Can I tell you about my new hobby? I've recently discovered the joy of freezer cooking, and I find it strangely satisfying.
Here's the thing: making dinner has never really been one of my favorite things. I thought this would change once I started working from home, since I now have the flexibility to start dinner whenever it's convenient instead of doing it the second I rush in the door (plus I'm working fewer hours), but it really hasn't. And while I don't really dig making dinner, I do like a relatively healthy, home cooked meal every night (and so does my husband). Eating tons of take out and/or convenience meals from the grocery store just isn't going to happen in our house. Over the years, I've honed my own personal cooking style (basically, I like things that can be made in one pot or pan), so I have to say we've been eating pretty well.
However, the whole "putting dinner on the table thing with a newborn in the mix" had me a little freaked out. I imagine this might not be so daunting for someone who actually enjoys being in the kitchen, or maybe if you have a husband who loves cooking and doesn't mind being in charge of dinner, or maybe you have 30 BFFs who are all just dying to participate in a massive meal train for you post-partum. Since none of these are true for me, I decided to look into the two allies of busy families everywhere: freezer cooking and crock-pots (or slow cookers). I'll save my thoughts on crock-pots for another post.
Once I got going on this little project, I was surprised at how much I liked it. It was almost fun! So now I'm kinda hooked on freezer cooking.
Here's my approach and what I learned along the way:
Find recipes and make a plan. My main resources for recipes were Fix, Freeze, Feast (someone in my due date group on Ravelry shared when the Kindle edition went on sale for a few bucks, but after having seen the whole thing I think it is worth paying full price for) and recipes that are already in heavy rotation at our house. Of course, you can find tons of ideas on Pinterest (check out my freezer cooking board). There's also Once a Month Meals, which I'm considering purchasing a membership for. Although you can freeze just about anything, I prefer recipes that include freezing and cooking/reheating instructions because it takes all the guess work out of the process. But you might be more adventurous than me (or just better at cooking). However skilled you are (or aren't) in the kitchen, I would caution you not to get too creative. Unless you're the type of person who will eat anything, I wouldn't stock your freezer with all new-to-you recipes, especially if each recipe makes multiple meals. What a waste of time and money if you end up not liking something! Start with some of your favorite dishes (I love this vegetable enchilada recipe from Martha Stewart, and as a luck would have it, it's freezer friendly) and some basics (like lasagna) that are hard to mess up. Also, don't forget about breakfast and snacks! Good nutrition definitely plays into successful breast feeding, so if that's your goal it's worth it to think about nutritious breakfast items you can freeze, too.
Clean out your freezer and/or buy a deep freezer. We have a French-door refrigerator that I love, but the two freezer drawers don't seem particularly spacious. Although I was able to get several meals in the freezer, I was going to run out of room before I ran out of enthusiasm for freezer meals. Fortunately, deep freezers are suprisingly affordable (we bought a 7 cubic foot GE for around $250) and we had room for one in our garage. Despite the affordability, it was a little hard to part with the cash at a time when we were shelling out so much for baby essentials. However, as I was hemming and hawing, my husband asked if I felt the freezer would ultimately pay for itself. Since I knew what was likely to happen if I didn't have a bunch of ready-made meals (lots of dinners out and/or pizza delivery), I felt that it would... and then purchasing it became an easy decision. I'm sure it would be pretty easy to find a deep freezer on Craig's List if you wanted to be especially thrifty. And really, if you don't want to get a deep freezer and if you can only find space for 5 freezer meals, 5 meals are better than none!
Gather supplies and cooking gear. Unless you have a massive Pyrex collection, you'll want to stock up on foil pans. Apparently, the dollar store is the place to buy these, though I didn't learn that until later in the game. I will definitely be hitting up a dollar store once I exhaust my supply of foil pans purchased at the grocery store. You'll also want good quality plastic bags (I like Ziploc because they are recyclable, which helps me feel less guilty about the extra waste that freezer cooking produces), foil and a Sharpie (for labeling everything with the contents, date and cooking instructions; I like the really fine point Sharpie pens for writing on labels). I had some cute labels (from Martha Stewart and The Small Object; the ones from The Small Object are no longer available but you could make something similar), but they aren't necessary (obviously) and I mostly just used them because I had them. If you've made your menu plan well in advance, you can also start watching the ads and clipping coupons for non-perishable items, like tomato sauce or black beans, that you'll need in bulk.
