Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Organized
You've heard about bulk freezer cooking--an easy method of stockpiling prepared meals in the household freezer.
Commercial meal assembly franchises like Dream Dinners®, or Let’s Dish® have popularized the concept (at a cost), but smart home cooks know that feeding the freezer is an efficient way to feed the family. too.
Whether you know it as once-a-month cooking, freezer assets, OAMC or freezer cooking, the idea sounds intriguing. In a single day, freezer cooking lets you cook and freeze dinner entrees for a month--or more.
But the work! Loaded down with toddlers or balancing a full-time job, you can't imagine devoting two full days a month to shopping, preparing and cooking all those meals.
Take heart! Freezer cooking is not just for the energetic; it's possible to stock your freezer without the marathon sessions. Try these strategies to build your frozen assets bit by bit:
Soups and stews are simple-but-good dishes for freezer storage--and their forgiving nature makes them a logical first step for beginning freezer cooks.
Try these ideas to build your stock of soup possibilities:
- Store the components, not the soup. Too often, frozen soups don't satisfy. Overcooked vegetables, gritty stock and stringy meat are a table turn-off. Instead of freezing completed soups, freeze components: a container of chicken broth, freezer bag of just-cooked chicken in single meal portions. To assemble, sauté onions, celery and carrots in a skillet, and add the freezer broth. Stir in leftover cooked rice. Add the meat, heat--and serve a soup that stands the test of time.
- Just say "No!" to potatoes. Whether in soup, stew or casserole, frozen potatoes don't cut the mustard. Package freezer stew before adding potato. When you reheat, stir in cold, cubed, peeled baked potato from last night's dinner. Freezer friendly potato substitutes include barley and slightly undercooked pasta.
- Store now, thicken later. Yes, you can freeze thickened stews, but do you want to? Cornstarch and flour-based gravies can separate after freezing, and never seem to have quite the right texture. Better, freeze the meal first and add thickening after thawing.
The concept is simple. When you do cook, cook multiple portions and freeze extra servings.
Problem is, this method is a bit haphazard. Who hasn't known the virtuous feeling of cooking up a big pot of baked beans and tucking a container or two deep in the bowels of Moby Dick, the great white whale?
Where, sad to say, it remains. Months later, a freezer clean-out yields a variegated ice mountain of anonymous dribs and drabs.
Without labels, planning or portion control, the effort goes to waste.
Fine-tune your bulk cooking skills to avoid the hazards of mystery meat:
- Plan multiple meals. Ground beef and Italian sausage on sale this week? By all means, buy extra for freezer meals--but make it a plan. Two pounds of beef and a pound of sausage will make four meals for your family? Great! That's what you buy, not a smidgen more. Too often, a weak "I'll freeze the extras" motivation leads to overbuying and waste; relying on a plan saves time and money.
- Package the freezer meals first. Back to our hungry family, faced with a huge kettle of spaghetti sauce. Before you know it, your meat-loving teen has gutted the pot and put a serious dent in those planned-over meals. Instead, fill freezer containers before you serve the evening's meal. You'll have a tighter handle on portion control--and there will be no more scant cups of meatless sauce marooned inside the whale.
- Freeze casseroles before cooking. Twice-cooked casseroles are nobody's friend. After dinner, who wants to scoop the leavings into freezer bags? Efficient multiple cooks build their lasagna in three single-meal containers and freeze two while the evening's dinner is in the oven.
- Package properly. Ill-assorted margarine tubs and gaping plastic containers are for amateurs--and they won't protect your frozen assets. Invest in three or four same-sized oven-safe casserole dishes. Is it beef stew tonight? Spritz the dishes with pan spray, and line with a sheet of foil long enough to wrap completely around the food. Spray the foil, too, then ladle in the stew. Gently tuck the foil up over the food. Freeze overnight, then release the foil from the pan. Wrap, label and freeze in freezer bags. To use, pop a foil-wrapped entree into the casserole dish, thaw and re-heat. Simple!
- Label, label, label! Our efficient once-a-month cook has assembled her labeling supplies before she begins. Casual freezer cooks often fudge the labels. Tuck a slip of paper with the multiple's name and cooking directions between the foil-wrapped entree and the freezer bag. Better, use a permanent marker pen to label freezer bags. A page of computer address labels tucked in the phone directory provides quick labeling help.
