I suck at meal planning. And that breaks my heart a little because I try SO HARD to succeed at it. I’ve tried so many methods, I’ve lost count: calendars, binders, index cards, apps, Excel spreadsheets, you name it. It’s not that I don’t know how to meal plan, I know the process and mechanics of it well. My issue is that I struggle to find a system that is easy enough to keep up with that I will continue to use it past the first week or two. But about a year ago, I realized I had inadvertently started a system that was actually working for me. It was so easy, in fact, I almost didn’t even realize I was meal planning.
What was this magic system? It was stocking the freezer as I prepared to have our first baby.
A lot of expectant mothers want to take some time to fill their freezers with easy meals before the baby arrives, and I was no different. Where I was a bit different was that I had been “freezer cooking” for years (even before I knew there was even a name for what I was doing).
I’d first started freezer cooking – which is simply dedicating some time making raw, prepped meals or fully prepared meals and freezing them to save time getting dinner on the table later on – when I was single and living in a shoebox-sized apartment. Growing up in a large Italian family, I only knew how to cook to feed a crowd. Scaling recipes down never really seemed to make sense when I knew they’d freeze well anyway, so I’d make the food, portion it out into single servings in quart-sized Ziploc bags, and lay them flat in the freezer so I could arrange them like books on a shelf once they were frozen. I froze enough food that I eventually bought a FoodSaver vacuum sealer and it’s turned out to become one of my favorite kitchen appliances, especially since the bags are BPA-free and safe for microwave use. (Another appliance that is worth its weight in gold is the air fryer! It’s excellent when it comes to reheating frozen food.)
My initial worry about freezer cooking was that everything would taste like eating mediocre leftovers – or worse, TV dinners.
But after a lot of research (both online and my own trial and error), I’ve learned a few important things:
- Properly frozen and reheated food can be just as delicious as fresh. (Vacuum sealing helps tremendously in prolonging the life and freshness of the food since air is what causes freezer burn, but regular freezer zipper bags are great as long as you squeeze as much air out as possible before freezing.)
- In our family, “leftovers” typically mean we’ve made a meal and have eaten it two or more days in a row, which gets to feeling a bit monotonous. My favorite thing about freezer cooking solves the leftover issue automatically: having options in the freezer, picking out something you haven’t had in a while is a snap!
- The more you freezer cook, the easier freezer cooking becomes. The time savings of not having to cook each night and having a ton of dishes to clean is worth the extra few minutes it takes to cook a larger batch and portion your food out for the freezer.
- Freezer cooking is an excellent way to practice portion control and to follow any style of eating that you’d like (keto, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, etc.).
If you’ve ever glanced at Pinterest, chances are you’ve seen one of the most well-known freezer meals: the (rather unfortunately named) “dump meal.” Dump meals are just an entire recipe’s ingredients measured and dumped into a freezer bag to be cooked at a later date, usually in a slowcooker or Instant Pot or sometimes an oven. You may have also heard of Once A Month Cooking (or OAMC), which is freezer cooking on a pretty large scale. The idea is that you spend a day (or a weekend) planning out and prepping your meals to stock your freezer for the upcoming month. Generally, the meals are prepped but still raw, requiring them to be fully cooked before serving. These aren’t typically the types of meals I like to stock up on, though, because they require the forethought of thawing prior to cooking and I don’t always remember to move the food from the freezer to the fridge. When I do freezer prep a meal to cook later, it’s a recipe for the Instant Pot (which, by the way, is everything it’s cracked up to be!) that can be cooked directly from frozen. The good news about these types of recipes is that they pull double duty: you can portion out and freeze whatever cooked dish you make.
One of the best things about freezer cooking is that it’s very easy to personalize to make it work for you. While having a month of meals at the ready is tempting, I have an infant – so I don’t usually have a full day or weekend to dedicate to prepping like that. To work around that, I “batch cook” and make extra of whatever it is I’m cooking. When cooking red beans, for example, I typically make four pounds of red beans instead of one because I know they freeze beautifully (shout out to the “Steel Magnolias” fans who got that reference!). Of course, feel free to scale your recipes up however you’re comfortable, even if it’s just doubling it. If you’re making a recipe that you aren’t sure will freeze well, the next time you make it, set a serving aside in a freezer bag to test it out. Leave it in the freezer for a week or longer and then see how it tastes when reheated. If it’s up to your standards, add that recipe to your rotation to cook in bulk and portion out into servings for your family.
