Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bulk Freezer Cooking - Prep Day Tips

We will assume at this point in the process, you've gotten all of your groceries -- and you've recovered from that shopping trip. The next day would be your Prep Day! Believe me -- when it comes time for you to do your marathon of cooking, you will be thrilled that you had this day to get everything prepared.

  1. Prep the night before. Take it from us, do the chopping/prep the night or day before. You will thank us on your cooking day.  That way, you can wake up fresh and ready to go without having to chop 10 cups of onions or brown 5 pounds of ground beef. (Don't miss the meat prep -- I did!)
  2. Invest in a good knife. I never knew what I was missing until I received a good quality knife for Christmas one year.  Also, make sure to sharpen the knife before you begin to chop so you don’t have to waste time sharpening halfway through.
  3. Have several cutting boards. We talked about this before but having two (or more) can be incredibly helpful.  That way you don’t have to clean yours as often during Prep.
  4. Wear comfortable shoes.  I prefer to be barefoot nine times out of ten but when it comes to being in the kitchen for that long, the support is important. (Cue barefoot in kitchen jokes).
  5. Brown ground beef in your crockpot.  I know it sounds strange but if you are like me, there’s nothing more obnoxious than browning ground beef.  It’s so easy and yet so time consuming all at the same time. If you're browning more than 3 lbs of ground beef at a time -- use your crockpot, add a 1/2 cup to a cup of water, and let it sit for 6 to 8 hours on high. I do this even when I’m not doing a big cooking day so I can make batches of spaghetti sauce and chili without having to do much work.
  6. Separate your ingredients. After chopping, take the time to separate out the chopped ingredients for each recipe.  This helps for two reasons.  One, it saves time if you can pull out a bowl that has all the needed vegetables for a specific recipe.  Two, it can help you see before your cooking day if you forgot something at the store or if you thought the onions you bought would be 10 cups of onions but it really turns out to be 8 cups.  We do our best to give you accurate chopping amounts but vegetables can vary in size and shape.  
  7. Read through the recipe cards and instructions. It is really important for cooking day that you make sure you understand them. It also gives you the opportunity to read and comprehend the instructions with a clear head.  Once you start cooking and have muffins in the oven, soup on the stove, and are trying to get the next recipe together, it’s easy to get confused.
  8. Make sure you have all the kitchen supplies you will need. You'll need several mixing bowls, stock pots, measuring cups, measuring spoons, sheet pans, muffin tins, 13x9 pans, 8x8 pans, and liquid measuring cups as well. I have about 3 sets of each of these things, and on my cooking day -- I used them all! You may even need a second crockpot for cooking day depending on the menu you chose. Remember that the disposable metal pans from the grocery store can be a lifesaver too. I got 6 of the 8x8 pans to use for my casserole type dishes to be frozen in.
  9.  Do yourself a FAVOR... Invest in some onion goggles! I'm not even kidding you how much you will thank me when you are chopping 10 (TEN) onions in one session. The fumes will kill you! 
  10.   Take some time the night before cooking day to set all your ingredients on a table. Include your freezer bags, labels, sharpies, and all of your ingredients that don't need to be refrigerated. Set it all out so that you're not looking for items on cooking day - that can really slow you down. Also you'll have that one last opportunity to double check that you have everything you need.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Bulk Freezer Cooking - Grocery Shopping Tips

So, if you haven't clicked over to check out the Once A Month Meals program -- please do... I promise you won't regret it!

Now, lets assume you have a menu and you're ready to click on the link to print your grocery shopping list. An example from my first trip is below. Keep in mind that it is best to make this shopping trip coincide with your Sam's or Costco trip too. You will get a far better deal on meat and things in bulk than you can get at the regular grocery store. I did my shopping at HEB, which I know is only in Texas... but use the place that has the best deals for you. If I had an Aldi near my house - I'd check that out, but there just isn't one conveniently located to my house yet.

If I had gotten down to the tomato products -- those numbers were outrageous... like 115 oz of tomato sauce! I haven't shopped Costco for that yet, but I was able to find large boxes of tomato sauce that had like 33 ounces in each box.

