I've made/used freezer meals quite often over the years. I've had some successes, and lots of fails. Last November I was feeling like I was always running behind, so my friend Erika suggested we get together and assemble a bunch. I learned a lot from her, and now I'm hooked. I re-stocked my stash this week. As I stared at the 42 meals stacked in my freezer I decided I need to share this awesome-ness. If you have ever wanted to try your hand at pre-cooking your family's dinners, here's how I do it:
1. Choose your meals.
For your first time, choose 2-3 of your family favorites. Once you get comfortable, you can make more. (I did 13 different dinners this time, 3 or 4 of each) Don't try a new recipe. It's very frustrating to find out that your family hates a dish...and there's 3 more of the same waiting in your freezer. Make a list of the meals you want to make, and how many of each. I have found that the best recipes are the ones with sauce on them. If your noodles/rice/tortillas aren't covered with something, they tend to become freezer burned quickly. There is a plethora of freezer meal recipes out there. You can probably find a freezer meal version of any favorite recipe. If you aren't on Pinterest yet, now would be a good time to open an account. Make a variety: once I had 15 different Italian pasta dishes in my freezer. Oops. We love Italian, but not 5 times a week! Do one chicken, one beef, one vegetarian dish. Or one Italian, one Mexican, one Chinese/Japanese dish. Variety will keep you from getting bored with your freezer meals.
2. Make a Chart
Start listing your ingredients. I made a chart that lists common ingredients by store section, with extra space for writing in the uncommon stuff. Break each recipe down, and times it by the number you are making. Next to each ingredient, I make tally marks. For example, if I was making 3 recipes of meatballs: it calls for 2lbs ground beef, 1 onion, 1c. quick oats. I would put 6 marks by beef, 3 by onions, 3 by oats. Do that for each recipe, and you have your grocery list ready to go. Make sure your marks can transfer to shopping quantity. When I mark something like green onions, I know I'm marking for each individual onion, not the # of packages, so then I count the onions in the bag when I get to the store. If it calls for 10 oz. frozen spinach, I write that down with 3 marks by it. Then I buy the 30 oz. bag to save money. For the oats in my meatballs, I would have to figure out how many cups are in each can & then do some math. You get the idea. **Write down all of the ingredients.** You won't believe how fast a bottle of soy sauce disappears when you triple the recipe. If it calls for more than a dash of anything, buy a new bottle or at least double check what you have on hand.
3. Shop the sales
If it doesn't save you money, it's not worth it! If you can, spend a week or two gathering your ingredients. Watch the ads. Wait for chicken to go on sale. Buy in bulk! Be careful about the big-box stores like Sam's or Costco. Some of their stuff is a great price, but a lot of it just seems like a good deal. It's usually cheaper to wait for a sale at a smaller grocery store. Remember...it will be a lot of food. Jake and I filled 2 carts at Sam's, and that didn't include the stuff I had found cheaper elsewhere!
4. Invest in the right supplies
Get a really big 13 qt. bowl (I found mine at Sam's), and a really big stock pot. Mixing huge quantities in a bowl that's too small is frustrating and messy. With a large stock pot you can cook all of your chicken at once, and it comes in handy for big stove-top recipes like chicken curry. Buy Ziploc gallon size freezer bags for soups. Cheap bags will leak and get freezer-burn. I recommend disposable pans for casseroles or anything you would cook in a 9X13. Sam's sells a package of 30 aluminum pans for $6. I recommend getting the lids too, which are another $6. (they are on the restaurant supply aisle) Even with the pans & lids, I average only $7-8 per meal total. It's worth the added expense to have your hard work properly stored. One of the biggest bonuses of freezer meals is no dishes, and aluminum pans go from your freezer to the oven to the garbage. Definitely worth it.
