Bulk Cooking Saves Time

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

What's Cookin'?

By Elaine Zablocki
WebMD Feature

July 2, 2001 -- After Deborah Taylor-Hough's first child was born prematurely, she and her husband found themselves traveling to the intensive care nursery twice a day. "Probably what helped me most at that time is that the ladies from my church brought us two weeks' worth of frozen meals, and I didn't have to worry about what we were eating," she says.

A few years later, when her husband was working a swing shift, Taylor-Hough wanted to serve the main meal at noon, before he left. "The morning was our family time, but I also had to cook dinner then, and I felt like getting dinner ready was taking away my life," she recalls. A friend suggested she try cooking a month's food at once and storing it in the freezer.

From those small beginnings has grown a big passion. In 1998, Taylor-Hough published Frozen Assets: How to Cook for a Day and Eat for a Month, and today she has more than 2,000 people involved in her email list and online discussion group.

Bulk Cooking

Here's how it works: Once a month, she spends an hour on a Thursday night writing a shopping list. The next day, she shops. ("Never shop and cook on the same day," she advises.)

On Friday night she does the prep work, like chopping onions, grating cheese, making spaghetti sauce, and browning ground beef. On Saturday she spends a solid 6 to 8 hours cooking. By the end of the day she has a month's worth of meals in the freezer.

A big surprise for Taylor-Hough was how much money she saves. Because she was buying in bulk and eating out much less, her monthly budget for food dropped from $700 to $300 for a family of five.

Her web site is loaded with recipe ideas, cooking tips, and sample meal plans. Typical dishes include soups, meat loaf, stews, casseroles, and meat items to serve over rice.

While Taylor-Hough's first book on bulk cooking gets top marks for efficiency and price-consciousness, many recipes tend toward red meat and white flour. Her newly released sequel, Frozen Assets Lite & Easy, has more healthy, low-fat recipes, she says.

In addition, the bulk cooking system is designed chiefly for main dishes, the most time-consuming part of a meal. Of course, they should be combined with fresh fruit and salad.

Once you've grasped the basic idea of bulk cooking, you adjust it to fit your own circumstances, Taylor-Hough says. And you don't have to have a large freezer for it to work. For years, she had only a small freezer on top of the refrigerator.

"Use freezer bags, freeze them flat, and then stand them on end to make better use of your space," she says. "You can easily fit two weeks of main dishes in that space. Actually, I can do a full month."

"This is a wonderful, wonderful idea," says Lauren Groveman, who hosts a radio program on food, family, and the home. "You can plan ahead when you see a crazy week coming. When you're busiest, and feeling most tired and needy, that's the most important time to go to your own freezer and benefit from healthy, home-cooked food, instead of the drive-through line at the local fast-food place."

Many foods freeze perfectly, says Groveman, whose TV show, Cooking with Lauren Groveman, premiers this fall, especially soups, stews, and chili. "Brisket is such a tough meat it's improved by slow cooking followed by freezing. Make a big batch of stock, chill it first to skim off extra fat, and divide it into containers. When you want soups or stews you don't need to start with that powdered stuff!"

Listen to the Experts

"If my freezer ever died I'd be in big trouble," says Laura Chase, who homeschools six kids in Olympia, Wash. "I like the idea of cooking most of several meals at one time." Right now, she has 30 main dishes and parts of 40 more in her freezer.

In the past Chase did cook a complete month's worth of meals at one time, but she found that was too much for one day. Now, when there's a great deal on hamburger she may buy 20 or 30 pounds.

"Then I make 20 meals at one time, based on one basic ingredient," she says. "Or I buy round steak and simmer a whole bunch for an hour with spices. Then I freeze it in meal-size portions, and it's ready for additional ingredients and final cooking when I'm ready to use it."

Valerie Scott VanInwegen, of Thompson Ridge, N.Y, an award-winning painter, keeps a 20-quart stockpot simmering on her stove, and freezes soups and stews in quart-sized containers.

"After you do enough batches you have a variety in your freezer, so you can give someone a shopping bag with seven different kinds of soup or stew," says VanInwegen, who regularly shares batches of food with her friends, her mother and father-in-law, and neighbors who're dealing with illness.

Using bulk cooking to help people who are sick is a great idea, and it's especially important for cancer patients, says Becky Wright, RD, a nutrition specialist on staff at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, Okla.

"Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy are extremely tired, and at the same time they really need to keep their nutrition up," she says.

Four or five years ago the idea of once-a-month or twice-a-month cooking became popular with cancer patients, Wright says. Sometimes friends or a cancer support group will cook and freeze a batch of meals for the patient and their family.

Wright recommends roasting a turkey, pulling the meat off the bones, and storing it in serving-size portions. "The first goal of a cancer patient is to take in protein, to help rebuild damaged tissue and boost the immune system," she explains.

'Swap Meat'

Sherry Stacy, also of Olympia, does bulk cooking with a twist. She'll cook 10 main dishes, like lasagna or meatloaf or beef stew, and then meet with friends to trade nine of her packages for nine meals they've cooked.

"We take Debi's idea one step further and do meal trading," she says. "Once a month we get together for a planning meeting. Each person suggests two meals they'd like to cook, and everyone votes on which they'd prefer. We may have as many as 17 people -- or as few as five, in summer when folks are away."

Favorite picks at the meal-trading group include smoky barbecued meatballs, enchiladas, beef or pizza pockets, and corn chowder.

Theoretically, this sort of food trading, where people share home-frozen food with their friends, could lead to health problems if someone didn't follow safe cooking practices. However, Taylor-Hough says she's never heard of anything like that actually happening.

Letting the Air Out

Everyone agrees that if you're going to invest all this time in planning and cooking so many meals, you need to use top-quality materials to store them. Taylor-Hough recommends using heavy-duty freezer bags, not generics, but the best quality you can get. She doesn't like zipper bags because they tend to leave a place where air can get in, and air inside the package leads to freezer burn, leaving the food dried out and tasteless.

Some manufacturers make materials that are especially suited for bulk storage. Glad recently came out with Stand & Zip bags, which have extra-thick plastic and a wide-pleated bottom, so they stand upright by themselves while you fill them. The Tilia FoodSaver system uses extra-thick bags plus a home-based vacuum device to withdraw all air from the package and then heat seal it. If you can't afford this special device, Taylor-Hough recommends pressing as much air out of the package as you can, almost sealing it, and then sticking a straw inside to suck out the last bit of air.

Groveman recommends heavy-duty containers with tight fitting lids, if you have lots of freezer space. If space is limited, she suggests heavy-duty freezer bags, but double them to make sure no air gets in.

Other tips for safe freezing:

  • Cool the food before you place it in the freezer.
  • Freezer temperature should be 0 degrees F or lower.
  • Don't stuff the freezer to the brim; leave room for air to circulate.
  • Label containers or packages with the contents and date frozen.
  • Stews and casseroles generally keep for up to three months, while sauces keep even longer. If you store frozen foods longer than recommended they're generally still safe to eat, but taste and texture may deteriorate. A home-based vacuum-sealing system can double or triple the recommended storage time.

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