Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Guest Post: Two Weeks of Homemade Freezer Meals

Dear Readers,

In the weeks (days?) before giving birth I have this amazing sense of urgency about everything in life. I really like this attitude and wish I could keep it throughout the year. One big project I've been working on that might be of use to others is cramming two weeks of prepared, quick fix meals into our pantry and freezer. This is my first attempt at homemade freezer meals and I learned a lot. Enjoy!

- Meghan

Guiding Principles: The menu was designed for a family with a newborn. Each dish is a complete meal with protein, vegetables, and starches. I was especially interested in including vegetables since these are often low or omitted altogether in food from restaurants. Once frozen, each meal takes minimal effort to complete and serve; meals generally only need to be moved to the refrigerator to thaw then moved to the oven or slow cooker for baking. Recipes are for 8 servings each. For a small family like ours (2 small kids), each meal gives as dinner with enough for an unexpected guest and lunch the next day.

Two Methods: While researching and choosing methods for prepared meals, I found two methods that I thought were particularly helpful: slow cooker and double dish. For the slow cooker method of making prepared meals, you do a monster grocery shopping trip, label zip-lock bags for each meal, assemble corresponding dry and fresh ingredients in the bags, freeze fresh food, and store dry food. No cooking is done in advance. When you want to eat one of the prepared meals, you simply dump the frozen and dry ingredients in the slow cooker and turn it on. There is substantial (unattended) cooking time but minimal preparation time. For the double dish method, you make double portions of meals you prepare throughout the week, eat one portion, and freeze the other portion for later. Naturally, some meals lend themselves to freezing better than others. Baked, one-dish meals generally seem to freeze well (shepherd's pie, lasagna, jambalaya, etc.). The double dish method is not "once a month cooking" but with planning, over the course of a week, you can have a good stash of prepared meals in the freezer with minimal additional effort. When you want to eat one of the prepared meals, you thaw it in the fridge and finish baking or warm in the oven for a relatively short amount of time - minimal cooking time and minimal preparation time. For best results, freeze food as quickly as possible and thaw food as slowly as possible. 

Below is a list of meals with corresponding thawing and cooking times. I posted this in the pantry so we could cross off meals as we ate them and leave comments for next time.

Meal                                                         Thaw Time       Cook Time            Comments
Beef Stroganoff                                          24 hours            8 hours
Chicken Tortilla Soup                                  none                 8 hours
Beefy Lasagna                                           24 hours            1 hour
Pot Roast with Drop Biscuits                       24 hours            8 hours
Vegetarian Chili                                          none                  8 hours                  yum!
Shepherd's Pie                                           24 hours             1 hour
Salsa Verde Enchiladas                              24 hours             1 hour                    yum!
Jambalaya                                                 24 hours             30 min
Bean Soup with Kale and Drop Biscuits        none                   8 hours                  yum!
Meatloaf with Spinach and Mushrooms         24 hours             1 hour                    yum!
Pulled Pork BBQ                                        24 hours             10 hours
Mushroom Barley Lentil Stew                      none                    8 hours                 hearty
Chicken and Rice Casserole                        24 hours              1 hour
Chicken and Butternut Squash Risotto          24 hours             30 min                    ok

Before Cooking Day: Roast Chickens and Chicken Stock

In the stock pot, brown 2 diced carrots and 2 sliced onions per chicken in a bit of oil. Place a cheesecloth bag in the stockpot. Place chicken organs in the cheesecloth bag and rinse each chicken with 6c water into the stock pot. Bake each chicken uncovered at 350F for 1 hour 15 min until internal temperature is 180F. Remove and cool. Pick meat from the bones and place skin and bones in cheesecloth bag in the stockpot. For each chicken, also add 1 bulb garlic cut in half, 1/2 tsp dried thyme, 1/2 tsp dried parsley, 1/2 tsp dried basil to the cheesecloth bag. Add water to cover the chicken bones, about 6 cups per chicken. Simmer for at least 4 hours over low heat. Remove cheesecloth bag and discard contents. Refrigerate chicken stock. When cool, skim most of the fat from the chicken stock. Cold chicken stock should gel.

