Monday, August 4, 2008

Introduction to Freezer Meals

Freezer Meals Tips
by Avalie (the Freezer Meal Diva) :)

It’s never too late to learn! When I got married, I had lived in the dorms for almost my entire college education. I did not learn to cook, since my meals were served at the cafeteria (I remember calling my mother to find out how to cook spaghetti noodles). My sweet husband had worked in a bakery, so he had great baking skills (another area where I was at a loss) that he shared with me, and my little sister became a great resource (she has a Bachelor's Degree in culinary management). The only thing I knew how to do was follow directions (thanks to my high school cooking class and my mom). So I learned to follow recipes. I spent a lot of time at the side of women who I consider master chefs and bakers. I started out simple (with many mistakes…ask my husband about my first attempt at Chicken Parmeseana), and have moved to more complex recipes.

Over the past ten years I have been searching for ways to feed my family on a very limited budget (we were students for a LONG time), and ways to keep my sanity with four small children before dinner time. That meant learning to use inexpensive ingredients, grocery shopping once a month with a list, shopping the sales, cooking with food storage, using a menu calendar, and reading A LOT of cookbooks. This is what I have discovered. I hope it helps you.

Once-A-Month Cooking (OAMC): Spend one or two days each month preparing all the dinners for the entire month. Website and book written on this strategy.

“Bargain Shopper” Cooking: Look at what meat and ingredients are on sale this week. Purchase large quantities of sale items that your family likes to eat, prepare the meals and freeze them.

Bulk Foods Cooking: Purchase large quantities of ingredients from warehouse store (#10 can of spaghetti sauce, 5 lbs of shredded cheese, etc), and assemble many of the same casserole at once (make 5 lasagnas…eat one for dinner, freeze 4 for later). If you’re going to make the mess, it’s not much harder to make a lot of something than to just make one. Plus you have a backup meal on hand for someone in need.

Styles of Freezer Meals:

Raw Ingredients: Freeze raw meat, shredded cheese, tortillas, (or other basic ingredients that would otherwise spoil if kept too long in the refrigerator) for easy, quick meals. The key to success with this style is to pre-measure the ingredients in handy sizes so they are easy to manage. One pound portions of meat or cheese are much easier to thaw and cook than a 5 or 10 pound package. Resist the temptation to just put the entire package in the freezer. You are more likely to use it if it is easy to prepare! This is a great style if you find a really good meat sale, or want to have some ingredients around for trying new recipes. Example: Ground Beef, Hamburger Patties, or Shredded Cheese.

Pre-Cooked: Meat is prepared, fully cooked, cooled, and then frozen. This type of freezer meal just requires re-heating, and usually takes the most prep work, but is the fastest meal when you’re ready to eat. Example: BBQ Pulled Pork or Meatballs.Marinade: Meat is frozen in its marinade, and is frozen raw. These meals are often designed for the crock-pot or the oven. These meals are quick to assemble, but take longer to cook when you’re ready to eat. Example: Saucy Pork Chops.

Assembled: Casseroles and side dishes are assembled and frozen in their cooking containers. Usually the meat (if there is any) is pre-cooked, as in lasagna, and the casserole needs to be heated through. These meals are great candidates for the “Bulk Foods Cooking” strategy because the casseroles often take a bit of work to assemble, so you might as well make multiple dinners at once. Example: Lasagna or Funeral Potatoes.

Basic Mixtures: Meat can be pre-cooked and seasoned for a variety of uses. For example, bake chicken with garlic salt, cool and slice into strips for salads, quesadillas, burritos, or casseroles. Freeze in quart size freezer bags, just a serving at a time, or with enough to throw in your favorite recipe. Another good example is to brown ground beef with minced garlic and onions, cool and freeze. Great with taco seasoning for Mexican dishes, or in tomato sauce for Italian dishes, or in soups, Crock Pot recipes, or other casseroles that call for ground beef. I like to freeze 1 pound per bag, so it’s easy for me to measure into recipes.

Uncooked Mixtures: Some mixtures are better frozen uncooked. This would include meatloaf, which freezes beautifully before it is cooked, but can become crumbly and dry if it is frozen fully cooked.

