I tried a “cook for a month” sort of cooking day once, and it was EXHAUSTING. 3 days’ work. Not my thing – but I do love my freezer to make healthy, real food meals possible and quick!!!
Once I start cooking, it’s a whirlwind from start to finish. As a mother of young children, it’s important to save steps as much as possible. I want dinner on the table quickly…but I don’t want to rely on fast food or packaged dinners. I like to think outside the box. What works for me?
Call me the freezer queen.
One of my favorite strategies is to utilize my freezer space to the utmost (almost to abuse, probably). I have a LOT of wonderful real food in there, a mix of ingredients, whole foods convenience foods, and homemade food, frozen for later.
Here are the items you’ll always find ready to go in my freezer that make dinner prep go MUCH faster.
Real Food in the Freezer To Save Time
I buy peppers by the bushel basket from the farmers market in the summer for cheap and slice or dice them for the freezer. I use them all year long in soups, chili, stir fry, fajitas, etc. Peppers do not need to be blanched. Just don’t eat them raw after freezing – yuck.
This is so important! Don’t expect to put diced peppers from the freezer on your salad. They are going to come out mushy, so they’re really only for cooked applications.
Chopped and in a bag, ready to throw in anything. I can chop extra onions while prepping an easy meal or even after the kids are asleep. I use my easy food chopper, one of my favorite kitchen gadgets ever! Onions need no blanching.
If you try this, make sure to get the chopped onions in the freezer quickly so they don’t start to get watery. Freeze the bag as flat (thin) as possible at first, even if you are going to store it in the door like I do for easy access. Also double bag for odor protection. You might have to bang them around on the counter to break up a big clump, but it’s a good way to take out some aggression! I love that this also saves tears, because you only have to cut onions once for 5 meals or so.
My kids have been able to help me keep those stocked a little bit too, although I admit that we eat so much these days that it’s almost easier to just cut onions as needed. When we really get going using this onion cutting trick for no tears, we might get a half a quart bag in the freezer. But when my kids were younger and I was able to prep ahead more – because meals were smaller and had more pasta and fewer veggies – frozen diced onions were an integral part of my sanity!
How to Select Onions: Look for crisp, dry outer skin. Avoid mushy, moist, dark patches, sprouts, and mold. If it takes you a while to get around to chopping and freezing them, they’ll last longest if you store them in a cool or room temp place that is dark, well-ventilated (i.e. not in a plastic bag, best scenario is wire basket so air can move all around), and not near potatoes.
How to Cut Onions: I generally chop off both ends, slice down the middle to get the peels off easier (learned that from Rachel Ray), and then knock both halves around with my food chopper. Gosh, I love that thing! If you don’t have one, here are some how-to descriptions:
A tear-less note: Chill the onions for an hour or more to take some of the sting and tears out of the process, and here’s the trick that my son loves to use when he cuts onions.
The best way to get any residual oniony smells off your hands is to wash your hands in cool water and run them with stainless steel. I usually use a spoon or the side of a stainless steel sink. Somehow a chemical reaction happens and the smell is removed!
We don’t eat a lot of raw celery, so that’s definitely something at risk of turning to mush in the fridge if I didn’t freeze it. I have one bag of diced and one of big chunks. The latter mostly goes into homemade stock, or gets cut up when I run out of dices! No need to blanch.
4. Spicy peppers:
For $1/quart instead of $1 apiece. I simply wash and halve jalapenos and more from the market in the summer, and then I use them for cooking recipes like this awesome dip , this dressing, or these jalepeno poppers all winter long. I’ve never run out!
5. Other frozen veggies:
I don’t bother cleaning and blanching veggies myself, because there would be zero cost savings to buying my own (and possibly a cost loss on top of a definite expenditure of time!). I love Costco again for this, as well as ALDI. Frozen veggies allow me not only to grab a side veg at any given moment and have it ready in 5-10 minutes, but also to make beautiful side/main dishes like this one, from the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse:
6. Cubes of chicken broth:
I make my own perpetual bone broth and freeze some of it in can-sized portions and some in ice cube trays. This is ideal for those doggone recipes that call for 1 cup of chicken broth. What are you supposed to do with the rest of the can? If you don’t make your own broth, freeze “the rest of the can” in ice cube trays for next time. I also freeze stock in glass and have learned how to freeze in glass jars without breaking any too many, ever. You can also freeze stock flat in zippered bags, but cool it first.
