"What's for dinner?" is a question I hate. I hate thinking about it every day, and I hate it when my family asks me. I am resentful that in a society moving away from traditional gender roles, dinner is still mostly my responsibility.
(I realize this is not how it is in every family, but it is my reality in our household. And don't hate on my husband: he contributes in so many other ways, this is just not one of them.)
Ironically, I love to cook and am deeply invested in our family's food. We raise much of our meat and vegetables, and I have been cooking from scratch since childhood. But as the years have marched on, I have found the responsibility of putting a meal on the table and all of the associated mental energy, time, and additional cleaning that goes along with it every night to be increasingly burdensome.
Teenagers are a mixed blessing with regard to meals. Mine can thoroughly plan, prepare, and clean up from a meal, but they are so busy that they rarely have a chunk of time at night for this particular chore. And their busyness increases my busyness in the evenings. In past years, "cooking dinner" was a chore they could do for additional cash ($10 for cooking the meal, $15 if you planned and cooked it!), but lately, this is rarely something they can do.
Over the years, I have done everything to try to make dinner easier- from OMAC (once-a-month-cooking) to testing all the meal delivery systems out there (which all start great and then immediately suck and cost a ton of money). All these efforts taught me that cooking in bulk is easier for me, AND my family likes choice. We may all eat hamburgers, but we don't all necessarily crave hamburgers on the same day.
One day this past November, I was looking ahead to a busy week. I decided to cook all of our meals (including breakfasts and lunches for me and the girls and all of our dinners) on Sunday and then divide the meals into individual containers. It would be easier for everyone to choose what they want to eat during the week and have the flexibility of eating dinner on their schedules.
A note on family dinners: It's not that I don't love the idea of a family dinner, but the reality is that with two teens who have jobs and activities, we are lucky to all be under the same roof by 8 pm each night. And my preferred dinnertime is more of that of a senior citizen, whereas others prefer to eat much later. Prioritizing your sanity means creating systems in your home that work with your family culture and schedules, not trying to force something that will never really work because it's the "right" way to do things. I am confident our family culture is strong enough to withstand a few years without regular family dinners.
The cook-up I did that Sunday was a resounding success. Having a fridge full of pre-portioned, home cooked meals was a GAME CHANGER. The benefits were immediately apparent:
My stress level during the week improved because I did not have to think about dinner.
I got to work earlier each day because I could grab my prepared breakfasts and lunches and walk out the door.
Everyone loved having choices for dinner.
My kitchen stayed much cleaner throughout the week because we cooked much less.
I had more time to work out.
I had more time to get to some other household projects.
I had more time.
My sleep improved because I wasn't waiting until later in the evening to start cooking and cleaning the kitchen. I could just eat and go to bed when I was tired and not worry about feeding anyone else.
Overall, we had fewer dishes to deal with.
All the food I cooked was consumed, resulting in less food waste.
We saved money because I wasn't instacarting or ordering out in the middle of the week.
I eliminated the guilt of feeding my kids subpar takeout over a home-cooked meal.
No one asked me what was for dinner that week.
I tell you, G A M E C H A N G E R.
Since that fateful Sunday, I've done these Sunday cook-ups multiple times. The holidays messed with my schedule, but now that the New Year is here, I plan to do this every weekend.
I am continuing to refine the process. A few of my cook-ups have gone on for hours on end. I aim to finish them (including cleanup) within a 4-hour window. 4-hours is less than I would spend cumulatively during the week, and it's a comfortable commitment for me on a Sunday.
Right now, I follow a four-day routine to support this process:
Thursday is Garbage Eve, and I clean out the fridge each Thursday. While I do this, I make a quick list of food that needs to be eaten or cooked on Sunday. Usually, some vegetables and dairy products need to be used up.
I also move any remaining meals from the fridge to the freezer and note them on my inventory. These are meals I will use on weekends I travel and don't do a cook-up.
On Fridays, the garbage is collected, and I have my cook-up in the back of my head. If I have any meal ideas, I will jot them down. I also pull any assortment of meat from the freezer to start defrosting in the fridge.
Saturday is meal prep planning day. I sit down with my computer, the list of food that needs eating, and the list of meat I pulled out and plan meals.
When I have my list of meals and recipes figured out, I place an order with Whole Foods Delivery for any groceries we need. I schedule the delivery window for 6 am to 8 am on Sunday, ensuring I wake up and have fresh groceries right before I start cooking. I use Whole Foods because they have the best quality produce, and their delivery service is superior to locally available options.
I then list the steps of each recipe/dish. I type them in a spreadsheet and order them sensibly to maximize my time in the morning.
On Sunday mornings, I am usually up between 7 and 8. I pull any meat that didn't thoroughly defrost and put it into cold water to finish defrosting quickly.
I grab my grocery delivery and organize the items that I am cooking with.
I open my computer and pull up the order of steps for cooking.
I turn on some good music.
I put on supportive sneakers because this can be a lot of my feet.
I make coffee.
And I dive into the cooking.
The goal is to have the kitchen cleaned up by early afternoon. It's a goal. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes not, but I am getting better with practice. I do a nice wipe-down of the kitchen now, but I do not do a deep clean. My cleaning service comes on Monday, which is seriously fortuitous timing. If I didn't have this schedule advantage, I would plan a deep clean of the kitchen for after work on Monday - with all the time I have from not having to cook.
This system is working so well for me. I feel so much relief each night that I don't have to cook, and I can enjoy my easy-to-clean-up kitchen. I love it. I love the planning and look forward to the long cooking day. Will this work forever? No, and I won't need to do it forever. But for right now, it is precisely right for us. Household systems that fit into your life are easy to maintain. If you have a system in your home that is causing you stress, it is time to rethink that system.
Now it's your turn to share with me: What is your family culture around dinner, and what is your cooking schedule? Are meals a stressor or something you look forward to? Do you meal plan? Do you meal prep? Tell me all the things in the comments.
If you want to see the live behind-the-scenes of my cooking each weekend, follow my stories on FB or Instagram.
And -- remembering that you should only buy something after using what you have on hand -- the containers I use that I recommend are listed below.
A final note: After about a month of cook-ups, I finally had time to inventory my freezer and pantry. You can read all about my freezer inventory system in part two of this blog post.
My favorite products for a Sunday cook-up:
**Note: do NOT buy anything without testing out this system first, using what you already have on hand. Do NOT buy anything you don't have space for in your home. The rules of decluttering and home organization apply!! Stop and think before making any purchase.
**On that note, some of these links may be affiliate links, which means we may get a small percentage of the sale if you buy through this link.