This post contains affiliate links which help cover ongoing site costs. Click here to learn more.
To survive as a mom (especially during high-stress times), you’ve got to have a few key weapons in your arsenal. For me, right up there with an endless supply of Band-Aids (and some days, and an endless supply of patience) are… drum roll, please…
Let’s all pause a moment out of sheer respect for the wonderful bliss of simply opening a package, dumping some contents into a crock pot (or a waiting oven), and going back to your crazy life. Around dinner time, while you’ve been hustling kids to and fro, tidying up the house (or perhaps been able to sit down for a minute?) the wonderful aroma of goodness and comfort begins to float through the house as you realize that “aahhhh… dinner is ready!”
It’s one of those few things that makes me feel very giddy (and slightly guilty) at the lack of effort I’ve expended. But thankfully, I’ve learned to get over the “guilt” part real quick. I’m sure you will too.
It’s “fast food” made fresh and healthy to your family’s liking, without the hefty cost of take-out. It’s food that can be made in bulk ahead of time, and it’s ready-to-serve-when-you-are.
Freezer meals are also highly adaptable. As long as you follow the basic guidelines (see below) you can come up with your own formulations.
1) Gear up with good recipe books and a great slow-cooker. (see my recommendations for both below). Pinterest also has amazing recipes! Check out these Pinterest boards from Six Sisters’ Stuff and A Taste of Home.
Fix, Freeze, Feastis one of my favorite freezer cookbooks because all the recipes are based around bulk-store-sizes and make a good 3-4 meals at a time.
I also use and recommend this slow cooker by Hamilton Beach.
This slow cooker is amazing because you can take the insert out and cook with it on the stovetop! Awesome for sautéing veggies and browning meat before the long, slow cook! Or if you need to brown something in the stove afterward, the insert is also oven-safe. This means everything can be done in one pan… which is sheer bliss to me!
Have I sold you yet? If you’re ready to give it a go, here are 16 other tried-and-true tips:
1) Good freezer bags are your friend for freezer meals.
This is not the time to skimp on cheap-o bags from the Dollar Store. The extra thick plastic keeps freezer burn out (and flavor in) your food. And speaking of flavor…
2) Don’t cook your food before your freeze it.
Cooked food that has been frozen and then re-heated tastes… well, kind of like the flavors have been muted. It’s the quickest way to give freezer food a bad rap. And it takes more time to assemble! So, unless absolutely necessary (there are exceptions to the rule–see #3!), don’t cook it before you freeze it.
3) Don’t thaw, cook and re-freeze food.
One of those “don’t cook unless absolutely necessary” exceptions usually involves meat. If you do decide to cook up the sausage or ground beef ahead of time (so that it can be more easily thrown together in a meal), don’t defrost the meat, cook it up and then re-freeze it in your (now assembled) meal. I’ve never quite figured out the whys behind this, but food safety experts consider this is huge no-no, so it’s probably not a good idea to risk it. Instead, if you must cook up the meat in advance, use fresh not frozen meat.
4) Almost anything can be frozen and made into a freezer meal.
Yes, almost anything: cheese, bread, veggies, pasta, rice, most sauces, quick bread mixes… you name it! The few exceptions to this rule would be raw potatoes; leafy greens (in theory you can freeze them—think bags of frozen spinach—but every time I’ve tried they’ve ended up kind of a slimy mess); and fresh herbs or more delicate vegetables like mushrooms or eggplant (unless they’re folded into a sauce). Some sauces (especially those with high amounts of dairy, such as alfredo) can sometimes change texture after freezing. When in doubt, remember… (number 5)…
5) Some items are best added in on the day of cooking.
I really, really try to keep all my ingredients together so I have as little as possible to do come cooking day, but some recipes are best when a particular ingredient is fresh. For example, fresh basil is dynamite on top of an Italian dish. So if I have a freezer sauce I’m going to throw on some pasta, I’ll make sure to have fresh basil on hand. But I won’t add it into the freezer bag because… yeah, basil will turn to mush in the freezer.
6) Onions—to freeze or not to freeze?
I go back and forth on this one. Onions—if frozen on their own without any sort of sauce—will release a ton of water during the thawing process. This doesn’t affect the dish’s ultimate flavor, but it can be annoying. I have tried sautéing the onions and then freezing them, but there was still some water loss (and there was definitely a loss of flavor unless it was folded into a sauce). Ideally, you would add raw onions the day you cooked the dish, but let’s face it—the beauty of a freezer to crock/oven dish is the minimal prep time. I for one don’t want to spend my time chopping and cooking onions the day I’m making a “pre-made” dish. So, if a dish requires sautéed onions, I usually chop them and freeze them raw in their own bag (the Green Chile Chicken Enchilada recipe is an exception). Then on cooking day, I do a quick sauté in my crock pot the day I make the dish (yes, I splurged and got a super cool slow cooker with a removable, stove-top-safe crock so I can sauté and slow cook in one pan!).
7) Group your ingredients into different bags, and then place all ingredients in one large bag.
