Thursday, September 20, 2012

Freezer Cooking Attempt 1

As I said in my previous post, we are basically starting over in terms of trying to get out of debt. So how do you cut your budget when you have already made lots of cuts, and now you have a mortgage that is nearly double what your rent was?  We started all the way from the beginning. I looked at our budget, updated all of our new house related expenses, factored in our new income (the hubs moved up on the pay scale at work, yay!) It is still a work in progress because we have only been in our new place 2 months, so all of my utilities are estimated. Still, I came up with a budget that should get all of our bills paid, make some progress on debt reduction (though not as big of a dent as we used to be able to make every month) and we have some line items to plan for other expenses like medical co-pays, house hold repairs etc. So, we can get by on the money we make, and that is great, but I would really like to get that debt down at a faster rate than our current budget allows.

That means that we have to find some place to make cuts. Right off the bat, we put a halt on any unnecessary purchases. For now this means that we pay bills, buy groceries and gas for the cars and that is about it. Between billing overlaps for the new and old houses, deposits, and billing cycles that created double bills, our utilities have been very high. Even with our newly diligent spending habits, we still need to make some longer term budget cuts. Looking at our expenses the last few months, we went way overboard on dining out in the month preceding and the week or so directly following our move. This was despite my attempt to plan ahead and have freezer meals pre-prepared. We still found ourselves past dinner time and away from home quite often.  We have challenged ourselves to not eat out at all for the last week of August and the entire month of September. To make sure we succeed, I have to make sure we have plenty of easy to prepare meals, without buying a bunch of processed food.

Our grocery budget is the 2nd biggest item in our budget. It has gone up quite a bit since the last time I created a budget, owing both to growing kids who eat more and the fact that food prices have gone up across the board. There is probably a little of us not being as diligent about our shopping habits as well. I would like to shave $100-200 off of our grocery bill, and practically every frugal living blog says that a good way to do that is with meal planning. This is one of those things I know I should do. When I have tried it out it has always been helpful, but somehow I never get around to implementing it all the time. It is even more important now that I am taking classes twice a week.  

We decided to dive in and tackle once a month/freezer cooking. Before we did our shopping for the September, I sat down to plan our meals for the month. I asked my family to suggest some of their favorite meals (mistake #1) and we selected 10 meals (mistake #2) of which, I would prepare 3 batches each, and freeze. This would give us 30 meals, to cover the whole month. It seemed simple enough. We figured we would shop one day, and cook the next, and then we would be set.

 Yeah, not so much.

The shopping involves 3 different stores to get the best prices, we managed to get the first two trips done on the planned day, but the 3rd didn’t get tackled until the morning of “cooking day” (mistake #3.) By early afternoon, we had all of the ingredients and I got cooking. I became aware of my first mistake almost right away. By having my family compile our meal list I ended up with a list of favorite dinners, some of which were rather tedious to assemble, and which were not selected based on anything convenient like shared ingredients, just on the basis of who likes what. I browned ground turkey, cooked and shredded chicken breasts and pre-cooked several chicken thighs. I realized mistake #2 when I noticed it was almost dinner time and I had only completed 1 ½ meals. Ten different meals was way too ambitious for a first attempt at this, especially to try to finish it all in one afternoon. I finished dealing with all of the cooking meat (portioning, cutting, bagging etc.) and decided that If I just did two meals (times 3 batches each) a day, we could have one for dinner that night, freeze the other 5 and I would be done by the end of the week.  

In the end, it took me about a week and a half to get all of the meals prepped. I should have planned better, and selected recipes that had more ingredients in common for my first attempt. At least, now that they are done, dinner each night is a breeze. Since our kids have dinner elsewhere once a week and we had a holiday dinner away from home, it worked out that we actually have almost twice as many meals as we will need for this month. This works out great because it will make it easier to do the freezer cooking for next month. I will only have to do about half as many meals next month, so my second attempt should be more successful.

While my inaugural attempt at freezer cooking was not a glowing success, it was not a complete disaster either. Even though it took too long, it is saving me tons of time in the long run. In addition to 30 dinners, I also assembled about 50 frozen burritos for when the kids get sick of sandwiches in their lunch. One of the meals I made was lasagna, and I had 3 noodles and some noodle scraps left over, so I assembled them into 4 mini microwavable lasagnas, which are great for my long school night when I am away for dinner. Another of my meals was what my kids have dubbed “mom pockets.” They are basically homemade hot pockets that I froze individually before putting them in a large freezer bag. These are also microwavable and wonderful for lunches, dinner away or on the go, or those days when you forget to pull out a freezer meal the night before. I ended up with 15 mom pockets, and enough filling in the freezer for 30 more.

Once I fine tune my process, I will post something tutorial like, but for now, how about a Mom pocket recipe (more of a description, really, since I don’t actually measure things):

About 1 lb. of cooked chicken, cut up or shredded I used 3 thighs)
1 1lb bag of frozen mixed vegetables or broccoli
A couple of handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese
Double batch of biscuit dough (you can use your favorite biscuit recipe. I use this one from Heart-Hands-Home)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix the chicken, veggies and cheese. Season to taste. (I use some garlic powder and season salt)

Make biscuit dough, and sprinkle a work surface with flour or biscuit mix. Knead enough flour in to the dough so that you can roll it out with a rolling pin. Using a bowl, large cup, empanada maker or free hand,  cut out 6” circles. Gather up the scraps and roll it out again until all of the dough is used.

Scoop ¼ cup of filling onto each circle. Fold the dough circle in half, over the filling and crimp edges to seal. Place on a baking sheet, and bake for about 8 minutes, if you are freezing for later, 12 if you are eating them right away.

With a spatula, make sure the pockets are not stuck to the baking sheet, and then allow them to cool. Place in freezer until they are completely frozen, then transfer to a couple of gallon size zipper freezer bags. Store in freezer for up to 4 months.

To reheat in the oven, bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes.
Or reheat in microwave on high for 4-5 minutes

1 comment:

  1. Hello! I had a question for you about possibly collaborating on something and was hoping you could email me back to discuss? Thanks so much!

    - Carolyn