Tuesday, January 21, 2014

U is for UNDERSTANDING FREEZER COOKING--Determining the Type of Freezer Cook You Want to Become

Cooking day!

When a person asks me to help them get started in freezer cooking, I am always anxious to offer advice and help because I know how much it has helped me, blessed others, and nourished my family for the past twenty-three years. As I stated earlier on the blog, my first piece of advice is to not make it bigger than it needs to be. Freezer cooking doesn't have to be this all-encompassing way of life that is so huge you can't bear to face cooking day. On the other hand, if you like to go big (which I always have!), then by all means, go big.

The next piece of advice in starting to freezer cook is to determine what kind of freezer cook you want to be--that is, how extensive do you want to cook freezer entrees vs. just regular daily food preparation. By this, I mean that you can literally do something as simple as double a casserole one night each week to stockpile a few freezer entrees each month--or you can use the elaborate six month system that I used to use when my children were all at home. And then, of course, everything in between.

Here are some options for the "type" of freezer cook you might desire to be:

1. The aforementioned "extra casserole" each week cook. In this way, you eat like you normally have, cooking from scratch or using convenience foods each day, but one day a week, you make an entree for your family's meal and freeze a second one of the same type. In this way, you end up with a few freezer entrees each month to grab and use as you need to. It is also super simple to just double whatever you are making. It truly takes maybe 25% more time to make an additional one as opposed to making one to begin with. This might be a good choice for someone who doesn't want to do much but wants to dabble in freezer cooking and also wants to have some entrees on hand to bless others. (Blessing/helping others has been one of the biggest benefits of freezer cooking for me over the past two decades.)

2. The "ten pounds of meat" a week method. This is the method I am currently using, and I just love it. One day a week, my teenage son and another teen and I have a three hour Kitchen Session in which we do the following:
a. Ten pounds of some meat made into entrees (Today was taco meat; the last time it was braised beef cube mix for stroganoff and/or beef stew; before that it was spaghetti pies.)
b. Meal for that day (Today was sloppy joes and smashed red potatoes.)
c. Fill at least one crock pot insert for another meal over the next few days (usually soups and stews) (Today was chicken casserole in the crock.)
d. Clean/dice/prepare fruits and veggies
e. Make something special, like a cake for a carry in or bars for a dance or breakfast casseroles for a shower, etc. 

3. The "once a month cooking" method. My first introduction to freezer cooking was via the book Make a Mix Cookery. I began making mixes with this book twenty-three years ago (when I was pregnant with our fourth/middle child). I made "Bisquick," brownie mixes, cake mixes, cookie dough, white sauce balls for the freezer, quick bread mixes, and much more. This book introduced me to freezer cooking through freezer meats (like taco meat, braised beef cube mix, master hamburger mix etc.) that you can pull out of the freezer and use in other recipes. It was and still is an amazing book that set me on the path to home management that would make me successful at feeding nine of us for many years--and that helped me help others and train my own children in hard work and kitchen preparations. 

Following this book, after a year or two of doing freezer meats and mixes, I found the book that I used for several years--Once a Month Cooking. It was one of the first of its kind, and while I wouldn't want to use it today because my methods are much more efficient for us, it opened my eyes to the world of freezer cooking--and I embraced it whole heartedly, cooking for one day a month and putting up twenty entrees or so each time. In this book, you choose the recipes you want to make, the number of each, plan, shop, do preps, and then cook and freeze up to twenty entrees at one time--presumably for the next month.

When I first started using this method, I cooked two days one week (a day of preps then the next day cooking/freezing) and began using those meals immediately (about four per week). Then before those were gone, I did another cooking day and filled another freezer for the next month, etc. This book is a terrific resource for learning what freezes well and getting recipe ideas, as well as just getting an overview of freezer cooking in general.

Obviously, to do "once a month" cooking in a day (by yourself or with a partner or kids), you don't have to follow this book. After a while of using this book, I moved on to my own style of  "once a month cooking" in which I would do mostly one certain type of food (i.e. crumbled ground beef one month; shredded chicken the next). The problem with this is that if you are relying too much on your freezer meals, you end up eating the same type of meats that whole month. (See my solution below in my "six month cooking week.)

4. "Cycle cooking"--or "six month cooking week." 