Method 1: Slow cooker extravaganza. Huge grocery trip followed by several hours in the kitchen assembling fresh and dry ingredients in labeled zip-locks. Freeze fresh ingredients and store dry ingredients. No cooking.

Beef Stroganoff
2lbs cubed beef stew meat
2 (10.75 oz) cans condensed mushroom soup
1c chopped onion
2tbs Worcestershire sauce
1/2c water
1/2lb cream cheese
1/2 bag frozen mixed vegetables

Combine meat, soup, onion, Worcestershire sauce and water and freeze.

Thaw in the refrigerator at least 24 hours. Cook in the slow cooker on low for 8-10 hours or high for 4-6 hours. Stir in mixed vegetables and cream cheese shortly before serving.

Chicken Tortilla Soup
1/2 bag kidney beans
1/2 bag black beans
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1/2 bag frozen corn
2 cloves garlic
1 (8oz) can tomato sauce
2 (10oz) cans diced tomatoes with green chilies (undrained)
1 can beer
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp oregano
1 tsp paprika
1 tbs cumin
shredded meat from 1 roasted chicken
4c chicken broth
1 bag shredded cheddar
1 bag tortilla chips

Combine dry ingredients, label and set aside with canned ingredients. Chop and freeze onion and other perishable items.

Place all ingredients in the slow cooker and cook on low for 8-10 hours or high 4-6 hours. Serve with shredded cheddar and tortilla chips.

Pot Roast
2 (10.75 oz) cans condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 pkg dry onion soup mix
1 1/4c water
5 1/2lbs pot roast
2 carrots, diced
3 potatoes (or a bag of little fingerling potatoes)
1/2 bag frozen mixed veggies

Freeze vegetables and pot roast bundled with frozen mixed vegetables.

Thaw in the refrigerator at least 24 hours. Place all ingredients in the slow cooker. Coat meat with soup mixture. Cook on low 8-10 hours or high 3-4 hours. Serve with biscuits and mixed vegetables.

Drop Biscuits
2c white flour
2c wheat flour
1/4 c sugar
3 tbs baking powder (slightly less than 3 tbs)
1 tsp salt
1 c butter
1 1/3 c milk
2 eggs

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Whisk milk and egg then stir into crumb mixture until moistened. Drop heaping spoonfuls 2" apart onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 450F for 10-12 min until golden brown. Makes 16-24 biscuits. Cool then freeze. 

Vegetarian Chili
1/2 bag black beans
1/2 bag kidney beans
1/2 bag pinto beans
1 (14.5 oz) can chopped tomatoes in puree
1 (6 oz) can tomato paste
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/2 bag frozen corn
1 heaping tbs dried parsley
1 heaping tbs dried oregano
1 tbs basil
1 tbs dried garlic
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
6c worth vegetable bullion
5c water
1 pkg shredded cheese

Combine dry ingredients and set aside with canned ingredients. Chop fresh vegetables and freeze with corn, bundled with shredded cheese. Combine all ingredients in slow cooker. Cook on low 8-10 hours or high 4-6 hours. Serve with shredded cheese.

Pulled Pork BBQ
1/2 bag black eyed peas
1/2 bag collard greens
5lbs pork butt
1 bottle BBQ sauce
1 bag frozen mixed veggies
1 bag hamburger buns

Bundle ingredients above and freeze or store as appropriate. Thaw pork butt in the refrigerator at least 24 hours. Layer black eyed peas and collard greens on the bottom of the crock pot. Wrap pork butt in cheese cloth and place on top of beans and greens. Pour BBQ sauce on top. Cook on low 8-10 hours. Serve on hamburger buns with additional BBQ sauce.

Mushroom Barley Lentil Stew
2 qts vegetable broth
2c sliced fresh button mushrooms
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1oz dried shitake mushrooms
3/4 c uncooked pearl barley
3/4 c dry lentils
2 tsp dried summer savory
3 bay leaves
1tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp black pepper
salt to taste

Freeze fresh ingredients and store dry ingredients. Place all ingredients in the slow cooker and cook on high 4-6 hours or low 8-10 hours.

