Everything You Need To Know About Meal Planning and Freezer Meals (+ Recipes!)

Boom-this is going to save you time, money and stress! 


by Amanda Dodson | staff writer for The Snap Mom

feature image source:SOURCE: KalynsKitchen.com

Have you been wanting to try your hand in freezing meals to make every day a little easier or because you are expecting a little bundle of joy but don’t really know where to start?

Well here are some tips of things I learned while preparing for the birth of my second child. I’m an ex chef, a foodie, and I insist on good and healthy food. But living on a single income means everything gets made from scratch and eating out isn’t really an option. I decided that in order to make sure I fed my family well, didn’t bust the budget, and didn’t stress myself out with a newborn, I would prepare 2 months of meals before baby arrived. I started this process just 3 months before my due date with a goal of 60 meals. In the end, I had 50 complete meals plus a few extras for easy meals. I learned a ton from this process and now, 3 months after my daughter was born, I have just started “cooking” again and have picked back up a freezing routine – because once you go freezer, you’ll never go back! While we aren’t eating every meal from the freezer anymore – I still love to cook – I do have the freedom to go to my freezer 3-4 times a week for a yummy, healthy, I-know-what’s-in-it meal. I also commit to 1-2 days days a week tripling a meal to continue to add to my freezer inventory.

If you are tired of the demands of cooking every night, I encourage you to try it out. Maybe you, too, will soon have a freezer full of deliciousness.

Here are a few tips I have learned from my research and experience…

LABEL LABEL LABEL and DATE

I read this a lot in my research, and I’ve found it to be so important.  Things don’t always look the same frozen, and you definitely won’t be remembering when you made it. Masking tape works great! I also keep a dry erase board on the outside of my freezer with a list and count of all my meals inside.

KEEP THINGS AIRTIGHT

Getting as much air out of your packaging is key to avoiding freezer burn and your food tasting as fresh as possible. My dad bought me this vacuum sealer, and it made all the difference in keeping freezer burn away.

SOME GENERAL RULES OF THUMB

vacuum seal any meals being stored for more than a month

liquids/liquid based meals are fine stored in containers or ordinary freezer bags

if storing casserole like dishes in tins Cover food closely with plastic wrap and then cover for an air tight seal with foil. I found that some foods tended to absorb the tin flavor the longer they were stored. To help prevent you can line the tins with parchment (not wax) paper. Or if you have extras, use your glass/ceramic dishes. I plan on scouring garage sales for extras so I don’t need to buy tins (extra trash) any more or have issue with tin leaching into my food.

BLANCHING IS IMPORTANT

In case you don’t know, blanching is a cooking process wherein the food substance, usually a vegetable or fruit, is plunged into boiling water, removed after a brief, timed interval, and finally plunged into iced water to halt the cooking process (Wikipedia). I know, I know, it’s an extra step, but it’s really important, especially if you are a food snob like me and you don’t want your food to taste like it’s been sitting in the freezer for months.

Thankfully not everything needs be blanched.

Some common ingredients…

To Blanch: broccoli , sugar snap peas, string beans, zucchini,  squash, carrots, potatoes

Not to blanch: onions, garlic, peppers, corn

AVOID FREEZING DAIRY LADEN MEALS

A little dairy here and there like cheese, butter or a little cream is ok, but if you are making something like a cream based soup (check out one of my favorites, Corn Leak Chowder, below) than you want to wait to add the cream/milk until the cooking process.  (Think Campbell’s condensed soup…) Also keep in mind this is a very common baby colic inducer, so you may not be eating dairy for some time anyway (I learned this lesson the hard way).

3 MEALS IN 1

I found the most efficient way for me to make a guaranteed good meal was to freeze what I was making for dinner that night. That way I could taste test it cooked and I wasn’t overwhelmed with trying to make 6 different meals at once. This was also very cost effective. Ive heard a lot of women who make a double meal and freeze one, but to reach my goal of 50 frozen meals in only 3 months, I needed  to make better of my time. So I always tripled my batches, a few I made even more and often I got a surprise 4th meal. During those 3 months I did “freezer night” 2-3 times a week.

PRE COOK AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE

For even better results, I recommend only cooking what takes a lot of extra time. I divided my meals intro categories: casseroles, pre-prepped, and crock pot (although because I usually forgot to pull out the meal until after 3, I ended up thawing in sink and cooking in cast iron dutch oven). PRE prepped meals were ones I had to do a little work with but everything was in the bag waiting. For example, for an oriental dish I would have a freezer bag containing a bag of dry rice, vegetables in a vacuum seal bag and my raw meat in the sauce in another vacuum seal bag.

DON’T FREEZE A MEAL YOU’VE NEVER TRIED BEFORE

It’s just not worth it. I did this with one of our meals. I found the same recipe on multiple different freezer recipe lists and thought if all these people like it, then it’s got to be good.  Man, was I wrong. We all forced it down for dinner that night. It wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t in our palate. And those other 2 are STILL in our freezer. Lesson learned.

