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Make-Ahead Meals: How to Freeze and Reheat Full Dishes

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
1/7/2013 12:00 PM   :  28 comments   :  53,368 Views

Finding time to make a healthy dinner is a challenge for many of us. One of the best tips you'll hear is to freeze meals for busy nights to avoid the greasy drive-thru or pricey takeout traps. But how do you know if a meal will freeze well? How much time will it take to create a few make-ahead meals? And how in the world do you reheat and serve those frozen meals?
 
We've got you covered.

Before You Begin:
  1. Pick a day to plan meals.  Ask your kids, spouse, or friends for ideas.  Better yet, log onto SparkRecipes.com for easy, quick recipes.  Peruse grocery store ads, then make your final meal plan. 
  2. Write your grocery list--and take it with you when you shop.
  3. Once home, store recipe ingredients together in your pantry and refrigerator.
  4. Set aside a couple of hours to cook your freeze-for-later meals.  (Make sure you follow food safety guidelines for storage and reheating.)
Learn the Basics of Meal Planning
 
Before you head to the store, let's talk about which foods freeze well, and which don't:

Foods That Freeze Well

  • Brown rice: cook a double batch, let cool and package in one-cup servings (store in resealable bags or 1-cup plastic containers). 
  • Cooked proteins, including chicken, pork and beef: Grill or bake large batches, then package in single-servings or place parchment paper between pieces.
  • Cooked beans: Use your slow cooker to cook dried beans or simmer on the stove top. Let cool, then package with a bit of the cooking liquid in single-serve portions. Freeze in resealable bags laid flat.
  • Cooked potatoes and other root vegetables: bake or roast, let cool, then store in single-servings or family-size portions.
  • Pasta: Undercook it (less than al dente) or you will end up with mush.
 

Foods That Don't Freeze Well

  • Cream cheese: the water in the cheese separates and makes it grainy.
  • Raw vegetables: Only freeze them if you'll cook them later. (Read: Fresh vs. Frozen: Dos and Don'ts of Saving for the Off-Season)
  • Lettuce, such as romaine, green leaf, and spinach. 
  • Crumb toppings on casseroles: Add them just before reheating. They'll get soggy in the freezer.
  • Raw potatoes: They will turn black due to oxidation

Guidelines for Freezing

  • Freeze in shallow dishes, which will allow for quick reheats.  Remember the purpose of the pre-cooking step is to save you time on the day you want to serve the casserole.
     
  • Cool foods to appropriate temperatures before freezing. Cooling hot foods in a refrigerator is not optimal. It raises the temperature inside your refrigerator so foods surrounding the hot items become susceptible to spoilage.  Make an ice bath in your kitchen sink to cool foods down before freezing.  Close the drain to the sink, fill with a large bucket of ice then cold water to the point that it reaches halfway up the outside of your dish.  Stir to help release excess heat and steam.
     
  • Date and label your casseroles.  Go one step further and note the cooking time and temperature, according to the recipe.
     
  • Most casseroles will freeze well for up to 2 months.

 
Guidelines for Thawing and Reheating

Freezing foods does not kill germs.  This is why food should not be thawed at room temperature.  Always cook frozen foods while still frozen or thaw them in refrigerator first.  To maintain the best quality of your frozen casserole dishes cook frozen covered with aluminum foil for most of the cooking time.  You may find that your casseroles will take 15-30 minutes longer to reheat depending on the cooking time noted. Bake until casseroles reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
 

Great Recipes for Make-Ahead Meals

 

Chicken and Vegetable Casserole

Freezing tip:  Add the cheese on the day you reheat it.  Bake covered with aluminum foil.  Remove the foil and top with cheese during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
 

Slow Cooker Meatloaf

Freezing tip:  Once the meatloaf has cooled completely, double wrap tightly in plastic wrap.
 

Beef Roast

Freezing tip: Cook the roast just to "rare" so that reheating does not overcook the beef. It works great on steaks too!
 

Buckwheat Crepes

Freezing tip: Place a sheet of parchment paper between each crepe, then double wrap in stacks of 8-10 crepes.  These are the perfect wrap for left-over meats or stews.
 
 
Chicken Enchilada Stacker
Freezing tip: Freeze directly into a round, shallow casserole dish.  Top the dish with wax paper then double wrap in plastic wrap.  Remember to remove the wax paper before reheating.
 

Roasted Squash Soup

Freezing tip: Prepare the cilantro/coconut garnish the day you are serving the soup.
 
What is your favorite freeze-and-reheat recipe?

