We are in the final few weeks before Baby arrives – eeeek! (Honestly, sitting here at 38 weeks, I sure wouldn’t mind if he made his appearance any time now!) This pregnancy has flown by…in fact, I can still remember thinking during Henry’s first week of full-time school back in September that I had SO much time to knock out a ton of to-dos before my due date rolled around. From a bunch of organization projects in our new house and designing my soon-to-launch kitchen printables to finishing the nursery and sewing a bunch of fun things for baby, perhaps my expectations were set a bit high. #guilty On top of everything else I had planned, I also really wanted to have a fully stocked freezer of healthy, wholesome and easy meals that we could eat in the first few weeks after Baby’s arrival. While I had very high hopes that I would do some massive freezer meal preparations, I was just never able to carve out the time in our busy schedule to make it happen. But that doesn’t mean we are wholly unprepared! Today, I thought I’d show you my easy and practical approach for stocking the freezer before baby arrives without having to do a massive shopping/prepping marathon. Whether you have a baby coming too or would just like to dip your toe into having a better stocked freezer, hopefully these tips will get you moving in the right direction!
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First, let me preface this post with the disclaimer that I am NOT a freezer meal maven. If you’re looking for some serious freezer meal tactics, I’m not your girl. In general, I don’t like to have too much stocked up because 1) we don’t have a ton of freezer space; 2) I don’t like stocking up on things that will never get eaten (i.e., forgotten things stuffed in the back of the freezer); and 3) doing massive shopping/prep sessions overwhelm me. That said, baby coming or not, it’s always handy to have a few meals in the freezer ready to go for busy (or lazy!) nights, and I have found some great ways to keep a steady stock at all times.
What’s My Secret?
It’s pretty simple:
Whenever I make something that freezes well, I double/triple the recipe and freeze the extra into additional meals.
Yep. It’s that straight-forward and simple. Whenever I am making a meal, in our regular meal rotation, that I know freezes/re-cooks really well, I will simply double or triple the recipe while I am making it. We have one “serving” for dinner that night, and then I package and freeze what’s remaining (usually before it’s cooked) into meals that are suitably sized for our family. Here are a few quick reasons why I love this approach so much:
- There is very little extra work. Oftentimes, a full recipe is enough to make 2-3 meals for just Greg and I. Instead of half-ing the recipe for our small family OR eating extras as leftovers, I’ll package up the meal (before cooking/baking) into smaller meals to stock the freezer. And if a single recipe isn’t quite enough for a additional meals, doubling or tripling it rarely requires extra work. If I am making something labor intensive (like lasagna or stuffed chicken), I might as well make it worth my time and make as much of it as I can!
- I don’t need to shop for lots of extra ingredients. Frequently, making a recipe leaves me with extra or leftover ingredients. By doubling/tripling the recipe, I use up what I’ve bought for that recipe rather than letting it sit in the fridge/pantry (where it will often expire before I get a chance to use it up).
- I don’t need to carve out extra kitchen time. I don’t particularly enjoy meal prep as it is, so I certainly don’t want to spend a random/full day in the kitchen if I don’t have to. As such, I only double/triple recipes at the time I am already preparing them for that day/night’s meal. Again, if it’s time I am already planning on spending in the kitchen, why not make the most of it!
My Favorite Freezable Recipes
The internet is FULL of handbooks, workbooks, cookbooks and round-ups of the “best” freezer meals. So if you are trying to really get into freezer meals, I would suggest searching “Freezer Meal Cooking” on Pinterest. As much as knocking out a ton of meals all at once kind of appeals to me…it works better for me and our family when I simply stick to meals we already make and love and just prepare extra of them. As such, I suggest you go through your recipes and identify ones that freeze well and start there. If you need some ideas or are just curious, here are the recipes/meals I find myself freezing over and over:
- Lasagna – I typically make a single recipe of my Mom’s lasagna and split it into 3 mini versions using these freezer-safe and over-safe dishes.
- Real Simple’s Baked Ziti – I love this recipe because it makes a TON (easily 2-3 meals), is easy to make, and nutritious!
- Creamy Rosemary Penne Pasta Bake – This one is pretty labor intensive and requires ingredients I don’t often buy. So whenever I make it, I triple it and freeze up the extra into disposable baking pans.
Other Freezable Dishes
- Rachel Ray’s Lazy Greek Chicken – We LOVE this chicken dish, but I find the recipe labor intensive. As such, I will typically prepare/stuff 6-10 chicken breasts at a time and then wrap them and freeze them individually (before they are cooked). Once thawed, they cook in just 20 minutes. I then pair them with freezer rolls and a bagged salad to get a nutritious meal on the table without having to really cook!
- Pulled BBQ Chicken/Beef/Pork – A single recipe usually makes enough for several meals. Since this one is typically cooked before you package it up, all you have to do is heat it up in a microwave and pair with buns and a bagged salad for dinner! I often do a big recipe in the crock pot and then package up 2-3 serving portions into Ziplock bags and store them flat (less bulk!).
- Slow Cooker Asian Chicken (for lettuce wraps) – I make this recipe ALL the time. Not only is it quick and easy (hello crockpot!) but it makes a lot and freezes well. It’s a nice change to pastas and other dishes that typically come from the freezer. Once heated up, I just serve it with lettuce leaves and cut up veggies. Couldn’t be easier!
- Sausage & Beef Barley Soup – This is another recipe that makes a ton without even doubling it, making all the chopping and browning of meat worth it. We usually get 3-4 meals from a single recipe and it’s also my go-to for families who just had a baby!
- Chili – Obviously.
