Monday, March 3, 2014

How to Design Your Own Freezer Cooking Plan

Custom Freezer Meals - made by you - ready to go!
It was many years ago when I was a pretty new cook that I first heard about the convenience of freezer cooking and making your own mixes. I was first inspired by the Make-A-Mix Cookbook, and later books like Once A Month Cooking. I loved their ideas, and used them to cook for family. But, those books were based on the Standard American Diet, and when I went Vegetarian and later Vegan, they could only provide me with inspiration, not with actual cooking plans & recipes that matched the way I ate. 

Over the years, I did research, looking for plans that fit my diet & lifestyle, but there just weren't any that were right for me. Some were Omnivore inspired recipes - you know, take 2 pounds of fake hamburger and top it with fake cheese and make a cheeseburger casserole.


Or, Vegetarian meals that were all cheese-and-egg based, and not very healthy. Or, things that for other reasons just didn't appeal to me.

Eventually, I decided that if I wanted something done, I better do it myself. So, I started writing my own plans.

Which brings us to a recent evening, when we decided what would be on the menu for a weekend with company, and I walked out to the kitchen and prepared 5 freezer meals from things on hand - without giving it much thought. That way, I could relax and enjoy our company without having to stress over meal preparation : )

Over the years, I've learned to create freezer plans on my own that work for me - and really - it's pretty easy once you know the ropes!

Maybe you're Vegan like me, or maybe you have to cook for an allergy or food sensitivity. Or, maybe you have a picky eater to cook for who doesn't like the other recipes you've found. Perhaps you keep Kosher or follow some other Religious diet. Whatever the reason - if the plans out there don't work for you - you can make your own!

Here's what I do when I create a plan - it's ready to customize to your family's own favorite recipes, or to your own way of eating.

If you keep a record of what you do once, such as a list of recipes & shopping list & order of preparation, you can use the same plan over & over (it will get easier & more efficient each time you use it)

If you're fairly new to this, I provide beginner tips throughout this post - check them out : )

If you're fond of technology, you can do all the "beginner" prep work on your computer screen - I do. If you prefer a more artistic traditional method, you can make a binder with page protectors & make it pretty - you can even print custom labels for your freezer & pantry dishes if you're so minded : )

Select the Recipes YOU like to use!

1. Recipe Selection: The recipes that work well for a freezer cooking plan are recipes that your family loves, that are fairly quick to cook, and that freeze well and reheat well. Generally recipes with white potatoes don't work well (they tend to turn black in the freezer and get a watery texture). Similarly, for Omnivores, gravies, white sauces & boiled eggs can be problematic in the freezer.

A huge number of recipes involve Sauteing one ingredient, then adding additional ingredients and simmering. Overlapping the simmering time of several recipes makes your time in the kitchen much more efficient.

If at all possible, it often helps to "theme" your recipes. Choosing recipes that share a similarity - such as a central ingredient or a common ethnic origin greatly increases the number of steps that can be streamlined. For instance, you might have several Mexican recipes that all use Refried Beans and Rice- making a big batch of Refried Beans and a huge pot of Rice for all of them would be an easy step. Or, maybe you have several Italian Recipes that all use a basic Spaghetti Sauce - a huge batch of sauce can go into all of them. Omnivores have traditionally used a single meat to theme their meals around - if like me, you don't eat meat, you can theme around another ingredient, such as chickpeas, or seasoning.

Think about when & how you will be serving these meals. Perhaps you'd be happy to make several Indian meals, and have Indian every Wednesday. Or, perhaps you'd prefer to cook one straight week, with a variety -so that you can have a certain week (finals week, Church conference week, or tournament week) with no cooking at all.

If you're a beginner, I would encourage you to print out your selected recipes & lay them all out on a table for your first planning session, or perhaps put them in plastic sheet protectors in a binder. Beginners should probably do three to five recipes in their first session. (I can do more, but I find my comfort zone without being stressed and without having a huge block of time is usually three to five, or at most seven.)

Here are my go-to Freezer Recipes

2. Cooking equipment: When you plan your freezer plan, take into consideration what equipment you have. For instance, I have Two Crock Pots, Two Stock Pots, One 10" Saute pan, and One Paella Pan (among other things). So, when I make my plan, I choose Two recipes to fill the Crock Pots, Two recipes to fill the Stock Pots, One or Two recipes for the Saute Pan (sauteing is usually quick) and One recipe to fill the Paella Pan.

Freezer cooking seems much less daunting when you look at it this way: Just fill up each of your cooking vessels & simmer them : )

If I cook each night separately, the lion's share of my time is taken with waiting for dishes to simmer. Simmering several dishes at once is much more efficient.

