how-i-cook-non-casserole-freezer-meals

How I Cook Non-Casserole Freezer Meals

What’s a woman to do when her kids are sick and she’s only gotten a few hours of sleep?  Why, buy a month’s worth of groceries and spend a day and a half cooking for the freezer, of course!

Since that is the only logical thing to do in such a situation, on Wednesday I decided that I would buy a whole bunch of groceries and make a month’s worth of food the next day.  While I often cook a double batch of a meal and freeze it (or refrigerate it to eat later in the week), I have never actually cooked an entire month’s worth of meals all in one day.  But, I decided to try it.

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now – mostly because we’ve had some sickness and have been doing a lot of projects.  I have to remind myself that (particularly with the sickness), it’s going to pass and I shouldn’t make any rash decisions about the state of my life right now.  While I hope we recover from the sickness soon, I know we are going to be busy with house projects and potentially moving in the next few months so life is not going to slow down too much in the near future.  I also want to finish our school year strong, and not having to cook a whole lot is a great way to put more time in my day.

Anyway, so yesterday I took the plunge and cooked almost a month’s worth of meals in one day.  I actually cheated and started the night before, and finished up a couple more things this morning.

Here’s a list of what I made, and how I adapt these meals to be freezer-friendly.  And, none of these are casseroles, in case you thought freezer cooking only involves casseroles!

Beef Enchilada Filling x3
Porcupine Meatballs x1
Barbecue Meatballs x1
Burgers x2
Meatloaf x1
Lemon Artichoke Chicken x2
Chicken Parmesan x3
Chicken Enchilada Filling x1
Lime Chipotle Chicken x1
Chicken Nuggets x3
Whole Chickens for Grilling x2
Green Chile Stew x1
Barbecue Pork x1
Slow Cooker Smothered Pork Chops x2
Sausage Classico x2
Country-Style Pork Ribs x1
Sloppy Joes x3
Breakfast Burritos (lots)
Marinara Sauce
Chicken Broth

Our Family’s Eating Style & One of the Best Reasons to Freezer Cook

Before I get into how I adapted the recipes, I should probably explain a little bit about our family’s eating and cooking style.  We don’t really eat casseroles, and we generally enjoy our food best when it’s “fresh cooked” instead of “from freezer to oven”.  (This is our style, I’m not trying to tell you how to cook or eat or what you should enjoy! :) So, a lot of the meals that I prepared are in a partially-prepared form – I can’t just pop them directly into the oven, but a ton of the work is already done.

I use a slow cooker some, but generally it involves the searing of meat or sauteeing of onions before it goes in the slow cooker.  While it might seem silly to freeze a meal for the slow cooker, I don’t generally cook slow cooker meals where you dump ingredients in and turn it on, so I do like to freeze meals for the slow cooker to get that prep out of the way.

I only recently realized that one of the biggest advantages of freezer cooking is in the cleanup.  After I was done with my marathon cooking session, my stove was covered in grease splatters and the counters were filthy.  I washed a lot of dishes – and all of those dishes are ones that I won’t have to wash later.  I didn’t many meals in disposable foil pans, so yes, I’ll have a few dishes to do when we eat the meals, but I’ve already done a lot of the really dirty work that is a pain to clean up.

You might not have needed to know all of that, but I thought it would be helpful to understand as I explain how far I go into each recipe before freezing it.  Here’s the scoop:

Beef Enchilada Filling and Chicken Enchilada Filling

This is pretty easy – everything that goes inside the tortilla in Pioneer Woman’s Beef Enchiladas and Chicken Enchiladas got prepped and frozen.  I already have some homemade enchilada sauce in the freezer, so I will be using that for the beef enchiladas and then I’ll make the chicken enchilada sauce fresh when it’s time.  (It’s dairy, so it doesn’t freeze well.)