Bonus: Find freezable “cream of” casserole recipes here plus freezable homemade cream of chicken soup.
If you’re a real food cook, you probably know what I mean. Beef bones that came with our portion of cow purchase, chicken bones that didn’t get made into stock quite yet, and turkey bones from Thanksgiving that my neighbor brought over. ‘Cause I attract weird offers like, “Hey, do you want my turkey bones!?”
8. Stock veggie bag:
When I’m cutting veggies I’ll save onion, carrot, garlic and celery ends, leaves, skins, etc. in a big bag in my main freezer (so it’s close to the cutting board and quick!). Whenever I make stock, the first and second batch usually require no additional veggies, saving me time and also money. Win-win!
9. Shredded cheese:
We shred our own, most of the time, because it tastes better and avoids some random ingredients in processed shredded cheese. That way when Paul gets a hankering to make cheesy taco dip on a Sunday afternoon, we’re ready for him:
He learned to make a basic roux/bechamel during the kids cooking class, and then he was inspired to add new ingredients – salsa and leftover taco meat – to make it his own thing. Love it!
10. Home-cooked beans:
When I cook dry beans, I cook as much as my pot will fit, and then I freeze them in two or four-cup portions for super easy meals later. I’ll use cottage cheese or sour cream containers which equal about “one can” worth, or use quart bags for 4 cups (2 cans) OR go for space saving and use 4 cups in a quart bag. Helpful tip: always label how many cups of something right on the container, and then you can often use them in a recipe without measuring again.
11. Cooked Bacon:
Every time we have bacon, I fry up the whole pound and freeze the leftovers. It can be crumbled into recipes that call for cooked bacon, plus it’s my favorite topping for homemade pizza. I also freeze pepperoni as soon as we open it.
12. Lemon and Lime Juice:
I try to find these on reduced produce, or at least a whole bag on sale. I juice them all and freeze in ice cube trays in 1 Tbs portions. They can be popped right into recipes like White Chicken Chili, or thawed and used for Homemade Guacamole. You can also freeze the zest to use in future recipes even when you don’t have a fresh lemon on hand.
Sliced and sugared. Mmmm, nothing beats June strawberries in the dead of winter. We use a lot of frozen fruit in yogurt (click here for my easy homemade no dishes yogurt instructions!), so this is essential to have on hand, plus much less expensive to buy in season. We freeze whole berries, green parts included (yes really!!), to throw into green smoothies.
Another way I love to use summer berries is to blend and dehydrate homemade fruit rolls.
14. Frozen blueberries:
U-pick. 6 people picking = 47 pounds or so? ‘Nuf said.
We can’t u-pick enough to fill our homemade yogurt and smoothies all year long, so we do have bags of mixed berries, pineapple, and sometimes strawberries once June’s bounty runs out. Costco is my friend on that.
15. Leftover smoothies:
Frozen in Squooshi pouches for lunches or quick toddler snacks! You have no idea what a lifesaver not only the fill-your-own Squooshi pouches but the sip’n top has been. Toddlers can’t squeeze the puree out all over themselves! Love it!
16. Meatballs and Chicken Nuggets:
Easy meals! I make at least 4-5 pounds of meatloaf mix every time I make it and just make a few meatloaves and a bunch of meatballs. I can just toss a dozen into a pot with a jar of sauce, and dinner is ready in 10 minutes. Homemade chicken nuggets are a tiny bit time consuming, and I love being able to do the dishes once for three meals or so. The nuggets freeze individually and can be popped out and warmed in the toaster oven in 10 minutes or less.
17. Cooked meat:
When we have roasted chicken, anything with homemade sausage, or anything with browned ground beef, I always make double or quadruple what we need. I’ll thaw four pounds of ground meat, cook it up all at once, use 1/2-1 pound of it for dinner and freeze the rest in half to three-quarter pound packages. Then it’s ready for any soup, casserole, or to throw into jarred spaghetti sauce for a super quick meal.
I love to be able to pull out cooked meat for dinner or even just a half cup to add to eggs or something like Paul’s cheese sauce (see above) or this crustless quiche.
