Assembly Cooking for Newbies
Bulk Cooking, once a month cooking (OAMC), assembly cooking . . . Whatever you call it, the concept remains the same: doing a certain amount of prep work in advance in order to enjoy the convenience of meals on the fly later. This article covers the strategies and infrastructure you will need to tackle this at home.
In Sarah’s recent piece on grocery shopping strategies , there was mention (and a fair amount of discussion) of assembly cooking as a strategy for streamlining your food purchases. While many retail options exist for this technique, the financial and flexibility benefits of tackling it at home can be significant. Unsure if you can summon the stamina? Here’s how to proceed.
What You Need
As with bulk buying and freezer saving, once a month (OAMC) or bulk assembly cooking requires a certain number of tools and infrastructure items. Here are a few of the ones that have enabled me to keep the bulk cooking ball rolling.
1. Multiple sizes of re-sealable freezer bags, ranging from one gallon all the way down to pint and snack sized.
The various items you’ll be preparing will need to be stored in various amounts. Having a range of sizes will keep you prepared and make the whole experience easier.
2. Masking tape.
Certain containers may not have a labeling space like most freezer bags. Having masking tape available is an inexpensive solution.
3. A medium to fine tip permanent marker.
Personally, I’m a Sharpie fan from way back, but if you have another favorite brand, go with what you know.
I’m certainly not a brand snob. Again, if you have another brand or generic equivalent, feel free to choose your favorite. I recommend these for the same reason I recommend having a variety of freezer bag sizes. Depending on whether your are bulk prepping pizza sauce or coq au vin, you will need a corresponding size of storage container. These are also way easier to was out and re-use, enabling you to keep bag waste to a minimum.
5. Extra large airtight containers.
This might seem like a repeat of the above item, but when it comes to some of the dry ingredient mixes, making one to five gallons at a time will really make it worth your time. Purchasing several matching ones is certainly a quick start up option and makes organizing your storage easier. However, if you have to start out in extreme penny pinching mode (like I originally did), saving your gallon mayo jugs from Costco or extra large pickle jars can help you get started with homemade baking mix and dry cream soup base.
This one might be the trickiest, especially if you don’t work at home. Ideas are provided for you in the shortcuts and strategies section below.
Cool home projects aside, these things are cheap and allow for quick safe storage of hostess gifts, homemade jams and various other things. Stock up. You’ll be glad you did.
8. Metal baking pans with lids.
There are permanently re-useable ones you can use if the disposable option bothers you. Personally, I try to keep these to a minimum, but do allow myself a supply for hospitality emergencies like casserole drop-offs for sick neighbors, unexpected company, last minute pot luck invitations, or the early baby arrival of a close friend. I also (when I have access to an upright), like to have a few of these around for the holidays so I can whip up cakes and holiday sides in advance. They can go immediately into the oven, and I don’t have to worry about remembering my pan if I take something to a friend’s house.
9. Ice cube trays.
I’ve touched on this before, but you really can use the strategy for easy once a month food prep. Baby food, curry pastes, pizza sauce and homemade soup stocks are all things easily frozen and thawed for use using the ice cube tray strategy.
Not all bulk prep items require a freezer, (In fact I’ve written about strategies for non-freezer owners before.) But many do. If you’ve already embraced freezer savings as a personal finance strategy, then assembly cooking (at least the freezer variety) will be a quicker transition for you. If you have an upright, great! If not, and a chest frezer is what you’ve purchased staying organized and disciplined about the freezer space over your fridge will become increasingly critical.
While many of the online resources out there focus on the freezer variety of batch cooking, there are several other categories that can be put to use. Here are what I see as the four main areas, and ideas for putting them to use.
1. Dry mixes and spice blends.
Whether you go with make ahead bread mixes, DIY spice blends for meat rubs and baking, or like to make your own giant batches of dry ingredient mixes for baking mix, dry soup base, pizza crust and more, many options are out there for money saving. If you would like a freezer, but need to save money in order to buy one, this is an excellent OAMC category to start out with.
Whether you choose recipes suited for the water bath technique, do your own oven sealing for homemade glazed and roasted nuts, or experiment with more technically advanced pressure canning recipes, canning can save you major cash. It’s also another way people without a freezer can participate with advance meal prep. Canning spaghetti sauce instead of freezing is a good example.
3. Dry Ingredient Kits.
Whether you like the do ahead kits for Asian cole slaw, small bags of TVP and taco seasoning, brown bag grab and take lunch snacks, or making your own hamburger and tuna helper kits, dry ingredient make-aheads are a great way to go and can be stored in containers in a cupboard.
4. Freezer Cooking.
Casseroles, appetizers, certain desserts, fun restaurant knock-offs, and dinner entrees galore can all be prepared ahead of time for the freezer. Spend some time recipe researching. You’ll be amazed at the phenomenal ideas out there.
Shortcuts and Strategies
Without a few tricks up your sleeve, once a month cooking can be far too daunting for the rookie frugalite. I think I am pretty hard core, and before I gave myself permission to honor my own style and family scheduling needs, this process nearly did me in. I thought if I was going to embrace this concept, I had to do it the way all the hard core once-a-mothers did it or it was somehow not valid. Hogwash. Get in there, figure out what works for you, and streamline it in a way that makes sense for you and your family. Here are a few ideas.
1. A mix and match approach to storage.
Different containers work better or worse for different things, and while I would love to be one of those eco-goddesses who can pull this system off with nothing but re-used bread bags, it’s just not realistic for me. I work in a recycled bag for chicken skin dog treats where I can, but in the end, using a consistent yet varied selection of storage options helps me utilize the fruits of my bulk cooking system as though it were a file cabinet or supply closet. Speaking only for myself, a lack of organization is a straight shot to frustration overload.
