Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Freezer Cooking 101: Planning for your Cooking Day

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All right y'all, we're making some progress here and almost ready to cook it all up!  Let's review:
  1. We planned our menu and cooking location.
  2. Then we learned some tips and tricks for shopping for our big cooking day.
  3. Now you have your ingredients and it's time to make your cooking plan.  Remember:  Planning is key!
Now, before I get too much into this, I need to make a disclaimer.  I'm an Industrial Engineer by degree and Industrial Engineers are all about efficiency and doing the most in the least amount of time.  So before you just tag me as weird and anal, just remember I went to school for 6.5 years to learn how to be this kind of weird and anal (and no, I didn't fail a lot, that 6.5 years includes co-oping 4 semesters and getting a Master's Degree).

So now that you know where I'm coming from, I'll tell you the 2 ways of planning that I have done in the past as well as their pros and cons.  Then I'll tell you the new way I'm planning next time and why.

Do for all the plans:
 I looked at all the recipes first and wrote down the big steps in each one.  For example, it might be:
- Cut chicken into pieces on a cutting board
- Mix up sauce on stove in saucepan
- Put chicken and sauce in a pan
- Cook in oven 45 minutes

I made sure to have all the key components meaning all the places and pieces of equipment that we would use. In the above example, it's important to know you'll need the cutting board, the stove, a saucepan and the oven.  Those are limited resources: one stove eye and one oven.  They will be taken up when cooking that recipe.  You will need to wash the cutting board, saucepan and baking pan before you cook something else in them so they are important to note as well.  The specific ingredients are not that important to note on this step.  They are not limited resources (at least not if you planned your shopping trip well).

After you have written out the steps to each recipe, look at the places where a lot of time is involved in waiting for something, i.e. simmer for 20 minutes, bake for 30 minutes.  Also note where 2 people are not needed (if you are cooking with others).  In the above example, you can both add ingredients for the sauce but only one person needs to stir it on the stove.  Both of these times, the wait time and the solo cooking times are times when you can start on the next recipe and get it going.

By doing this ahead of time, you'll figure out the best order to cook your food.  Keep all your oven cooking together if possible, so you don't have to keep turning your oven off and on or leaving it on with nothing inside it.  But don't plan to cook two recipes at the same time, then realize too late that they both need to take up the oven. Same thing with the stove.  Make sure you are not taking up all the stove eyes and still needing more.  Also remember two big pots don't fit next to each other very easily on the stove.  Don't plan for 4 stockpots to all fit on there at once.  It won't work.  Look for these kind of scenarios when you are ordering your recipes for the day.

OK, so that's what you'll do no matter which plan you decide to do.  Then you'll choose one of these (or make another equally brilliant plan on your own):

Plan 1
Everybody works together on every recipe.  For example, you all cut up the chicken together (obviously multiple cutting boards and multiple knives are needed for this).  Then you would all work on finding and adding ingredients to the saucepan.  One person would stir and the others would start the next recipe.  Then once recipe #1 is in the oven, the stirrer would join the others and help out with recipe #2 that they have started.  In this method, you would only do the prep work on one recipe at a time, i.e. instead of cutting up all the chicken for all recipes at once, you would only do it for one recipe at a time.

  • Everyone will be on the same page.  You know what you are making, what went into it, what step you are on, etc.
  • Each individual recipe will go faster.  If you are goal-oriented like me, you'll enjoy getting a recipe completely done, in the freezer and "checking it off" your list.
  • You'll all be on the same page - literally.  There will be 2 or 3 of you trying to read the same recipe at the same time.  Or if you make copies, there may be miscommunication about what has been added and what hasn't.  The phrase "too many cooks in the kitchen" could apply here.
  • For me, this method is not efficient enough and there seemed to be a lot of wasted time.  If you are going for speed, this is probably not the method to choose.
Plan 2
Each person has their own plan to follow.

I'll tell you up front, this took a lot more time to plan out.  There were 3 of us cooking so I made 3 documents, one each for person 1, 2 and 3.  Then I looked at my steps and tried to combine like steps.  I started with the chopping.  One person chopped all the veggies - onions, garlic, etc.  One person chopped all the chicken for all the recipes - cube this many pounds, half this many pounds, etc.  One person starts browning meat for all the hamburger recipes - one skillet has 3 lbs meat for one recipe, one has 4.5 lbs meat for another recipe, etc.  Then we would start on the pastas and cook all those up.  And go on from there.

Then after all the prep stuff was done, each plan called for that person to assemble a particular recipe.  For instance, I would take the 3 lbs browned meat for the Almost Ravioli, and the cooked pasta to go with it, then assemble the meat, pasta, cheese and sauce and separate into 6 freezer bags, 2 for each person.  While I was doing that my sister would be working on the chicken, broccoli, rice casserole assembly.  And Erika would be working on yet a third recipe.

