It’s almost 6 p.m., and you know you’re going to get the question any minute: “Mom, what’s for dinner?” If you plan ahead, and spend some time cooking and freezing meals for the week or the month, you can answer that question by naming a delicious casserole or meat dish, instead of “Do you want pizza or Chinese?”
Buy in Bulk
Whether you shop every week or just once a month, take some time to check the grocery store specials for meats that are on sale. When meat goes on sale, buy in bulk and freeze it for future meals. Don’t just throw the packages in the freezer and take them out to thaw, though. Prepare the meat for meals ahead of time. For example, purchase several pounds of ground beef when it’s on sale and prepare meatloaf, meatballs or hamburgers to freeze. Freeze the uncooked meat and use them as necessary; for example, prepare and freeze four or five dozen meatballs and only take out what you need for dinner. Save more time by marinating or seasoning meat before you freeze. For example, marinate chicken breasts in teriyaki sauce or creamy balsamic dressing in the refrigerator for an hour or two before adding to the freezer. When it’s time to cook, thaw and grill for an easy dinner.
While you can thaw meat uncooked to cook later on, you can also cook meat ahead of time to use in your favorite recipes, saving dinner preparation time. Cook several pounds of ground beef with some seasoning mix, chopped onion, salt and pepper to use as a base for meat sauce or tacos later on. Cook chicken or beef in your slow cooker with broth or your favorite marinade or seasoning mix, then chop or shred and freeze to use later in casseroles or other recipes. Or let your chicken do double duty. Simmer whole chickens on the stove with onions, carrots, celery and garlic. When the chicken is cooked, remove the meat and freeze; drain the vegetables from the pot and freeze the stock to use in soups or other recipes.
Cook Double Batches
If you are making a casserole for dinner, make a double batch to freeze. Many of your family’s favorite meals, such as lasagna, manicotti or other pasta dishes or enchiladas and burritos, are easily multiplied and freeze well. Or turn leftovers into a quick freezer meal. For example, boil the bones from your Sunday ham or chicken with onions and garlic to make an simple broth for other recipes. Shred and freeze leftover roasted chicken, or use it in a baked dish, such as chicken tetrazzini, to freeze for another night. Even meals that you make in individual servings can be frozen for later. Try making extra stuffed peppers, stuffed chicken or stuffed pork chops to freeze and thaw for later meals.
Storing Frozen Meals
Freezing meals is convenient, and works best if you follow a few basic guidelines to maximize space in the freezer. To freeze a casserole, line the bottom of the pan with aluminum foil, and then a layer of plastic wrap; make sure that the foil and wrap are large enough to reach around the sides and top of the pan. Fill the pan with the casserole, wrap the foil and plastic wrap, and add the casserole ingredients. When the food is cool, put the pan in the freezer. Once the casserole is frozen, remove it from the pan and store in the freezer. When it’s time to cook, remove the plastic wrap and foil, place the frozen casserole back in the pan, thaw in the refrigerator, and cook as directed. Always label the packages with the date, contents and cooking instructions.