From birthday parties, to baseball games, piano practice, or ballet, the afternoons and evenings after school and work seem to fly by. Working adults, parents, and kids are home late many days of the week, and everyone, including the family chef, is tired. But rather than stopping for fast food on the way home, or eating yet another frozen pizza, wouldn't it be nice to have a home-cooked meal? Especially one that didn't require much time and effort to prepare on a busy weeknight?
Enter your freezer – your weeknight best friend, and a fabulous meal-planning and preparation tool for saving time and money. Preparing and freezing meals is a great, nutritious, and budget-friendly way to give you and your family home-cooked meals when you are short on time. And you don't need a big freezer to get started!
Below is a step-by-step guide to easily transform your freezer from popsicle and frozen pizza storage, into a constant source of home-cooked meals when time in the kitchen isn't on your schedule.
1. Planning and Shopping for Freezer Meals
If you want to incorporate building up your collection of freezer meals, begin putting recipes in your meal plans that you could easily cook double or triple the yield. Personally, I plan meals by the week, and I try to double at least one or two meals, just so that I have extra meals in the freezer. Meal planning options abound, so you could coordinate your meal plans and freezer meals depending on your preferences.
For example, if you plan weekly meals according to the week's sale items, choose your freezer meal double-batches that way too. If lasagna noodles are Buy One, Get One Free at your supermarket, then a double batch of homemade lasagna (one for dinner, and one for the freezer), could be a great addition to your freezer meal collection. If time is your obstacle, and you are meal planning based on quick meals to prepare, then plan double batches that way.
You'd be surprised how many breads, chilis, soups, sauces, and even quiches are quick to prepare and freeze well too. Plus, many cookbooks and recipes will specifically note if the recipe freezes well. Look at your own schedule, and your recipe resources (books plus the internet), and find meals that you could easily double or triple. Then as you are shopping, don't forget to double or triple your ingredients too.
2. Preparing Freezer Meals
You'll need to prepare the meals at some point, so always keep your cooking time as part of the process. Try to prepare these meals on the nights or days that you have time to cook. If you always cook a family meal on Sunday night, then plan for an extra batch to freeze. If Dad usually takes Junior to soccer practice on Thursdays while you cook dinner, plan for two dinners instead of one. As you are cooking your meal meant for the freezer, depending on the type of meal and the recipe, you may only need to cook that recipe up to about 70% or 80%, so that when it is reheated, it isn't overcooked.
3. Actually Freezing the Meal
One of the most standard ways of freezing meals is using freezer-designed plastic bags, usually with a zippered top. Glass storage is also an option for freezer meals, but depending on your storage capabilities, glass might not be as practical.
Freezer meals won't taste as good if they are subject to freezer burn, and one of the culprits for freezer burn is air. If you can get as much air away from the food before you package it in the bag, or even double bag the meal in some cases, the meal will last longer. Usually, for freezing meals like casseroles, if you prepare it in a square-shaped baking container, once it has cooled, you can remove it, wrap it in foil, and then store it in a larger freezer storage bag.
Always remember to wait until your meal has completely cooled before you put it in your storage bag. And don't forget to label your bag with the name of the meal and the date it was prepared. Try to keep a running inventory of your freezer contents, as your collection begins to build, so you can easily scan your choices for busy weeknight dinners.
4. Reheating the Meal
Many recipes have instructions provided should you choose to freeze the recipe and then reheat it. If those instructions are absent, you can usually reheat a cooked casserole at 350 degrees until it is warmed all the way through. If you have chosen to freeze a meal that isn't cooked yet, then follow the recipe instructions for fully cooking the recipe before serving.
With a little planning, you can easily turn your freezer into your weeknight best friend. Freezer meals are a wonderful way to save both time and money, turning your freezer into a home-cooked meal haven for those busy weekday nights.
About the Author: Paige Estigarribia is a writer for The Dollar Stretcher, a long-running financial and frugal living website. For more ideas for freezing meals, check out The Dollar Stretcher's articles on what foods don't freeze well and using your freezer effectively.