 8 meals or meal components to make our weeknights or breakfast times easier. (Breakfast on the go turns out to be a big need for this particular group.) And many of them were HEALTHY. Added bonus. Here's what we ended up splitting between 4 cooks:
I'll try to share more recipes once I get approval from the group (some of these are personal recipes) and once I have the actual recipes in hand. That's another TIP: create a binder and use it to store all your freezer meal successes! That way, you'll have a handy resource for recipes you know work well and that everyone in your group likes.

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