Thursday, August 14, 2014

Top 10: Freezer Cooking 101

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In my opinion, freezer cooking meals are practically the coolest thing since AOL.  
Except for the times I forget I have them and let them go bad in my freezer after they've sat there for a good year.

But-if you learn from me and pinky promise to not forget them but instead to use them and eat them up and love them and the convenience it will bring to your dinnertime routine-I'm pretty sure you'll love freezer cooking too.  The very first time I ever decided to tackle freezer cooking I was lost.  
Do you just throw things in the freezer??
What do I put them in?  Does it even matter?
Should I label?
How long does this thing last?
Do I cook all this first?
Someone show me what to do!!!!  
In the hours (or days) I spent pinterest-ing the heck out of freezer cooking I found lots of recipes and even lots of good tips, but never a step-by-step breakdown of what to do.  Seeing as I was spending kind of a lot of money and kind of a small fortune to tackle this project, I wanted to make sure I was doing it right!!  Especially it being my first time and all!

Bless my mom's heart she came and spent a whole morning with me tackling this project, or I'd probably still be there covered in tomato sauce and black beans.  But when I thought of doing a post on freezer cooking I thought of lots of yummy recipes I can't wait to share with you-and I will next Thursday!  But today, I'm looking at you newbies especially.  Take it from a not-so-long-ago-newbie myself and read through this step-by-step guide I would've loved to have when I began!!  Just to clarify-there are 2 main types of freezer cooking.  First one being to simply double, triple, or even quadruple a recipe you're already making and freezing your extras. Second (and the one most of these tips pertain to) is to block off some time to strictly prep and freeze meals for a later date.  Also, I'm sure I will come back later and revise this post again and again with new tips and tricks that come up the more I do this, but for now let's jump into my top 10 favorite step-by-step guide for successful freezer cooking!!

#1)Plan ahead
I would not at all recommend planning freezer cooking and executing it all in 1 week.  The planning time is crucial to this process and will really determine how successful (and less stressful) your freezer cooking experience will be.  

#2)  Gather recipes-lots of them
For the very first thing you'll do is kind of my favorite part-gathering tons of freezer meal recipes!!!  I do mean tons!  This is where Pinterest comes in for me in a huge way.  Also I will look through my favorite cook books or food blogs as well.  I gather all these recipes and write them down on a piece of paper.  Your list should look fairly overwhelming, and that's fine.  You aren't going to be cooking all these at once.  Just trust the process ya'll.  Also, my favorite freezer meals are crockpot ones so I typically look for those the most.  But if your family loves chicken search for those, or for vegetarian options just look for those.  I always make sure to include at least 2-3 good soup recipes for sick days that nobody feels like cooking or getting out for soup, and also a couple batches of our favorite chili for snow days that we're just feeling extra lazy!  Another idea to consider is to make a big batch of your favorite queso and freeze it in smaller portion bags, ready to go for random nacho cravings or on taco night when you need it!

#3)  Shop your kitchen
With my major recipe list in hand I hit up my kitchen.  Browse the pantry, freezer and fridge and gather anything you might need off your cooking list.  If it's not perishable I really do have a box set to the side in the kitchen that I am reserving for those ingredients only.  You'd be surprised how much you probably already have!  After that look through your recipe list and determine which recipes you need to buy the least amount of ingredients for or the ones you just know your family would love the absolute most.  Next raid your coupon pile and sale ads for the best deals possible!  P.S.-don't forget Wal-Mart's price matching!! For instance, we don't have a Target where we live (tears) but I still hold on to the sales ad because sometimes it comes in handy when it's time to price match!  Also, the recipes you don't use this round hang on to.  Next time you do a freezer cooking day you will have less recipes to look up!!  Make sure you also don't try to do the shopping on the same day as the cooking...too exhausting and mentally overwhelming!!  If you can, plan for shopping one day and prepping/cooking the next.

