It would be easy to assume that because I spend most of my work week around food and cooking tools I would have it together when it came to cooking dinner at home. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
If your house is anything like mine, “What do you want for dinner tonight?” is a stress-inducing question that too often ends with, “Let’s just grab something on the way home.” We all know that this is expensive and unhealthy. In this article, I’ll share how I meal prep for a week to reduce stress and offer my family flavorful meals when I don’t have time to fire up the grill. This allows us to save time and stay out of the drive-thru.
My Meal Prep Goal
First of all, I’m not a person who prepares a month or more of food in one session. That would be meal planning. I enjoy cooking too much and I need to be in front of the grill more, so I only prepare a week at a time. If you are looking to plan meals for a month or more, feel free to just cook more. The benefit of a smoker is that it cooks a single meal just as well as it cooks five meals at the same time. It’s all about managing space, time, and temperature.
Sunday is the only day every week that my entire family is at home, so it's my best day for cooking. My goal during a meal prep cook is to have one big protein that can convert into three or more individual meals and at least two fast-cooking proteins such as chicken or a sausage. I focus more on the proteins since they take the longest to prepare. I will also use this time to bake any side dishes that can hold well in a fridge or freezer. I usually don’t prepare the sides such as rice, veggies, or salads at this time because they are quick enough to prepare and taste better when cooked just prior to the meal.
Quick tip: Large cuts of meat such as a pork shoulder, a roast, or a brisket convert well into multiple meals. One pork shoulder or brisket can be used for BBQ sandwiches, tacos, soups or casseroles. Because I have a family of three, this allows for several evenings of meals as well as some leftovers to store in the freezer for a quick meal when we’re short on time and have nothing in the fridge.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll discuss a single meal plan preparing a pork shoulder, chicken thighs, and grilled smoked sausage. We’ll finish by preparing shrimp skewers and vegetables to be eaten for dinner that evening.
Step 1: Check Your Ingredients
Always make a list. One missing ingredient can ruin the whole cook. It may be easy to remember the ingredient list for one recipe, but when you start preparing multiple recipes at the same time, it gets a lot more difficult. Making a list of recipes and ingredients allows easy viewing of everything you need to purchase and prepare.
Once you have your ingredient list, prepare a shopping list. Go through it one item at a time to make sure you have everything you need. There’s nothing worse than having to pause an entire cook just to go pick up one ingredient.
Pro-tip: Make sure you have all ingredients at least two days in advance. This allows plenty of time for brining or marinating.
Step 2: Calculate How Much Time It Will Take to Prep Your Food
Thawing - If you need to thaw something, plan for the time it will take. Keep in mind that a pork shoulder or a turkey breast can take several days to thaw while a small package of chicken breasts or thighs can thaw in a few hours. This means that a pork shoulder to be cooked on Sunday may have to be pulled out of the freezer on Thursday.
Brining and marinating – Brining a large cut of meat can take overnight, so you may need to take a moment to trim and place it in the brining solution.
Step 3: Prepare for the Cook
Plan your cooking order - Some recipes will take longer than others. I prepare most of my meal plans on my YS640s because it gives me the versatility to easily create different setups from smoking to grilling. Because smokers take longer to cool down, I always start cooking with my larger pieces of meat that will cook at lower temperatures because they take longer to cook. Then I cook my faster cooking items that require higher temperatures.
For this cook, I first set up my grill to smoke a pork shoulder (250° for 8 to 9 hours). I then set the grill up for over the flame cooking which consists of chicken thighs (250° for 30- 45 minutes, then 400° for 8 to 10 minutes), smoked sausage (400° for 8-10 minutes), then shrimp skewers (450° for 8 minutes).
Keep in mind that these times are approximate. Your temperature and time could vary. Make sure to cook each item to a safe temperature and use good judgement to tell when they are done.
