There's no doubt that doing freezer meal prep in bulk is so daunting that not many people do it - but what if you could have step by step instructions from someone who did once a month cooking for a family of 10 for years?
Here I am. Read on and let's get you started on the best way to free up your valuable time AND save money!! Take back old fashioned family dinnertime -- it's easier than you think!
You don't need a lot of specialized equipment for freezer meal prep. When I first started all those years ago I just used a knife for chopping, freezer bags for storing, and aluminum casserole dishes for freezing.
The thing is that meal prepping is time consuming and the more helpful equipment you have the less work it is. Here're some of the things that I use a lot. Just click the links to take a look.
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- Vacuum sealer - a vacuum sealer allows me to put the uncooked ingredients for a slow cooker meal all together and seal it up. The day before I want to serve it I take the sealed bag out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator. The day I plan to serve it I just dump the whole bag into the slow cooker, turn it on, and walk away! No mess and no prep. It will also keep your meals from getting freezer burn and increase the length of time you can leave them in the freezer - at least double.
- Food processor - remember you'll be chopping up ALL the onions for the week. Sometimes, for me, that's 10 cups! A good food processor does it in a fraction of the time.
- Scale - this makes it easy to weigh the meat for each recipe.
- Sticky labels - I like to write the name of the dish plus the reheating instructions on a label and put it on the container. Use a sharpie.
- Slow cooker - a slow cooker is great for mass meal prep because you can fill it up with chicken breast, add a little stock, and slow cooker overnight. Then the day you are going to prep you have all your chicken cooked.
- Gallon storage bags - once you chop all your onions, and all your green peppers, and all your celery you'll need a place to keep it during the assembly phase. Storage bags work great.
- Measuring cups and spoons - a couple of sets will keep you from having to constantly wash them out. I like these with the measurements embossed on them. When they get used a lot printed text washes/wears off.
- Cookie sheets - for flash freezing foods and freezing things vacuum bags flat.
- Large skillet - remember, you'll be cooking a lot of ground beef at one time! You'll need a large skillet. I use a 15-inch iron skillet.
- Big bowls - you'll be mixing a lot of ingredients. Several big mixing bowls keep things moving along.
- Paper towels - two words... raw chicken.
- Color coded cutting boards - will keep you from cutting onions and the board you just cut chicken on. They are super inexpensive and wash easily.
- A notebook - this is to record what you've made but it's also good for taking notes in. What worked? Did you figure out an easier way to do something? Make notes! A school spiral will work.
- A freezer - I know it sounds crazy but you'll need a freezer to hold all of your meals, especially if you plan to do 2 weeks or a month at a time. A small chest freezer fits almost anywhere and is affordable for most.
- Make it even easier when you use Instacart or Amazon Fresh delivery!
📖 Meal Plan
The first thing you're going to want to do is sit down and make a meal plan. I suggest you start with cooking a week's worth of meals (6 days) and get used to that before you level up to 2 weeks or a month.
- Choose recipes for your freezer meal prep that you know will work. Here on Restless Chipotle you can look in the Freezer Meal category or the meal plan category for ideas.
- There are plenty of other recipes like this classic lasagna that freeze well - even though they haven't made it into the Freezer Meal category. I usually will make a note in the post if the dish freezes well. When in doubt, leave a comment and ask!
- Write down each meal and add the main ingredients you will need to a grocery list. For example, if you have 2 recipes that call for onions, one requires ½ cup and one requires 3 cups, you'll write down 3 ½ cups chopped onions. If you'll need 2 pounds of ground beef for one meal and 1 pound for another you'll list 3 pounds of ground beef... and so on.
- There's no need to list things that you normally have in your pantry like salt, pepper, catsup, etc. Keep it as easy as possible.
- Make a note about what kind of container you'll need. Casseroles go in casserole dishes, soups go in freezer containers, etc.
A day or two before you plan to do your freezer meal prep you'll want to shop and get everything you'll need. Check your pantry staples to make sure you'll have enough salt or milk or whatever.
You'll need all the table space and counter space you can get. Before you get started remove everything from the counters and table that you don't need for making freezer meals.
Write out your plan. Decide how you're going to schedule your time and then stick to it.
- Saute all of the onions at the same time. Remove the onions to storage then add the peppers to the pan and saute them, and so on. You won't need to clean your pan each time. Think about your chores strategically and group like things together.
- Give yourself enough margin to take a break now and then.
- Clean as you go!!!
- Put all the dishes that bake at 350F in the oven at the same time.
- Put the raw "dump and go" meals together while the other foods are baking.
- If you are new to freezer meal prep only make one week's worth at a time. Once you get comfortable with your own process you can easily make 30 meals in an afternoon.
- Run a sink full of hot, soapy water so you can just add the dirty dishes as needed. After every couple of steps stop, clean up, put dishes in the dishwasher or rinse and put away, and start with a new sink full of hot soapy water.
- Lasagna freezes well. If you are freezing spaghetti or noodles of some sort be sure they are just barely cooked before freezing. If you overcook they'll be mushy.
- Double or triple your favorite casseroles and you'll get 3 meals in the time it takes you to make one. Eat one now and save 2 for later.
- If you are going to make a dump dinner for freezing then I suggest freezing any sauces in a separate bag and slipping it into the bag with the rest of the ingredients to be added when you put everything in the crockpot.
- Freeze bagged items flat on the cookie sheets.
- Tomatoes and tomato based sauces will eat through aluminum. Freeze these in ceramic or glass casserole dishes and put waxed paper over the top before sealing with aluminum foil.
- Freeze soups and sauces in quart canning jars with screw tops. Fill them no more than ¾ of the way full. Any more than that and the jar could explode when the soup expands during freezing.
