Freezer Cooking Basics

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This is part of an extensive series on Freezer Cooking. Be sure to read the archives here and on my food blog Good Cheap Eats for the complete 411 on how to save money by “make-ahead and freeze” tactics. Or just buy my book.

Photo Source: Swanson Meals

Convenience foods have been the name of the homemaker’s game for quite some time.

– Those in the hustle and bustle of 1920s relished in the first fast-food restaurant where meals could be enjoyed quickly and at low cost.

– Busy cooks in the late 1940s were the first to enjoy the luxury of a packaged “just add water” cake mix from which to bake the evening’s dessert.

– In 1954 the first “TV dinner” was created.

Today’s home manager is no different from her predecessors in wanting quick cuts to get her toward dinnertime faster and more economically. However, modern day  “convenience” items are no longer “the best thing since sliced bread.” They can take a huge bite out of one’s budget, and usually they aren’t the healthiest food choices around.

There must be a better way.

There is. It’s called freezer cooking. Also known as once-a-month cooking, batch cooking, or bulk cooking, it’s a way to make your own convenience foods. There are lots of ways to approach it. Today, I’m going to present the basics to cooking a month’s worth of meals.

Is it crazy for a couple days? You betcha! Is it worth it in the end? Absolutely! Think of having a month’s worth of meals already planned and mostly, if not completely, prepared. That’s less mess, less work, less brain cells to use on any given night. And I don’t know about you, but I need all the brain cells I can get these days.

Some advance preparation is needed to really make this work for you.

You’re going to need energy – Cooking takes work even if you’re just preparing Monday night’s dinner. Sometimes you have to stir up extra motivation and push through. All the more so if you are going to cook multiple meals at one time. Even though you’re making 30 times as many meals, you won’t be using 30 times the energy. But, you’ll need to be at your best, so choose a time when life is fairly low key, when there aren’t many demands on your time or your body. If you’re just recovering from an illness or something else that has sapped your strength, wait until your energy levels are up.

You’re going to need time – Allot at least 1-3 days of time for planning, shopping, chopping, and cooking. These won’t be full 8-hour days, but you’ll need to devote some attention to this endeavor, especially if it’s your first go at it. Free up your calendar so that houseguests don’t arrive while you have a fridge full of perishables that need to get cooked and stored. Likewise, arrange some childcare or other entertainment for the children.

You’re going to need a good stockpile of groceries or a lump of seed money – Since you will be cooking a month’s worth of meals, you will need to buy a month’s worth of groceries at one time – at least what is needed to prepare 30 dinners. If you keep a pretty full pantry you might be okay, but otherwise, prepare to shell out some money up front. You will want to make sure that you have enough leftover in your food budget to cover breakfasts and lunches.

If you don’t have your grocery money at the beginning of the month, you can work around this in several ways. You can accumulate grocery items over time or just set aside a small amount of your food budget each week. If you’d rather, you could start out just cooking for a two week time period. This is particularly helpful for your first time, so that you can accustom yourself to cooking in bulk. However you swing it, in the long run, you will actually spend less because you are buying items in bulk rather than buying small amounts over a period of four weeks.

How to Plan for Freezer Cooking

1. Choose 5-10 recipes that you know your family likes. You’re going to triple or quadruple these dishes, so don’t go experimenting with a recipe that they may hate. For inspiration, check out this list of things you can freeze. You may want to visit your freezer and pantry to see what ingredients you already have. Build your list from your food storage first and then consult the grocery ads to see what might be a good deal this week.

Vary the types (beef, pork, poultry, etc) so that you don’t get bored by week 3. But also choose dishes that have similar ingredients so that you will achieve the bulk-buying savings. For instance, if you choose meatloaf, meatballs, and tacos, you can buy many pounds of ground beef at a low price and save time because you can mix all of the meat with onions at one time and then divide it and alter each portion for the individual recipes.

2. Create a grocery list. With paper and pencil in hand, go through each recipe and create a shopping list. For duplicate items, like the aforementioned ground beef, just write tally marks until you get through the recipes and can figure the grand totals of each item. Make sure you consult the contents of your pantry to make sure you don’t overbuy. Read my tricks to making it work on a budget.

3. Consider how you will package your meals. Check your inventory of baking dishes, plastic containers and ziptop bags and match them up with the dishes you plan to create. If you don’t have enough of something, add that to your list.

3. Plan your prep chef list. In higher end restaurants the chef doesn’t usually do all his own chopping and slicing. The prep chef does this. Having the ingredients ready to go will make the cooking go smoother, faster, and more enjoyable. Read each recipe and create a list of all the items that needs to be sliced, grated, chopped or pre-cooked.