The aforementioned "one type of meat per cooking day" led me to what I did for many years--a method that is not for the faint of heart! In this method, I divided my recipes into six "cycles":

a. Shaped beef and other beef (meatloaves, meatballs, tuna balls, salmon loaves, swiss steak, Florida steak, braised beef cube mix/stroganoff)
b. Crumbled beef (spaghetti pie, sloppy joes, lasagna, taco meat, taco pie, hamburger stew, chili soup starter, etc.)
c. Shredded chicken (chicken rice soup starter, bbq shredded chicken, chicken tetrazinni, chicken spaghetti, chicken lasagna, hot chicken sandwich filling, chicken rice casserole, chicken enchiladas, etc.)
d. Chicken breasts (parmesan chicken breasts, grilled/marinated chicken breasts, chicken parmesan, oven fried chicken, chicken fajita meat, Oriental chicken, chicken cordon bleu, Monterey chicken breasts, bbq chicken breasts)
e. Sides (potato casserole, rice casserole, fried rice starter, mashed potatoes, broccoli and rice, four bean bake, green bean casserole, cauliflower au gratin)
f. Desserts (cookie dough, unbaked cakes, pies, quick breads, etc.)

In the "six month cooking week," I started the process by shopping on Friday, preparing my bags and containers and labels on Saturday, and starting the cooking on Monday. I did about thirty entrees each day--one day shaped beef, one day crumbled beef, etc. I would fill one freezer with six months worth of freezer meals by the end of the week. It was exhausting (and at times overwhelming), but it was amazing to have that freezer full of meals.

Once that freezer was full, I just did regular freezer cooking one day a month--but I did a different cycle each time--and began filling up my other freezer. By the end of the six months, the first freezer full of meals was empty and the next one was full. It was my favorite system ever because it brought together the efficiency of freezer cooking with my super efficiency of cycle cooking--doing one type of meat at a time. (This system actually trained me to do the "ten pounds of meat a week" method I now use. Doing all of the same type of meat at one time is super efficient!)

5. "Power Hour" cooking

When I can't have my three hour "Kitchen Session" as described above, I often opt for the "power hour" freezer cooking. In this method, my son and I (or my husband at times) go into the kitchen for one hour and do as much as we can possibly do--of all the same things. In this regard, we might make six lasagnas or ten bags of sloppy joes or ten bags of taco meat or eight bags of chicken rice soup starter. This method only works if you do it often though--otherwise, you end up eating the same thing over and over!

So what kind of freezer cook do you want to be? What would best meet your family's needs? How do you cook--big or small? What feels right for you?

In starting out with freezer cooking, you can do whatever works for you! And you will bless your family and make your days run more smoothly in the process.

“Readability Levels and Formulas for Homeschooling Parents”

                         “Readability Levels and Formulas for Homeschooling Parents”

                                                                                   Donna Reish

                                             An Introduction to Readability Levels

I began homeschooling over thirty years agol when Ray and I taught my younger sister (who was in eighth grade at the time) in our home. During my first several years of homeschooling, I used early readers when my children were first learning to read, but I did not care for “readers” for older children. I always felt that abridged or excerpted stories were inferior—and that children should read whole books.

This worked wonderfully for my first two (the ones who learned to read at age eight and nine). They didn’t like abridgements and excerpts very much anyway—and could easily read a couple of chapter books a week from ages ten and up. (I should note that they are both real literature buffs as adults, and our son teaches literary analysis of many novels to homeschooled students every semester. All of that reading really paid off!)

Then along came our third child, who begged for everything that I did not think was “best” for learning—workbooks (the more, the merrier, in her opinion); readers with excerpts and short stories; tons of what I had thought were useless pages of worksheets and coloring pages; and more. She was a different type of learner than Joshua and Kayla had been—and desired different learning tools.

So I began my hunt for “older” readers—readers for children beyond the phonetically-controlled ones that I had utilized to teach reading. I found many that I liked—and actually used some of them to read aloud to the kids since we found the stories and excerpts interesting and fun. They even caused my kids to go on and read entire books for themselves that they might have otherwise not known about or read (after reading an excerpted portion in their readers).

So…the moral of this story? Every child is different. Each child has his own learning style, likes, dislikes, etc. And we need to cater to those as much as possible in their learning. In order to choose reading materials for your children, a basic knowledge of readability levels will be a great help. I will detail readability levels and determinations in this month’s newsletter (March) and next month’s.  

                                          Readability Levels of Books

When a child is in school, he is likely in a “reading group," that is a group of children from his class in which all of the students read at about the same reading level. The child’s teacher chooses readers/stories for each group of children based on that group’s (the children in that group’s) reading level.

To practice with your child at home, you will want to do the same thing—but in a one on one, rather than small group, situation. How do you know what level is appropriate for your child?

I will enumerate some tips for choosing books at your child’s reading level, primarily for word-calling purposes. First, though, a small peek at readability levels will help you in determining your child’s reading level.

