Hi here! How’s you’re new year going? Still writing 2015 on everything? Yeah, me too, don’t worry! I have a lot of goals this year, some involve planning our meals and food budget for optimum efficiency and frugality. One of the best ways for be to do that is by helping my future self out by making freezer meals.
I’ve been bad about carving out the budget and time for it lately, but with the holiday craze behind me, I’m finally buckling down and getting it done! If you’ve ever been curious about some of the ins and outs of freezing meals, keep reading!
I’ve been asked several times about freezer meals and what it involves. The most frequent questions are, “Why do you do them?” , “How do I do that?”, “Doesn’t it take forever ?”, and, “But the meals aren’t good for you usually, are they?”
I decided to answer all these questions and hopefully more in this post! First, a little background:
Almost everything I learned about freezer meals I learned from my mom. She had good motivation to do bulk cooking, because there were 11 of us kids. Can you imagine cooking three meals a day from scratch for 13 people? Me neither. So to avoid having to eat, sleep, and live in the kitchen, my mom started doing dinners in the freezer. How she discovered all this on her own and put it into action I cannot fathom, but she was quite good at it (I can even recall her giving talks about it at conferences when I was little).
Mom always involved all of us in making freezer meals. Once every few months, we would go to Costco, armed with a massive list. My mom would conscript each of us to grab different items while she would do price comparisons, making a note of the cost of each item we bought. Using those numbers, she could figure out how much each meal and each serving cost. It was always crazy small, something like 10 cents per serving usually. I kid you not.
Once everything was bought, we would have a “meals day” (usually a Saturday). Bright and early we would be woken and given certain meals to complete by a certain time. The recipes were taped to the cupboards in the kitchen, and each recipe was to be made X10, so ten meals per recipe. Everything was cooked in bulk in huge pots and pans and parceled out into freezer safe containers.
It wasn’t pandemonium as you might think, although looking back I’m not sure how it wasn’t. Mom must have been doing some fancy leg work to make it all run smoothly.The night before she had already been prepping food, soaking beans, thawing meat, etc. ( this really was more of a meals “weekend”…for Mom anyway). Obviously, I was blissfully unaware. By the afternoon, most meals had been started and we would be getting tired. Mom would break to put babies and toddlers down for a nap. Once they were down, Mom was back up cooking away.
By the time evening rolled around we would be done. One of the best feelings was stacking all our cooled meals flat in the freezers in the garage. Yes, freezers, plural. My favorite part of the whole meal-making process was dinner time. Because it meant that we ordered pizza- our reward for getting around 100 meals in the freezer. During dinner, Mom would go over how much each meal cost in the end and how much each serving was. It always made her so proud how low she could get some, other times she would be rueful at “how much” others were. After doing meals on my own, I can tell you that even her “pricer” meals probably saved a fortune.
So, that’s how I got most of my meal making experience. Hands-on, over many years, and with a lot of practice. Don’t feel bad if this sounds incredibly daunting; it’s not as hard as you would think once you get the hang of it! The first time I did freezer meals on my own, I felt like a fish out of water. I’m here to tell you, you can do this! Here we go!
Freezer Meals 101
The first thing you must do is research. I know, it sounds boring, but this is one of the very fun parts. Pull out all your cook books and hop onto Pinterest to find all your favorite breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes. Try and aim for recipes that you have tried before, are on the simpler side, are easy to make in large quantities, and most importantly, are very freezer friendly. Here is a quick list of food items that don’t freeze very well. While there are always exceptions to the rule, I advise steering clear of these foods, especially if you are a first time freezer meal(er). It can just break your heart if you’ve made five meals and you find out they turn into a pile of goo once they are thawed.
What to look for in a recipe:
–Try and find recipes with similar ingredients (i.e. meatloaf and tacos). This will enable you to buy in bulk, cutting down the cost. You will also be able to cook the main ingredients all at the same time, streamlining the cooking process.
–Aim for recipes that don’t take hours to cook (if you’re going to cook them before freezing).
–Pick recipes you are familiar with. That way you won’t have to learning the recipe, and bulk cooking all at the same time. It can be very overwhelming and has a higher likelihood of going wrong.
–Find meals that multiple easily. Soup anyone? This is one of the best ones to look for. I like to quadruple (4x) a soup and cook it in the crockpot, making very little work for me.
I learned to make huge quantities of food from my Mom, so when I started making meals on my own, I quickly realized that I would need to rethink quantities for my family of four (two kids, two adults). I usually take a standard recipe (which is usually for a family of four), and quadruple it. This way, I get 4 meals (made up of four servings each) from each recipe. Follow me?