If you're a beginner, write at the top of each recipe you have chosen what type of vessel it is cooked in, and make sure that the needed vessels match what you have (crock pot, saute pan, etc).

3. Freezer Space & Equipment:  It's a good idea to clean out your freezer the day before you cook and make sure that you have room for the dishes that will fill it. If I make three to five dishes, I really only need to use less than 1/2 my over the fridge freezer for freezer meals - I don't have to have a bare-to-the-walls freezer to start cooking! If you need space, finish the Ice Cream (tough job, but somebody has to do it! ; ) Throw the freezer-burned bread to the birds. Tidy up. Then, choose your containers. A lot of people like to use zippered gallon freezer bags - they cool down quickly, can be frozen flat, and actually can be stored on edge (rather like books on a shelf) after they are frozen. They're VERY economical with space. But, I'm not a very tidy person, and I've had the zipper bags slide out of the freezer onto my toe and break open more times than I can count. SO, my personal favorite is a 10 cup capacity plastic box that is nearly cube-shaped. I got them for $1. each at Deals. They stack well, they don't slide, and my just-over-the-fridge-normal-sized-freezer can hold 14 of them! Which means it is possible for me to prepare two full weeks of family meals, and fit them ALL in my small freezer. (I don't have a chest freezer) Pick what works for you.
This is my favorite Freezer Container. It holds an entire Slow-Cooker
Full of food (10 Cups), yet seems remarkably small. I can pack 14 of these into my small
Above the Fridge Freezer! When it comes time to reheat, the cube of food
is proportioned in such a way that it fits tidily into my Dutch oven.

If you're a beginner, I would encourage you to start with a box of sturdy, zippered gallon freezer bags for your first session. As you find out how well freezer cooking works for you, you can plan equipment upgrades into the budget, rather than having to make a big investment for your first session.

To fill your bags, set them down in a large coffee can or #10 can, and fold the top edge down outside the coffee can for easy filling.

4. Shopping Lists - Look at each of the recipes you will use on cooking day. Make a list of all of the ingredients on all of the recipes. Make at least two lists: perishables & staples - this makes your kitchen inventory more efficient, and it also makes your shopping more efficient. Of course, you can further separate the list into such categories as "Frozen Foods," "Produce," and "Spices," if you like. Look through your kitchen and inventory what you already have in stock, lining through the items you don't need to buy on your list. You will probably want your list to be reusable for future sessions, so either make a copy before your inventory, or slide the list into a plastic sheet protector, and keep it in place with a little tape before you do your inventory. If you're doing this on the computer, copy & paste the whole list, then delete each un-needed ingredient. Or, simply use the old-fashioned pen-and-ink grocery list method.

Be especially aware of larger quantities needed, and make sure you have enough of everything on hand. (Early in my cooking experience, I looked and saw that I "had rice already" when I had only one pound, but needed three pounds!)

If you're a beginner, highlight each ingredient on each recipe that you need to purchase. Cross out anything you already have in stock.

5. Consolidating Steps - This is one place where freezer cooking can really save time (in addition to overlapping simmering times). If you have three recipes that each call for an onion to be chopped & sauteed, plan to chop & saute three onions all at once. If you have three recipes that use Taco Seasoning, make a big batch. If you have three recipes that use cooked beans, cook a big pot instead of three little pots on different days.

Simply waiting for several pots to simmer at once, rather than waiting for each pot to simmer on a different day is a huge time-saver and efficiency booster.

If you're a beginner, make a list on a separate paper of each consolidation you will make (Saute three chopped Onions, Cook 3 pounds of Black Beans, etc)

6. Designing the Order of Cooking.

You will generally want to do things in this order:

If you're a beginner, make a list of every step you will do, and the order you will do the steps in.

Cold/advance preparation - this can be done in advance of your cooking day, or first thing on cooking day (depending on your recipes). This may include things like making a sauce like Spaghetti Sauce, blending a seasoning mix like Taco Seasoning, making a pantry mix such as Cornbread mix that will be used in several recipes, making a bread dough, or cooking beans in a slow cooker to use the next day in recipes.

Chopping/purchasing - Most recipes will call for chopped aromatics (onion, garlic, celery, carrots, peppers) in some combination. If you have a limited budget, or garden your own veggies, start chopping! If you have less time & a wee bit more money, you can often purchase these veggies pre-chopped & frozen in the grocer's freezer section (in winter, this can actually be cheaper than buying fresh and chopping by hand!). I usually buy Frozen Chopped Onions, Jarred Minced Garlic, Frozen Three Pepper & Onion Mix & Frozen Mirepoix Mix (Carrot, Celery & Onion Blend). If you want the best of both worlds, prepare & chop the veggies in your food processor, and keep them in the freezer to use when you need them.

