Monday, July 21, 2014

Marathon Cooking

After last week’s marathon cooking day, I had an onslaught of messages requesting more information. And I’m obliging…but let me share a bit of news….this took way more thought than I had the day after cooking. In fact, four days later, I’m typing this. So, marathon cooking can suck the brains right out of your head temporarily. But, you will have plenty of good food to eat while you wait for them to come back to you.

If I had been thinking of writing this while cooking, I probably would have taken some awesome photos. But, I didn’t think of anything except cooking, so you are left to see the end results only. And that is good enough for now…plus, it’s all I can do.

Here goes.

Once upon a time. Wait, wrong story.

First, priorities have to be set. Are you wanting the cheapest? Healthiest? Biggest? Do you like processed foods or whole foods? Do you want to take meals to others and share of your bounty? Decide what is important to you and what you would like first!

Our family wants quality food (very little processed, no added sugar) for the best price possible - the biggest bang for our buck. We’ve done plenty of processed, sugary foods before, and well, that just doesn’t line up with what works well for us. Plus, we love to take meals to other people when they are in need…and taking a meal that’s already cooked is a bonus!

Second and THE MOST IMPORTANT factor is finding a friend to share the duties, costs and meals with….this is critical. It must be a person with a similar sized family (or at least eats the same amount) and like priorities. We have that in our people, Andrew and Lora, who are both excellent in the kitchen. And, they have 7 young ones that range in age from ten to two.

Helpers are essential too. This time, our younger kids (from age 6 to 10) helped quite a bit. And we had 3 teenagers (our two girls and the ministry intern) who also assisted at all times. The more hands that can actually be helpful, the better!

So, all of those factors are critical to the marathon cooking day itself. But, a big portion of the day is made possible by the planning that takes place at least a week in advance. Here’s what we do:

1. Make a plan for what meals are to be cooked. We do this formally - like sitting in Lora and Andrew's living room with coffee in one hand and the Pioneer Woman cookbook in the other. We flip pages and if enough people say “Yum,” we try that. If you are just starting out, take 4-6 meals only and make 4-5 of each one. We prefer The Pioneer Woman’s recipes as they are tried and true and suit our families! For this particular day we made her whiskey-mustard meatballs, meatloaf (oh my word….I think I tried to bite my arm off when I smelled this one), stuffed potatoes, chicken pot pie, corn dog muffins, lasagna roll-ups, and beef stew. We also had cooked chicken, browned ground beef, grilled chicken, chicken stock, enchilada mix (with chicken) and chicken chili. Try a variety of recipes including a pasta, chicken dishes, beef entrees and soups. Check out Lora's site for our grocery list and recipes.

2. Multiply the recipes using an online site to determine how much of each item is needed. On Pioneer Woman’s website, simply click on Print Recipe. A new page will pop up and you can change the serving size to get all new quantities. Fair warning, you will be buying huge amounts of certain things (e.g. 64 cans of northern beans). It is possible to ask your favorite grocery store (aka Publix) to special order large quantities. We always end up with extra grocery items that we just split down the middle (this time we had a couple of items that seemed odd to have remaining. Only after eating the meatballs did we realize that we needed to make more of the whiskey-mustard sauce. Thus, the extra ingredients.)

3. Make a list of items needed. I made this list for us using Numbers and separated items by category. We had columns for each item’s name, quantity needed, any amount either of us had on hand, how much was still needed, who was going to buy it, and who was going to cut/dice/cook it.

4. Then, we shop. Warehouse stores are good for this as they tend to carry items in bulk. However, we also made trips to Publix and Whole Foods. We had chicken and beef already in the freezer that we had previously bought for cheap!

5. Some items that are time consuming are prepared ahead of time. THIS IS HUGE!!! It saves a ton of time on cooking day which ultimately, saves our sanity! We have learned that grilling items, cooking ground beef, dicing veggies, making soups and cooking pasta are time consuming and cut into our cooking day tremendously. So, we divide the list and take a few days ahead of time to do these in the comfort of our own homes and at our own pace. Lora and Andrew cooked all of the potatoes and a few chickens, made chicken stock and cooked all of the beef stew (the most labor-intensive of the meals). We grilled the chicken, cooked some chicken, browned the ground beef (a roaster works wonders here) and made the chicken chili.

