EASIER COOKING FOR EASIER LIVING
by Deborah Taylor-Hough
I first started cooking ahead for the time saving benefits. It helped bring our family together again around the table. But I was quickly surprised by another benefit that I didnít foresee. Our grocery bill went down by almost $400 per month! I couldnít believe it! Some of the money we saved was due to the fact that we had been eating out quite frequently, quickly running down to the corner for 59 cent tacos because I didnít have time to cook dinner. Now we always have time for dinner at home-we eat out when we want to, not because we feel we have to. Going out to eat has become a special treat rather than an expensive and unhealthy way of life.
By cooking ahead, I was able to begin buying commonly used items in bulk. I was also planning my menus ahead of time. Just the planning ahead and bulk buying saves a lot of money. But $400 per month? Wow. And that was the average I was shaving off our grocery bill each month. Sometimes we saved even more than that. This method also eliminates waste, and because I donít go to the store nearly as often as I used to, it also cuts down on those expensive impulse buys at the market.
I can take full advantage of sales at the grocery store, planning menus around the weekly specials. If ground beef is on sale, Iíll buy a large amount and then prepare a quantity of ground beef recipes and put them in the freezer. Rather than doing a full month of cooking, Iíll do what I refer to as a Ground Beef Mini-Session. This involves preparing a week or two of ground beef recipes to intersperse with the chicken or tofu recipes I prepared during an earlier chicken or tofu mini-session. With a combination of these mini-sessions I can stash away Frozen Assets for the next two or three months. But in addition to the time and money saving benefits, I discovered many other perks.
Frozen meals can be used for hospitality and outreach. Dinner parties are a breeze. If we want to spontaneously invite people over after church, itís not a difficult ordeal. I know I have things in the freezer that I can quickly and easily heat and serve. You can have meals available for the sick or for people in need. Bringing a couple of frozen meals to a new mother or a grieving family can bring a touch of sanity to an otherwise stressful time of life. I donít even have to think about it or plan for it. I just grab something from the freezer and go.
Not only did cooking ahead solve the meal planning and time issues, it also provided me with a way to help our familyís financial situation. Money was quite tight and I had been thinking of getting a part-time job to help make ends meet. I found cutting back a bit on what I was spending on groceries could mean the difference between remaining at home with my children or going back to work. I wouldnít cut back on the amount of food we ate so we still ate well, but by being conscientious about meal planning and buying on sale, we shaved sizeable amounts off our monthly food budget. Saving $400 per month from our approximately $700 per month grocery budget became my part time job. Over the course of five years, I spent $24,000 less on groceries!
No More Kitchen Slavery
During those rare times when I run out of my Frozen Assets stash, itís a rude awakening to see just how ďdailyĒ food preparation is in a busy home. As I often say when doing my workshops-I like cooking-I just donít like it every day! Between all the planning and actual preparation for each meal, it can begin to seem like the kitchen is a harsh taskmaster, not even allowing time off for good behavior. The daily-ness of cooking wears us down quickly. By having meals ready to go in the freezer, I find that the joy of cooking has been restored for me. When I do decide to cook a special meal, itís a joy again and not just another chore to be accomplished as quickly as possible. I also have more time and energy for fun cooking-baking cookies with my children or making fresh, hot gingerbread on a cold winter evening.
Restoring the Family Dinner Hour
Recently, there was a story in my local newspaper about the disappearance of the family dinner hour. With more and more double-income families and children involved in numerous after school and sports activities, the family dinner hour has gone the way of the dinosaur.
Yet my family sits down together for dinner at least five times each week. How often do you sit down as a family at the table for a leisurely meal? Four times a week? Twice? Once? Iím not super woman; Iím simply someone who discovered a way to reap the benefits of advanced planning and preparation. Now these benefits can be yours. Iíll show you how to make it happen step-by-step. If youíd like to restore this time-honored tradition in your home, cooking for the freezer can be the solution. So what are you waiting for? Letís get started.
Cooking for the Freezer 101
I recommend that people start this process gradually. If the idea of a full month of cooking sounds overwhelming, start small. If two weeks sounds more do-able, try cooking ahead for two weeks. Or one week.
But if cooking for even a week at a time sounds like more than you can fathom, try this: In the course of your normal cooking, triple your recipes. If youíre preparing lasagna, make three-one for eating tonight and two for the freezer. Tomorrow night do the same thing with a different recipe. After one week of tripling your regular meals and freezing two, youíll have two weeks of meals with almost no extra effort. Itís really not much harder to prepare three lasagnas than it is to prepare one. Or make a large pot of spaghetti sauce rather than a single family serving and freeze the extras in meal-size servings.
If you think cooking ahead is a process youíd like to try, but youíre unsure of the amount of work involved, ease into it. Start out doubling and tripling recipes as you go through your week. Maybe do a ground beef mini-session next time thereís a sale at the grocery store. What you will find is that you will start saving time, youíll start saving money, and you wonít be doing this in an overwhelming or difficult manner. Each time you pull one of those meals out of the freezer, youíll be pleased.