This is a bag of Three Pepper & Onion Mix from the freezer sautéing
No chopping required!

Sauteing - Saute things like onions and/or peppers that you need in more than one recipe (see "Consolidating Steps" above)

Simmering and Baking - start the dishes that take longest first, and the ones that cook most quickly last. This is where you fill up all your pots and get them started. I start one at a time and as it begins heating, I turn to the next one. (A person with a very clear head might be able to put Onions in all the pots that need Onions, then Oregano in all the pots that need Oregano, etc. - but I find that method too confusing, and a good way to end up with a cup of Sugar accidentally added to the Chili. Not to say that has actually happened to me, or anything ; )

Adding Finishing Touches - Many dishes require a finishing touch - some vanilla, lemon juice, spice blend (Tadke for Indian cooking), or wine added near the end of cooking time. Be sure not to forget those touches.

Cooling, Packaging & Freezing - As each dish finishes cooking, you will need to cool it, package it, label it, and store it. This is the place in cooking where it is most crucial take steps to avoid food poisoning. Letting dishes cool at room temperature for too long can keep them at the perfect temperature to grow bacteria & can result in illness. This is not just true for freezer cooking, but all cooking. Dishes should be cooled as rapidly as reasonable if not being served immediately, and packaged for freezing. Some people like to keep a sink of ice water to set pots down in to cool, stirring the dish now and then to cool it to the center. I often stagger containers throughout the freezer & fridge, where lots of cold air can circulate around them. If several hot containers of food are packed closely together in the freezer, it is possible for the outside of the containers to freeze, while the inside stays hot and grows dangerous bacteria in the center. Make sure that air can circulate, and that the dish can quickly cool all the way through.

As you finish each dish, label it with its name & date (you can add reheating instructions, too, if it's not obvious). I use a strip of freezer tape (usually in the canning section at the grocery or hardware store) and a permanent marker (such as "Sharpie" brand).

I let the dishes cool in staggered positions overnight, then the next morning I move things into a neat & tidy position in the freezer.

Beginners will want to write down the order of the above steps and what to do when.

That's it! You've done it! Kick back with a little refreshment of your choice, and prepare to enjoy the fruits of your labor!

(Some people like to go out to dinner on the batch cooking evening to celebrate & relax)

Here are a few other planning tips.

Plan for your Personality Type. If you're a Type-A personality, you might enjoy  Marathon cooking session for Six Months' Meals. For an Omnivore plan of this type, check out MegaCooking by Jill Bond. You may also want to plan when you will eat every meal you prepared, and keep a freezer inventory on the side of your deep-freeze.

A Type-B personality (like me) might want to just informally cook a bunch of stuff while you surf the net. Grab it out of the freezer to eat when you feel like it.

If you're a Type A making your plan, you probably want to make a Month of Meals at a time. To do that, you will need large cooking vessels, and probably a larger freezer than the one I have (some claim to put a month of meals in an over-the-fridge freezer - but I can't do it in mine and still have filling meals). Select 14 Recipes. Double each recipe you make, so that it serves your family twice. Plan a 3 to 4 hour morning session in which 7 family meals are each doubled to make 14 meals total. These Meals will be eaten in Week 1 and Week 3 of a month. Have a one hour lunch break (you will probably need the rest!), then make a different set of 7 doubled meals in the afternoon, for 14 more meals. These Meals will be eaten in Week 2 and Week 4 of your month. At the end of a full day, you'll have 28 family meals, and only repeat a meal every 14 days.

If you're a Type B, you'll probably be more content making 5 to 7 regular meals in your average session.

Some caveats about pre-packaged freezer plans floating around out there:

One ingredient does not a meal make. I was looking over a bulk cooking plan one day, and the expert promised an unbelievably huge number of meals in record time. Turns out a bunch of her "meals" involved shaping ground beef into patties and calling that a meal.Other freezer cooking folk put raw chicken in a bag with Italian salad dressing and call that a "meal." If you see a plan marketed that promises too many meals in too short a time, you can expect some of the "meals" to be of this sort. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Plan variety! A one-person serving does not a meal make. So many current freezer plans say "100 meals in 5 hours" - but they mean 100 servings, not 100 meals for your whole family. And, then, you find out that you're making a 4 recipes that each serve 25, and you're going to be eating the same thing day, after day.

