Save Time and Money With a Monthly Assembly (or Bulk) Cooking Weekend
I recently had my very first experience with assembly cooking — and it was a blast. You might better know this method by some alternate names like "bulk cooking" or "once-a-month cooking." Whatever it's called in your neck of the woods, the goal is the same: to do prep-work or actual cooking ahead of time and enjoy ease of meals for an extended period thereafter. (See also: 10 Things to Cook on a Sunday)
If you haven't done this sort of work before, it can be somewhat overwhelming. Don't worry, though. Armed with my experience from planning, prepping, cooking, and freezing dinners for an entire month, I'm here to help!
Planning and Preparation
First you'll need to decide the scope of what you want to tackle with your assembly cooking. You can go all out and do breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for an entire month. That's rather ambitious, but certainly doable. Or perhaps, like me, you'd rather concentrate on a specific meal — like dinners — to get the practice down to a science.
Whatever you choose to do, you'll need to consider a few things first.
You'll need to plan your meals, write your grocery list, shop for ingredients and other tools, prepare everything to be assembled or cooked, and store properly. Depending on your experience, this could take anywhere from 2 to 4 days. It's well worth the investment, but if you don't think you have the proper slots in your schedule to see your plan through to completion, consider waiting another week or month until you do. (And this is also why I recommend starting with one meal like dinners, for example, instead of your entire month's menu all at once.)
Most of us are paid bi-weekly, but bills and other financial obligations might dictate cash flow at any given time of the month. That initial trip to the grocery store can be quite humbling when everything is bagged and the total splashed across that register screen. If you do have the flexibility, just know that you are very likely saving in the long run by buying your ingredients all at once. (See also: How to Buy in Bulk)
- You'll encounter far less waste because you will have written a grocery list with a purpose for all ingredients (which I'll get to in a moment). Choosing meals with like ingredients can be helpful in this regard. As well, other more shelf-stable food items, like pasta, flour, oats, canned beans, etc., will keep if they are forgotten in a recipe or just not needed after all.
- You'll also be able to take advantage of more manufacturer coupon deals, store 2-for-1s, or other specials. Try to pull out that flyer before heading around the store to shop the deals. Say you're planning to freeze black bean burgers, but white beans are on sale — you can easily substitute. (See also: 25 Healthy Bean Recipes)
- You'll get better use out of that bulk club membership by taking advantage of those gigantic bags of spinach or doubly large containers of pasta sauce. Things that seemed somewhat ridiculous for a single family might make total sense when used up for an entire month at once. Be sure to scope that per unit price to note the savings.
There are a number of ways to store foods for bulk cooking or assembly. Many people choose to freeze meals, which usually involves a dedicated freezer. Upright is the easiest to organize, but a chest works just as well. Dry or canned items will take up some pantry space, so clear out what is old or can be moved elsewhere before you get started. (See also: 5 Best Freezers)
If you live in a small home or apartment, don't fret. You don't need sprawling spaces to enjoy bulk cooking, at least on a smaller scale. Consider cooking for an entire week or two as a trial. Scale up as space allows.
Once you've thought about all the preliminaries, it's time to crack open the cookbooks and search those food blogs. My best advice for meal planning is to favor simple recipes that require few ingredients or extra components. Think about those go-to meals you already have in your memory bank — would they freeze well? The fewer recipes you have to read, the better. (See also: 8 Best Cooking Apps)
Of course, you can go crazy with lots of different options for the month to avoid boredom. If you're anything like me, you sort of fall into a routine with similar meals each week anyway. Don't reinvent the wheel. With my own workweek freezer month, I opted to make seven different types of recipes — three of them were for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week. The other four alternated the Tuesdays and Thursdays to keep things interesting. By not setting out to make different dinners for each week, I simplified my planning, ingredients list, and cooking. (See also: A Month of Frugal Meals)
As I mentioned above, it's key to choose meals that make use of similar foods. Beans can be used for vegetarian burgers, crock pot soups, and burritos. Tomato sauce can be slathered on pizza or simmered with lasagna. You get the idea. Choose versatile ingredients for the most bang for your buck and flexibility in your cooking.