Small Freezer Syndrome
Many people tell me they only have a small fridge-top freezer so they donít think they can do a full month of meals. That was my excuse for not trying this method at first but Iíve found with practice, I can pack a full thirty meals in my refrigerator freezer. The last time I did a big cooking day, I counted forty-four meals in my small freezer. I have a separate freezer now, but I usually use it for stocking things like ice cream or bread I find on sale at the bakery thrift store. I keep my prepared meals in the small kitchen freezer where theyíre easily accessible.
Probably the most practical suggestion for people with a small freezer is to use zip-top freezer bags. The bags take up a lot less room than bulkier storage containers such as plastic boxes or aluminum pans. If you take your freezer bags and freeze them flat, then you can stand them on end after theyíre frozen solid. Your freezer shelf will look like it contains LP record albums filled with frozen food and you wonít experience a landslide of frozen packages when you open the freezer door.
Clear out all non-essentials on cooking day if you only have a small freezer. When I only had the small refrigerator-freezer, I would wait until mid-month to stock up on things like ice cream or frozen bread. I used this cooking technique for over three years with only a small fridge-top freezer, so it can be done. It just takes careful planning and packing.
To save space, you can also prepare sauces to serve over pasta or rice, but donít make the pasta or rice ahead of time. Cook the pasta or rice at serving time. Usually the sauce is the time-consuming part of fixing dinner, so by fixing the pasta or rice fresh, it not only tastes better but allows you to use your freezer space more efficiently.
I want to assure you that you donít need to hold a party and buy expensive plastic boxes. Any food grade plastic will work. The inexpensive plastic boxes at the grocery store function just fine, but make sure you have storage items with tight fitting, air-tight lids. If you want to invest money in the higher quality plastic boxes, by all means feel free. You definitely get what you pay for, and the fancy expensive home party boxes usually last for many years and come with replacement guarantees. I just want to assure people that you donít have to stock your freezer shelves with designer containers. The only plastic freezer containers I own are the inexpensive ones from the grocery store and they have served me well for many years.
You can freeze food items in clean, plastic margarine containers if thatís all you have, but the seal isnít really air-tight so donít freeze these items for longer than two weeks or the quality of the food will suffer. Itís important to remember that margarine containers are safe to freeze food in (they are made of food grade plastic), but donít reheat your meal in them. Theyíre not microwave-able, and they can seep harmful chemicals into your familyís food. Be sure that a plastic container is labeled ďmicrowave safeĒ before using it to reheat food.
If you have a choice between round and rectangular freezer containers, choose rectangular. These use space more efficiently and take up less room in the freezer.
You can also use disposable aluminum foil pans purchased at the grocery store. These can often be reused several times before needing to be recycled or disposed. Disposable pans are ideal if youíre making meals to use to give to others; the recipient doesnít need to worry about returning your pan or casserole dish. If clean up is a huge time-consumer these pans be easily thrown away to make cleanup painless.
Iíve built up a good supply of freezer containers by stocking up on bakeware and other freeze-able containers at garage sales and thrift stores. Glass bakeware works fine. When wrapping pans for the freezer, be sure to use good quality heavy-duty freezer foil.
I personally use zip-top freezer bags for most of my food storage needs. Not only do they take up less space than boxes, the bags are inexpensive and easy to use. Itís important to buy top quality freezer bags-this isnít the place to cut back, money-wise. Thereís nothing worse for a freezer-meal cook than to have your entire batch of frozen meals ruined by poor wrapping or freezer bags breaking. I recommend double bagging anything that has a soupy consistency so you donít end up with a watery mess at the bottom of your refrigerator after the meal thaws. Sometimes bags can develop small holes or the zip-top can open slightly.
You can also make your own freezer pans by lining a casserole dish with foil. Put the food in on top of the foil, freeze the meal until itís solid, and then remove the foil and food from the pan. Finish wrapping the meal and put it back in the freezer. When itís time to serve the meal, simply place the foil wrapped meal back into the original pan that was used to mold the frozen meal. Thaw and reheat in the original pan. This method keeps your pans available for other uses during the month.
Labeling Your Freezer Meals
You want to make sure you label everything carefully and accurately. When food is frozen, many meals look the same. One tomato-based meal will look like a dozen other tomato-based meals. You donít want to play ďGuess the Freezer MealĒ when youíre trying to get your familyís dinner on the table each night.
I recommend using SharpieTM brand permanent markers for labeling. You can actually write directly on the freezer bags and even on the aluminum foil wrappings. I want to emphasize: Donít use any other brand of permanent markers to write on your freezer bags or foil. There are other brands of permanent markers, but SharpieTM is the only one Iíve found that wonít wipe off. I previously worked in a medical lab and we were required to carry a SharpieTM with us at all times. The lab managers wouldnít let us use any other brand of marker. We wrote on beakers, test tubes, petri dishes and slides, and then those items went through assorted chemical baths. The labels written with SharpiesTM wouldnít come off. You donít want to lose your labels so itís important to use the best labeler available.
