Over the past few weeks, I’ve been stocking our freezer with ready-to-heat meals in preparation for a busy start to the school year. I love having the option of pulling a homemade meal from my freezer when I don’ t have the time to dice, chop, sauté or brown a single thing.
I would also contend that the benefits of making and freezing your own meals isn't only cost effective, it's also healthier. You can control the quality of ingredients and the amount of fat and preservatives that go into each meal you place on your table.
Plus, there is a certain amount of pride that results from feeding your family a meal that you made with your own two hands.
One of the best ways to put meals in your freezer is by planning a batch cooking session. You can read all about one of my adventures in batch cooking in a post I titled 18 Pounds of Chicken, 2 days, 10 meals, and my Chicken Noodle Soup Recipe.
This post also provides some resources for batch cooking and food preservation that can be found at the . I originally prepared the recipe featured in this article during a batch cooking session.
If you can't carve out two days of your schedule for batch cooking, you might choose to take on smaller projects. For example, make a double batch of , and then divide them into bags of dinner-sized portions based on the size of your family.
You can also incorporate freezing into your everyday dinner plans. I often freeze leftover soup or even make extra soup, chili or stew with the intention of freezing some for a future meal.
The same works for casseroles. Every time I construct a casserole, I try to make two pans. We eat one for dinner and freeze one for another night. Lastly, be sure that whenever you have an abundance of leftover food from a meal or party, freeze them!
Some additional money and time saving tips:
When you find a great sale on meat, buy it! When you put away the groceries, divide the meat into meal-sized portions. Place the portions into freezer bags, then label and freeze them. You can add a marinade before freezing and the meat will marinate perfectly as it thaws. You'll have easy meals of chicken breasts, pork chops or steaks ready for the grill or stovetop when you're ready to use them. For stir-fry, casseroles or soup you can cut the meat into strips or chunks before freezing and save yourself a step on preparation day.
Freeze pre-cooked rice. Thaw the cooked rice and serve it with your stir-fry or add it to casserole and soups.
If you're browning ground beef or bulk sausage for a recipe, brown five pounds instead of one pound. Freeze the rest of the meat in one-pound portions for use in chili, spaghetti sauce, sloppy joes or even Hamburger Helper. It just saves a step later.
Make extra pancakes and waffles and freeze them (place freezer paper between each to keep them from sticking). Reheat later for a quick breakfast.
Whenever you bake cookies, muffins, pies,or even cakes, freeze some for later.
Follow these instructions for the highest quality frozen meals:
When freezing food, leave plenty of clear space around each container or package so that air can circulate around the food, allowing it to freeze quickly and evenly. After the packages are frozen, then you can stack them more efficiently.
Freeze food in small quantities so that it can freeze faster to prevent the buildup of large ice crystals.
Use shallow containers with wide surface area relative to depth.
If using freezer bags, lay them flat on a chilled baking sheet until frozen solid, then stack then however you like.
Cool food completely to room temperature before freezing.
If you are batch cooking a large amount of meals, lower your freezer’s temperature by 10 degrees for 24 hours before your big cooking day. Once the food is frozen, return the freezer to the regular temperature.
Be sure to mark all packages with the contents and date.
Now you know how to freeze the meals, but you may be wondering how to safely package the meals before freezing them. Here’s the rundown on containers:
Glass - If using glass containers, choose dual purpose types that are designed for freezing, but are also heat-proof. Or, know the limits of your glassware. For example, Pyrex needs to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before putting it into the oven out of the freezer.
Plastic containers - Make sure containers close tightly and securely and are made of plastic that will not become brittle. Look for the snowflake symbol on the bottom.
Plastic freezer bags - Use only bags that are labeled for freezer use. Once the bag is filled, try to squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing.
*Freeze bags flat, then stack after frozen. Food frozen flat will freeze and thaw much more quickly than food that is frozen in one big lump.
Plastic wrap and foil - Only use freezer-safe plastic wrap. Regular plastic wrap is porous and can use its cling qualities under sustained cold temperatures. After being wrapped in freezer plastic wrap, it should also be wrapped in heavy-duty foil or placed in a freezer bag.
Once your freezer is stocked, you’ll want to ensure that the meals stay frozen and that you can find them when you are ready to use them.
Follow these tips for organizing your freezer:
Freezers should be kept at 0 degrees Celsius or -18 degrees Fahrenheit.
Try to avoid randomly throwing items into your freezer. Instead, label, date and stack food in a way that is easy to see. If your freezer is deep, keep a list on the door that itemizes the contents.
For maximum efficiency, keep the freezer 75 percent full to keep from losing cold air each time the freezer is opened.
Freezers should be defrosted and cleaned at least twice a year or when more than ¼-inch of frost builds up on the inside.
Of course, all of that hard work spent filling your freezer with homemade meals won't seem like a time-saver if you don't remember to thaw the food before you need it.
In the refrigerator:
• Eight hours per pound of meat
• Four hours per pound of poultry
• Six hours per pound of fruit or vegetables
• 12-24 hours for stews and casseroles
In the microwave:
• Allow six to eight minutes per pound of food when thawing in the microwave on low heat or defrost.
If you are looking for a starting point, here is a recipe that freezes well and will be a hit at your dinner table.
Artichoke Chicken Bake adapted from "Frozen Assets Lite and Easy: Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month" by Deborah Taylor-Hough
1/4 cup butter
Six cooked boneless, skinless chicken breasts
One cup onion, chopped
Two garlic cloves, minced
Twp tablespoons flour
One teaspoon salt
One 1/4 cup dry white wine (can substitute apple juice or chicken broth...I used broth)
One cup chicken broth
Four oz. reduced fat cream cheese
One (14 oz.) can artichoke hearts, drained and cut up (not marinated artichoke hearts)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Melt butter in a skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Saute onion and garlic until tender. Stir in flour and salt until smooth. Cook one minute, stirring constantly. Add wine (or juice, or broth), cook over medium heat, and continue to stir until the mixture is thickened and bubbly. Add cream cheese, stirring until cheese melts. Remove from heat and set aside. Place cooked chicken breasts in a two-quart casserole dish. Arrange artichoke hearts over chicken. Pour cream cheese mixture over chicken and artichokes. Spread to cover. Cover, label and freeze.
Thaw. Bake at 350 degrees until heated through and bubbly. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with grated parmesan. Return to the oven and turn to broil until parmesan is golden brown.
Per serving (if using fat-free cream cheese and omitting parmesan cheese): 382.3 calories, 14.7 g fat, 41.3 g protein, 15.5 g carbohydrates, 82 mg cholesterol
Alright. READY. SET. FREEZE! Haul out those freezer bags and storage containers and have at it!
For additional resources, check out my Stocking Your Freezer post or mark your calendars for my “Dream Dinners at Home” class on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at Strongsville High School from 6:30-9 p.m. Call Polaris Adult Education at 440-891-7600 to reserve your spot.