When meal planning, I keep those big cook days foremost on my mind. How would I do it all with just one tiny kitchen? Well, it took some creative thinking, but I came up with recipes I could cook on the stovetop, in the oven, on the grill, and in the crock pot — using everything all at once. Since I was cooking with similar ingredients, I'd prep everything together and then toss and plop where it was needed. The best recipes are ones that require little prep and can even be mixed together by hand.
Whether freezing, refrigerating, storing dry, or canning, you'll want to consider how meals and specific ingredients hold up. Some things, like tofu, in my experience, don't store well in the freezer. Be sure to sleuth around to make sure the meal you're intended to put on your calendar will make it in one piece come dinner time. (See also: How to Freeze Foods That Don't Freeze Well)
A Few Freezer Meal Ideas
- 10 Terrific Freeze-Ahead Casserole Recipes
- 10 Great Freeze-Ahead Burrito Recipes
- 9 Make-Ahead, Freezable Hot Breakfast Recipes
- 5 Awesome Easy to Freeze Meals
- The 5-Day Freeze: Batch Cooking for the Rest of Us
Freezing is by far the most popular assembly cooking storage method, however there are several other ways to prepare food in bulk.
- Think about canning sauces or spreads, like fruit jam, in bulk to add flair and flavor to simple recipes.
- Create your own spice packets for meals like Sloppy Joes, taco filling, or whatever else needs expert seasoning.
- Mix together dry ingredients for on-the-go oatmeal, homemade pancake mix, or even quick breads or biscuits.
Grocery Items and Other Tools
Once you have your meal plan ready to go, write it out and make a grocery list. Making a master list is made easier by writing meals out on a piece of paper, indicating how many times throughout the month you plan to eat them, and any other information you think is important. Then go through with a highlighter (or other method that works for you) and indicate similar or same ingredients.
On another piece of paper, jot down the total number of, say, cans of tomatoes you need. Then organize by your favorite store's layout for the most simplified, least stressful shopping experience. There's nothing worse than being elbows deep in a stuffed shells recipe and realizing you forgot the ricotta. Being organized truly helps ensure you just need one big trip to the store. (See also: How to Lower Your Grocery Bill)
As for storage, there are a number of tools you'll need for success.
- Freezer Bags. For storing meals and snacks, think different sizes (my favorite is gallon for soups and most everything else).
- Plastic or Glass Containers. It's up to personal preference, but what doesn't work in bags will need to be stored in airtight containers.
- Plastic Wrap. For portioning larger meals, like lasagna, into separate servings (to be stored in larger containers).
- Aluminum Foil. For providing an extra layer of freezer burn protection.
- Labels or Tape. For creating a writeable surface to mark up.
- Permanent Markers. For marking contents, dates, or other instructions.
As you might imagine, planning ahead to cook with an organized approach is your best method to success. The cook day is by far the craziest — often taking from morning until night. I actually found myself ordering dinner out on my first cook day because I just couldn't prepare another meal. The next day, I was much more prepared for the madness. (See also: How to Find Time for Cooking)
Here's how to stay cool.
Write Out a Loose Cooking Schedule
Post your schedule on the refrigerator. Mark things like oven temperature, total cook times, or other recipe considerations you don't want to forget.
Lay Out Your Ingredients and Tools
Chop veggies in bulk, open all cans, and do as much work in a batch as possible. As if you were starting a surgery, make sure your mixing spoons, bowls, pots, pans, etc. are all clean and at the ready.
Take a Deep Breath and Start Cooking
Turn on some music or a television show. Enough to provide entertainment without too much distraction. Consult your guides or other instructions as necessary, but try to roll with it.
Consider Enlisting Help
The big cook experience can be fun, especially if you invite a significant other or friend. This person will provide more than just an extra set of hands, eyes, and ears in the kitchen.
Package Everything Up
Mark your packages with contents and date information, and cross off the to-do list. Make any notes you might find helpful for the following day, if necessary. Batch cooking is a process, and you'll find new tips and tricks with more practice.
Basically, you just need to jump in. It's the best way to find what assembly cooking method or recipes work best for your unique situation. If you're interested to see a month of bulk freezer cooking in practice, you can check out my blog with tips on everything from planning to preparation to afterthoughts. In the end, we were very satisfied with our meals, the savings, and the experience overall.
Do you cook meals in bulk? What are some other tips or considerations you think we missed?