Healthy Freezer Meal Prep: The Dos and Don’ts
When it comes to saving time and money with meal planning, perhaps no one thing is more effective than planning ahead and freezing. A couple of hours in the kitchen and a few batches of your favorite go-to’s will make for quick, nutritious meals whenever you need them. Plus, cooking in batches tends to more cost effective, saving you panicked trips for takeout when you realize there’s no groceries in the house.
While not everything stands up to a deep freeze, most foods retain their texture, flavor and nutritional value when frozen. There are a few key things to keep in mind during healthy freezer meal prep to make sure your meals are just as excellent the next time around. Make some room in the freezer and read on for how to get the most our of your make-aheads.
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What not to freeze
Vegetables with high water content tend to become mushy when thawed. For this reason, cucumber, lettuce, onions and sprouts are best kept fresh. (They’re easy to prep on the fly, anyways, so you won’t lose too much time; plus, by freezing your other meals, you’ll have extra space in the fridge for all those great fresh greens.)
Eggs and egg-based products like mayo also don’t do well in the freezer, and dairy products like cheese, yogurt and cream tend to become watery when thawed. Both are fine if cooked into a dish and then frozen, just try to avoid freezing them on their own.
Make friends with the aluminum pan
Although it might seem old-timey, a casserole really can be your best friend during a busy week or when you simply can’t decide what to cook. Baking a variety of vegetables, grains and protein in an aluminum pan and transferring it to the freezer once it has cooled means you’ll have an easy-to-reheat dinner on hand and your best bakeware won’t be tied up for weeks. Aluminum pans come in a variety of sizes, so you can pick up a few to meet your reheating needs (see below), including making smaller batches or dividing a large batch among several pans for baking.
Try dishes like shepherd’s pie (substituting lentils for ground meat if vegetarian) or a Mexican-inspired enchilada bake with chicken or beef, black beans, rice and sautéed peppers. (Leave the cheese off until you reheat it to prevent soggy separation.)
Almost any combination of a cream or tomato sauce, protein and pasta also makes for a great bake: layer it all together, bake under aluminum foil, cool, then freeze.
If you intend to reheat the whole batch at once, leave it whole and pop in the freezer. If you anticipate just needing a few portions at a time, you may wish to slice up your casserole into separate portions and package separately before freezing. (This is also a great reason to use smaller baking pans to begin with, so you’ll only need to reheat a bit at a time, rather than being stuck eating lasagna for six days straight.)
Freeze fluids in bags
Liquids like soups and sauces store best in bags. Whip up a batch of soup or chili on the stovetop or in a slow cooker and allow it to cool completely before attempting to pack it up. (An ice bath can help speed up the process.) Spread a freezer bag in a bowl and carefully ladle in your soup. Stack bags in the fridge so they’ll freeze flat – this is amazing for saving space!
The same process also works well for tomato sauce, cream sauce or barbecue sauce, in case you’re cooking in batches or just make more than you can use. These will keep for about 30 days in the freezer.
Label, label, label
Save yourself a lot of confusion in a couple of months by thoroughly labeling everything before you freeze it. Include what it is, when you made it and any instructions for reheating. Typically, frozen foods should be thawed overnight in the fridge: it’ll shorten your reheating time and preserve the texture of your meals. Also, food should be reheated in the same manner in which it was cooked. For example, sauces and soups should be reheated over a medium-low burner. Casseroles can be reheated at 350 degrees Fahrenheit in the oven for about 20 minutes until warmed through. You can also remove individual portions from their aluminum pan and warm in the microwave: two to three minutes should be sufficient. Precooked meat can be made ready to eat by searing it in a cast iron skillet.
No time to prep a whole meal?
No worries: when you’re already elbow-deep in making a single meal, make a point to chop up a few extra handfuls of things like carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips or kale. These prepped ingredients will make easy additions to future meals if frozen in a single layer on a baking sheet (to prevent sticking) and stored in freezer storage bags. If you’re prepping meat, you must cook it before freezing, but that’ll make preparing it on the other end extra easy: thaw, heat and season.