18. Shredded zucchini:
Another summer bounty item. I always buy four humongous ones for a dollar at the Farmer’s Market, shred them all at once in the blender (or food processor) – notice doing less dishes is a theme here! – and freeze in Ziplocs in 2-cup portions for zucchini bread in the winter. You can also freeze cubed zucchini without blanching or shredded in ice cube trays to add to recipes. Sneak it into soups and casseroles, even jarred spaghetti sauce, to boost the veggie content of the meal. You can also do this with carrots.
When we were working through the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse and zukes were high in season, and I bought some humongous ones for super cheap and enlisted my 10-year-old’s help to stock the freezer. He got to use both his sharp knife skills and food processor skills (guess which one he likes better) and we put many 8-cup bags of shredded zucchini in the freezer. We’ll add that to soups, randomly, as well as make recipes with it throughout the winter.
You can’t beat the sales onjust before Christmas when everyone is thinking about baking. I try to buy enough to last the whole year and just toss the thick bags in the freezer. I also chop a whole pound at a time in my blender and store that bag in the door of the freezer to add to quick breads and cookies.
Nuts are shelf stable, sort of. Walnuts especially, but others too, have oils that can go rancid. I prefer to freeze them to be safe, especially once they’re made into crispy nuts, which are primo delicious but not if they get stale.
20. Easy homemade yogurt starter:
This is like an insurance policy for my homemade yogurt – I have a quarter cup of plain yogurt, frozen, plus a little jar of a special countertop culture that I got from a friend in there, in case I ever mess up my batch! I don’t ever want to lose the countertop culture.
21. Home-ground flours:
Since I have a Nutrimill grain mill, even flour is “something to do.” I’d much rather grind once and use twice and store extras in the freezer than have to get out the grinder for every cup of flour I need. All the bags are labels and crammed in there! John loved helping to make this healthy pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving; he was so proud to tell everyone about “his” pie!
22. Homemade breads and pancakes:
Less and less these days, but when we have enough rolls or pancakes leftover at breakfast I love to freeze them for emergencies later! I was able to stock my freezer with homemade tortillas for the first time in years after Leah learned how to roll and fry them up. It’s a super time-consuming process, but she does amazing:
23. Homemade muffins:
When I make these grain-free coconut flour muffins, I always do at least a double batch. They thaw SO nicely, and they are a great emergency addition to a lunchbox or for an afternoon snack.
24. Extra soup:
Soup is my favorite. Can I marry soup? Oh right…I’m already married. I love to make soup because a huge batch appears and feeds us for many meals without me having to do crazy things like juggle 3 casserole dishes! When I can free 6 cups or more, I know that will make an acceptable emergency meal for us!
25. Other pre-made meals:
I haven’t made time for freezer cooking in a long time, but when I can sneak in an extra meal as I’m making dinner, I love myself later. My favorites is when I can make 2-3 meals using similar ingredients, freeze some and have one for dinner that day. I did that in under an hour with these freezer-to-slow-cooker beauties and these freezer-friendly casseroles.
A bag of leftover cooked veggies for soup. See this post for details.
Was that an exhaustive list?
Not quite, but I’m not going to tell you about the ice cream that fills some remaining space…
I remember being particularly grateful to have food in the freezer as we worked to build the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse one summer.
I hardly had to buy anything at the store other than lettuce, cucumbers, and bananas, because everything was in my freezer. And I’m even more grateful that my kids are old enough and skilled enough to help me keep up on the constant flow of food needed to feed them all! There are some borrowed extra children in the photo below; I have 4 that are rightfully mine. 😉
We worked really hard over the summer to add skills to their repertoire (over 30 of them!), and now I’d love to teach your kids, too.
Foods that aren’t worth freezing:
If the veggies do require blanching, it’s obviously a ton more work, and I’d personally rather just buy them in frozen bags or fresh on demand (although if I grew my own garden, I’d take the time to preserve in the freezer):
- green beans
Pasta and eggs are two more very good examples of things that do NOT freeze well. (Saucy pasta dishes do okay, but plain pasta isn’t very nice).
Potatoes can also be hit and miss, usually depending on how much sauce is in the dish. For example, cream of potato soup freezes acceptably (be ready for the taters themselves to be mushy), but mashed potatoes lose a lot of moisture and many people don’t like the result. I don’t mind it, but you definitely sacrifice some quality.
