I don't know about you, but I like to have a wholesome and delicious meal every night. Ideally with enough leftovers for the next day's lunch. I remember right after we moved to the suburbs of Toronto I felt completely overwhelmed. I went from walking to work, to commuting more hours in a week than I had anticipated (since trains never seemed to run on time). I was living in a new neighborhood. I was working two jobs. We had a bigger space than 400 square feet (our previous apartment size) which seemed impossible to keep clean. I was exhausted from the daily commute that had me transferring between three public transit systems, and I would come home starving, yet also needing some wind down time.
On one particularly exhausting day, I decided to drop by the grocery store and just pick up a freezer meal I could take home and throw in the oven to give us a little reprieve & enough leftovers for lunch the next day. But when I started to shuffle through the boxed meals that contained my options, I quickly saw that a Sheppard's Pie, if cooked from frozen, would take well over an hour. Are you kidding? I was hungry now! I wanted a faster option that was better than takeout food. Surely I could find a better work life balance than paying $14.99 to wait an hour an a half for dinner (by the time I checked out of the store and got the oven pre-heated). It was then and there in that grocery store that I decided I would not only make my own freezer meals, but I would be able to do it so I could have them ready sooner, with better ingredients, of better quality, and they would cost less!
Now, as shocking at it may seem, Pinterest did not exist back then. So I ended up looking on a variety of web sites and even purchased a few special edition magazines that were focused on how to make your own freezer meals to help me determine what would work best. I figured that between my nutrition degree, my love of cooking, and a bit of research, I could figure out how to master making really excellent freezer meals. Because frankly, I was being a bit snobby and I wanted the quality of the meal to be somewhat comparable to a freshly made dinner.
I began small with this endeavour at first - I was just making a few meals at a time to to test the quality of the meal (when unfrozen and cooked) and to keep busy days more manageable. A decade later my son was set to be born, and I made enough freezer meals to keep us eating happily for 5 weeks (and it didn't cost us very much at all unlike some of the prepared meal services!). When we made this many freezer meals, until our freezer could fit no more, it really was a matter of simply making double batches of our regular dinners here and there; it wasn't a marathon day of cooking and nesting. My husband has also gotten in on the action and we also do BBQ freezer preparation (burgers, kebabs, marinated meats, and smoked meats) as well so that we can eat quality food with ingredients of our own choosing.
After much reading, experimenting, eating (you definitely need to sample, you know?), and now with my new initiative of blogging, I am happy to share this first post in a series of posts about making your own freezer meals. Likely, there are many recipes you may currently make that would convert well to a freezer meal. I will have another post about freezer meals coming soon in December (before the holidays) where I will show you how to use up leftovers - everything from veggies to mashed potatoes to all of that delicious turkey! But for now, I want to provide you with some introductory tips and a few tested recipes to make your busy lives easier, or for when you simply need a grab and go lunch, or a quick dinner when you're home alone one evening.
Tips For Freezing Recipes:
- Foods that work well for freezing include things like soups (usually without a cream sauce or rice, which sometimes will continue to absorb liquid from the soup upon defrosting and reheating), casseroles (including pasta dishes, Sheppard's Pie), burritos (see specific recipe below!), meats (which might be marinated raw meats, pre-made raw burgers/kebabs, or even left over beef in a gravy from a slow cooker meal), muffins, many desserts (cookies, pies), and even homemade pizza (parbroiled, which means partially cooked, then frozen, and then you finish cooking it later). One thing I would not recommend freezing would be something like a enchilada casserole, as the flat breads will continue to absorb moisture that comes off of the the food as it defrosts, so it will become soggy. That being said, I have experimented with freezing Strata before, and it worked really well!
- Invest in good tools to freeze your meals in so that your hard work doesn't get freezer burnt! For example, we use a blend of the glass casserole dishes that have the clip on covers so make them freezer safe and air tight, as well as some foil trays that have cardboard and foil lined tops that you can buy in grocery stores (and even dollar stores if you are looking for individual sized containers) for freezing food. Some foods require freezer bags, which I favour for breakfast items, individual sized pizzas, and also meats as they allow me to press out all of the air and keep the seal tight to reduce air getting into the food. You can use large glass mason jars for soups, or some companies sell freezer safe plastic-containers that work well for soups (which stack well when not in use and are more compact if you have space constraints).
- If something will be frozen for a longer period of time, you may also want to wrap it in plastic wrap or foil, or layer an extra freezer bag over for an extra layer of protection.
- Label the package with defrosting directions (usually I defrost the meal for 20-24 hours in the fridge so it won't take as long to cook since it won't be solidly frozen anymore) and cooking directions (so you don't have to look up the recipe to find out temperature for cooking, length of time, etc.).
- Label packages with the date you froze them on to ensure you use meals in a timely manner and that they retain their food quality. Many meals will freeze well for a few weeks up to three months (if you have a deep freezer).
- Consider making a double recipe of a dinner and freezing another one for later.
