The real work starts when I get home from grocery shopping. I’ve hauled home between 200 and 300 pounds of meat, tons of fresh produce, and dairy products. It won’t all fit in my refrigerators; yet, if I freeze it as-is, I’ll have to be thawing it in 40-pound increments, which is WAY more than even a mega family will need to use for a meal. So, we get to work prepping. It’s mega cooking day!
I start with ground beef. I take out my biggest pots. I refer to my menu plan (see previous post) for all my scheduled meals that use ground beef. In each pot I will cook all the beef for each different ground beef based meal. In order to keep it all straight in the chaos that will ensue, I make a little chart for myself that contains the following information: How much ground beef goes into each pot, which dish it is for, what else needs to be added to the pot, and how many meals I will divide it into when I’m done cooking the beef.
Using the above chart as my example, I see that I will weigh out 8 pounds of ground beef in one pot for spaghetti, 9 pounds of beef for sloppy joes, 6 pounds for taco meat, 5 pounds for goulash, and 8 pounds for chili. I usually get started portioning out the meat and assign some of the kids the job of peeling onions, washing peppers, and peeling the cloves of garlic. We put the veggies through the food processor and then add to the pots of beef on the stove.
Once those are all cooking away, we take the 12 pounds of beef destined for meatloaf and mix it up in a huge bowl with bread crumbs, eggs, ketchup, onion soup mix and water. Clean hands are the best mixing tool. When it is well mixed, we shape into four loaves and place in half-size foil steam table trays, which we then cover and mark with contents, weight and date. That is usually the first thing done and into the freezer.
By this time, the pots of ground beef are usually finished cooking. I use a huge commercial potato masher to make sure the ground beef is in small uniform-sized pieces. We drain off the fat and then portion each meal into freezer bags. I use a two-cup glass measure, and just put equal amounts of the beefy mixtures into each labeled bag. Before I seal and put them in the freezer, I add all seasonings and tomato products IF I have purchased #10 cans that will be divided across multiple meals. If I will be opening individual smaller-sized tomato products on serving day, I don’t bother with adding them to the bag. I take the time to add any cooking instructions to the bags, which saves me lots of time on cooking day. It’s usually just abbreviations, but it’s enough so that I don’t have to find the recipe again.
While I or one of the older kids is bagging up the ground beef meals, someone else gets started on the boneless chicken meals. Again, I make a chart.
Using the above chart as my example, I see that I have five different menu selections that will use boneless, skinless chicken breasts. We trim any fat off the chicken breasts and cut them into portion sized pieces. (A single breast is often close to ½ pound.) I try to make sure they are all a relatively even thickness for ease of grilling. Or if I’m making fajitas, I’ll cut all the chicken into strips. If a stir fry, it gets cut into chunks. I weigh out all the chicken into Ziploc freezer bags. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to put a Ziploc bag into a large mixing bowl on my scale and zero it. Then add the trimmed pieces to the bag until my desired weight is reached. I label all my bags before I fill them, which is much easier than trying to write on the bags after they’re filled.
While one (or more) person is trimming chicken, another will get started on mixing the marinades. In they go into the Ziploc bags with the chicken pieces. I make most of the marinades up assembly line style. Adding the ingredients called for directly into the bag and “mixing” by just smooshing it around in the bag with the chicken.
When the chicken is all cut up and bagged (or when that job is winding down and someone is free and needs a new job), it’s time to cut up the large pieces of beef. I buy it in 12-15 pound pieces. I then cut it into cubes for stew, strips for teriayki steak and some nice roasts. Everything goes into well labeled Ziploc bags.
When I buy whole chickens, I take the neck and guts out and save it separately in a bag, for making stock, and freeze the chicken in a Ziploc bag. This makes my life so much simpler when I’m trying to put a whole (still somewhat or completely frozen) chicken into the crock pot.
If I buy chicken legs that are not already cut into drums/thighs, I do that, and bag the chicken in meal-sized portions either by piece or by weight. We generally eat either drums or thighs at a meal, not whole legs. It’s just a preference.
At this point, I’m pretty much done for the day. All the perishables are safely in the freezer. On shopping/cooking days, I always plan a simple meal that doesn’t take any significant effort — maybe a couple of rotisserie chickens from Costco, bagged salad and chips. Something like that. I have no energy to cook after all that work. My kitchen is a wreck, but I don’t always clean it up right away. Sometimes I don’t have the energy until the next day. The beauty of this system is that you get one day of a horribly messy disaster of a kitchen, but then almost every other day, the cleanup is minimal.
Tips for packaging:
Always, always, always use good quality bags. Ziploc is my brand of choice. There’s not much worse than going to all this effort, only to have your bag fail you, and your food ruined.
Fold down the tops of the Ziploc bags before filling, to avoid getting food stuck in the zipper top.
Freeze flat. It’s easier to thaw the food.
After the bags are frozen, stand them up like file folders, in a dishpan or cardboard box. Makes it easy to flip through and find what you want.
Now for how I use all that food. Each week, using my meal plan and my calendar, I schedule meals for the week. I take into account a variety of factors when planning my meals. Will I be super busy or gone all day? Then I’ll plan something fast to throw together or something that can be thrown in the crock pot. Will I have guests? What sort of dietary needs do they have? What meals are crowd-pleasers? Which meals do not require a lot of last-minute fuss, so that I’m actually free to visit with our guests? Are we expecting a warm day? Let’s grill! Or cool weather? Let’s have soup and homemade bread. Do we have to go out? What travels well?
I schedule my meals on a simple blank form that my husband created for me (click to download a PDF). This goes on my refrigerator where all those responsible for cooking can see what meals are scheduled. If I remember, we take out anything frozen the night before, so it has time to thaw. When this (often) doesn’t happen, I just pop the bag of food in a sink of water to speed the process along. As I use the meals, I make a tally mark on my meal plan so that I know it has been used. This enables me to know exactly what is in my freezer at any time without having to go on an Arctic expedition. 🙂
I label my menu plans and calendars with the dates used. I store them in a binder for future reference. In theory, you could just repeat the exact same menu plan. We don’t. But I do refer to the previous meal plans for ideas and to get my ingredients list without having to haul out all my cookbooks and recipes again when I do the next cycle.