Around Christmas I was starting to loose my enthusiasm for cooking – which shocks you I know. Maybe it was as I was trying to relax more, and planning weekly cooking was really just becoming annoying. I had to balance time, what I had in the freezer, and experimenting. Worse, one bad experiment would throw off my plans and it’d be back to one of my default quick meals (tofu, fusion salad, or breakfast for dinner if you must know).
At the same time I wanted to plan my cooking. I didn’t want to waste food. I wanted to make sure I used my time wisely. I wanted room to experiment without wrecking my schedule. Also at some point I might be cooking for a full household again, so I wanted to keep some order.
After doing some research, I came up with a method I’ve been using for a few months that is pretty successful in saving time, making cooking fun, giving me diversity – as well as giving me time to experiment without screwing up my carefully-crafted plans.
The Problem Analyzed
So let’s break the problem into the nutshell.
- I want to plan my cooking to schedule it.
- I want to minimize waste.
- I want cooking to remain fun.
- I want cooking to be time efficient.
- I want to experiment without throwing off my plans.
- I want to scale.
After some brainstorming and research I came up with a method that is basically a mix of cooking ahead, outright experimenting, and – this is interesting – limiting “forced cook” times. In short, making it both more organized and more fun.
I started cooking ahead.
So basically what I do, in a nutshell, is cook a mass of main courses every 2 weeks, and then once a week I try an experiment. Side dishes are taken care of by keeping a mixed selection of fresh and frozen vegetables on hand to use as needed and occasional experiments and making it part of “mass cooking.” I’d like to scale back my trips to the store but I live in walking distance of one so I’m spoiled.
Now to explain the thing in detail:
- Every two weeks I cook a diverse series of dishes that are main courses (and maybe a few side dishes), then freeze or refrigerate them. This is usually 3-5 different mains making about twenty courses (lunches or dinners are interchangeable) These are “reliable” mains or experiments on things that are already good but may need some tweaking, so I work in a bit of experimentation.
- I alternate the mains by planning meals for the next day and setting things out in the refrigerator. This means I do plan meals (and work around any lacks) but do it daily and quickly by basically going “what have I got and what do I want to eat.” This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule so at times I wing it or miss it, which doesn’t matter – hey someday you just want chili for lunch after all.
- I check my various foodstuffs as I set meals aside, and keep a list of what I need at the store.
- About once a week I do an experimental cooking and try something either completely new or a tweak of a dish I’m not sure about. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule again, but the idea is to keep experimenting but not be so hard on myself. So if I skip a week, it’s fine, if I do two it’s fine.
- I do keep around ingredients for “filler” meals or grab them as I need if I get sick of something. Usually it’s either one of my salads or Breakfast For Dinner (yogurt, oat bran, and an orange)
- Sometimes the “experimental cooking” is more a “I’m craving this or want this what the heck” like curry. Because curry.
- During the two week period as my reviews, cooking readings, etc. strike me I get ideas for what I want for the next two weeks and write them down. So far it seems that I literally create a menu by accident – “hey I should do this” or “I miss this” or “damn did I use a lot of tomatoes last time.” It’s fun as it’s like a brainstorming exercise.
- * Side dishes are usually some pre-made, or composed of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. I’m the kind of guy who’s happy with some quick-steamed broccoli with lemon juice, carrot sticks, or green beans.
- I also make snacks as needed – but I think my next step is to make them in a more organized fashion.
How Has It Worked
I’ve done this some nine times and it’s worked really well.
First of all, cooking and planning is much less stressful. I know I save money, know I’ve always got food, know I’m eating healthy, and know I’m always improving my cooking. This mixture of bundle-and-do-whenever really is effective. The only challenge is organizing the block of time (we’re talking 2-3 hours here).
Secondly, I’m actually bored with food less. Between the mixes of new stuff, stuff leftover from the last time, and experiments it seems it’s actually more interesting. I think the “cook en masse” plan actually makes me look at my cooking as a whole for two weeks as opposed to a few dishes in a week where I focus on one at a time.
Third, the time management is fantastic. By doing a lot of cooking at once I save a great deal of time because preparation, cleanup, waiting, etc. are all condensed. I’m still getting my prep time and coordination down, but it’s getting there – I can start baked beans in the oven, while they cook I start some chili, and while both are cooking I make hummus, etc.
Fourth, it’s adaptable. I’m not locked into something or finding I’ve just screwed up a experiment and have noting to eat.
Fifth, I can see this scaling easily. I could jack it up to make more food, or more dishes, or cook for more people as needed.
The benefits are pretty obvious.
This is pretty much a success. So I’m going to keep doing it.
I do think anyone could adapt this idea, and probably scale it up as well for large timeframes and groups – though in general I find most food doesn’t stay that fresh past a month in the fridge (edible, but less enjoyable). Also you could scale up to cook more food, but that will obviously add to the timeframe.
- Steven Savage