- Also consider freezing some 4-6 serving dishes, as well as some 1-2 serving dishes so that you have a variety of options to choose from for a individual night at home, lunch back-ups, or family-sized meals.
- Make sure you let the meals cool before putting lids on the trays, or packaging them into bags if they have been partially cooked in advance. If you do not let them cool, you will have condensation form inside, causing moisture that could alter the texture of the recipe an also cause freezer burn.
FAVOURITE Introductory Freezer Meal Recipes:
Breakfast Recipes that freeze well can be found under my previous post on Making a Month of Breakfasts in 2 Hours. Lots of great breakfast freezer inspiration there!
As a rule of thumb, casseroles that are going to be frozen can be cooked and/or assembled up to the point where they are ready for the final baking time in the oven. Many casseroles might ask for a pasta or vegetables to be partially pre-cooked, or for meat to browned, and then they are assembled into a serving dish and cooked to complete the cooking and combined the flavours. If you are freezing them, you would do it after assembling the meal, letting it cool, and then wrapping it for freezing. The final baking time would then happen once you have defrosted them for 22-24 hours in the fridge (take them out the night before you want to use them). Additionally, since casseroles tend to be more dense, I often increase the cooking temperature by about 20 degrees F and sometimes add a bit of additional cooking time. For example, if the regular cooking temperature is 350F fo 20 minutes, I would increase it to 370F and estimate it would be cooked in 25-35 minutes . I will make a few notes below on the recipes I have tested as examples. I would recommend a food thermometer if you want to begin adapting your own recipes to ensure they are thoroughly cooked.
Deep Dish Lasagna Casserole
This Deep Dish Lasagna Casserole dish was one of the first recipes I began making as a freezer meal. It is still a favourite to this day and it satisfies that lasagna craving without having to spend more than a fraction of the time creating the dish. This is an easy recipe to double - eat one now, and freeze some for later.
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1/4 cup chopped onion
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper, divided
- 1 pound medium shell pasta, cooked and drained
- 1 pound (4 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
- 1 carton (24 ounces) small-curd cottage cheese
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons dried Italian seasoning
- 1 jar (26 ounces) spaghetti sauce
In a skillet, cook beef and onion until meat is no longer pink and onion is tender; drain. Sprinkle with salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper; set aside. In a large bowl, combine pasta, 3 cups of mozzarella cheese, cottage cheese, eggs, Parmesan cheese, Italian seasoning and remaining pepper; stir gently.
Pour into a greased 9 inch x 13 inch baking dish (or into smaller foil baking dishes for freezing). Top with beef mixture and spaghetti sauce (dish will be quite full). Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese
To Freeze: Cover the baking dish tightly with a lid and wrap once more in foil (not required if you are using a glass baking dish with an air tight cover that clips on). Thaw 22-24 hours in refrigerator. Cover with new layer of foil and bake at 350F for 45 minutes. Bake, uncovered, 15 minutes longer or until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Prep Time: 30 minutes ( I use the InstantPot to quickly cook my Sweet Potatoes for mashing, so the preparation time will take longer for others, possibly 45-60 minutes)
Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Adapted From: ifoodreal's Clean Eating Shepherd's Pie
- 6 large sweet potatoes, fully cooked
- 1 cup Greek yogurt (or sour cream)
- 3 tablespoons of milk
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of pepper
- 2 lb of ground beef
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 cup of mushrooms, diced
- 1 1/2 cups of shredded carrots
- 1 tablespoon of Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon of dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried sage
- 1 teaspoon dried ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
- 2 cups of frozen corn kernels
- 1 cup of frozen peas (or edamame)
- 2 tablespoons of milk
- 1 tablespoon of flour
Bake your sweet potatoes. For this step, I usually cook the sweet potatoes my InstantPot pressure cooker, as it saves a lot of time and I can complete the rest of the recipe while these are cooking. However, if you don't have a pressure cooker, you can cook them wrapped in foil for 30 minutes to 1 hour at 375F (see a tutorial here for further directions if required).
Brown your ground beef and drain off any fat. Add in the onion, mushroom, olive oil, Italian seasoning, thyme, sage, clove, salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. Once the onion is translucent and the mushrooms are softened, add in the corn, peas (or edamame), and milk. Sprinkle with flour and stir until it is blended in evenly and the sauce begins to thicken a little.
Mash your sweet potatoes with the yogurt, milk, salt and pepper until no longer lumpy.
Place meat and vegetable mixture into your greased freezer containers. You might do two 9X9 foil pans, or one 9X9 foil pan and then a couple of 2 serving portions (whatever combination you wish for your 8-serving Shepherd's Pie casserole). Evenly distribute and smooth the Sweet Potato mixture over top of the meat base.
If eating immediately: Preheat oven to 375F and bake for 45 minutes.
If freezing & cooking later: Preheat oven to 385F and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until cooked through (the smaller portions will require the lower amount of cooking time).
