If assembling meals for the freezer seems daunting, try this twist on freezer meals. It streamlines dinner prep and saves your sanity!
Hi there — I’m Regan, a registered dietitian, host of the This Unmillennial Life podcast, friend of Sally’s, and long-time Real Mom Nutrition reader/super fan. I’ve been reading Sally’s blog for ages, and over the years she’s enlightened me about so many topics and helped me stress less in making food choices for my own family. I was honored when she asked me to share this story with you. I hope you enjoy it.
by Regan Jones, RD
Have you ever had a problem that needed solving without even knowing you had a problem?
That’s what happened to me recently when I interviewed an RD friend for my podcast about her strategy for freezer meals. I’d seen her post a picture on Facebook of her freezer full of meals and was immediately intrigued. What intrigued me most was that she wasn’t a blogger promoting a freezer meal service or kit or tipsheet or group to join. She was simply a mom (like me and I’m guessing you too) with a real barrier (a very busy kids’ sports schedule) to putting a home cooked meal on the table each night. Thinking it would make for an informative show — I especially like it when “real people” have real solutions to problems — I asked her if she’d join me to share her strategy with my listeners.
Initially I thought “Hopefully this will help somebody who’s interested in freezer meals… ‘cause I’m not… but somebody will be.”
And then, it happened. I realized mid-interview that all of the meal planning, menu writing, Sunday food prep, and meal-in-a-box strategies I’d failed at previously made me the PERFECT person to embrace freezer meals.
…and embrace them I have.
Over the last few months, I’ve taken what I learned in that episode and created my own strategy to ease dinnertime decision fatigue and maximize productivity in the moments when I am able to cook more. Here’s what I’m doing: Batch Cooking.
While the topic of the podcast and this post is “freezer meals,” the magic that I’ve found in alleviating my evening angst is really in batch cooking items in advance, portioning them into a meal-size servings, and freezing them. What came to light through my interview is that I tend to serve the same meals over and over to my family.
Side note — THIS IS OK. If your family is like mine and they like eating spaghetti every Monday night, please don’t feel guilty about that fact. Feeding a family a meal that’s nutritious, not too costly, and universally accepted by mostly everyone at the table is hard enough without adding the extra burden of thinking it needs to be something new every single night. You’ll see below how I try to add variety, but that’s when I feel like it. I’m at peace with spaghetti sauce every week and you should be too.
So, realizing spaghetti is, in fact, always acceptable at my house, I started batch cooking four recipes of it at a time. And yes, that means when I go grocery shopping I’m buying enough ground beef, sauce, etc., to make four batches of sauce. I employ the help of my large 12-inch skillet to brown that much ground beef and a Dutch oven to simmer it. It maybe takes an extra 10 minutes or so, start to finish, when you’re cooking a bigger pot like that, but the time savings down the line is exponential if you think about it.
I portion the cooked sauce into freezer containers, wrap them in heavy-duty foil, label them with the item name + date and pop them into the freezer, knowing that each week I’m probably going to pulling out a pan of spaghetti sauce for dinner.
Now, if you find yourself thinking, Sally, did you really let a guest blogger come on and tell me her *big* strategy is freezing spaghetti sauce? C’mon. I deserve more than that, stay with me. That’s of course just one of the recipes I prep AND I don’t always stick with spaghetti sauce + spaghetti noodles. Here’s how I mix things up.
With one pan of spaghetti sauce, I can turn that into one of five meals. Spaghetti sauce becomes:
- Spaghetti sauce over traditional noodles
- Baked Rigatoni/Penne
- Quick and Easy Lasagna
- Stuffed Zucchini
I use the spaghetti sauce as my meal starter and change things up a bit to keep things fresh, if I want.
But my batch cooking doesn’t stop there. I’ve also started batch cooking these items as well:
- Taco meat
- Grilled chicken
- Pork tenderloin
- Pressure-Cooker Beef Tips
As I said earlier, my family is mostly okay with eating some of these options repeatedly. But I do have some tricks up my sleeve to keep things freshened up a bit. Here’s what I do with each of these batch cooked items:
Taco meat becomes:
- Taco night
- Nacho night
- Taco soup
Grilled chicken becomes:
- Alfredo pasta (I use a jarred sauce – I know, it’s a little scary at first – but I doctor it up based on this recipe.)
- Chicken Florentine Lasagna
- BBQ chicken pizza
- I’m going to try out King Ranch Casserole soon. I hear it’s a family favorite for many people. (p.s. I’d love to hear your favorite ways to use grilled chicken in recipes.)
Pork tenderloin becomes:
- Pork with “Heaven Apples” — these are simply diced apples simmered with just a little bit of butter, cinnamon and the slightest spoonful of brown sugar. My kids ADORE these and would eat them every night if I’d serve them. My kids named them based on how “heavenly” they think the apples taste.
- Pork sliders with baked beans and coleslaw
- Red beans and rice
- Pork with roasted sweet potatoes
Pressure Cooker Beef Tips become:
- Beef tips over rice
- Beef stew
- Philly cheesesteaks
- Beef tips with mashed potatoes
If you’re doing the math, that’s basically an entire month of weeknight meals, all generated from five batch cooking sessions.
The caveat of course is that I’m not actually freezing the entire meal itself in advance. My Quick and Easy Lasagna, for instance, does require a little assembly. But what I’ve found is that it’s not that I have ZERO time to prep dinner, it’s just that I don’t have as much time as I’d need to start every meal from scratch. Having the “meat” of the “meat and potatoes” type meals we eat so often already cooked saves me so much time. And perhaps most importantly, it saves my sanity. I no longer panic at 4pm in the school pick-up line wondering “What’s for dinner tonight?”
I know without a doubt, there’s always spaghetti sauce.
If you have your own batch cooking or freezer meal strategy or recipe suggestions, I’d love to hear from you! You can always Find Me On Instagram, Tweet Me, leave me a voicemail, or join the group for my podcast, This Unmillennial Life.
Regan Jones, RD is the Founding Editor of Healthy Aperture, an image-based recipe search tool focused solely on showcasing healthy food blog recipes. She’s also the voice behind the This Unmillennial Life, a podcast for women who’ve fallen into a generational gap.