Planning has been the main topic on my mind lately. The kids are back in school and I have had a few weeks at home to get some projects accomplished and get this here little blog back up to speed. No matter what happens, the same question gets asked every day….
What’s for dinner?
Yep, for some reason these kids seem to think they need to eat. Every. Single. Day. Seriously, what’s that all about?
So, I’m adding freezer meals to my planning. I know, there are tons of great resources out there; full blogs dedicated to this even. I have tried several different ready made plans over the years. Most of them were wonderful and provided my family with healthy, tasty meals. We hit some home runs, the problem is, we never hit any grand slams! I had to do some tweaking to make the recipes work for 80% of my family. Yea, 4/5ths of the family liking something is typically good enough in my book (someone always complains about something).
But I learned a lot from those plans. I also learned a lot by not planning. Ultimately, I learned I need my own freezer meal recipes. I need to incorporate the skills I learned from the previous plans I followed.
Where to start
First things first… what am I going to make? This may sound daunting but it doesn’t have to. Sit down with your family, or at least your pickiest eaters. IronFish will eat anything put in front of him. Occasionally he’ll tell me when he really likes something but for the most part, I could burn a sponge, pour some BBQ sauce on it and he’d eat it.
JuneBug is my most adventurous eater. She’s open to trying new things, doesn’t complain about vegetables or texture, and likes a lot of foods. O-Man tries to turn his nose up at everything. Once he starts eating, he doesn’t complain too much and frequently asks for more (especially when he’s growing!). He’s also my child most likely to request vegetables and would pick fruit over most foods. He’s been known to eat whole cantaloupes and watermelons!
Then there’s Tasha… she’s been a problem from day one. Textures bother her, she chews every bite FOREVER and looks like she’s in pain eating. When she was 6 she still wanted baby food and refused to chew food. Doctors all said there was nothing wrong and we’ve suffered through it. Tasha is always the last to finish a meal and frequently pulls dish duty because we all finish a half hour before her.
And then there’s the allergies. She is predominately allergic to chemicals (cleaning supplies, fragrances) and nature (pollen, grass). While she’s tested negative to food allergies, her allergist feels she has some food sensitivities. Taking wheat out of her diet has done wonders for her. I too do better without wheat, so at least she’s not alone.
The kids sat down with me and listed off meals they liked. Objections were also discussed. Some were easy to address (sauce or seasoning can be added later). Others we decided would be made for special occasions, particularly when only one person loves something.
It wasn’t the most creative list, but we managed to come up with 15+ meals that everyone can agree on!
Divide up the list
Some things I knew I wouldn’t be making to freeze. My kids like ham, but it tastes salty when frozen. I know I could make chicken nuggets and freeze them, but I don’t, I purchase them frozen. Pizza, I make occasionally, but typically see this as a treat and will order or bake pre-made frozen ones. Pasta is shelf stable and since I make and can my own sauce, this isn’t part of my plans. Chicken nuggets, pizza and pasta all require me to make gluten free accommodations also, but we’ve already found GF versions we’re happy with. Ham lasts a long time in the fridge, so that’s where it stays.
That leaves everything else that we all agree on that can be frozen, or the other 3/4ths of our list. I break this down into a few more categories.
Add all ingredients and cook later
Beef stew, BBQ spare ribs, apple glazed pork chops and maple mustard chicken are all examples of things we like that I can add all the ingredients to a freezer bag and then not deal with again until it’s time to throw in the crock pot. Some people feel that the crock pot makes things mushy. I have personally learned a few ways around this that satisfies my family.
If it’s going to be in the crock pot all day, it goes in frozen. I’ve heard people say that it’s better to defrost meats before putting them in the crock pot. I find if I have to put it in at 9am and it’s going to cook until 5 or 6pm, cooking it on low from frozen rarely results in overcooked meats. I also make sure to have enough liquid so it doesn’t dry out.
Um, Emily, did you notice only one the beef stew is a complete meal?
Yep, it’s one of the few crock pot meals we all enjoy that results in no sides needing to be prepared. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you how I balance it out without a ton of work at the witching hour. Here’s one quick solution… wrap large potatoes or sweet potatoes in tin foil. Lay them on top of your meat and let them cook away. Then add a premade salad or steam in the bag veggie to complete the meal.
Meals that include precooked chicken
I make this a category because it can be accomplished in one of 3 ways. First, canned precooked chicken. I resort to this occasionally, but usually reserve this option for adding protein to IronFish’s lunches when he’s training. It’s not the most cost effective option. Second, cook a whole bunch of chicken, let it cool and then shred it. I also don’t do this too often because it takes too long. Third, my preferred method, buy a whole bunch of rotisserie chickens at Costco and shred them.
Costco rotisserie chickens aren’t organic, but they aren’t pumped full of antibiotics and are super juicy. They are also huge and only $5! Seriously, the rotisserie chickens at my local grocery store are $6.99 and half the size. Plus, this is my prep work on my freezer shopping meal days. I buy 4 chickens. The kids always want the legs, so now the 3 of them can fight over 8 legs instead of 2. I pull all the wings off and toss them in a bag with BBQ sauce. We do occasionally buy and eat a rotisserie chicken, so I always add to it. Then BBQ wings become the main course one night when there is enough to feed everyone.
I’m surrounded by a flock of birds, now what?
Just start pulling the chicken apart. I shred it up and put it in a large bowl. Bones get tossed in a bag and frozen for making chicken stock another time. I typically do this in the evening, after dinner the night before I plan my meal making day, so the bowl goes into the fridge overnight.
We have several meals we all like to incorporate this chicken into. Chicken and rice casserole, cilantro chicken taco bowls and chicken fried rice are probably our favorites. I make tons of brown rice to add to whatever recipe calls for it. For casseroles, I put everything in the bag but you can use disposable pans if you want. I let the bag defrost in the fridge overnight and pour it into a casserole dish when I’m ready to cook it.
Taco bowls are simply all the ingredients we like and I reheat it in a skillet, then we eat it with multi-grain tortilla chips. Fried rice is also reheated on the stove, I scramble eggs in towards the end. The possibilities of meals using precooked chicken are endless! I frequently use the same basic ingredients but change the sauces and seasonings to make it taste completely different.
Ground beef meals
Ground beef is another category that deserves individual attention. Sometimes I make several meatloafs. Other times I roll and precook hundreds of meatballs. Frequently I cook up a large vat of ground beef with onions and peppers to divide into other meals.
Ground beef with black beans, corn and taco seasoning can simply be reheated and made into tacos (or another version of taco bowls). Add it to marinara sauce and top pasta. Mixed with corn and peas and topped with a layer of mashed potatoes and you’ve got sheppard’s pie (well, a version of it!).
Again, there are lots of meals that can be made with ground beef. Typically I get 4-5 lbs of beef and 4-5 lbs of ground turkey and mix it together. This makes quite a few meals!
Not everyone likes casseroles or stews when the whole meal is mixed together. Personally, I don’t mind them, but would probably tire of them if it was all I made. It’s great to have the meat prepped for me, but some days by the time I’m ready to start dinner, the last thing I want to do is try to figure out what to make WITH the main course.
I aim to have gluten free dinners. As I said earlier, some things we’ve already found acceptable alternatives for Tasha and me. Pasta is easy enough to make while I heat up something else. Instant rice is easy also, but what we all prefer is slow cook brown rice made with homemade chicken stock and a bit of butter. Several of my recipes call for rice; I make lots of it. Some gets added to the meals and some I put in a bag and freeze. Then, when we are ready for it, I reheat it in the microwave.
Potatoes are another option for us. We all love mashed potatoes, but I hate making them! I used to only peel them for holidays and leave the skins on a week night. Guess what, mashed potatoes freeze easily! I now make 20 lbs of mashed potatoes, bag them up and freeze. I’ll use them on top of sheppard’s pie. Sometimes I reheat them in a frying pan with butter until they get a nice golden crust (I’ve always liked mashed potatoes better this way the next day!). Or spread them in a casserole dish with a few pats of butter and let them bake while I oversee homework.
Many of my meals have carrots, corn and peas in them. Personally, I love asparagus and roasted cauliflower, but only IronFish and I do. Nights that I know I have a bit more time, or am in the mood to try a new recipe, then I use other veggies. Carrots, corn and peas can be agreed upon by the whole family. I get big bags at Costco. Not only do I use them in my recipes, but 5 minutes in a the microwave and they are ready to spoon onto plates. I also stock up on steam in the bag veggies when they go on sale. Broccoli and sugar snap peas are our favorites of these.
Knowing what to make is the biggest hurdle. There is nothing worse than spending a whole day cooking and prepping meals only to find out that people are going to complain and generally not be happy with all your hard work. Sit down with your family and come up with some recipes that meet your family’s needs.
Then, stay tuned for part two. I’ll share some tips and tricks to making the process easier.