Most of the time our articles focus on specific recipes for your Once A Month Cooking (OAMC). These recipes are great for saving time, energy, and money, but we tend to forget to talk about the work involved. It’s true – it takes far less time and saves money to prepare certain items once a month than creating from scratch at each meal, but that doesn’t mean that I’m creating 10 lasagnas my family is doomed to eat in 30 days. There are other challenges as well. What about those nights when you just can’t stomach the thought of eating the pre-planned meal, the schedule changes, or you have unexpected company?
With these challenges, I had to figure out how to expand my pre-prepped food options, so I began working to find solutions to creating fresh, homemade meals while still saving money, time and energy.
In this process, I did find that some foods do not freeze well if they are wet. They actually tend to get freezer burn very quickly, which results in a loss of food, money, and time, so if it says to dry your vegetables be sure to dry them thoroughly. You may want to consider letting them drain on a towel overnight to ensure they are dry.
Here are some steps to help you save time and money by pre-prepping items for everyday cooking.
Roasted Peppers – Pre-roast all peppers with stem, core, & seeds removed. Spray with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, as desired. Roast them in a 400-450 degree oven just until tender-crisp, NOT limp! Let cool completely. Freeze some whole for stuffed peppers or other recipes that call for larger pepper pieces. Slice some for fajitas, spaghetti sauce, meatloaf, etc. Store all peppers in a container in a single layer with double layers of wax paper in between to prevent freezing together.
Ground Meat – Brown all ground meat (except that being used for meatballs, meatloaf, etc.) using nothing more than light salt and pepper for seasoning. Let cool completely. Store in freezer containers, freezer bags, or vacuum sealed bags in ½ to 1 pound portions. When recipes call for browned ground meat, simply open a container and add according to the recipe.
NOTE: I have found that using a ½ pound in my recipes, rather than the 1-pound called for, works quite well. No one in my family has missed the other ½ pound, I’ve made the dish healthier for them, and I’ve saved money.
Onions – Onions are very peculiar items. They do not like having their outer protective layers and root removed, so once cut, they become major contaminates quickly (one of the largest sources of food poisoning, along with potatoes and eggs). Therefore, please DO NOT cut onions for fresh use until you are ready for them.
Slice or chop the onions about 1/4″ thick. Lightly sauté them in a one-to-one ratio of butter and olive oil and lightly season with salt and pepper, if desired. Cook just until crisp-tender. Let cool completely. Divide into small containers (ice cube trays, clean (foam ONLY) egg cartons) and freeze. Use the cubes in recipes as desired.
Carrots– These sweet treats can be prepped both fresh and pre-cooked. Wash, peel, and cut into manageable (large bite) pieces or use baby carrots.
Fresh Storage – Store in a baggie or container with a lightly dampened paper towel. Wet or change the paper towel as needed for freshness. Enjoy as a quick snack or slice, dice, and shred for your favorite recipe!
Cooked Storage – Steam carrots using a very small amount of salted water (with a pinch of sugar, if desired) until fork tender – NOT mushy – about 10-15 minutes depending on size. Cool completely. Store in meal-sized portions in the refrigerator. If desired, dice some of the steamed carrots and portion in ice cube trays or clean (foam ONLY) egg cartons. Store steamed carrots in the freezer until ready to use.
Celery– Celery can be prepped early for both fresh and cooked use. Remove each stem from stalk. Wash thoroughly and trim the root end of the celery to remove 3/4 of the white area.
Fresh Storage – In a tall vessel (pitcher, glass, etc.) that won’t tip easily, place 3 – 4 ice cubes. Add water to make depth approximately 1/2″ deep. Add celery to the container, cut side in the water. Store in the refrigerator. Change water at least every 2 – 3 days.
Cooked Storage – Remove leaf end of celery as usual. Cut celery into 2 – 3” pieces and place on a foil-lined baking pan. Drizzle with olive or canola oil. Roast in a 350-degree oven just until fork tender – again, NOT mushy. Let cool and place baking pan with celery on it in the freezer until the celery freezes solid. Once frozen, remove celery from the pan and place it in a freezer bag or container with double layers of waxed paper between layers of celery. Freeze until ready to use.
