Once-a-month cooking is a time-tested method for saving time and money on food and food-preparation. It takes a lot of planning, but advocates and fans say the method saves money, makes evenings easier, and consistently unites families at the dinner table.

Mary Beth Lagerborg, Once-a-Month Cooking cookbook co-author and advocate, suggests trying the method via baby steps: “Start small, maybe a week or two. Otherwise it can be overwhelming.”

In the winter months, the thought of having healthy, home-cooked, consistent meals can be a sanity saver. And with today’s busy families, having a few favorite dinners in the freezer any time of year can help get everyone together at the table at the end of the day.

“The Once-a-Month Cooking technique is more efficient and allows families to consistently share a meal together,” she adds.

The system is simple in design. One day a month, shop for all the ingredients for your meals. The next day, prepare and freeze meals, then go out to eat or get take-out! The following day, your family can start to enjoy a month of ready-to-eat homemade meals.

“Start small with a mini-menu,” advises Tricia Callahan, founder and president of OnceAMonthMeals.com, a service that delivers tailored menus for once-a-month cooks. “A mini-menu is 5 recipes doubled to make 10 meals, rather than the a full month, which is 15 recipes doubled to 30 meals. A smaller freezer cooking day allows you to figure out the best approach for you, assess your skill level, and to still feel productive and efficient in the kitchen.”

Callahan points those interested in the concept to a getting started post on her Website: onceamonthmeals.com/blog/series/get-started/start-freezer-cooking-in-five-easy-steps.

“Try doing the preparation with a friend and it will save time and be more fun,” Lagerborg advises.

Lagerborg, along with co-author Mimi Wilson, first developed the technique from need. They had children, busy lives, and not enough time, yet were committed to having family dinner.

“The dinner table is where good things happen with your family,” notes Lagerborg, who is now a grandmother and hosts big family Sunday dinners with her sons and their families.

The two books in Lagerborg’s Once-a-Month series provide menus and preparation instructions, while the accompanying Website, once-a-monthcooking.com, also offers a sample menu, some gluten-free options, and favorite recipes.

“The recipes are all family-friendly and not gourmet,” she says. “They are not time-intensive and really (are) foods your family will eat.”

“The major savings is in time and money,” Callahan adds. “In the instance of time, cooking many meals in one day opposed to daily helps to maximize your preparation, cooking, and cleanup time. You are preparing (dicing, slicing, etc.) items all at once, opposed to on a daily basis. Add to that, that in most cases you aren’t tending to the meal on the stove on your serving day. And last, but not least, let’s not forget the amount of daily cleanup that is saved from not dirtying several pots and pans on your serving day. Cleanup is quick and easy. All of this time equates to about 30 hours for those who cook and freeze a month’s worth of meals [30 meals x 1 hour of prep, cook, cleanup = approximately 30 hours]. Who couldn’t use another day in their life every month?”

Even for a small family, there is an economy of scale. By purchasing in bulk, you save money. And families also save money with fewer uneaten purchases and less eating out or getting takeout when there isn’t a plan for dinner.

Over the years since the technique was popularized in the early 1980s, food trends and eating have changed. For example, today there is a greater emphasis on fresh foods. Incorporating this into the freezer-intensive Once-A-Month technique is easy.

“Layer fresh foods with the Once-A-Month entrees,” Lagerborg says. “Add a fresh salad or as a side dish.”

“Approximately 27% of our audience utilizes our Traditional menu,” Callahan says. “That means that 73% of all users are using other specialty menus. Traditional [which replicates classic home cooking] is our most popular, but is closely followed by our Paleo and Whole Foods menus. We added our Allergen menu in 2014 because we see a wide array of specialty and allergen diets emerging, and we want to stay relevant to our audience’s dietary needs.”

An adaptation of the once-a-month idea is an entree exchange group. Rather than cooking once a month for your family, this project provides a week’s worth of meals for the freezer — home cooked by someone else. For example, if five families participate, each mother or father makes five of the same meal, meets up, and trades, which sends parents home with four meals plus their own. Similar to the once-a-month technique, making multiples of the same meal can save families preparation time and ingredients.

Tricia Desmarias, a mom from Millbury, participated in such a group: “It was great not to have to worry about what was for dinner. Knowing that I could just take something out of the freezer and knowing what it will be was a great relief.”

“It was a great way to build up recipes I know will freeze well and (know I) like,” added Andrea Hosier, who participated in the same group as Desmarias.

Here is one of Lagerborg’s favorite recipes from her cookbooks:

Penne in Cream Sauce with Sausage

Ingredients:

• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 onion (2 cups sliced)
• 5 cloves chopped garlic (2-1/2 teaspoons, chopped)
• 1 pound mild Italian sausage
• ½ pound hot Italian Sausage
• 2/3 cups dry white wine
• 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
• 1 cup whipping cream
• 1 bunch fresh parsley (1/2 cup chopped)
• Salt and pepper to taste 1 16-ounce package mini penne pasta
• 4 ounces Parmesan cheese (1 cup grated)

Directions:

Melt butter with oil in large skillet over medium heat.

Add onion and garlic and sauté until golden brown and tender, about 7 minutes.

Add sausage and sauté until golden brown and cooked through, breaking up the sausage as it cooks, about 7 minutes. Drain any excess drippings from the skillet.

Add wine to the skillet with drained meat and boil until almost all the liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes.

Add diced tomatoes and simmer 3 minutes.

Add cream and simmer until sauce thickens slightly, about 5 minutes.

Stir in parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cool, package in labeled gallon freezer container, and freeze with 1 cup Parmesan cheese in a sandwich bag attached.

To serve, thaw meat sauce and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of boiling, salted water until tender but still firm to bite. Pour sauce over pasta and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Summary of Processes:

Slice 2 cups onions; chop ½ cup fresh parsley;

chop 2 1/2 teaspoons garlic

Serves: 6

Freeze in: 1 gallon freezer bag; 1 sandwich bag

Adapted from Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites © 2009 by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg.