Do you feel like dinner is always sneaking up on you? Do you wish you had healthy meals already prepared or at the very least, started?
Enter freezer cooking. It has saved my life like a superhero, which makes me feel like a "supper" hero. Healthy freezer cooking is about stocking the freezer with healthy “fast food” so no one has to order take out and then feel guilty about it.
At first, freezer cooking sounds like a recipe for a fire. You have all your appliances working at once to cook lots of meals in a short amount of time.
But don't go imagining the Griswold's at Christmas yet.
Because it's about cooking what you can handle and what your kitchen space can handle.
There are 5 steps to freezer cooking. And you make the steps fit your kitchen experience. You choose your difficulty level -- how much you want to cook so you don’t feel overwhelmed, what appliances you are comfortable using, and so forth.
Step #1 Go Shopping!
Isn’t it just like a woman to find any excuse to go shopping? But it’s true! You can’t cook groceries you don’t have.
Whether you write your shopping list based on the menu you want to serve or grocery shop, then create a menu, you have to get groceries into your kitchen.
A menu item doesn't have to be specific. For example, when I want an Asian meal on the menu, I don’t always know what vegetables or what kind of sauce I want to make. But I do know that I will need to have rice or quinoa in the freezer for serving with my stir-fry.
Keep a list during the shopping trip of what will need to be prepared during a freezer-cooking event.
Step #2 Get Ready, Get Set
Freezer cooking requires planning beyond just grocery shopping. (Wait! You mean I was supposed to plan, as in write a grocery list?) I know it’s hard to imagine time for planning. Planning might not even be in your nature. But it’s mostly about comfort here.
- First, put on good shoes and an apron. (I’m a messy cook. If you aren’t messy, you don’t need an apron.)
- Next, get a tall glass of water. You’ve got to stay hydrated when working with so much heat.
- Last, make sure you don’t plan to cook more things than you’ve got appliances for. For example, you’ve only got four burners on your stove (assuming all are in working order); so don’t plan to cook 5 things in pots.
Sometimes it’s helpful to lay out portable appliances the night before (because in my small kitchen, it takes a bit of reorganization to get appliances out of their nooks and crannies.)
Also, If cooking beans is on the schedule, start soaking them the night before.
Step #3 What’s Cookin’ Good Lookin’
Now’s the fun part, assuming you like to cook. (Of course, if you don’t like cooking, freezer-cooking is even more useful because you aren’t stuck in the kitchen as long or as often.)
Here is the order for beginning your cooking process:
- Start cooking the recipe that takes the longest to cook first.
- Start cooking the pots on the back of the stove next.
- Find a common temperature for everything that needs baking so everything can cook in the oven at the same time even if some things finish and come out sooner than others.
Here are some rough cooking estimates to help with that:
- Rice cooker: quinoa, brown rice-1 hour
- Oven: sweet and baking potatoes-1 hour
- Microwave: whole wheat couscous-30 minutes
- Stovetop: polenta, farro, bulgur wheat, oatmeal-30 minutes
- Stovetop: beans-8 hours soaking, 1 ½ hours cooking
- Stovetop: lentils, split peas, farro, buckwheat-45 minutes
- Slow cooker: beans-10 hours soaking, 10 hours cooking on Low
- Slow cooker: lentils, split peas, farro-4 hours
- Pressure cooker: beans-1 hour
Look at all these appliances dutifully working away! If you’re extra special lucky, you’ll find yourself sitting around doing (almost) nothing. You need some activities to help you use your time wisely.
Here are some ideas.
- Whip up some batter in the blender, turn on a griddle, and fill your freezer with pancakes.
- Pull out favorite baked-good recipes and make a variety of dry mixes like for corn bread, cookie dough, or homemade seasoning packets. Store in jars or zip-tight plastic bags, remembering to label them for future reference.
- Put raw vegetables in large heat-safe bowls. Boil water and pour it over the vegetables. Blanch the vegetables for 3 minutes, drain the hot water and stir in ice water. This short pre-cooking process keeps the vegetables looking better and staying fresher longer. They can stay in the refrigerator for a week or be frozen at this point.
