Starting a routine and getting used to doing a dog food meal prep each week or month can be overwhelming at first. And meal prepping your dog’s food is not easy feat, it will take time, and some pre-planning in order for it to be successful.
Knowing what you are getting into prior to considering home-cooking your dog’s food is very important – you will need to get a complete and balanced recipe that is appropriate for your dog, you will need to source your ingredients, and you will need to purchase storage containers (and sometimes even a separate freezer/fridge!) just to store your dog food.
In this article we will discuss:
- Considerations before Home-cooking for your Dog
- Calculating How Much to Cook for your Dog
- Ingredient Sourcing for Organ Meats and Seasonal Produce in Dog Food
- How to Batch Cook for your Dog Weekly
- Special Considerations for Large Meal Preps and Picky Dogs
- How to Store Fresh Dog Food – from freezer to fridge and then the bowl
Considerations before Meal Prepping your Dog’s Food
IT TAKES TIME
The first thing you need to understand is just like meal-prepping your meals a week at a time, doing so for your dog will save you time on a daily basis, however, it will take a lot of time one day a week. Depending on your schedule this might be something you can do, BUT for some people who are very limited on time – it might be better to choose a gently cooked premade homemade diet instead.
Until shelf-stage food items may be able to be kept in a cabinet, cooked fresh food items need to be stored in a fridge (for about 3 days), or in a freezer (for up to a month) in air-tight containers. Thus you WILL need a freezer and fridge space for your dog’s food. If for whatever reason – either you travel or your life the “van-life” you have limited space – you might want to consider a freeze-dried, dehydrated, canned, or kibbled option instead. You can still gain benefits of fresh food by just adding a bit of fruit or vegetables to the bowl instead.
BALANCE IS IMPORTANT
The second thing you need to do is FIND A RECIPE, there are many different ways to do this, but it’s is important to realize that a large majority are not complete and balanced (a recent study suggested almost 95% of recipes online and in books). Personally, I use BalanceIT for creating my dog’s recipes – which you can do as well – but I do have a blog post that contains a list of resources for homemade diets. I also offer consults with BalanceIT if you need more support, tips, and help to create a recipe!
FOLLOW THE RECIPE
The third thing, and probably the most IMPORTANT – is you need to follow the recipe! There are many benefits from home-cooking for your dog, but there are just as many, if not more negatives from giving your dog an unbalanced dog food recipe. Switching out coconut oil for walnut oil in a recipe will cause your dog to be deficient in essential fatty acids, or switching 80% ground beef for chicken breast could cause protein deficiency due to lack of essential amino acids.
The bottom line – find a great recipe, AND follow that recipe – you will be spending so much more time cooking for your dog than a typical person feeding a manufactured diet. Don’t cut corners and end up accidentally causing issues rather than supporting your pup to live a long and healthy life.
Calculating How Much for your Dog Food Meal Prep
When you need to understand when you are meal prepping for your dog is the meat products will shrink in the oven (due to losing water weight). Depending on your recipe and if it is written to be measured before or after cooking – this might mean you need to do some estimation when you purchase your ingredients.
For example – BalanceIT recipes are measured after cooking. So when it says 14oz roasted chicken breast – that means after cooking. This means that in order to get 14oz in the end, you will need to start with MORE. Personally, I have found that most lean meats lose about ⅓ of their weight when cooking due to water loss, with the exception of Fish – which seem to lose half with weight in water when cooked.
Thus when batching out or cooking a recipe to meal prep for dogs, you will need to keep that in mind and over-estimate the amounts of certain products that you will need to cook. For example – in a recipe, I cooked 9 lbs of chicken raw-weight, even though the recipe calls for only 7 lbs of cooked chicken.
Another example will be rice or grains which will actually increase in weight when cooked! Depending on the grain this may mean starting with half or a third of the cooked weight as the dry grain going into the water for cooking.
Ingredient Sourcing for your Dog Food Meal Prep
Depending on the recipe you are using sourcing ingredients may be simple or it may be more complicated. For example, some recipes may ask for organ meats such as chicken gizzard, beef heart, or even lamb liver – these are usually fairly difficult to find in your local grocer, so you do have to be fairly creative to come up with sources.
Where to find Organ Meats for Homemade Dog Food Recipes:
The first place to check is your local ethnic markets – where I live we have many different ethnic markets – Asian, Indian, Mexican, etc – and all these markets not only often have less expensive cuts of meat, but will also have a much larger variety of organ meats than my local grocer at the end of the street.
The second place to check is your local farmer’s market – they probably will not have organs on-site to sell, however, if you speak to them over the phone prior to an event, many will have extra organs that they don’t use from animals they are selling in the market. Often these organs can be a great option and can be relatively inexpensive.