- Track inventory. "Out of sight, out of mind" defeats many would-be freezer cooks--and nothing's better for inventory control than a whiteboard. Add three dinners' worth of macaroni and cheese to your freezer hoard? Write 'em in. Visiting family has you drawing heavily on your inventory? Erase each meal as you use it. A small magnet-mounted whiteboard can be placed on the freezer door to track freezer contents.
Super Six Freezer Plan
You're chafing at the bit, dreaming of making a big dent in nightly cooking chores. Still, you've got neither the time nor the money to invest in a whole month's worth of freezer meals at one time. What do you do?
Try the Super Six Freezer Plan. Once a week, you'll prepare the night's dinner plus six meals for the freezer.
Even eating one prepared meal a week, after six weeks you'll have a fully stocked once-a-month freezer--and missing a week here and there? No problem.
To stockpile meals under the Super Six Freezer Plan:
- Make a plan. Using the supermarket sale flyers, identify one bargain protein. Are bone-in chicken breasts on sale for 99 cents? Good candidate! How about low-priced chuck roast? There's another. Choose your Super Six candidate according to your family's tastes.
- Still sitting down with the sale flyers, identify two favorite recipes that can be made from your sale special. Chicken breasts yield Chicken Fajitas and Chicken-Biscuit Casserole. Chuck roast becomes Beef Bourgignon and Pot Roast. Check to make sure that you have other ingredients needed--if not, add them to the grocery list.
- Schedule a Super Six cooking session. For two recipes, allow an extra hour in the kitchen that evening; three recipes may require more time.
- Cook assembly-line fashion. For our chicken plan, we'll make 3 Mexican Chicken casseroles and four Fajita meals, one to be served that night.
- Toss one-third of the bone-in breasts into a large steamer pot. As the meat cooks, bone the remaining breasts. Reserve the skin, bones and scraps.
- Assemble Fajita marinade, and divide the boned breasts among 3 freezer bags and a glass bowl. Pour one-fourth of the marinade into each bag, and one-fourth into the bowl for the night's meal. Seal, label and freeze the Fajitas.
- Cool the now-cooked chicken breasts and remove the meat. Mix the casserole sauce ingredients, and grate cheese and chop onions for the casseroles (reserve extra cheese and onions for the night's dinner). Using three foil-lined pans, assemble the casseroles, label, and freeze. Grill the evening's fajitas.
- Dump the skin, bone and scraps right into the bottom of the steamer pot, add more water, and bring to a gentle simmer for chicken stock. Simmer very slowly for several hours or overnight, strain, and freeze. Your Super Six plan has given you a bonus--free homemade chicken stock!
Using this concept for a month, you'll build frozen assets quickly--and easily. Adding freezer meals gradually is friendlier to the budget, too!
Total time: 90 minutes. Total freezer investment: six meals. Multiply by six weeks, and you've filled the freezer!
Trade Money for Time
Oh, no! I've scared you! Super Six sounds like too much work, and who's got time to package freezer meals each night at dinner?
Okay, fine. There's a work-free way to have the advantage of meals in the freezer: buy them.
You're going to trade money for time--but it's still faster and cheaper than five nights a week of take-out and/or fast food.
Try these sources for pre-prepared freezer meal candidates.
- Scour warehouse stores and supermarket freezer sections for freezer meal candidates. Family-size lasagna is made to order, even if you do have to "plan over" the second half of the package for later in the week.
- Think in terms of building blocks, not complete meals. Pre-cooked frozen meatballs can be tossed into spaghetti sauce from a jar. Cooked shrimp takes simple fried rice from a side dish to a light entree.
- Try a Ewer family favorite: place meatballs in a medium saucepan, and add water just to cover. Stir in two or three teaspoons of beef soup base, bring to a boil, and simmer gently. Cook rice in a rice steamer as the meatballs simmer. Toss a salad. When the rice is ready, stir a tablespoon of cornstarch into a small amount of water, and add to the meatballs to thicken the sauce. Simple!
- Other freezer-friendly meal components: bags of pre-cooked frozen shrimp; small bacon-wrapped filets of beef; pre-formed hamburger patties; flash-frozen chicken breasts.
Freezer convenience, home-cooked taste, and more free time? It's a winner! Give freezer cooking a try . . . one way or the other!