Usually, when you make cabbage rolls they make a huge quantity - more than what we want to eat all at once (especially for us, a family of three). So, we have started making a regular sized baking dish of cabbage rolls (single layer in a casserole dish), and then freezing the rest in a glass baking dish for later. We use this wonderful recipe for Cabbage Rolls from Spend with Pennies. It freezes great, but we sometimes add a bit more tomato sauce into the sauce that covers the rolls to ensure there is enough for both the tray we are cooking and the tray we are freezing. You could likely double the filling in this recipe if you had a really large cabbage and be able to use it all up, as well as the whole cabbage as well. Because this is a dish that cooks for a long time to begin with, you don't need to increase the cooking temperature or time.
This Cauliflower Mac and Cheese recipe from Damn Delicious makes lots if you double it, and we enjoy regularly making a double batch for dinner - eating one, and freezing one for another day. I've even found the bread topping stays pretty crisp as well despite being defrosted and baked later. We usually modify it and add in dried dill to the crumb mixture instead of parsley, but that's up to you! Just make sure you let it cool after assembly, then add the bread topping, then freeze immediately.
If you've never visited the howtoeat.ca blog, you really should! Years ago, Erin posted this recipe for Lunch Burritos which can be frozen, and we've always had them on hand in our freezer ever since! I will often make a recipe and a half of the filling and buy a package of 10 tortilla wraps so I have more on hand. At first I thought how good can a frozen burrito be? You would be surprised. Follow howtoeat's tips on wrapping them with a paper towel to absorb moisture and you'll be good to go. These are awesome for individual meals or a quick lunch in a pinch.
Canadian Living magazine published a recipe a number of years ago on Freezer Meatballs, which eventually made it's way online to their web site. I love having these on hand. Add a few of them for a few hours into a slow cooker with a nice sauce, throw on the rice cooker, and chop a quick side salad, and you have an awesome complete meal. Defrosted, they cook quickly in a sauce on the stove top as well.
Brisket / Roast BEEF
Inevitably we make the same recipe for Rosh Hashanah every year - Smitten Kitchen's Tangy Spiced Brisket. If you want a substantial amount of tender, juicy beef cooked up that you can pack away freeze in smaller meal-sized portions, you should try this recipe. If you've ever heard that brisket is dry - I can assure you it does not apply to this recipe. Ever. In any way. If you're having a hard time locating a brisket, or simply don't want something so large, there are lots of popular slow cooker roast beef recipes out there. With either the brisket or the roast beef option, what we do to freeze it is begin by slicing up the meat, lay it in freezer pans, and then cover it in some of the gravy. When we need a meat dish in the future, we defrost it over night, and then heat it up at 325F for 30 minutes or until it is heated through. Meats that are soft like this are also really delicious shredded up with some of the gravy to make a messy sandwich, complete with a nice salad or quick grilled veggies on the side (which you could also prepare in advance - for more tips on this see Weelicious' post on How to Roast Vegetables).
This version of Minestrone Soup is pasta-less. I originally got this recipe from a Toronto Public Health handout at a cooking session they did with a an amazing group of students I was having trained to be Peer Health Promoters on the university campus I once worked at, so I'm not sure who the original author was. I cannot seem to locate the recipe online, so I will share it below (which includes a few adaptations I made).
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
- 1 tablespoon of canola oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 medium carrots, sliced
- 2 stalks of celery, sliced
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 medium potato, peeled and diced
- 1 can (19 oz) of kidney or romano beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 can (28 oz) of diced tomatoes
- 4 cups of water
- 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
- salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot, heat the oil. Saute the onions, carrots, celery and garlic in the oil until tender.
Add the potato, beans, tomatoes, water and oregano.
Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
Add salt and pepper, or other seasonings if needed.
Freezing Instructions: Let soup cool and divide into containers to freeze (glass jars, glass lunch containers, or plastic jars that are intended for freezing liquids. To prepare soup for consumption, defrost it one day in advance. Pour into a pot and reheat until soup reaches a desirable temperature.
This delicious Crockpot Italian Chicken, Quinoa & Vegetable Soup recipe from Chelsea's Messy Apron could just as easily be a really delicious vegetable soup if you leave out the chicken and add in some extra veggies. Either way, it is a very quick recipe to throw together, and cooks itself in the slow cooker (hands free!). It makes a nice big batch as well. This is a favourite comfort food meal, for sure.
This version of Cabbage Roll Soup, from Cooking Classy, is very tasty! While I usually shy away from having a soup with rice in it for the freezer, this one held up very well when I froze it. I would suggest a long grain rice or Basmati rice for freezing purposes. I also found when I made cabbage rolls once I was able to use up the extra cabbage with this recipe, and I only used 1 pound of ground meat in this recipe & it turned out great (although it asks for 1 1/2 pounds). It is a very hearty meal, and tastes as good as the cabbage rolls themselves!
If you have other freezer meals you are curious about, please comment below and let me know! I will be doing a couple of more posts about freezer meals in upcoming months. One will be on using up holiday leftovers (cook once, eat twice, or even three times) in December, and I'd love to go over how we do freezer pizzas as well! What are you favourite freezer or convenience meals? What would you love to learn how to freeze?