Another way of labeling items stored in freezer bags is to double bag the food and slip a 3Ēx5Ē file card with the labeling instructions between the freezer bags. The outer bag and the label can both be reused indefinitely with this method. This can be handy if you prepare the same meals often when you cook for the freezer. You can prepare half a dozen labels ahead of time and not have to spend that time and effort with each cooking experience. Also, make sure to include your reheating instructions on each label. This way you can prep the meal quickly and easily without having to dig through a recipe box or cookbook.
What to Freeze, What Not to Freeze
When I started cooking for the freezer, I was amazed to find more things freeze well than donít. I thought there must be some special criteria for deciphering whether or not a meal would freeze. But almost anything can be frozen. Take a walk down your grocery storeís frozen food aisle sometime and just notice the wide variety of items that can be frozen ahead.
Foods that freeze well:
Things that donít freeze well tend to be egg-based sauces, milk or cream based sauces (they separate but can be recombined after thawing), instant rice, raw salad ingredients, stuffed poultry, dishes with dried toppings, baked fruit pies, mayonnaise (unless itís mixed in and used as part of sauce), cottage cheese, raw clams, hard cooked eggs and fried foods.
Cooking for Your Specific Diet
One of the most frequently asked questions I hear about this method of cooking is, ďWhat about vegetarians? How can vegetarians apply this to how they eat?Ē Freezer cooking for vegetarian eating really isnít a problem. If youíre making a meal, take a single serving out, freeze it, reheat it and see how it turns out. If it turns out well, then you have a successful freezer meal to add to your Frozen Assets repertoire. I recommend this single-serving trial process for any meal youíre not sure will freeze well. Tofu, TVP (texturized vegetable protein) and cooked dry beans all freeze well. Many people say they actually prefer the texture of prefrozen tofu, it dries out a bit and becomes a little firmer. Also many of the recipes in this book can be prepared without meat, just leave out the meat from the recipe or switch the meat item with your favorite meat substitute.
All of us eat differently. Each family has different things we prefer to eat. I donít necessarily recommend using either of my Frozen Assets books as your freezer meal Bible. Donít feel you can only use the recipes in these books and never venture off and use your own recipes. Try several of the meal plans in the books to get started and get a feel for how the process works, but ultimately I hope readers will take these methods and apply them to their own recipes and ways of eating.
Trial and Error
At times this style of cooking can be a bit of a trial and error process. We all make occasional mistakes but we learn from them and move on. Iíll share with you some of the things I recommend watching for during meal preparation and planning. Feel free to learn from my experience.
Be sure to keep track of which meals youíve used and which ones are still in the freezer. A few times Iíve forgotten to keep an accurate record and at the end of the month, found myself staring at four or five bags of spaghetti sauce with nothing else in the freezer for the last week of the month. My family and I didnít want to eat a full week of spaghetti sauce but that was all that was left. If you donít keep track, you may end up with a large amount of one type of meal; ground beef, tofu or lasagna. By planning ahead and keeping track of the meals as you use them, you can space the meals for more of an assortment week by week. I recommend using a magnetic dry-erase board that can hang on the side of your refrigerator. Simply write down what you have put in your freezer and then cross it off once used. This makes it easy to get a quick grasp on what you have and what you need as you do your menu planning.
Iíve also had noodles completely disappear from my frozen soups. If you cook noodles all the way until theyíre soft before freezing, when you take your soup out of the freezer, thaw it and reheat it, youíll find you donít have any noodles left. If you want noodles in your soup, wait until youíre reheating the soup after freezing and throw the noodles in then. The noodles will cook while the soup is reheating. Or toss the raw noodles into the freezer bag with the soup just before placing the bag in the freezer.
Another tip to remember is: Moderation in all things. I tend to stock up on meats and food items when they go on sale. One time a friend called to let me know a local store was having a sale on ground turkey for forty pounds for $12. I ran down to the store and bought forty pounds of ground turkey. I was so proud of myself! $12? Thatís at least forty meals worth of meat for a mere pittance. But six months later we still had ground turkey in the freezer that we were working our way through. My family likes ground turkey, but I discovered they didnít like forty pounds worth. If I had purchased ten pounds, I still wouldíve made a wonderful bargain, but my family wouldíve been much happier.
I have also created a message board for those Frozen Asset Cooks who want to share their tips, recipes and learn more. For further information, go to: http://members.aol.com/oamcloop/
From Frozen Assets, Lite & Easy by Deborah Taylor-Hough. Copyright © 2001 by Deborah Taylor-Houg. Excerpted by arrangement with Champion Press, Ltd. $19.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.