Before our children came along, I took pride in having mastered the art of meal planning and preparation. Each week I would carefully plan a healthy menu, create a shopping list designed to maximize our dollar and minimize our number of trips to the grocery store, and even found the time to prepare make-ahead meals to pull out of the freezer on nights when we didn’t have the time to start a meal from scratch.
Somewhere between having children, going back to work once they started school full time and managing our current (and often overwhelming) family schedule, it all seemed to fall apart. These days, I’m lucky if I’m able to figure out when each family member will have the time to eat dinner on any given night. Finding the time and energy to make that meal is a different matter altogether.
While my efforts are not quite what they once were, in an attempt to avoid family overdose on pre-packaged and carryout meals, I do try to plan ahead as best as I can and prepare something I can stash in the freezer when I have the chance to do so.
Here are some freezer meal tips I have picked up over the years:
1. Find Recipes That Include Foods That Freeze Well.
Meals less likely to dry out when reheated tend to be better suited for freezing, such as soups, casseroles, chilis and other one-dish meals of this nature. When time permits, I will let something simmer on the stove while our family is watching football on a Sunday afternoon or will set up the slow cooker first thing in the morning before heading out for the day. I usually double or triple the recipe so we can enjoy a fresh meal that day and have enough left over to freeze and eat in the future.
Keep in mind that some ingredients in these types of recipes may change the meal’s consistency after freezing. For example, potatoes and pastas become much softer and will absorb much of the sauce during the freezing process. You can compensate for this by either cooking these items separately and adding them when you reheat the meal or by adding water or extra sauce to the meal when reheating it.
For variety, you can also prepare and freeze individual items to save you time on busy evenings. Pre-cooked marinated chicken breasts can be thawed and used on salads, in Mexican dishes, over pastas or in soups. Crumbled and cooked ground beef freezes well and is easy to reheat for tacos. Rice cooked ahead of time and frozen is a great time saver that can be warmed up in the microwave. As mentioned previously, pasta can be cooked ahead of time; however, it maintains a better consistency when it is only cooked three-quarters of the way before being frozen and then boiled the rest of the way at the time of use.
2. Freeze Meals inSizes According to Need.
Food should not be refrozen once it has been defrosted, so consider packaging it according to need. In other words, it is better to store the remainder of that triple batch of chili in several smaller containers that can be taken out as needed than defrosting one big container and ending up with uneaten portions that will need to be thrown out if not eaten within a few days.
The exception to the refreezing rule is raw meat. While raw meat itself should not be refrozen, it is OK to put the meat back in the freezer once it has been fully cooked. When storing raw meat, consider splitting packs of sausages, bacon, and chicken pieces up before freezing them to keep from having to defrost more than you need. Helpful hint: I have been known to wrap hot dogs individually in wax paper and storing them in a freezer bag. This keeps them from sticking together during the freezing process and allows me to easily remove them one at a time.
My freezer containers of choice are plastic sealable freezer bags. Not only are they easy to label, they are a great space saver as they freeze flat and are stackable. Regardless of the type of container you use, be sure to label your items before you freeze them so you know what the package contains and when it was placed in the freezer.
3. Be Aware of Food Shelf Life.
While most cooked dishes will keep for between three to six months in the freezer, some items have a shorter shelf life. As an example, foods containing fresh dairy products, fish, and salty fatty items such as bacon, ham and hot dogs should only be stored for one to two months. For more food safety information, please visit the USDA website.
Most pre-cooked one-dish meals can be reheated directly from their frozen state, either on the stove or in the microwave. In addition, frozen pasta can go straight into the boiling pot. Other items, such as meats, can be defrosted in the refrigerator overnight and then heated.
5. Maintain a List of What You Have on Hand in the Freezer.
Many a time I’ve gone digging through my stocked freezer drawer looking for a meal only to realize we had already consumed it or, worse yet, come across meals I’ve had to throw away because they’ve lingered in the freezer long past their shelf life. To solve this issue, I keep a list of the items I have stored in the freezer along with date they were made. This not only helps with menu planning, but allows me to keep track of which meals to use first. The key to the success of this tracking method is remembering to cross the items off as you use them and adding meals to the list as you place them in your freezer.
What freezer meal tips do you have to share?