Method 2: When making dinner, make double portions. Eat one and freeze one.

Beef and Vegetable Lasagna
12 no boil lasagna noodles
1 (24 oz) container 4% small-curd smooth-and-creamy cottage cheese
1 (16 oz) container ricotta cheese
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2c pesto or 1 pkg dry pesto mix
1 pkg frozen spinach or collard greens
 (10 oz) shredded mozzarella
1lb lean ground beef
1/2c chopped onion
2 (24 oz) jars tomato-and-basil pasta sauce
1 small eggplant, diced
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1 red bell pepper, diced

Cook ground beef and vegetables in a skillet over medium, drain and stir into pasta sauce. In a separate container, stir together cottage cheese, ricotta, eggs, greens and pesto. In a lightly greased baking dish layer 1c beef, 3 noodles, 2 1/2c cheese mixture, 3 noodles, 2c beef, 3 noodles, remaining cheese mixture, 3 noodles, remaining beef. Sprinkle mozzarella on top. Freeze. Thaw in the refrigerator at least 24 hours. Bake, covered at 375 for 45 minutes then uncover and bake 20 minutes until cheese is browned.

Shepherd's Pie
1 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground lamb
1c chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1c frozen peas, thawed
1 can chickpeas
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2tsp salt
1/2tsp dried thyme
1/4tsp ground pepper
1tbs flour
1(14 oz) can stewed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
2tbs red wine vinegar
2 1/2lbs potatoes
1c milk
1pkg cheese

Boil then mash potatoes with milk and cheese. Brown beef in skillet over medium-high heat. Using beef drippings, saute onion, carrot, celery, until soft. Stir in beef, peas, and other ingredients and cook briefly on medium high stirring constantly. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, and vinegar and cook 5 min until slightly thickened. Transfer to a lightly greased 3qt baking dish. Cover with mashed potatoes and cheese. Freeze. Thaw in the refrigerator at least 24 hours. Bake at 400 loosely covered for 25 minutes, uncovered for 25 minutes.

Chicken and Rice Casserole
1 (6.9 oz) pkg uncle ben's wild rice
1tbs butter
2c chicken broth
shredded meat from 1 roasted chicken
1c sliced mushrooms
1/2tsp garlic powder
3/4c sour cream
1/4tsp pepper
1 (10 oz) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1/4c crushed multigrain crackers (about 6 crackers)
1tbs butter, melted

Cook wild rice with chicken broth, stopping with rice a bit undercooked. Saute mushrooms, garlic. Mix chicken, vegetables, rice mix, sour cream, and spices. Spoon into a lightly greased 2qt casserole dish and freeze. Freeze separately cracker crumbs and 1 tbs shredded frozen butter. Thaw in the refrigerator at least 24 hours. Add cracker crumb topping and bake at 350 for 35 minutes or until thoroughly heated. 
Salsa Verde Enchiladas
1 roasted chicken, shredded
1 jar (8 oz) mild salsa verde
1 can refried beans
1/2 c chicken broth
6 green onions (thinly sliced)
1/2 c cilantro (chopped)
1/4 c lime juice
1 pkg frozen spinach
16 corn tortillas
1 (8oz) container sour cream
1/2 pkg (8oz) queso fresco

Grease 2 aluminum baking dishes. Shred meat from chickens (6 c). Stir in 1/2 c salsa verde. Boil remaining salsa verde, green onions, lime juice, and 2 tbs cilantro for 2 min then keep warm over low heat. Use tongs to dip each tortilla into salsa mix for 10 sec, place on wax paper, fill with some spinach, 1/3 c shredded chicken, and some refried beans, roll up and place seam down into greased baking dish. Stir sour cream and broth into salsa verde mixture and spoon over filled tortillas. Sprinkle 1 c cheese and 1tbs cilantro over each. Cover with aluminum foil, cool and freeze. To reheat, loosen cover and heat at 350F for 45 min then uncover and heat 15 min longer.

