by Tracy Grossmann
Do you make freezer meals?
Some people are masters at this. Armed with carefully crafted lists and ninja-like cooking skills, they fill their freezers with a month’s worth of dinners in just one day.
However, though we love the results of this type of major freezer cooking day, traditional freezer cooking involves some pretty in-depth planning.
First, we need to find the recipes we want to use (that our kids will eat+ like).
Then we need to figure out which we are going to double, etc.
Next, we need to make a master list which includes ingredients for each meal, tallying up the different ingredients needed, adjusting each recipe as we go to modify for likes/dislikes.
A big shopping trip follows, with extra effort to find the random ingredients listed that we don’t normally buy.
After investing a hefty amount of money, we are set with a fridge full of fresh ingredients ready for processing.
Of course, then everything needs to be sorted, chopped, portioned, seared, browned, assembled, bagged, and finally, frozen.
There have been a few times in my life when I have tried this marathon-style cooking. And while It was wonderful to have a freezer full of meals ready to go, it completely drained me mentally and physically for days. Once a month freezer cooking truly does feel like running a marathon. (Disclaimer, I’ve never run a marathon, that’s probably harder!)
Even though I appreciate the result so much, the sheer amount of mental and physical energy investment needed for this system has kept it from becoming a routine thing in my home. Sure, I have always baked bread in bulk, but for the most part, I have been a day-to-day cook.
About 2 years ago, as I was expecting my 6th baby, I ended up with a predicament that changed the way I had to handle meals in my house.
I had just turned the corner into the third trimester, and while I don’t recall such a dramatic shift in energy or endurance during this stage in other pregnancies, this time around the transition was swift and sure. I had been struggling with high-blood pressure, and suddenly I had been prescribed lots of low-key days on bed rest. My normal ability to make it to the end of the day (with sweetness and joy!) and to be in the kitchen for hours had been seriously hindered. Plain old 3 square meals a day seemed like a major hurdle.
And yet I needed to do more cooking, not less. Seven people still needed to eat on a daily basis. New baby season loomed- in other words, it was going to get harder before it got easier. During that season, I faced a paradox- I had to figure out how to do more…while doing less. Of course, the end of pregnancy is hardly the only time where a stash of meals in the freezer is a welcome relief.
There are many seasons of life where cooking ahead and bulk-meals make a difference. Maybe you are in one now?
It was during that time when I remembered two time-honored ways to give myself the gift of cooking ahead without the mental energy, super organization, herculean shopping trips, or marathon cooking days.
- Divide and Conquer
- Magic Meals
They are simple concepts, really. And you are probably already doing them, because you are probably more organized than I am. I had known about the concept, but honestly, It’s too easy for me to fall back into survival mode and skip these things. The “just surviving” mode doesn’t lend itself well to thinking strategically about tomorrow- or a month from now.
Magic Meal: Doubling, trippling, or quadrupling something you are already cooking for a meal, and stashing the spoils for later. Bonus points if you mix up the flavor options.
It’s something I have known, but rarely do. I have started calling these Magic Meals- because they appear with no extra work or mess. My mother-in-law always tells me “If you are going to go to the effort to make something like lasagna, make two. Put one in the freezer and make one for supper. Then you get a night off with no extra effort.” Lasagna is just a classic for this type of thing, because one is just so much work and a second pan hardly adds any time or effort.
Other meals that I do this with:
- Burrito Casseroles
- Tuna Casserole
- Chicken Pot Pie
And of course, this doesn’t just work for dinner.
A big aha moment came for me when my 8-year-old asked if he could make muffins one morning.
While normally I would be thrilled at the offer of help and industry from my little chef, this time, I thought to myself “Man, am I up for the mess?” (You know you are tired when 1 bowl, 1 measuring cup, and 2 muffin tins sounds like a mess). And then it hit me. Why make just one batch? Are three bowls harder to clean than one? Not much, really. Wouldn’t I rather wash the muffin tins after putting them through with three batches rather than just one? Of course!
So I opened up my Simplified Breakfasts and chose three variations of muffins for which we had ingredients on hand- and proceeded to fill each of the three bowls with the basic recipe. Four cups flour into each (except for the oatmeal-raisin, they got two flour, and two cups of oats). Sugar into each. Salt, baking powder, etc. into each. I folded in the craisins and added orange to the Cranberry Orange, I folded in the raisins to the oatmeal, and had the three-year-old chop bananas for the last.
In the end, we had muffins coming out our ears. Muffins to freeze, even, which is saying something for this house! But here’s the neat part- instead of ending up with 64 Oatmeal Raisin Muffins, we ended up with a variety of flavors to choose from. Grasshopper Muffins, Cranberry Orange Muffins, and Banana Muffins. And it really wasn’t more work. Because I was just modifying the recipe using my pantry, it took absolutely no special shopping trip.
And then I realized…this could happen with a lot of my meals, even if I was not actually cooking the meal. Enter, divide and conquer.
Divide and Conquer
Divide and Conquer: To take something in bulk, divide into portions, flavor individually, and freeze.
I have always used Simplified Dinners as my “last-minute go-to” cooking solution. Because the meals are either 1. Crock Pot Friendly or 2. Quick (cooked in 30 minutes), I just always pull it out when I am in a hurry. But the variety of options really does lend itself well to freezer meals.
I flipped over to the Frozen Chicken Cutlets page of Simplified Dinners and realized that there was nothing keeping me from tossing in the marinades with the frozen chicken breasts- right away- and freezing. I can open some gallon freezer bags and divide up my chicken- add the sauces for Teriyaki Chicken in one and Fruited Chicken in another. If I have fresh chicken from the store, I can use that, but even if I only have a big bag of frozen chicken, that doesn’t keep me from using this method- I can just add the extra ingredients on top of the frozen chicken, and throw it back in the freezer.
Now instead of a large bag of chicken breasts in my freezer, I have named dishes ready to add to the crock pot. And I’m all about the naming, you know.
It might not seem like much, but sometimes the idea – the plan – is the make it or break it part.
“Let’s put the Teriyaki Chicken in the crock pot for supper tonight,” sounds like easy, do-able instructions for a ten-year-old, even. Or a morning-sick mom. Or a busy dad.
If I watch sales, and buy up when it makes sense, there is no reason I can’t make this a habit. I don’t need a super-organized shopping list that took mental back-flips to create. I can just bring home, divide into bags, add the marinades, and voila – a meal is made.
When chicken is on sale? I can flip to the chicken cutlets page.
When chuck roast is on sale? I can flip to the slow-cooker roasts page.
Because all of the ingredients are basic pantry staples, I already have my list, and can scan and make sure that I have everything I need. If I miss something, it’s really no big deal, because I have a number of flavoring options to choose from.
That little baby is now a happy, chubby-cheeked toddler. That “busy season” that started two years ago has extended, morphed, and changed into new “busy seasons.” I’m starting to believe that life is one big busy season. Today, I aim to add two or three Magic Meals to my menu plan each week, doubling the casserole or muffin recipe and stashing the spoils for a rainy day. I star the meal on my menu plan, just giving myself a mental note to start a second pan, a second box, etc. and extend the meal.
Each shopping trip, I try to buy in bulk when it makes sense, Dividing and Conquering when I get home from the store, without the pressure of a long day on my feet.
This kind of simple, make-ahead freezer cooking has been so helpful. It’s not a big cooking extravaganza, but rather a slow and steady pace that I am opting for, and it’s helping me run the real marathon I’m on.