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 casserole multiples 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 freezer 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 it's 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 frozen assets.