Whether you actually like to cook or not, having a small freezer stash of either full meals (think casserole) or meal kits (think chicken or flank steak frozen in a bag with marinade that can be moved the fridge in the morning or the night before to defrost, then thrown on the grill or into the oven) can really simplify dinner on those crazy nights. Even if you don’t want to cook ahead or fix freezer meal kits, just having small packages of ground beef in the freezer lets you stock up during sales.
There are several ways of thinking about make ahead freezer meals. You might set aside a day and “cook for a month.” This can be especially useful if you work nights or just need someone else to start dinner for you before you get home. I don’t have full monthly plans for this method as it’s not what I follow.
You can also just double whatever you’re fixing on the nights it makes sense. Meatloaf and meatballs, even hamburgers, are easy to double and freeze. You can also just set aside a day for fixing lots of whatever is on sale that week. Cook up some chicken dishes, prepare a 10 pound bag of potatoes, roast a few chickens, etc. Here are some articles to get you started.
- Boiling Ground Beef
- Potatoes Every Which Way
- Stretch that Beef Roast
- Stretch That Chicken or Turkey
- Save Money with Chicken Leg Quarters
- Save Money with Your Crockpot Slow Cooker
- How to Cook Dried Beans
And while the following article was written in terms of giving others the gift of freezer meals, it might spur some ideas for yourself as well! Don’t neglect breakfast items, for example. A few frozen muffins or Egg McMoms can be a lifesaver on a hectic morning!
Freezer Gifts for the Holidays
Years ago, a friend’s mother took a fall. In her late eighties, this had quite an affect on her ability to comfortably prepare dinner for herself and her husband. I was about to spend half a day cooking up some chicken dishes to have on hand for my freezer, so I included a few extras for her. When we went to visit, we brought her a chicken pot pie, chicken cacciatore, coq au vin, a broccoli quiche, a quart of homemade vegetable soup and a bag full of frozen homemade French toast for their breakfasts. She was overjoyed and kept saying “No one has ever done this for me before!” Her son and I agreed she probably enjoyed all that prepared food far more than any other gift he could have brought her! And she will be getting another supply for Christmas, with a bit more variety since I’ll have more time to plan.
Every year people talk about the holidays and what gifts to give people who “have everything they need.” Consumable items are always recommended: postage stamps and stationary, donations to charity in their name, chore days to help around the house, and edible gifts. What I see offered as edible gifts though is too often rich treats that aren’t on many people’s diet. But edible gifts are a great idea: give a gift of healthy home cooked meals! If your recipients don’t have a freezer, arrange one day a month to deliver something they can easily heat up for dinner. It’s always a treat to take the night off from cooking when you do it every day. If they do have some freezer space available, consider spending a day cooking up a few meals for them (and bag a few extras for yourself as well for those busy days).
Many of you probably already know a few things that freeze well that your friends and family would enjoy.
- Eggplant Parmesan
- Meat loaf
- Chicken pot pie
- Spaghetti sauce, with or without meat
- Quick breads (banana, zucchini, pumpkin, apple)
But you can really round out the types of meals you can deliver by adding:
- Shredded meat to reheat for hot sandwiches
- Oven baked chicken strips
- Stuffed pasta shells
Don’t forget some side dishes, such as:
- Mashed potatoes
- Twice baked potatoes
- Biscuits and rolls
- Favorite bean recipes in meal-sized portions
For breakfasts, you can easily make ahead and freeze things such as:
For those with a sweet tooth, add some desserts:
Someone elderly who still enjoys cooking might also appreciate some starter packs of things they could use to make fresh meals. Do some of the work ahead of time for them:
- Boiled/browned ground beef in serving size packages
- Cooked diced chicken
- Cooked chicken with carrots, peas, and white sauce so they can make their own pot pies or even just heat and serve over rice or toast
- Various pieces of meat frozen in your favorite marinades (chicken breasts, pork chops, flank steaks
- Sliced or chopped peppers and onions
- Frozen slice and bake cookie rolls so they get those fresh-baked cookies!
Small is Beautiful
For elderly recipients who are only cooking for one or two people, think small. Package things in individual servings so they can pull out enough for just one meal. Make miniature meat loaves (use your muffin tins), package a few meatballs in some sauce, slice up some roast beef or turkey breast and freeze in the juices/broth so the meat won’t dry out when reheated.
Use mayonnaise sparingly in things like tuna or chicken salad. Use butter on the bread instead of mayonnaise so the sandwich fillings don’t soak into the bread. Don’t freeze lettuce and tomatoes in sandwiches. Bierrocks (meat pies) freeze well.
Omelets in a Bag
You can freeze raw eggs if they are opened and mixed together (scrambled eggs). Add the chopped vegetables of your choice (peppers, onions, etc.) and freeze in a serving size.
Boiling Ground Beef
This is a win-win proposition: less mess to clean up and healthier besides! Instead of browning your ground beef in a frying pan, boil it up in a bit of water, stirring to break up the clumps. Add seasonings of your choice (onions, green peppers, salt and pepper for example). When the beef is done, drain it and package in portions appropriate for your recipients. (A pound is equivalent to 2-3 cups of meat.) Your friends and family can use these to make shepherd’s pie, tacos, soup, chili, pizza, and anything else that calls for ground beef. They’re great for crockpot dishes calling for ground beef as well. If you are saving the broth, just refrigerate overnight and remove the fat that has risen to the top and solidified. It’s a lightly flavored broth but can be enhanced with some beef base or bouillon.
Label everything! Do not trust yourself to figure it out later. Note the date, the contents, and the quantity on each and every item you place in the freezer. If you are using freezer bags, a Sharpie writes on the labels quite well. For gift items, write down the reheating instructions as well.
Freezer bags are easy and save you from having to retrieve dishes later. Put a cookie sheet in your freezer and lay the bags down flat to freeze. Later, you can stack them vertically in a shoe box or some other container so you can “flip through” them to find what you want. If you lay them flat in the freezer, it means they will sooner or later fall onto the floor and most likely hurt your foot and/or tear the bag so that you have to eat what you dropped! Make sure you leave a bit of room in the bags for expansion as the food freezes.
Another option is to line a standard pan with foil before adding the food, leaving enough extra to cover the top. Cook the dish if necessary, then cover the top and freeze. When it is completely frozen, remove the food from your container, and place in a freezer bag. Your recipient can thaw and reheat the food in the same sized pan.
Various companies make some fairly inexpensive freezer to microwave containers that come in various sizes. There are even containers with divided compartments so you could make a whole meal. Your recipients can use the containers later, making it a doubly nice gift-though they may bring them back to be refilled!
Baked cookies do well in some sort of hard container so they don’t get broken. Coffee cans work great and are frugal (assuming you’ve been saving them!).
As you cook ahead and prepare things for your freezer, keep track of what you have! You might want to give your recipients a printed list of what you are giving them and the date the dishes should be used by. In general, you can probably allow 3 months in a good freezer for prepared foods if they are packaged properly.
Healthy Gifts from the Heart
Food is a welcome gift for most people. Busy young mothers, young adults busy working and/or going to school, and elderly people can all enjoy a night off from cooking now and then, without the expense of going out to a restaurant. Providing wholesome and healthy meals rather than just the sweets that are so often given this time of year is a loving thing to do for your friends and family.