The Parents Guide to Freezer Meals
During a busy day, the last thing you want to do is prepare food for the family. That's where make-ahead freezer meals come in handy. These dishes can be ready in no time; simply defrost the food, warm it up, and enjoy. Read on for expert-approved tips for freezer meal storage, organization, safety, and more.
Storage Hacks for Freezer Meals
Proper storage is key for long-lasting freezer meals. Here's how to wrap up your recipes.
Learn your layers. You can cover food with foil, plastic wrap, or parchment to limit air—and stop the dreaded freezer burn. All are great first lines of defense, but the advantage of parchment and foil is that they don't need to be removed for reheating. (Parchment can also be used to separate foods within a container so they don't stick.) Cover with a second layer of foil or wrap, then place in a freezer bag or a freezer-safe container for extra protection.
Leave room. Never fill a vessel to the top or you risk the lid popping off or the seal breaking when the food expands.
Choose the right dish. Tempered glass is ideal for going from freezer to oven to table. Make sure ceramic dishes are labeled oven- and freezer-safe.
Opt for freezer bags. "Bags that are not made for the freezer are more porous, so freezer burn is likely. Freezer bags are thicker for keeping more air out. If you only have standard bags, use two or three." — Ali Rosen, host of Potluck With Ali and author of Modern Freezer Meals
Go pro. "I have a vacuum sealer that's paid for itself a hundred times over. It removes air to prevent ice crystals. I can reheat things in the bags in a pot of simmering water like a sous vide." —Jeff Mauro, cohost of The Kitchen on Food Network and author of Come On Over
Repurpose. "This sounds weird, but those little breast-milk bottles are amazing for freezing leftover coconut milk. I'll add it to oatmeal or soup for creaminess without dairy." —Melissa Clark, staff reporter for the New York Times Food section and author of Kid in the Kitchen
Defrosting Freezer Meals Safely
Chefs follow exacting guidelines regarding food temperatures, but many home cooks just leave things on the counter and walk away. Cordialis Msora-Kasago, R.D.N., shares what you need to know to keep your family safe.
Thaw in the fridge when you can. It takes about 24 hours for ground meat, chicken breasts, and other small cuts of meat to defrost, and then they can hang out in the refrigerator for another day or two.
Or try the microwave. Use the defrost setting, which adjusts the power level to work more efficiently on frozen items, but even this may result in uneven thawing. One caveat: Cook the food immediately. Cooking right after defrosting reduces the risk of bacteria growth.
Cook straight from frozen. It'll work for most foods, but know that it may take up to 50 percent longer. Soup, for instance, can generally be heated in the pot successfully, and many casseroles can too. But most meats can be trickier, as they may cook on the outside before reaching doneness inside.
Expert-Approved Freezer Organization Tips
As the owner of Just Live, a professional organizing company based in Atlanta, Angela Smith specializes in helping clients take control of their kitchen. She's also a mom of four boys under age 10, so she knows the value of a tidy freezer. Here are her best organization tips.
Sort by category. Use clear bins, which allow you to see what's inside, and label them. Think in terms of genres like meat, veggies, fruit, and snacks. But feel free to get specific for your family: Do you need a bin for smoothie kits? Backup bagels? Baking supplies? Avery Dissolvable Rectangle Labels dissolve during hand-washing or in the dishwasher, so no need to scrape off sticky residue.
Take some foods out of their packaging. Breaking down a few bulky items will give you more wiggle room. For example, divide a pack of meat into meal portions and put them in their assigned container. Do the same for things that don't require the box's cooking instructions, like individual ice-cream pops. You could even cut out the instructions for products you buy regularly, like frozen waffles or pizzas, and save them.
Skip round storage. It's more space efficient to use square or rectangular containers. Freezer bags and vacuum-sealed foods are also easily stacked or squeezed into tight spots.
Embrace your system. If you always put something in the same place, your family will naturally look for it there, Smith says. Get your kids to help put away groceries so they can see what's coming in and where it goes.
5 Ways the Freezer Makes Kids' Meals Easier
Need some motivation to prepare freezer meals for kids? Read these hacks from the experts.
"My Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Breakfast Sandos are a great grab-and-go breakfast. I crack six or eight extra eggs on Sundays and cook some sausage patties. Then I put them on toasted English muffins with cheese and wrap them up individually in parchment. They heat in the microwave in a minute." —Mauro
"When my daughter was little, I would bake mini muffins that I would throw into her lunch box. By midday, they'd be thawed and ready to eat." —Clark
"I also love the muffin tin for freezer-friendly food. I use a full-size tin to make single-serving lasagnas. They're a good size for a little kid." —Rosen
"To have an easy option for my daughter, I slice chicken breasts in half so each breast becomes two thick fillets, and I wrap those individually in parchment. I season them ahead with salt and pepper. If I have herbs, I'll throw some on, or I'll crush a garlic clove and smear the paste over it. They defrost quickly and are ready to cook." —Clark
"One of my favorite things that my son and I make together is two-ingredient ice pops—just yogurt and berries. It's something that he can get himself, and it feels like a treat, but there's no added sugar." —Rosen
Helpful Products for Freezer Meals
These products will set you up for freezer meal success.
Store your meat and veggies at their freshest with the affordable Geryon E2900-MS Multi-Use Vacuum Sealing Food Preservation System. It removes all the air to stave off freezer burn and create a minimal footprint in your freezer.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's September 2021 issue as "Work Some Freezer Magic." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here