I am lucky to have a chest freezer in our garage that we bought when I was breastfeeding. Now that our son’s almost made his way entirely through the stash (and we’ve been home during quarantine), I’ve been filling the freed up freezer space with prepared foods.
I batch cook whenever I can, even if it’s something we aren’t planning to eat that evening.
For example, on a night I’m serving red beans from the freezer, I know I’ll have my Instant Pot out to cook the rice. Since the oven will be unoccupied, I will throw in a pan full of bacon to cook. It will come out to cool right before we are sitting down to eat, so when I am cleaning the kitchen after dinner, I’ll move the bacon to a parchment-lined cookie sheet and put it in the freezer to “flash freeze” and not stick together. The next time I open the freezer (probably the next evening), I’ll grab the bacon and slide it all into a gallon-sized freezer bag. Boom! Bacon at the ready in just 10-15 seconds in the microwave – and no grease splatter to contend with! And if my husband is on bath duty that night, I might put away the leftover rice and then use the Instant Pot to make a batch of mashed red potatoes. They’re hands-off and ready in about 30 minutes, so then it’s into the fridge that night and portioned out for the freezer the next evening while dinner is warming up. They’re delicious and go perfectly with Mississippi Roast, which is always ready to serve in my freezer.
Batch cooking this way requires a bit of thought at first, but since you aren’t making the food to eat that night, there’s no rush to get it done and the pressure’s off. I love cooking things like side dishes and breakfast items this way to stock my freezer, but it’s also great for main dishes too. I enjoy cooking, but I don’t enjoy all the prep work and cleaning that comes along with it. Cooking a big batch of something generally doesn’t take much longer than cooking a regular batch, and it means I’ve only got one meal’s worth of dishes to clean for the numerous meals I’ve just made. Also, the more you batch cook, the more variety you’ll have in your freezer – and the easier “meal planning” becomes.
Here’s how this method “meal planning” typically works for my family:
On Sunday, I check my countertops and look in my fridge to see what needs to be eaten and then head to the freezer to see what I can use there. (I STRONGLY recommend thawing food in the fridge as opposed to the microwave because I find it helps the texture significantly.) Looks like we have rice in the fridge that needs to be eaten in the next day or so, so I pull out some red beans to eat on Monday (but if I don’t remember to pull it out to thaw, I can heat it from frozen because it’s already fully cooked). Taco Tuesday is always fun, so I check for some taco meat and Spanish rice in the freezer and add lettuce and tomato to my grocery pickup list. We have a pack of hamburger buns we need to use, so let’s do pulled pork sandwiches with baked beans on Wednesday and burgers and grilled veggies on Thursday night. Both meals are super easy since all of that is ready to go in the freezer and I just need to add coleslaw to my grocery pickup order. (I have heard of freezer coleslaw, but I haven’t worked up the nerve to try it yet!) Friday night will be pizza night, so I just set a reminder on my phone to pull the homemade pizza dough out of the freezer midweek to thaw in the fridge and I add the toppings to my grocery pickup order. On Saturday, we’ll grill about 5 pounds of marinated chicken and a ton of veggies (since we shop at a warehouse club). We’ll eat some that night and then portion and freeze the rest. Grilled chicken (either whole or cubed) is super easy to freeze and heats up nicely, and the cubed packs can be thawed in the fridge and used to top salads.
Here are some of the items I am always trying to stock my freezer with:
- Bacon: cooked then “flash frozen” on parchment or wax paper, stored in Ziploc, reheat in the microwave in 10-second increments
- Muffins/Cornbread: some people like to freeze the batter and thaw and bake fresh, but I usually freeze baked, can be thawed on the counter overnight or cut in half while frozen and warmed in the air fryer or toaster oven.
- Pancakes, French toast (cut into sticks for my little one), waffles: reheated from frozen in the microwave or toaster/toaster oven.
- Meat for tacos: I cook about 10 pounds of ground meat at a time and season it for tacos, I do the same with several pounds of fajita chicken (either sheet pan or slow cooker). Portion out in family-sized portions and also single servings, which are great for quick snacks like nachos and burritos.
- Homemade mashed potatoes: I recommend red/thin-skinned because I have found the russet ones tend to get mealy after freezing. So much better than the boxed flakes and even easier!