Note: in all honesty, I should admit that the chicken enchilada filling was already in the freezer from about a week ago.  I didn’t get that one done in the marathon session. :)

porcupines

Porcupine Meatballs

I assembled the meatballs from a family recipe (using my KitchenAid stand mixer makes it so easy!) and put them in a foil pan, raw.  I was going to make the sauce and freeze it as well (it could be put on top of the meatballs, no problem) but I opted to just skip it since it’s a cinch to mix up.

This is the one of only a couple of meals that I put in a foil pan.  A few of the other meals might have worked in a foil pan, but honestly, they are so flimsy that I think they are a pain to work with, at least as long as I’m in my own kitchen where I have a lot better pans. So, I mostly freeze stuff in bags and containers and then cook it in a “real” pan.

Barbecue Meatballs

I just mixed up the meatballs using my aforementioned mixer, then formed the meatballs and placed them, not touching each other,  on a layer of parchment paper and frozen.  Once they were frozen, I put them in a bag.  I’ll probably put them in the slow cooker and pour sauce over them.  (I’m thinking I could have put these in a foil pan and put the sauce on them so that they could go straight to the oven, but I’m sure that at this time of year, I want to commit to having to heat up the oven to cook them.)

Burgers

Here’s where someone will surely question why I needed to make hamburgers and freeze them.  I’ll admit, it doesn’t take long to form a hamburger patty, but I find that such a simple-looking act is much more than meets the eye.  I almost always forget to thaw the meat, and I end up having to do it in cold or (ew) warm water and I’m always rushing trying to get mostly-thawed so I can form the patties.

So, yes, it’s sort of silly but burgers on the grill become a super-easy, no-dirty-hands meal when I can pull the patties from the freezer.  (I thaw them first, but they don’t have to be thawed all the way like you would if you were forming the patties fresh.)

We buy our ground beef at Ranch Foods Direct and the flavor is fantastic, so I did little more than season these with a little salt and pepper and form the patties.  I froze them individually on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, and then once they were frozen, I stacked them up (putting a sheet of parchment paper in between so they don’t stick together), and put them in a freezer bag.  It should be easy to pull out however many burgers I need.

Meatloaf

My favorite meatloaf recipe is from The Pioneer Woman, but I mostly didn’t follow it this time since the baby and I are eating dairy free.  I mixed up one batch (using two pounds of beef), formed two small loaves in a foil pan, topped it with bacon, and stuck it in the freezer.

artichoke-chicken

Slow Cooker Lemon Artichoke Chicken

Abby writes each week’s What To Make With What’s On Sale post, and also has a blog of her own where she shares some great recipes from time to time, like this one for Slow Cooker Lemon Artichoke Chicken.  This is one of those slow cooker recipes that doesn’t taste like a slow cooker!  I made two meals worth of this.

To prep this for the freezer, I cooked the bacon, then set it aside and sauteed the onions in the bacon fat, added the garlic and artichokes and sauteed for a few seconds, and then poured in the liquid.  At this point, I removed it from the heat, put the chicken thighs in, and then froze it.   It will go straight into the slow cooker once it’s thawed.

The bacon gets crumbled and put on top when you serve it, so I wrapped that up in a small piece of aluminum foil and put it in the freezer in a marked bag.  You serve this on top of rice or pasta, so when it comes time to eat, I’ll just need to cook the rice and pasta, finish up the sauce (see the recipe), and it’s ready.

 

Lime Chipotle Chicken

This is one of those great recipes to use up the rest of a can of chipotle chiles.  (The recipe is in From Garbage to Gourmet.)  I sliced and pounded the chicken breasts, then put them in a bag with the marinade ingredients and froze it.  I’ll just need to thaw it, and then we’ll probably grill it (though I might cook it inside).

Chicken Nuggets

I partly follow this recipe from Cook’s Country – they are pretty awesome, almost Chick-fil-A like.  I marinaded the chicken, then battered it, froze the pieces on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, and put them in a freezer bag once they are frozen.

I’ve only done this recipe for the freezer once before, and I haven’t had a chance to decide if they are best when fried in their frozen state or when allowed to thaw first.  I guess we’ll see, because I had a ton of these!

chicken-parmesan

Chicken Parmesan

I made a ton of Chicken Parmesan – probably enough for more than three meals.  I would have cooked even more but I ran out of panko breadcrumbs so I had to freeze a few of the chicken breasts.

To prep this for the freezer, I slice and pound the breasts (a must do if you want tender chicken – it makes a huge difference), then batter and fry and freeze.  When it’s time to eat, I’ll warm the chicken in the oven and then once it’s warm and crispy again, I top with sauce and cheese.

Whole Chickens for Grilling

Once he finally learned how to work it, Jeremy started loving his charcoal grill.  Sometimes, I’ll have him build a little bigger fire than just what he’d need to cook burgers, and when the burgers are done, we’ll put a couple of whole chickens on.  They cook for about an hour (or so), and it’s a great way to use the “leftover” heat that you get with a charcoal grill.

To prep these, I just butterflied them, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and put them in a freezer bag.  (Save the back that you cut out of the chicken for stock!)  Yes, it’s a five-minute process to do it, but the mess of handling a raw chicken is done, and that’s a big deal in my book.

Green Chile Stew

No recipe for this one – maybe someday if I ever perfect a really good one.  This is one that I didn’t actually freeze; we are planning to eat it in the next couple of days so it’s in the refrigerator.  However, it would totally freeze well.

Barbecue Pork

I just slow-cooked a pork roast and then shredded it.  This is another one that would freeze fine, but we’ll be eating it this week so I didn’t freeze it.  I’ll toss it with barbecue sauce once it’s warmed up.

Slow-Cooker Smothered Pork Chops

This is one of those slow cooker meals that requires a fair amount of advance prep but it’s so good and doesn’t taste like a slow cooker.  (Here’s a link to the recipe.)  I cooked the bacon, seared the pork chops, sauteed the onions, and then added the liquid and put in a freezer bag.  It just needs to be thawed, then put in the slow cooker.  There’s a couple of steps after the slow-cooking process but those are easy and make very little mess.  We eat this over mashed potatoes.

marinara-sauce

Sausage Classico & Marinara Sauce

You can find this recipe for a sausage and roasted pepper pasta dish in From Garbage to GourmetIt’s one of my favorites to freeze because the entire sauce freezes well, so it’s basically a matter of warming up the sauce and cooking pasta to serve it.

I make my own marinara sauce to use in this (and with the Chicken Parmesan, too).  I made a big batch, used it in the Sausage Classico, and then froze the rest.  I almost never make the marinara sauce and use it the same day – it’s super easy to make a huge batch and freeze it and use it as needed.

Country-Style Pork Ribs

I used the country-style pork ribs that were on sale at Sprouts last week and rubbed them with a random mixture of spices, seared them, and then put them in a bag and froze.  I’ll just thaw, put them in the slow cooker, and cook for a few hours.  We might have barbecue sauce with these, but they are usually really juicy and flavorful on their own.

I’ve never actually frozen these before, so we’ll see how it goes!  I’m definitely glad to have the mess of rubbing with a spice mixture and searing them out of the way, though.

Sloppy Joes

Make this recipe to the very end.  Freeze.  The end.

breakfast-burritos

Breakfast Burritos

I made up a bunch of breakfast burritos using some chorizo sausage, onions, eggs, red bell pepper, green onions, cheddar cheese, and flour tortillas.  I wrapped them individually in foil because it really varies as to how many we will use – sometimes I’ll just warm up a couple for Jeremy, sometimes everyone will eat one – so I wanted it to be super easy to just take out one or ten.

I’m still trying to find a good way to heat them up without turning on the oven.  (Here is where I admit that we are weird and don’t have a microwave, so that is not an option.)

chicken-stock

Chicken Broth

Used a chicken carcass and some vegetable scraps from the freezer and made two batches of chicken stock using the same stuff.  (Read more about that in From Garbage to Gourmet.)  Now that my cooking for the month is done and we aren’t eating many soups now, I probably won’t be using a ton of it, but my freezer is full of it just in case!

how-i-cook-non-casserole-freezer-meals

That’s it!

