Friday, July 26, 2013

Freezer Cooking: Making a plan that works for YOUR family

Do you freezer cook?  I used to try and follow someone else's plan for a month of freezer meals, but invariably had to make changes to their plan anyway.  They'd either have recipes with too much unhealthy crap many processed foods or too many weird new foods for my family to try in a month.  I like new foods.  Don't get me wrong!  But sometimes I want to sit down to an old favorite and know at least 4 of us will ENJOY it.  One kid might whine grumble for a little while, but that happens no matter what we eat.  So I'd end up either using only 2 of their recipes or making so many changes I might as well have made up my own plan.

Meal Starters

I've experimented, with great success, on making "meal starters" in the past.  That's when you make up several packets of cooked ground beef, chopped up soup vegetables, sauces, and so on that go in the freezer.  So when it's time to cook, you've already got a start and it takes less time and dishes to make dinner.  This is great, especially if you KNOW you don't have time to make 18 meals in one day.  It's crazy sometimes!

Double Up

Another idea I've tried successfully is to double up a recipe that I'm already making and freeze the extra for another day. It's brilliant!  If you're already so short on time you can't make extra food but you already are making dinner, it takes maybe 2 extra minutes to put together the second batch of whatever since you've already prepared the ingredients for the first one.  This works great for lasagna, pasta bakes, enchiladas, soups, chili, pancakes, cookies, and muffins. It's a great start.  And it's helpful when you don't have much freezer space.  It's still perfectly possible to do a "big cooking/freezing day" with just the freezer connected to your fridge, but it takes way more planning.

My Plan

So back to the big cooking day.  I decided to just make up my own plan since I was basically doing that anyway for so long.  I'm not going to post all my recipes.  You probably have a favorite recipe for all or most of the family favorites I'm going to share anyway.  If not, I'll post them eventually, if you ask nicely. ;)  I just wanted to share my method.  And, by the way, I love how this turned out.  I love the food.  I love that I have meals ready to go in my freezer.  And I love that still have the flexibility to make dinner from scratch if that bug bites.  Honestly, sometimes I LOVE to cook.  But most days I'm scrambling around trying to figure out if peanut butter on crackers qualifies as a meal a little lacking in my planning.  When I do plan, though, WATCH OUT!  I'm gonna makes things happen!

Make a list of family favorites

So, first step is to make a list of recipes your family likes.  It helps if many of the recipes share some common ingredients, but you don't want the meals to get boring by ALWAYS having the same thing.  I had a list of 10 recipes (plus the sauces I was making from scratch) and then ended up with extra chicken so I made some other meals, too.  I doubled those recipes so we would have each meal twice.  That makes 20+ meals.  We usually have leftovers, which we eat either for a lunch or for a "leftovers night" during the week.  If you're running short on ideas, consider doing what the "Food Nanny" suggests and making a theme for each day of the week.  She has her own plan, but our family just does things differently.  Sunday is "traditional/crockpot".  Monday is "ethnic."  By that we mean, it's a good night for Mexican or Asian.  We might toss in Indian food at some point.  We LOVE Mexican, but we also enjoy a good stir fry or sweet and sour sometimes.  Tuesday I have prenatals almost all night, so we call that "Fend for Yourself" night.  Mostly that means The Boy Scout makes something strange unique weird for the kids and himself while I either bring dinner or buy Qdoba while I'm at the office. Wednesday is "Italian."  My husband would eat pasta for every meal, I think, if it were up to him.  I'm not kidding.  He has made some fantastic breakfast pasta, even.  Thursday we have fish.  Partly because we like fish and want to eat more of it and partly because a friend told The Boy Scout that eating fish twice a week will help with his cholesterol numbers.  The other meal is usually tuna fish sandwiches for lunch.  Friday we either grill out or have soup (or go out to eat on the oh so rare occasion).  We're thinking if it's too cold to grill, we want to have soup anyway. Saturday is for comfort foods.  Some of our favorites are stroganoff, gumbo, and jambalaya.  We ARE southerners, after all. ;)  When I plan my weekly shopping trips, I plan on 6 meals plus lunches and breakfasts then write out all the ingredients I need for those recipes, adding those on my shopping list I don't already have stocked up.  My "shopping list book" has a long list of meals our family EVER eats.  You might consider something like this.

Make a list of recipes you want to make this month

Consult your long list and pick what you want to make this time.  Some foods freeze better than others.  Some shouldn't be frozen at all.  Some need to be frozen before cooked.  Some need to be prepared then frozen.  It'll take a little research and experimenting to figure out what works for your recipes, but it's worth it for the money saved and the hassle gone.  Anyway, here's my list for this time: beef/turkey (red sauce) enchiladas, chicken (white sauce) enchiladas, Taco soup, cheeseburger soup, broccoli-cheese casserole, lasagna, stroganoff, chili, cabbage rolls, and meatballs.  Notice how some of these contain VERY similar ingredients?  It's planned that way.  I also made my own spaghetti sauce and enchilada sauce for these recipes. These are just the recipes I wanted to put together.  We also have fish every week, but I didn't need to prepare it in any way.  If you like marinated steaks or chicken breasts, those count as meals, too but all you have to do it dump the ingredients in a bag and freeze them. :)

Make a list of ingredients

Calculate how much you'll need for all the recipes.  If your one recipe says you need 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese and you're making a double batch, you should buy a new container of parmesan, since the opened container in your fridge probably doesn't have enough for both recipes.  It's really frustrating to run to the store (or deal with substitutions) when in the middle of cooking all this food.  The same goes for seasonings. Chili always requires more chili powder than I think it does.  I've started buying it in bulk, too.  In general, it's better to buy too much ingredients than not enough.  You can always freeze the extras.  Consider containers, too.  I buy the 10 x 12 foil pans and lids from Sam's.  These freeze nicely, bake nicely, and have perfectly smooth lids for writing on.  Some people like to print labels.  I like to use my permanent marker.  You may want quart and gallon size freezer bags.  It's worth spending extra on the name brand bags.  Trust me.  Or learn the hard way.  Hard plastic containers are also nice since there's less waste.  I pick mine up from Aldi when the come in.  I think the brand is Sterilite, or something like that.  I love them.  They are freezer, microwave, and top-rack dishwasher "safe."  Plus they have a little vent you can open when microwaving.  You'll find the right containers for your meals.