Chicken– Pre-prepped boneless, skinless chicken is a huge time saver – about 30 minutes per recipe! It also tastes like it was freshly prepared – my family is clueless. The trick is to keep in mind that it has already been cooked so you don’t overcook the chicken when adding it to a recipe. This works exceptionally well for fajitas, stir-fry, casseroles, soups, stews, and much more.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place the chicken on a foil-lined roasting pan. Drizzle lightly with olive or canola oil and season lightly with salt and pepper, if desired. Bake chicken until it is no longer pink in the center, the juices are running clear, and the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Let cool completely. Place the pan in the freezer until chicken freezes solid. Once frozen, remove from pan and place in freezer bags or containers in single layers and return to freezer.
OPTION: Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces before initial freezing. If you’re looking for a more economical solution, here’s how to cook 18 pounds of chicken in about 3 hours, hands off!
Fresh Green Beans – Wash thoroughly. Remove the ends. Add green beans to a pot of salted boiling water. Allow the pot to return to a boil and let continue to boil for 3 minutes. Remove green beans and place in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Remove beans from water and let dry thoroughly. Place on a pan and freeze until firm. Remove frozen beans from the pan and place in freezer bags and return to freezer. Use as desired – sautéing, stir fry, soup, stews, boiling, steaming, etc.
Broccoli & Cauliflower – Wash and dry thoroughly. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
For use within one week – store in an airtight container that has the bottom lined with dry paper towels. Cover vegetables with a damp (not wet) paper towel.
If you plan on using them throughout the month store vegetables in freezer bags or containers in the freezer after they are completely dry.
Cabbage– This magnificent vegetable is a true gem. Not only will it stretch your food dollar, but there are so many ways to use it – everything from the star of the recipe to be an enhanced add-in.
Fresh Storage – Do not remove the traveling leaves or wash. Wrap dry head in clean, dry plastic wrap and place in the crisper drawer. If cabbage is in good condition and kept dry, it will usually keep for the entire month.
Cooked Storage – Cut, clean, and dry thoroughly. Cut into bite-sized pieces. Store in the freezer an airtight container or freezer bags with the air removed (Vacuum sealed bags work best).
Baby Potatoes – Excellent for hors d’oeuvres, fried potatoes, potato salads, etc. Wash well. Place in a pot of salted water. Boil until fork tender. Drain, cool, and dry completely. Freeze in freezer bags.
Asparagus– Wash and dry. Roll in damp paper towels. Store in the refrigerator crisper drawer. If your asparagus is beginning to wilt, cut about 1/4″ from the bottom. Place in a tall container of ice water for 30 minutes to 1 hour. This should perk up the asparagus. Use immediately.
Mushrooms – Mushrooms can also be pre-prepped for both fresh and cooked use, but both options require the same cleaning method. DO NOT wash your mushrooms. Wipe them with a dry paper towel to remove the majority of dirt. Then wipe them with a damp paper towel. Trim or remove the stem.
Fresh Storage – Store in an airtight container lined with dry paper towels in the refrigerator.
Cooked Storage – Slice or chop as desired. Sauté lightly in butter, olive oil, etc. Portion into small containers (ice trays, clean foam egg cartons, etc.) and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to freezer bags or containers and return to freezer.
Squash and Zucchini – Both of these vegetables are quite versatile; therefore, there are multiple ways in which to prep them for upcoming use.
Frying – Cut into 1/4″ thick rounds. Dip rounds in an egg bath (1 egg plus 2 Tbsp. water) allowing excess to run off the vegetable. Batter with a mixture of equal parts of two dry options (flour, cornmeal, bread crumbs, panko) with any desired seasonings. Once battered, place on a sheet pan or tray lined with waxed paper in a single layer. Top each layer of battered vegetables with two layers of waxed paper to continue building layers on one pan. Place pan in the freezer until vegetables are frozen solid. *Remove vegetables from pan, place in freezer bags, and return to freezer.
*NOTE: Do this quickly to keep vegetables frozen, which will keep them from sticking together and prevent batter loss.
Sautéing and Stewing – Cut vegetables into chunks. Place in freezer bags or containers and freeze until ready to use. Lightly tap bag or container on the counter to break up chunks into desired amounts.