2. Batch size flexibility.
While many people approach this from a perspective of family sized meal storage, smaller portions are helpful for singles, or families where scheduling may inhibit sit down meals from time to time. Having a variety of stored batch sizes provides maximum flexibility. Something we’ve found critical in our household.
3. Precision purchases of small appliances.
I touched on this briefly in a gourmet kitchen design article, but I feel it is particularly appropriate here. While the right tools (or lack thereof) can make or break your OAMC experience, going nuts on the gadget front can really cut into the savings you are trying to achieve. Take the time to figure out your personal cooking style as well as what items you’ll be making regularly. You’ll be able to make a much more informed choice that way.
4. Assembly line production.
This is great for the actual packaging of your selected OAMC menus. But it can also work for the actual creation of the mixtures. Quiches and restaurant knock-off dips come to mind, as do several dry ingredient kit ideas. Give it a whirl.
5. The time factor.
Taking 2-3 days a month to get the job done is a popular newbie approach. If you find you are one of the few people who can keep this up month after month without having a nervous breakdown, congratulations! While I managed to keep up this pace for nearly year when I first started, I’m here to tell you: developing your own hybrid approach is a real sanity saver. Saving leftovers from pot roasts and hams, and perhaps squeezing out a day every couple of months to do giant batches of side dishes and dry mixes is a super helpful start up strategy. So is making a larger batch of something on the night you serve it. Another approach would be to whip up one casserole for every night you serve a protein, veggie and starch combo meal. Bag up the extras individually for faster meal prep later on. Taking on too much in the beginning and ending up in tears at hour thirteen is no way to feel warm and fuzzy about assembly cooking. Believe me, I’ve tried it. Develop a system that works for you in order to be consistent.
6. Go flat.
If you’ve been assembly cooking at home for a while now, this may seem like sort of a no-brainer for you. But you’d be surprised at the number of people who whip up large batches of pasta sauce, only to bag it up and toss it on a freezer shelf. Ever try to pry a bag of spaghetti sauce from a shelf after it has frozen haphazardly around the various wire rungs? Not a good way to psych yourself up for a second round. If you are using the freezer bags for the bulk of your perishable freezer meals, fill each about three quarters full, seal the bags, and then stack them flat. Once they are frozen, you can either keep them there and pull from the stack, or stack them vertically and grab individual bags like you would folders from a medical shelf. Slick.
7. Sex it up.
As with bulk buying, it helps to set yourself up for success. Include some gourmet entrees the first month, do some fun mozzarella stick appetizers, or try some DIY pull apart cookie dough. Of course, I’m partial to once a month cooking you can do for the bar, but that’s just me. Some of my other favorites are eggplant parmesan, DIY Hard Rock Cafe dip, and Planet Hollywood chicken crunch.
8. The container principle.
Also great for successful small space living, this is a strategy for implementing assembly cooking into your repertoire of money saving magic tricks. In the case of snack sized bagged items or dry ingredient kits, putting all of the bags into a larger container or gallon sized zipper bag is helpful. A similar concept could be applied to make ahead bread mixes.
9. Themed prep sessions.
This is basically where you do massive meal prepping based on an abundance of a particular item. If you liked the reference to advanced holiday side dish prepping in my potato piece, here's an entire plan for a bulk potato batch session. Look for more batch suggestions in the online resources section below.
10. Flash freezing.
This is particularly important for individual items you want to serve in a batch, but don't want sticking together in the freezer container. You'll need to set aside a free shelf at least temporarily. Space out the items and freeze rock solid. Then transfer in family size or appetizer size amounts to the appropriate storage item. A few ideas where this comes in handy? Homemade chicken drummies, breaded veal portions, mozzarella sticks and frozen breaded eggplant slices.
11. Start small and simplify.
Breaking down large cans of cheese sauce and jalapenos into small containers of simple nacho dip, and doing bagged, flat frozen large batch leftovers can go further than you think. One giant batch of spaghetti sauce can easily result in at least a dozen gallon sized flat frozen freezer bags. So what, you say? Three months’ worth of having one night off per week, I say. If you take even one of those nights to whip up a few large batches of dry mixes, you’ll really be on a roll.
While I certainly have a few favorites, and have even cataloged a few for friends and personal on-the-road use, there are some exceptional ones around the web. Recipe Zaar has a pretty good section, as does Ellen’s Kitchen. Some of my other favorite resources and suggestions from around the web?
For session cooking and left over usage, there are several here on Wise Bread.
- Sarah did a fun piece on turkey leftovers.
- Thursday Bram just did a slamming post on encore recipes.
- Philip did a helpful article on healthy recipes with cost data.
- Who can forget Linsey Knerl’s hot wing post?
Also, in case you are new to my blog, I have been making it my personal mission to cover the protein bases. You’ll find session planning posts on ham, chicken, beef, tofu, TVP, cheese, powdered milk and eggs.
Love the idea of restaurant knock offs?
Me too. It’s one of my favorite ways to jazz up bulk cooking. This link has several fun ones, and Copy Kat is another fun source. Want another great source for classy restaurant clones? Check out this link.
Bulk cooking conclusions and personal verdict? Well worth the effort. The ultimate key? Mixing and matching the above strategies in a way that will help you stick with it. Got any other great bulk batch online resources? Post away so the rest of us can benefit. Personally, I’m secretly hoping for a slamming source of bulk ethnic recipes. Happy cooking and saving Wise Bread readers!