Hey guys. I recently got into this whole freezer meal cooking thing and have experienced great success! Some of you have asked for some detailed instructions, so here goes…
It typically takes me about an hour to make dinner every night, between figuring out what I want to make, defrosting the meat, chopping veggies, cooking, baking, yada yada yada… When 4:30pm rolls around, I DREAD having to figure out and take the time to make dinner, especially with a 17-month old who requires my EVERY moment of attention in the afternoon!
After I began school again (going back to college for 2 years), the need to streamline my efforts became obvious. I simply did not have time to make dinner after a full day of school. On my days at home, I wanted to spend them with the kids, cleaning the house, doing my homework, and running errands… typically playing catch-up, not wasting time in the kitchen. But we didn’t have the money or desire to eat convenience/fast food every night. I decided one weekend day to try a 4-hour session and see how many meals I could make with what we had on hand, then freeze them to be defrosted during the week. I just took 5 or 6 of our favorite recipes and doubled them. Lo and behold, I came out of it with 14 meals, enough to keep us fed for 2 weeks worth of dinners! We simply pulled out a frozen meal the night before and let it defrost during the day. Around 5 or 5:30pm, we’ll throw the meal in a pot to heat, and voila! DINNER!!! We were hooked from the start! At the end of those 2 weeks, I decided to shoot for a grander goal: a month’s worth of meals. So, I took more of our favorite recipes, quadrupled them (yes, that’s 4 times!), and the results were not 28 meals, but 40 meals!!! The reason for the extra goodness? When separating the loot into the Ziploc bags for freezing, I scooped/served out the amount that I know my family would eat (ok, 2 ladles of chili for me, 3 for Tony, 1 for Micah, 1 for Kaelyn, and an extra one for good measure). Well the food seems to multiply when you measure it out this way! We usually have leftovers anyway, but this is also a great way to make sure our portions are staying under control. Not only do we get more nights of easy meals, but we also get more bang for our buck… we ended up saving money in the long run. So, how do you go about making 40 meals in one day? I’ll show ya!
8 hours to make 40+ meals. The biggest tip I can give you is, PREPARATION IS KEY to success! Spend a good 30 minutes planning and one or two hours shopping, and you will be glad you did!
Step 1: Choose your menu.
I don’t have strict guidelines for choosing my freezer meals. You can really almost freeze anything. I do pick the ones I know we love, because we’re going to eat the same meals 4 or 5 times over a matter of 6 weeks (but don’t we usually recycle our favs throughout the weeks anyway?). I try to keep the meats to a minimum. We are on a major budget to pay off debt while also eating as organically as possible, so we’re slowly easing into some vegetarian recipes. I chose 3 beef recipes, 2 chicken recipes, and 3 veggie recipes. I also check to see what we have on hand already. We recently bought a share of a cow from my aunt, so we had a ton of beef on hand. Finally, I check the local grocery store flyers to see what’s on sale and combine those with any coupons I may have. This is the menu I came up with (I’ve included the recipes here if you’re interested):
Chili x 4
Beef stew x 4
Veggie Spaghetti x 4
Zucchini patties w/ veggie soup x 4
Beans, rice, cheese burritos x 36
Meatloaf x 4
Chic Stir Fry x 4
Chicken Nuggets x 2 lbs (for the kids’ lunches)
Step 2: Make your grocery list.
Go through each recipe and write out how much of everything you’ll need. I like to keep a running tally of the popular items, like onions and pounds of meat. Then go through your cupboards and fridge to cross off the items you already have. I’m an organizational nerd, so I usually rewrite the grocery list so it’s easier to shop (I shop with 2 kids under the age of 4, so organization is necessary at the store for me!): 24 carrots, 16 bell peppers, 4 cups grated parm, etc. Don’t forget to check your spices and condiments to make sure they’re fully stocked.
Step 3: Collect those coupons, and go shopping!
I typically shop at 2 grocery stores every week, to make use of sales and to find certain items I can’t get at one store (I eat gluten free, so it’s not really easy to find a ton of GF stuff at say, Walmart). Because I’m used to going 2 places every week for groceries, I find that freezer meal shopping doesn’t add much time to my normal shopping trips. Tip: remember to stock up on gallon and quart sized Ziploc bags and foil for storage!
Step 4: Prepare the night before.
If my meats are frozen, I pull them all out to defrost. If I feel extra energized, I may even start chopping those dang onions (I swear you will get SICK of chopping onions! haha). Do as much prep chopping as your little heart desires the night before, because it WILL save you time the next day. This time however, I did not chop the night before. I go so far as to tape the recipes on my cupboards in the order I’d like to cook. Clear out the sink of all dishes, because you are gonna make a MESS the next day. J It also helps to clean out your freezer of spoiled/unused items to make room for storage.
