LifeHack: January Freezer Meals

If you’ve been following my website for more than a week, you’ll know that a week ago I deleted my entire website.  Four years worth of work, all gone.  For the most part, I’m accepting the loss and moving on.  I was really sad because I had just posted a huge long post on freezer meals and how I was hoping they would impact my life.  It was lost in the Great Delete Debacle of 2015.  While I was preparing one of the January freezer meals tonight, I had a lightbulb moment.  I had recently enabled a feature on my blog that would email me a copy of my posts.  I searched through my enormous gmail account and FOUND my initial January Freezer Meals post.  I’m doing my happy dance and saying “thank you for the inspiration.” I mean, really, I only had two emails sent to me with posts.  It’s truly a miracle that I didn’t lose this one. I’m pasting the original post below with links the to the subsequent posts.  I hope you enjoy this and can learn from my adventure.

If you are anything like me, you’re too busy for your own good.  Life is too precious to “waste” on the mundane details of life.  At this stage in my life, cooking meals falls into the mundane category.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to cook & I definitely love to eat.  But the everyday dinner planning, shopping & cooking is really getting to me.

“Mom, what’s for dinner? I’m hungry.”

I glance at the clock on my computer, completely shocked that it’s already 5:30 and I haven’t even thought about a meal.  I scramble to finish whatever I’m working on and then rush into the kitchen to get something on the table by 6:30.  I’m rushed, short-tempered and completely out of patience when the kids complain that they didn’t want spaghetti, tacos, black beans & rice or pancakes for dinner again.

At the beginning of each month, I take a look at the calendar for the upcoming month and try to estimate how much time I am going to have for various projects.  For example, in January, I have a lot of design commitments, the opportunity for extra hours at my day job as well as several necessary home renovations, which necessitate me working the extra hours at the day job.  When I realized how packed my month was becoming, and it hadn’t even started yet, I started looking for ways to make life easier. First, my kids will be doing more chores than they usually do. Don’t feel bad for them, they don’t do a whole lot. Second, I’m cutting back the non-essentials; we aren’t doing indoor soccer this winter. Third, something has to make mealtime prep easier.

I started browsing Pinterest for easy dinners and quickly realized we wouldn’t eat any of those.  Between my food allergies and my husband’s picky eater syndrome, we’re doomed almost from the beginning.  The “bright” side in meal prep is that my husband is in school two nights a week.  So the kids and I try new meals that Dad wouldn’t usually eat. I noticed something as I was browsing the quick dinner pins on Pinterest, a lot of the meals were crockpot meals.  I’m not a crockpot novice, but I typically make the same four or five things over and over.  They all involve dumping chicken or ground beef & various beans into the crockpot.  They’re good meals, but I didn’t want the same old things.  The crockpot recipes all take 4-8 hours to cook.  4 to 8 hours before dinner is my busy time at my day job.  I took the search one step further.  Let’s make freezer meals that I can either defrost and throw in the crockpot or defrost and throw in the oven.  As soon as I realized that I could do this, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and I got down to business.  I began researching freezer meal recipes and packaging techniques.  I’m not the kind of person to take a little bite out of a project. I go all in.

Step One: I printed off 60-70 freezer/crockpot recipes that looked interesting and started combing through them.

Step Two: I made a little calendar in Microsoft Word because I wanted to be able to move recipes around to various dates without having a huge mess on my paper.

Step Three: I started filling recipes into the calendar.  I started with the recipes that looked most interesting and tried to sort them where they fit our needs best.  For example, Monday & Tuesday nights are our “try new things” days, so I put new recipes there. Wednesday is technically my day off work at my day job (when I am not working extra hours) so I have a little more time I can put into meal prep.  So, I can make side dishes to go with these meals much easier.

Step Three-Point-One: I also tried to make sure that I had at least one low-budget meal on the menu per week.

Step Four: I made a grocery list.  This list was gargantuan.  It was intimidating. It was scary.  I was sure I was going to forget to buy a major ingredient and the whole thing would be ruined.  So, I started with the idea that the list was a rough draft. I added everything I didn’t have in my pantry to the list.  When it came to meat, I listed chicken breasts and made tally marks next to it for each chicken breast I needed.  I did the same for beef strips and hamburger (1/2 lb increments).

Step Five: I typed the grocery list.

Step Six: I organized the grocery list. I knew I was going to do the majority of my shopping for produce, refrigerated grocery items and canned grocery items at Walmart.  I hate shopping at Walmart but they will price match for me (See step seven). I organized my grocery list by the way the store is organized. I started on the side in the refrigerated section, worked my way back to the dairy cases, through the frozen foods, back up through the aisles and finally up to produce.  I bought the meat & frozen veggies all at Sam’s Club.

Step Seven: I price-matched & coupon printed.  I knew that I needed to keep this as inexpensive as possible. I went through the grocery ads for the major grocery chains around here and made notes on my shopping lists about where the prices were lowest.  When I opened the next ad, if their price was lower, I changed the info.  This is why I typed the list.

