Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Freezer Meals that Don't Take All Day

I knew for awhile that creating a freezer meal stash was something I wanted to do for my husband and I. Then, I got pregnant, and I knew that making freezer meals was something that I had to do for our survival!

But the thought of dropping an extra 100 bucks or so at the grocery store and slaving away in the kitchen for a whole day just did not sound like fun to me. Especially once I got into my third trimester.

So here are some useful ideas (that I found helpful) in case you don't want to turn your kitchen into a disaster zone and pass out from exhaustion!


Buy Some Supplies

I purchased a bunch of square aluminum baking pans from Walmart. They were like 97 cents for a 2-pack. I bought the entire stack on the shelf! I am just cooking for 2 adults, so if your family is larger, you will probably want to pick out a larger size.

You will also want to have some aluminum foil on hand (the heavy-duty variety is best). I also used plastic wrap to wrap around each pan before putting the foil on top to maximize freshness. THIS IS OPTIONAL, but I thought it was a smart idea in case the foil got a rip in it while stacking and moving things in the freezer.

Get a permanent marker to label each pan with it's contents. Some may need further instruction, such as "add cheese on top before baking" or "may need more chicken broth". This is handy to have written on the foil in case you are not the one heating it. Or in case you thought you would remember, but you didn't!

Lastly, I also got some gallon freezer storage bags for meats and soups. And any other random things you may want to freeze.

Now that you have all these things on hand, you are all set to get to cooking!

Research Good Meals to Freeze

This is going to be up to you and your family. What are everyone's likes? Dislikes? Allergies? Do you want to pick familiar recipes or try some new ones...or both? How flexible is your budget? Are you going for comfort food or health food...or both? How much room is currently in your freezer?! You may want to consider using up a lot of what is in your freezer (or just throwing away the old stuff) before you start making freezer meals. Or, better yet, you can plan to incorporate some things currently in there into your freezer meals!

I got a lot of my ideas from recipes that we know and love. I did look up some on Pinterest, so we do have some new ones in the mix. 

I'll bet you're wondering...how do I know which meals will freeze well?

Pretty much any of them that are a one-pot dish or casserole! They may just need a bit of tweaking.

*Pasta dishes - you will want to undercook the pasta just by a few minutes. You don't want the pasta falling apart before it even gets to the freezer. These meals will be reheated to a bubbly temperature, so it needs to be able to withstand that additional cooking time during the reheating process.

*Make sure there is enough liquid/broth/sauce in the meal. If it's looking a little dry, you'll want to add some more. Heating it in the oven will cause a lot of moisture loss. And no one likes a dry casserole!

*Don't forget about freezer meats! Sloppy Joes, taco meat, meatballs, bbq chicken...while these are not complete meals, they are great things to have on hand and can easily be supplemented with a canned or frozen veggie and some bread or pasta!

Ok, so you've got your list of recipes...now what?

Pick a Few Meals to Make Each Week

The majority of families are on a budget. And don't have a lot of time in the evenings to spend in the kitchen. I decided, along with my weekly meal plan, that I would choose a meal or two to double, and I would stick the second batch in the freezer. This only adds a little extra time to your dinner prep with minimal effort.

Super, super easy! You can make the double batch, sit down and eat your dinner, and when you go to put the leftovers away, the food has cooled enough for you to dump in your pan, cover up, label, and shove in the freezer! And the best part is that there are no extra dishes to wash!

An alternative to this method is to pick an extra meal or two to make in addition to your weekly dinners. Since most of the freezer meals are one-pot meals, they aren't super involved and don't take a whole lot of time. And some can even be crock pot meals! That might be the best way to save you the time. 

Or, maybe you've cooked a giant meal on a Friday night and it yielded a ton of leftovers. We are really bad about eating leftovers on the weekends, so you could easily just throw those leftovers in a pan and put it in the freezer. Another freezer meal down! This is how my stash got started!

Tips to Make You More Efficient

When choosing which meals to pick for each week, I tried to pick ones that had similar ingredients...especially the meat. I would choose 2 chicken meals, or 2 beef meals, or 2 italian meals...you get the idea. This way, you are purchasing similar ingredients and don't have a crazy shopping list, and by using the same meats you can cook it all at once and avoid the risk of cross-contamination.

For me, the easiest way to prep cooked and chopped chicken was poaching. I don't think I'll ever prep chopped or shredded chicken any other way! So easy. You start off just like you are going to boil some eggs...put your raw chicken in a large pot and cover with COLD water. Then heat to boiling, and cover, reducing to a simmer. I cooked my chicken for 25 minutes and it turned out perfect every time. No more dried out, overcooked baked chicken! (These directions are for boneless, skinless chicken breasts.)

The recipe you use may not always match the pan size you have selected. Some of my recipes made enough to fill 2 of my pans and then some, and other recipes filled only one (and some even gave me one pan and extra, but not enough for a full second pan). But that's ok! That's the beauty of making freezer meals - it doesn't matter! What matters is that you have a food stash going on in your freezer, and that nothing goes to waste! It's up to you if the extra is kept in the refrigerator to be eaten right away, or put in a smaller pan to freeze anyway.

Take care to wrap and seal your meal well before putting it in the freezer! It would be a shame to let air leak in and compromise all your hard work (and your money)! I wrapped all my pans with plastic wrap and then aluminum foil on top of that. If you are putting food in a plastic bag, like meats, roll it into a log so it takes up less space in the freezer. A log will reheat faster than a giant block. And all the air is pressed out, preventing freezer burn. If your bag is more full (like with soups), you can lay the bag completely flat until it is frozen solid (you can put it on a plate or a cookie sheet). Then you can store the bags vertically or horizontally to save space.

It might be helpful to have a master list of all the meals that are in the freezer. It occurred to me that all my pans were labeled on the top where the label could not be seen instead of on the side where it would be visible when the freezer is opened. You can keep the list attached to the outside of the freezer and then cross off each one as it is eaten. Or I've seen people use address labels on the side of each pan to label it. But those things usually come in a big pack and are kind of pricey. I though about using blue tape (because I always seem to have blue tape) but I don't think it would stick to the pans in the freezer. Maybe you'll find an idea that works better!

I'm Ready to Tap Into My Stash...How Do I Reheat the Meal?

This may not work for every single meal, but a general rule of thumb is that 350 degrees the the safest temperature to reheat a meal that comes straight out of the freezer. Not so hot that things will burn, but it will take longer at this temperature. You could go up to 400 degrees, but I would recommend keeping an eye out for burning edges, and covering the pan with foil towards the end to prevent that from happening. And also to prevent the top layer from drying out. Expect it to take 30 to 45 minutes to fully heat your food to a safe temperature until you see that things are bubbly and heated throughout.

Soups and meats stored in the gallon baggies should be heated on the stovetop. It is tempting to crank the heat all the way up, but all that's going to do is burn the bottom while there are still frozen bits on top. Reheat no higher than medium with a lid on. Stir often to break up the chunks as it heats up.

Reheating freezer meals takes some patience!

You can also take a meal out of the freezer a day ahead of time and put it in the refrigerator to help shorten the cooking time.



I hope these ideas help you to want to make freezer meals! They are a total life-saver!




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