Last week, on an absolute whim, I decided it was time to try my hand at freezer meals. I figured if I could learn to declutter the rest of my day, it was time to simplify supper time. It happened innocently enough: I was making chicken & dressing for dinner and realized I’d made way too much for us for one meal. I thought “why not put half in the freezer?” I’d done it before with lasagna, so I knew it would mean the meal would hold a pan hostage for a few weeks, so I decided to pop over to the dollar store and buy some aluminum pans to put the second batch of dressing into so I would have a ready made meal without losing a pan.
The trip to the dollar store led to me finding 15 different kinds of pans, which got my wheels to turning… I could buy a few (I think I bought $10 worth at 3/$1) and stock up on meals of all different kinds. I left with my pans, went straight to the grocery store, bought up a ton of stuff that I knew I could normally cook with (like chicken breast, hamburger, veggies, etc.) and then went home and started a four hour cooking marathon that ended up with 28 meals in my freezer.
When I was finished, I mentioned it on Facebook, and there were lots of questions about what I made, recipe requests, and even tips for what I did. So I thought I’d write a post to share with you how I made 28 freezer meals in about 4 hours.
Before I get started, I’m going to tell you this post will be long…. very long. I could have easily broken this into a dozen or so smaller posts, but this is a DIY blog, not a freezer meals blog, so I figured my regular (non-freezer-meal-loving) readers will hang with me for one post – if I started posting all of this separately you might think I was nutso and quit reading. Please don’t. Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about lighting or sewing or something, m’kay? And also, know I’m not a professional cook – I’m a southern mom who’s raised four children and they’ve grown up on eating this food. I stuck to the basic recipes that we have eaten for years – so I knew what my family would actually eat.
First, the tips (in no particular order):
1) Make sure your kitchen is clean to start. You don’t want to have to clean then cook, because you’re going to be washing dishes while cooking at a rapid fire pace. At least I was. I only have a few pots and pans, a few mixing bowls, a couple of whisks, etc. I don’t have a fully outfitted kitchen big enough for an army. On a regular basis I feed four people – so my kitchen reflects our needs.
2) Think about what you want to stock up on. I know we eat a lot of chicken meals, some with hamburger, and a lot of casserole type meals. You can start with what’s in your pantry and build from there. It’s a great way to make the most of what you have/
3) Clean your freezer. I only have the freezer on my side by side refrigerator. I have had a couple of different deep freezers in the past, but they never got used properly, so I got rid of them. I thoroughly cleaned out my freezer and found that once it was all cleaned up, not only did I have enough room for all those meals, I even had a leftover shelf to fill with my favorite ice cream (which I totally did.)
4) Stock up on freezer bags and aluminum pans. Those 3/$1 pans come in all shapes and sizes. I bought ones that hold about 2 pounds of food, because 4 people divided by 2 pounds is 8 ounces each. That’s plenty for the main dish for us. Buy good plastic baggies (I recommend Ziploc) in both gallon and quart size.
5) Wear comfortable shoes. I did it barefoot and my feet were killing me at the end of four hours.
6) Have help, if you can. I wish I had done it on a Sunday when my girls were home to help wash dishes, open cans, etc. I did the bulk of the work when they were at school, but by the last hour I had help and it made my life much easier.
7) Remember this isn’t a fairy tale. Half way through you’re going to start thinking “Why in the crap did I think this was a good idea?!?” Well, at least I did. When you’re up to your elbows in marinara and casseroles, putting stuff into pans over and over again, you’re going to question the whole mess. It’s worth it. Well, it was for me anyways.
8) Sharpies are your friend. You can mark every meal with the name and date, so if you have a straggler hanging around in your freezer 2 years later (which may or may not happen here), then you don’t have to wonder when it was made or what in the Sam Hill is in that dish. Plus, with the lids on, they’re all going to look the same. Sharpie it up, baby.
9) Prep in batches. Need onion for 4 recipes? Chop it all at once to make your life easier. Poach all your chicken in one pot (which will also give you some decent broth). Brown all of your hamburger together then divide it out for the different meals. If you’ve got to do a lot of it, do it all together.
10) Free pep talk. I think that’s all my tips, but wanted to throw in one more to just say if you really want to do this you TOTALLY can. Once again, I have a basic set of pots and pans plus one large stock pot, a couple of mixing bowls (one large, one medium), a few wooden spoons and some whisks. Plus ten is a good stopping point, which my OCD brain appreciates.
Now for the cooking segment….
I started by putting 5 packs of chicken breasts (15 pieces total) in a stock pot with water, to boil them all for the meals I needed. I used the biggest pot I had and boiled them all.
While the chicken was cooking, I used another pot and began to brown 12 pounds of ground beef (in a smaller stock pot.) Once all the ground beef was cooked, I drained it all and added 1/4 of it back to the pot to make my marinara.
Meat Marinara Recipe
3 pounds ground beef, cooked and strained
1 medium onion, diced finely
4 cloves of garlic, minced
4 large cans of crushed tomatoes
1 12 oz. can tomato paste
1 huge (the double size) jar of good store bought marinara
1 Tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 Tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
Salt to taste (1 1/2 Tablespoons or so)
Pepper to taste (3/4 of a tablespoon)
To the ground beef, add in the garlic and onions and let cook until onions are soft. Add in the rest of the ingredients and cook for 45 minutes or so on medium heat, until flavors are combined.
I used the marinara to make 5 small lasagnas in 2.5 pound size aluminum pans.
Easy Lasagna Recipe
(makes 5 freezer meals)
Ricotta Cheese (largest tub)
1 large egg
1/2 Tablespoon ground black pepper
1 cup grated Parmesan
No bake lasagna noodles (2 boxes made all of mine)
Shredded mozzarella cheese (the bag kind totally works for me) – it’s hard to say how much, but I used about 10 cups total
In a small bowl mix together the ricotta, egg, pepper and Parmesan until thoroughly combined.
On the bottom of your pan, ladle in enough sauce to lightly coat the bottom of the pan with a thin layer. Using a small spoon or tablespoon scoop, add in dollops of the ricotta mixture (I did 5 drops on each layer, one on each corner and one in the middle). Add more marinara onto and around the ricotta, sprinkle a thin layer of mozzarella, then add another layer of noodles. Do three layers, topping it off the final layer of noodles with sauce and good layer mozzarella cheese and cover with cardboard top. Set aside to cool before putting in freezer.
When you’re ready to cook, take off the top, cover with aluminum foil and bake for 35 minutes at 375 degrees, take off aluminum and cook for an additional 10 minutes or until top is lightly browned and bubbly.
Add a salad and some garlic bread and you’ve got a meal in just a few minutes.
After I made my lasagna, I put the rest of the marinara into gallon Ziploc bags, two cups in each, then squished all the air off and froze them flat in the freezer. When I want to make spaghetti, I cook the noodles, warm the sauce, add a salad and some bread and I’m done.
Easy Chili Recipe
2 pounds of ground beef
1 onion, diced
3 cans of chili beans
1 can Rotel tomatoes
1 can of diced tomatoes (14 oz can)
2 packs of chili seasoning
1/2 table spoon salt
2 cups water
Put browned ground beef into a pan with onions and cook until onions are soft. Add in all the other ingredients (including the juice of the tomatoes) and cook for 30 minutes or so until flavors have combined.
It’s hard to measure, but I used two gallon bags to put in 1/3 of the mixture into each, and then split the rest up into a couple smaller quart bags for chili dogs or chili chips and cheese (things where chili is not the main meal.)
Easy Cheeseburger Casserole
(makes 3 freezer meals)
For the topping:
2 pounds of ground beef (again, mine was pre-cooked)
1 onion, diced very finely
Six cups Cheddar Cheese, grated
For the crust:
5 cups of self rising flour
3/4 cup of sour cream
1 cup (more or less) of water
In a saute pan, cook together the ground beef over medium high heat until onion is soft. Set aside to cool.
Make the crust first by combining the flour, egg, sour cream and enough water to bring it together into a thick, but spreadable consistency.
Spray the pans (I used three round pans) and spread a layer of the dough into each one. Sprinkle the cooled meat mixture over the dough, then top each one with about 2 cups of cheddar. Top with lid. To cook, bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until cheese is lightly browned and bubbly.
For a variation, you could put some of the marinara on the dough, and have a cheeseburger pizza casserole. We sometimes use marinara for dipping – it’s the perfect finger food!
For the rest of the ground beef, I divided it up into a couple of quart Ziploc bags for sloppy joes or tacos.
Now let’s work on the chicken recipes. I shredded all of the chicken and used it in several of the recipes below. After they were all made, I put the rest of the shredded chicken into quart size Ziploc bags and froze them flat for Chicken Tacos, BBQ Chicken sandwiches, etc.
Broccoli Cheddar Chicken Pasta Bake Recipe
(makes 3 freezer meals)
3 cooked, shredded chicken breasts
2 boxes of pasta (I used penne), cooked and draine
2 cans of Campbell’s cheddar soup
2 cups of chicken broth (I used the broth from cooking the chicken)
2 bags of frozen broccoli
1 Tablespoon Salt
3 cups of shredded cheddar
Combine all ingredients except shredded cheddar into a bowl, divide out into three pans, the top with cheddar cheese. When ready to cook, bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until warm and bubbly. Because I’m getting carbs, veggies and protein all in one dish, I usually add another veggie and some garlic bread and that’s it. So yummy!
Tex Mex Chicken Casserole
(makes 4 freezer meals)
4 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
8 cups of cooked rice
2 can of Rotel tomatoes
2 packs of taco seasoning
2 cans of whole kernel corn, drained
2 cans of black beans (undrained)
1 small can of black olives, drained
6 cups of cheddar cheese, grated
Mix together all of the ingredients in a bowl, except the cheese. Divide out into four pans, then top each with the cheddar cheese and top with cardboard topper. To cook, remove cardboard piece and bake at 350 until thoroughly heated and cheese is melted (all ingredients are already cooked, so it’s just a matter of heating it well.) I serve with sour cream and salsa on top and tortilla chips on the side.
Basic Chicken Casserole Recipe
(makes 3 casseroles)
4 shredded, cooked chicken breasts
5 cups of cooked rice
2 cans of cream of chicken condensed soup
1 cup of chicken broth
2 bags of frozen peas and carrots (I used mixed, but you could use one bag of each)
1 Tablespoon of salt
1/2 Tablespoon of black pepper
3 cup of French’s onions
3 cups of shredded cheddar cheese
In a small bowl, combine the cheese and onions together – set aside (for the topping)
In a large bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients together, then separate into pans. Top each one with 1/3 of the topping mixture and freeze. When ready to cook, bake at 350 until thoroughly warm and cheese is melted (everything is already cooked in the casserole.)
Edited to add:
Chicken & Dressing
(makes 3 freezer meals)
A big pan of cornbread (use your own fave recipe) cooked and crumbled
2 cans of cream of chicken soup
1 can of chicken broth
1 medium onion, finely diced & sauteed in butter
2 Tablespoons of ground sage
1 1/2 Tablespoons of salt
3/4 of a Tablespoon of ground black pepper
2 cups of cooked, shredded chicken
*you can also add a couple of stalks of celery, however we don’t like it – so my dressing doesn’t have it.*
Mix all of the ingredients together, put into pans and freeze. When you’re ready to cook, bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. Make sure to have chilled cranberry sauce and basic chicken gravy for the side, because that’s what a good southerner would do
My total freezer meals recipe stash:
2 bags of pre-made marinara (for spaghetti)
2 bags of chili (plus 2 additional small bags for chili dogs/nachos)
3 cheeseburger casseroles
3 broccoli cheddar chicken pasta bakes
4 Tex Mex chicken casseroles
3 basic chicken casseroles
2 bags of ground beef (ready for sloppy joes, etc.)
3 bags of shredded chicken breast (ready for tacos, etc.)
Plus the original Chicken & Dressing that started it all
Grand total – 28 meals (plus two small bags of chili)
If you get going, you can really crank out a lot of this very easily. I spent an hour at the grocery store (and spent $300 to produce all those meals, plus all of my other essentials for two weeks – so maybe $200 of it went into this), and spent four hours cooking to get all those meals into the freezer.
Will we eat these every night? Probably not. There are things my family likes that takes very little time to make and should really be made fresh (like potato soup.) These meals will probably last us two month total, if you take out a couple of nights a month to eat out, making fresh meals in between, etc. But those four hours basically gives me an easy meal every other night for two months. Totally worth it to me! I don’t know that I could force my family to eat lasagna five times in one month. But five times in two months is pretty realistic.
Now that I know what’s for dinner, I think I’m gonna go sew something… or paint a chair… or rearrange furniture. Whatever it is, something that’s way more in my comfort zone than making freezer meals.
And… because my awesome reader Paula put it together, I have added in the shopping list for the meal! I never thought to do it, so a big thanks to her for sharing it with us all Just click on the image below to open into a new browser, save to your computer and print. Easy peasy!
If you survived all the way to the bottom of the post and have questions,please leave them in the comments.
Just please don’t hate on me for feeding my kids cream of something soup – it’s good stuff!