How to Guide: Freezer Meals for Runners
Last weekend I was traveling in Arizona and I have returned home to zero groceries and zero time to get groceries. Luckily, I am an absolute pro at making freezer meals! I thought I would share with you some of my tips and tricks for freezing homemade meals so that you have dinner or lunch ready to go on a moment’s notice.
General Tips for Successful Freezer Meals
Having my freezer stocked helps me to avoid ordering a pizza or takeout during times when life gets busy – it just takes a little bit of planning, knowledge, and foresight when you DO have time to cook.
I have 4 general rules for freezing meals:
- Disposable containers work the best. I know, it’s not good for the environment. But when it comes to freezer meals, I usually have so many meals frozen at once that I am unable to use my plastic containers to freeze them (because then I have no plastic containers for leftovers, cooking, etc.). If you are able to buy a second set of plastic containers, by all means, go for it! But, it is not realistic for most people. In addition, when you are busy and reaching for a freezer meal, a disposable container has the added benefit of no pots/pans to hand wash!
- “Saucy” food freeze and reheat the best. Think soups, curries, spaghetti sauce, pesto, hot dishes (aka casseroles- it’s always weird when I call my frozen meals “hot dishes” but I can’t help it- it’s the Minnesotan in me!) I find that meat and vegetables freeze better and reheat better when frozen directly in a sauce.
- When a food is not “saucy,” individually freezing before cooking works best. Foods I am talking about here are: homemade gnocchi, black bean burger patties, wild rice burger patties, homemade ravioli, etc. For these foods, I prefer to freeze them prior to their final cooking step – so for the ravioli and the gnocchi, I freeze them prior to boiling them. For the black bean burgers, prior to searing them. These types of foods freeze best when you spread them out on a sheet pan, without touching each other. Once frozen, you can just put them all in a freezer safe ziplock bag!
- Always label your food you are freezing! I didn’t always do this when I first started freezing meals, and now I have sauces hanging out in my freezer and I have NO idea when it was made, or even what it is! Food looks differently frozen, and it can be hard to figure out which ziplock contains spaghetti sauce vs. chili. Unlabeled food tends to get thrown out and it’s wasteful. I prefer to label my freezer meals with its contents and the date it was made. For certain items, I also include the portion/amount (e.g., “10-01-2017, chicken stock, 2 cups”).
Using these four principles, it is usually easy for me to determine if a food will freeze well and how to go about freezing it.
How to Freeze Different Types of Meals
Here are a few examples of how I freeze different types of homemade meals:
Every time I make a soup from scratch, I make a double or triple batch of it. If you are going to go through the work of making soup, it will not create that much more work to make more of it! Once I have served the soup for dinner, I cool the rest of the leftover soup in the stockpot it was made in overnight in the fridge. Then, it’s ready for freezing! I prefer to freeze these in individual portions. For most soups and sauces, I use quart-sized, freezer safe ziplock bags and each portion is measured according to how much I know fits into my soup bowls at home. For me, this is about 3 ladles, but obviously, this will differ for everyone; just pay attention when you first serve the soup. Label your ziplock bags BEFORE putting soup in them. Try to get as much air out of the bag as you can, then zip it up and lay it flat horizontally in your freezer to freeze. This makes them extremely stackable and space efficient!
To reheat: I usually just put the frozen block of soup in a pot, turn the heat to medium, and put the lid on to help steam. Stir occasionally – this method will take about 5-10 minutes. Alternatively, you can throw it in a microwave-safe container and microwave for 2 minutes at a time until hot, stirring each time. The microwave method is perfect for work – I just pack a frozen soup, a Tupperware, a spoon, and some crackers – SO easy.
Some of my favorite soups to freeze:
- Homemade chicken stock (SO handy. I freeze mine in 2 cup and 4 cup portions)
- Corn Chowder – I use fresh sweet corn and make this in the summer while the corn is fresh! Obviously, you don’t want soup very much in the summer, so freezing this soup to enjoy in the colder months is a must!
- Chicken Wild Rice Soup
Sauces & Saucy Meals
These ALWAYS come in handy, but for most of them, it requires an extra step of cooking when you are ready to use them. For example, you can freeze a homemade spaghetti sauce but you will still need to boil the pasta to serve it on top. Or, you can freeze some homemade gumbo, but you’ll still need to make rice to serve it over. I freeze sauces and saucy meals exactly like I do for soup – in quart-sized, freezer safe ziplock bags. One of the biggest differences, however, is that for more “textured” sauces, such as roasted red pepper sauce or pesto, I prefer not to freeze them flat. They don’t store as nicely as when you freeze them flat but I find they are easier to get out of the ziplock bag when it’s time to use them.
Some of my favorite sauces to freeze:
- Pesto – Freeze it in 1 cup portions, and you have a sauce ready to go for easy meals! I simply thaw the pesto then it is ready to go to serve with pasta, on top of pizza, or as a spread on sandwiches! (link to my own pesto recipe)
- Spaghetti sauce
- Roasted red pepper sauce
- Runner’s High Peanut Sauce from Run Fast Eat Slow
Some of my favorite “saucy meals” to freeze:
- Homemade gumbo – Just cook rice and serve!A burrito mixture- (link to mexican stuffed sweet potato recipe) Either cook some rice and serve on top, or roll up into a tortilla to serve as a burrito
- A burrito mixture – Either cook some rice and serve on top, or roll up into a tortilla to serve as a burrito
For these meals, I prefer to package them in a disposable loaf pan – it is the perfect size for two people! I place the hot dish/casserole into the aluminum loaf pan, cover the top with a layer of saran wrap, then cover it with a layer of foil. I then label on the outside of the foil. These take a lot longer to reheat from frozen than the other meals listed above- I like these for when I am not in a hurry but also don’t want to cook. They would take less time to reheat if you thawed them first.
To reheat: Step one- remove the saran wrap!! If you don’t do this step, you’ll have a disaster on your hands. Otherwise, once you have removed the saran wrap, just cover it with foil and put it in the oven at 450 for about 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake for another 25-30 minutes or until hot.
My favorite hot dishes to freeze:
- Lasagna – when making lasagna to freeze, I would recommend including a little bit more sauce while layering than when you normally would make it. You’ll want each noodle to be surrounded by sauce to keep it from drying out.
- Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish – Always a classic. To get a crispy cracker topping, I would top with crackers when you go to reheat it, rather than prior to freezing (they get soggy). (I like things to be easy so I actually just top it prior to freezing and deal with a little sogginess).
- Mexican lasagna/enchilada casserole – Freezes wonderfully! One tip- spicy food will increase in spice level over time when you freeze it.
And there you have it – the secret to my freezer meal success! I hope it makes your life easier in times of stress and chaos!