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Comments

  • 28
    I haven't had any trouble freezing cooked pasta. I'm no-carb, but I make pasta & rice for my husband in batches and freeze portions for him. I reheat them in the microwave with a steamer. Or with the pasta, boil water and and put the slightely thawed portion in. - 3/11/2014   4:27:27 PM
  • 27
    I freeze spinach leaves separately on a plate and then stack them in a sealed tupperware container. I can then remove the number of leaves I want. For any dish, I simply cut the leaves into strips with a kitchen shears until I have enough. I find that I am able to put more spinach on the table and into my family's diet. This method also cuts down on the amount of spinach that turns to slime in my refrigerator. - 3/9/2014   11:52:57 PM
  • 26
    This is a great idea! There is no way for me to follow a healthy diet without cooking in batches and freeze portions. Because I have a job and not too much time to spend cooking, I need to rely in my own healthy, ingredients controlled fast food. - 2/23/2014   5:13:39 PM
  • 25
    I do this a lot with just the fridge too. During the weekend I'll boil some eggs, cook the whole pack or turkey bacon, make a pan of rice or beans, and keep the fridge stocked with ready to go items. Right now in my fridge is shredded chicken, turkey bacon, and Quinoa ready to be added to meals all week. I'm trying to get more into the freezer thing. I've been doing good the last two weeks, but i wouldn't say I've made it habit yet. - 1/29/2014   8:48:53 AM
  • HOLALOLA
    24
    I only have a conventional top freezer and I freeze meals all the time! Maybe not whole casseroles for the month, but when I make something, I make extras. I freeze one small portion for my lunch and one large portion for dinner for two of us. I try to make one thing Saturday and one thing Sunday. Then on nights we don't have time, there is usually something waiting for us in the freezer.

    I just froze some boiled whole Yukon gold potatoes. If they come out mushy I'll just make mashed potatoes with them. I've frozen chopped, baked potatoes before and they reheated fine. - 11/27/2013   2:45:41 PM
  • RDAVIS281
    23
    This is so good, i can designate a day from my long weekend off. I'm a single mom of two and I work a fulltime and part time job. This would be a great way to spend more time with my kids. - 1/14/2013   2:14:01 PM
  • 22
    I like being able to take a frozen dish in my lunch, it thaws and helps to keep my cooler cold at the same time. heating in the mic is quick and I have tasty, healthy meals at work. - 1/10/2013   5:46:04 PM
  • 21
    I do. Freezer cooking one weekend a month. I cannot tell you what a lifesaver it isknowing when I come home from work in the evening, I do not have to worry about what is for dinner. Love it! - 1/10/2013   7:46:39 AM
  • 20
    Great ideas. Thanks for sharing! - 1/10/2013   3:49:20 AM
  • 19
    I do a variation on this. Whenever I make a casserole, I divide the prepared amount. Half for the oven immediately and half into a couple of small baking dishes, 2 servings each, and into the freezer.

    Also, when any dish I prepare has more leftovers than can be eaten in the next meal, they go into the freezer. When I bake a pot of beans, half goes into containers and into the freezer.

    For dinner tonight, I searched the freezer: A quart container of stew: potato, tofu, chanterelle and veggie; a pint of frozen chard from last summers garden and one of corn from a neighbors garden.