Step Eight: I printed the grocery list

Step Nine: I went shopping… with my husband and two kids, on a holiday.  Never again.  My husband got a bit nervous as the grocery bill totaled over $300.  But I was also buying food for school and work lunches & breakfasts.  We usually spend more than that, it’s just spread over four weeks.  We will still need produce, bread & milk throughout the month, but this was the bulk of the expenses.

Step Ten: When I got home, I put all the perishable items in the refrigerator and/or freezer and got organized.  This likely should have happened BEFORE the shopping trip, but I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t need to swap out a recipe if the major ingredients weren’t available.

Step Ten-Point-One: I sorted the recipes by meat- all the chicken recipes together, all the hamburger recipes together, all the beef strip recipes together.

Step Ten-Point-Two: I set the recipes out on the counter (this is why I printed them) with either a Ziploc Gallon Freezer bag or a disposable aluminum pan on them.  I have tiny counters, so I did the chicken recipes first.

Step Ten-Point-Three: Label your containers with a sharpie.  Label them with the recipe title and cooking instructions.

Step Eleven: Begin preparing your meals.  I cut the chicken into long strips, about two to three strips per chicken breast. I don’t like cubes of chicken. I don’t know why, but I don’t.  I separated the chicken out into each bag kind of following the recipes.  We don’t eat a ton of meat, so a total of two to three chicken breasts per meal is perfect for our family.

Step Twelve: Following the recipes, begin adding vegetables to your bags.  For some of the recipes I decided that I didn’t want the veggies cooking all day long with the meat so I actually put the veggies in a separate quart-size bag inside the gallon bag.

Step Thirteen: Following the recipes, make your sauces and add to your bags.  Some of the sauces ended up in sandwich bags inside the veggie bags inside the gallon bags.

Step Fourteen: Squeeze the air of the bags and zip closed.  Lay them flat in the freezer to begin the freezing process.  You’ll want to add things as you finish them so that each batch of recipes has a chance to begin freezing before you add more stuff to the freezer.

Step Fifteen: As you finish a recipe, make a mark on your menu so that you know you actually made the meal and it ended up in the freezer.  I had a few things that were on the menu that didn’t have printed recipe so I really wanted to make sure they ended up being made and got in the freezer.  Keep your recipes.  You can use them another month or you can refer to them as you prepare the meals.

Step Sixteen: Give yourself a pat on the back as you look around and realize that you are organized in at least one aspect of your life.  I made 27 freezer meals in 10 hours of work-time and another 2 hours of shopping.  It would have gone much more quickly if it hadn’t been New Years’ Eve at Walmart with the kids and husband.

Here are some tips and things that I wish I had thought of BEFORE I started this process...

Wear tennis shoes. If you’re cooking for a month like me, your feet will be sore.

Lay out your recipes & prepare your packaging before you even shop.  Figure out whether you want to use a disposable baking pan or a Ziploc bag. I used the 3/$1 round baking pans from Dollar Tree for several recipes. They have a cardboard lid and resemble a takeout container.  After they were filled I put on the cardboard lid, then wrapped them in plastic wrap to keep out air. They are perfect for our family of 2 adults & 2 kids.

Start with an immaculately clean kitchen. You will need every saucepan, measuring spoon, measuring cup, cutting board and wooden spoon you own, plus you’ll wish you had more of each.  I used every counter & chair in my kitchen to lay bags until they were ready for the freezer.

If you have meals that need to be cooked or partially cooked before they are frozen, do those first. Let them come to room temperature, cool in the refrigerator, then freeze.  Don’t put hot foods in the freezer.

Some people prefer to shop & chop on the same day, then prepare the bags the next day. I just want to get it over with all in one day.  I got a fountain Coke at Sam’s after I bought the meat, came home, turned on Pandora and got to work. Did I mention that it was 7pm when I got home? I worked until 3am, then another two hours the next day finishing up the simple items. For me, this was perfect.  It allowed the kids to help prepare some of the meals without them being underfoot the entire time.  I sorely underestimated the amount of almond milk (I’m allergic to dairy) and the amount of garlic I would need. I sent my husband back out to buy more.  It’s a good thing he loves me and supports my crazy whims.

Also, after each meal, make notes on the recipe about what you would change if you made it again.

I’ll post our findings & experiences as we eat our way through the month’s recipes.  Follow my Pinterest board for Freezer Meals – January to see what recipes we are trying.

I’ve since been informed that there is a website that can help you with a LOT of these steps. I haven’t tried it yet. But it comes highly recommended from Courtney, a fellow digital scrapbooker. She recommends a site called Plan To Eat. They have a 30 day free trial. So, when I am ready to start round 2, I’ll probably give it a try.  At $4.95/month it’s probably worth a try anyway.  If you’ve used it or decide to give it a try, I’d love to know about your experience.  Thanks, Courtney!

You can check out all of my freezer meals posts here.  Enjoy!

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