This fall, my husband and I came to the realization that our days needed more hours, our weeks needed more days and our months… Well, you get the idea. We considered hiring a cleaning service but my husband was very reluctant to spend good money on such a futile endeavour. “Might as well just burn your money” he said and I have to say that if our housecleaning is any indication, nothing would feel more like lighting-up a big money cigar than hiring a cleaning service. We also want to avoid raising our kids to be picked-up or cleaned-up after. When people ask us: “8 kids! You must have a cleaning lady?!” we always answer: “No, that’s what the kids are for.” Our children are growing-up in affluence and we are fighting a daily battle against entitlement and ungratefulness. The cleaning service is one bridge too far.
So we went back to the drawing table to cut back some minutes to our hours. We found that the repeated assault of cooking three meals a day for 10 people was punching a hole in our ability to do anything in the evening, including but not limited to go to bed early. I would come home from work, start cooking supper. My husband would drive the children left, right and centre while I took care of the four younger children’s bedtime routine. Then around 9 pm we would meet-up in the kitchen to survey the damage. Around 11 pm, we’d be done with the kitchen clean-up and dishes extravaganza, tired, grumpy and looking forward to the same hellish routine the next day.
My husband suggested looking into catering and batch-cooking services like Supper Works. We had a mild case of sticker shock: catering is closer in price to eating in a restaurant than eating at home. The premium on Supper Works’ ingredients was significant and the concept not at all adapted to cooking for a large family: we would have had to buy two or three meal packages to cover our family’s needs, yet, feeding a family of 10 is not necessarily double the price of feeding a family of 5. Supper Works is a good option for families who would otherwise eat out: compared to the cost of a restaurant entrée, Supper Works figures competitively. But it is double the price of buying the ingredients yourself.
A friend suggested Once a Month Mom (OAMM): “It takes the thinking out of batch cooking, and your older kids can help too: the instructions are very easy to follow.” I was ready to give it a try and chose one of their free past menus. Because their menus are planned around seasonal ingredients – whatever that means, I live in Canada where nothing is seasonal for 8 out of 12 months – I went with their November 2011 menu and gave it a try at the beginning of last December. In mid-December, I also tried one of their Mini-Menus to plan a batch-cooking party for a friend who had recently adopted twins.
First, you would be well advised to read through the website for instructions on getting off to a right start. The menus are organized around three main documents: the Grocery List, the Recipe Cards and the Instructions. The Grocery List and Recipe Cards are Google Docs spreadsheets based on the quantities needed to feed one person for a month. You enter the number of people you are cooking for and the software does its magic: the finished product is a detailed grocery list and a series of recipes with the exact amount of all the ingredients required by the menu. We spent an inordinate amount of time formatting the documents in Excel to print it. The getting-started instructions state clearly that the documents are optimized for Google Docs, not Excel. The first take-home message is to download the documents in Google Docs… And read through the website before starting for other pivotal tidbits of information.
We chose the Whole Foods menu because it came closest to the way we cook at home: mostly from scratch, using real food. We printed our grocery list and off we went on a big day of shopping. Planning ahead, you can buy your groceries throughout the month to mimic the ebb and flow of meal preparation, freezing the meat as you go. Buying all the ingredients for a month of freezer meals in one afternoon is not for the faint of heart. We came home with a much lighter wallet and a full-size van full of food. We shopped at Costco for the most part, especially the meat part. (Make sure ahead of time that there is room in your fridge for all the food). Now, we were committed!
I got-up early the next morning and started cooking.
I didn’t appreciate how intense this cooking extravaganza would be and didn’t make arrangements to have my children looked after. Thankfully, my husband had no commitments that weekend and was able to do most of the baby-chasing, adjusted for whoever was on my back at any given time. Take-home message number two is to plan your weekend well in advance, including childcare and whatever your family will eat for the duration. When I did the Mini-Menu for my friend, some members of my local babywearing community came to help. Half the moms were in the kitchen working while the other half was looking after the little ones. It was a good old-fashioned cooking party: this is how it was done during harvest season when harvesting and preserving had to be done in one shot to avoid spoilage. It’s a lot more fun to do it with friends and if I can figure out a way of pricing meal-units, I would like to organize a batch-cooking coop of some kind.
