Monday, February 28, 2011

A bun in the oven and dinner in the freezer.

I have been sorely neglecting this blog AND my freezer meal stash these past few months, but for the happiest of reasons: we're expecting a baby this May. And with expectations of a baby comes expectations of having much less free time and much less desire to cook. It's time to start ramping up my freezer stash!

It's been a while, so I thought I'd write a quick refresher course for my new readers. I've been at this game for a couple of years. In our house, we've found we eat about a freezer meal a week when they're available. We do fairly well at cooking on weekends, and we manage most nights to pull something together, but generally on either Tuesday or Wednesday the ambition and the ingredients run out and it's a big relief to throw a casserole in the oven, add a salad, and call it a meal.

From what I've read, most meals are best if eaten within 3 months of freezing. I've stretched that out longer and not had too many problems, but the quality will go down the longer they're in there. They won't "go bad" in the sense of food poisoning, but the flavour and texture won't be quite as nice.

There are two main things I've figured out over time: it's easier to focus on cooking only one protein in a session, and it's easiest to package most things in 8x8 foil pans.A pan this size feeds the two of us dinner, and then one or two of us lunch depending on how hungry we were and if we paired it with some other food. They're also really cheap, stackable, and easy to just cover with foil and get into the freezer. The key thing to know: any recipe made for a 9x13 pan will make 2 - 8x8 pans. My other containers are typically medium-size freezer ziploc bags (which is 1 meal for the two of us) and 750 mL yogurt containers for soups and stews.

As for the "one thing at a time", I've discovered that I don't really like to cook for 6 hours. I can still get through 2 hours fairly easily at 7 months pregnant, but 6 is just not reasonable. That means I've scaled down from doing everything to doing what we like the most. Last round, that was 4 pans of lasagna, 2 pans of enchilada bake, 1 bag of sloppy joes, and 2 pans of cornbread taco bake. That was 5 pounds of ground beef (and a can of white beans to stretch the meat) cooked all at once, then divided into 4 simple recipes. Two hours, nine meals.

My next plan is to pre-marinade most of a Costco case of chicken breasts with the dump chicken recipes that appeal. I have found that chicken does best if frozen raw. We tend to buy our chicken already frozen, so I just take two frozen chicken breasts, put them in a ziploc, pour the marinade over them, seal it up and get them back in the freezer before they start to thaw. When I want them, I leave them in the fridge to thaw (usually take them out the night before and give them about 24 hours), then bake, barbeque, or whatever one would normally do to cook chicken.

My other consideration pre-baby will be to do a bit of baking and breakfasty prep. I normally eat oatmeal for breakfast, but I like breakfast foods like waffles for lunch or dinner. So a few hours will be put toward creating a freezer stash of homemade waffles (great in the toaster), muffins, and banana bread.

The last thing to remember: stock up. There are lots of things I know we will need that will just be easier if we don't run out of. It's not hard to buy some extra toilet paper, cat food, cat litter, dishwasher soap, etc. to make sure the house can kind of survive on minimal attention for a few weeks. I figure a big trip to Costco is in order around week 38 or 39 of this pregnancy just to ensure we don't really need to go back for a while.

I also wanted to include a link to Jolene's fabulous freezer-friendly section at her blog, What's Cookin, Chicago?. A lot of them are a bit more ambitious than I usually do, but if chili doesn't appeal for summer time, she's got loads of great ideas.