Almost 2 months ago I mentioned in a Weekend Dish post that I had spent a few days stocking my freezer for when the baby came. I asked if there were any interest in a whole post dedicated to freezer meals and judging by the emails I got, I’d say there is a big interest. So for those of you that reached out to me I just want to apologize for how long it has taken me to get my act together!
I wasn’t sure exactly how to write this post but I think the best way for me to get the information out there is to just give you a play by play of what I did. Some of this may be obvious but I figured step by step would be most useful for those new to freezing.
First thing I did was to think about what kinds of foods I would want to/be able to eat. Here are some things I thought of while meal planning.
* On the go snacks and quick breakfast foods – Several of my friends said that what they wish they would have had more breakfast foods/grab and go snacks prepared ahead of time. Because of this I planned to make 2 batches of muffins. Easy enough to grab, heat, and eat with one hand.
* Dinner over lunch – I knew making dinner would probably be more challenging than making lunch. Why? Well, I figured I would be more alert/awake during the day and making a quick sandwich isn’t too challenging. Also, lots of my friends told me about babies “cluster feeding” at night (meaning an all out breastfeeding/bottle feeding marathon from 6-10), which would make getting in the kitchen that much more difficult. For those reasons, I decided to focus on dinners and not lunches.
* Minimal Thawing/Prepping – Knowing that new parents are pretty much in survival mode and walking zombies, I knew I wouldn’t want to have to think about foods that needed to thaw overnight or require a lot of extra prep. So I decided on meals that could go straight from the freezer to the oven/slow cooker, without a lot of extra prep and or thawing time. (With the exception of doughs)
* Filling meals – Let’s face, if you can’t sleep, you’ll probably need a few extra calories to keep you going. And I knew I wanted to breastfeed and that requires extra calories to. So I choose meals that were warm and filling.
* What freezes well – For this I went by experience (having frozen foods in the past). You can also think about what kinds of dishes you can buy in the frozen food section and at what point in the process they are frozen.
*Leftovers – I tried to plan meals that would leave us with lots of leftovers, so lunch would be even easier.
*Size of freezer – I would have loved to have made even more freezer meals but our freezer is pretty small and I wanted to leave room for frozen vegetables to go with the meals and other important things, like ice cream. So it’s important to keep that in mind.
So here is what went on my freezer menu –
- Pumpkin Oatmeal Muffins
- Blueberry Muffins
- Beef Stew (for the slow cooker)
- Chicken and Quinoa Chili (for the slow cooker)
- Chicken Cordon Bleu Stacks
- Make-ahead Mashed Potatoes
- Mexican Lasagna
- Meatloaf “Muffins”
- Chicken and Spinach Stuffed Shells
- Cheddar Biscuits
- Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
- Pizza Dough
- Burger Bun Dough
Step Two: Grocery Planning and Shopping
Nobody likes to get halfway through a recipe and realize they are missing one ingredient, so it’s important to make sure you look at each recipe when making your grocery list. I start with one recipe and write down everything I need, as I move on to the next recipe I add new things to list and for things already on the list (for example butter or onions) I put a tally mark next to the item already on the list. So it might look like this: Onions III – Meaning I need 3 onions. Otherwise I might come home with 1 onion and be short 2. If that makes sense. Also, don’t forget food storage containers!
After I make the list I check if I have any corresponding coupons (which is rare, I am not a good couponer). If you don’t mind shopping at a few different stores, you can also check the sales to decide where to buy what. Then I shop.
Step Three: Prep and Freeze
It worked for me to do all of the prep as soon as I got home from the store, so that’s what I did. First I pulled out all of the food I would need for the prepping. Then I set up a work station. I had knives, graters, cutting boards, utensils, food storage containers, paper towels and CLOROX WIPES all within an arms reach!! The paper towels and wipes are pretty important if you’re messy in the kitchen, like me. You can see in the food prep photos that I have drips and splashes every where. I also think it’s important to have a garbage bowl handy, so you’re not running back and forth to the kitchen trash can the whole time. I kept a big plastic bowl in the sink for food scraps and a paper grocery bag right next to my feet for everything else.
Personally, I like to do one full dish at a time. I’ve seen posts about assembly lines and setting up bags for each dish and adding each ingredient to the bags as you slice and chop… That’s great for some people, but I know myself and can say without a doubt that that is a good way for me to miss important ingredients in a recipe. So one at a time worked best for me. I also started with the meals that called for meat (so the meat wouldn’t be sitting out on the counter for too long).
Once each meal was fully prepped, I made sure it was well packaged and labeled. On each label I wrote the name of the dish and the date. If I were making the dishes to give to a friend, I would also include thawing and cooking instructions, as well as any other steps for prep (such as topping with sauce or adding green onions). Another important thing to note is that for the dishes in pans (for example Mexican Lasagna) I used a layer of plastic wrap and then 2 layers of foil, so I made sure to make a note on the foil that I needed to remove the plastic wrap before cooking.
Another thing I want to mention, some things (cookie dough and biscuit dough) will require flash freezing. This is where you place the item, uncovered, on a cookie sheet and put it in the freezer until it is hard. Then, once it is hard/frozen, you transfer it to the food storage container. This keeps things from sticking together and allows you to pull out just the amount you need, instead of having to thaw the whole thing.
Step Four: Thawing, Cooking, and Eating
Almost everything on my menu was able to go straight from the freezer to the microwave/oven/slow cooker. Because the food was still frozen, sometimes it needs extra time to cook. For the stuffed shells, it was only about 10 more minutes. For the make ahead mashed potatoes, it was closer to 25 extra minutes. A good place to start for main course dishes is to add 10 extra minutes to cook times, but to keep an eye on it and continue cooking as needed. And for meats, always check temperatures with a meat thermometer. For baked goods (cookie dough/biscuit dough) I have found that they may just need an extra minute or two, and sometimes they don’t need any extra time at all. Another tip (which I didn’t follow this time, but wish I had!) is to freeze slow cooker meals in disposable slow cooker bags. This makes for super easy clean up, which is always a plus for new parents!
The exceptions for not needing to thaw are doughs that require rising or shaping (pizza/bun/bread). These need at least 2 days in the fridge (and then an hour on the counter to come to room temperature) or several hours on the counter (though this can sometimes lead to over-rising, a sacrifice I often make because I can never remember to thaw doughs 2 days in advance). Don’t forget that these doughs will also require a second rise once shaped. I made the mistake of skipping this rise with my bun dough and what I wound up with were hockey pucks and not burger buns.
Baked goods that have already been baked (muffins) will only need to be zapped in the microwave for about 30-60 seconds.
So that’s that! If you have any questions about freezer meals just shoot me an email!