Know when to lower your standards just slightly for the reheated finished product (and freeze in portions that you’ll use!) and you’ll be all good…
How to Freeze Extra Meals Without Spending a Day Batch Cooking
I’m a huge fan of cooking a double batch of whatever I’m making for dinner on a given night and freezing the extras. It’s like giving yourself a Christmas gift when you get to serve an easy meal that is totally ready to go from your freezer.
There are a lot of websites and books out there devoted entirely to making freezer meals. I find that I don’t trust new recipes if I’m going to be making multiple meals out of them – it stinks to make a gi-normous batch of something that your family ends up disliking. I think it’s far better to look at your own favorite meals (or test drive the freezer cookbook recipes first) and figure out what can be frozen well. Use those website resources for ideas on how to freeze and store or how to manage your time for batch cooking.
Meals I Often Freeze…
- Soup in quart or spaghetti sauce jars (sometimes plastic if I run out). Don’t forget to leave at least an inch of space for expansion. Broken jars are no fun.
- Casseroles in glass casserole dishes with lids. Try to shoot for as little head room as possible so you don’t waste freezer space, and cover with a layer of tinfoil or freezer paper between the food and the lid to prevent freezer burn.
- You can freeze soups and even casseroles in freezer bags, which is very space economical. Try to freeze them really flat for easier storage, and thaw in the fridge with something under the bag (a plate or bowl) in case there’s a small hole in the bag. Nobody likes a puddle of goop in the fridge!
- Quick breads and muffins in freezer paper.
- Dough just goes in plastic bags. When you make pizza dough just make a double batch and freeze half of it. You just saved yourself 20 minutes next time you make homemade pizza!
- If I was freezing something like veggie bean burritos or a casserole with tortillas (enchiladas, for example), I would freeze the filling(s) (refried beans freeze well) separately and assemble them into the tortillas the night I bake it. Filled tortillas (at least with sauce) always get really soggy in the freezer.
There are very few things that don’t work in the freezer, although potatoes not in a casserole are one that comes to mind. There aren’t really a lot of rules for freezer containers, either. Just experiment with what you already have, and remember that the more freezer approved layers you have between the food and the air, the better.
Learn how to reheat frozen meals withOUT using the microwave.
This might be THE most important tip!!!
With three freezers in the house used extensively, if I didn’t have lists of what’s in there, I’d be creating a landing pad for garbage instead of food storage and wasting a lot of my own money and time.
I personally think that freezer lists are vital and can’t imagine living without them. The photo above is an older one but shows how I keep it accessible – on the side of my fridge, with a pen for writing on the list and a permanent marker for writing on the food, all right there.
My newer system is seriously 3-4 pages, but it’s all organized by category: broth/stock, cooked beans, nuts, chicken, beef, pork, fruits, vegetables, baked goods, ready-to-eat meals, and miscellaneous. I use the printables that come as a bonus item with the purchase of my eBook Better Than a Box, and I’m more organized than ever!
Some of my family members who visit often will marvel at the fact that I can keep up with it and often say, “I could never do that; I’d forget to update it and it would be obsolete within weeks and not helpful anyway…”
I’m totally the opposite; I could never not do it. It’s not always easy to remember to update it, but after this many years, it’s totally second nature. I get something from the freezer, and it’s like not washing my hands after using the restroom until I’ve marked it off on my sheet. Usually, I’ve already just looked at my list to see what I needed to go get anyway, so it’s sitting on the counter anyway.
It’s the same putting things in the freezer – if I set something in there and haven’t written it down, I have a foreboding feeling like “I’m going to forget all about that!” until it’s documented.
I don’t think there’s one perfect way, probably hundreds of methods that will work, but I do think you have to keep a list if you’ve got more freezer space than just what’s attached to your fridge.
Shape Matters if Space Matters in the Freezer
Choosing the right container can make the difference between loving your freezer or crying every time you try to manage it.
If you have limited space, you need to take that into consideration. Round containers waste a ton more space than square containers, and plastic zippered bags take the least space of all, no matter what you’re freezing. If you’re super anti-plastic, you’re stuck with freezing in glass jars or buying containers just for freezing – if you do have to do that, get square shapes to save space.