Step 4: Prepare the Ingredients
Mise en place (French pronunciation: [mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]) is a French culinary phrase which means "putting in place" or "gather". It refers to the setup required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared – Wikipedia
We practice mise en place in our kitchen by using a tray system. Each tray is assigned one recipe. If we have a paper copy of the recipe, we leave it on the tray for quick reference.
The trays are arranged in the order we will cook the recipes. Dry seasonings are measured into small bowls. Produce is prepared last. This tray system allows us to see each recipe individually and makes sure all ingredients are ready for the next step of the cook.
Refrigerated items should stay refrigerated until they are ready to go on the grill. You can stage them on your trays just prior to the moment they will be prepared to go on the grill.
In this cooking session, I began my pork shoulder and then waited a few hours before prepping my chicken, sausage, and shrimp. Since I brined my pork shoulder, I prepared it by pulling it out of the brine and placing it on a rack. I patted it dry and applied seasoning. I don't use a binder when I brine because the extra moisture from the brine will work as a binder.
Pro-tip: I season my pork shoulder one hour prior to placing it on the smoker. This allows my rub to soak up moisture and bind to the meat to create a better bark.
Timing the Cook
Timing when food goes on and comes off the grill is important. Since I wanted to eat the shrimp skewers at 6:30 that evening, I started my grill at 8:00 am and placed the pork shoulder on the grill at 8:30 am to allow time for it to finish and leave plenty of time for cooking the rest of the food directly over the flame once the pork has finished.
Because I will began by smoking, I had my diffuser in with the access door closed. My smoker temperature was set at 250° and I left my GrillGrates in the grill to save time and remain hot for the next portion of the cook.
I placed the pork shoulder in the center of the upper shelf and smoked it until it reached 165°. Once it reached 165°, I wrapped the pork shoulder in foil for the rest of the cook.
When I wrap, I know that the pork shoulder is only a few hours from being done, so I prepared my other meats for cooking. This is when I will prepared and marinaded my chicken and shrimp in separate containers. I removed them one hour prior to the pork being done so I could season them. I also cut my smoked sausage into 3-4 inch links and split them down the middle so I could sear the open meat. I used this time to place the shrimp on skewers as well because it makes them much easier to turn all at once when on the grill. I then placed everything back in the refrigerator until it was time to go on the grill
When I thought the pork is 30-45 minutes from being done, I brought the chicken thighs out and set them on the upper shelf with the pork shoulder. This gave them some extra smoke flavor prior to grilling them over high heat.
I know the pork shoulder is done when my temperature is at 205° to 208° and the probe can easily penetrate into the deepest part of the meat. At this point, the meat will also easily pull away from the bone. This is when I will removed the pork from the smoker and placed it on a rack to rest and cool prior to shredding it.
Prepare the Grill for Over the Flame Grilling
To prepare for over the flame cooking, I used a pair of heavy-duty gloves to move my lower grill grates out of the way so that I could open the diffuser access door.
(If you do not have a two-piece diffuser, you will need to remove your grates and pull the entire diffuser out. This could be tricky with the chicken on the upper shelf. Just make sure to have a safe place to lay the hot grate for a minute while you remove your diffuser.)
Next, I placed my lower grill grates back in and set the grill temperature to 400°. Once I saw the flame coming through the grates and the grates wer heated up, I removed my chicken from the upper shelf and placed it directly over the flame to sear for 4 minutes on each side or until they were 170°. Remember: When cooking directly over the flame, the time is not as important as the meat temperature. If the outside of your protein is cooking too quickly, move it out of the flame to cook indirectly.
Once my chicken was moved to the main grates, I then placed my smoked sausage on the right side of the lower grates to first heat indirectly. When the chicken thighs were getting close to done, I moved them over to the indirect side of the grill and placed the smoked sausage directly over the flame to get some char as well. At this point, I started probing the chicken thighs and pulled each piece as it reached 170°-175°.
