Freeze Ahead Dinner Ideas, Tricks & Sanity Savers


freezer foodEven people who love to cook, take joy in planning meals, and cherish the trip to the grocery store get into a rut now and again. At least once a week, when I am staring down deadlines, soccer practice, helping with homework, etc. I just feel too overwhelmed to even deal and off we go for pizza, takeout from the fancy gourmet market, or (shamefacedly) fast food.

But the takeout trap gets very expensive (both calorie-wise and financially) very fast. For many people, family dinners are super important, and find that it's just not the same when they're gathering around food they just unwrap and eat.

One solution is a really sanity saver: Big batch cooking.

It works like this: You make an enormous batch of something, usually something casserole-ish, and divide it into four baking pans which go into the freezer. Weeks later, when you find yourself up to the ears in obligations, simply take out one of the pans, let it thaw, and pop it in the oven. In less than an hour, voila, dinner. And even though the word casserole strikes fear into the hearts of those of us who are all too familiar with the bland, can-of-cream-soup variety, there are plenty of dishes that use fresh ingredients and freeze beautifully.

Real Simple's take on these big batch dishes was to use your extras for a meal swap with other families. A friend of mine does that and loves it. I opted not to with the first thing I made (these Chicken Enchiladas Verdes) and it was actually really great to have three pans of it hoarded in the freezer: My whole family loved it, each pan has enough for lunches the next day, and it was faboo to look at our schedules and realize that even though daughter has soccer, husband has a late meeting and won't be home on time, and I have three deadlines, there would still be dinner, complete with vegetable and starch, on the table come 6 p.m. And I might even remain relatively unfrazzled while doing it.

A couple of tips I discovered while doing this:

  • Use those disposable foil baking pans from the grocery store, unless you have a bazillion spare baking dishes laying around. Double-wrap the top with aluminum foil, and spray the underside of the foil (the side that will be touching the food) with cooking spray.
  • On said aluminum foil, write with a Sharpie the name of the dish, the cooking temperature and the cooking time. The whole point is to be unfrazzled, and tearing up the kitchen looking for the recipe to find those things? That, my friends, is frazzling.
  • If you're not sure that your family will like a dish, make a "single family" recipe of it first. I did that this week with the seafood casserole, and while it was good, I would make it with all shrimp or substitute whatever other shellfish I could find on sale, like scallops, for the tilapia and throw some Old Bay in with the seasoning. If I'd made the big batch of it, we'd have several big  pans of something that is okay, but not great; since I did the single recipe first I know what tweaks I need to make ... and that my family will eat it.
  • If you hate leftovers, halve the recipes and freeze them in smaller pans. You'll still get four meals, but each meal should be just enough for four. The Real Simple recipes say each family-size dish serves four; my family of four had leftovers, and we are not small eaters. This will use every single pan, pot, and bowl you have and your kitchen will look like a bomb hit it when you're done. The payoff in ease down the line is worth it.

While the Real Simple story has some good tips and nice recipes, there are other dishes that lend themselves to making a double or triple batch and freezing for the future. Chili, ratatouille, chicken pot pies and lasagna all freeze beautifully, as do carnitas and pesto (which require some additional assembly or cooking, but are still as easy as throwing together a sandwich).

What's your dinnertime secret weapon?


Image via Kathleen Franklin (armigeress)/Flickr

dinner, family meals


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tazdvl tazdvl

We use the foil pans that come with a nice heavy foil lid.

frysh... fryshannon34

I have always wanted to try this

Angie Martin-Schwarze

I've been rediscovering my crockpot lately. I bought "125 Best Vegetarian Slow Cooker Recipes" after checking it out from the library. I love that hubby and I can prep the meal the night before, after the little one is in bed, then I can just turn it on in the morning and forget about it until dinner!

katie... katievogel

I have done this with my friends, and we save money and it so helpful!  On days where I won't be home before the hubby, I call him and tell him to start one of the meals in the freezer.  Soups don't even need to be thawed, I just take them from the freezer to the pan.  Also, we have a lot of medical bills, so on weeks when I know money will be tight, I just plan to use the freezer meals more than fresh cooking that week.  Its a huge help all around!

ethan... ethans_momma06

I too, have always wanted to try the freezing meal idea!

maine... mainemusicmaker

This is a life saver...I make large batches of gravy & meatballs and freeze it up, as well as home made chicken soup and baked macaroni.  I can't tell you how many times I've sat thinking, "what to make for supper?" and POOF....I'd have something frozen.  No trip to the grocery store (JOY!), no long prep time....just take it out of the freezer, pop it in the fridge and by the time I get home from work, it's defrosted and ready to cook.  Usually I use Sunday's to do this as it's a "wind down day" and the house smells GREAT (a throwback of nana's on a sunday) :)

Phils... PhilsBabyMama

My mom did this for us when she came to visit when my son was born.  When she left, my freezer was stocked with meals that I just had to throw in the crock pot or in the oven.  Gotta love moms. :)

clean... cleanaturalady

Secret weapon?....

I've got nothing.

Peajewel Peajewel

I have no secret weapon but I do freeze chili when I make to use later.  I will make a big batch of it.  Oh and lasagna too.  I make an extra pan when I make it so I can freeze one.

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