4. Plan out the order in which you will cook and assemble the dishes. Do like dishes with like. For instance, tackle the ground beef recipes first. Then the chicken, then the pork, etc. If you’re going to make a big pot of red sauce as well as several lasagnas, then you know you need to make the sauce first.

5. Purchase the items at least a day ahead of cooking. You don’t want to shop and cook all on the same day. Make sure that you clean out the frig before you go shopping. You’ll be amazed at how quickly it fills up. And if you can stand it, just leave the nonperishables in the bags until you start cooking. Why waste time putting them away just to get them back out again?

6. The day before cooking, prep as many of the ingredients as you can. Consult your prep chef list. Do your slicing, dicing, and chopping. Precook meats for casseroles or enchiladas.

7. Get cooking! On the Big Day, pick some music you like, supply yourself with drinks and snacks for munching, make sure the kids are safe and happy, and go to it.

So are ya ready? What burning questions do you have?

My cookbook, Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook is now available for purchase!

It’s chock full with over 200 freezer-friendly recipes, planning pages, and basic and advanced how-to’s to making freezer cooking work for any home, family, and lifestyle.

Find extra FREE freezer cooking plans here.

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Comments

  1. Last month I participated in my first freezer cooking. I didn’t have any problems with the actual cooking, but when it came to the day where we would eat the food it would take us longer to get the food re-heated than it would have taken us to just cook it fresh. Any tips on making this smoother?

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Hi Lyndsey, that is definitely frustrating. And the butt of many of FishPapa’s jokes. It has happened to us more than once. ;)

      Since I make a month’s meal plan and then an updated meal plan each weekend, I can see the lay of the land so to speak for the week. On Sunday night I pull out enough items for the next 2-3 days. Depending on how full your fridge is and how often it gets opened, sometimes food can take a long time to thaw. I try to be flexible about when we eat what just in case something is still rock solid. Sometimes I thaw it briefly in the microwave, sometimes I pull it from the refrigerator about an hour before cooking, sometimes I just allow for longer baking time.

      For me, the benefit of freezer meals is not just in the time spent that night but also in the mess involved. I love not having a lot of pots and pans to clean up. Hope that helps!

  2. I have a friend coming over Monday for a FULL day of cooking. We’ve got 15 different recipes to prepare! My first “real” OAMC experience… here goes nothing!

  3. Personally, I’m a fan of breaking it up over the course of the month. When ground beef is on sale – that’s when I prep meatballs, hamburgers, meatloaf, and meat-mix for spaghetti, tacos & sloppy joes. When boneless/skinless chicken is on sale – that’s when I cut it up for nuggets, chicken piccata, stir fry, & marinade some for cooking in crockpot later. Sometimes I’ll cook some w/ onions & shred it for casseroles, soup, & dumplings later in the month. That’s what works for me. You just gotta find what works for you and your family.

    • I so agree with Sharon … that is how I do it … that way I am not overspending each month … I buy it when it is on sale … prepare and freeze it! We are retired and it has been so nice not to have to cook every night or have so many dirty dishes … we can be on the go and come home and have a good meal without being tempted to eat at a restaurant because it is “easier and less mess!” I so appreciate this blog … wondering why I didn’t think of doing this a long time ago!

  4. I’m am very much interested in making a lot of frozen dinners for the summer. I am pregnant and expecting a baby early June. I was wondering if you had any ideas on food that doesn’t require a lot of heating up but freezes well for the summer months? It gets really humid here and I don’t do well with the heat due to previous heat strokes. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      @Sarah, Some things that work for me are precooking chicken breast to toss into salads or marinating meats and chicken to throw on the grill — outside where hubby does the cooking. Components work well in summer time, too. Like taco kits: cooked taco meat and a bag of cheese. Reheat the meat and let everyone assemble their own. I’ll be posting about components later in the week, so watch for it.

      Anybody have good summertime ideas for Sarah?

    • @Sarah, I would suggest anything that can be warmed up quickly in a pan on the stovetop, like taco meat w/ beans for taco salad, or soups, things like that. Things that must be baked (meatloaf, etc.) aren’t very fun in the summer!

      One thing I love to do in the summer is to dump a meal in the crockpot, then take it out to the garage to let it do its thing! We live in a single wide mobile home, and even the crockpot can really steam the place up, something we don’t appreciate on hot & humid summer days!

    • @Sarah, I had my baby in late May so I can relate. I pre-marinated a lot of meats for the grill, and made shredded pork that I could heat up on the stove top. I also made a lot of muffins and hamburger buns. Congrats!

