Saving Money and Saving Time – How Once a Month Cooking Saves Your Family and Sanity

I, too, have shuddered at the words, “Honey, what’s for dinner tonight?” With both adults working full time jobs, and a hungry family to feed, I used to think it was not fair that I was always the one who had to come up with something tasty and nutritious for dinner that everyone in the family would eat.

This is what I started with when I learned to incorporate Once a Month Cooking, or OAMC, into my life. I was working third shift, my husband was working second shift, and we had a family of 6 living with us with a wife that didn’t know how to boil water without burning the pan, and a husband who could cook anything that came in a can. Vegetables were what they picked out of the frozen pot pies that were their main staple of sustenance on nights that take-out Chinese or pizza wasn’t ordered. I knew there had to be a better way. Everyone in the house loved my cooking, and would even eat the vegetables that I snuck in most of the time, but it was costing me a lot of time to keep up with the 9 people n the house.

Then I found OAMC. I thought to myself, “Hey, I am NOT Martha Stewart! There is no way I can do this!” I took a good look, though, because I was at my wit’s end trying to get dinner on the table, take a nap before work, and be awake and aware when my husband came home. It turned out it wasn’t all that hard, after all. Sure, the idea of cooking for 8 hours straight sounded a little daunting at first, but then again, that’s what I did in college and if I could do it then for a bunch of strangers, why couldn’t I do it for my family? It’s also only one day, as opposed to cooking 8 hours a day, all week long. The other benefit was that I could involve the whole family in the process, cutting down on the packing time.

The very first step I would tell anyone to do before setting out on a Once a Month Cooking journey is to clean the refrigerator and freezer. You are going to need all that space for the food you are cooking or preparing to cook, and you will be surprised how many things in the freezer and refrigerator are already on the shopping list. It also gives you a chance to clean things up, get rid of things that are past their expiration dates, and see what you might need on the shopping list. Note: The first time you do a Once a Month Cook, I suggest you only buy what you need for the cook, and do a separate shopping trip for the regular household stock up. This way you will have an easier time seeing exactly how much money you spent on doing the cook, and won’t have to separate items on the bill.

Next, check your pantry against the shopping list. Again, this is a good time to clean things up, get rid of items that are past their expiration dates and see what else might need to be replenished. Add items to your other shopping list as needed. Check the cupboards for aluminum foil, waxed paper, plastic wrap, gallon and quart sized zipper bags, and anything else you are going to need to package all this yummy goodness you are going to make.

Now that you have a firm grip on what you have on hand, go over the shopping list and determine where to get the best prices on the items that remain. If you have a local butcher that gives a great price on large quantity meat buys, then by all means get the meat for the cook there. Try to limit your shopping to less than 4 stores, as part of the benefits of Once a Month Cooking are to limit the amount of gas you spend driving to the grocery store. I found I was able to do my shop in just three stops: the local warehouse club for bulk amounts of cheese, eggs, vegetables and packing products; the local butcher shop where I got a very good deal on pork loin, boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs; and my usual grocery store, where I could pick up everything else.

Now that the refrigerator is clean, it will be much easier to store all the goodies you will bring home to do your cooking. I always suggest you do the shopping a day or two before you do the cooking, as it gives you time to go over the recipes and the list to see if you missed anything or bought too small on anything. Make sure everyone knows the food is for the monthly cook, so someone doesn’t decide to make hamburgers out of the ground beef you picked up to use in the meatballs and lasagna you are making. Also, now is a good time to get all the counters and kitchen table clean, as you will need all this space in preparation and packaging of your food.

The day of the cook, get up early, make yourself a good breakfast, and start getting out all the canned goods you are going to need. Arrange them with the recipe on top, if it helps you keep track of where you are in the process. Designate one area as vegetable prep, and one area as meat prep, to cut down on cross-contamination risks. From there you will follow the instructions laid out for you, usually to do a mass preparation on vegetables (since most of the recipes this month called for onions, we had to chop 5 pounds of them) and mass preparation on meat (two recipes this month called for browned ground turkey, which added up to 5 pounds. Easier to do it once than to clean the pan twice!)

As dishes get done, move them to the refrigerator to cool down before you put them in the freezer. Clean the dishes as you go, or get the kids to do it, so you won’t be bogged down at the end of the night with a mountain of pots and pans. Label everything, and if you can, put reheating instructions on the package, such as “350?, 45 minutes or until bubbly and heated through”. This will help avoid confusion if you aren’t the one who is pulling this out of the freezer to make dinner some night.

Last, but not least, after everything is all done, take your family out to dinner or order in! No one is going to want to face cooking that night, and since you are now cutting down your restaurant bill substantially by eating at home every night, you can afford a nice splurge once in a while.

Now that I’ve talked about the method, what about the savings? I will enumerate them for you as I see them.

    You will save money on your grocery bill by using the economics of scale: anyone who buys at a warehouse club is familiar with this idea, if not the name it’s called. The more you buy in bulk, the more money you can save.

    You will save money on things that weren’t on your shopping list, because you will make less trips to the grocery store, and have less exposure to the whim items at the end of the aisles and in the check out lanes.

    You will save money on gas because you are making less trips to the grocery store or to pick up take-out food.

    You will save money by not purchasing take-out food, stopping at the drive-thru, or ordering food for delivery.

    You will save money on replacement food because you will be cooking and eating all the food you purchased; things will not sit and go bad in the refrigerator as often as they have done.

    You will save time because you will already know what you are having for dinner, you will be popping it into the oven or the slow cooker and just relaxing until dinner is ready.

    You will save time from not going to the grocery store two or three times a week, or going out to pick up take-out food.

You may also enjoy added benefits of losing weight, as the food you will be cooking and storing will be more healthful and nutritious than the foods you get from take-out restaurants and delivery. I am certain it’s more healthful than anything you will get at a drive-thru window! You may also find that you will stop less at the drive-thru, as you already know you have a good dinner waiting for you at home.

For the record, our first month cost us a little over $400 to feed 9 people dinner for 30 days. Before that, our average grocery bill was around $250 a week. We saved about $600 in groceries the first month alone! Now our family is down to three people, and we spend about $225 a month on our cook, which we do as if we were cooking for 6 so we have leftovers to take to work and save money on lunches. That works out to about $1.25 a serving for dinner or lunch. If that doesn’t motivate you to at least look at the idea, I’m not sure what will!

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