Whew.  So there you go.  Actually, there I go.  I’ve got thirty meals in the freezer – yeehaw!

Time will tell if it will be worth it, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t.  It took me about a day and a half to cook everything, but I’m confident I have at least a month’s worth of meals, if not more.  I have the feeling there will be a lot of leftovers, too, so that will cover some of the lunches, too.  And, I’m sure I’ll probably cook a “fresh” meal or two.  (There’s cottage cheese in the refrigerator for Cottage Cheese Patties, and a ham that needs to be cooked sometime before June 9th.)

Give me a day or two to recover and I’ll give you some tips on what worked well, and what didn’t.

Want to learn how to cook for the freezer?

If you are new to freezer cooking, a great primer is my friend Jessica’s cookbook, the Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead and Freeze cookbook.  She goes into great detail and gives you tons of recipes that freeze well.  It’s even got a play-by-play guide for different freezer cooking plans, such as if you just have an hour, or if you have an entire day to devote to it.

Another great resource is the Once A Month Mom site – there are tons of free resources available there, and they have a subscription-based plan that is great if you just want someone to tell you exactly what you need to do and how to do it.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the great tips Carrie. Would you mind sharing your marinara sauce recipe and porcupine meatball recipe with us please?

    Thanks!

  2. Great article Carrie. FYI the Smothered Porkchop recipe is blocked by CI, can you at least identify the “liquids” referenced in your piece? Thanks for all you do, love your site!

  3. Thank you! I think this post will be something that I refer back to time and time again. I would really like to do a couple of big freezer cooking days before Baby #2 arrives in late July. This (combined with the Not Your Mother’s cookbook) will really come in handy.

  4. Yum! Make sure you let us know how the chicken nuggets turn out. I love making homemade breaded chicken, but it makes a huge mess. I would love to be able to make a HUGE amount, freeze them into meal-sized portions, and then only clean up once.

  5. I feel tired just thinking about all of that! I am very impressed. I just need some non-meat options spread in there to make me want to try it.

  6. We did this for many months, probably committed to close to a year and it just got old for us. Our “day” literally started around 8am and was never done before midnight and I usually had to finish up the next morning. All while trying to care for all the kids. We found out quickly that we soon tired of the meals and missed a lot of the fresh stuff which takes some (sometimes a lot!) of prep time in its own so we backed away from once a month cooking. I would like to try some of your starts though and maybe figure out a new way to go about things…

    • I could definitely see how it would get old after awhile. I’m thinking that my meals will probably last much longer than a month, because while we are in a busy time, I enjoy cooking so much that I know I’m going to want to try something new every now and then even if I have a meal in the freezer! We’ll see how it goes.

  7. Wow! Awesome post. Thanks so much! I am part of a freezer meal group. There are four of us in the group. Each month we make enough of 1 meal to feed 4 families. Then, we get together and swap meals. It is really fun to try new recipes and to cut down on the time spent in the kitchen later. I will definitely be using some of your recipes in the future.

  8. Wow! What a great post. I really don’t care for casseroles, so most freezer meals are totally unappealing, and the crock pot gets used for little more than beans, so this is tremendously helpful. Thank you! Love the Garbage to Gourmet book, too. I thought it be a summary of things I already practice, but there was a lot of content that I have never considered.

  9. We don’t use a microwave either!

    We have a little convection oven that sits on the counter that I use to heat up our breakfast burritos.

    It takes less time than the oven, and doesn’t heat up the kitchen as much either :)

    • You know, we used to have a toaster oven but it went out several years ago. I’d love to have one again – like you indicated, it is great for heating up stuff!

  10. Kristina says:

    So there has been a banner ad for this thread for quite some time and my only question is when is the recipe for the porcupine meatballs going to be posted? Someone asked for it and you (Carrie) stated you would post it when you had time. Just wondering if you are going to have time with your new house remodel anytime soon since that was back in April? Honestly I’ve been checking this post for an update and have been pretty patient by not asking until now ;) If you have time, could you please share!

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