- Meatloaf – I typically load extra meatloaf mixture into a muffin tray to freeze it into individual portions. (Once frozen, I transfer the “meatloaf muffins” into a Ziplock bag for storage). To prepare, I pop as many as we need back into a muffin tin, thaw, and bake according to recipe directions.
This is one of my favorite tricks and really makes getting dinner on the table fast! A lot of the dishes I make are pastas or stir-frys that taste “fancy” because of a sauce that is simply added to basic ingredients at the very end. I have a few I now make all the time; and when I do…yep…I make them in bulk and freeze them in small containers or bags. Here are my go-tos that will get a lot of love in the coming weeks:
- Rachel Ray’s Artichoke Pesto – We make this in big batches while I have the food processor out. We’ve found it is best served tossed with a hearty pasta (like penne), arugula or spinach, and chunks of Italian sausage.
- Rachel Ray’s Thai Peanut Sauce – I only use this recipe to make the sauce (again, in big batches). Instead of using it with noodles, we toss it with a stir fry of chicken, onions, carrots, spinach all over brown rice. We easily have this 2-3/month, as it’s my “go to” when I have no energy to cook.
- Chicken Spaghetti Sauce – We tend to rely on off-the-shelf jars of spaghetti sauce when we’re doing meatballs or sausages. But a few times a year, I will make my Mom’s Chicken Spaghetti Sauce in large batches and store it in smaller portions. I like this recipe a lot because the meat is already in the sauce so all I have to do is cook some noodles (rather than also cook the meatballs, sausage, etc).
Items I Rely On for Storing Freezer Meals
Over the past few weeks/months, I have been slowly adding to our freezer inventory with many of these dishes. I can’t say I’ve made them all (however some ARE on our list for THIS week!). Some are waiting to for when baby arrives, but others have already been eaten because this Mama has been a bit too tired to cook in recent weeks! Still, I thought I’d show you the items I rely on over and over when putting meals into our freezer:
- Glass Snapware – I LOOOVE these. They are small and sturdy, making them ideal for packing up 2-3 serving sized dishes of casseroles, soups and more. I love that they are both freezer- and oven-safe so (once the food is thawed as necessary), I don’t have to transfer dishes before cooking/baking!
- Disposable Bakeware – I’ve started storing casseroles and other things that need to go into the oven into disposable tins in recent weeks. Not only am I running out of my glassware, but the fewer dishes the better once baby arrives!
- Gallon and Quart Freezer Bags – Soups and sauces are best stored flat (for less bulk), and I find the Ziplock freezer bags NEVER drip or leak. I also use the Gallon versions overtop my glass and disposable baking pans for extra protection from freezer burn.
- Tin Foil – Not only can lids be bulky and breakable (especially on the disposable pans), but so many caseroles need to be covered in tin foil for baking. I often skip the included lids, cover the pan in tin foil and then add a Ziplock bag for good freezer protection + easy stacking.
- Dry-Erase Markers – I label my freezer items in various ways (I’ll show you here in a sec!), but for any of my glassware/plastic lids, I love using dry-erase markers. Not only are they quick and easy to grab and scribble the contents directly onto the containers, but they wipe/wash off pretty easily once you’ve eaten the freezer dish.
- Avery 5264 Labels – Sometimes a scribble on a lid isn’t quite sufficient to describe the contents and cooking instructions of a meal to so I often rely on these easy-to-print labels. More on these below.
- Freezer Inventory and Labels – Depending on how much you freeze and store, keeping track of your freezer meals can be just as important as making and labeling them! So that I don’t need to hunt through my freezer every time I put together a meal plan, my freezer inventories have become a handy part of my freezer meal system (more below!).
Labeling My Freezer Meals
(These labels are now available HERE!)
I LOOOOVE having a bunch of these labels printed out and tucked into my Kitchen Binder, ready whenever I need them. When I prepare a meal for the freezer, I simply fill out a label and stick it right onto the Ziplock bag for the corresponding dish. (Note – I found these labels don’t peel off the plastic lids cleanly, so applying them to a disposable cover is a better bet!). No more mysterious dishes in the back of the freezer OR having to look up the recipe once it’s time for cooking!
For my small glass dishes that often contain sauces or small servings, I often just grab a dry erase marker and write the contents directly on the lid. A simple wipe with a wet sponge gets the words off every time!
Keeping Track of Freezer Meals with an Inventory
As I have mentioned in recent months, I’ve been working hard to create a series of systems and printables to help make my meal planning and prep easier. You’re going to find out all the details here soon, but one of the main things I wanted was to be able to plan out our meals without having to really hunt and peck around the house for all my recipes and meals already on hand. As such, keeping track of what meals, what servings, and how many are on hand has been super helpful. As I make each meal and package it up for the freezer, I simply add it to the inventory in my binder. When I sit down to plan out our weekly meals, I can see at-a-glance what is still on hand as we eat things up! UPDATE: (These printables are now available HERE!)
(These inventory sheets are now available HERE!)
I have some more cooking and stocking I want to get done in the next few weeks, which is why our meal plan for this week is mostly dishes that freeze really well! Even without a massive cooking day, I can take comfort in knowing I have a tried-and-true method for getting some meals into our freezer. Do you prepare meals for your freezer? What kinds of methods do you use? Any tips to share? Be sure to chime in in the comments!
I hope you all have a great weekend! Next week will be my last week of posts before I take some time off for the holidays/baby (that is if he doesn’t come sooner!). I’m hoping to (finally) show you some glimpses of our holiday home, as well as launch this year’s reader survey. See you back here soon!
P.S. Need some meal planning tips? Check out these really popular resources!
Posted In 6 - Kitchen, California '16, Conquer Your Kitchen, Kitchen, Meal Planning, Organization, Storage Solutions, Tips & Tricks