I have recently been delving into the world of freezer cooking, and I wanted to share some things I’ve learned. I’m new to it myself, but I’ve had a few friends asking about it. I’m not a cooking expert. Not even a little. Mostly I’m lazy and want to cut All the Corners. So I won’t tell you Actual Recipe Advice. And this is not necessarily going to be green or cheap or healthy here. Sorry.
I don’t mind cooking. Sometimes I even enjoy it. But more often than not, cooking dinner is less “hooray for a chance to channel creativity in the kitchen” and more “why can’t everyone just be happy eating cereal for dinner DIDN’T I FEED YOU PEOPLE LAST NIGHT?!?” I’m trying to run a little freelance business from home while also raising and chauffeuring three children. Something has to give. At least if I prep a bunch of meals for the freezer, cleaning the bathroom does not have to be one of the things I give up.
Have you wanted to try stocking your freezer, but the whole thing is kind of intimidating and overwhelming? Try just dipping your toe in the water. Prep 3-5 freezer meals that you can have on hand for a busy day when you know you won’t want to make dinner. There’s no need to start by making 62 meals the first time. Just give it a try and see what you think. You may find it’s easier than you thought, or at least way worth the trouble.
There are a million pins on the Pinterest about freezer cooking. Some of these handy and helpful bloggers have made you meal lists with recipes and even your grocery list all set to go. How nice! I’ve tried using those. See, I’m a picky enough eater that out of all the recipes they list, I usually just want to make a couple and have no interest in the rest. Maybe you can just follow those to the letter, and then good for you! I’ll bet it’s fantastic.
The following is my ever-evolving plan of attack, and some other random tips.
This is how I roll:
I pick a day to do the freezer cooking & prep. About a week beforehand, I gather the recipes I want to use. From the Pinterest, from recipe sites, from my own cooking repertoire (HA!), wherever. I make myself an old fashioned list of the recipes on paper, and note where it’s from (as in my allrecipes.com recipe box or maybe what board I have pinned it to on Pinterest). When I have time, I make myself a document and copy and paste all the recipes I’ve decided to use into it. Shortly before cooking day, I make the grocery list. The day before, I do the shopping. Then it’s go time. I make sure I have most of a day to do it. This last time took me a couple hours the next day, because we had church in the late afternoon on Saturday. Does prep day stink? YES. But it’s so worth it to me.
Tips, tricks, hacks, what-have-you:
- Before choosing a day, make sure you’re not going to be in a time crunch. The Awesome Food Bloggers say it’s going to take X amount of hours, but it always takes me longer. It’s recipes I haven’t made, and I’m adjusting them as I go. If you think it’s going to take 3 hours, do not start at 1 pm before a 4 pm swimming lesson. Give yourself time, extra time, and then more time.
- When looking for recipes, I try to keep a few things in mind. Variety of dishes, variety of cooking method, variety of prep level. I try to keep from choosing a whole bunch of similar meals. It may sound nice now, but I don’t actually want to eat pasta for a month. Also, I like to mix up whether it’s going to be baked in a pan or tossed in the crockpot. And finally, I like to keep the prep required to an extreme minimum. If I’m planning to cook a zillion meals at once, I don’t want to spend an hour cutting vegetables or have a ton of meat to brown. You can find a lot of recipes that are just dumping some stuff in a freezer bag and calling it good. How handy is that? Also, when I started, I only used meals that were actually called “freezer meals” on Pinterest. I wasn’t sure what would freeze well. Now I can tell a little better and experiment more.
- A confession: You may be thinking, “How do you find recipes your kids will eat, too?” I don’t. I might get lucky. But, because we’re friends, I’m going to admit to you that my kids don’t eat much of what I cook. THERE. I SAID IT. I might be making some dino nuggets while our dinner cooks, and I just don’t care. I’m sorry. I mildly regret that it has come to this, but in the throws of preschoolers that is not a hill I chose to die on. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?
- When making my grocery list, I use the groceryiq app. I like putting the list together online, and then having it on my phone at the store. It sorts food for me, so all the canned goods are in one place on the list, etc. My word of caution is that it doesn’t always seem to sync well, so I make sure it’s synced before I head to the store. Don’t forget – before you actually cook all this stuff has to fit in your fridge or wherever. I try to get as much as I can at Sam’s Club first (for example, frozen chicken breasts), and then go to the grocery store.
- When shopping, I buy extra. Did I need a bunch of cream cheese? Buy an extra. You need to be able to adjust recipes on the fly, and the last thing you want to do is drop everything to get a 99¢ can of tomatoes. A lot of recipes will be something you haven’t made, and if it looks like it needs more of something, you’ll be glad you’ve got it on hand.
