Save Time and Money With a Monthly Assembly (or Bulk) Cooking Weekend

by Ashley Marcin on 30 December 2013 8 comments

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.

Time

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.)

Resources

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.

Storage Space

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.

Meal Planning

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)

Approach

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)

Ingredients

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.

Methods

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.

Storage

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

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.

Cook Day(s)

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?

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Dwight

I've been meaning to get a freezer for some time. Your article gave me that extra nudge to order the compact that Amazon has on sale. ($138)

Thank you

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Guest

what great advice. I have considered this for a while...I just might have to get my feet wet. thanks for the tips.

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http://www.30daygourmet.com/
Great planning forms, recipes, etc. Ebooks on topics such as freezer cooking for the holidays for home daycare providers, for lunches etc. Best planning forms I've found.

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SMB

Wow, that food actually looks GOOD, unlike most of the OAMC recipes I've come across...is that pesto?

Guest's picture

Thank you so much for all the details you included in the Overview Article. I am inspired to act on this "sounds interesting thought" that I had to begin with before googling :-)

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Rich

I live in an apartment and have only my small fridge freezer. Is that good enough (its only me in the household). Or is there a dedicated freezer available that could be stuck somewhere else, ie. the spare bathroom that rarely gets used?

Thanks,

Guest's picture

Fresh-baked breads freeze well too. Once the bread is cool enough to wrap in plastic bags, wrap in two layers of tight-fitting plastic bags and freeze. Defrost several hours prior to serving.

Guest's picture

This is great help for people wanting to do this. While the idea really appeals to me, as it would save lots of time on days that you don't have it, being vegans, it's really difficult to do something like this. We eat a lot of salads and fresh foods, so it's really hard to make ahead of time. Although, I have thought about making a big salad up at the beginning of the week so that we would have it for the rest of the week. What do you think?