While it might not feel like it, spring is here, and with it comes all the family activities -- baseball practice, track meets and after-school performances -- that are about to eat up your time for family meals.
But this year, tackle the spring thaw by thawing a homemade dinner directly from your freezer.
With a little organization, a few free hours to cook and one well-thought-out shopping list, you can stock your freezer full of homemade meals that require little work for a weeknight meal, beyond turning your oven on.
While I’m not carting kids back and forth from softball practice, I am a working wife with a husband who has a serious appetite and a tendency for high blood pressure that is usually fueled by the amount of sodium in quick, easy processed meals that we would sometimes grab from our grocer’s freezer department. In an effort to curb his sodium intake and make my commuting life easier, I channeled my cooking energy into finding the perfect, easy freezer meals.
One quick Google search for "freezer meals" will offer up pages of blogging moms and Pinterest boards with tips for how to tackle the cooking marathon. Some tips are great -- purchase disposable aluminum foil baking dishes in different sizes for easy storage and even easier cleanup -- others didn’t appeal to me -- hosting a "freezer meal party" doesn’t sound like a party to me. How about I just cook and drink wine alone?
The first thing to do is make a shopping list. I like to pick two or three recipes and double them, which leaves me with six meals in the freezer. It is helpful to pick recipes that use overlapping ingredients -- for example, chicken and pasta -- making it easier and faster to make big batches of these recipes to be separated into multiple meals.
The best freezer meals use already cooked meat, because the idea is that once you pull the casserole, soup or stew out of the freezer you’re essentially just heating it up. When using chicken, many bloggers will suggest buying a rotisserie chicken from your grocery store and pulling it apart. I prefer to skip the mess and plan a day ahead. The day before I assemble the meals, I put two or three pounds of boneless chicken breast into a slow cooker, season with salt and pepper, and cook on low for eight to nine hours. Once the chicken is cooked and has cooled, I shred the meat with a knife and fork, or use the food processor to quickly chop. Use this time to also cook any pasta needed for the meals and once cooled put into sealed plastic bags.
Have a plan of action on cooking day so you are using your time and your kitchen space wisely. I tackle one doubled recipe at a time, with all ingredients set out before I begin. Keep up with dirty dishes by using the same bowl to mix ingredients, washing after each recipe is complete.
Once your meals are finished and in the disposable containers, wait until they are completely cooled before sliding into your freezer. Double wrap each baking dish tightly in aluminum foil, and using a black marker, label what the dish is and any cooking/reheating instructions on the top of the foil. Also, write what the dish is on the side of the disposable container that will be facing you when you open your freezer so you can quickly pull out the meal you want. To keep the sometimes flimsy containers from crushing one another, my husband cuts out rectangle pieces of cardboard that we slide in between each meal.
The last step is often the most-overlooked of the process. On the day you plan on eating the meal, make sure you take it out of the freezer at least 24 hours before so it can thaw. But don’t worry, if you forget, just take it out and eat it the following night and pretend like you meant to do that.
Prep time 30 minutes, cook time 30 minutes
Adapted from "Joyful Momma’s Kitchen"
This recipe makes one casserole dish. Double it in one bowl and seperate into two 13x9-inch baking dishes for two easy freezer meals.
2 cups of cooked, shredded chicken
1 can (15 oz) of diced tomatoes, drained
1 can (15 oz) black beans, drained
1 tub of salsa or Santé Fe cream cheese (you can find this in the cream cheese section of your grocery store. Any brand will work)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
8 flour tortillas
Mix the chicken, tomatoes, beans and cream cheese in a bowl. Combine well. Place 1/3 cup of the mixture in the bottom of 13x9-inch baking dish (use a disposable foil pan). Top with two and a half tortillas, overlapping each one to create a layer of tortilla. Top tortilla with chicken mixture and cheese. Repeat layers and end with chicken mixture on top. Finish with the last bit of cheese on top.
If freezing, double wrap with foil to prevent freezer burn. When ready to eat, thaw casserole for 24 hours and bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until heated through.
Chicken, spinach pasta bake
Prep time, 30 minutes, cook time 45 minutes
10 oz cooked rigatoni
1 Tbs of olive oil
1 cup of chopped onion
10 oz of fresh spinach, chopped with stems removed
3 cups of cooked, shredded chicken
1 can of Italian-style diced tomatoes (undrained)
1 (8 oz) container of chive and onion cream cheese
2 cups of shredded
Sauté onion in oil just until tender. Add onion, chopped spinach, rigatoni, chicken, tomatoes and cream cheese into a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Stir until well combined. Spoon mixture into a 13x9-inch baking dish and sprinkle evenly with cheese.
If freezing, double wrap with foil. Once thawed, bake covered at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake for 15 minutes, or until bubbly.
To reach Lindsey Hollenbaugh: firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 496-6211. On Twitter: @lhollenbaugh