5. Prep work
I have found that I like it better when I only do 5 or 6 recipes per day. (Remember, that still adds up to 15-20 meals in one day) It goes without saying, but start with a clean kitchen & an empty sink. This makes an insane mess. Don't start out behind. On my list of meals, I note the prep work I need to do next to each recipe, as well as the quantities. Then I can spot the similarities at a glance. Like this: 9u means it calls for 9 uncooked chicken breasts, 4c means it calls for 4 cups cooked chicken. (1 chicken breast=1 cup cooked, roughly) I also note the cups of chopped onions, etc. That way I can count & dump the chicken for all the meals in the pot at once to boil (I always cook extra!), and chop the onions all at once for all my meals. I can also count out and begin defrosting all the chicken for the 'raw' recipes. I set out my canned goods in rows so that I can grab what I need quickly.
6. Start cooking!
While the chicken boils, I start assembling the recipes that are my 'dump in a bag' recipes. These are generally crock pot recipes. Like chicken tacos, or soups, or sandwich fixings like BBQ pork. Set your freezer bags in a tall bowl to fill them, it will keep them from tipping over and spilling. I leave out the water & write the amount to add on the bag. If the recipe calls for broth, I use better-than-bouillon. Ex: if it calls for 24 oz. chicken stock/broth, I add 3 t. better than bouillon and write 'add 3 c. water' on the bag. You can even buy dry vegetable broth seasoning. It saves freezer space & money.
You can shred the chicken in your stand-mixer with the paddle attachment. Shred as much as will fit in your mixer at once, then you can add it by the cup as you need it. Mix each recipe one at a time, & clean up between recipes. Besides avoiding cross-contamination, it will also prevent a disastrous kitchen at the end of a very long day. Spray the pans with cooking spray. You can almost always prepare the meal as directed, but then when it says to put it in the oven...put it in the freezer instead. If the recipe calls for cooked chicken, cook the chicken first. Otherwise, add it raw and freeze it raw. (ex: I use cooked chicken in most of my casseroles, but I assemble my chicken cordon bleu with raw chicken and freeze it that way. Also, most crock-pot recipes call for raw meat, since they cook all day.) When I make meatballs or meatloaf, I wear clean rubber gloves and mix it with my hands. It will mix quicker & more evenly. When you label the pans, put the sticker on the side if you have an upright freezer, or on the top if you have a chest freezer. I write the directions for cooking on another label, as well as what I plan to serve with it. (ex: 350 for 30 minutes, serve with rice or on buns) When you've finished assembling, if you have leftover shredded cooked chicken dump it in a bag, add a jar of salsa, black beans, and corn. Voila, Tortilla soup. Add water when you cook it, until it is the consistency you like.
7. Enjoy your easy dinners
Make a list of what you have so you can keep track of what you use. If you can, thaw your meal by putting it in your fridge the night before, so it's ready to go by dinnertime. I almost never remember to do this! I have found that almost all of my recipes will cook in about 2 hours from frozen. Even a crock pot meal cooks up fast on the stove, but requires stirring. We use paper plates & utensils, so we don't have much of a clean-up after dinner. You can't even imagine how awesome this is until you try it...no prep-work, no dishes...our evenings are so much smoother. I also love not wasting time coming up with something for dinner, just to find out I'm missing a key ingredient half way through the prep.
Here's a pic of my hard work this week:
(see why you label the side of the pan for storage in an upright freezer?)
I cannot tell you how rewarding it is to look at this. I went back downstairs three times today just so I could stand with the freezer door open and admire how pretty they look. FORTY-TWO dinners! That will last our family 6-8 weeks, since we just use them on week days.
Let me know if you decide to try it, and how it goes. I promise that once you work out the kinks and adjust this plan to fit your family, you will be so happy with the results. Anything that gives me more daily time with my kids is a welcome addition to our routine!
And...just in case you are wondering...here's what's stacked in there:
All-day Chicken Tacos
Ham & Cheese Braid
Sloppy Chicken (for sandwiches)
Chicken Cordon Bleu
Chicken Florentine Puffs
Chicken & Spinach Pasta
Meatballs 3 ways: teriyaki, marinara, BBQ
Chicken & Spinach Loaf