Separate out different sections of the dish (such as the red sauce from the ricotta filling in a lasagna dish) and label each bag if necessary. Also, if an item will need some sort of prep the day of cooking (again, only do this when absolutely necessary) or is to be used as a topping (such as shredded cheese) then make sure it is separate from other ingredients.
8) Remove as much air as possible from each bag.
This cuts down on space and keeps freezer burn at a minimum. Squeeze out as much air as you can manually and seal the bag almost completely closed. Then insert a straw just through the open slit in the bag, and suck out any extra air through the straw. It sounds odd (and you have to be careful you don’t suck up any of your recipe!) but it works! Who needs a fancy-schmancy food sealing machine?!
9) Move your freezer meal to the refrigerator to defrost several days before you plan to cook it.
Meals like Crock Pot Lasagna or Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas can be pre-assembled and frozen directly in a pan so that cooking day literally means removing the item from the freezer and turning on the oven (just don’t forget to add extra cooking time so the meal can thaw). Some meals can literally be removed from the bag and tossed into a crock pot as a hard block (think chili, soups, etc). However, if the meal requires any sort of layering, arranging, etc (or you don’t want to plan for an extended cooking time), it’s best to move the freezer meal to the fridge a few days before cooking day.
10) Label and keep track of your meals.
Mark the recipe’s name and the date you prepared it on the outside of the bag. I’ve created a simple spreadsheet with empty spaces to write in the meal, the quantity, and the date created. There’s also an “in/out” space on the chart. I circle the “in” when the meal is put “in” my freezer, and the “out” when I take it “out” to make as a dinner. Meals should be eaten within 3-6 months of freezing.
11) Don’t freeze what you don’t need to freeze.
Sometimes a recipe requires an item (such as tortillas) that I know I always have on hand, so in order to save space, I don’t include it with my main freezer meal bag. Another example would be if you’re using a pre-bottled sauce that doesn’t require any additional ingredients for the recipe. If the item is shelf-stable, why not just keep it in your pantry until you’re ready to use the recipe? Mark the item in your pantry as “to be used for XYZ recipe” so that you don’t accidentally use it for something else. This will also help cut down on freezer space. Speaking of freezer space…
12) Consider investing in an extra freezer.
I know… this is an additional expense. But after I (very quickly) saw the benefits of using freezer meals, I knew I wanted to do this type of cooking regularly. And the super-tiny freezer in my fridge just wasn’t going to cut it. So, one Christmas I asked for a stand-alone freezer for our garage (how’s that for a 50s-housewife-type gift?!). It has been not only great for storing freezer meals, but it helps immensely in my one-a-month meal planning and grocery shopping (another huge timesaver–I’ll post on that in the future).
13) Find a meal-making buddy (or buddies).
It’s really fun to make several batches of freezer meals with a friend! Plus, it’s often cheaper to buy ingredients in bulk. Gather all your ingredients together and spend an afternoon chopping and sorting. Along with some great chat time, you’ll each walk away with several ready-to-go meals. Once I participated in a freezer meal “party” of sorts where seven of us gathered to make 56 meals in about three or four hours! We each brought different ingredients and then were assigned different “meal stations” in the kitchen. At the end, we each walked away with 8 different recipes! It was a little crazy (we were using giant Tupperware tubs to mix our enchilada filling!) but it was a blast! My kids are also my freezer meal buddies. They love to run the food processor, shred items, measure spices, etc–anything that gets them making a mess in the kitchen with Mom.
14) Make extra meals as-you-go.
If making a dozen meals at a time sounds daunting, then just plan to make double or triple of a particular meal as you make it. For example, last night I made soup. Instead of just making one batch, I put together ingredients for three batches (freezing two of the batches and cooking one up for dinner last night). You’re only doing slightly more work (you’re already peeling the potatoes or whatever) so why not make more than one batch for another night?
15) Freezer to crock/oven meals aren’t just for dinner!
There are so many great breakfast dishes (like quiches or muffins) that can be pre-assembled in a freezer bag and then thrown into a casserole dish or muffin tin on the morning you’d like to eat it! One of our family’s favorite Saturday morning dishes is muffins and eggs, and if I have defrosted batter on hand, I simply snip off a corner of the bag and pipe it into a muffin tin. Super easy and super good! Pre-made garlic bread is also fantastic. I recently made up a huge batch of mashed potatoes (I completely cooked them–potatoes don’t freeze well–and added all the seasonings) for a future side dish.
16) Consider adopting freezer meals as your regular dinner routine.
You could plan all your dinners like this! I did so for about a year and it was great. I did a massive shopping trip at the beginning of the month, and then over the next few days I’d spend the evening (or I’d take a weekend afternoon) making up a good 15-20 dinner meals (around 3 batches of 6 meals). I rotated meals throughout the month (using some of the meals I’d made up from a previous month as well so that we weren’t stuck just eating those six different meals). It just became a rhythm: after putting together a monthly schedule of meals, each Sunday I’d move that week’s freezer meals to my refrigerator and use them each day accordingly.
So, that’s the basics! Experiment and see how freezer meals can change your life too!