If you don’t believe me that plastic bags take less space, try putting four cups of cooked beans into a quart jar and then into a quart bag. There’s no comparison, and you can stack bags super flat to maximize every square inch even more.
Why I Have Empty Ziplocs in My Freezer
Call me frugal, efficient, or lazy – I’ll acknowledge them all. Any way you look at it, you may wonder why I have empty Ziplocs in my freezer. It’s all about doing fewer dishes and being prepared for healthy eating, my friend.
Some of my shortcuts when preparing a meal using real food involve doing some prep at other times as I mentioned above. If I’m cutting onions, I ask myself: “Do I have time today to cut extra?” If I do, I throw some in that freezer bag that is always in my freezer.
I mean always. If I’m out, I still leave the empty bag in there. It’s frozen, so I can then reuse it without problem, plus if I find it empty I know I’m out of cut onions, so I don’t keep looking “just in case”. It’s not like I could wash away the scent of raw onion and reuse that bag anyway!
Similarly in my fridge, sometimes you’ll find an empty plastic container in my meat and cheese drawer. It’s just waiting to be filled with sliced cheese.
When I’m slicing cheese, I slice enough to fill the box. This way, when my little ones say, “Can I have cheese and crackers for a snack?” and I can say, “Sure, help yourself.” I don’t have to wash the cheese slicer or box every day, and we often are as ready to make sandwiches as the folks who shell out extra cash for pre-sliced cheese.
I store the box empty because I hate dishes, and if I put it out on the counter to wait for more, it might get stinky.
I also try to shred my own cheese instead of paying Kraft or Meijer to do it for me. They add weird stuff to keep it from caking. I hear it’s made of trees.
But I do hate washing the cheese grater or food processor. So I shred a box full at a time…and I leave the box in the fridge if it’s empty!
Other items that fill the empty containers:
- baby carrots for packed lunches
- soup-bound leftover cooked veggies
- salad lettuce that I haven’t washed, spun and chopped yet
- homemade applesauce
- dried out bread to be made into bread crumbs
- on my counter: if I have something dry like biscuits, I often reuse the container after just knocking out the crumbs in the garbage.
- …and my lunchbag often has a used sandwich baggie in it. If it’s something dry like crackers, I figure I can reuse the bag and save the Earth a little while I’m at it!
So if you visit my kitchen and open my freezer, your first thought will be: “Whoa. That’s a full freezer.” And then you’ll start to wonder why there are empty Ziplocs in there.
Hope you can benefit from my oh-so-lazy kitchen timesaver!
Set Realistic Thawing Expectations
Like any appliance, you can’t expect more out of your freezer than it’s designed for.
You wouldn’t be mad at your refrigerator if you pulled out month-old leftovers and they were totally nasty, but many people think it’s the freezer’s fault (or something other than themselves!) when they’re not happy with frozen food once they try to use it.
The key is to know what you’re going to end up with and set realistic thawing expectations.
- Frozen veggies can’t be used raw, only cooked.
- Frozen fruit is awesome eaten frozen, great in cooked recipes, but will be mushy if you let it thaw naturally. Sometimes that’s ok (blueberries in yogurt), sometimes it’s not (apple slices maybe?). Sliced peaches (photo above) are amazing if you eat them still half frozen, like ice cream without the ice cream!
- Some breads will need to be toasted or heated in order to be enjoyable because they’re likely to be a bit dry or crumbly otherwise (homemade tortillas, English muffins, pitas and flatbreads, cornbread, biscuits).
- A whole loaf of yeast bread or quick bread freezes really well and can thaw to regular room-temp eating beauty. Very moist muffins (like the ones pictured above or these grain-free muffins) also do awesome and can be eaten without heating once completely thawed. Muffins on the dry side are another story.
- Most cookies, if frozen right away when they’re fresh, thaw excellently and can be eaten without heating.
- Be sure to follow the best practices for freezing, like getting all the air out of your bags, leaving headroom in glass jars, and freezing meals that will thaw nicely, and you’ll be happier with the results.
Bonus tip: If whatever you’re thawing might possibly leak – raw fruit, meat, leftovers in a zippered bag – please be smarter than me and put it in a bowl to thaw in the fridge. I’ve cleaned up too many raw meat juice messes to count, and I still don’t always learn my lesson!
Now let’s dish on YOUR freezer! Please tell me sometimes it’s hard to find things?