Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hacking the Food Problem

A perennial problem for my wife and I run into while bootstrapping our business is the lack of time. It seems like the daily grind of cooking, cleaning and shopping tends to eat up most of our available time that we have.

As much as I'd love to take credit for this, it was my wife's idea. She was fed up with the day after day worry of what to cook and the drudgery of meal prep. So she came up with this system. I think it’s a great hack and an elegant solution to the food supply problem, so I thought I'd write a post about what she came up with.

We try to eat at home 5-6 days a week but my wife hates thinking about what to cook every day. Hates it. We don’t have the money for a personal chef, so she found the idea for Once a Month Cooking (OAMC) on the web and we picked it up and ran with it.

The basic premise of OAMC is that the majority of the effort of cooking is spent in planning and food prep. If that work can be consolidated into one big event, the process can be made repeatable and much more efficient.

How does it work?

In a nutshell:
  • Find 8-10 recipes that will freeze well and preferably share common ingredients. Think chopped garlic, onions, cubed Chicken, strips of beef, etc...
  • Quadruple each recipe, creating 32-40 meals total
  • Create a shopping list of ingredients
  • Go crazy at Costco and the Farmer’s Market
  • Come home, do all the food prep at once. Chop all the garlic, onions, peppers, chicken, beef, etc… for all the meals, all at once
  • Divide ingredients into individual meal portions and place them in freezer storage bags
  • Label each freezer bag
  • Create cooking instructions for each recipe and include a copy with each meal
  • Freeze all meals
  • Thaw a meal a day, follow instructions on label to heat and eat.

Dude, that's wierd. Why do this?

We save a lot of time. The sheer convenience of having a freezer full of tasty meals that can be ready in 30 minutes is wonderful. All that my wife does to plan the entire week’s meals is look at the list of meals in the freezer and decide which to prepare. It’s a big time saver at the end of a long day. Time saved on cooking is time we can spend on the business.

We have a repeatable process. Once the research is done on the 8-10 recipes and the shopping list is made, those can be recycled next month. At this time, we have a library of about 40-50 recipes that we reuse so we don’t get tired of eating the same things all the time. At some point I plan to put this in a database, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

We save a lot of money. We save a lot by buying items in bulk. When flank steak or chicken thighs are on sale, we can buy a bunch of them, and make our budget go a lot further. We also save money by avoiding restaurants. When we go to a restaurant and order a comparable meal, we pay 2-3 times as much. Saving money on food frees up money for the business.

We both have specific diets we need to follow. My wife is on a diet and I’m allergic to dairy. When we don’t do Once a Month Cooking, we really struggle to figure out what to eat. A lot of restaurant food or frozen TV dinners aren’t really friendly to either of our diets. By planning things ahead of time, we save a lot of that stress and headache.

We eat better. We’re foodies, and we like knowing what is in our food and what isn’t. We don’t need all the extra sodium, preservatives or flavor enhancers that come with store bought prepared foods. We buy our produce from our local farmer’s market and it’s so much tastier than the stuff at the grocery store

You have food when the in-laws come to visit. If you have meals in the freezer, it’s really not a problem when family comes over for the holidays. There’s really no reason that the in-laws need to know that your delicious holiday meal came out of your freezer.

How to get started

Double or triple your next meal. That's probably the easiest way to dip your toes in the OAMC pool. into portions before cooking, and package and freeze the extra meals. Then pull them out in a couple of days and cook them. If the process worked, you’ve found a recipe that freezes well and can be reused.

There is a learning curve associated with the process and it’s best to go easy on yourself at first. You need to figure out what meals freeze well and what meals don’t. Some sauces or marinades don’t freeze well. Nothing’s worse than spending 8 hours putting meals in the freezer, only to discover three weeks later that the marinade you made for your Thai lemon chicken has transmogrified your Thai lemon chicken into Thai sour shoe leather.

The down side

It’s a lot of work. In doing this, you’re essentially you’re doing all the planning and food prep ahead of time. In 8-12 hours, my wife and I can do planning, shopping and food prep for the month. That saves us about an hour a day of cooking x 40 meals, so it’s a net time saver. But, the day that we do the Once a Month Cooking tends to be a long day.

It takes a while to build up a repertoire of recipes. A lot of the recipes online for doing OAMC are casserole type dishes that are heavy on the cream based sauces and smothered in cheese. Ever since we moved to California, however we’ve decided to give up casseroles for Lent. Our tastes run quite a bit different than what we find online, so we’ve had to work hard to find a series of recipes that work for us and freeze well.

You get addicted to kitchen gadgets. It doesn’t take too many times of chopping 12 cups of onions, or 3 whole heads of garlic, before you start to realize that your life would be so much easier if you had that shiny new DeWalt/Kitchen Aid 24 quart, 12 horsepower food pulverizer that you just saw on America’s Most Macho Kitchens. Since we started OAMC, we’ve bought a 16 quart food processor, a 4 quart mixer with an engine powerful enough to propel a pontoon boat, a Food Saver vacuum pack system, and we shop at restaurant supply stores for our food packaging materials.

You need freezer space. We now have 2 chest freezers and two refrigerators. We have a 14 cubic foot chest freezer we bought last year, a 7 cubic foot freezer that we owned while we lived in a one bedroom apartment and we recently purchased an extra fridge for the garage. We use it to store beverages as well as the multiple flats of meat that we purchase when we go to Costco. I’m pretty sure we’ve gone overboard. And, you don’t need this much freezer space. But if you start doing OAMC, the puny 3 cubic foot freezer in your refrigerator will start to look anemic and pathetic compared to the manly full-sized chest freezers at the Sears Appliance Store.


You can outsource this. I add, that sometimes we don’t feel up to doing all of this work ourselves, and there are companies that do similar things for you. The Dinner A’Fare and Dream Dinners both have stores where you can either go in and do the meal preparation in their kitchens yourself, or for a fee, they will prepare the meals for you to put in your freezer. We do that from time to time as well. You don't save as much money, but we do save a lot of time that way.

My wife and I have been doing this and refining this process in one form or another for the past 10 years, although it’s only been in the past 2 years that we’ve really tried to do it full time. Now, we’re at the point, where if we don’t do Once a Month Cooking, I find myself wandering aimlessly from freezer to freezer to fridge wondering what to eat.

If people are interested, we’d be happy to post some example recipes, shopping list and cooking instructions. We’re due for our Once a Month Cooking Extravaganza this next weekend.

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