#4)  Make a day of it
After you have triple checked your shopping list and you are absolutely positive you have all of your ingredients (seriously annoying to have to run out for 1 stinking can of diced tomatoes in the middle of cooking extravaganza.  been there) it's time to get started.  Step one is to decide if you're tackling this project alone or with friends.  I personally think it's so much more fun with a few other friends.  Have lunch already prepared and waiting for you and your friends in the fridge so you don't have to stop the process and fix a meal for lunch.  Everybody can even chip in a few dollars for a babysitter to watch everyone's kids at someone's (not the cooking) house.  

#5)  Prep, prep, prep
I like to start the prep time by marking my freezer bags.  I typically just use a gallon size freezer bag with a sharipe and label the following:
Dish Name
Any cooking instructions.  For example, crockpot on low for 5-6 hours.  If you need to add anything to the dish (like potato soup I had a block of cream cheese the last hour of cooking) I will make sure to include that.
Next begin washing, chopping, or browning any ground beef.  Make sure to season appropriately if necessary.  Also make sure you make plenty of room in the kitchen and the freezer!

#6)  Tall container
This isn't a must or a requirement by any means, but this will make your cooking so much faster!!  Find a tall container.  I use a plastic cereal storage container like this 

Simply remove the lid and place your freezer bag directly into the storage container.  These are the perfect size to hold up your bag while you place all the contents in it.  This way you don't have to worry about the bag spilling or knocking over while you gather your ingredients.  Plus you don't get the container dirty so easy clean up! 

#7) Cool it Down
If your dish required any cooking (ground beef, etc.) make sure that the food in the bag is completely cool before you pop it in the freezer.  Some people reccomend sticking it into the fridge for a little while to speed this process up.  I've never tried that method, but I do try to plan ahead and prepare those meals first so by the time I'm finished they're good to go.

#8)  Keep it Flat

When you put your meals in the freezer it's essential you do not stack them!!  Plan ahead for this step by making plenty of room in the freezer before you get started.  When you stack the meals before they're frozen they will not freeze properly and you risk bacteria contaminating your meals.  Once they are solid it's great to be able to stack them to save space!  You can even use those plastic magazine holders, like these to stand them up vertically.


#9)  Eat up!
I have a really bad habit of forgetting I have freezer meals readily available.  I'm too embarrassed to admit to how many I throw out.  So make sure you include them in your routine!  A few recipes (like the soups) I purposely save for days that I know we need soup, like a sick day or when it's cold or rainy and we just need some good comfort food!  But other than that try to write down what meals you have in the freezer and leave that list wherever it is you meal plan or in the kitchen where you'll see it.  When meal planning don't forget to allow time (likely 24 hours) to thaw in the refrigerator before cooking.

#10) Expiration Dates
Freezer meals do have a super long shelf life, which is so helpful!  But they don't last forever, so keep up with the dates that they expire.  Either mark it on the freezer bag itself or keep a small chart of frozen foods with expiration dates on your freezer door so you can easily look at the date on the meal and calculate from there. Here's some dates you'll want to remember....

Cooked meats and poultry in sauces 5-6 months
Spaghetti sauce, chili, soups, stews 5-6 months
Quiche 3 months

Raw Meats
Roasts-beef 7-9 months
          pork 4-6 months
Steaks-beef 7-9 months
          pork 2-3 months
Pork chops, ribs 2-3 months
Ground beef 3 months
Chicken 10 months
Turkey-whole 6 months
           parts 4-6 months

Baked Goods
Quick breads 2-3 months
Muffins 3 months
Yeast bread or rolls 2-3 months
Pizza dough 5-6 months
Cookies 3-4 months
Frozen desserts 1-3 months

This list has been a huge lifesaver for me and is found in one of my very favorite freezer cooking cookbooks which is a great resource!  I can't recommend this book enough...


Make sure to stop by next week for my Top 10 favorite freezer recipes!!!

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