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

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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

BIKE4HEALTH 6/27/2018
Thanks....freezer storage could cause a concern Report
ALEPEQUIJADA 6/6/2018
Thanks! Report
MUSICNUT 5/7/2018
Thanks for the helpful information! :) Report
JVANAM 5/6/2018
A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him. ~ DAVID BRINKLEY~ 5/6/18 Report
JUSTFURKIDS 4/3/2018
Awesome photos are waking up my appetite! Guess it’s time for Intermittent Fast to end! Report
ROSSYFLOSSY 4/3/2018
Great ideas! Report
ANHELIC 4/2/2018
Thanks for the info Report
4CONNIESHEALTH 3/18/2018
Great tips Report
JIACOLO 3/10/2018
I definitely could plan better for meals during the week. These freezer tips should help. Report
GRANDMASUSAN13 3/9/2018
Lots of good recipe Report
1CRAZYDOG 2/24/2018
Good tips Report
HOLLYM48 2/24/2018
Great article! Report
JANTHEBLONDE 2/24/2018
Great article! Report
NANASUEH 2/23/2018
good points Report
RHOOK20047 2/23/2018
Great information. Report
AMYSUZEQ 2/23/2018
Thank you Report
SCRIBBLE7 2/7/2018
I make lots of slow cooker dishes which I then divide into 4 portions. Doing it over a few days provides a selection of meals to choose from. Report
CHRISTOPHER63 2/4/2018
Thank you Report
TERRI1458 1/26/2018
I knew some things that were in the article but I also learned some things. I will be sure to use my freezer more often! Report
TURQUROISE 1/24/2018
Very informative article. There were thing I did not know I could freeze! Also things that I freeze that would taste better frozen your way, like pasta. Report
KMC7313 11/20/2017
I love to make beef enchiladas and/or lasagna to freeze and reheat later. I tend to freeze them in single serving freezer containers. It makes stacking them in the freezer easy reheating them very easy. Report
PWILLOW1 10/2/2017
Most times I will make double casseroles and freeze one. Or if I do the slow cooker I will make a big batch and freeze half. My favourite is to make a big pot of soup and then freeze 1 serving containers, that way I have a variety of soups to choose from. Report
MBPP50 10/2/2017
Awesome. Thanks Report
IRONADONIS 10/1/2017
Thanks Report
TOPS-TORTOISE 10/1/2017
When I make a casserole I spray the pan I will use with cooking spray. After it is frozen I pop it out of the pan and vacuum seal it in a food saver bag. It will keep in the freezer for several months without getting freezer burn. Report
ROCKS8ROX 10/1/2017
Great info! Report
JSTETSER 8/10/2017
Chilli is my family's favorite freezer meal Report
EVILCECIL 7/20/2017
Good info! Report
yeah, I love wild rice, but that is one thing that does not freeze well at all in soups!! Report
4LMHJCR
some great suggestions here. I do make large pots of soup and chili and freeze those in smaller containers but this is great. Thanks so Very Much Report
Lasagne is fantastic to freeze anyway, but you can go one better and freeze before baking. Make either your vegetable or meat sugo and your white sauce as normal; assemble into whatever size baking dishes you like - be it single portion or dinner party size. The secret now is to allow the dish to stand for 24 hours, covered and refrigerated. This lets all the layers meld together and makes a massive difference to the end product. Then wrap thoroughly and freeze. Take out of the freezer in the morning ready to bake that evening. The satisfaction in having such a time-consuming dish come out of the oven without having slogged over it - delicious and home-made. Unbeatable. Report
FATBURNER76
My comment is in regard too the suggestion of using aluminum foil to cover your dish during reheat. Do not cook with aluminum foil, ever. Do a quick search on cooking with aluminum pans and aluminum foil to see how aluminum contaminates your food during heating. Then search on the effects of aluminum in regard to Alzheimer's disease and osteoporosis. Report
Great tip for using a little of the liquid when freezing cooked beans! About freezing pasta--this is a "trick" of pizza delivery joints that offer pastas that I know well from experience! Report
I often double recipes and freeze half for later, either for a family meal or in individual servings. Report
Agree with PENNYCRATE - in my experience potatoes do NOT freeze well. Hated their texture (& taste) when I had them in Beef Stew; and I no longer buy commercial frozen dinners that contain potatoes (rice dishes are fine). Report
One trick I have learned for freezing casseroles is to line the dish with plastic wrap sprayed with oil and then freezing. I can then lift it out and over wrap or put in a plastic bag. The wrap just peels right off when ready to thaw (or cook from frozen) and casserole pops right back into the same dish so the dish is not tied up in the freezer and I can use it for something else! Report
i live alone and do this all the time...so easy but i do have problems with cooked potatoes...very mushy and unless in a casserole, not very good!
i don't see alot of potatoe c asseroles here but i am new to the site so still looking....i am trying to create a "jenny craige" type of diet for myself as portiion control is my biggest problem
Report
CERAMICAT
When my son was little I made pancakes & waffles in large batches, then froze most of it. On weekday mornings all I had to do was pop a pancake or two in the microwave for a fast & easy breakfast for him. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
RDAVIS281
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. Report
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. Report
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! Report
Great ideas. Thanks for sharing! Report
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. Report
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! Report
 
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