Becca here with a bit of a different post today, but one I hope you'll find useful. When I posted on facebook recently about doing some freezer cooking, I received several questions and comments, so I thought I'd do a series over the next few weeks on Tuesdays & Thursdays on that very topic. Today I'll share the basics of how I prepare and then cook, and the next few weeks will be recipes (including the ones listed on my recipe notebook page below if you want a sneak peek at what's coming!)
A couple of weeks ago we moved to a new house and town, and I'm due to have my fourth child in a few weeks from now, so healthy freezer meals are something that have been a lifesaver for me during this busy season of life in particular! Today I thought I'd do a quick overview of how I do "freezer cooking." I've seen all kinds of books and blogs on the topic, and even scanned a few, but, honestly, I don't have the time or patience to devote to reading 20-50 (+!!) pages on just how to get started. So here's my short & sweet version of meal planning that includes food for the freezer that works for me. I'll include the steps I go through to plan, shop, and cook, and a few tips & hints at the end that I think might help.
1) Choose your recipes. Gather a copy (I prefer a paper, hard copy) of every recipe you'd like to make this week. I include both 'regular' meals and freezer meals and do it all at once. You can click on "freezer friendly" on categories on the far right of the blog here, where we have several recipes listed, and I will be adding many other recipes as I continue this series over the next few weeks. There are all kinds of freezer specific cookbooks, although I would be a bit careful, as many of them contain lots of really processed ingredients that I avoid, like cream soups, etc. Think about recipes you already make and would freeze well, like soups, marinated meats, chili, casseroles, etc. A few of my family's favorites that I've already posted recipes for and make repeatedly are Taco Pasta Bake, Spicy + Creamy Chicken Quesadillas, Slow Cooker Mongolian Beef, and Layered Baked Spaghetti. I'll be posting many others over the next few weeks.
If this is your first time cooking with the intent of freezing, I'd recommend starting with no more than 3-4 different recipes that each make at least two your-family-sized servings.
2) Prepare your shopping list. I do two lists. A 'bulk' list that I use for either Sam's Club or my monthly Azure Standard order, and a separate grocery store list. I find that I can get the majority of my items in bulk, and the quality and price is usually significantly better on those items. I find it easier to shop this way, and love being able to check the prices and availability online if I have a question before I either go (Sam's Club) or order online (Azure Standard). I had a huge list to make this time, for Sam's Club since we had an empty fridge & freezer from moving, and missed the deadline for Azure Standard last month, and still had it done in right at thirty minutes.
If it's an ingredient where the quantity is going to be a factor, I put the amount necessary for each recipe, using either ounces, pounds, or tally marks per items, in the margin, as you can see above. For example, I needed 3 trays of chicken breasts for 3 different recipes, that I kept track of with tally marks in the margin. I wanted to make sure I had enough milk for both drinking and cooking, so I added the cups needed for each recipe in the margin (4 c., 4 c., 2/3 c., and 2/3 c.) to estimate how many gallons I needed to buy.
4) Go Shopping. Don't forget your list(s)! I've seen some people arrange their lists by aisle in the grocery store, but I'm not familiar enough with the stores here yet at all, don't always go to the same store, and find that my "turn around and go back for something" rate is the same whether I take the time to do that or not, so it's not something I ever do. I homeschool my children, so they're always with me on while grocery shopping, so my oldest daughter (7 1/2) usually is in charge of the list and marking things off, while she gives her brothers (4 1/2 & 2) things to be on the lookout for.
5) Prepare to cook. When we get home, I leave all of the shelf-stable items I have designated for a my freezer cooking session(s) out in one spot on the counter for quick access, and try to place the items together in the refrigerator so they're easy to find.