6. Everyone needs to bring large mixing bowls, measuring cups, baking sheets, muffin tins, etc. Plus, we have found that we use 3 specific containers - freezer Ziploc bags, quart sized plastic containers with lids (ordered online) and aluminum 1/3 size steam table pans with lids.

7. We pre-make labels for each item…if there are any special instructions for cooking, they are listed on the label. Plus everything tends to look alike after a while, and it’s good to know what’s what in the freezer!

8. Since the marathon cooking day is held at my house (the layout of our kitchen is just more conducive to this), I do not have to pack up all my food or appliances or utensils. Instead, we clear our counters…completely. The dining room table is also wiped clean and plastic table cloths are used to catch most of the mess. The buffet in our dining room acts as the catch all for all bowls, pans and utensils for the day. A small table in our keeping room holds the cleaning supplies, packaging materials, recipes and food labels. Two more small folding tables sit directly under one of our countertops and hold all the canned goods, baking products and spices.

9. An order of the cooking planned is also a necessity! All items requiring the stovetop can’t be made at the same time, one assembly item at a time on the table, and meatballs and meatloaf can’t fit in the oven at the same time (even though we have double ovens, they were jammed packed with one recipe at a time). Stagger items so that something is cooking in the oven (meatballs) while another recipe is being assembled on the table (lasagna rollups) and even another item is cooking on the stove (chicken pot pie).

10. Cooking Day! Wear comfortable shoes and aprons. Have plenty of paper towels, dish towels and hot pads on hand. Also, make a plan for lunch, snacks and drinks during the day. Plenty of paper products helps to make this easier! It was rumored that we had Cream Puffs on our recent marathon day but alas, they left the kitchen to never reappear!

11. We make sure to have a babysitter or two on hand to watch the kids. This time, three little ones played upstairs and all of our “big” girls were able to help as well as most of the kids. They rolled meatballs, stuffed potatoes, filled lasagna noodles, dried dishes, and more….

12. As we cook we just put at least two people on each dish. We spread out and everyone takes what they need from the food and supply areas and cook away. Someone also mans the sink and keeps all of the dishes washed as we go. A runner takes finished items to the freezers downstairs or the iced down coolers.

13. We keep a list of how many of each item is for each family. A dry erase board in the kitchen helps with that! Then, we don’t have to remember numbers at the end of the day! This time each family ended with 4 chicken pot pies, 12 beef stew, 13 chicken chili, 12 ground beef, 4 cooked chicken, 10 grilled chicken, 10 stuffed potatoes, 11 lasagna rollups, 10 meatballs, 7 meatloaves, 4 chicken stock,
13 chicken enchilada mix, and 10 corn dog muffins. At the end of the day, it’s easy to count out each family’s meals and be on our way.

14. Clean up is an all hands on deck kinda deal. Everyone helps to restore order to the kitchen and be sure that everyone has all of their stuff. Normally, we are super exhausted at this point but this week we worked pretty fast and had some energy left since it was only 3:30 in the afternoon (we've gone until late at night before).

While this can seem overwhelming, it is not at all. It is much easier to start by finding a friend who is willing to help! Then, begin with some tried and true recipes. You can even make 3 meals at your house (make 6 of each meal) and have your friend make 3 meals at her house. You would both leave with 18 meals! That’s a great way to introduce yourself to the concept of marathon cooking.

At the end of the day we walked away with over one hundred meals each. That’s one hundred nights that we don’t have to think about our main entree. One hundred nights of avoiding eating out because supper is already determined and ready to go. Marathon cooking also allows us to take meals to other families quickly and easily! Just pull 2 quarts of chicken chili out of the freezer, grab some cheese, sour cream and tortilla chips and bake up some brownies. Done and ready to go!

Marathon cooking takes some planning (it gets much easier as you do it...MUCH easier) and preparation, but it is worth it. We spent about $650 per family which is awesome considering the quality and quantity of food we got. And it provides me with numerous opportunities to display hospitality to others and my own family. Not to mention saving my sanity which is priceless

*The photos above are courtesy of Jett Turner who has a tendency to take lots of photos of unimportant things. In this case, he was simply following my instructions because I didn't have the energy to go down the, there's some honesty.

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