From freezer to table

First Posted: 2/11/2015

LIMA — Looking for quick, healthy meals for your fast-paced lifestyle? Thinking about stocking up on ready-made, hearty foods before the baby arrives? Homemade, bulk freezer meals may be the answer you’ve been looking for.

There are many nutritional and logistical benefits in preparing large quantities of ingredients — and even entire meals — in advance and then freezing them for later.

“A lot of people these days are looking for convenience in their food,” said Marla Stone, RD/LD, a licensed dietitian with St. Rita’s Medical Center in Lima. “And being able to control what you put in your food is a huge part of maintaining calories, maintaining fat.”

Much of the time, freezer meals call for plenty of raw, whole foods that are simply combined together. A person can see exactly what is going into the meal — how it’s being prepared, along with the types of fat and amounts of sodium.

“Like in canned products, they have to add a bunch of salt to help preserve it,” Stone said. “So freezing would be a better option and alternative to that because they can still keep the food for long periods of time without having to increase that sodium content.”

So what kinds of meals can you prepare in bulk and then freeze for later? Stews, soups pastas, meats, even lasagna and more can all be great places to start.

“The main thing is cooking — if you overcook vegetables, especially, then they tend to lose nutrients as they’re heated and overcooked,” Stone said. “But freezing them would be OK. Freezing pastas and stuff works out, too. You might have to add some extra sauce in it, as you’re re-cooking it. But most things can freeze OK.”

In addition to the nutritional benefits, home-cooked freezer meals can also save money — by not wasting leftovers, and through stocking up on certain foods when they’re on sale.

“Especially because meat prices are higher these days, if you can get some meat for a good price, buy it and freeze it,” Stone said. “And that usually keeps for a month, if not longer.”

Andrea Burton, adult services coordinator with the Auglaize County Public District Library, presented a program earlier this month that was dedicated to preparing bulk freezer meals — a concept that is somewhat of a buzzword these days.

“It’s something that’s really gaining exposure,” Burton said. “I know that people have been doing freezer cooking or make-ahead cooking for a long, long time. But you can find hundreds and hundreds of recipes on Pinterest, on the Internet and just hear people talking about it. Or, hear people talking about going to a home party with maybe Pampered Chef or Tastefully Simple, where they get to make freezer meals and bring them home.”

Having a stockpile of healthy, homemade meals in the freezer can help a person steer clear from tempting fast food or pre-packaged meals when in a time crunch.

“You can also go to the grocery store and buy frozen, pre-packaged meals,” Burton said. “But you don’t always know all of the ingredients that are going into that. There’s also lot of preservatives, additives and things in the ingredients list that you can’t pronounce. So when you’re preparing them on your own, you have a lot better sense of what’s going into your meals.”

Many different groups and family dynamics can benefit from bulk meal freezing. Stocking a freezer right before having a baby, for example, can be a smart way to prepare for a major lifestyle change.

“It’s really helpful for working moms, such as myself, to have already prepared so you don’t have to do your intensive cooking every night of the week,” Burton said.

Freezer meals can also be ideal for working people who just want to bring a home-made lunch to work, or for couples who want home cooking without the waste. Many of the bulk freezer recipes can even be modified for college students, too, she noted.

“It’s really difficult, sometimes, to cook for just one or two people,” Burton said. So if it’s like a young, married couple, or an empty-nest couple, and you prepare a meal — you know, it’s usually four to six servings — but you can actually prepare it and freeze it in smaller portions. So that you have home-cooked meals, but you’re not worrying about wasting all of your leftovers because you can’t use them all in time before they go bad.”

Even if someone isn’t very confident in their cooking skills, preparing freezer meals can be as simple as chopping vegetables and throwing it into a bag with a few other ingredients.

“It’s literally just dumping things in a bag. If you can cut vegetables and put things in a bag, you can do this,” Burton said, referring to one of her chicken recipes.

While preparing meals ahead of time and then freezing them is a convenient way to have home-cooked meals ready in a flash, it doesn’t necessarily mean not lifting a finger in the kitchen for weeks at a time.

“You might need to cook rice or potatoes or pasta to go along with it,” she said. “Or prepare a salad, or some fresh fruits or vegetables to go along with your meal. But your main dish, the bulk of it, is already done.”

Burton offered a few more tips for success when preparing bulk freezer meals ahead of time:

• Make sure to use “freezer” bags and not just “storage” bags.

• If using a casserole dish, make sure it is tightly sealed with foil to avoid freezer burn.

• Using a chest freezer, or a freezer that isn’t opened frequently, can allow frozen meals to be stored for longer periods of time.

• Avoid freezing potatoes; the freezing/re-heating process isn’t kind to them.

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