There seems to be a recent boost in popularity amongst home cooks: big batch make-ahead freezer meals.
To those who may not be familiar with this method, these recipes generally involve prepping and assembling several meals at once, storing each in the freezer, and then thawing and reheating in the oven or slow cooker at the time needed. Some people believe that this method saves time and money, however others might still be asking, “Why would I want to do that?”
Hands-on time is reduced before eating-The major advantage to making several servings of a standard freezeable recipe is the time management aspect. These recipes might generally be time consuming to prepare and cook on say, four separate occasions for dinner. If a person has one or two free hours in a day for the assembly and freezing of said recipes, the more intensely busy days of the week can be spent taking half the hands-on time to cook the meals.
One hour of assembly = hands on time
Freezer time = hands off time
Thaw in the refrigerator time = hands off time
In the oven or slow cooker = hands off time
Less time washing the same dishes-As discussed in this post by The Simple Dollar, making something such as lasagna on four separate occasions would require re-washing pots and tools after each time. When four lasagnas are made in one day, these pots and tools are dirtied once, and washed once-especially when the lasagnas are frozen and baked in disposable aluminum containers.
Utilize bulk prices and save money-The downside to shopping at club-type stores such as Costco or Sam’s Club is the fact that a person might need to buy a large amount of food in order to reap the benefits of saving money per ounce. But when large cuts of meat or vegetables are purchased with the intent of separating and freezing, it might cut down on the cost of waste from not consuming the food before it spoils.
Lower total cost of each meal–A Turtle’s Life For Me created 46 meals for her family of four for $95. That’s roughly $2.07 per meal, and under 52 cents per serving.
Long, slow marination–Marinades can very easily and economically be made from scratch. The ingredients can be simple. The everyday home cook knows that a long marination time can help to flavor and tenderize meats. With the make-ahead method, raw meats can be combined with marinades, and thrown into the freezer. During time spent in the freezer, the meat just becomes more and more delicious and profoundly flavored before cooking.
Utilize cheaper, tougher cuts of meat-Since early civilization, tougher cuts of meat have been used in peasant dishes due to the fact that a person can slow cook the meat using a moist heat method (such as a slow cooker or dutch oven) all day while they were at work. When they got home, dinner was ready to eat.
No Lean Cuisine meals-Most microwave-friendly freezer meals are not only loaded with sodium and strange preservatives-they tend to taste lifeless. Make ahead meals mean that YOU control the freshness and quality of the ingredients.
Soups and stews are generally the easiest recipes to freeze and slow cook. An easy way to offset the possibility of a limp, dull meal each time is to dedicate just a few minutes to adding something fresh or crispy to the slow cooker meal. A combination of textures make the meal more interesting. For example:
Slow cooked short ribs + fresh herbs and quick polenta
Lasagna + a simple salad
Chili + tortilla chips and shredded cheese
Slow cooker teriyaki chicken or pork + hot steamed rice
Osso Buco + egg noodles
A good excuse to visit the dollar store-No, the dollar store doesn’t always carry organic items, but it’s not a bad place to start for people on a tight budget. Beans for chili, kosher salt, low sodium stock, disposable aluminum roasting pans, and canned goods are all great items to purchase from the dollar store. Just make sure to check the expiration dates.
Make it a social event-Patrick Allan at Lifehacker posted an interesting idea: Turn the act of food prep into a freezer meal party. It’s a great way to introduce people to new recipes, save money, and have fun.
Finally use that crock pot collecting dust in your home-There is a reason why someone gave you a crock pot. If you are a starving college student, or a workaholic, the crock pot is an effortless, cheap, throw it in and forget it way to cook.
Not everyone has ample freezer space to store large amounts of food-Ah, the joys of apartment dwelling with room mates. When a person is living with room mates, there is a delicate boundary of mine vs. yours. Unless these make-ahead freezer meals are previously agreed upon as communal, it’s best to stick to the bare minimum in the freezer, so that there aren’t any arguments over food space issues.
Thawing/the need to plan ahead-The safest way to eat food from the freezer is to plan ahead. Either thaw the food in the refrigerator (which keeps bacterial growth at a bare minimum, as opposed to thawing at room temperature) or transfer it directly from the freezer to the oven. Not all recipes yield the best results when transferred from the freezer to the oven.
Although people have mixed opinions-transferring frozen food from the freezer to a slow cooker or crock pot is not guaranteed to be safe, as the heat from a slow cooker may not be hot enough to keep food at a safe temperature (outside of the food danger zone 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the duration of cooking.
This means that if a freezer meal craving suddenly hits, thaw it in the refrigerator and plan to eat it tomorrow night. Not tonight.
Not everyone can afford the initial investment of making several meals all at once-A few days ago, I posted about food insecurity in the United States. For Americans on SNAP, budgeting $31 per week, or $4.50 per day is a reality. To make things even more difficult, some of these people are limited by lack of transportation. This sometimes means that meals are comprised of whatever groceries can be found within walking distance or bus route, and carried home. For people who don’t have access to a vehicle in order to safely carry a large amount of groceries at one time, this method of prepping and cooking is not really convenient or practical-especially if the person is cooking for only one or two people.
This doesn’t mean that a little meal planning in advance is not possible. For low-cost recipes and meal planning inspiration, check out one of my favorite websites, Budget Bytes.
Palate fatigue/lack of variety-A person might plan their freezer meals to the best of their abilities, and then get home from work and realize they have no interest in eating the same thing they’ve been eating once a week for the past month. Freezer meals are best eaten in rotation with a large variety of other options-not as the only staple source for meals.
Freezer burn-This is caused by improperly freezing or storing food. It is best to either store these meals in airtight bags, or in plastic wrapped aluminum pans for easy baking. For a handy guide on how long foods can safely be frozen without losing their integrity, refer to this guide from Real Simple.
In conclusion, freezer meals might help people with ample freezer space, who happen to be creatures of habit, or who can afford to rotate the meals in with a variety of other freshly prepared meals. I can see why this has become such a popular idea, but for me, I think I’d rather make a wider variety of meals, even if it’s only in smaller amounts. For me, the act of cooking is my de-stressing mechanism.
For a true-tested list of the best freezable recipes, check out Cooking Light’s List.