For most of us, “frozen food” conjures up cardboard pizza, pot pies, Hot Pockets and low-calorie lunches. Frozen food has evolved quite a bit from the early days of Swanson’s first “TV dinners,” but it’s still something we look at as a fallback when we don’t have time or energy to cook: cheaper than eating out and easier than making something from scratch.
What if you could have that same convenience combined with the ability to control every ingredient and know exactly what went into every meal you eat? With some planning and a day of elbow grease, you can make and freeze meals so that all you have to do is defrost and reheat. Making your own freezer meals also allows you to maximize your grocery budget. Stock up when things like boneless chicken breast and canned tomatoes go on sale. Buy in bulk and save money immediately, then continue to save by not eating out or ordering delivery.
What Makes Good Freezer Meals?
Typically, think one-dish meals: soups, stews, casseroles. Those are the classics. Thaw and reheat a soup or stew, add salad and bread and dinner is on the table in no time. Pick your casserole the night before, thaw in the fridge and pop it in the oven when you get home. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture is a great source of information on how to safely thaw and reheat your frozen meals!)
One-dish meals may not work for you if you have picky eaters, but it’s also easy to freeze the elements of a meal that take the longest to cook and therefore customize the meal a bit more. That’s a blessing on a busy day! Freeze pasta sauce that can be reheated or a pesto that can thaw while the pasta boils (or the zoodles steam). Cajun red beans can be reheated while rice cooks to go with them. You can cook and freeze ground beef for tacos or sloppy joes in a jiffy or chicken breasts that can be served with salads. Season and make your burgers ahead to shorten the time from lighting the grill to building your burger. That works with beef, chicken, turkey and veggie burgers – something for everyone!
Things that don’t freeze well? Cream-based soups and sauces, dishes with a lot of cheese in them, watery veggies like cucumbers, mayonnaise-based salads, cooked eggs and fully cooked rice and pasta are bad choices for freezer meals. These items tend to become a mushy, soggy, limp, rubbery or lumpy mess once they are thawed out, so avoid them!
How to Plan and Make Freezer Meals
We mentioned planning and preparation above. The first important thing, even before picking recipes and grocery shopping, is to load up on containers. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a lot of different answers about containers for your freezer meals. Consider the space you have. If you’re more limited, freezer bags of soups and sauces that can lay flat will make the most of that space. If you have lots of room, inexpensive quart and pint plastic containers may be what you want. Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond swears by foil containers that can go straight into the oven; others insist on Pyrex or other glass dishes. Both Glad and Rubbermaid have sold inexpensive storages for a few years now. Each method of storage has its pluses and minuses – use what works best for your budget and space.
No matter what kinds of containers you use, stock up on baking parchment, plastic wrap, permanent markers and either freezer labels or freezer tape. Label everything! Include the date it was made/frozen, what it is and the use by date. Including the thawing and cooking instructions on your labels will eliminate going back to the original recipe. Plastic wrap can help insulate food and protect food from air inside plastic containers. Line cookie sheets with baking parchment to freeze food in single layers before storing in bags or containers.
If you want to try to do a few weeks’ worth of meals in one day of cooking, it’s best to make a few freezer meals in large batches, store them in meal-sized portions and rotate through your meal plans. This is especially great for family favorites like spaghetti: make six quarts of your favorite sauce, freeze by the quart and you’ve got six meals for a family of four. Just add salad and garlic bread! Cook enough pot roast or pork shoulder for a few meals and freeze it, in its cooking liquid. Mashed potatoes, a steamed veggie or two, and voila! For even more variety in your rotation, host a freezer cooking party: get a few friends togeth