6) Cook! The easiest way for me to do this is to prepare 2-3 similar recipes at a time, as I'm preparing our dinner for that day. For example, this time I made the Stroganoff Meatballs & Sweet & Sour Meatballs (recipes coming soon!) at the same time, and served one portion of the Stroganoff Meatballs for dinner that night. While it took a bit longer to form the extra meatballs, I didn't get any extra dishes dirty, didn't have to preheat the oven multiple times, and now have twelve delicious meals in the freezer, ready to be heated & served. As I cleaned up the kitchen from dinner that night, I also quickly prepared the Cranberry Skillet Chicken dish, which doesn't require precooking, resulting in six more meals ready to go.
As another example, the next night I prepared Chicken Curry and Chicken Broccoli Bake, since both require several similar ingredients I could prepare alongside each other, or together, such as cooked chicken, chopped onions, and easy sauces 'from scratch' I actually made in pots side by side at the same time on the stove. Again, without much more time or effort than I would have normally spent preparing dinner, I had 3 - 4 of each meal prepared for the freezer, and dinner for that night as well.
*If you're overwhelmed by the idea of a bulk cooking session, start by just making double anytime you're preparing a meal that could be frozen. Most soups, casseroles, etc. do great in the freezer, and it requires hardly any extra time to prepare an extra dish, resulting in a quick & convenient dinner later. For example, I never make a single batch of things like chili or pancakes. I find that it takes very little more time & effort to make a double (or greater) batch and freezer the extras. My kids love being able to "make" breakfast by themselves by putting a pancake or waffle into the toaster, and I love that not only is it significantly less expensive than the frozen boxed variety, there's also no comparison nutritionally to the whole grain ones I make at home.
*Be sure and let the hot foods cool to room temperature before placing them into the freezer, both for food safety reasons and food quality.
*For the same reasons, both food safety & quality, it's best to always defrost your freezer meals in the refrigerator overnight. When I'm cleaning up the kitchen the night before, I just always glance at my calendar to see what we have going the next day, and move a meal from the fridge to the freezer so it's ready to go the next day.
*There are a couple of ingredients that I compromise a bit and use when freezer cooking that I normally try to avoid, such as chicken & beef bouillon, and in this case purchased dry bread crumbs. Often I could have substituted homemade broth or bread crumbs for these ingredients, but with the move that wasn't feasible; the meals are so much more nutritious than the eating out and 'junk' we'd been grabbing quickly to eat in the transition time, or even the ingredients that many other recipes call for, that I didn't worry about them this time; if you read the labels carefully, there are some fairly good versions of each of these that don't have weird chemicals in them anyway.
*My favorite way to cook chicken for any dish that calls for it to be precooked is in the slow cooker. While testing recipes for this series, I decided to try both oven roasting, as well as skillet cooking bite sized chicken pieces, to make sure I had tried it all, and I found both the ease of cooking and quality of the cooked meat, both whole chickens & boneless skinless chicken breasts, to be better in the slow cooker. If you start the chicken in the morning when you first get up, it will be ready & waiting for you at dinnertime; if you're going to do your cooking in the morning, just start it cooking before you go to bed. I love that the hormone/antibiotic/etc. free whole chickens are just 0.50 more per pound, making them still a great value for the amount of cooked chicken and chicken broth one chicken easily yields.
*There are all kinds of ways to freeze meals, in disposable foil pans, in pyrex dishes, etc. My favorite and the way I find the easiest is to use freezer zip top bags, usually in the gallon size. I would recommend getting the ones marked as "freezer" bags, and the name brand. Buying them in bulk or with a coupon, I can get even the large high quality ones for about a dime a bag, which is totally worth the time savings of preparing the freezer meals in my opinion. If it's a layered dish, or one that needs to be in a flat casserole dish, you can line the pan with foil, being sure to leave some hanging over the edges to grab onto to remove it later, prepare the casserole & freeze it, and then use your foil handles you left hanging out to pop the whole frozen meal out of the dish, carefully wrap it, and freeze it until returning it to the pan to bake when you're ready.
Feel free to leave any questions, comments, or your favorite tips in the comments, we do read them all and respond! Becca