- Make sure that food is completely thawed before adding to the slow cooker.
- Most freezer dinners can be frozen for up to 3 months.
🚫 Do NOT Freeze
Making freezer meals is easy and it's almost always successful - as long as you stay away from these...
- Do not freeze previously frozen meat - don't thaw raw chicken breast, add it to a raw dump dinner, then refreeze it.
- Cream sauces - use a commercial cream of --- soup instead. Homemade white sauce and similar sauces will separate.
- No gravy or sauces thickened with flour or cornstarch
- Skim the fat off of stews and other dishes before freezing
- Cucumber or any raw, watery vegetable
- Anything with mayonnaise in it
- Raw potatoes - boiled potatoes are questionable. Mashed with milk and butter freeze well.
- Fried foods
- Crumb toppings. Leave the topping off and seal it in a vacuum sealed bag. Put it in the pantry when you do your freezer meal prep and add it just before baking or reheating. Just remember where you put it.
When you properly seal your meal prep dinners they'll stay good for 3 months or more. If you use a vacuum sealer they'll be fine indefinitely.
If you are making just a few meals for a week your cooked meal prep should be fine in the refrigerator but personally I don't like to refrigerate it more than 2-3 days. If you are doing freezer meal prep for 2 weeks or more then be sure to freeze your dishes.
Put them in the refrigerator the night before serving. They'll thaw safely. Bake as directed.
Usually it is. You'll be buying larger amounts of ingredients at a time so you can use a big box store like Costco or Sam's plus you'll have less waste since you'll be using all the ingredients in one day. Not only that, but you'll be going out to eat less - no more coming home to tired to cook and heading to the drive through!!
So, it's the big day. You're going to prep a week's worth of delicious dinners! I usually plan one pizza night or night that I can cook something if I want to - so six freezer meals.
Plan on pizza or sandwiches for dinner on the night you do your prep because you'll be tired!
Time needed: 3 hours.
The time needed varies depending on the recipes chosen and how experienced the cook is.
- Slow Cooker
Once you have your stations set up you'll start the slow cooker with your chicken or meat in it, if you didn't do it the night before. You'll also start the rice cooker. These things can work while you do something else!
- Set Up Stations
The more room you have for freezer meal prep the easier it is! Set up a chopping area with your veggies, a cutting board, a knife, storage bags, and the food processor if you have it. Set up another area for vacuum sealing the dump dinners and assembling the casseroles -- make sure you have everything you need there. A rice cooker (if needed) and the slow cooker go together out of the way. You want to save steps as much as possible.
Gather your produce together and use the food processor, or a knife and cutting board, to cut it all up at once. Put each individual ingredient in a separate container.
So, all the onions in one bowl, all the Bell peppers in another - and so on.
Mix up the sauce ingredients in seperate bowls so they're ready to use during assembly.
If you're making meatballs or meatloaf mix those things up now, too.
Cook the ground beef that you'll be adding to casseroles. Drain the fat, remove the meat and set it aside. Wipe the skillet out with a paper towel - no need to wash before sautéing veggies.
The chicken breast should be cooked as well unless your recipe calls for it to be raw. You'll prepare that however it's called for in the recipe.
Diced for chicken and noodles, shredded for chicken tacos, etc. I like to keep extra chicken breasts whole and that way I can dump a sauce on them and heat them up whenever I need something fast.
Saute all of the onions at once. Remove from the skillet into a container and saute the Bell peppers. Continue until everything that needs to be sauteed is done.
- Preheat Oven
Start preheating the oven before you being assembling the casseroles. Having the oven ready to go saves time.
Assemble the casseroles by lining up the casserole dishes, spraying them with nonstick spray, and assembling them in order. The dishes that won't be pre-cooked can be covered with waxed paper, then aluminum foil, then labeled with the contents and the baking instructions. Place them in the freezer.
Group the dishes by baking temperature as much as possible. Most casseroles can be baked at 350F or 375F interchangeably, although you'll want to watch the clock since they may take a little longer or a little less time.
- Dump Meals
While the casseroles are baking you can assemble your dump dinners and vacuum seal them. Label with the name and the instructions then freeze flat on the cookie sheets. Once they are frozen remove from the cookie sheets and stack in the freezer. This way they will take up less room.
Remove the casseroles from the oven and let them cook to room temperature before you cover and label them. When doing freezer meal prep ALWAYS label with the contents, the date, and the reheating instructions!
- Clean up
Hopefully you've cleaned as you cooked so there isn't a lot of cleaning up to do. In any case, you have saved yourself a bunch of cleaning for the rest of the week!
- To serve
The day before you want to serve your yummy freezer meal just pull it out and leave it in the fridge until it's time to cook the next day.
Favorite Recipes for Freezing
Here are some of my family's favorite recipes for using in my freezer meal prep.
- Chicken Spaghetti is cheesy and a little spicy - one of our favorites! Be sure to undercook the spaghetti when making this for the freezer.
- Burrito Casserole is another creamy, cheesy dish that the whole family loves! Freezes like a dream.
- Honey Garlic Meatballs are hearty, sweet, and spicy with big garlic flavor.
- Creamy Vodka Sauce is something I make in big batches and freeze in meal sized portions. Then it's just a matter of cooking up the pasta.
- Shepherd's Pie with its topping of creamy mashed potatoes freezes beautifully and is always welcome at our house!
And that's it.
Doing batch cooking and freezer meal prep in bulk takes a little getting used to but it's SO nice to have dinner ready no matter how rough the day has been! AND dinner clean up is a breeze.
If you can talk a friend into doing it with you then it's even easier. Give it a try and see if it's something you can at least adapt for your family!