"We are here in the kitchen with the Make-Ahead Mamas," says cooking show host Michael Ketchum, turning his attention to eight smiling women standing behind him. "OK, where do we go next?"
With the first take of the evening rolling in front of them, the eight usually chatty members of Make-Ahead Mamas freeze. Three seconds, four, five … and then a sudden burst of laughter ripples through the group as they realize that this was their cue to start talking and get chopping as the featured guests on Allrecipes.com's new "What's Cooking Web" show.
The next take is smooth as cream, as two of the Mamas step to the counter in Karina Kunins' spacious kitchen and set to making the evening's first preparation, Beef Bulgogi. The two are surrounded by Ziploc bags, spices and the meat central to this dish. A few Mamas stand at the sinks doing other prep work on camera. One Mama asks to hold a two-week-old baby so his mama can get in the shot.
The rest of the moms, however, make a beeline for the wine and cheese in the other room. While preparing at least a week's worth of meals to put in their freezers to pull out on a particularly hectic day is the primary reason for this gathering every two months, wine and the chance to really talk to adult friends is a close second.
"The truth is I see these ladies all the time and the conversation usually goes like this: One of us will say ‘Hey, how are you?' And before she can reply the other is running off chasing her kid across the park," says Maia Kelley, who originally came up with the idea of Make-Ahead Mamas. "This a great chance to talk and catch up with my friends – and be able to pull something out of my freezer that has a real ‘Wow!' factor for my kids and husband."
Deb Kapsner, Karina Kunins, Cindy Wright, Kari Larson, Sue Bae, Claudia Pettis, Maia Kelley and Bethany Febus met for the first time at Wedgwood Co-op Preschool. They swapped stories about the joys and challenges of parenting, working and cooking healthy meals.
"We all wanted to do less take-out and at the same time not stress about what we were going to make for dinner," Kelley says.
At first the women considered going to a commercial make-and-freeze meal business. "Then we decided for a better price we could do it on our own," she says.
Now that several members of the group have two or three children (there are 18 children among the nine members, all between the ages of 2 weeks and 6 years), the six gatherings a year have freed moms from one of the more aggravating experiences with kids.
"I used to love to go out, but if you go out to dinner with three kids, it is no fun. You have to get all the kids in the car and then there's a meltdown," says Kelley. "And going to the grocery store with three kids? I never know who's going to freak out or when my patience will end. "Honestly, I think I'd rather not eat!" Kelley adds with a laugh.
As the evening rolls on, different members and sometimes the whole Make-Ahead Mamas group gather at the counter to be filmed working on a single dish made in a large enough batch to be divided up into eight family meals.
The group of North Seattle moms has gathered every two months since 2007 to mass-prepare ready-to-go meals. In the beginning, the members say, pulling all the right ingredients together to make numerous dishes for such a large number of people was "chaotic."
"But it's morphed into a well-oiled machine. Now we have assigned roles based on availability and the work just flows," says Kapsner.
Here's how it works: The group uses a Doodle calendar and planning tool (www.doodle.com/) to choose a date for the next gathering. Then, those interested in submitting recipes to the group do so on Doodle and the whole group votes. The top eight to 10 vote-getters become the meals that will be prepared.
"We do fairly family friendly, but once in a while we do something spicy," says Kunins.
In order to get enough ingredients, Kelley takes all of the recipes, uses the Allrecipes.com recipe expander tool online and then creates a master shopping list, organized by department and store. A call goes out for moms to scan their gardens. Then a couple of Mamas are assigned to head to a warehouse store (usually Costco) and get as many items in bulk as possible. A third person goes to a grocery store to get the rest of the ingredients.
On the day of cooking, the women arrive hauling coolers, boxes and bags. Different size Ziploc bags line the counter. Ingredients that are left over from previous gatherings (oils, spices that can be purchased in bulk) are pulled from the cupboards. They set up the wine, juice and snack table and start cooking.
Kapsner said the group has learned a lot. For one, dairy-based meals don't freeze well, so they avoid meals that have too much dairy. They have also learned that it's easy to hide kale and other veggies in dishes that kids love.
The first webisode of Allrecipes.com What's Cooking premiered on Allrecipes.tv in late July. The webisodes will run for four to eight minutes each and be posted every Thursday at 11 a.m. PST.
"We didn't want this to be a Food Network show," says Stephanie Robinett of Allrecipes.com. "We wanted it to be real people, real food, shot in somebody's kitchen."
Host Ketchum and his cameraman will shoot 26 webisodes this year, several from the Northwest. The webisode focused on the ladies of Make-Ahead Mamas will hit the Internet at Allrecipes.tv in September – just in time for school. All of the groups' recipes and how to create a similar cooking group will also be explained in a printable pdf after the show airs, on the site http://allrecipes.tv/whatscooking/makeaheadmamas.aspx.
The camera put away, the snacks almost gone, the oven in the Kunins' kitchen winds down. After cleaning and packing up, each mom hauls home a cooler full of meals ready to pop in the oven.
Whether they stay at home or work out of the house, the moms say these meals are time, sanity and budget savers – a fact that is confirmed when treasurer Kari Larson tallies the receipts and divides. The cost of eight meals for each family? About $100, less than $13 per meal for an entire family.
Cheryl Murfin writes and scrambles to get healthy meals on the table in Seattle and LA.