Strategic cooking? What’s that? When you’re short on time, it helps to think about the big picture and come up with a strategy. You want to avoid eating out, you want food that tastes good, and you want to have food that involves minimal preparation, right? I love to cook, and when I have time, I am happy to spend hours in the kitchen making an elaborate meal. But, most days, I just want to get some food on the table and get it there quickly. I learned a long time ago that with a little forethought, I could cut a lot of time off of my cooking, save quite a bit of money, and make sure my family ate food they liked. Without this planning, we’re like most people – it’s 4:30pm, and we turn to each other and ask, “what’s for dinner?” Nobody has any ideas and next thing you know, we’re getting Thai food.
One solution that has worked well for my family has been freezer cooking. Frozen assets, freezer cooking, once-a-month cooking, planned overs — whatever you call it, thinking about cooking this way has been a Godsend for me. It took me many years of being a grownup to figure this one out for myself and try it. Once I did, I was hooked.
The first time I did once-a-month cooking was about 10 years ago. It was a rather long and arduous process, but the result was a freezer full of great meals for my family, a bundle of financial savings, and a huge load of stress taken off of my plate. I think I was about 7 months pregnant with my youngest son when I did once-a-month cooking the first time. My motivation was to put away meals to help keep my sanity during postpartum (good plan). Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at doing the freezer meals, and now it goes pretty quickly, so I wanted to share with you some ideas to make the process easier and some resources for freezer meal recipes.
Day 1: Plan and Prepare
I usually break up freezer meal cooking into two days. One day of planning and preparation and one day of actual cooking. You’re going to need to set aside some time to gather your recipes and figure out what to make. Sometimes, you can just make your own favorite meals in bulk and divide them up and freeze them. Other times, you’ll want to follow some sort of freezer meal cooking plan. Whatever you’re planning to do, take some time up front to do some planning.
My absolute favorite freezer cooking site is 365 Days of Crockpot. I love how she has it so beautifully organized. The shopping lists are wonderful. The recipes are made in assembly line fashion so it goes very quickly. She lays it all out to the point where you put your bags in the loaf pans, and then her instructions say “2 T Tomato Paste in bags 3, 6, 7,10, 13, 18.” This page has a video that explains her method. You’ve got to see it! I absolutely love it. Her meals are quite good, too. If you want to try out her method, I’d recommend starting with these:
In addition to doing one of her plans, I also like to make up some of our go-to meals like meatloaf, taco meat, and meatball mix. Now that I use the Instant Pot for my spaghetti and meatballs, I don’t precook the meatballs. Instead, I have the meatball ingredients mixed together so that I can just defrost it, form it into balls, and put it into the marinara sauce in the Instant Pot. It cooks for 5 minutes at high pressure and 10 minutes pressure release.
Once you’ve gathered your recipes, it’s time to make your grocery list. This is not a time where you’re going to want to be making trips to the store in the middle of your cooking, so make your list and check it twice…three times. Go get your shopping done.
Make sure you have plenty of zip top bags, aluminum foil, labels, and permanent markers. I took a tip from one of the freezer cooking sites online and use loaf pans to hold the baggies of ingredients when I’m doing my freezer cooking. This holds the upright and open, ready to receive the next ingredient. I got mine at the dollar store and I save them just for freezer meals.
Clean and De-Clutter
Clean out your freezer. Toss all of the old freezer-burned veggies and meat. Make some space for all of your new meals!
Clean your kitchen top to bottom. You are going to need every inch of counter space for this job. You probably will need to expand your project onto the kitchen table too. Clear off the counter tops of any unnecessary items. Empty the dishwasher and sink. Put everything away. Sharpen your knives and get ready to cook!
The Big Day!
Get some help
I personally recommend having a helper (or a few) when you do once-a-month cooking, especially if this is your first time doing it. There’s a lot of work involved, and having someone help you with it will make all the difference. It’s a great time to teach kids organizational skills and cooking skills.
Divide and Conquer
Some people like the more focused parts of freezer cooking, like chopping veggies. If that’s their gift, have that person chop veggies. I have a few people in my family who are a little overwhelmed with the 30 loaf pans with open baggies on the countertop. They’re much happier to just chop the veggies. Great, chop veggies! My youngest likes to do labels. Cool, make labels! I, on the other hand, like managing the whole operation and keeping track of what goes into each bag. That’s my gift, so that’s what I do. There’s plenty of work to go around, and if you have kids old enough to babysit younger kids, or if you have kids old enough to help you with cooking, all the better. Now that I have older kids, I’m blessed to have two teens who have cooking skills that rival my own. Plus, my husband is every bit as good at this as I am.
Label, Label, Label
Once in a freezer bag or wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in your freezer, all of the meals look pretty similar. You absolutely have to label. I highly recommend double-bagging your meals and labeling the inner baggie. Then, put the cooking instructions on an index card and place it between the inner and outer baggie. When you defrost your freezer meal, remove the instruction card first so it doesn’t get wet from condensation, otherwise your instructions will likely become difficult to read. Another option would be to label and number the bags, and then keep a list of your meals separately with the cooking instructions. Either way, you need a plan for how you will keep track of what you have and how to cook it.
How you freeze it matters
If you lay a baggie of something liquid on a rack in your freezer, it will conform to the rack as it freezes and you’ll never get it out of there later. Trust me; it has happened to me. Freeze flat items on aluminum baking sheets and then stack them, preferably in a box so that they don’t fall out and land on your foot when you open your freezer door. Again, that’s happened to me. If you are using the loaf pan method, freeze things in the baggies inside the loaf pans, and then pop them out like ice cubes in an ice cube tray. You can store them like bricks in your freezer.
