Is Dinnertime Your Witching Hour? It doesn’t have to be if you prepare bulk meals ahead of time

Does this sound familiar? You straggle in the door after a full day of work or a full day of playing parental taxi driver. It’s 5 p.m. and everyone’s ready for dinner. You frantically rummage through the refrigerator for inspiration and find … a luscious, nutritious meal made by your own two hands all ready to pop in the oven.

If this happened to me, I’d have to double-check my address to make sure I hadn’t stumbled into the wrong house by mistake, but trust me, it does happen in houses all across St. Louis.

The dinner hour (the witching hour is probably a more appropriate descriptor in my house) seems to present almost everyone with a host of problems. How do you find time to serve something that’s homemade but still nutritious and tasty? Above all, how long is this going to take?

The answer found by many families is bulk cooking.

Bulk cooking goes by many names, “cook once, eat twice,” “fresh from the freezer” or “once-a-month cooking.” Whatever the name, the concept stays the same, cooking many meals at the same time, then freezing them for later use.

It’s an idea that’s put to use often in the home of Gwen Andersen of St. Charles. Andersen, who is relatively new to the area, attended a seminar at a local church about bulk cooking and thought it sounded right up her alley. “It’s nice to know dinner is all taken care of and in the freezer,” she said. “We don’t have those, ‘Honey, can you stop at McDonald’s?’ moments anymore.”

Andersen recently had a bulk-cooking shindig where she and a friend joined forces to put together several dinners. After only two hours, each woman walked away with eight meals. That’s two hours, even with kids underfoot! Their dinners included entrées such as Chicken Divine, a chicken-and-broccoli mixture, and a ham-and-cheesy-potato bake, which Andersen described as “a nice gooey comfort food.” The women even had time for several desserts, including apple crisp and raspberry-chocolate crumble bars.

Andersen sees bulk cooking as a way to save both time and money. Her share of the bulk cooking session came to only $77 and will save countless hours of time later on. The best part? The taste. “They were awesome,” Andersen said of the meals. Debi Taylor-Hough, author of “Frozen Assets: How to Cook for a Day and Eat for a Month” began bulk cooking as a way to save time but has been amazed by the monetary savings. “When I began bulk cooking,” she said, “I was able to shave $400 off our monthly food bill. Over five years, that has added up to about $24,000.”

Some folks, like Andersen, prefer to cook many meals at one time, but that’s not the only way to solve the problem. Taylor-Hough said you can easily adapt the bulk-cooking mindset to fit your lifestyle. “The last time I made lasagna, I just made a triple batch, so we ate one for dinner that night; then I stored the other two in the freezer.” It might take twice the ingredients to make a double batch, but it certainly doesn’t take twice the time. “You can even do things like buy a big amount of ground beef when it goes on sale, then brown it and freeze it in 1-pound portions. Then you can use it later for spaghetti sauce, tacos or sloppy joes,” said Taylor-Hough. Bulk cooking on a smaller scale works well for small families or for those with limited freezer space.

You don’t have to be a cooking whiz or an organizational genius to enjoy the benefits of bulk cooking. A few common-sense techniques and a little bit of time are all you need. Before embarking on making a freezer full of meals, you should make sure your family likes what you’re planning to cook. “There are few things worse for a freezer-meal cook than a freezer filled with foods no one will eat,” noted Taylor-Hough.

Choose appropriate containers for your meals: casseroles in baking dishes (foil or glass), heavy-duty freezer bags for soups or stews. After cooking and then cooling the food as quickly as possible, try to get as much air as you can out of the container. Then date and label the container before it goes in the freezer. “Do not skip this step,” Taylor-Hough admonished. “No one wants a dinner of mystery meat.” She keeps a master list of frozen meals near the freezer so she knows just what lurks in its icy depths.

Many different foods adapt well to bulk cooking. Almost any soup, casserole, stew or pasta dish can easily be made ahead and reheated at your convenience. Don’t forget about desserts. Many cookies, fruit crisps and unfrosted cakes can easily be frozen. Having these sweets made up ahead of time eliminates the stress over those last-minute requests for treats.

Not everything is a good candidate for freezer cooking, though. Fried foods don’t retain their crispiness, fruit pies get soggy and some cream-based sauces will separate. Cooked pastas and vegetables will soften up in the freezer, so it’s a good idea to undercook these items so they won’t go to mush when you heat them back up.

If you’d like to jump on the bulk-cooking bandwagon but just can’t find the time to plan, shop or clean up, the ladies at Time for Dinner can help you out. This Brentwood business will help you prep meals for your family at its facility. “It’s bulk cooking without all the work,” said co-owner and recipe developer Amy Stanford.

People come to the facility and move from station to station, assembling and packaging 12 entrées. The raw ingredients, recipes, containers, cooking directions and, oh yes, the cleanup, are all provided by Time For Dinner. Customers take home the dishes ready to pop in their own ovens. Most menu items change monthly, and recent choices included cheese manicotti, chicken and dumplings and corned beef and cabbage. “It’s real food,” Stanford said, “and having these in your freezer really eliminates that 5 o’clock meltdown.” And everyone, regardless of financial situation or family status, wants to eliminate that.