Big Batch Cooking 101

Whether you call it big batch cooking or putting together freezer meals, getting a jump-start on dinner by preparing several dinners in one fell swoop is a smart way to get a homemade meal on the table even when there's no time to stand in front of the stove.

Mother and daughter cooking in kitchen Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
It's 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. Your kids are starving and 20 minutes shy of a meltdown. You open your fridge and you smile. You pull out everything you need and a healthy, homemade meal is on the table in minutes.

What? This isn't how it works at your house? Ours either, but it can be.

We've got a game plan to help you put dinner on the table more often, with less time and less fuss. By preparing food in large quantities and freezing it, you'll be cooking less but eating homemade meals more.

What is Big Batch Cooking?

Big batch cooking is precisely that: preparing and cooking big batches of food at one time to last for the week or even the month.

You can double or triple a recipe, freeze it, and reheat and eat when needed. This works well for dishes like soups, stews, casseroles, lasagna, and meatloaf. Or you can prepare a big batch of protein and build several quick and easy meals around it; for example, browning seasoned ground beef for tacos and shepherd's pie.

Simply make a regular date with your kitchen -- say, every Saturday or the first Sunday of the month -- and putting dinner on the table the rest of the time will be a breeze. Expect to spend two to three hours prepping and cooking for five meals, or five to six hours for 20.

Jessica Fisher, lifeasmom.com blogger and author of Not Your Mother's Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2012), says batch cooking doesn't have to be an all-day affair. "Start small by doubling dinner a few times a week. Stash that extra meal in the freezer for another time. With little effort, you'll have built a reserve of home-cooked meals to buy you time on busy nights."

By cooking in bulk you'll save time and money and eliminate any "What am I going to cook tonight?" stress. Plus, you'll rest easy knowing your family is eating healthy, home-cooked goodness.

Getting Started

Download and print or copy Fisher's "Freezer Cooking Master Plan" (page 61 in her book). It has three columns that make it easy to plan your batch cooking session -- one for the main ingredient/protein, one for recipes, and one for groceries.

Or, design your own master plan like this:

1. Plan your menu

Make a list of your family's favorite recipes. It also helps to flip through magazines and visit online sites for inspiration. Consider putting the recipes in a three-ring binder to keep them organized (you can keep adding to it!) or making a Pinterest board specifically for big batch cooking ideas. From this collection, choose several freezer-friendly recipes, plus a few recipes with common main ingredients.

Mix it up with casseroles, stews, stir-fries and easy-to-assemble meals like tacos or burritos. Different cooking methods such as slow cooking or oven-roasting add variety as well.

Some ideas to start with:

    • Make a huge pot of tomato sauce, with or without meat, for lasagna, sloppy Joes, and spaghetti.
    • Marinate meats for broiling or grilling later in the week.
    • Slice chicken, pork, or beef for stir-fries or slow-cooking stews. Use in the next four days or freeze to cook later.
    • Roast a chicken and chop or shred for enchiladas or chicken tortilla soup.

      2. Shopping

      Create a shopping list based on your recipes, doubling or tripling ingredients as needed. Before you head out, check your pantry to determine what you have and what you need to buy, and clear out your fridge to make room for perishables. Now it's time to go shopping!

      3. Plan for Storage

      Decide how you'll store your food. You can use freezer-safe plastic or glass containers, casserole dishes, and/or zip-top bags. Have markers and masking tape on hand for labeling and dating.

        Prepping and Cooking

        Before you start cooking, organize the recipes according to similar ingredients and map out the order in which you'll be cooking. Consider following this guide:

          • Chop, slice, and dice the vegetables. Many recipes use similar aromatics like diced onions and minced garlic so you can prep everything at the same time. You can also do this part a day ahead to divide the labor. Or save time with precut or frozen veggies.
          • Slice, marinate, and/or brown the meats. Now's the time to put a chicken or roast in the oven too.
          • Set up an assembly line to make casseroles and group recipe components together.
          • Bag, pack, label, and refrigerate/freeze as you go. Foods that will be eaten within three to four days can be refrigerated. Everything else should be frozen. Allow food to cool to room temperature before freezing, but make sure everything is refrigerated or frozen within two hours of cooking.

            Some Tips:

            • Not all foods freeze well, including vegetables with high water content; cooked potatoes and fully cooked pastas (partially cooked is okay); and gravies and sauces thickened with cornstarch.
            • Clean up as you cook.
            • Get your kids to help with simple tasks, but only if it doesn't stress you out even more.
            • Turn on some music, pour yourself a glass of wine, and have fun!

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