The following is a guest post from Kate at My Kids Eat Off The Floor:
I’ve been blogging in this space — first Organizing Your Way and then Life Your Way — for over three years now, and there are some great posts in the archives that don’t get much attention anymore. This week, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. Whether you’ve been around since the beginning or are a new reader, I think you’ll enjoy them!
Quick—it’s 5:00 and the family is hungry, but there’s nothing in the fridge. Do you reach for the peanut butter or the Top Ramen?
If you have a well-stocked and organized freezer, you might not have to reach for either! Keeping your freezer filled with easy last-minute meals does not require marathon cooking sessions; all it takes is organization, proper storage, and planning.
The key to utilizing your freezer for last-minute meals and emergencies is organization. Without organization, it’s easy for items to get buried or shoved to the back and forgotten about until they’re inedible. Not only is this a waste of money, it’s also a waste of space and a source of major disappointment when you realize the pork chops you bought on sale are too freezer burnt to ever actually eat!
In order to keep your freezer organized, choose a freezer with lots of shelves and removable baskets. Dedicate each shelf to a different category of food: put all of the bread products on one shelf, all of the meat products on another shelf, and so on.
Invest in a whiteboard you can attach to the front of your freezer with magnets. You can use this whiteboard to keep track of what is in your freezer with a very simple system. Use a permanent marker to write the categories and how many months each item can be frozen on the whiteboard. Use a regular whiteboard marker to update each category as you put food in and take it out. With the whiteboard on the door of your freezer, you can see at a glance what items are available and how long they have been there.
In order to best utilize your freezer space, you need to choose proper storage products. Zip-top freezer bags are the most versatile product for storing foods in the freezer. Gallon size bags can be used to store bulky items, like egg rolls or taquitos. Use sandwich size bags to store smaller portions of cooked pasta or rice. Save space by freezing soup, sauces, gravy, and mashed potatoes flat in gallon zip-top bags—lay them on a cookie sheet until frozen solid—and stacking the bags like bricks.
Unbaked cookie or roll dough and muffin or cake batter can also be stored in gallon zip-top bags. For cookies or rolls, shape the dough as you normally would and flash-freeze for an hour until solid, then transfer to a zip-top bag. For muffin or cake batter, scoop into a muffin tin and flash freeze until solid, then transfer to a zip-top bag. When you are in the mood for fresh-baked goods in a hurry, simply bake the frozen dough or batter as you normally would.
Casseroles or pie fillings can either be frozen in disposable foil pans or flash-frozen in pans lined with plastic wrap, then tightly wrapped in plastic wrap or foil. However, casseroles with tomatoes or tomato sauce should never be frozen in foil pans because the acidity in the tomatoes can eat away at the foil and change the flavor of the sauce.
Whatever method or product you choose for freezer storage, make sure you label each item with a permanent marker and the name, date, and preparation instructions—otherwise, you might find yourself wondering what you just defrosted!
You can enjoy a fully stocked freezer, full of quick snacks and meals, without weekly marathon cooking sessions or much added expense. How? By carefully planning and making use of the time you already spend cooking. Most recipes are easy to double without added effort or time, leaving one to eat now and one to freeze for later.
As you chop carrots, onions, celery, and other vegetables save the scraps in a zip-top bag in your freezer until you are ready to make vegetable or chicken stock. Add the vegetables to chicken bones, water, and seasonings in a slow cooker and simmer for several hours. When the stock is done, carefully add ½ cup to muffin tins. Freeze until solid and then transfer to gallon zip-top bags. When you need stock for making soup or cooking rice, take out the amount you need and use straight from the freezer. Each frozen cube is equal to ½ cup (ice cube trays are equal to ¼ cup).
Cooked pasta and rice freeze well, so when you are making spaghetti or rice for a side dish, cook extra and freeze some for last minute pasta or side dishes.
When you are making a recipe that calls for ground beef, brown (and season, if desired) extra meat to freeze. After the meat has cooled, transfer it to a gallon zip-top bag and lay flat. Using a wooden dowel, score the bag in thirds and freeze until solid. When you need browned ground beef for a recipe or a quick meal, simply break off the meat along the scored line—no need to defrost the whole bag.
If you can spend just a few extra minutes each week, it’s easy to whip up a quick marinade for chicken. You can freeze chicken breasts directly in the marinade in a zip-top bag. When you’re ready to use it, thaw the whole bag in the refrigerator overnight and cook as you usually would. The chicken will be extra moist and flavorful.
If you follow these simple guidelines — organization, proper storage, and planning — you will be surprised at how quickly and easily you will start reaping the benefits of having a fully stocked freezer!
Do you keep your freezer stocked with easy last-minute meals?
Kate Anderson is the mother of two (almost three) little girls. She loves staying home with them and putting her degree in Family Life to work. She blogs about a little of everything at My Kids Eat Off The Floor.