September’s Monthly Cooking

About three years ago I decided to start making meals for the freezer to ease the frustration of what to make when I’d get home, having to thaw meat after work, or just not having enough time. Then I realized how much money I’d save as I started becoming better at it.

What exactly does this monthly cooking mean for my family? I spend a day in the kitchen cooking 10-14 different kinds of meals for my family. I double or triple the recipe depending on if it’s a favorite or not. My usual count of meals at the end of the day is 24 meals that go directly to my freezer. I don’t do freezer meals for the weekends because I love to cook and we have homemade pizza every Friday, so essentially I get 6 weeks worth of meals. This gives me a chance to create the menu for the next month, gives me some leeway time for my cooking day and also a chance to watch the sales.

Commonly asked questions when people find out I do this:

  • Are you crazy? Nope, just hyper organized and efficient. It’s a challenge for me to figure out the menu, get the best possible price and see just what I can do. I may be just a bit competitive, especially with myself.
  • How do you have the time? I devote one 8 hour day usually to this. If you figure that each one of those meals would probably take you 30 minutes or so to make start to finish on a weeknight, I’ve saved about four hours worth of work on average. Plus, some major headaches.
  • Who wants to eat casseroles all the time? Not me. We have one casserole in six weeks (okay two since I double the recipe). We like casseroles, but they aren’t a challenge for me and I want to expose the kids to a variety of foods.
  • Do you kids eat everything you make? Nope. But my rule is: This is what’s for dinner. We don’t have the resources nor the time to make everyone a separate dish. I do try to find recipes that I know the boys will enjoy, but they are toddlers and don’t always like things one day to the next.
  • Isn’t that expensive? Nope. My total grocery bill for these 24 meals plus the add-on items for the month of September was $183. I have to go to the store weekly for items like milk, bread, eggs, and anything for weekend meals. Our grocery bill for the month is normally around $250. With any  speciality things, we still are under $300.
  • What do you put meals in? I go to a Dollar Store and purchase a ton of the tinfoil casserole dishes and then head to Target for their ziploc bags. Most meals are either in a 9×13 pan (spray with cooking spray first and then it’s easily washed and reusable the following month!) or in gallon freezer bags (yes, I try to reuse these as well).
  • Side note: I do the vast majority of my grocery shopping at either Aldi or Save-A-Lot. Why? Better question, why not? Frozen fish is frozen fish is frozen fish. No matter where you get it. Why wouldn’t I pay $5.99 for a bag of 12 filets instead of $1 per piece?
  • Is all of your meat fresh? No. I know that it should be, but that doesn’t always work out. If I thaw it, I tend to cook it then. But sometimes, you just can’t pass up those amazing deals at the store when meat sales are on.
  • What about beef…it’s so expensive? I wouldn’t know. We purchase 1/2 a cow every year from one of the local butcher shops and have around 400 lbs of beef for the year. The last two years we’ve gotten it for $2.39/lb. I like knowing where my meat came from, it’s WAY better than store bought meat and it makes me feel good knowing I bought from someone local. (Hmm…if you read my first blog post, Steve might not be far off.)

Alright….getting started.

I have some of the main freezer meal cookbooks: Don’t Panic, Dinner’s in the FreezerTaste of Home Freezer Pleaser Cookbook, and Fix, Freeze, Take & Bake. Over the course of the first year and half of my dive into freezer meals, these came in very handy and get pulled out for some of our favorites. However, when you know you are going to eat the same thing 2-3 times in a month, it’s hard to want to use that cookbook over and over again. I’d end up using one for a few months or I’d use one of the books one month and then switch the next month.

Then I found the Once A Month Mom website and I was hooked. The site has different menus every month with labels, shopping lists and even a cooking day guide. I went by those lists for several months and decided that I could try it on my own. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I create my menu for the month (or two months), my grocery lists, etc. I use Once A Month Mom a lot for recipes and have now started freezing meals I find on Pinterest. I realized that I don’t need a special cookbook, I just have to use some common sense when cooking. My new favorite site is Ziplist – here I can add recipes from around the web (think Pinterest), add them to a meal planner and send them directly to a shopping list that I could have on my smart phone if I had one! LOVE it. I was able to find recipes from Once A Month Mom and send them right to my shopping list.

For September, my menu looks like this:

  • Baked Chicken Parmesan
  • Garlic Lemon Tilapia
  • Beef Chimichangas
  • Buffalo Chicken Stromboli
  • Chicken Bacon Carbonara
  • Crack Burger
  • Spicy Sausage Pepper Pasta
  • Guiness Pie
  • Shrimp Alfredo
  • Italian Sausage Tortellini Soup
  • Cajun Jambalaya
  • Meatloaf
  • Sloppy Joe’s

My Add-On items this month (which I’ve only made half so far because I got lazy) are:

  • Artisan Bread
  • Homemade Tortillas
  • Pretzel Rolls
  • Buttermilk Biscuits
  • Granola Bars
  • Instant Oatmeal
  • Chicken Nuggets
  • PopTarts
  • Hamburger Buns

For the recipes and my semi-grocery list, click here. There’s also a link to my calendar so you can see how I schedule my food for the month.

This month I felt a bit rushed when I realized that next week is already September. Not sure where my mind has been. So, Saturday morning I did the grocery shopping, came home, cleaned the kitchen and prepped the veggies.

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This is my month’s worth of meals groceries. The basket includes items from the freezer. I had gotten lucky at Festival Foods meat sale the other week!

This is my kitchen. Before I start, I need to make sure all dishes are done, I have bowls and measuring cups, spoons and spatulas ready to go. I also make sure to have an apron on and tons of towels handy.