- Rice: plain rice can be frozen, but I prefer to freeze “specialty” rice like Spanish rice or fried rice since they require extra ingredients I might not always have on hand. Can reheat directly from frozen.
- Pasta: I hadn’t had the occasion to freeze pasta until my son started feeding himself and was clearly a pasta fan! You can reheat it in the microwave directly from frozen. I also like to freeze lo mein since it makes a great side dish alternative to fried rice.
- Grilled veggies: asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, peppers & onions do well, but I find zucchini/squash and eggplant tend to get a bit mushy when reheated (flavor is still great if the texture doesn’t bother you). I flash freeze asparagus and Brussels sprouts first to keep them from getting smashed together in the freezer bag. I like to reheat mine directly from frozen in my air fryer because it crisps the veggies like asparagus and Brussels sprouts up, but the microwave is fine for onions, peppers and mushrooms.
- Grilled chicken: whole breasts/thighs and cubed for salads (you may freeze the raw chicken in marinade and thaw fully in the fridge if you’d prefer to cook it later). I personally prefer to let the frozen chicken completely thaw before I reheat it to avoid rubbery texture, but you can defrost and reheat in the microwave if you watch it carefully so it doesn’t dry out.
- “Pan” chicken: chicken dredged in flour and sautéed in olive oil/butter until fully cooked; great served with sauces like Marsala (which also freezes well) or a sauce you cook when you serve it. I prefer to thaw it fully in the fridge before reheating so it doesn’t affect the texture.
- Beef roast: “Mississippi Roast” is a favorite of ours, also regular pot roast style for poboys is great too
- Chili: We love chili at our house and have about half a dozen varieties in the freezer at all times. Pumpkin turkey chili and jalapeño popper chicken chili are some of our favorites. Defrost in the fridge or microwave.
- Pie crusts: I make mine in bulk and they are great for a quick quiche or apple pie, simply thaw at room temperature about 15 minutes and check your recipe to see if it requires blind baking or not.
- Pizza dough: I make big batch of this whenever I’ve got my stand mixer out, very low-maintenance after the initial mixing, thaw in the fridge overnight.
- Frosting: whenever I make homemade buttercream or cream cheese frosting, I always double the recipe to make sure I have enough and freeze the rest. Need a last minute bake sale item? Boxed brownies with homemade cream cheese icing to the rescue!
- Sautéed mushrooms & onions: I do big batches of sautéed mushrooms and/or onions and freeze them in a single gallon-sized bag. When you’re ready to use, just cut off a slice from the block and toss in the pan for omelets, to top steaks or burgers, etc.
- Lasagna: frozen unbaked with uncooked noodles (I do mine in a foil loaf pan since we don’t need lots of leftovers). Can be heated directly from frozen.
- Red beans, gumbo, etouffee, red gravy, meatballs, filling for crawfish pies: we make these in huge batches anyway, so it’s only natural to freeze at least some of it! I usually thaw in the fridge before reheating.
- “Sauce” for baked beans: I like to doctor up my canned baked beans, so I make a batch of “sauce” with all my diced onions, jalapenos, brown sugar, and seasonings and portion out as much as I need per can of beans.
- Pulled pork & brisket: my husband loves to use his smoker and I love it when we’ve got BBQ at a moment’s notice! Think beyond the buns too – pulled pork nachos and brisket quesadillas are favorites at our house! Thaw in the fridge or microwave first.
- Egg bites, crustless quiche, frittata muffins: cook them in the oven or the Instant Pot, reheat from frozen in the microwave for a few seconds.
- Flautas & Taquitos: there are tons of filling recipes available online. You can freeze them rolled but uncooked or freeze the filling alone and fill fresh corn or flour tortillas with the thawed filling when you’re ready to cook them.
- BONUS! Smoothie packs: I usually have frozen fruit for smoothies on hand, but when I’ve got fruit, greens, or yogurt in the fridge that we aren’t eating fast enough, I pop them in a baggie with some sliced banana and make a “smoothie pack” to toss in a blender. Way better than throwing them away and an easy way to stretch your groceries!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of options for my style of freezer cooking, but it is a pretty good place to start if you’d like to see if it’s for you. The best part of this style of meal planning is that it really has taken a lot of the stress away for my family. The constant “What’s for dinner?” question practically answers itself with very little input from me.