THINGS TO AVOID FREEZING

Overall, I found that most things I froze turned out great, but there were a few I didn’t find worth it. The taste was significantly lost and/or there wasn’t much time saved.

Broccoli- I don’t know about you, but I like my broccoli just to the point of soft. Between the added work of blanching and the diminished texture, unless broccoli was only one small part of the meal or was in a soup, I left it out. Especially with the pre cut florets you can buy now, I found it was totally worth having fresh. Also, keep in mind that broccoli is another baby colic inducer.

Pasta- I did make a few lasagnas that turned out pretty good (they needed more sauce) and definitely were worth being pre-made, but in general I won’t be freezing pasta dishes again. Between the extra sauce they need, the mushy texture of the pasta, and how little effort pasta takes to cook, I’d rather just make it fresh. Now I make all kinds of sauces and roux and just freeze those to be easily added to pasta.

EXTRA SAUCE

Everything seemed to need just a little extra sauce after it was frozen. So be sure to add a little more before freezing.

FREEZE MORE THAN JUST MEALS

The freezer is great for other stuff too. especially special things you won’t have time to make the first few months of baby.

Freezer friendly items:

-Bread

-Bone broth

-Cheese

-Homemade baked goods: muffins, cookie dough balls, zucchini/banana/pumpkin bread

-Homemade kombucha and yogurt cubes (for smoothies)

-Waffles

-Pancakes

-Breakfast muffins (biscuit, egg, cheese)

Quick meal items:

-homemade refried beans (for tacos or Nachos)

-Taco meat

-Tomato sauce

-Alfredo sauce

-Butternut squash sauce

-Cheese sauce (Mac and cheese)

-Home fries

-Mashed potatoes/Roasted Potatoes (pairs great with frozen fish or chicken and a veggie)

-marinated chicken

KNOW YOUR FREEZER

This is extremely important.

Temperature – freezers are generally set to 0 degrees, but you’ll want to be keeping yours at the food industry standard of -4 degrees.

Cold spots – know which areas of your freezer are the coldest.  The easiest way to do this is by getting a few thermometers and placing in different areas. My freezer is inconsistent on the bottom and causes freezer burn so I avoid that area.  The top is nice and cold, so I keep that shelf open for new arrivals to freeze quickly while not warming up already frozen meals.

Auto defrost– side-by-sides and most free-standing freezers auto defrost, but many deep freezers need to be emptied and defrosted 1-2 times a year. Otherwise a thick crust of frost develops.

Check items frequently to ensure freezer is working properly

* used freezers are all over Craigslist and for sale boards, and they are often in great shape. I got an amazing deal on my commercial grade freestanding freezer. Expect to spend between $50-$150 for a used one.

PORTIONS

Making the right amount of food is important too. Keep in mind having a little extra for lunch for you and your husband the next day. Some days it’s really hard to make yourself a good meal during the day especially in the early days of a new baby, this is a fail safe way to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need. Also remember that you are likely to eat even larger portions after baby is born if you are breast feeding, gah! I know! Add a little extra to your portion size just in case.

COOL BEFORE STORING

Let everything cool on the counter or in fridge before putting in freezer.

FAVORITE TOOLS FOR SEALING AND PORTION CONTROL

Vacuum Seal

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Favorite Meals To Freeze

Stuffed pepper casserole

Enchiladas

Tofu peanut stir fry

Orange chicken

Pot pie

Burritos

Fajitas

Leek potato soup

White chili

Red chili

Broccoli cheddar soup

Coconut curry

Shrimp/chicken/tofu stir fry

Mashed potatoes with fish or chicken

Lastly, here are the recipes of the freezer meals I originally made.  Included in each meal is a list of ingredients, what fresh item the meal would be paired with and what kind of prep was needed.  Most are not as important now that I only do 1-2 a week and that I’ve got the process memorized but it was extremely helpful in the beginning.

Recipes:

Stuffed Pepper Casserole

(Makes 4 freezer meals )

Ingredients

4 cups brown or black rice (I like mixing them)

1 cup bone broth

1 can tomato puree

2 cups water

1 1/2 lbs ground beef

3 large Bell Peppers chopped( I like mixing colors )

1 onion diced 

4 garlic cloves minced

1 can corn drained

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

4 cups shredded cheese

Salt

Pepper

Cayenne

Paprika

Cumin

cilantro 

Chili powder

1/3 mayo

Directions

Cook rice as directed on package, let cool. cook beef until just done, let cool.

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and season to taste. 

Store in airtight freezer bags or in casserole dishes. Thaw and Bake at 350 for about 30 mins or until peppers are tender. 

Orange chicken

Ingredients 

Sauce: 

1 1/2 cups water 

1/4 orange juice

1/3 cup rice vinegar 

2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce 

1 tablespoon grated orange zest 

1 cup packed brown sugar 

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic 

2 tablespoons chopped green onion 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes 

3 tablespoons cornstarch 

2 tablespoons water

2 chicken breasts

Directions

Pour water, orange juice, rice vinegar, and soy sauce into a saucepan and set over medium-high heat. Stir in the orange zest, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, chopped onion, and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and cool 10 to 15 minutes.