I find it beneficial to err on the side of caution and make more in a meal rather than less. My husband takes leftovers for lunch the next day, so that one meal can end up doing more work for you if you take that into account while doing your math! So, if your recipe says “serves 6-8” and you’re planning for a family of 4, don’t alter the recipe. It’s easier to cook it in larger quantities, and just divide it into 2 meal portions OR leaving it as a large meal and counting on leftovers for lunches.
Does that all make sense? I hope so.
Once you’ve picked out five to eight recipes (the number is up to you), sit down and quadruple all the ingredients (or more if you want more of each!). Subtract the ingredients you already have (spices, butter, etc.) but don’t forget to make sure you have a sufficent amount. What you have left after the subtracting is your shopping list.
Decide where you are going to shop and make a master list. I take a full sized piece of paper and put my store lists all on one page. That way, if the store I was planning on getting an ingredient from doesn’t have it, I can move it over to the other list rather than having to remember it for later, or worse, forget it altogether! It’s the little things that save time and sanity while doing freezer meals folks! (And yes, I’m one of those people that uses real paper for lists, not my smartphone. I just prefer it, even if it slightly scandalizes my techie Husband a bit ;).
The grocery stores don’t have to be a long or tedious part of freezer meals. Wear comfy shoes, since this will be a long store trip, and plan for it. This is not a store trip you can do if the kids are crabby, or at the very end of the day, since it will take a good amount of focus. Generally, it’s just me and the kids, but feel free to carve out some alone time to do this, particularly if you feel like you’ll need more time and patience than your kiddos will allow. My game plan is that go right when the stores open, because the kids only have patience for one long store run a day. If I need to go to more than one store, I will space the trips out over a couple of days. I get the kids hotdogs from Costco and myself a coffee and move as quickly as possible while they eat. I find distraction is key to keeping the littles happy while I compare prices. Here are some extra things to get (and budget for) that will make freezer meals a lot easier:
— Gallon sized freezer bags (I like Ziploc).I buy these in bulk at Costco so I have plenty for the next round of meals.
–Disposable aluminum casserole or loaf pans (if your recipes need them)
–Pieces of paper for layering between meals in the freezer so they don’t stick together
I could probably make a whole other post about this, and I know for a fact there are hundreds of blog posts already about pricing out freezer meals and servings etc. Many can get their prices much lower than mine, or advertise on their posts that they could do 50 meals for $100 (or something like that)! After reading those posts, I discovered that they were able to get their prices so low by circumstances I would probably never be able to duplicate (particular coupons no longer offered, sales happening at that time, or by shopping at stores that are not in my state). I feel a little let down after I read those posts, so I am not going to make any promises to you. Don’t be discouraged if you end up spending the same amount of money per meal that you usually do. Remember – you are still making meals ahead of time which is saving you tons of time. I’ll tell you what I do, it’s not extreme couponing or super expensive, hopefully you can use this as a guideline.
–I set a budget number by just looking at my shopping lists. Each time I get more accurate, practice really does help hone your meal planning skills!
–I withdraw that amount of money (maybe a tiny bit extra) in CASH, and leave my credit cards at home. That way I cannot over spend.
–Buy the cheapest ingredient you can, without totally compromising on the health factor that’s right for you.
–Recognize that buying in bulk doesn’t ALWAYS save you money. A 25lb bag of white flour at Costco is cheaper per pound BUT for my family of four, it’s impractical and takes up too much space. We also use only whole wheat flour for health reasons, so I choose not to compromise a healthier choice for a lower cost. Another example is that buying fresh produce in bulk can be a big waste. I buy bulk produce when I know I will use it all while it’s fresh. It’s rare that I can perfectly plan meals around using exactly that amount of fruit or veggies. If I have a lot left over, it will probably go bad before my small family can eat it all. So, while it’s cheaper per pound, the waste offsets any savings. Buying in bulk really CAN save you lots, however, particularly for freezer meals.
–Things to buy in bulk:
- frozen fruit and veggies
- meat (definitely the meat!)
- canned goods
- whole wheat noodles
A lot of the answer to “why do you do freezer meals?” has to do with price. I am able to save a money buy doing them, plain and simple, which is enough motivation for me to dedicate the time and putting in the work. The meals themselves save money, but MORE importantly, it means I’m not making numerous store trips throughout the month where, inevitably, I spend money on superfluous things we don’t need. Making the meals cuts down on waste. If I am able to carefully plan 90% of our meals out for a month, the chances of wasting food that we either don’t consume in time, or just don’t eat, plummets to a much lower number. So, that’s why I do freezer meals!
I get asked a lot if freezer meals are heathy. I also get told a lot that they are not healthy. I’m here to clear the air! Everyone has a different dietary needs, so this is another category where I will tell you what I do, but your particular diet needs/wants will effect your budget and time it makes to put together your meals.