-Invest in good quality freezer bags and containers.
-Label all meals with meal name, cooking directions, and date assembled.
-Make a list of what is in your freezer, tape it to the freezer or inside a cabinet. Cross off items as you eat them.
-Decide at least the night before what you will eat for dinner. Pull out the ingredients and thaw frozen items in the refrigerator. Figure out what time you need to start cooking to have dinner ready on time. You can even set an alarm to remind yourself to start cooking. Let kids help pull out ingredients, sometimes it helps them get excited about the meal.
-Invest in a Crock Pot with a removable pan (Beware of the digital kind…there have been lots of problems and recalls with them. Go with the classic kind with the knob). They are a breeze to clean, since you can put the pan in the dishwasher. Or use Crock Pot plastic liners to prevent the mess in the pan.
-Each time you open the freezer, it lets in moisture and warm air. That means that meals that are in the back of the freezer will stay frozen longer. The closer items are to the door of the freezer, the more they will experience temperature changes and freezer burn.
-Freezer burn is caused by the dry air of the freezer. It dries out the meat and leaves it looking white (and tasteless). Freezing meat in a marinade or sauce will help prevent freezer burn because the air will never touch the meat.
-When freezing items in a plastic bag, try to squeeze all the air out before freezing. This will prevent freezer burn and give you a little more space in the freezer.
-Organize your freezer using plastic boxes. Keep bags of food in categories so they’re easy to find (one box for veggies, one for beef, one for chicken, etc).
-Thaw items on a dish or pan in the refrigerator. Freezing causes the bag to expand, sometimes causing little holes or cracks which can make a mess in your refrigerator!
-Don’t want to leave your pans stored in the freezer? Phantom Container Method to the rescue!! Simply line the pan with aluminum foil before you assemble your casserole. Then put the casserole in the freezer until frozen solid. Gently pull the casserole out of the pan and wrap in Ziploc freezer bag or other plastic wrap. Put the casserole back in the freezer until ready to use, then remove outer covering, return to pan (since it’s already in the right shape), and bake. (Super Baby Food Book by Ruth Yaron)
-Make your own baby food. Cook and puree fruits or vegetables that your baby can digest, then freeze in ice cube trays. When frozen, pop the cubes out of the trays and store in Ziploc freezer bags. When ready to eat, thaw in the refrigerator or microwave and serve to your little angel. (Super Baby Food Book)
-Meat CAN be cooked from frozen. Crock pots are great for this, because they won’t dry out the meat. Realize that your cooking time and temperature in the oven will need to be altered, and that you’ll need to watch the food carefully to prevent it from burning or drying out, while ensuring that it is cooked through.
-Create a menu calendar for your family. Include everyone in the planning.
-If your family doesn’t eat leftovers, learn to make the meals smaller. Instead of one 9x13 casserole, try putting it into two 8x8 pans, or two large loaf pans. This gives your family two meals for the effort of one…without the leftovers.
-When the produce overfloweth in your garden or kitchen, find a way to freeze it. Zucchini can be shredded, diced, or cubed—then measured and frozen in bags for use later in soups or zucchini bread. Peas and beans can be blanched and frozen for use in stir-fry, soups, or as a steamed side dish. Berries can be washed, then frozen on a cookie sheet (so they don’t end up in one big frozen lump), then transferred into freezer bags for use in smoothies, on cereal, or in baked goods. Bake winter squash and puree it, then freeze it to use later (this makes GREAT baby food!). Even potatoes can be frozen. Quarter, shred, or cube the potatoes, add oil and seasoning to the bag, shake, and freeze. Just realize that freezing changes the texture of produce, so it will be mushy when you thaw it. But when you’re baking it into a recipe, it usually doesn’t matter.
-Get some great cookbooks, and make LOTS OF NOTES in them. Write down freezer cooking time, changes to the recipe, and how much your family liked (or detested) the recipe. That way when you make it again, you can remember.-Learn to make bread, and freeze the dough. You can make the dough for two or three loaves at a time, bake one, and freeze the other two for later use. You simply need to thaw the dough for a few hours before you bake it.-Make pizza dough ahead of time, freeze it, and enjoy easy homemade pizza.
-Cheese can be frozen, it just changes texture. It freezes great if shredded before freezing. I freeze one pound in each bag, for easy measuring.
-Don’t forget dessert!! Next time you make cookies, double (or triple) the recipe. Drop balls of dough onto a cookie sheet, and put in the freezer for a few hours. Then put the frozen dough balls into freezer bags. Voila! You have homemade “Otis Spunkmeyer” cookies ready to bake! --If you like to eat the dough, try using powdered eggs (available in the Preparedness section at Macey’s Grocery in Utah or online) in your cookie dough in place of raw eggs. It is pasteurized, so you won’t get salmonella from eating the dough.
-Fruit pies freeze wonderfully. Make the crust, make the filling, put into pie tin, cover with foil and freeze. Or, you can just make the crust and freeze it. You can also just make the filling, put it into a gallon-size freezer bag and set the bag inside the pie tin. The filling will freeze into the shape of the pie tin, so when you add the crust, the filling will fit perfectly. I do this in the summer when the fruit is cheap (or free!) and plentiful.

How do I get started?
First, find a friend or family member to help! It’s way more fun.
-Make a list of the meals your family loves to eat.
-Decide which meals take the most work to make.
-Figure out how to create a freezer meal or mix for your meal: which parts freeze well, what can you do ahead of time, what needs to be done on meal day?
-Decide how many of that meal you would like to make.
-Check your freezer space and clean it out if needed.
-Make a list of ingredients you need to make the meals.
-Look at what you have and make a shopping list.
-Go for it!! Buy ingredients, assemble, bake (if you choose), freeze, and enjoy!!
-Start again, and work on filling your freezer (and your tummy) with great-tasting homemade food without the daily stress.

Other Ideas:
In a rut? Need ideas? Hit the freezer aisles at the grocery store or COSTCO and figure out how to make your favorite freezer convenience foods at home. Schwans is also a great place to get ideas (that’s where I got the idea to freeze my bread dough).

Homemade Mixes are a great, quick way to feed your family. Some are frozen, and others are dry (like pancake and cake mixes). Either way, mixes are a quick and inexpensive way to eat. Check out the recipes for Pancake Mix and Meatball Mix on the next post.

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