Readability is based on many factors. Many readability scales use one of a few simple formulae in which the number of words in a passage or story is divided by the number of words—and a readability level is derived based on the number of words each sentence contains (on an average). Other formulae use the number of syllables, considering that a sentence that contains twenty “one-syllable” words is certainly easier to word call than a sentence that contains twenty “three-syllable” words.

In both of those cases, the readability level is based on word calling, which is an accurate portrayal of early readers since children do not focus much on comprehension at that level of reading. (And if a class does focus on comprehension, it is usually just literal comprehension—what happened, who the characters were, etc.)

As students progress in their reading, we want them to not only be able to sound out words in a passage or story, but we want them to derive meaning from those words. Formulae for readability of a text based on comprehension is much more difficult to assess (though definitely counting number of words with longer syllables demonstrates a higher comprehension level than just merely counting the number of words).

So many things come into play when considering readability of, say, a chapter book of 150 pages. A book might be short but extremely difficult to comprehend due to the vocabulary used (which some formulae do not consider). Likewise, a book can be very long but have extremely immature vocabulary and not be difficult to comprehend at all.

In our language arts and composition books, we give students passages to write from at least half of the time for factual writing in the early grades, lessening as students learn to find appropriate sources themselves, etc. In choosing these passages to write from, comprehension is extremely important. In order to write from source material, a much higher level of comprehension must be realized than merely that of sounding out the words. In choosing passages for students to read, take notes from, and write from, we consider readability in terms of word calling first, then we consider sentence structure. Sentence structure includes the length of the sentence, the type of sentence (i.e. what we learned as compound, compound-complex, etc.), the type of and length of sentence openers a sentence contains (prepositional phrase openers, adverb openers, etc.), and finally, the vocabulary of the passage.

How does this apply to your reading with your student? Consider the list of ascending skills below concerning readability and readers:

Readability and Readers

1. In the early grades, you will be concerned with readability in terms of decoding, phonics, sight words, etc. That is, can your student read the words?

2. If your child already reads well in terms of decoding (sounding out words), and can “pick up anything and ‘read’ it,” you will want to focus on content—comprehending what he reads, discussing it, etc.

3. As students progress in reading, homeschooling moms and teachers in school often forsake the practice of reading aloud with children, noting that the child can word call anything, so there is no need to check for word calling skills/application of phonics. However, we advocate reading aloud with your child for some years, at least a couple of times a week. No, you will not be checking for word calling anymore (though my older boys will still say something like, “How do you pronounce this word—m-y-r-i-a-d?” when they are reading something to themselves), but reading involves word calling AND comprehension. A child who can “read anything” but not comprehend it is like a child reading “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket.” To say that a child in fourth grade can read at a ninth grade level because he can decode all of the words in a passage that is rated at a ninth grade readability level is like saying he can read the “Wocket” tale by Dr. Seuss. He might be able to word call it, but is he “reading” if he cannot comprehend what he reads?

4. Oral reading together with Mom or Dad at upper elementary grades is for comprehension—you will not necessarily be checking on the application of his decoding skills, but you will be checking on his comprehension, vocabulary recognition, etc. You will hopefully be guiding him through his reading, discussing it, answering questions about vocabulary words (i.e. words he can easily sound out but does not know the meaning of), etc.

5. If your child is beyond the beginning phonics instruction, you may not need books that are “graded” in terms of readability. Perhaps he already enjoys reading a certain picture book series or early junior fiction series. These can then become his “readers” to read with you.

6. Consider the differences in “readability” in the materials he reads with you vs the materials he reads to himself:

a.    Be sure the material he reads aloud with you is somewhat challenging (i.e. he needs some help with words here and there but the books do not leave him in tears).

b.    Be sure that what he is reading to himself is not so difficult that he needs cueing or instruction as he reads it.

7.     Keep in mind that there are other things that affect readability besides syllable count, numbers of pages, sentence structure, and vocabulary. Interest is a strong factor in determining readability. (That is why I recommended the Saxon Bold Intervention+ for older students who need remedial reading on our Positive Parenting blog.The materials that they read from are high interest for older students—not childish or primary stories.) This is the reason that children who would not read their science or history book in fifth grade are picking up huge books of Harry Potter and these vampire books (not sure of their titles). Whether we like them or not, many children out there are reading these tomes simply because they are interested in them—despite the fact that those kids are not “at that reading level” and would never have picked up a book over two hundred pages prior to these books being released. (If you have an older student who is working on remedial reading, ask your librarian specifically for high interest/low readability materials for older students. Some of the adult literacy materials are extremely high interest with lower readability levels, as well.)

+Note: If you have an elementary child who is struggling with learning to read, visit Positive Parenting and click on “Reading Instruction” for helps and reviews of programs.