So my tips and the Once a Month Meals team's tips as well are:

  1. Do not shop and cook on the same day. I hadn't planned to cook on the same day as I shopped, luckily -- because you seriously come home from the store wiped out! I was tired after doing such a marathon of shopping, but I did feel prepared for the store. I was even pleasantly surprised with the reasonable amount of money I spent!
  2. Shop using sales and coupons. Everyone has their own strategy for getting deals, be sure you check to see if your grocery store has an app that you can use to load online coupons to your shopping card or account. Use coupons as you can. Shop at bulk stores like Sam's or Costco to get your meats in bulk. Do your homework on what you need, and on where is the best place to get it for your budget.
  3. Find childcare. If have children, find childcare.  Grocery shopping in bulk is hard enough without having to corral small children or explain to your curious 7 year old why you need 25 bell peppers.  If you don’t have a regular babysitter, consider trading off with friends.  Even if they don’t shop in bulk, I’m sure they would LOVE a trip to the grocery story alone.
  4. Block off time to shop. Schedule about 2-3 hours for grocery shopping, more if you are shopping for 6+ people. It's a concentrated task.
  5. Budget for the meals. For an average of four servings, budget between $150-300 for most of our menus.  If you are cooking the Paleo or Whole Foods menu, it can run a bit higher.  Of course, if you follow the tips in #2, your budget will be on the lower end of that range.  
  6. Review your grocery list. Review your menu's grocery list a day or two before you plan to shop in order to look through the pantry for what you already have. I always think I know how many onions I have, but when I get to the store, I tend to second guess myself. "Do I really have 10 onions? I could have sworn I had a full bag?" Just take the extra time to really look and even measure if necessary. Also, don't forget to shop for the extras that your family uses on a regular basis.
  7. Wear comfortable shoes. Yes, this should be a no brainer.  I know this seems simple, but seriously -- don't go in flip flops!
  8. Bring a pen! Bring at least one pen and I recommend two. Don’t just assume you have one in the bottom of your purse or pocket. (Personal experience here.)
  9. Shop at an "off" time. Schedule your big shopping day at an off time for the grocery store.  The meat goes on sale on Tuesday before the new ads come out the next day. Plus, most people aren’t out shopping at 8pm on a weeknight.  
  10. Clean out your refrigerator and freezer beforehand.  Also, make sure your countertop space is clutter free.  You will be coming in with a lot of groceries and you need somewhere to put everything before the big day. Thankfully, we have a second fridge in our garage -- which is fairly empty... so that is where all my overflow goes from the inside fridge/freezer.

    It may seem daunting, but if I can do this -- YOU can too! I promise! Please if anyone has any questions or needs help getting started, leave me a comment and I'll get back to you ASAP!
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Friday, August 21, 2015

Bulk Freezer Cooking - Gathering a Plan

I just joined a new program called Once A Month Meals - and I really think it has changed the way that we will approach shopping and cooking! It's a bulk shopping experience where you will make 30 meals in one day -- and have your freezer stocked to take the guess work out of cooking. It's a Mom's dream!

In the spirit of full disclosure -- my family is picky -- so while there are two levels of membership, I opted for the Pro Membership because it allows you to be able to change the menus and customize what you make based on your family's preferences.

There are 9 basic menus put out each month, but there are thousands of recipes in the archives that you can swap out in place of options on the current menu if you have the Pro Membership. They have all sorts of filters that you can use to find recipes as well - like seasonal, kid-friendly, and even by the meal you want to serve it.

The basic menu plans are: 

Whole Foods
Gluten Free & Dairy Free
Mini (these are smaller menus - only 5/6 recipes)

There aren't any limits on how many menus to try during the month -- so my plan is to do a full menu for this month, and see how it goes -- I hope that I can work it to shop and cook twice a month at most. Now -- that doesn't mean you won't reheat these items -- but reheating, and preparing a side or two is WAY easier than having to think about a whole menu plan each week. 

I think it will also save us money. I did the bulk shopping and I spend FAR less than I would have if I continue to shop every week. I did go back for a few produce items that my kids go through pretty quickly. I also plan in the future to make it go along with our trips to Costco -- which usually happen once a month -- but I've got some time to figure that out too. 

You also can tell the site how many servings you want to make for your family - so it works for everyone. Each recipe is designed to be doubled -- so you're making 15 recipes to get 30 sets of meals. I asked for 4 servings of each meal, and ended up making more than that for some of the recipes. 

The menu items I made this time were: 

Gluten Free Dairy Free Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
Homemade Poptarts
Honey Nut Cereal Bars (this is the only one so far I'm not happy with)
Snickerdoodle Doughnut Mini Muffins
Strawberry Peach Smoothies
Homemade Spaghetti O's
Chicken Orzo Skillet
Down Home Spaghetti Sauce
Easy Freezable Beef Enchiladas
Easy Spaghetti Pie
Grilled Spinach Stuffed Chicken
Skillet Macaroni and Cheese
Skinny Creamed Spinach Stuffed Pork Chops
Slow Cooker Chicken Bruschetta  
Sweet Tea Chicken

Once I settled on the menu -- I was able to print out the grocery lists, prep lists, cooking day instructions, recipe cards, thawing instructions, and also labels that you can print for the bags. It is THAT simple. They do it all for you! 

Once you pick your menu -- you'll do your bulk shopping -- then prep your vegetables and meats -- then have your BIG cooking day -- freeze your items -- then serve them and spend more time doing the other things that you need to get done for your family. 

Tomorrow, I will talk about how to plan for your shopping trip. I'll give you some tips that I got from the Once A Month Meals team and some of my own as well.
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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Fly, Baby Birds

My two baby birds are starting Kindergarten in less than a week, and even though we've been homeschooling for the last two years with preschool... the game changes next week. The stakes are higher when you're talking about actual school years - so I can't help but feel the pressure too.

Can I really teach these two know-it-alls to read? Can I teach them the math skills that I never had in order for them to succeed in ways that I never did? Can we get into a rhythm and not have the wheels fall off for us this year? I guess time will tell.

I had the opportunity to drive a couple of hours away this week to help my mom have knee replacement surgery, and that afforded me some time to reflect on my drive. Just me and some great music in the car... and I found a song that I hadn't heard before, but fell in love with it instantly.

The song is by Maddie & Tae, called "Fly" -- here are the lyrics...
(you can click the link to watch the video)

Baby blue staring in the window pane
Just counting drops of rain
Wondering if she's got the guts to take it
Running down her dreams in a dirty dress,
Now her heart's a mess
Praying she'll find a way to make it

So keep on climbing, though the ground might shake
Just keep on reaching though the limb might break
We've come this far, don't you be scared now
'Cause you can learn to fly on the way down

Searching for a sign in the night even like a lonely string of lights
That'll burn just long enough for you to see it
The road's been long and lonely and you feel like giving up
There's more to this than just the breath you're breathing

So keep on climbing, though the ground might shake
Just keep on reaching though the limb might break
We've come this far, don't you be scared now
'Cause you can learn to fly on the way down

On the way down
You won't forget the heavy steps it took to let it go
Close your eyes, count to ten, hold your breath and fly

Keep on climbing, though the ground might shake
Just keep on reaching though the limb might break
We've come this far, don't you be scared now
'Cause you can learn to fly on the way down

Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh
The lyrics struck a chord with me, just like the tribute Kathy Lee Gifford gave about Frank on Monday. If you haven't seen it -- you need to click HERE

These two messages just brought tears to my eyes because THAT is what I want for my boys. I want them to take their stones and cast them far into the world, and to keep trying even when it gets hard... because they can learn to fly on their way down whatever path they choose for themselves. 

I hope that the next 13 years of schooling with them give them the love of learning, and opportunities to do things that they've never even dreamed of doing --- while following their own passions and strengths. 

I hope that they learn lessons about handling money, raising children, doing laundry, being good fathers, living for Jesus, always standing up for what is right, how to fix things around the house, to build things along side of their Dad, work outside in the yard, and most of all how to love deeply. 

I want to teach them things about cooking, and how to help their wives - like their Dad does for me. 

I know that they probably won't ever understand all of the fears and hopes that I have in my heart for them, at least not until they have children of their own -- but I just pray that I'm enough for them. I pray that we will enjoy the process, and time together. I pray that as they get older, they'll have the confidence to try new things. 

Most of all, I pray that they can work together and learn together. That James will continue to improve with his ADHD symptoms and allow him to truly fly in ways that he hasn't been able to before. I know that Tyler will do great, and I hope that he is able to soar into the clouds while I get James caught up a little bit with the things that haven't clicked for him just yet. 

Lets go Momma Hawk Academy Class of 2028!
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Monday, July 27, 2015

Chopped at Home

I feel like by now, most everyone has heard about the show chopped. It's the show where they give the chefs mystery baskets of ingredients for each round, and at the end of the round one chef is eliminated from the competition until there is one winner.

Well, since we had a vacation a couple weeks ago -- we're a little bit short on funding until John gets paid this week... so our culinary adventures this week will look a bit like an episode of Chopped. We are shopping from our pantry, and hoping that we can make it until this weekend before we need to stock up. It'll be crazy though because we not only need groceries, but it's time for a Costco run too! Keepin' it real folks...keepin' it real.

It's interesting how our pantry still seems full, and our fridge/freezer seems full too... but we are out of almost all meat -- and I'll be scraping things together to make them work. Thankfully the boys mostly just want hot dogs, and John is gone most of the week -- so I'm just scraping it together for myself. I can do this!

Maybe I'll even come up with something new that I can work into the meal plans. It's hard to imagine though because I so enjoy trying new recipes -- Pinterest is my meal planning friend. Most work out well, but there are a few flops. I tried a recipe for a honey lemon chicken that was just disgusting! I mean John and I were so grossed out. We clearly just don't like our savory meals to have a major sweet element.

I should have known when the sauce called for 1/2 a cup of honey... but I thought the lemon would balance it out, not.so.much. Oh well, it gives us something to laugh about when the kids to go bed. I can only imagine if I'd tried to feed that to them too! "Mommy dis not good!"

Happy Monday folks! I hope your meals are all planned and that they come out tasty!
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