Shredded– This method is excellent for bread, patties, casseroles, etc. Shred the vegetables as normally used in recipes. Place pre-measured amounts for recipes in freezer bags. Remove as much air as possible and freeze. When ready to use, let shredded vegetables thaw completely. This will allow the vegetables to soak in some of the moisture. Discard any leftover moisture. Use as dictated in your recipe.
Corn– Fresh corn is a very easy ingredient to manage. Most people think you have to cook it forever for it to be done – This is a myth! Perfectly boiled, fresh corn on the cob takes only 5-8 minutes. If you cook it longer than that, you will likely end up with dry, tough, bitter corn. Preparing corn for use is extremely easy. This is a method my family has used nearly 60 years, with some changes due to modern conveniences.
To Store – Shuck, and silk the corn. DO NOT WASH the corn. Washing the corn allows water to seep deep into the cob and will lead to freezer burn. Place the corn in freezer bags and freeze.
To Use – Remove amount desired from the freezer bag. Wash well and proceed with your preferred method of cooking, including cutting it off the cob.
Baking Items and Desserts – Pre-measure and place dry like-items as called for in the recipe (Ex. flour, baking powder, and salt in one bag) together in small zip-top bags. Place all dry ingredient baggies for one recipe together in a large zip-top bag (flour bag, spice bag, dried fruit bag, etc.). Add recipe name, remaining ingredients list, and directions in the large bag. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
Potatoes– Scrub potatoes well. Pierce each potato several times with a fork. Rub each potato down with olive oil, butter, etc., season with salt (I use kosher or sea salt), and wrap in individual pieces of foil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about an hour or until the skin is crispy and inside is tender. Cool completely and store in a container in the refrigerator.
To Use – Simply remove foil and reheat in the microwave for a baked potato. Slice and deep-fry for the best homemade French fries ever! Dice and fry in a little grease for hash browns or corned beef hash. Slice and pan fry or place under the broiler with a little oil for a side dish or appetizer. Cut in half, scoop out the flesh and create your very own twice-baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, or potato salad.
Eggs– Hard-boiling your eggs at the beginning of your week is one of the most helpful, time-saving tips you can use. You simply place the eggs in a pot and cover with cold water that has been salted. Place the pot on the burner and bring the water to a boil. Once boiling let the water continue to boil for approximately 12-15 minutes. Remove from heat and flood pot with cold water. When eggs are cool, dry completely, mark the shell with a B, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. These eggs are great for salads, snacks, a quick breakfast, and sandwiches.
Croutons, Stuffing, and Bread Crumbs – This one simple process will save you so much time and money, but it also creates all three of these food staples! Start saving your day-old, stale, and heels from your bread. Place them in your refrigerator or freezer just until you get enough to create a good batch. Preheat your oven to 250 degrees. Cut the bread into chunks and toss with melted and seasonings (if desired). Bake until thoroughly dry; tossing after every 5 minutes to ensure even drying and browning. Cool completely. Store in an airtight container away from moisture, heat, and light.
For Croutons – Consider adding paprika, seasoning salt, Italian seasoning, garlic salt, or Parmesan cheese before baking.
For Stuffing – Mix dried bread cubes with prepared sautéed vegetables (onions, celery, peppers, carrots, etc.), seasonings (sage, salt, pepper, marjoram, etc.), and stock (chicken, beef, vegetable).
For Bread Crumbs – Pulverize cooled dry bread cubes in a food processor (or place in a zip top bag and use a rolling pin to crush) to desired consistency. Use for breading as desired.
Sauces and Spice Mixes– Premake all sauces (spaghetti, pesto, gravy, etc.), spice rubs, and mixes you use on a regular basis. Store in an airtight container or baggie and place in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry as dictated by the ingredients you use. You may even consider freezing your sauces in individual portion control sizes.
Leeks– Cut the root off, slice down the center long way. Rinse all dirt from the layers. Place on a towel so all water drains and leek dries well. Slice into 1/4″ to 1/2″ pieces. Place in a mason jar with a lid. Place in the refrigerator or freezer.
Give these tips a try to see what they will save you. If nothing else, try one at a time to and see how much time and money it can save you. It’s almost a sure bet that you will get hooked.
What money and time-saving tips do you have when it comes to cooking? We’d love to hear from you!
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / JackF