Easy family meals: Save time and money on dinner

Feb 5, 2009 at 1:10 p.m. ET

You have to eat, right? But who has time to cook? And as you stand in front of your empty refrigerator, your children clamor to be fed, your husband sighs dramatically, and your mother-in-law looks on, shaking her head. Once-a-month cooking (OAMC) will save your sanity and your bank account.

Family Cooking Sauce

In less time than it takes many first time moms to give birth, you can cook up a month's worth of dinners to freeze and feed your family. It sounds crazy, to be sure, but once-a-month cooking (OAMC) is making a comeback, thanks to the current economic climate and busy families. If you've toyed with the idea in the past, now's the time to take the plunge.

A family affair

OAMC should be a family affair. Even kids as young as 3 can help by sorting items into piles, washing fruits and vegetables, or keeping a fresh stack of clean towels available. Older kids can be on chopping or mixing duty, watching younger siblings, or even looking up recipes on the Internet. And everyone in the family should be involved in planning the menu for the month -- after all, you'll all be eating it, right?

Depending on the size of your family, have each person suggest 2 to 5 meals for the month. You can then choose whether to double recipes and essentially create 2 weeks worth of meals and repeat them for the second half of the month.

When your menu ideas are in place, assign a family member with good handwriting to mark the meals on a dry-erase calendar so that you can see just how your month will look. Everyone reasonably happy? Great. On we go.

Plan your attack

Start writing out your shopping list. Have the kids help you check the pantry, fridge, and freezer to determine what you have and what you need to make the meals you've planned.

When the list is ready, you can spend another few minutes separating the foods into categories—fruits and vegetables, frozen items, canned goods. This will make the actual shopping spree easier. Bonus tip: keep your lists on your computer, and you'll only have to do the hard work once.

Once you have the food items on your list, think about your storage options. Some foods can be frozen in aluminum pans; others can go in gallon-size freezer bags. Add these items to your list if necessary.

Have your recipes ready -- a 3-ring binder with plastic sleeves is a great option, because you can easily wipe away spills. Just make sure all the recipes are readily available for when you start cooking.

It's critical to note that shopping day and cooking day should not be the same day. Shop either Friday or Saturday night and start cooking after a good breakfast the next morning.

Assign roles

Figure out ahead of time who is shopping, who is cooking, who is washing dishes, who is prepping vegetables, and so on. Assign talks to everyone, and consider posting them on a list on the fridge. You can also rotate some tasks every hour or two. Be sure to assign someone to pick up lunch for the group -- pizza or Chinese makes a great break and will keep everyone energized.

It's also important to figure out the order in which you'll be preparing dishes. The idea is to streamline your work as much as possible -- so chop all the vegetables at once, and so on. Make it easy to take cupfuls of what you need as you go, and set an order for getting things into the oven and on the stovetop. The more planning you do, the more smoothly cooking day will run.

The first time you try once a month cooking, you should plan on it taking a full eight hours. But once you get the hang of it, you'll get through cooking day in 5 or 6 hours. At the end of the day, you'll have thirty home cooked meals--and a calendar to tell you what to eat when.

For the rest of the month, all you need to do is defrost one meal every night, and cook it for about an hour the next afternoon. Bon appétit!

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