Illustration by Daniel Vasconcellos, vasky.com.
Cooking your own make-ahead frozen dinners is a healthy, convenient way to save money and time.
You can plan freezer cooking around items on sale, and you’ll be able to avoid eating out a lot since you’ll have affordable dinners that can be prepared quickly and easily at home.
Many freezer cooking plans can be daunting, with instructions to set aside an entire day or weekend to cook a month’s worth of meals. But it’s easier if you try a mini-freezer session.
A mini-freezer session yields four to six different meals with minimal effort and time. Here’s how:
Plan your recipes based on a common ingredient.
When ground beef is on sale, make pre-cooked meatballs, taco filling, seasoned and formed (but not cooked) hamburgers, chili and/or homemade pizza pockets. Then your frozen item is ready to be warmed up and added to other ingredients to make burritos, tacos, BBQ meatball sandwiches and spaghetti and meatballs. Chicken can be packaged in a variety of marinades for grilling, stir fry or baking.
Use simple recipes you already love.
Save gourmet and untried recipes for another occasion.
Write a grocery list.
First check for ingredients and freezer packaging items you already have. I like to shop on one day and cook the next if I am assembling more than four meals at one time.
Clean your countertops and dishes.
Then fill your empty sink with soapy water and wash dishes as you cook your freezer meals. It only takes a minute to wash something right away, and you won’t face a dish mountain later.
Prep vegetables or other items first.
This includes slicing or dicing and preparing items that need to be pre-cooked before being added to the recipe. Many recipes call for cooked ground beef, quinoa, pasta, rice or beans. (See note on gluten-free pasta and rice.)
Prepare each recipe in an assembly line.
Work on one recipe at a time, laying out containers for each batch next to each other. These can be baking dishes or freezer bags. Add each ingredient to each container as you work through the recipe.
Use freezer-strength wraps and containers.
Freezer wraps are thicker and allow less air/moisture exchange than storage wrap or containers. Remove as much air as possible from each container, label and freeze as you go, making sure food is cooled first, following safety steps at foodsafety.gov.
Freezer meals all seem to look alike when frozen. Write what’s in the container, when it was made and simple cooking instructions, if needed.
Post a list of available freezer meals.
Update it regularly. It is easy to forget what’s in the freezer, and you’ll end up throwing away meals that have overstayed their freezer welcome. Always thaw freezer meals in the refrigerator, cold water or the microwave, not on the counter.
You don’t need a big freezer.
I fit 20 dinners, 10 breakfasts, some frozen veggies and gluten-free bread in a standard top-loading freezer. Bags don’t take up a lot of space, and neatly stacked containers will make the most efficient use of your freezer.
Special tips for gluten-free freezer meals:
Gluten-free pasta should be under cooked 3-4 minutes. Drain and rinse well with cold water to further stop the cooking process. When making lasagna in which the pasta is completely covered with sauce, skip pre-cooking gluten-free pasta completely. Fill a 9×13 pan with the hottest water from your tap and soak the noodles in the pan for about 20 minutes. Drain and prepare the recipe. For soups and other freezer meals with a lot of liquid, package dry pasta separately.
Rice has a tendency to get crumbly when frozen and reheated on its own, but it freezes well when incorporated with other ingredients in a recipe. Like pasta, leave the rice slightly undercooked before adding to a freezer meal.
Raw potatoes do not freeze well, as the color and texture degrades significantly. Freeze potatoes only after they have been partially or completely cooked or leave them out entirely.
Most sauces can be frozen; however, sauces made with cornstarch can turn spongy. Instead use tapioca starch, sweet rice flour or arrowroot. Arrowroot will develop a slimy texture when mixed with dairy milk, so choose a different starch when milk is called for.
Angela Litzinger is the author of angelaskitchen.com, which features weekly gluten- and dairy-free menu plans and recipes. She has been cooking gluten free since 2001 and teaches gluten- and dairy-free cooking classes.