Cook-off Day! Families That Cook in Bulk Stay Together | Civil Eats

Cook-off Day! Families That Cook in Bulk Stay Together

My pal Alex is pretty cool. He works in Fair Trade coffee sales, lives with his wife Julie and two kids in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, is a native San Franciscan and sings lead vocals in a band called Slippery People. He also spends some of his quality free time cooking in bulk with other families so he can spend more time with his own.

Alex is just the kind of guy that makes everything fun – especially an all-day cook-off that will yield him and Julie a lot of ease with meals and a whole heap of a lot more time to hang out with their two grade-schoolers. I can just imagine him, apron on, some happy music playing, laughing as he talks it up with his fellow parents and cooking pals. Alex’s family along with four others, give or take, get together about every six weeks, or so, to create healthy meals in bulk that can be frozen and still taste great.

So, if you’re tired of ordering pizza for you and the kids, read on. This could be your ticket to reading an extra book with your six year-old.

Alex and Julie got started a few years ago thanks to an invitation from some friends at their Lutheran church. They could tell immediately that the time savings could really help manage the family and help them save money as well. And, in this mixed up jumbled world that makes us all move at the speed of DSL and long for community and family, they felt they couldn’t not give it a try.

He and Julie always pull out some great tasting dish when I’ve visit them, mentioning with a smile that it’s from their cook-off day. Their kids seem happy. The whole family has a sparkle that I’ve noticed is lacking in some frazzled parents. So I asked Alex to give me the details on how he does it.

It’s all in the bulk meal and the process is very loose and open to interpretation.

— Find some like-minded families and invite them to a Cook-off!

— Each family chooses, amongst themselves, whether to divide up the various chores, or not. Who will cook? Who will shop? Who will be more of the scheduler/administrator? Think responsibilities for a full-day commitment, about 7-8 a.m. until 4, 5, 6 p.m. enough time to cook and pack away 25-35 recipes for four families of four or three, or however many. That’s a good three days of preparation, aggregated. And, only one person from each family can reasonably cook, day of, given the size of the kitchen. (Teenagers … have we got a job for you!)

— Make assignments.

— Coordinate the date and recipes.

Note: It takes a lot of emails, phone calls, Facebook messages, etc. to get a date and agree on the recipes. A meeting to decide on all of that might make more sense. Up to you, of course.

— Choose about 25-35 recipes. Quadruple or triple them.

— Then, each person brings their families’ share of the groceries. And, each family is responsible for their own freezeable storage solutions. Casserole dishes, plastic containers, what have you. One drawback of Cookoff is that you’ll probably use a lot of disposables and aluminum.

Note from Alex: “If some people didn’t like a product that another person brought, then we’d comment on it. We aren’t vegetarians, so we have to buy a lot of meat and cheese in bulk and that can get expensive. Each person has to make a choice about the products they use and we felt we couldn’t dictate how everyone contributed.” Of course, if you all agree, as a group, to buy only from the farmers’ market or organics, or share a cow, all the better.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

— Meet at someone’s house. The family with the best supplies … the biggest kitchen, the best counter space, the restaurant-worthy range, etc.

— Consolidate all the ingredients, divided by recipe.

Note: Everyone is responsible for their family’s portion. If you have time to prep: pre-cut vegetables, pre-grate cheese, awesome! If not, no worries, just share the tasks.

— Meanwhile, have a soup going all day so you can eat at some point. Share a meal together.

— Get cooking. It may take a few tries to get into a groove, figure out what works for you and family.

Other Logistics and Tidbits:

You might need a large freezer. Alex and his family tried to use their regular freezer for six months or so, but it was really too much to freeze. He came across a stand-up freezer the size of his refrigerator and hasn’t looked back.

Recipes that last well in the freezer include: Chicken dishes, soups, enchiladas.

Chicken freezes really well. Beef not so much. Chicken Tetrazzini, try it.

The sooner you eat the frozen meals, the better. Most of them should last anywhere from 90 to 120 days.

Of course, nothing beats cooking fresh, but with bulk cooking you know what you’re feeding your family is not processed. You can always add a fresh salad or other fresh vegetables on the side. And, really time is the greatest gift.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

As for the budget: It was never less than $400 for Alex and his family for six weeks. As you bring your own portion of the recipes or pay for a certain part of the Cook-off, the budget is really a matter of choice. Alex also mentioned that sometimes the other family’s products weren’t as great or that some people didn’t season dishes properly, but they never had any real arguments over quality and price.

It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it. To calculate for yourself, think about the amount you spend over six weeks to feed your family and exchange that to spend more time with them!

Alex recommends 2-3 days for planning with 4 as the ideal so there’s a day to prep beforehand. That’s even better.

It’s a lot of work and sometimes a huge headache. But, overall the quality of time spent with the family makes it all worthwhile.

And, if you don’t have other families to cook with, no worries, you can do it solo too. Just plan on cooking 15 recipes, tripled or quadrupled (for 60 meals that could last a solid quarter of the year).

Play ball!

These days Alex and Julie cook with only two families. They use that to their advantage by paying closer attention to ingredients and cooking only those recipes they know and love.

Jen Dalton is the editor of the Local Eats series, which features how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up and conducts interviews for our Faces & Visions of the Food Movement series.  Jen co-produces Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco and heads up Kitchen Table Consulting which provides strategy and communications services to promote and support sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. Jen is also serves as the Cheese Chair of the Good Food Awards and was the Programs Director for Slow Food Nation '08. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Rosie
    this is great a wonderful idea for those who want to spend time cooking but just cant seem to find it EVERYDAY! i am wondering if you have some specific recipe suggestions or websites that you like to source for your frozer friendly recipies.
  2. Jen Dalton
    Here are some of Alex's suggested recipes, of course, some of these can be made vegetarian as well:
    Chicken Enchiladas
    Teriyaki Chicken
    Jamaican Chicken (with a Jerk sauce)
    Moroccan Chicken (Whole tomato sauce w/various Bellpeppers, cumin)
    Mandarin Orange Chicken (with Frozen OJ)
    Stove top BBQ chicken
    Various Soups do well (Minestrone is a favorite)
    Stuffed Manicotti
    Spinach Lasagna
    Big batches of spaghetti sauce

    We usually make a veggie (steamed broccoli, stir-fry carrots, etc) and a starch (rice most often) with the meal.

    Also, meals feed everyone that evening and always provide at least one adult family member with lunch the next day.
  3. beth z
    Great idea. I want to try it, on a smaller scale. we live in Bernal too. We had a different system of getting to eat real food and have a social life during the baby/toddler years when restaurants were unrealistic. One family hosts, one or two others come over for communal dinner. Some parent/s wrangle the kids while others cook (or order in). Emphasize that it is NOT a dinner party- the host doesn't clean their house before hand, doesn't stress about the menu, and it's about fellowship and getting beyond mac n' cheese/pizza.

More from



Restaurants Create a Mound of Plastic Waste. Some Are Working to Fix That.

A small but growing number of restaurants are moving away from single-use plastic take-out containers, which usually end up in the trash because they can’t be recycled. 


Mayor Eric Adams Scrapped NYC’s Compost Project. Here’s What Will Be Lost.

Hands holding compost in new york city. (Photo credit: Angelica Ang)

Nik Sharma Offers His Top Tips for Home Cooks to Fight Recipe Fatigue

Nik Sharma baking at left, and tossing a chickpea dish at right. (Photo credit: Nik Sharma)

Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping