Why? Well, because life happens.
Work meetings run later than expected, errands and home responsibilities keep us busy in off work hours and spending time with kids keeps us busy until after their bedtime…and then, POOF! it’s 8:30pm. Cooking a meal for 20-30 minutes then sitting down to eat at 9pm got really old. So did the very sad, monthly clean-out of the refrigerator where we filled half a large kitchen garbage bag with old, unused, slimy produce. When my mom and pop grocery store down the street was replaced with a Whole Foods, which was a blessing and a curse, those food-tossing sessions became more and more depre$$ing.
Enter, my love affair with the freezer.
If you want to learn how to maximize your freezer, save money and make healthy eating easy for a busy lifestyle…this is for you. You’ll learn how to stop throwing away produce, how to package and store your meals and how turn to take-out less. I’ll also share some of my family’s favorite freezer recipes. Warning: what you learn may make you want to go buy an extra freezer for your garage!
DON'T WASTE PRODUCE AGAIN...
Once a week, take stock of what you have in your refrigerator. If you won’t use it or it’s getting close to expiring, get it ready for the freezer! Here’s how:
1. Wash, chop and freeze fresh herbs. Often times, I’ll buy parsley or cilantro for a recipe but then, I’m left with extra. Make sure the herbs are washed and dried well, chop them and place in a small Ziplock freezer storage bag (Be sure to remove as much air as possible before you seal the bag. Simple trick: I seal the bag almost all the way and leave a small opening to suck, or vacuum, the air out. Please note that it’s best to freeze produce as early as possible if you know you won’t use it as the fresher it goes into the freezer, the fresher it comes out.
2. Have vegetables like squash, onion, fennel, celery and carrots sitting in your produce drawers?
- Prep them (peel, core, chop) and freeze them in large Ziplock freezer storage bags. When you want to use them, simply move them from the freezer to fridge the night before to let them thaw. Note: Depending on the water content in the veggies, this could leave you with soggy veggies 24 hours later. Sturdy veggies like squash tend to do just find with this method. Lettuce and watermelon are not great candidates for freezing!
- Another option, rather than freezing the close-to-expiring veggies, is to pop them in the oven and make my “Anything Goes Veggie Soup” (scroll down for recipe). I like to make the soup, bring it to room temp, then freeze it for later use.
3. Fruit is by far the easiest to “save”.
Apples, bananas, berries, cherries, grapes, melon…really, anything (lower the water content the better). Simply prep (wash, peel if needed and core), pop in freezer bags (mixing different fruits together, if you’d like) and “vacuum” out the air using my trick above. You now have perfect, pre-made fruit mixes for shakes. Just pop the frozen fruit in a blender with your other ingredients and you’re good to go.
STOCK YOUR FREEZER
I recommend setting aside a "marathon cooking" session to fill your freezer with delicious meals that are pre-portioned and ready to roll for meals in a pinch. Why cook from scratch every evening when once a month, you can fill your freezer with 20-30 meals/snacks ready to go for when life gets busy?
1. Prepare in Bulk: Choose 2 recipes that you want to make, double them and cook at the same time. Hey, all the pans and gadgets are out; just make one big colossal mess! Typically, I do this on a Sunday afternoon but you could wait until the kids are in bed, turn on some music and make a night out of it. Or, invite a friend over and cook together for both families. In just a couple hours, you've stored 16+ meals!
2. Get Storage Containers Ready: Make sure you have proper storage containers and bags on hand for easy storage and retrieval. I use Oxo 2 oz. and 4 oz. containers and Ziploc quart freezer storage bags for kids portions and Ziplock gallon freezer storage bags for adult portions. (I freeze two servings of the kid’s meal together for my 2 boys to share and 2 adult portions together for my husband and myself to share. You'll save bags this way).
3. Store Your Meals:
- Before you portion and freeze, store meals overnight in the refrigerator. I find this minimizes the risk of freezer burn and also makes sure you don’t raise the temperature of the freezer.
- Freeze in Batches: If you cook in bulk, don’t put everything in the freezer at the same time. Let it freeze in batches so it freezes faster. The faster you freeze it, the fresher it stays. Your freezer should remain 0 degrees or below.
- Label Food: Use the labels on storage bags to mark the meal; date prepared and number of portions. As a general rule of thumb: fruit/veggies last 6 months, anything with cooked meat 3 months, uncooked meat 3-4 months.
- Keep Inventory: This is very important! Or else, you run the risk of heading back into food-tossing sessions as freezer meals can get tucked away in the depths of your freezer and forgotten about. Simple trick: keep a running list on your fridge of what’s inside your freezer and cross out as you use it so you know what to use first.
SOME OF MY FAMILY'S FAVORITE FREEZER MEALS:
No-Bake Energy Bites:
I found this long ago on fabulousfoodblog.com and altered it to fit our family's taste. Feel free to add chocolate chips or coconut flakes and/or omit cocoa powder or raisins. Make it your own. This is a simple and super-versatile recipe.
Ingredients (recipe doubled):
4 cups dry quick cooking oats
2 cups sunflower butter (or regular peanut butter - whatever you use)
2 cups ground flaxseed
1 1/2 cups organic honey
4 tsp vanilla
2 tsp of cinnamon
1 1/2 cups of raisins
1/2 cup of cocoa powder
Preparation: Simply mix all the ingredients together and roll into one-inch balls. As the mixture is super sticky, wet hands with water or spray with coconut oil or any organic cooking spray you use before you roll. Place in a Tupperware and let these harden overnight before placing in a large Ziplock in the freezer. I
To Thaw: No thawing required! I serve to the kids frozen and they soften rather quickly once you start eating them.
Anything Goes Veggie Soup:
Literally, anything goes, I make this with whatever veggies are in season or that I have in my fridge. My favorite combination is listed here.
3 garlic cloves
2 large butternut squash
2 vidalia onions
1 head of cauliflower
2 acorn squash
1 large bunch of kale, separated from tough ribs
12-16 oz of chicken stock
1 tsp dried sage
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
salt + pepper to taste
Preparation: Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and cut squash and onions in one-inch chunks. Rinse and trim cauliflower florets in one inch sections. Place on sheet pans and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, toss with salt and pepper and roast in oven, checking periodically for 45 minutes or until veggies are soft and have started to brown. Over medium heat, warm olive oil in a dutch oven and brown skinned and smashed garlic cloves. Add roasted vegetables and 8 oz of low-sodium chicken stock, dried sage and kale to dutch oven. Once kale has softened, purée soup until smooth with a stick blender. Another option is to work in batches with a food processor or blender. Add additional chicken stock to reach desired consistency. My family prefers this on the thicker side. Store in Tupperware in the fridge overnight and then transfer to Ziplock bags. Lay flat on your freezer shelf to freeze.
To Thaw: You can move this to the fridge the night before or morning that you want to use it. Or, if you’re like me and don’t plan ahead too often, run under warm water in the sink until the soup can slip out of bag into a pot to warm. Cover and warm slowly.
I typically make by eye and use whatever veggies are in the fridge. Plan for one egg per muffin. Add cheese if desired, we make it without.
2 dozen eggs
1 vidalia onion
3 green bell peppers
8 oz baby bells mushrooms
1-2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb sweet italian sausage removed from casing
Preparation: Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Dice onions, peppers and mushrooms. Heat olive oil in a pan and sauté onions and peppers, seasoning with s+p, until soft. Add sausage and cook through, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it browns. Remove veggies and sausage and set aside. To the same pan, cook mushrooms until soft. Remove from heat and add to veggie and sausage mixture. Beat eggs in medium bowl and season with salt, pepper. Spray two muffin pans with olive oil, fill each cup about 1/3 way with veggies and sausage mix. Then, add egg (filling each only 3/4 the way as egg expands when cooking). Bake 25-30 min until cooked...check if done by inserting fork into muffin until it comes out clean.
To Thaw: You can move from the fridge to freezer the night before you want to use these and head in a pan, or, just pop in the microwave for 45-60 seconds to defrost.
If you find yourself tossing produce or ordering take-out more often than you want to, try these things and let me know how it goes! My family has dozens of made-from-scratch recipes we love that range from burritos, chicken cutlets (prepped but uncooked), meatloaf (uncooked), meatballs (cooked), pancakes, muffins, even leftovers from slow-cooker meals.
Head on over to my "Moms" page for one of our favorite breakfast options for our kids, "Honey and Olive Oil Zucchini Muffins". To reheat, slice off a serving each time you need (if you bake in a loaf pan) or take a muffin out of a ziplock bag, re-seal and store the rest.
Here’s to experimenting and finding what works for you and your family!