Thinking about how to get even better at bulk-cooking

two pans of lasagna

We like cooking in bulk. We find it to be an efficient way to make sure we’ve got healthy, inexpensive meals ready for the workweek. How can we improve our processes?

Cost and delegation: I’ve been tracking the cost per portion for the meals we prepare in bulk. Cost per portion tends to be between $1 and $3, while eating lunch outside tends to be about $8-12. I can prepare about 20 portions in 3 hours (+ tidying up of one hour or so), and have scaled up beyond that too. If we use $12-15 per hour as the replacement cost of labour (it looks like you can hire housekeepers for around that range), that works out to around $100 of savings if I outsourced preparation, and $160 if we do things ourselves.

I might experiment with this by hiring someone who’s experienced in bulk cooking and freezing, particularly if we can squeeze in 40 portions or more on one day. (It’s possible – see Once a Month Cooking.) If it works, then it can save us a chunk of focused time.

  • Upside: Time, new recipes
  • Downside: Cost and risk

Variety: Along those lines, we can adjust our grocery shopping so that we can eat even better. I was pleasantly surprised to find that lamb korma worked out to around $1.25 per serving. It still felt like such a treat. We don’t have to eat chicken most of the time, then!

We can experiment with new recipes for bulk cooking, and we can revisit old favourites. Next on my list: beef bulgogi, proper lamb korma (should try a few different recipes), lasagna (it’s baking season again!), shepherd’s pie…

  • Upside: Yum!
  • Downside: Slightly higher costs, time spent experimenting

Prepared meals and ingredients: We don’t use a lot of prepared ingredients like pre-cooked bacon, chopped carrots, or peeled potatoes. They’re more expensive than regular ingredients, and they’re typically not as fresh. We do use frozen vegetable mixes, which are much handier than cutting off corn kernels and chopping up carrot bits ourselves. We occasionally buy chicken drumsticks or thighs in order to save us time and mess in quartering them, and we also buy rotisserie chicken. We like frozen steamed buns, and J- has frozen nuggets from time to time. We buy the occasional frozen pizza when it’s on sale. In summer, we buy frozen burgers. We like the packaged lamb korma and the Jamaican beef patties. Canned soup is also handy. We hardly ever buy other frozen meals, prepackaged stock, and other convenience foods.

I would totally go for pre-chopped onions, as I hate crying over them. (None of the little fixes I’ve tried have worked so far; I’ll keep trying to hack this!). I would also go for peeled and chopped garlic, because I use so much of it. Fortunately, I can make my own packages. I’ve chopped and frozen most of our onions and all of our garlic. We’ll see how that works out! I’ll keep an eye out for other supermarket offerings, too. Being in a community-supported agriculture program means we buy very few additional vegetables (I’m currently drowning in a sea of broccoli rabe). We might experiment with using prepared meals to explore new recipes (like the way prepacked lamb korma firmly established that we have a taste for it) and with using prepared ingredients to make bulk preparations easier.

Prepared 1- or 2-person meals tend to cost around $4 to $5 per portion. Bulk meals like lasagna casseroles cost around $1.50 per portion, which is actually cheaper than our cost per portion for lasagna. Pizza costs around $2 per portion when it’s on sale.

  • Upside: Save time, try different recipes
  • Downside: Higher costs, package size is non-standard and throws off our storage scheme

Tools: I need to get better at using the tools we have: breaking out the food processor and chopping up lots of things, using the stand blender or the immersion blender for soups and purées, and so on. If I can use the food processor to do all the onions, then freeze chopped onions for use in future recipes, that would save me a lot of crying.

  • Upside: Save time
  • Downside: More washing (so it’s good to do this in bulk)

Meals:ingredients ratio: Right now, both our chest freezer and our under-fridge freezer compartment are at about about 1:4 (meals to ingredients by volume). We can make a concerted effort to spend weekends either cooking or editing one stack of frozen ingredients in order to replace it with one stack of frozen meals. Then we can shift to the chest freezer containing practically all frozen meals and the fridge freezer containing ingredients.

  • Upside: More convenience and variety, no need to dig around in the freezer for a meal, gradual editing of food in the freezer
  • Downside: Commits a chunk of our weekend (4-5 hours for every 21 portions?)

Meal density: Instead of packing individual ready-to-go portions, we might store just the main dish. That would double or triple our freezing capacity, but it would require more planning. Every three days, then, we would take out enough food for the next three days and defrost it. The next day, we would repack lunches. We would always make a large pot of rice each week, and we would keep frozen vegetables in stock. We might keep a few individual portions for emergencies.

  • Upside: Cooking main meals less often, having more variety
  • Downside: Defrosting and repacking takes time and foresight, might grab one of those multi-portion containers by accident when rushing to work

For this month, I’m going to focus on improving our meals:ingredients ratio, so that we can gradually clear out the old ingredients and provide a good base for future experiments. I may also prepare a large bag of chopped onions to see how well that works.

Do you cook in bulk? How are you improving your processes?

3 responses to “Thinking about how to get even better at bulk-cooking”

  1. Mikko says:

    I would never even consider bulk-cooking, as I feel the cons are much heavier thant the pros. Firstly, I enjoy cooking, it is a great hobby. Furthermore, I would hate eating repeatedly the same meals, varying only the side dishes and salads.

    In many cases I would not even save a lot of time by cooking larger portions. I rarely need more than 10-15 minutes for preparing a simple meal like a lamb stew with carrots, onions, garlic and tomatoes. Chop everything, fry them for a few minutes, add some wine & water & seasonings. Simmer for a couple of hours and that’s it :)

  2. Jim says:

    I have sometimes done bulk cooking. I did it a lot when my children were very little. I even made baby food. (That was a long time ago; my youngest is 26.) I rarely do major bulk cooking now. However, when I make something like lasagna or eggplant parm, etc., I will try to freeze a couple of portions for use on some future extra-hectic day. I also try to keep a supply of things like cooked boneless chicken breast and homemade pasta sauce in the freezer as well.

    Since meals these days usually mean just two of us — and since I enjoy cooking — and since I work from home so I have no commuting time — I tend to fix most meals from scratch. When we still had children at home, bulk cooking was a great time-saver for weeknight dinners (as well as also being a money-saver).

    Just one comment about canned soups: Even the “lower sodium” canned soups have too much sodium. They are very quick and handy and we do keep a supply on hand. However, making soup is not that difficult and most soups can be frozen. Homemade is healthier and tastier.

    Pizza can be easy — and fun — to make at home. I cheat by buying pizza shells from the supermarket. (Without mentioning brands, I avoid the kind that give a single shell for about six dollars and purchase the kind that give two shells for that same price or less.) All you need is to thaw out some tomato sauce from the freezer (or, okay, you could use sauce from a jar that you got in the supermarket), take the pizza shells, and build your pizza. Put on the kinds of cheese you like best. Add the toppings you like best. (Kids like to “help” with this.) Pop them in the oven. 10 to 15 minutes later you have pizzas.

  3. Eric says:

    Even better that shells, try frozen pizza dough balls.
    A long time ago, the local supermarket sold these for $0.99

    A pizza stone is a must for proper baking.
    Its also great for making homemade pita pocket bread.

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