We stick with 100% whole grains, no refined sugar, grass fed, free range meat and dairy products (whenever possible, sometimes finding 100% natural meat in bulk is just not possible with our budget. This is when finding a hearty protein substitute, like beans and lentils can be great). No vegetable oils, cornstarch, food dyes, or any unnecessary additives if I can possibly avoid it. We buy organic in the “dirty dozen” (which changes year to year, did you know?), we do not have desserts (unless it’s a special occasion), juice, pre-packaged snacks, or bread from the store. So, I’m here to tell you, YES. It’s possible to make very heathy freezer meals. I am able to make many delicious, filling meals, fulfilling all of our diet criteria. Of course, they are not as “good” as the freshest wild caught seafood, or raw veggies right out of the earth, but almost all my freezer meals are paired with “fresh” as in never frozen, side dishes. For our family, this is the best choice between healthy food and saving time and money. I hope you can find a combination that works for you!
I just have one question left to answer I think. “How do I do that?” You’ve got your shopping done, your recipes picked out and compiled, and now your standing in your kitchen looking at the mountain of food you just bought. Now what?
–Make sure all your frozen meat is thawed on meal day. If possible, do this the night before, so you are not stuck microwaving or sitting around staring at frozen meat ;).
–Prep your stations.Make sure your kitchen is clean and all the pans, pots, utensils, bowls, etc are clean and your counters are bare. You’ll need all the space you can get.
–Clear out your freezer(s). They may be full of frozen goods you are planning on putting into meals and thats fine, but make sure once they are out, there is space for the actual meals in there. Many people tell me they can’t do freezer meals because they don’t have enough freezer space. Sure, maybe they can’t do 100 meals, but you can most certainly make at least 30 meals in gallon bags stacked flat on each other, just pick meals that are not too bulky. You can always do 15 meals too! Even two weeks worth of dinners would be a huge time and money saver.
–Put on comfy shoes. You’ll be standing a lot.
–Plan to cook smaller meals simultaneously. I do meatloaf and tacos at the same time since their main ingredient is the same.
–Plan for interruptions. I cook with and around my kids. Before I put anything time sensitive on the stove or in the oven, I make sure my kids will be preoccupied so I won’t burn anything.
–Start with the hardest meals first. For me, this is anything with raw meat (bleck!). I like to do all the meat first, so it won’t cross-contaminate and I can focus on keeping my surfaces and hand sterilized. I have a thing with raw meat :/ .
–Be prepared to spread out the cooking over two days. This can happen, and it is totally okay if it does. I even let some soups cook over night in the crockpot, turn them off in the middle of the night, and they are cooled enough to bag in the morning.
–Use a old coffee can or something similar to bag the meals. Place the bag in the can, turn the corners around the edges and use a measuring cup or something with a handle to distribute. It makes MUCH less mess.
–Clean as you go. You’ll probably need to use a pot for another meal or run out of mixing spoons, so cleaning as you go keeps the whole process from stalling at an inconvenient point.
–If possible, cut all your veggies at once. I use a Black and Decker shredder and slicer and spend 30 minutes getting all my veggies cut up, rinsing between different veggies. Streamline people!
–Wash your hands frequently.
–Daydream about all the awesome things you will do with all the free time you are making for yourself right now.
–Order yourself a pizza for dinner, or buy one in advance to cook. You better believe I do!
Curious about a real life break down? Here is exactly what I made and spent my last round of freezer meals. The total price is rounded up and includes bulk spices I bought that will last me at least a year.
Veggie Chili X 4
Pizza X 3 (ready made)
Tacos with sauce and tortillas X 3
Potato Soup X 4
Bean and Cheese Burritos X 12 burritos (is about 4 meals for us)
Meat loaf X 6
Stuffed Pitas X 12 /3 = 4 meals (although six pitas are for Chris’s lunch, and 6 are for the kids, but we will treat it likes its just 4 meals)
Whole Wheat Banana Pancakes X 24 ~ 4 meals
Chicken Teryaki and Veggies X 4
Breakfast Muffins 1 dozen
Blueberry Spinach Smoothies X 3
Veggie Lunch Trays with dip X 4
Whole Wheat Pasta with Tomato Sauce X 6
(I’m not including granola or muffins in the meal count since it’s technically not a freezer meal and I already had the ingredients. I did make it at the same time as meals however.)
$173.00/49 meals = 3.53 a meal.
You can see I err not the side of caution, rounding up all the prices from my receipts and treating the meals like they will serve 4 adults, in reality they each meal will cover more, particularly the lunches. Three dollars and fifty cents a meal? Not too shabby 🙂
I hope I’ve been able to answer some questions and made freezer meals seem less daunting. Don’t be nervous, this is one of those things that you just have to jump in, head first. The first time can be hard, but it does get easier the more experienced you get. You’d be surprised at what pre-planning months of meals can do for you! If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them as best I can. Good luck!