As for actual food prep, you'll definitely want a huge mixing bowl; I have this 6.34 quart Martha Stewart mixing bowl and it proved itself to be very handy when making large batches of freezer meals.
Don't be too ambitious. I know it's possible to make a month of dinners in an afternoon, but it's probably not a good idea to plan on this happening if you're tackling this project at 9 months pregnant. Being on your feet for long periods of time as you get close to your due date is tough, even if you've been feeling pretty good throughout your last trimester (as I did). I aimed for one recipe a day, which was manageable and still very productive since one recipe is usually at least a couple of meals, if not more. Similarly, I wouldn't shop for too many meals at one time, lest you go into labor and end up with $200-300 of groceries languishing in your refrigerator that was meant for freezer meals.
Get cooking (be wary of baby brain). Once I got pretty close to being full-term, I made double batches of some of our favorite meals (like chili) and froze whatever we didn't eat for dinner. This is a really easy way to get some meals put away. I also had a few prep sessions where I specifically made freezer meals.
What I made:
- Spinach tortellini soup - this is a recipe of my mom's that I should share sometime because it's delicious, but the carrots in the soup didn't freeze so well, so I wouldn't recommend it as a freezer meal
- Vegetarian chili
- Vegetable enchiladas
- Tortilla soup with black beans
- Bean and cheese burritos - these are so cheap and easy, I made 50+. They are pretty small though, so we went through them pretty quickly.
- Vegetable lasagna - from Fix, Freeze, Feast
- Manicotti - from Fix, Freeze, Feast. I really liked this recipe. I ended up with 6 manicotti per pan, which is the perfect amount for one meal for me and my husband. We did find that the cooking instructions weren't quite accurate (and our oven tends to run hot); add another 20 minutes or so if you're cooking from frozen.
- Breakfast burritos - from Fix, Freeze, Feast. In Texas we call these breakfast tacos, but whatever. I left out the ham and subbed plain yogurt for the sour cream since I had it on hand from another recipe. I also found this made about 30 tacos rather than 20, but it's possible I was using smaller tortillas.
- Granola - from Fix, Freeze, Feast. I only ended up with 6 1-quart bags rather than 8, but that could have been because I left out the wheat germ and sesame seeds.
- Breakfast sandwiches - I used a jumbo muffin pan to cook the eggs in the oven, it worked out really well. I skipped the ham and just did egg and cheese. I really hate bites of egg that are pure yolk, even if it's cooked, so if I make these again I'll either just do egg whites or use Egg Beaters. I also wrapped each sandwich in foil after the saran wrap. I reheat these in the oven at 400 for about 20 minutes.
- Pumpkin bread - Originally I had planned to make the pumpkin muffins from Fix, Freeze, Feast, but had trouble finding several of the ingredients. I'd already bought two cans of pumpkin, so I made 3 loaves of this pumpkin bread from Good Housekeeping.
- Smoothies - After seeing a pin on Pinterest, I bought a bunch of these plastic Ball freezer jars in both the 8 ounce and 16 ounce size. My husband has been making up a big batch of smoothies on the weekends and stashing them in the freezer to eat throughout the week. It's so much easier than trying to make a fresh smoothie every day (and the blender only has to be washed once). He likes to dump in whatever fresh and frozen fruit we have on hand, plus milk and orange juice. We defrost them in the fridge overnight or for an hour or so on the counter. The jars are microwave safe but microwaving plastic is something I avoid doing at all costs.
A note on baby brain: it's real, and if you're approaching your due date, you know what I'm talking about. I made a few silly mistakes while cooking (totally screwing up the enchilada sauce I've made a dozen times, forgetting to add salt and pepper to another recipe). Fortunately, they were all easily correctable, but it was still frustrating. So just be mindful and double-check yourself (especially when you are doubling a recipe).
Know what's in your freezer. Particularly if you have a deep freezer that's in the garage and not as easily accessible, it's helpful to keep a freezer inventory. That way you know what you've got and whether you might want to whip up a batch of corn bread to go with chili and send someone out to the store for salad ingredients to accompany your mancotti.
We're nearing the end of our frozen food stash, but I'm trying to figure out how I can get another bunch of meals put away. It really does make dinner time so much easier, especially since babies tend to be fussier in the evenings.
If you have any favorite freezer meal recipes, please share in the comments!