So instead of us all working together on recipes, we would each work on our own recipe until completion.

  • We really liked doing all the prep work first.  I made lists for each skillet with the name of the recipe and what needed to be done in that pan, such as "Brown 3 lbs ground beef, 3 cups onion and 4 garlic cloves."  That helped us keep the ingredients separate.
  • I did the same for saucepans, and bowls.  That way, you could look at your little list paper and know which recipe it was for and exactly what went in there.  The papers were already multiplied out for the number of times we were making the recipe, i.e. if one batch called for 24 oz spaghetti sauce and we were doing the recipe 3x, I wrote 72 oz spaghetti sauce, or 3 jars spaghetti sauce.  Once again, overall we liked this little list method.
  • It went a lot faster and we cooked more recipes in less time than we had done the time before.
  • We did like mainly having one person do a whole recipe.  You didn't wonder if someone else had put the ingredient in before you and you aren't stumbling over each other trying to read the recipe.  But there were also problems with that (see below).
  • Sometimes what one person was supposed to do next on their plan depended on another person doing something first.  And sometimes things took longer than I anticipated.  So, I may have thought the onion chopper would be done before the meat browner needed the onions, but they weren't.  It was almost TOO planned out (as if that's possible!).
  • With the amount of food we were cooking, working on a recipe by yourself got overwhelming.  You were stirring 3 bowls worth of stuff and trying to spoon it evenly into pans and you just needed someone else to assist.
  • My wonderful plan didn't account for time to wash dishes.  Yes, sadly, that is an integral part of cooking day - lots of dishes to wash.
  • It took longer to complete a single recipe.  It seemed like it was several hours before we had one completely done.  That can be a bummer for your self-esteem :).
OK, so those are the 2 ways I have planned before.  They are each good, but could be improved upon.  So here's what I'm going to do next time.

Plan 3
Make out a list similar to what I did in plan 2, but instead of divide it among all the people, I'm going to have one big master list.

I'll try to explain.

Last time the list said, Person 1 does this first, then they do this, then this, etc.  Then on a separate list, it did the same for person 2 then person 3.  So if person 1 needed to chop onions before person 2 could do their next step but person 1 hadn't gotten to that, person 2 was kind of stuck.  Then you had to check all the other lists to find out who was supposed to do it, etc.  It was too confusing (heck, it was confusing trying to write that all out on here!).

This time, I'm going to have a master list of what needs to be done:
Step 1 - chop 3 cups onions
Step 2 - chop 6 lbs chicken, etc.

One person starts with step 1, one with step 2 and one with step 3, then when you are done go to the next step whatever it may be.  Everyone looks at one list.

I'm still going to make the mini-lists for the skillets, saucepans and bowls.  Those seemed to work well.

This method frees us up to help each other if we need it, gives leeway for washing dishes and taking breaks (yes, those are very important too!), and gets rid of the problem with depending on someone else to do something on their list before you can do your next thing.

So as you can see, this whole planning thing is a work in progress.  Maybe someday we'll perfect it...maybe.  But the key to remember is, you HAVE to have a plan.  Whatever method you use, plan it out and your cooking day will go much smoother.

I'll leave you with a recipe we made last time that is very good and kid-friendly.  This comes from our church's cookbook.  (Let me know if you'd like to buy one.  They are $15.)

Pizza Casserole
Michelle Strasser
Dinner - Main Dish

1 1.5 lb ground beef
1 sprinkled minced onion
1 28 oz can tomato sauce
1 8 oz rotini pasta, cooked
1 1 Tbl Italian seasoning
1 1 tsp garlic salt
1 .5 tsp garlic powder
1 .5 tsp basil
1 .25 tsp oregano
1 8 oz Mozzarella cheese
1 1 package pepperoni slices

Brown ground beef and drain excess grease.  In skillet add tomato sauce, onion and other spices. Stir.  Add beef and simmer 10-15 minutes.  Stir in cooked rotini.  Spray 9 x13 dish with non-stick cooking spray.  Layer dish with 1/2 meat mixture, then layer of cheese, layer of meat mixture.  Top with pepperoni slices. 

Thaw.  Bake at 375 for 15-20 minutes.

6 Servings



  1. Thanks for the info Cathy. I love how your engineering mind works...maybe because mine was already coming up with similar ideas. :)

    I am having my first freezer cooking day this Saturday with my mom and a friend. We are trying 6 recipes. I will let you know how it turns out next week.

  2. The problem with the onion chopping (I might know the person who had to chop like a gazillion onions) was that you didn't account for the crying factor. See This person kept having to stop to dry her eyes so she could see to chop onions and not cut off a finger.


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