Most busy parents I know struggle with dinner. The planning, the shopping, the cooking—it can be a real headache. It's also an endless loop: There will always be hungry people around your table, waiting to be fed. It's a task that seems to go on into eternity.
So why not help each other out? That's the premise behind freezer meal co-ops. I joined one last year, and at the risk of sounding dramatic, it really did change my life for the better. Meal planning and dinner prep used to be a hassle, but joining this group has simplified that formerly-stressful part of my life. And I'm grateful for my co-op every single week when I open my freezer and someone has already cooked dinner for me.
There are different approaches you can take with a freezer meal co-op. You can spend an afternoon or evening making your meals together. In our group, we choose to cook the meals ourselves and meet once a month to swap them. Each member of our group makes two meals for each person (including herself). So with four people in the co-op, we each get eight dinners for our freezers, just waiting to rescue us on a hectic night.
With those eight meals in my freezer each month, I have an easy option at least two nights a week. I just pull out a meal the night before to defrost, then prep a few easy sides while it's reheating. Our meals have ranged from homemade spaghetti sauce and seasoned taco meat to lentil soup and calzones. I love that my family has discovered new favorite meals this way. I also love the friendship I have with my group and the way we've turned a sometimes-thankless task into a way to lend each other a hand (and socialize too).
Are there downsides? Sure. In every group, there will be different preferences (some like spicy foods, others don't) and food issues (one family eats gluten-free, another prefers to use organic meat). There may also be meals that just don't go over well with your family. It's important to be honest about that, so those meal aren't repeated again. You also have to set aside several hours to prep the freezer meals. Making eight meals takes me the better part of a weekend afternoon—but it's a small time investment that pays off the rest of the month!
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.