An Old Trend is New Again?"
-or did it just never go away-
Back when we had a youngster in the house (15+ years ago) weekends were meant for hiking, canoeing, fishing and exploring in our camper, I often made meals ahead of time and used my fancy 'seal-a-meal' to package up healthy and tasty dinners in advance that we could reheat in our camper. It's been a LONG time since I've shopped and made 'pre-cooked' meals but, with the trend I've seen popping up everywhere lately, I thought I'd give it a try once more. Our household is down to just us two adults and often, dinner is the last thought on our minds throughout the day. I think having a few freezer ready meals on hand will help alleviate the panic of "what should we have for dinner" that we face about twice a week...
I went ahead and tried a few meals that go from freezer to slow-cooker (crock pot). I chose 7 meals that encompassed beef, chicken and pork for variation. I took the time to log how much 'actual hands on time' it took to organize, prep, bag and clean up after all these meals, I would say - with certainty (and I am pretty well organized) it took me $70 in items that I didn't have on hand ($40 for all the meats involved plus, $30 in produce or spices). Shopping aside, it took 90 mins to Label, Prep and Bag everything and another 20 mins to cleanup. There are some meals that had less ingredients and were easier to just plop and seal...Keep in mind too that I did this all alone, extra help would definitely speed things up!
My advice to you - find meals your family will actually enjoy. I've seen posts touting "so many meals in so many minutes" and right now, I am not sure where they came up with their timing.
I found it much, much easier to collect the various recipes that I wanted to try, and compile my shopping list. I say, start with 5-7 crock-pot/slow-cooker recipes and see how it all goes. Figure out if it's worth the time and effort in advance for your family. I lucked out and there were sales at my local Safeway on every meat item I needed to purchase! I had a tidy savings in sales alone of $25 overall for my seven meals (that included hand-trimmed chicken breasts, cubed and packaged pork and beef as well as boneless, skinless chicken thighs that were well trimmed.) If I had to trim and cube those meats, the timing on these recipes would have grown - adding at least another 20-30 minutes to the overall prep time.
Some Hints: have lots of measuring cups and measuring spoons ready to go. I had a set for dry measuring and a set for liquid measuring which sped things up. I had a nice big trash can at my side too - you will appreciate this advice because, once you get going you will quickly realize how much you toss away, in scraps, peels and packaging. I also wrote down on the face of each freezer gallon bag in sharpie permanent marker - the date, the contents and cooking instructions. All my meals will work best of taken from the freezer the night before and placed in the fridge overnight to 'thaw'. The Best hint/tip I can offer is to use a meatloaf pan in the packaging process!! I placed my gallon baggies IN the pan which then supported the contents going in without tipping over the bag - worked like a charm! and of course, slow cooker liners make for easy cleanup when you are ready to cook your meals - if you don't want to use those - make sure to coat your slow-cooker with olive oil - which will also aide in quick cleanup.
Here are the Recipes I assembled:
Seven (Freezer to Slow-Cooker) Meals in 90 minutes prep time:
Beef Tips in Gravy from Family Fresh Meals
Orange Chicken from Frugal Girls
Green Chile Pork Stew from Who Needs a Cape?
Ranch Chicken Tacos from Who Needs a Cape?
Chicken Cacciatore from Southern Living
Mongolian Beef from Recipe Critic
Applesauce BBQ Chicken from Taste of Home
I will update this post as we cook and eat each meal listed above.
I hope this post gives you a little insight into what you can expect when preparing meals ahead of time. I know, I look forward to tasting all these recipes and finding or creating new ones to share!
Photos by: Diane Baker for Canning and Cooking at Home