I've been waiting and waiting for the 93% lean ground beef to go on sale at the previous lowest price of $1.99/lb, but it hasn't happened in months. I broke down and paid $2.99/lb for it last week, which apparently is the new lowest price, because I'm starting to see that at all three chain grocery stores in my area. Since we're trying to eat less red meat to be healthy, hopefully the price increase won't be noticeable. It's still worth it to buy in bulk, prep and/or cook, and freeze the rest so I can lock in that $2.99/lb price. At the end of the summer, I did a tutorial on prepping 10 lbs. of ground beef, but I avoided using the oven. This time around, I'm focused on meatloaf, soups, and other cold-weather meals. If you're new to the “cooking ahead” concept, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Original once-a-month cooking calls for a month's worth of groceries, recipes, and cooking. I've made this manageable for myself by focusing on one type of meat (chicken, ground beef, etc.) at a time.
- By sticking with one type of meat, I'm saving money because I'm doing the cooking when the meat is on sale instead of purchasing a month's worth of food no matter what it costs.
- I’ve learned through trial and error that 10 lbs. is the right amount for me; I’ve tried cooking more at once but it takes more time and energy than I can give in one cooking session. If 10 lbs. seems like too much to you, just buy one “big pack” of 3-4 lbs. and start with that.
Where do I Start?
Just as with the chicken version of Cook Once, Eat 10 Times, I sat down with my recipe book and planned out the meals I wanted to have; that told me how much ground beef I needed to prep each way. My plan was for 10 meals' worth: 3 pounds for pre-cooked meat mix to use for tacos plus a pan of lasagna, 2-3 pounds to make 2 meatloaves, and the rest (approx. 3-4 lbs.) made into meatballs for 2 pasta meals and Meatball Soup. There are many other options; I listed the recipes at the end of this post.
Besides the ground beef, you’ll also need:
Green peppers and onions (for pre-cooked meat mix)
Tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, eggs and ricotta/cottage cheese (for the lasagna)
Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, eggs, basil, oregano, salt & pepper (for meatballs and meatloaf)
Tomato sauce, canned mushrooms (either stems & pieces or sliced), and mozzarella cheese (for the meatloaves)
Gallon-size zipper freezer bags, Wax paper, 9×12 pan for lasagna
REALLY big bowl (to fit 5-6 lbs of meat), large frying pan, cookie sheet (make sure it fits in your freezer)
Paper towels and soap (LOTS of hand washing!)
Let's Get to Work:
- Prep your work area—send the kids out with Daddy, put on some good music, and gather all your supplies.
- Start with the meat mix: Clean and chop your veggies. I used one large green pepper and one large onion for 3 lbs. of meat. Saute your veggies in a large frying pan, then remove them from the pan.
- Brown your ground beef; I used about 3 lbs. this time around. I just eyeball the pounds when I'm breaking up the “big packs” from the store. While that's browning, get the rest of the meat in a really big bowl. You'll want it to have the chill out before you get your hands in there making meatballs!
- When the beef is done browning, drain it, then add the peppers/onions to the pan and combine them. Turn off the stove. Once it has cooled, you can distribute approximately two-thirds into 2 freezer bags for tacos/crockpot meals. I'll use the third that's left to make lasagna.
- You could freeze that last third and make the lasagna another day, but I figured I was already in the kitchen, so I might as well get it done. If you have a particular lasagna recipe, use that. I just use the one on the back of the noodle package. I used cottage cheese instead of ricotta to cut some fat out of the recipe. You can either cook it tonight (yum), or wrap it well with aluminum foil and freeze the whole pan for later.
- In a large bowl, mix the remainder of your meat (mine was approximately 6 lbs. worth) with six eggs, about 1 1/2 cups of bread crumbs, 1 cup of Parmesan cheese, several teaspoons of basil and oregano, and some salt and pepper. Sorry I’m not more specific here; I really do eyeball it instead of measure. Basically, you want the eggs to moisten the meat, and then the breadcrumbs make it not-too-moist. It's easier to mix it with your hands–just get in there and squish it–which is why you don’t want the meat straight out of the fridge (you’ll feel like you have frostbite). This is my meatball recipe, and I use the same for meatloaf, so it comes out like a giant meatball. I suppose you could call it Italian meatloaf because it differs from a typical recipe.
- To make the meatloaf, I take about a pound's worth (again, eyeballing it) from the bowl and put it on wax paper, forming a flat rectangle. Once it's flat, sprinkle some mozzarella cheese and the drained mushrooms in the center. Use the wax paper to roll up the meatloaf into a roll shape, and tuck in the ends to seal it.
- If I'm not cooking it right away, I'll wrap the meatloaf in aluminum foil and freeze it. To cook it, put the defrosted loaf in a shallow casserole dish or loaf pan, pour some spaghetti sauce on top, and bake at 375 degrees for 40-50 minutes. I made two of the meatloaf rolls and used the rest of the meat in the bowl to…
- Make the meatballs by lining a cookie sheet with wax paper and place the meatballs there as you form them. This will go into the freezer for 1-2 hours and “flash freeze” the meatballs so you can throw them into zipper bags. I made enough regular-sized ones for two freezer bags; I'll defrost those another day and cook them for a spaghetti dinner. I made a bag of teeny-sized ones for Meatball Soup (see recipe below).
- Don’t forget to label your freezer bags with the date and what’s in them or what meals they're for. I love going into the freezer and finding “Tacos;” I just grab the bag and throw it in the fridge to defrost for the next day. Freeze your bags flat until they harden; then you can stack them or store them upright like books and they’ll take up very little space. You can store these in a side-by-side freezer that way.
- Clean up–ugh, can't someone else do that?
Since I do my meal planning each Monday, I know what days I need to take something out of the freezer to defrost. Make sure you defrost in the fridge for at least 24 hours (safety guidelines here). With the pre-cooked meat mix, there are so many meals that are faster to prep because you've saved yourself the time of standing at the stove cooking the meat:
- Meat Tacos—reheat the meat mix in a frying pan, then add shells/tortillas and all your fixings.
- Shepherd's Pie–put the defrosted meat mix in the frying pan and pick up the recipe from there. Use frozen mashed potatoes or leftovers from another night to prep this meal in about 5 minutes before baking.
- Baked Ziti–by having the meat pre-cooked, your prep time is very quick and you can get this right in the oven.
- Spaghetti Sauce—reheat the meat mix and add to jarred or homemade spaghetti sauce.
- Taco Bake—here’s a crockpot recipe with Mexican spicing. We tried this and it was a big hit with my husband (the kids didn't like the spicing).
- Crockpot Chili—you’ve eliminated the time needed to brown meat before adding to the crockpot.
- Meatballs—if frozen raw, defrost these and drop into a simmering pot of spaghetti sauce. Cook for at least an hour. Alternately, you could pan-fry or bake these before you freeze them, saving you more time on a weeknight. Once they're defrosted, they just need to be heated back up since they're already cooked. By freezing them that way, they're also easy to heat up to feed to toddlers for lunch.
- Lasagna–again, I just used the recipe on the box.
- Meatball Soup–I just love this recipe. It's so hearty, and I love all the textures going on in each bite.
What are your Thoughts?
I have gotten some great feedback from those of you who have tried Cook Once, Eat 10 Times because you find it easier to focus on one meat at a time. What is working for you? What do you find challenging? What other questions do you have?