This Family Batch-Cooks 40 Meals at a Time

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© Sharon (used with permission) – A large batch of shepherd's pie. Sharon (used with permission) – A large batch of shepherd's pie

This is some serious meal-prepping.

Welcome to the next instalment of TreeHugger's new series, "How to feed a family." Every week we talk to a different person about how they approach the never-ending challenge of feeding themselves and other household members. We get the inside scoop on how they grocery shop, meal plan, and food prep to make it go more smoothly.

Parents work so hard to feed their children and themselves, to put healthy meals on the table, to avoid spending a fortune at the grocery store, and to fit it all around busy work and school schedules. It's a feat worthy of more praise than it commonly gets, which is why we want to highlight it – and hopefully learn from it in the process. This week you will meet Sharon, who keeps her busy family fed by cooking enormous batches of food in advance. (Answers edited for clarity and length. Names may be changed if requested.)

Names: Sharon (36), husband Peter (40), kids Kaitlyn (11), Grace (9), Benjamin (6)

Location: Ontario, Canada

Employment status: Peter is a full-time electrician at a nuclear power plant. Sharon is a stay-at-home parent and part-time child care provider.

Weekly food budget: We budget about CAD $150-$200 per week. (For American readers, that converts to roughly US$112-$150.) We make 4-6 Costco trips a year for about $350 a trip and one $900 side of beef annually. When we have company or celebratory meals/events, our grocery bill greatly increases, as I am the third of 9 children, and four of us already have families. We do like to celebrate with food with friends and family!

family photo

© Sharon (used with permission) – Sharon and her family

1. What are 3 favorite or commonly prepared meals in your house?

Because I do periodic big batch cooking, we often have beef, bean, and vegetable chili, shepherd's pie, and lots of meatballs in the freezer. But we also make pulled chicken over rice, roasted vegetables and a meat (usually whatever is left over), and stir-fry fairly often.

2. How would you describe your diet?

Our diet is mostly omnivore with low gluten and dairy. We love to take advantage of local and in-season produce from nearby markets but also have a personal vegetable garden. I always want to add more, but my kids are wanting to take over some of my gardens for their own growing adventures. We also obtain our beef from a local family farm.

3. How often do you shop for groceries? What do you always buy?

I try to stick to one grocery shop per week, with a few larger shopping trips for non-perishables from Costco. The second trip in the week is usually just for more fresh produce, or if an event or occasion has come up. There are a few things we always keep on hand: rice, apples, bananas, carrots, cucumbers, and usually pepperettes – something the kids can grab when they are starving that's also healthy.

4. What does your grocery shopping routine look like?

I read the grocery flyers the day before to see the best prices on foods that our family uses. I stock up on cheap, non-perishable and fresh sale items that can be utilized or frozen for later use. I shop the fresh produce, watching for opportunities to price match, and also check the $1 rack of reduced produce.

I don’t purchase much grocery store meat, as I obtain it more locally, but I do buy chicken and pork on occasion if on sale or needed for a certain event or occasion. I peruse the frozen food section for ‘treats’ or ‘emergency’ dinners. I also frequent the health food aisle, as they have a lot of gluten-free and dairy-free options, but it can get expensive, so I have become wise to alternatives (i.e. homemade recipes) to substitute. I then finish off with the middle aisles for other staples like rice, crackers, cereals, tomato sauces, beans, etc.

5. Do you meal plan? If so, how often and how strictly do you stick to it?

We meal plan inconsistently for about a month or two at a time. I do find it is much cheaper and more efficient, and dependable for busy times. I find that any kind of planning costs less and produces less waste. These are some of the approaches I've tried:

– Every weeknight is designated a specific meat/style: e.g. Monday is beef, Tuesday is vegetarian, Wednesday is slow cooker, Thursday is chicken, Friday is fish, leftovers for the weekend
– Following strictly ‘in season’ produce that is available
– Meal planning according to what is in the weekly flyers

Lately, however, I have been batch-cooking and it is amazing – more delicious, more efficient, and only 1-2 days work for 40+ meals. (See photo up top.) The meals are healthy, using lots of local ingredients, and have better flavor than store-bought.

6. How much time do you spend cooking each day?

On a regular basis I spend an average of 2-3 hours prepping food, making lunches, cooking and baking. But because we live in an open concept house, I feel like I spend A LOT of time in the kitchen. There are also the 3-5 times a year I spend a whole 1-2 days batch-cooking or batch-baking with friends.

7. How do you handle leftovers?

Depending on the weekly plan, some leftovers get frozen, some get used the next day, or we have a ‘leftovers’ night. Sometimes we add a fresh salad or some other form of vegetable to liven it up. With leftover protein, I try to use it in a different style. For example, leftover roast beef is cut up into stew or thinly sliced to make quesadillas. Leftover pork is chopped up and used in a roasted veggie hash with a fried egg on top.

8. How many dinners per week do you cook at home vs. eat out or take out?

We cook most meals at home and only eat out 2-3x a month. As a stay-at-home parent, I usually allocate a part of my day to making or prepping a meal for eating at home. It's a time saver on those crazy nights where both parents are going in different directions. Those nights are usually a form of chili, soup, or stew (slow-cooker style) with some freshly baked biscuits – anything that can stay warm and ready to eat at various times in the evening.

9. What are the biggest challenges in feeding yourself and family?

The biggest challenge to feed our family is accommodating a low gluten/dairy diet for the majority of family members. I have tried cooking two versions of the same meal, but that didn’t last long. Working around the nut ban at the kids' school is difficult when many of the gluten-free or dairy-free options are nut-based. Balancing the financial aspect with the buying local vs. sale items at the big box stores is also a challenge at times. Buying items for cheap allows room in the budget to be able to support local food producers.

10. Any final thoughts?

I just want to do what is best for my family, by keeping our budget in check, buying healthy options, supporting local, and buying organic when available. I like to keep the ingredients simple and tasty, working around food sensitivities and picky palates.

Now that the kids are a little older, they want to be more involved in the kitchen. They have always helped, but now they can use bigger knives, measure ingredients, and follow recipes. We have ordered from a meal service and used it as a night of entertainment. The girls can follow the instructions and serve a meal on their own. All three kids absolutely love to have “Chopped” challenges at home. They get a basket of mystery ingredients and try to make a dish out of it. Any time they show interest in cooking or baking, we try to accommodate it so that we can teach them about healthy ingredients, new flavours, and safety in the kitchen.

I have a few go-to recipes for baking like gluten-free banana muffins made with quinoa flakes and oats to increase protein and fiber. I also look for ways to sneak healthier items into meals, e.g. shredded zucchini into sauces, stews, or baking, pureed butternut squash into sauces. My latest was pulsed green tomatoes into an oat loaf/cake. It is very similar to using shredded zucchini and everyone ate it... but I didn’t tell them what was in it until AFTER they ate it!