The third place to consider is to join a local raw food co-op. These are groups of people who will buy meat and organs in BULK from farmers or meat suppliers. Since these items are purchased in bulk they are often less expensive than what you will find in the store. The only issue is that you will need a large freezer to purchase as minimums can be rather large for purchase.
How to find Fruit or Vegetables that are out of Season?
The main place I want you to consider looking for non-seasonal produce is the FREEZER SECTION. Fruits and vegetables that have been frozen are JUST as healthy as fresh foods and can be great options if items are out of season. Make sure to double-check that the items do not contain any added sugar, butter, salt, or oil – you really want these items in their raw form.
However, it is possible that you might not be able to find a certain item. Things like cranberries can sometimes only be found during the winter months. Ideally what you can do is purchase in bulk for the year – then store them in your freezer until you need them.
One of the main reasons why I actually love using BalanceIT is because if something isn’t in season – I can reformulate the recipe easily using different ingredients.
How to Batch Cook Weekly or Monthly for your Dog Food Meal Prep
Once all the ingredients are prepared – be that cooked, or just chopped up into bite-sized pieces it is time to portion it all out and put it together!
There are two ways to really meal-prep for your dog, one is by individually measuring out all the ingredients into each container for each day. The second is by measuring all the weekly ingredients into a large bowl, mixing them together, and then portioning them into daily amounts.
Personally, I find if you are doing small batches it can be easier to just throw everything into the larger mixing bowl, and then portion into daily meals. However, if you are doing larger batches or if you are prepping the same recipe for several large dogs, everything might not fit into a large mixing bowl. In which case you may need to individually portion meals just out of necessity.
Calculating the Amount of Food for Weekly Batches
If you are planning on doing weekly batches calculating the amounts of each ingredient needed can be a bit overwhelming – what I usually recommend is taking your recipe and plugging it into an excel spreadsheet. Then just ask excel to do all the calculations for you! Then you can just print that out and use it as your “weekly batch recipe”.
Meal-Prepping HUGE batches.
First – you can use things like kids swimming pools or large tubs to mix your batches if you have large breed dogs. I know when I was pregnant I made a 6 month batch of food for my two 50 lb dogs and mixed everything up in an (un-used) kiddie pool using serving spoons. Then I vacuum sealed portions in bags and stored them in a deep freezer. It was a lot of work all at once, and I don’t think I will do such a large batch again – but – it ended up working out really well once my twins were born because I didn’t have to cook for a while!
Second – you can invest in industrial-sized equipment to mix larger batches. These are huge investments upfront but if you plan on doing this regularly for say – your five Great Danes – it might be a nice time-saver and investment.
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Meal Prepping for Picky Dogs:
If you have a picky dog where you want to or need to re-heat the food. Do not add the vitamins or oils to the food. Instead, write on the container with a sharpie or use a label to add how many vitamins/oils to add to the food prior to serving. Many vitamins are heat-sensitive (such as vitamin E), and oils will often go rancid or change when heated. By separating the food it will allow you to lightly heat the food in the microwave or on the stove-top prior to serving without it affecting the oils or supplements.
This can also be helpful for dogs with nausea associated with certain medical conditions – such as kidney disease, cancer, or liver disease – where the disease process may cause difficulty eating.
Another alternative is to use a heat-stable supplement like BalanceIT Plus. BalanceIT Plus can be reheated one time after mixing into the food. Thus if you are doing large batches of dog food meal prep you could use BalanceIT Plus to mix in then reheat prior to feeding.
How to Store your Dog Food Meal Prep – Freezer, Fridge Bowl – Rotating Food
After you have all the food portioned into either meals or daily portions then it is time to put everything into the fridge or the freezer for storage. When you are using fresh food – you store it JUST LIKE how you would your own food.
I usually keep two to three days of food in my fridge and the rest in my freezer. Then as I take out a container to feed to my dogs the next portion moves from the freezer to the fridge. I suggest using one drawer or shelf of your fridge for dog food, then putting the new food from the freezer either on the bottom of the stack or in the back, then moving the older food to the front.
For some people just starting out a labeling system can also be helpful where the write the date an item has been cooked, and the date it was placed from freezer to fridge. If you plan to use a labeling system I highly recommend having a magnetic sharpie or pen on your fridge so it’s easily accessible.
Practice Makes Perfect
Overall what I want you to understand is the when you start home-cooking or home preparing your dog’s food – it’s not going to be perfect right away. Start small and work your way up to larger batches, and if it feels overwhelming take a step back. We now have many different fresh food options are the market that are balanced for dogs, and what we don’t want to do is feed our dogs an unbalanced diet for potential short-term gain and cause long-term problems. So though a homemade diet can have many benefits – if not done properly it can have drawbacks too. The idea here is to not cause disease unintentionally.
About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, AS Animal Health -2013) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.
Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!
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