Believe it or not, I went to the grocery store without reading the recipes first. That’s your third take-home message: study the recipes first. I didn’t realize until I was about to start a batch of 30 enchilada that the Whole Food menu was making tortilla and bread from scratch! Of course, homemade panini bread and tortilla are an order of magnitude better than what you buy in the store. But if you are trying to make a month of freezer meals for 10 people in one week-end (that’s 300 individual meals by the way), you may elect to skip the part where you hand-roll 72 tortilla, know what I mean? Thankfully, I received crucial and timely help from my mother and my daughters who were giddy at the thought of making a recipe that started with “Pour 34 cups of flour into a large bowl…”
Reading recipes will also highlight any differences of culinary vocab and allow you to adjust. I peeled and “cubed” 21 cups of butternut squash – a real pain in the butt if you ever had one – until I realized that by “cubed” they meant “quartered” (and ready to roast in their peel). Duh, there went 2h I’ll never get back.
At the end of the day, I was thoroughly spent. Don’t underestimate the effort involved in making all your meals in one day: it’s a concentration of 30 days of dinners all in a 48h period. If anything, it highlights the cumulative effort of feeding your family every single month: give yourself a vigorous pat in the back family cooks! I crashed on the couch around 9 pm and promptly fell asleep. I was drooling on a couch pillow when my husband gently shook me and told me to go to bed.
I didn’t finish all my freezer meals in one weekend. The limitations of the spreadsheet are that it calculates like a robot without consideration for the size of your cookware. The reasoning behind batch cooking is that you cook in double or triple batches. OAMM doesn’t provide you with 20 different meals: it offers about 8 recipes that are repeated three times over the course of the month. But as any mother of a large family will attest, a single meal for 10 people already doubles or triples most recipes. So if you follow the reasoning behind OAMM batch cooking, I was cooking in sextuple and octuples batches… Well, nobody has a pot large enough to make a octuplet batch of beef Bourguignon : I found myself having to make several meals (like the boeuf Bourguignon and the risotto) in 2 or 3 separate batches…. And while I was making my third double batch of risotto, nothing else was happening. I am blessed that my twins’ caregiver has a past life in catering: I was able to go to work and leave her with my OAMM recipes and ask her to please, pretty please, do anything to save the meat and as much produce as possible. We did finish with minimal spoilage…. I think I lost the bottom third of my pre-chopped onions. All in all, not a bad average on a $800 grocery.
So what do I think about OAMM? Is it worth it? You will ask yourself that question as you buy all your groceries for the month and slave away in the kitchen for 48 insane hours. But this week, I took out my meals in the morning and we ate without messing-up the kitchen. Our children are going to bed earlier and my husband started reading novels out loud to our son – he’s 6, they are reading Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne at bed time. I have been going to bed at 9 pm on average and it is allowing me to take advantage of my twin boy’s longest sleep stretch: I get 3-4 hours of sleep in a row before he starts waking up every 2 hours, for the first time in almost 18 months. And I learned a few things in this first OAMM experience that I will tweak for next month in order to finish within the Friday night-to-Sunday window. Here they are in no particular order:
- I will study my recipes beforehand and see which corners I can cut. Tortillas will be store-bought although it will be difficult to go back.
- I will skip the breakfast menu unless it involves casseroles that are substantial enough to be used as a dinner. Like the Tahoe Brunch Casserole http://www.cabbi.com/recipes/detail/200 We eat toasts and cereals at breakfast, I need to focus my energy on dinner.
- Pancake recipes, however delicious, take-up too much time and RAM to work in the context of a busy cooking day. I burned 95% of my lemon poppy seed pancakes, which was a damn shame.
- The Whole Food menu includes a few vegetarian entrees but is still very heavily meat-centered. I bought much more meat in my OAMM trial month that I usually do, by a factor of 2, possibly 3. Next time, I will probably make one Whole Food Mini-Menu and one Vegan Mini-Menu to even it out.
- OAMM is American and wow, holy stinkin’ cow they love their dairy fat!! There is an unholy quantity of butter and cheese but mostly butter, and heavy cream too, in their recipes. Their pumpkin risotto recipe was heavenly but wow, with Maple Syrup, it would have been a perfect dessert. A lot of the Whole Food Menu’s vegetarian recipes were heavy on milk fat. A vegetarian diet is not healthier if you replace lean protein by butter. Just sayin’
OAMM is well thought out and does take the thinking out of batch cooking. Their recipes are tasty and varied and so far, none have fallen flat with my family. It is well-worth the intensity of the big cooking day. Try it and persevere: you’ll be glad you did.