Butternut Squash Risotto
4c cubed butternut squash
shredded meat from 1 roast chicken
1/4 c butter
1 onion, minced
2c Arborio rice
2/3 c dry white wine
5 c chicken stock
1/2 c grated parmesan
salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg to taste

Cut squash in half, remove seeds, and roast squash at 350 for 20 min or until tender. Remove and mash with a fork. Saute onions in butter on medium high until soft, stir in rice and cook about 5 min until rice is glossy and onion begins to brown. Add white wine and cook stirring constantly until evaporated. Add mashed squash and 1/3 chicken stock. Reduce heat to medium, and cook about 7 min until broth is absorbed, add 1/2 remaining chicken stock and stir until absorbed. Remove from heat with rice under-cooked, add remaining stock, shredded chicken, parmesan, salt, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cool and freeze. Thaw in refrigerator at least 24 hours. Reheat by sautéing until smooth and creamy.

1 tbs olive oil
1 lb smoked sausage (cut in 1/4" slices)
1 onion (chopped)
1 green bell pepper (1c chopped)
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes with juice
1c uncooked rice
2c chicken broth
1 tbs minced garlic
1/2 tsb Cajun seasoning
3 bay leaves
1/4 tsp dried thyme leaves
salt to taste

Heat olive oil over medium heat in cast iron skillet. Add sausage and cook for 2 min then add onion, and bell pepper. Season with salt and Cajun seasoning. Stir 6-8 min until vegetables are soft. Stir in rice until evenly coated with veggie mixture. Pour in tomatoes with juice, garlic, chicken broth, and herbs. Bring to a simmer over medium high heat then reduce to medium low, cover, and simmer 20 min. Cool then freeze. Thaw in refrigerator at least 24 hours. Reheat on medium heat in cast iron skillet.

Meatloaf with Spinach and Mushrooms
2 tbs olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 c ketchup
1/4 c brown sugar
4 tsp vinegar
2 large eggs
1/2 c milk
2 tsp dijon mustard
2 tsp Worcestershire
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp Tabasco
2/3 lb ground beef
2/3 lb ground pork
2/3 lb ground lamb
2/3 c crushed saltines
1/3 c minced fresh parsley
8 oz mushrooms
1 pkg frozen chopped spinach

Saute onion in oil until translucent then add thyme and garlic for just a moment and set aside to cool. Saute mushrooms with spinach and set aside to cool. Mix ketchup, brown sugar and vinegar, label and set aside. Thoroughly mix ground meats, parsley, sautéed onions and remaining wet ingredients. Roll into a rectangle approx. 18"x8". Spread vegetable mixture evenly over meat leaving 1/2" edge. Roll up meat and veggies. Freeze loaf bundled with ketchup topping. Thaw at least 24 hours in the fridge. Pour topping over loaf and cook in baking pan at 350F for 1 hour or until browned and juices run clear.


Lisa G. said...

Oh wow!!! I'm tired just looking at this post! But I'm definitely coming back to it in January just before the baby is due. Food is the #1 expense we have after a new baby is born and I haven't been prepared with the other 2. This time around, I'm going to try this! Thanks!!

Mandi @ Catholic Newlywed said...

What a great post! Since I'm a vegetarian, not all of these recipes will work for my family, but I am definitely going to try to get the vegetarian chili stuff ready in the next week or so. Our freezer is so small that we can't freeze full dishes, but the chopped vegetables should fit in there just fine! Thanks for this post!

Meghan said...

Thanks Lisa and Mandi! We moved 3 weeks before our first was born and weren't able to prepare much in advance. It feels really nice to be more prepared this time around! Mandi, we're (obviously) not vegetarian but I'm trying to move towards a meat-optional (instead of meat-centered) way of cooking. The recipes for Chicken Tortilla Soup and Beef and Vegetable Lasagna, in my opinion, are just as good without the meat.

Lucy The Valiant said...

Wow! How awesome to be so prepared! I planned to do this before both of my daughters were born, but I didn't accomplish it at all!

Burcu said...

I was blown away with your mushroom barley lentil stew, I can't thank you enough for it, we loved it as a family! I was wondering the recipe :) Thanks for sharing the rest, I can't wait to try the rest! You're really an amazing mother and wife Meghan...