Think ahead about how you’ll be cooking the item you’re freezing. If something is going into a slow cooker and you’re not going to defrost it first, freeze it in a container shaped like your slow cooker. That way, it can defrost in the slow cooker. If you’re freezing a meatloaf, wrap it in aluminum foil in such a way that you can place the frozen meatloaf back into the loaf pan while it’s still wrapped. You’ll be able to defrost it like that, bake it, and then throw the aluminum foil into the recycling bin, eliminating the need to wash the meatloaf pan.
Another solution for our family has been Planned Overs. It’s a different way to think about leftovers. I try to think ahead when I’m cooking. It’s enough effort to cook once, why cook twice, right? I learned a long time ago to cook more than we need at one meal and think about how we could use the leftovers while I’m making the first meal.
Today’s Rotisserie Chicken is Tomorrow’s Chicken Enchiladas and the Next Day’s Chicken Soup
Get a couple of rotisserie chickens and a bag of salad for dinner one day. Chop up the leftover chicken meat to use for the next couple of days.
For the chicken enchiladas, put half of the leftover chicken meat and a can of black beans in a skillet with about a cup of salsa and heat it up. Add a little sour cream and cheese, roll it into tortillas, cover with more salsa and cheese, and bake at 350°F until hot and bubbly. I usually serve it with salsa, avocado, sour cream, and shredded lettuce.
For the soup, I use this as a good opportunity to use up veggies on hand that are perhaps on their last leg. It’s basically a “clean out the fridge night.” Put the chicken bones into the Instant Pot with whatever veggies you like. Season with salt & pepper and some thyme. Add the remaining chopped leftover chicken, put that in there too. Cook in the Instant Pot on the soup setting or cook in the slow cooker on low all day. Remove the bones and serve.
Today’s Pot Roast is Tomorrow’s Beef Vegetable Soup
Chop up your pot roast leftovers (meat, potatoes, carrots, whatever). Put it in your crockpot (or Instant Pot) with some stewed tomatoes and a bag of frozen mixed vegetables. Add beef stock to cover. Season with salt & pepper and fresh rosemary. Cook in the slow cooker all day, or cook in the Instant Pot on the soup setting.
Today’s Tacos are Tomorrow’s Tamale Pie
Make up some taco meat. I generally use ground beef, but you could use chicken or pork or turkey. My recipe is pretty simple – ground beef, onion, seasonings, Ro-Tel tomatoes, cilantro, black beans. I like to make a lot of taco meat and freeze some, but I also will reserve some to make up a tamale pie. This is a simple and quick way to use up taco leftovers. Layer corn tortillas, taco meat, cheese, and salsa in a casserole dish. Top with salsa and a little cheese. Bake at 350°F until hot and bubbly. Serve with avocado slices and some sour cream or plain Greek yogurt.
Today’s Veggies are Tomorrow’s Frittata
Time to use up the veggies! This is great for a make ahead breakfast or Sunday brunch. For more detailed instructions, here’s a post I did about making frittata, but you can really just wing it. Gather whatever veggies you like – onion, zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes. I generally just use up the leftovers in my fridge. Rough chop them veggies. Using an oven-safe pan, saute your veggies, and then add 6-12 beaten eggs (depending on how big you want the frittata to be). Cook it like you would scrambled eggs until it is partially set, add some cheese, if you like, and then broil until the top is set. Basically, you’re cooking the bottom and then the top. Remove it from the oven, wait a minute, then flip it out onto a cutting board. Cut into wedges and serve. Or, let it cool and wrap it up for a quick breakfast for the next few days.
Today’s Pork Roast is tomorrow’s Pork Fried Rice
This is a great way to use up leftover meat and rice. It also works well with leftover quinoa. I like this with pork, but you could do this with leftover chicken or beef, too. Chop the leftover meat into bite sized pieces. Chop up an onion. In a large skillet, heat some oil and saute until translucent. Add the meat and cook until heated through. At this point, you could add some leftover peas, corn, broccoli, or other vegetables you like. Push the food to the edges of the pan. Beat 3 eggs and cook the eggs in the center of the pan. Once cooked, mix with the other ingredients. Add some soy sauce and sesame oil. Add cooked rice. Add more soy sauce and sesame oil as needed and serve.
Today’s Spaghetti and Meatballs is Tomorrow’s Lasagna with Meat Sauce
This couldn’t be much easier. You could even do this as you’re putting away your leftover sauce and meatballs, which would probably be faster and would eliminate having to wash the spaghetti sauce pan twice.
Heat up the meatballs and sauce in a large saucepan. Using a potato masher, mash the meatballs and break up the large chunks of meatball in the sauce. Add an extra can of tomato puree. Mix ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, chopped spinach, an egg, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Layer sauce, then uncooked lasagna noodles, ricotta mixture, shredded mozzarella, sauce, noodles, etc. The final layer should be noodles, sauce, and then mozzarella. Cover and bake 1 hour at 375°F. Uncover and bake until the cheese browns and is bubbly. You want to be generous with the sauce since you’re using uncooked noodles. The noodles will absorb a lot of the sauce.
Today’s Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes is Tomorrow’s Shepherd’s Pie
When you’re putting away your leftover meatloaf, chop it up into small pieces. The next day, put the meatloaf pieces in a baking dish, add some mixed vegetables and a can of Amy’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Top with leftover mashed potatoes. I like cheese, so I add a sprinkle of sharp cheddar on top. Bake at 375°F until the potatoes start to brown and everything is hot and bubbly.
Now, time for me to start planning my next freezer meal adventure! Let me know how it goes for you. I’d love to know which sites you’ve found helpful and which recipes have worked for your family!