- Sauces, salsas, or dressings are great to have on hand when time is tight. I often have pesto sauce and enchilada sauce in the freezer. They can be made in just a few seconds, but can make a mess. If the kitchen is already messy, I feel less guilty about creating a disaster. (Because that’s just how I cook. Isn’t it more fun that way?)
Step #4 Cool (You and the Food), Clean, and Freeze
In addition to having the right foods to freeze, there’s the small issue of the right freezer-safe containers. I use plastic zip-top bags, aluminum pans covered with plastic wrap and aluminum foil, and glassware with lids. The glass is my favorite because the food can be transferred to the bowl while still hot. Plus, glass is microwaveable, which means I don’t dirty another pot when reheating.
Freeze like items together. Don’t separate them all over your freezer because you’ll never know how much or how little of what you have. Plus, your freezer will look a mess. And we want you to look like the organized person you are because you just completed a colossal freezer cooking project, right?
Cleaning? Yikes. I’m an expert at making a mess. I’m not an expert on cleaning. But I do keep a spray bottle of vinegar in my kitchen as a natural disinfectant for wiping down the counters, cabinets and floor when I’m done. Like I said, I’m messy.
Step #5 Use It!
The last thing you want to do when you freezer cook is leave your items in the freezer for an indefinite amount of time. While many items last 3 months or longer in the freezer, it’s not so helpful to keep them there that long.
You want to eat it before it gets freezer burned.
You want to eat it before it comes back around in season and tastes better fresh than frozen.
And you want your freezer space back so you can start all over!
Is that convincing enough? Eat the food you make. You’ll be glad you did.
Favorite Freezer-Friendly Recipes and Ingredients
OK. How about some favorite recipes? Because, let’s face it, it’s way easier to use someone else’s tried-and-true recipes than to come up with them on your own. Some of these recipes are on my freezer-cooking list every two weeks.
- Tomato Farroto
- Lentil Soup
- Brown Rice (Served with frozen Chinese vegetables)
- Oatmeal (My ratio is 12:8 water to old-fashioned oats.)
- Full Plate Living Banana Pancakes
- Chili Baked Potatoes
- Baked Sweet Potatoes with Broccoli
- Lemony Couscous
Sometimes you don’t want full recipes. Sometimes it’s easier to have plain ingredients that can be a jump-start into an easy dinner. That’s what I do with my Asian recipes referenced in Step #1. I don’t make the entire recipe. I just make sure that rice is available. Then a 10-minute stir-fry and dinner is done!
So these are my favorite freezable high fiber foods.
- Beans (white, black, pinto)
- Legumes (split peas, lentils, chickpeas)
- Brown Rice and Black Rice
- Bulgur Wheat
- Blanched Vegetables
What if you just have one hour?
Most everyone is exhausted or scheduled (or overscheduled!) on the weekends. Rarely does someone have interest in getting up a couple hours before everyone else to do their freezer-cooking project in peace. So how in the world can anyone have the time to stock a freezer? I bet you can find one hour. Just one hour. Anywhere in your week.
Now, let's say you do the following…
- Bake assorted potatoes in the oven &mdash best refrigerated and not frozen afterward. (1 hour)
- Cook quinoa in the rice cooker. (45 minutes)
- Make split peas and oatmeal on the stove. (45 minutes and 30 minutes, respectively)
- Microwave whole wheat couscous according to package directions. (30 minutes)
- Set the slow cooker to 10 hours and leave beans cooking all day. (1 minute hands-on time)
One hour of work gives you a head start on about 10 meals! And in most homes there would be two burners left over.
The Secret of Success
Once a friend asked me “How come it looks like your pantry and fridge are empty, but your family eats so well?”
Apparently, she had never looked in my freezer.
One hour. That’s all it takes to impress even your closest friends.
You can even do it without burning the house down.