Step 5: Cook those meals!
I try to start in the morning, because after 8 hours you may get a little discouraged seeing the sun set and you’re STILL in the kitchen! Put on some comfy slippers, a good audiobook or music on the ipod, and get ready! I clear out my surfaces and clean out the dishwasher. I pull out all my ingredients and group them in similar areas for easy reach. Then, as Nike says, you JUST DO IT. I start with a soup or chili that needs to simmer for a while. Multiplying those recipes may seem crazy, but it’s not so hard to chop 4 onions rather than one. You get into a rhythm. I try to keep similar recipes going together. If I’m making chili (while that’s simmering), I’ll start the meatloaf… similar ingredients which are already out. I alternate a stovetop meal and an oven meal, so that a meal isn’t waiting for space to cook. This particular day, I did chili first, then meatloaf, then beef stew and veggie spaghetti at the same time (the noodles take a while to cook, so I chopped the beef stew ingredients while waiting for my water to boil). Then chicken stir fry (starting the rice, because it takes an hour to cook), chicken nuggets, then zucchini patties, and finally the burritos.
As I finish one meal, I place it on a potholder on the counter to cool while I start the next meal. While something else is cooking, I start to put the cooled contents into the Ziploc bags. I open the empty Ziploc bag and place into a large bowl to ease the transfer and cut down on the mess. Then ladle/scoop/pour the amounts I know my family will eat (plus a little extra) into a gallon or quart size bag and seal it. Then label and lay flat for stacking and plop in the freezer. The flat Ziploc bag storage trick really saves on space. You’d be amazed at how much you can fit into a small space! (Side note: definitely buy the freezer bags versus regular storage bags. Big difference in keeping freezer burn at bay). Soups and chilis work just fine in the gallon sized bags, so they’re just as easy to store (you don’t have to do bulky Tupperware). Just like so:
*When making a small meal like zucchini patties, I like to add veggie soup to fill us up. If I have coupons, I’ll just save time and buy the canned veggie soup to accompany the patties (this time I had coupons for some organic veggie soup that was on sale, and I ended up only paying like a dollar per can. I bought 8 cans to make sure we had 4 meals worth for our family). You can take shortcuts!
*I like to individually wrap the burritos in foil before placing into Ziploc bags. That way, I can pull out one at a time for lunches. You can do this with breakfast burritos and have yummy breakfast on hand! Waffles are also great to make in bulk. That dang waffle maker is such a pain to clean, so if you only have to do it once every 6 weeks, it makes the waffles “taste” that much sweeter. J Just throw in the toaster oven straight from the freezer.
*Gluten free pastas have a tendency of mushing when defrosting. I try and stay away from thin pastas like angel hair and go for things like penne noodles. Same goes for potatoes. Try to slightly undercook the potatoes in stew, because otherwise they’ll get a little mushy.
*To defrost, I pull out the frozen yummy meal bag and plop in a large bowl overnight and into the next day. I throw it in a large pot for reheating on the stovetop. It’s that easy! For the chicken nuggets, I just pop them in the toaster oven for the kids’ lunches. Burritos too!
*If you have time on freezing day, you can also make cornbread, banana bread, etc to freeze for chili and stew nights. Otherwise you can just buy and freeze a package of rolls. I like to also make and freeze granola bars for our family to eat over the weeks.
*Sometimes I’ll start the crockpot in the morning and add 3 or 4 lbs of chicken breast with some spices and water. This simmers all day. At the end of the day, you can shred the chicken and separate into quart sized bags to freeze for instant chicken to add to salads, burritos, or whatever. You can also do this with some beef, chopped onions, shredded carrots (because they really stretch the meat and fill you faster), and taco seasoning for easy taco nights, or to place on a baked potato.
*Many times I’ll cut the meat in half when making stews and chilis. You really don’t notice the decrease when all those yummy filling veggies are present.
*I buy the Eden organic beans online at Amazon in bulk to save money. As far as I know, they are the only brand of beans that does not use BPA in the lining of the can.
*I like to keep ready made salad on hand to go with most of these meals every night… keeping our veggie intake up and our portion sizes of meaty meals down.
*Think of someone (a new mom, someone who’s sick or just home from the hospital, or really busy) to give a meal to! It’s so easy to just pull out of your freezer, and you can bless someone’s day just like that!
The possibilities are endless for freezer meal cooking!! But it gives you the freedom and flexibility to take back your evenings. I’ve just begun on the freezer meal journey, so I know I have much to learn. However, our family has already reaped so many benefits from the 8-hour effort!
How about you? Have you tried the freezer-cooking thing? Have any great tips you’d recommend?