- Just before I shop, I also tally the number of recipes that are frozen in the pan. Do I have enough pans? If not, buy some foil pans when you’re getting groceries. Do I have JUST enough pans? Buy at least one disposable pan. Sometimes you will marvel that this recipe was supposed to fit in one 9×13 pan. And make sure you have plenty of gallon size freezer bags if you’re making some crockpot recipes. You might end up with some bonus 8×8 pan meals just because it won’t fit.
- On the day of, I read through all my recipes while I have breakfast and COFFEE. I kind of figure out what I’ll want to do first. I do most of the things that need pans right away, because I’ll probably want those in the bottom of my freezer with the bags piled up next to it. I don’t worry about freezing the bags neatly flat like everyone shows. Maybe life would be easier if I did, but they wouldn’t fit next to my pile of pans if I did it that way. I try to choose the order of cooking to the order I want it to go in the freezer.
- As I begin, I take out all the pans I need, and assign the meal I want to fit in it. At least to start – it’s hard to know how much space you really need til you’re in the middle of it. And so I didn’t mess myself up, I actually put a note on all the pans of which recipe it was for. There’s a lot to think about today, so make it as easy on yourself as you can.
- Ok. Just suck it up, it’s time to start. Pep talk! You’re going to be so amazingly happy you did this. Every time you take something out of the freezer for a stress-free dinner, you will THANK yourself. I like to make my atmosphere as nice as possible. A little music! Start with a clean kitchen and empty freezer! I take my time, so there’s less stress. Maybe a second cup of coffee. Don’t rush it. It is what it is.
- A note on efficiency: I am not efficient. Awesome Food Bloggers will help you dice everything that needs to be diced at once, and brown everything that needs to brown at once. Fantastic! My mind doesn’t work that way. I just take my sweet time plowing through recipe by recipe, because I need to see that freezer start to fill for encouragement. I need to check off recipe after recipe and feel some sense of progress. Four meals down! Good for ME!
- I clean as I go when possible. It helps to have cleaning support if you can get it. I may need that giant bowl again later, so I just wash it now. It’s easier than being mid-recipe and wishing you had it ready.
- Fill bags for crockpots in something. I mean, stand that bag up in a mixing bowl or something. It takes one time of having the bag tip over, full of chicken broth (and losing – wait – how much broth IS that??) to make you wish you had done this. I also fold the top of the bag over & out so that it’s a bit more open as I shove stuff in it, and it’s not covered in goo when I want to close it.
- Don’t forget to label things. I write on the bags with a sharpie before I fill them. I include cook time & anything else that needs to be added when it is cooked (maybe you’re supposed to add 2 cups of broth or something). I usually put double foil on the things in pans, and I write that info on the top layer of foil.
- A note on cheating: If I can cheat, I will. Does the recipe call for sliced carrots? I am using frozen sliced carrots. Diced onion? Frozen diced onion. I got tired of throwing the unused portions away (because I was not good about using the rest). Plus it’s a time and mess saver, and today is hard enough. Oh! Potatoes! Don’t slice or dice your own potatoes. Buy frozen. Every time I have tried to just do my own, they turned black in the freezer. Smart Cooks probably know how to fix that, but I just buy them frozen. Saves several steps anyway.
- I’m not in a hurry, but I’m not wasting time, either. If something’s in the oven pre-baking, I’ll start something else, or wash some pans or something. Before I start each recipe, I take out what I need for that recipe. That way if I realize I need something else, I can save that one to do later.
- Either pick one of your meals to be for dinner, go out, order pizza – whatever. Do not make yourself cook yet another meal after this.
- On enjoying your meals: When a recipe says, “thaw in the refrigerator the night before” they are just lying to you. I have not had a single recipe work that way. I have put meals in the refrigerator two nights before, and they are still ice chunks when I take them out. Plan on cooking pan meals much longer than they say (I keep it covered with foil at first so it doesn’t dry out in the long cook time). Just keep checking it. You’ll figure it out, and it’s still better than actually making dinner. Crockpot stuff seems to cook fine even if it’s frozen, you just have to get it thawed enough to get out of the bag and into the crockpot (don’t forget you won’t want the crockpot hot when you put the frozen chunk in there, lest you break that precious crockpot). I also keep that set of recipes out til they’re all gone. You can make notes of what you wish had been different, and double check to see if something was supposed to be added when cooking.
- Make note of what was delicious. I like to keep a “loved it” board on the Pinterest. It helps me remember what was worth making again. If a meal is a dud, I un-pin it altogether. Otherwise I end up making it again, having forgotten it wasn’t worth it.
Oh, Friend. Are you still here? Did you actually read this far? I’m sorry it took so long. There are just so many things to be learned, and I want to spare you from learning them in the process. Let me know if you have questions!