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After unloading all the groceries and refrigerating whatever I need, my first steps are always to start the crockpots with a chicken or roasts. Well, I generally do this the night before, so I can just shred the meat in the a.m. and be ready to go. Then I chop all the veggies and put them in bowls. As I’m prepping and chopping the veggies, I use a dump bowl (think Rachael Ray) next to me to collect all the ends, etc. I also have a basket to dump this in to compost it later. I also have a bag set up for recyclables.

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After getting everything, chopped and ready to go, I start making the meals. I tend to make the easier meals first because then I get a stockpile on the table and it reminds me that what I’m doing is worth it. One of the first things that I do every month, is to make my own pasta sauce using just tomato sauce, fresh tomatoes, garlic, and Wildtree Hearty Spaghetti Seasoning. I can use this for any dishes that need a pasts or marinara sauce and can always freeze or can any of the leftovers.

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My first recipes were the Garlic Lemon Tilapia and Crack Burgers because all I had to do was put the ingredients in Ziploc bags and label them. Then I started the Baked Chicken Parmesan.

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Next, I sautéed the Shrimp for Shrimp Alfredo in Roasted Garlic Grapseed Oil (Wildtree) and the Scampi Blend spice (Wildtree) and mixed it with the Alfredo Sauce (Wildtree). I’ll make the noodles for this on the cooking days.

Next up, was the Spicy Sausage and Pepper Pasta. I was able to get two 9×13 pans of this, plus an extra round pan which I took out to Steve’s dad. Image

Finished Sausage Pepper Pasta

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You can see in the picture above and below that there ends up being very little counter space to work with.

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After this picture, my camera died. I’ll remember next time to charge it before I do something like this. The rest of the meals went together very easily and pretty quickly. Six hours in and I had everything done except the Guiness PIe and Italian Sausage Tortellini Soup. I chose to do those today because I like to let soups simmer for a long time and the Guiness Pie took about three hours. Both are absolutely fantastic though!

This morning I made granola bars and homemade chicken nuggets. The boys devoured the nuggets and it made me feel awesome knowing what was actually in them. The bread and biscuits will come later on this week and pop-tarts will hopefully get done yet today.

My biggest tips for you if you decide to try this:

  • Stay caught up with your dishes.
  • Have a great music playlist.
  • Wear an apron!
  • It’s always more fun with two people.
  • Start small – maybe a week or two at a time before you do the whole month.
  • Plan a month ahead so you can watch the sales.
  • Order pizza or some other take-out for the night of your cooking day. No one wants to cook dinner after having just made 24!!

All in all, a very successful weekend cooking weekend!

My New Love (or Why My Husband Fears We’ll Live on a Commune)

Last year, my husband and I had a food share with Park Ridge Organics. Everything was wonderful and we were exposed to many vegetables we had never eaten before (like kohlrabi). In about January of this year, we started talking about it we were doing the food share again or if we wanted to try our own garden. We decided to give the gardening a try. We worked with Steve’s dad to build ourselves a small garden out on his farm. He even made me raised beds and would help out a lot by putting hay on the plants, etc. 

So, the first month of gardening did not go well. The deer ate many of my plants that did come up and then the others didn’t even bother to show their green little leaves. I was frustrated. I had definitely had this beautiful garden that produced mass amounts of great food in my head. Yep, not so much. We had two lettuce plants show up, and then the sheep got loose and at them. We had about 20 carrots. A handful of onions. And zucchini. For the love of god, there is no stopping these plants. At this time, I have frozen over 50 quarts of zucchini!!! Shredded, sliced, diced, you name it. I’ve made more zucchini baked goods than I care to admit. We’ve had zucchini at least three times a week with at least one meal. It never ends.Image

Steve felt bad for me that my peppers didn’t appear, or my tomatoes, or anything else for that matter. So, we went and bought a few plants. Now, my jalapeno plants have taken over and I’m running out of things to do with them. My two green pepper plants should produce maybe a few peppers before it freezes. Same goes for my cabbage, cauliflower, and tomatoes. We also thought it’d be a good idea to plant four watermelon plants. Watching them spread is scaring me. Oh, yeah, and then there’s still that damn zucchini. Even through the drought which killed off several plants that I had just planted. I am pretty sure the zucchini plants thrived during that time. I’ve quit watering them, but they still produce. 

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Anyway, last year with the food share if we had anything left over from the week, I’d just freeze it. No big deal. I hate to blanche things, so I chop the veggies up, stick in a freezer bag, label and away they go. This year, I wanted to start becoming a bit more creative, especially since we were getting veggies in a bigger quantity (not by much though) than just a food share. 

So, I decided I’d better learn how to can food. Last week, I made six jars of jalapeno jelly and freezer jalapeno poppers. Image This week, I’ve made four jars of Sun Pickles with my grandma’s recipe, two jars of pickled jalapenos, and tonight, four jars of Simple Summer Canned Dill Pickles.

Image I’ve also been reading a lot of books and recipes about what I can make at home instead of buying. I love to cook and have really started watching what I eat and what I feed my family. I’m also a once a month cook (thank you OnceAMonthMom!) so the more I can make at home, the more money that I can save and the healthier I know everything is. 

Anyway, I fell in love with gardening and I have now fallen in love with seeing what I can make at home and preserve myself. 

The following books will be guiding me through my journey: 

Oh, and let’s not forget that I decided to start selling Wildtree Products. All-natural, nut-free, and beyond delicious! If you ever want to order, just let me know or order on my site.

ImageNeedless to say, with all my homemade ventures lately (homemade tortillas being the one that I think sent Steve over the edge), the running joke in our house is when I’m quitting my job in education to move us to a commune. ImageImageImage