Unfortunately, many of us are very busy in our daily lives whether that be due to work, school, or driving the kids to soccer, which can make it difficult to have the time to prepare healthy homemade meals on a regular basis. Now of course there are healthy meals you can prepare very quickly, but there is something different about a hot, made-from-scratch meal that just can't be beat! If you follow WHITTY NUTRITION on facebook or twitter you would have already gotten a hint about what this week's post is about. I suggested yesterday that I had come up with a solution on how to make homemade meals convenient and readily available all through the winter. I don't know about you guys, but when I get home from work at 5:30 or 6:00 pm, in January, in the dark, my desire to switch on the stove and cook a meal for an hour isn't always there. The solution? Freezer meals!
Now I realize that freezer meals are not an original WHITTY NUTRITION idea and that pinterest is overflowing with recipes but how do we get from 'Great idea! I should try that sometime!' to action?
Let's start with some of the reasons you SHOULD take action:
- For 1 - 2 days of work you can make enough meals to cover those busy work day dinners for months!
- Freezer meals save you money - big time. Many of the staples needed for freezer meals such as vegetables, meat, beans, chicken stock, BBQ sauce, etc are cheaper when you buy in bulk (think Costco). Not to mention, having a good stockpile of freezer meals means not having to stop in at the drive-through or pizza place to pick up a last-minute, not-so-nutritious dinner which can quickly blow the household grocery budget.
- They are EASY to make. Freezer meals don't have to be super fancy or complicated. For example, throwing a few pork chops in a bag with some of your favorite BBQ sauce is all it takes to have a complete meal ready with little hassle (throw together a quick salad and 'voila' dinner is served)!
- They mean more time for yourself and your family. Instead of coming home after a long day and cooking for an hour, you can now spend that time with your kids, reading your favorite magazine to relax after work, or getting a few chores done around the house.
Do I need to go on? I'm sure all of us can think of 10 reasons why it would be great to have a freezer full of ready-to-go meals so I'll stop there, and instead let's shift our focus to how you CAN get that freezer stocked.
These are some of the things I feel are important to know before you start any freezer meal project and things I have learned from my various attempts!
- Firstly, it's a BIG task. Don't fool yourself into thinking that you're just gonna whip through Costco, chop some veggies, seal some bags, and be ready for a cup of tea by 4. Not. Gonna. Happen. Freezer meal making is a big commitment and although it's a short term one (usually 1 - 2 days), I find that in order to make it worth my while. I want to make as many meals as possible.
- It does involve some upfront costs. Your grocery bill for a freezer meal extravaganza will depend on how many ingredients you already have on hand (I suggest planning the meals you want to make around some of the things you already have around your home). It will also depend on how many meals you want to make and the cost of the groceries at the time of purchase (check for sales and discounted bulk purchases). Either way, plan to spend a little more than you normally would for a trip to the grocery store - I promise it will pay off later!
- Decide whether you want to tackle the project on your own, with a group of others who also want to make freezer meals, or with an extra pair of helping hands! I have made freezer meals using several methods and found doing it completely solo was difficult but manageable, however I needed a whole weekend to completely finish. I also recently undertook a massive freezer meal day with my mom and sister and although it was amazing to have one person chop, one wash dishes, and one pack the food it was a LOT of work and you don't go home with quite as much since you are making meals for several households. The bonus of doing freezer meals with friends and family? It is a BLAST and a great way to spend quality time together. We cranked the music, snacked on some goodies, and laughed - a lot.
- Oh ya, and your kitchen will be a mess!
Don't we look like we're having fun? I swear we did get some actual work done!
The types of meals you choose to make is really only limited by your imagination. Don't get hung up making only one type of meal, try and include a few meat dishes, soups, vegetarian entrees, and don't overlook the benefits of having baking on hand. You can whip up quite a few muffins, cookies, or homemade granola bars in a day, which makes breakfast time a breeze for months to come!
If your not sure what kinds of foods can be frozen, check out this link to a great blog all about freezer meals! http://www.favoritefreezerfoods.com/foods-that-can-freeze-well.html The woman who writes it has about a million great ideas!
So here's an idea of what a typical 'Freezer Meal Day" might look like:
1) Clean out your freezer and make sure you have room for all your freezer meals. There is no sense in keeping old, freeze dried food that you are never going to eat. Take this opportunity to clean and organize your freezers so that the meals you worked so hard on can be easily accessibly when you want to use them!
2) Plan ahead, create a list of recipes you want to make, and figure out which ingredients you already have on hand and the ones you will need to purchase. Don't forget you will need lots of freezer bags and a permanent marker!
Here is an example of how I set up my list of recipes and shopping lists. I like to include the recipes all on separate sheets to make it easy during the cooking process and so I don't need a ton of different cookbooks open at once. The picture on the right shows some of the tallies of what we made - remember to be flexible. It's ok to change your mind or cross things off the list if you run out of time!
5) Start making meals! Organize yourself so you prepare meals that require similar vegetables, sauces, or seasonings at once. This way you don't have to keep putting things away and then taking them out again. It also saves on dish washing which is a huge bonus! I usually start with chopping up any veggies I will need, making the required sauce, and then packing the entrees in bags. I start with all of my meat dishes and get them in the freezer asap and then do any baking last. Make sure you wash everything thoroughly to avoid cross contamination!
It's helpful to have large bowls (or in this case a tub!) and large pots for multiplying recipes.
We got very good at tackling 3 recipes at once - here we are making 3 blueberry muffin recipes simultaneously!
6) Freeze everything flat in plastic bags or containers to maximize space.
Here is an example of how a freezer meal can easily come together on a weeknight for a complete meal the whole family will love!
If possible, it's always better to take out the freezer meal you are planning to make the night before. If you forget however, just place in COLD water for 20 or so minutes (which can be done while you are getting ready in the morning) and then pop in the slow cooker. I usually set my slow cooker to low and let the meals cook for 6 - 8 hours. For the days when you forget this first step however, most freezer meals can be tossed in the oven for 30 - 40 minutes when you get home from work.
Here is an example of how I might make frozen meatballs into a full meal. I just boiled and mashed some potatoes, steamed some frozen broccoli for 5 minutes and as an added bonus I broiled 1/2 a whole wheat bun with some low fat cheese. Serve this with a glass of milk and you are good to go!
I know this week's post was extremely long but I hope it gives you some idea of why you SHOULD and how you CAN make freezer meals this winter! Making nutritious choices involves pre-planning so that the nutritious choice is more convenient than the not-so-nutritious choice. When we come home hungry from work and we are searching for our next meal, we have no willpower to make healthy choices. So instead, toss one of your freezer meals into the slow cooker in the morning so you don't need any willpower to avoid that frozen pizza for dinner (unless you made it yourself as one of your freezer meals)!
Most importantly, and above all, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT forget to turn on your slow cooker! There is nothing worse than thinking about the smell of a delicious pot roast cooking while you are at work only to come home to a half frozen, no-longer-safe-to-eat, hunk of meat. Now what are you waiting for?!
Start planning a freezer meal project of your own - Happy Freezing!