Preparing food ahead of time and freezing it is one of the most powerful techniques any cook can use to free up time and simplify her life. With a freezer full of meals ready to heat and serve at the drop of a hat, there's much more room in your life for things you want to do. There are just a few basic tips and techniques to understand.
The first decision you'll need to make is which meals to prepare ahead. Casseroles are an easy choice, and most casseroles freeze and reheat well. Pasta dishes usually work for freezing and thawing, and so do most rice dishes. Traditional meat and potatoes meals are best frozen in separate containers: one for meat and gravy, one for the vegetables and one for the mashed potatoes. That way they can be heated individually without loss of quality, and recombined on the plate. Once reheated, pair with a quick salad tossed with creamy dressing for a complete and easy meal.
Chilling Your Meals
Once your food is cooked, chilling it quickly is important to maintain food safety. Food should not sit at room temperature for more than 30 minutes before refrigeration. Divide large batches into small, flat containers, which will chill more quickly. Casseroles cool more quickly if you use a disposable foil pan to line your baking dish, then refrigerate just the foil pan. Items like pork chops or chicken pieces should be arranged in a single layer, rather than mounded. To the extent your refrigerator space allows it, leave room between items for the cold air to circulate.
Packaging and Freezing Your Meals
Packaging your meals for efficiency and food quality is also important. Freezer bags require the least space, but many people prefer stackable containers, which keep your freezer orderly and make it easier to find what you want. Squeeze as much air as possible from bags, and press plastic wrap to the surface of foods in containers. Freeze foods in individual portions, whenever possible, because small packages freeze and thaw more efficiently than large ones. Don't fill your freezer all at once, but transfer foods from the refrigerator at six-hour intervals so the freezer doesn't need to work as hard.
Reheating Your Meals
Thawing and reheating your food is another area where correct technique is important for food safety. All precooked foods must be reheated to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's best to have a thermometer to test with. Thaw your foods overnight in the refrigerator if necessary, or cook them directly from frozen. Foil pans can go straight from the freezer to the oven, while casserole dishes need to be warmed slightly before they're baked. Microwaveable containers can be used for reheating the food, but it must be stirred and given resting time to ensure a consistent 165 F.