The smoked sausage came off the grill a few minutes after the chicken. I knew the sausage was done when I could see that it was charred to my liking and it reached 160° internally. Once all of my chicken and smoked sausage were done, I placed them on a rack in my kitchen next to the pork so they could cool prior to being packaged for the refrigerator.
Next, I cooked my dinner for the evening. While the chicken and sausage were finishing, I raised my grill temperature to 450° and placed my vegetables for dinner on the upper shelf to begin cooking. Once the chicken and sausage were removed, I moved the vegetables to the right side on the main grate to cook indirectly and placed my shrimp skewers directly over the flame. The shrimp skewers took just a few minutes on each side, and were done when the internal temperature was above 120°.
After we have finished eating dinner, I prepared the food for storage. I shred the pork by hand and separated it into one-pound containers, then placed my smoked sausage and chicken into containers as well. Everything went into the refrigerator within an hour or two of coming off of the grill to prevent bacteria from forming.
A Quick Word About Meal Prep and Flavors:
When I'm cooking a large cut of meat, I'm always planning for conversions. This is the ability to turn one item into several different meals. To do this, I often use savory seasonings such as salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs instead of sugar and paprika. This allows the meat to be used in any dish and I can always add more seasoning to create the flavor I want we're ready to eat it.
For instance, over the past few years, I use my Savory Pork Shoulder Recipe when I cooked a pork shoulder for my family. Several people on our staff have tried this as well and all have come back saying it is simple to make and full of incredible flavor. The flavor also transfers well into many other recipes such as Mexican with the addition of chile powder or cumin or Italian with the addition of oregano and fennel. Below is how I prepare it:
My Savory Pork Shoulder Recipe
Lighting a pellet tube for a hot and fast cook such as chicken, burgers or steaks infuses a smokier flavor along with the chargrilled crispiness from the higher temperatures from cooking directly over the fire.
Author’s note: I recently smoked chicken thighs for 45 minutes at 180 degrees and added a smoke tube filled with oak pellets, then seared the thighs over direct flame. My family commented on how they could taste more smoke on the food. I will admit that it made for excellent tacos when topped with the Monterey Jack cheese I smoked a few weeks ago.
- One Bone-In 7-9lb Pork Shoulder
- 16oz. Cattleman’s Grill Butcher House Brine
- Cattleman’s Grill Trail Dust Seasoning
- Brining (9-12 hours) – Mix brine and 4 quarts of water in brining bucket or bag. Place trimmed pork shoulder into bucket or bag and allow to soak in refrigerator overnight.
- Prep (5 minutes) - Pull pork shoulder out of the brine up to one hour prior to smoking and place on a wire baking rack. Pat dry with a paper towel. Season with a coating of Trail Dust seasoning and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes to allow the seasonings to pick up moisture and hydrate.
- Cooking (8-9 hours) – Set grill up for smoking with the full diffuser in place and smoker temperature set at 225° to 250°. Place pork shoulder on upper shelf and smoke until internal temperature in deepest part of the meat reaches 165°. Wrap the entire pork shoulder tightly in foil and place back on upper shelf until it reaches 205° to 208° degrees internally. You will know that it is done when the meat is tender enough to insert a probe with little to no resistance and the meat has pulled away from the bone.
- Once you remove the pork shoulder from the smoker allow it to rest at room temperature in the foil for at least 30 minutes. Save any juice that resides inside the foil and reintroduce it to your pork after you have shredded it.
When completed, you should have enough meat for several meals. If anything goes uneaten longer than that in the fridge, I freeze it to use within the next 3 months.
I have found that when we have food prepared in the fridge or the freezer, we spend less time discussing what we want for dinner and we eat out less. Not only does meal planning help us save money, it also helps my family bond over dinner at the table every night as well as allowing me to spend time teaching my daughter how I cook. All of which are even more valuable when time with her is brief yet still precious. I love it when she looks at me and says, “Daddy – This is the most amazing thing I have ever eaten…”