    • @Sarah I have had two summer pregnancies now and my crockpot was my lifesaver!!! You can fill ziplocks with the ingredients of a full meal, or you can use it to cook large quantities of things like chicken or ground beef and then freeze them in meal-size portions. No oven needed!

  5. I work full time during the day and next month I am going back to school full time at night. My DH works 2nd shift and my DDs are 13 and 18. I need meal ideas that we can all eat at different times. Can you help?

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Off the top of my head… calzones, indiv. cooked pizzas, and chimichangas freeze well. Wrap them individually and then everyone can pull out whatever he wants when he wants.

    • @Michele, See my comment above to Jessica Fisher/Sarah for the recipe for Brown Bag Burritos. They’re great and super quick to reheat.

  6. Thank you for the tutorial – it was very helpful. At the moment, I’m just cooking for two (and we have a VERY small freezer!) but in a few months there will be three :) and I’m planning ahead for some freezer meals. I love the idea of having something delicious ready to go once Hubs & I get home from work – so we have more time with our new family! Thank you again!

  7. Thanks so much for posting these tips each month! I’m going to try for a few weeks’ worth of meals this weekend. I’ve been doing prep work for my meals a week in advance, and there are a few meals that I always double and freeze for the next month, but I haven’t tried anything beyond that.

  8. Thanks for the post. I know I need to try this, especially when I looked and saw how much we spend on fast food this month because I didn’t get dinner made. How much easier it would be just to stick it in the oven. I only have my small freezer, so I’ve been nervous to try this, but I know I need to. Thanks for the info to get started. Looks like I need to do some planning today!

  9. We are a large family. I have 2 refrigerator freezers and an upright in the garage. However, they are full (mostly meat). About how much space are your meals taking up…trying to figure out how to fit in that many meals.

    I already shop once a month, so this shouldn’t be a far stretch. I appreciate this post so much because I’ve been wanting to do this, but needed the “how-to”.

  10. Love the pictures and the history lesson!
    Ofcourse, the tutorial is great, too!

  11. I love to cook extra and freeze it, but haven’t tried it on the scale you do (yet!)

    We’ve recently decided to give up our microwave and I reheat everything using our oven or stovetop, but I think I need a tutorial on the best methods for this. Can some things come straight from freezer to over/stove, but others must thaw before reheating? What temp is right in the oven if I want to reheat a casserole but not re-cook it? Any tips or coaching on this front would be much appreciated!

  12. Rebecca says:

    I have a small freezer as well, and I work varying shifts so some nights we’re all home for dinner (me, hubby, and 2 year old), and other times it’s just hubby heating up food for him and kid. I make a lot of pepperoni hot pockets/calzones (just a simple pizza dough with fillings), and shredded BBQ beef for them, and casseroles (8″ square pans) for all of us. Partly because of space, and partly because of paychecks I usually do a quick batch of freezer cooking once every 2 weeks. Also, throughout the week if I make something and end up with leftovers, I package them up and freeze them (this works great for waffles).

  13. I made something like this last night for dinner. Sooo good. I put the sauce on the side just so the dough would not get soggy. I think I might make some pizza sauce and do the individual baggies (like your oatmeal) to freeze with them. Unfortunately I was not able to get any into the freezer. But I am going to make some today to freeze. And a added bonus I gave my 3yo a piece of dough and she played for a really long time while I rolled the dough out and assembled my pizza pockets.

  14. My biggest question to these freezer meals is when you take out the dish to be reheated what temperatures and time are we looking at? an example would be frozen lasagna, do I store it in the fridge to defrost? or pop it into the microwave? some basic temps and times would be great for someone just learning the ropes.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      It really depends on the recipe. Potpies can go straight from the freezer to the oven. Theoretically so can other dishes, but I like to thaw my lasagna first in the fridge. I think it cooks more evenly that way.

  15. Do you recommend freezing meals when they are hot, or do they have to be room temperature?

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      No, you never want to freeze a hot meal. It can cause dangerous bacteria to grow as well as unsightly ice crystals. You want to cool the food quickly and then chill it well in the refrigerator before freezing it. This protects the integrity of the dish and helps prevent frostbite, too.

  16. Can u freeze raw potatoes in a casserole?

  17. Hi! I’ve no problem following a recipe and freezing it, but I’m not sure what to do from there. Do I thaw it out completely before cooking? Or do I cook it frozen? The two questions that keep me from jumping on the freezer meal train. Thanks!

    • It really depends on the recipe. All my recipes have thaw and reheat instructions. My personal preference is to thaw completely for most things, except pot pies. That way you avoid cold spots.

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