Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My Semester of Freezer Meals!

So I have pretty much not ever had any time to post on my blog in the last couple of years.  Between nursing prereq's, starting nursing school, teaching piano, having a baby, and now a new job, I don't see it happening anytime soon.  Sigh.

I have had many people ask me for advice on freezer cooking.  I made it known via Facebook that I was planning to make an entire 4 months worth of freezer meals last August.  I had this plan that if I had easy dinners that were 80-100% done already, I would be able to feed my family healthy meals and go to school and save money.  It actually turned out really well!

First of all, I planned.  I planned and I planned and I planned.  I used Pinterest and food blogs that I know (thank you Pioneer Woman/Kevin & Amanda!) to find recipes and ideas.  I made an Excel sheet of the recipes, ingredients, and how many of each I was going to make.  I have used Microsoft Excel exclusively for the last 5+ years for my job, so it is what I always use when I am organizing my thoughts.  I made a prep plan that consisted of approximately 6 separate days of prep work (about 3-4 hours each day).  And I made a grocery list that was 3 typed pages long.  At that point, I was seriously doubting my abilities to do this.  I actually really hate cooking, so why would I be putting myself through this!?  But I was determined that this would be the best thing for me to do for my family.  So I muscled through.

Next, I shopped.  I shopped and I shopped and I shopped.  I spent about $800 in 3 separate shopping trips.  Walmart/Super Target employees wanted to take my life.  I felt the same way, because Walmart gives me road rage.  I hate grocery shopping.  (Why am I doing this again?!)  Muscling.

Ok, so now (wish I would have photo documented this - maybe next time) my entire kitchen and dining room were completely filled with cans, pasta boxes, spice bottles, disposable dishes, etc.  Four months worth of meals, remember?  But as I prepped and cooked, the pile was slowly whittled down, so no huge biggie (unless you like to be able to actually EAT at your dining room table).

Now for the prepping.  Every night I started after my children went to bed.  I had a 12-month-old baby at the time, and there was no way for me to do that kind of cooking with her crawling around my feet.  So from around 8 pm to 12 or sometimes 1 am for about a week, I cooked.  I cooked and I cooked and I cooked.  Every night I started out excited to put my little pile of meals in the freezer.  Every night I ended up throwing a tantrum and getting a hug from my poor, poor, supportive husband.  Remember, I hate cooking.

In the end, I had approximately 96 meals in my big garage freezer.  It was stuffed to the brim.  It was beautiful.  And I spent the next 4 months pulling something out of the freezer one or two days before I wanted to make it, then popping it in the oven for 45 minutes or so, depending.  Easy breezy.  It really was worth it!

Here are some links to recipes that I LOVED and some advice/hints:

Don't make multiples of a meal you have never tried or never heard of anyone else trying.  My family loves this one recipe of chicken enchiladas, but it does NOT freeze well.  The tortillas end up with a snot-like texture and I literally choked this down with a "It's fine, EAT IT" directed at my children four times.  I threw out two more because it was seriously gross.  Fresh made, yum.  Frozen/thawed, snot.

That being said, you can freeze ALMOST any meal that you currently make.  You don't necessarily need to find "freezer meals".  You can also prep and freeze parts of a meal and then prepare the rest on the night of.  For example, I made a bunch of spaghetti sauce, taco meat, and cooked plain ground beef.  Then I would just thaw it out and heat it up, along with fresh ingredients to make my meal.  For the spaghetti sauce, you just need to cook spaghetti noodles and have some bread and a salad.  I could handle that after a long day at school.  Also, I found that thawing the meals out completely before heating them up helped them heat evenly and not have burned edges, etc.

Please, please, please use disposable dishes.  I know.  The Earth weeps for my sin.  But I don't have 80-something casserole dishes.  Nor do I plan to anytime soon.  You will conserve water by not having dishes, so the added garbage is evened out.  That is my position.  You can buy 3 packs of 8-inch square cake pans from Walmart for $1.  Casseroles that size were perfect and sometimes too big for my family of four and baby.  I put the spaghetti sauce, taco meat, and plain ground beef in quart-sized freezer bags.  Again, that amount was perfect for my family.

If you are going to bag something that is very liquid-y, double bag.  Don't think you don't have to.  You have to.  The tantrums mentioned earlier were caused by the following.  I spent all night cooking, putting things like chili or smothered burrito mix into gallon freezer bags.  Then when I took my work out to the freezer, inevitably bags would magically open AS I LIFTED THEM TO THE FREEZER SHELF.  Two nights in a row I had food literally down my entire front, all over the garage floor, and all over the freezer.  At 1 am.  Hence tantrum, hence poor supportive husband.  Please, for the love of all things holy, double bag!

K, now for the recipes!  If you actually read this far, bless you.

Chicken spaghetti (my family's favorite) - Seriously, so good.  Freezes really, really well.

Lasagna - I had never made homemade lasagna before.  I almost just bought a bunch of frozen ones at the store, but decided to save a little money and go outside my comfort zone.  I'm so glad I did.  Homemade lasagna is awesome, and not as hard as you think.

Homemade Hot Pockets - these were a big hit with my kids, and SO easy for those nights I didn't even want to deal with the oven because I was so school-wasted.  I also used Rhode's roll dough instead of making from scratch, which made it even easier!

Tater Tot Casserole - I made several of these dinner-style, with ground beef and veggies.  I also made some breakfast-style, with eggs and bacon pieces.  Both are really yum.

Shepherd's Pie - This is one I had never made before.  But it ended up being awesome and freezing really well.

Fiesta - I would call this chili, but my husband wouldn't let me because I put corn in it.  Whatever.  This was one that ended up all over me when I didn't double bag.

Smothered Burritos - this was so easy!  I chopped up the raw steaks, dumped them along with 2 cans of enchilada sauce and 2 beef bouillon cubes in a freezer bag, and then thawed and cooked it in a crock pot as the recipe says.  Another one that was all over me.  This was a favorite, and I will be doing it again.  I think this time, I will completely cook it and then freeze it, so all I have to do is thaw it and heat it up before putting it in tortillas.

Spaghetti Sauce - I have been making spaghetti sauce like this since my mom did it when I was a kid.  1 lb ground beef, 1 spaghetti sauce seasoning packet, 1 can tomato sauce, about 1/2 tomato sauce can of water.  The end.

Taco Meat - Even easier than spaghetti sauce.  1 lb ground beef, 1 packet taco seasoning, water as directed on seasoning packet.

Plain Ground Beef - I just browned some ground beef and split it into freezer bags to be used for Hamburger Helper or other things like that.

I had some others that my family ended up not liking or they didn't freeze well.  So they were kicked off the list for next time.

I hope this crazy giant, non-picture blog post helps you get motivated to do freezer cooking.  It really did save my family money, saved me time in the long run, and it kept us from eating out.  Even with the frustrations and some failed meals, I am definitely going to do this again for next semester.