Place diced raw chicken and sauce in a freezer bag and seal. Place a pre portioned bag of dry rice and marinated chicken intro a large zip lock. Freeze. 

To serve, thaw contents in fridge and cook over medium heat until chicken is done. Thicken sauce with cornstarch and water mixture. Serve with rice and fresh broccoli. 

Fajitas

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, optional

1-1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into thin strips

1/2 medium red bell pepper , julienned

1/2 medium green bell pepper, julienned

1/2 cup onion julienned

corn tortillas 

Serve with shredded cheddar cheese, taco sauce, salsa, guacamole and sour cream

To freeze, add all ingredients, including raw chicken, into a freezer bag. To cook, thaw and cook in a frying pan until chicken is done and peppers are tender.

Potato Leek Soup

Ingredients

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

1 large leek (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced

1 large garlic clove, minced

4 large potatoes (about 2 1/4 pounds), peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 large carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

4 cups chicken broth

3/4 cup fresh or canned corn

 3/4 cup milk

4 ounces cream cheese

1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 3 ounces)

Additional grated sharp cheddar cheese (optional)

Preparation

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add leek and garlic; sauté until tender but not brown, about 4 minutes. Add potatoes and carrots; sauté 5 minutes longer. Add chicken broth and corn; simmer uncovered until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Add chrese and cream cheese and incorporate. Remove from heat. Let cool then store in freezer bag. Freeze.

To use, thaw in fridge. Add contents and 3/4 cup milk to pot. Bring to a simmer. Serve hot with additional cheese on top.

White Chicken Chili

Ingredients

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts, diced into 1/2-inch pieces

1 small yellow onion, diced

1 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 (14.5 oz) cans chicken broth

1 (4 oz) can diced green chilies

1 1/2 tsp cumin

3/4 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 1/4 cup fresh corn (frozen or canned works too)

2 (15 oz) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

chopped fresh cilantro, for serving

shredded Monterrey Jack cheese, for serving

 Directions

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot add chicken and diced onion and saute until chicken is no longer pink, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and saute 30 seconds longer. Add chicken broth, green chilies, cumin, paprika, oregano, cayenne pepper and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring mixture just to a boil then reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.

 Stir in corn, and 1 can of Cannellini beans, then process 3/4 of the remaining beans along with 1/4 cup broth from the soup in a food processor until pureed, add bean mixture to soup along with remaining 1/4 can of beans (you can skip the pureeing step and just add the beans directly to soup, the soup just won’t be quite as creamy or you can cook slower and longer for a slight creaminess). Simmer about 15 minutes longer. Serve with Monterrey Jack cheese, sour cream, squeeze ofline, chopped cilantro and tortilla chips or corn bread.

To freeze, add all ingredients uncooked into a air tight freezer bag. When ready to cook place thawed or frozen ingredients into crock pot and cook on low until chicken is cooked throughout. Can also be thawed and cooked in pot on medium high unroll

Chicken is cooked throughout.

Chicken Pot pie

Ingredients

        2 cups diced peeled potatoes

         1-3/4 cups sliced carrots

         1 cup butter, cubed

         2/3 cup chopped onion

         1 cup all-purpose flour

         1-3/4 teaspoons salt

         1 teaspoon granulated garlic

         1 teaspoon paprika

         3/4 teaspoon pepper

         Dash cayenne

         3 cups chicken broth

         1-1/2 cups milk

         4 cups cubed cooked chicken

         1 cup frozen peas

         1 cup frozen corn

         2 packages (14.1 ounces each) refrigerated pie pastry or home made pastry

Directions

Preheat oven to 425°. Place potatoes and carrots in a large saucepan; add water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cook, covered, 8-10 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender; drain.

In a large skillet, heat butter over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook and stir until tender. Stir in flour and seasonings until blended. Gradually stir in broth and milk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly; cook and stir 2 minutes or until thickened. Stir in chicken, peas, corn and potato mixture; remove from heat.

Unroll a pastry sheet into each of two 9-in. pie plates; trim even with rims. Add chicken mixture. Unroll remaining pastry; place over filling. Trim, seal and flute edges. Cut slits in tops.

Bake 35-40 minutes or until crust is lightly browned. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting. Yield: 2 potpies

To Freeze: Cover and freeze unbaked pies. To use, remove from freezer 30 minutes before baking (do not thaw). Preheat oven to 425°. Place pies on baking sheets; cover edges loosely with foil. Bake 30 minutes. Reduce oven setting to 350°; bake 70-80 minutes longer or until crust is golden brown and a thermometer inserted in center reads 165°.


 About the author

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Amanda is a SAHM who spends her days surrounded by her two beautiful children and beard-loving husband. Amanda has too many passions and spends any of her free time by creating/designing for her business, in the kitchen, or dreaming up ways her family can be a Florida version of Mountain men. Most importantly, Amanda seeks to bring all she does back to the glory of God.

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