After having my first daughter, I took up meal planning after my husband and I were guests on the Food Network Television show Fixing Dinner. It helped me add structure to my day to ensure I had great food on the table every night. However, as my schedule got busier, I often found I didn’t have time even when I tried to stick with my tried and true meal planning routine.
I turned to freezer meal planning. What a difference! For the past few years, I’ve used freezer meal planning to handle feeding the crowd in our house.
There are two main ways I’ll handle making our family’s freezer meals.
This method involves being, well, super prepared! I look at my schedule and choose two days when I’ll have a lot of time to prepare. The first night I’ll set aside three hours to browse flyers for sale items, select recipes, write out the plan for how many times I might double or triple the recipe, and write a grocery list. Then I’ll head to the grocery store, bring everything home, and sort it on the kitchen table and in the fridge by recipe.
The next day, I’ll follow my notes of what to prepare when, to ensure there are no long waits in the process wile meat is cooking or the oven is full. By the time I’ve put in five or six hours, I’ll usually have between 20 – 30 meals prepped and ready to freeze. Some meals are made big for sharing with guests, others might be small – just enough for my husband for dinner and his lunch the next day. My kids are still pretty picky, and I keep a container of grilled chicken and plain pasta in the fridge at all times in case they’re not interested in more than the obligatory bite of the main meal.
If I just don’t have the time to set aside for a big cook, I’ll use the slacker method. A few nights each week I’ll double or triple the meal I’m making that night, and freezer the others. After a month of doing this, I might have 10 – 12 meal stashed away in the freezer.
Regardless of the method you choose, even the busiest parent can fill your freezer with fantastic meals that will save you money by taking advantage of buying items while on sale, and save you even more money over ordering take out in desperation.
Tools of the Trade
Being prepared with the right tools is critical to enjoying the process of a freezer meal cooking day. Here’s what you need.
It’s so disheartening to dig into a freezer meal you put a lot of effort into making on a freezer meal day, only to discover no one in your family likes it. It’s even worse when you remember you made six of those meals! After suffering through four of the most awful pizza casseroles that no amount of added cheese could liven up, I now test drive a single family serving of each meal before I commit to adding it to my next freezer meal plan.
Check out my favourite websites, Onceamonthmom and Everythingmom for tried and true freezer recipes, or pick up a copy of The Big Cook or Don’t Panic – Dinner’s in the Freezer: Great-Tasting Meals You Can Make Ahead. Many of your family’s favourite recipes are likely freezer friendly already.
Whenever possible, I use Ziploc freezer bags, as they’re sturdier than no name brands for meals. It’s easy enough to place them in a large bowl to stand it up to fill, them lay them flat on cookie sheets to freeze. Some things are easier to freeze in the pan, but there’s a trick to not sacrificing your pan to the freezer until you’re ready to eat that meal. Simply wrap the pan or casserole dish in aluminum foil before assembling the meal inside. Freeze, then pop out the meal and wrap tightly in another layer of foil. When you’re ready to bake that meal, just remove it from the freezer, drop it into the correct size dish, and bake! When freezing individual lunches, I usually use the small square Ziploc containers – though I do find leaving them frozen for more than a month or two invites freezer burn.
You can freeze in glass – just don’t forget to let the dish cool before popping it in the freezer, or warm up before placing in the oven.
Regardless of the container you’ve used, you’ll want to ensure everything is labelled. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you’ll remember what’s in a specific container – trust me, three months later you’ll barely be able to name any of the recipes you made. Be sure to include cooking instructions.
If you’re super keen you can print adorable labels from Martha Stewart but the truly frugal will simply write on the bag or foil with a sharpie, or slap a plain label on the bag or container.
There are plenty of great one-dish freezer meals out there, but there are just as many recipes that simply help you prep certain parts of the dinner. The hamburger for tacos, marinating meat for the grill, veggies for a stir fry – they’re elements, not a meal. I have to admit, I mostly avoid these recipes.
The recipes that appeal to me most are the ones that I’ll just need to add a side of rice to, or pasta – quick sides with little work involved. You can make this process even quicker by making a large pot of rice at the start of the week and working through it as the week progresses – it keeps perfectly and is no worse for wear for being heated up. I cook batches of pasta and simply pop it in boiling water for one minute to reheat – it tastes fine too. In the past few years though, our family has discovered the joy of eating fresh, raw fruits and veggies with dinner.
I grew up in a household that ate only hot foods for dinner. Lots of shake and bake chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy. Now, I keep an airtight container with compartments in the fridge with fresh fruit and veggies cut up. Once the main dish is ready, I pop the fruit and veggie tray on the table for sides and we’re ready to eat. It’s also handy for healthy snacking too. I hope the tips and tricks I’ve shared in these three guest blog posts will give you the confidence to attempt a freezer meal cooking day. Send your spouse out of the house with the kids, put on a Molly Ringwald marathon and have fun!