8 Tips for Freezer Meals Your Family Will Love
Wouldn't you love to open up your freezer and find it stocked with prepared meals that are ready to pop into the oven? It's one of those things you hear about people doing, cooking several meals and freezing them to save time later. And it's a brilliant idea. But where do you get started? Can you just whip up a giant lasagna and plop the thing in the freezer? We spoke with three home cooking experts to find out everything you need to know to freeze meals at home.
1. Freeze soups and raw meat dishes. Amy Riolo, award-winning author, chef, and television personality, likes freezing soups, stews, and sauces (as well as baked goods like cookies and cakes).
Jane Nachbor, director of party strategy for national home tasting company Tastefully Simple, which features easy-to-prepare foods and gifts, and Stephanie Allen, founder of dinner assembly stores Dream Dinners, both like freezing seasoned raw meat, maybe with a sauce, you only have to cook once. Tastefully Simple's recipes are created so you can swap out one protein for another, pork instead of chicken, for example, depending on your preference.
Fun fact: Riolo says sauces, soups, and stews will often thicken when frozen.
Casseroles and lasagna can work as well, if you're using ingredients everyone in your family likes, and you're assembling the (non-meat) ingredients raw so, again, you only cook it once.
2. Don't freeze dairy and cooked fish. What doesn't work in the freezer? Riolo doesn't recommend delicate foods like cooked fish or grilled meats as freezing and thawing can ruin their texture. Nachbor says mayonnaise and dairy don't freeze well, either (it gets watery and separates), though sometimes dairy in a sauce is okay.
3. Invest in freezer bags. For best results, it pays to buy freezer bags, which are thicker than ordinary plastic bags and will do a better job of protecting your food from freezer burn (ordinary plastic bags can split when frozen -- messy!). Otherwise, Riolo says you can use Gladware or Tupperware (but not takeout containers), heavy-duty foil, or -- this was a new one to me -- coffee cans! Allen says you could try freezing a meal in a Pyrex dish, then removing it from the dish and putting it immediately into a freezer bag to store in the freezer.
4. Frozen meals are good for a couple of months. Food can stay frozen indefinitely and be safe to eat, Nachbor says. But the quality will suffer. Allen says a protein-based meal will still taste good after two or three months, a starch-based meal after a month or two in the freezer. Nachbor says a deep freezer will extend that by a month or two. Even a two-door freezer/fridge will help keep food longer than a single-door appliance will.
5. Prepare food for freezing the right way. If you're freezing precooked food, let it cool down to room temperature first. If you're freezing in a container, wrap the food tightly in plastic first, and leave about a quarter inch at the top for when the food expands as it freezes.
6. Pack food with everything you'll need for the meal. If you're preparing chicken that goes with rice, for example, wrap the chicken separately, and then place it in a freezer bag with your recipe card and the raw rice already measured out so you can just pull it all out and go. That goes for dry casserole toppings and spices too.
7. Don't expect labels to stick. When frozen, labels have a tendency to fall off -- and then you're going to have a hard time remembering what's what! Instead, place a card or paper inside the freezer bag. Or write directly on the package with a freezer-friendly marker.
8. Defrost for 24 hours in the refrigerator. This is the best way to defrost your food. It's the safest, and it will best allow your food to cook evenly. HOWEVER, if you're caught scrambling at the last minute, thawing in a container of cold ice water is the next best thing. Put your food in another plastic bag first, just in case. All three women say you can microwave to thaw, but it's not ideal. The edges of your food will start to cook by the time the inside thaws.
Once you've thoroughly defrosted your meal, you know what to do: Heat and eat! How, exactly, you do that depends on the recipe and the dish, of course.
"The most important thing is to have that home-cooked meal," says Allen. "It's about time with the family around the table." She says once you have those freezer meals ready, it's a lot easier to say no to your kids when they start clamoring for fast food from the back seat of the car.
In addition to using freezer meals at home, Nachbor likes to give them away to friends dealing with illness or a death in the family (instead of bringing over a cooked meal). She says it even makes a great hostess gift.
Have you ever made freezer meals? Is this something that would be helpful to your family?