Military dining halls have a million ways to shape meatloaf and re-name it and pretend you're having something different. Meatloaf, Salisbury Steak, Swiss Steak, Meatballs, Swedish Meatballs, Porcupine Meatballs, Polynesian Meatballs are just a few of the different names for re-shaped meatloaf. Don't have a military-style barracks menu for your family -unless you really enjoy that sort of thing! Make sure your month plan has contrasting textures, flavours, colours, spices & ingredients. (Just for the record, when an Omnivore who eats the above "variety" of meat asks if a Vegan diet is repetitive & boring, I never cease to be amazed!)

Reserve Time. I allow about 1/2 hour per recipe. I'm a slow, laid back kind of cook. Some go slower and some go faster. If you're rushed against a deadline, though, you're much less likely to enjoy the cooking process - so give yourself space.

These posts might help
Vertical or Horizontal Meal Planning

For Themed Meal Plans:
Greek for a Week  
Indian for a Week
Make Sauce Tonight, Have Easy Meals for a Week

For Variety Meal Plans:
World Tour One
World Tour Two

Another great Method - compliments of Holly at My Plant Based Family
Once a Week Cooking


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  1. Nice summary! I'm sure many people will find it helpful. My approach to freezer cooking is more like yours. I found the marathon, whole month's worth of meals was too taxing. We tend to make double batches on weekends so there's always something in the freezer. Thanks for posting, have a great week!

    1. Thanks so much : ) I find that having a week's worth of meals on hand is usually more than enough for our purposes. I'm a housewife, so most nights, cooking works into my schedule quite easily. But, on those nights that I'm rushed or there's some schedule change, it's so nice to have a backup!

  2. I like that you showed us your favorite plastic container. Little tips like that can be very helpful for someone like me who is just starting to think about freezer cooking. Thank you! And I also have the Make-A-Mix cookbooks in my stash (picked them up at a second hand store). They're kind of intriguing but like you said, they are becoming a little outdated for the way we are trying to eat healthier these days.

    1. I LOVE the Make-A-Mix series! It was such a great innovation! It's true that I don't cook the same way, but I really admire their ingenuity : ) Hope you're able to find containers like or similar to mine - they really are a help!

  3. Wow, this was great! You went to a lot of work and were very thorough! My method of making freezer meals is to just make two meals, freeze one and eat the other, lol!

    However, when my oldest was in college in another state I would make about 15 freezer meals for him. We would fill up a cooler full of ice and add the meals and he would take them back with him. I would also cook up a bunch of chicken breasts for him and freeze them and send some other stuff as well. All he had to do was defrost.

    So I sent him home with about a month's worth of meals. I loved doing it and he loved eating it! When he'd come back home to visit he'd bring the cooler and the plastic storage containers the food was in and we'd send him home with more food! Thanks for linking up to Making Your Home Sing Monday.

    1. Thanks so much! What a great Mom to do all that cooking for your son! I appreciate you hosting.

  4. Thanks for the plastic container tip. I freezer cook now and then. I'm actually planning a big batch this week. I have 30 lbs of chicken and once I thaw it I have to cook it. So I'm planning a session with 10 this week. I did 10 two weeks ago. You have some great tips. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Wow - that's a LOT Of chicken! I just surfed by your blog & subscribed - it looks great : ) I love (and need) organizing help!

  5. Yummy! Great tips, too! You know...I have that same McDougall's Book! Nice! I'm going to check out some of your links today, too! Thanks so much!

    1. Always appreciate your visits! My Sister gave me the book as a gift : )

  6. Wow, a lot of these sound like they will definitely make things easier. I've cut green onion up and store them in the freezer but I never thought to just have chopped and sauteed onions ready to go. Great way to save time on those busy nights with a bunch of starving kiddos. Thanks so much for sharing and linking up at the MaMade Blog Hop!

  7. Wow, this post is a wealth of information. I'll be bookmarking this one for sure! Thanks for linking up with the MaMade Blog hop!

  8. I love the tip for how to fill gallon freezer bags! I've never considered using a large can to help support the bag.

  9. I did NOT know about that baggie-over the large can trick! That is sooooo slick! My baggies are always slipping all over the counter.... Great thinking!!!
    xx Crystelle
    Crystelle Boutique

  10. SO helpful. Will definitely be using this this summer to freeze meals for winter.

  11. How incredibly organized you are! My mom used to cook ahead like this. For some reason, I never have. Will be following your tips to give it a try. Thank you for sharing at Inspire Us Thursday on Organized 31.

  12. Found you on the Real Food for Less Money link up. This is such great advice. I'm just getting into freezer cooking and with a nine month old and #2 on the way, I really want to have a good stash of quickie meals socked away. But I don't have time or energy to make mistakes doing it inefficiently. These are going to be really helpful guidelines!

  13. Wonderful tips on cooking and freezing ahead. Found you on Traffic Jam Weekend link party.


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