    Leftovers will be mixed and blended into a soup for dinner tomorrow night. - 1/8/2013   10:04:54 PM
  • 18
    I need to get back into this habit. Did a lot of monthly cooking and freezing when I was in the Air Force and our sons were young. After retiring, I got out of the habit, but I've returned to full-time work just this past week and need to spend at least one Saturday each month prepping meals for the freezer. It saves time, stress and money in the long run! - 1/8/2013   11:36:58 AM
  • SHOCKINDKJ
    17
    Does anyone know what dish that is in the very first image? It looks tasty! thanks! - 1/8/2013   11:13:53 AM
  • 16
    Good tips. Unfortunately I only have a tiny amount of space in a communal freezer so I can only ever fit about 2 frozen meals in there at a time. Wish I could fit more in as it would save me a lot of time during the week! - 1/8/2013   4:38:44 AM
  • 15
    Great tips and ideas! - 1/8/2013   12:54:58 AM
  • 14
    thank for the food safety tips - 1/8/2013   12:38:39 AM
  • PRUSSIANETTE
    13
    Cooked potatoes sometimes turn watery on me when I freeze them, so don't have good luck there, but with regards to spinach, steaming and freezing works great for me. - 1/7/2013   11:24:34 PM
  • 12
    One of my essential tools in planning for the shopping trip is ZipList.Com. It has an electronic recipe clipper that allows me to add a recipe I'm looking at online to my recipe box and shopping list. It populates the shopping list and I can take out what I already have in the house. By the time I'm done planning, I may have 5-7 recipes on my list, and all the ingredients I need to make them happen. It isn't perfect since it doesn't combine items, so it may show up on the list multiple times but it does tell me how much I need so sometimes some elementary math is required. I've been using it for a couple of years and I swear by it because I have cut our grocery bill in half by planning carefully each week using ZipList. - 1/7/2013   9:48:52 PM
  • 11
    i cook for 2 people incl me and it is hard to cook such small meals. i will buy a 5 lb pkg of ground beef and divide into five 1 lb sections. then make one into a meatloaf and freeze uncooked. make another into stuffed bell peppers and wrap in two's and freeze. make a sauce and put together a lasagna and freeze. then make the rest into hamburger patties and wrap in singles and freeze. that's a lot of meals i just grab and throw in the oven (or grill). it seems like a lot of work but it's not too bad and when i'm done i feel great knowing so much work is already done. - 1/7/2013   9:08:50 PM
  • 10
    Glad to see your article! I worked full time for 24 years and raised 2 sons. I do not know what I would have done if I had not known all the tips you talked about. I grocery shopped every two weeks and had a milk man. After shopping, I chopped, diced, sliced vegetables and browned meat etc and froze it. I worked it out so when I got home from work, I could pop a meal that had been frozen into the oven and while it cooked, I made a quickbread, tossed a salad or steamed some vegetables to go with the meal. I made meals that had left overs and those were put into sectioned microwave containers for the kids lunches or for when they were hungry. It took a serious time committment on the weekends, but it sure took the distress out of the end of each work day! I do so hope that the information of this blog is used to feed to next generation of children! - 1/7/2013   8:51:45 PM
  • 9
    One question - so when you re-heat the dish, you are heating it for the same time and at the same temperature as the original dish, correct? So if it takes 45 minutes @ 375 degrees for the casserole the first time, after I freeze it I then re-heat it for 45 minutes @ 375? - 1/7/2013   3:08:48 PM
  • 8
    I'm keeping this in mind and will try freezing this week! - 1/7/2013   2:33:33 PM
  • 7
    I like tomato based dishes like spaghetti sauce, chicken cacciatore and chili. I just make a double batch and freeze the leftovers. - 1/7/2013   2:09:18 PM
  • 6
    Sounds good, but never have the time to cook that much! Maybe I'll start doubling my recipes and freezing. I do this now with soups, but I guess thats "Freezing 101." :) - 1/7/2013   2:06:37 PM
  • 5
    I do this with grilled chicken. I grill about five pounds at a time, then once it's cooled dice it. Then i measure out into 3 ounce servings and package in snack bags and freeze in a large freezer bag. These are great because you can put one in your salad container, soup bowl, rice bowl, leftover whatever, at night and your lunch is ready the next day. - 1/7/2013   1:37:12 PM
  • 4
    In my experience, freezing cooked potatoes changes their texture. - 1/7/2013   1:34:28 PM
  • 3
    I use to have a SUNSHINE COOKBOOK called "ONCE-A-MONTH COOKING" and made dishes from it. Great time saving when I was working and had small children. - 1/7/2013   1:21:31 PM
  • 2
    I make batches of chili and freeze them in individual portions for a healthy "fast food" dinner. Beef stew also works for this, but after reading this article maybe I'll put the potatos and carrots in almost raw so they don't turn to mush when reheated.

    One caveat to this entire article is making sure you have enough freezer space! At the moment I only have a traditional top-freezer and it does not offer nearly enough space. When I renovate my kitchen (hopefully this summer) I'm turning this fridge into the "extra-storage" fridge in the basement to see if that will work in addition to the new kitchen fridge. If not I'll replace with either a chest or standing freezer. - 1/7/2013   12:48:33 PM
  • 1
    Great article. I love to cook and freeze ahead. I have several once a month cooking books. Once a Month Cooking. A Month of Meals. I'm using a public computer, so I can't run to my kitchen and look all of them up. I have a book called the Meatless Gourmet that has some recipes in it that freeze very well. One once a month cooking author I can think of is Mimi Wilson. Another one's last name is Laserborg. That info should help you get started on Amazon.com. I have one book that I don't really care for the recipes, but the worksheets to help you plan are awesome. A good pair of shoes is a must. If you do a whole month's worth of meals, your feet will be tired! I usually go to bed with sore feet and a backache. It is SO worth it. You don't have to worry about what you're going to have to eat, and it cuts way down on kitchen mess throughout the month. Start small. Just find 4 recipes you think will freeze well, and give it a try. - 1/7/2013   12:26:59 PM

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