Buy in bulk

Buying items in bulk is a huge money saver.  Buying those 5# bags of cheese from Sam's club saves at least 25%, even from the sales prices.  Buying those big #10 cans of diced tomatoes and tomato sauce saved me over 50%.  Bonus: I was trying to save money by reducing the amount of beef I bought.  Some recipes HAD to have fresh ground beef or turkey because they were meatballs or whatever.  Some recipes could be completely substituted with a meat replacement like beans/rice.  Some recipes really needed to contain some amount of meat just so we wouldn't feel deprived.  So when I went to Sam's Club to purchase my meat, I couldn't bring myself to buy the huge chub of beef they had at $30+ and they didn't have turkey in stock.  I went to Aldi next since their frozen turkey is so cheap and their fresh beef isn't extraordinarily expensive.  Here's the bonus.  In the fresh meat section, they had fresh turkey and fresh beef chuck but at almost the same price.  The also had fresh sirloin that needed cooked by the next day (my cooking day!) with a "$2 off per package" sticker.  This made the sirloin cheaper then the turkey!  I bought 6 lbs. Happy dance time!

I also usually buy two whole chickens that I cook in the crockpot or roaster oven, depending on the time I have available.  I use the meat from one chicken in my recipes to freeze and save the meat from the other for meals to make "from scratch."  Depending on my plans I'll either fridge or freeze it.

Plan to spend ALL day cooking

Planning means you have something for the kids to do, like a babysitter or a new activity that will keep them out of your hair.  It also means you make any early preparations the night before.  Have a clean kitchen.  Crockpot your chicken or beans or whatever overnight.  Have all the vegetables chopped up and ready to go.  Make sure you have easy snacks/lunches available to keep everyone fed and not cranky.  When you wake up in the morning, have a good healthy but fast breakfast and then get going.  It's not a race, but if you're still putting dinners together well after you wanted to stop for dinner, you're going to wish you'd gotten up earlier.  Expect to wash the same mixing bowls 3 or 4 times in the day.  It's just going to happen, so plan on it.  Clean up in between so it's less of a mess at the end of the day.  Also, have flat surfaces to prepare on, to cool foods on, and to hold foods between steps on.  I used my dining table and the top of my freezer for these.  You don't want to put hot foods in your deep freeze.  It just has to work harder to cool and then thaws some of your foods. A final thought: do NOT plan your shopping and cooking day as the same day.  You CAN plan on prepping on your shopping day, but you don't have to.

Make Like Foods at the Same Time

I love my cabbage roll recipe.  When I make cabbage rolls, I always quadruple the meat portion and make half of those into meatballs.  Then I make 2 batches of cabbage rolls and 2 batches of meatballs.  I cook all the ground meat either the night before or the first thing in the morning. Then I make my spaghetti sauce and enchilada sauce, then put together enchiladas, taco soup, chili and lasagna (or make the sauces the night before and assemble cold ingredients in the morning).

Here's How I Planned My Cooking Day

Night Before 
  1. Set chickens to cook overnight in crockpot.
  2. Set chili beans to cook overnight in crockpot. (I made my from dried beans instead of buying cans.)
  3. Chop all vegetables
  4. Brown 10# of turkey/beef/meat substitute
Cooking Day
  1. Combine taco soup ingredients and freeze.
  2. Combine chili ingredients and freeze.
  3. Make spaghetti sauce and enchilada sauce.
  4. Make lasagnas and freeze.
  5. Make beef enchiladas and freeze.
  6. Make chicken enchiladas and freeze.
  7. Make broccoli cheddar casserole and freeze.
  8. Make cheeseburger soup and freeze half.  Save other half for lunch today.
  9. Make up stroganoff sauce and freeze.
  10. Make up 4 lbs of cabbage roll meat.
  11. Make half ^ into cabbage rolls and freeze. 
  12. Add Italian seasoning to other half and make into meatballs.
  13. Bake meatballs in muffin tins.  Cool and freeze.
It happened mostly the way I planned, except that I had to cook the chickens in my roaster oven since my crockpot was no where near big enough for two chickens.  I forgot this as I usually cook one for "cooking day" and one on Sunday for my "traditional meal" night.  So those were cooking in the morning while I prepared other recipes.  I also ended up making the meatballs and cabbage rolls first instead of last, but I still made them together which was the point.  We ended up having cheeseburger soup for dinner instead of lunch.  For lunch we made up sandwiches and pressed on. Many people plan on ordering pizza the night they cook big meals, but I think that defeats a purpose.  Do what works for your family.

Note: Sorry for no photos.  I'll add them later.  I didn't take ANY pictures while cooking, even though I KNEW I should have.  But this gets you started if you're looking for a way to do a "Freezer Cooking Day."

Edit:  I forgot to mention that in addition to the meals I made above, I also bought fish for a couple weeks, ingredients to make a family favorite that doesn't freeze well, and enough stir fry vegetables for two meals.  We keep a decent store of foods in the house, so we fill in the empty places with other meals.

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