Healthy Freezer Meals
Save time with nutritious make-ahead meals.
A hot, home-cooked meal after a hectic day may be just what you need – but preparing it can create even more stress and exhaustion.
Instead of whipping up a meal from scratch every night, registered dietitian Sara Haas, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends making meals in bulk and freezing them; at the end of a long day, all you have to do is reheat and serve.
Freezing meals, Haas says, “Is a great to get balanced, more healthful meals in the comfort of your home.”
Unlike frozen meals available in the grocery store, made-from-scratch foods can be prepared and stored without preservatives or added sodium, making them a healthy addition to your diet, Haas says.
“If pre-made meals are prepared in a nutritious way, they are an amazing asset to your freezer,” she says.
Before you start prepping meals for the freezer, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Select freezer-friendly foods. “Some foods don't hold up well to freezing,” Haas says. For example, eggs and foods that contain a lot of water, such as celery, cabbage, tomatoes or salad greens can get soggy after being frozen and thawed and are best prepared fresh.
There are plenty of foods that retain their taste and texture after cooking and freezing, including whole grains like quinoa and bulgur, beans, pureed soups, meat and stews, making them great freezer meals.
“I recommend pre-portioning them before freezing so that you can cook what you need,” Haas says.
Shop smart. Buy ground beef in bulk when it goes on sale, brown it and freeze it in two-cup portions. It can be used in anything from tacos and sloppy Joes to baked ziti and chili.
Other proteins, including chicken and seafood, can also be frozen either raw or cooked. Susie Theodorou, author of Can I Freeze it? (Morrow Press, 2009), notes that cooked, frozen ingredients can be stir-fried, grilled or roasted for a no-fuss, great-tasting main course.
Buy enough ingredients to make two batches of your favorite soups and stews. Prepare twice the amount you need for dinner and put the other half in the freezer for a quick and nutritious meal.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you aren't sure if a food freezes well, just try it. Next time you make a meal and have extra, cool it, package it, label and date it and stick it in the freezer. Pull it out in a few days and see how it tastes. “Experimentation is a good way to find out if freezing works,” Haas says.
Keep your freezer “pantry” stocked. You don’t have to freeze entire meals.
Make an extra batch of spaghetti sauce for the freezer; it can be thawed, reheated and added to fresh pasta, cutting down prep and cooking time for a favorite weeknight meal.
Other freezer staples include broth and stock, which you can freeze in ice-cube trays and then transfer the cubes to a plastic freezer bag; one cube yields approximately two tablespoons. Gravy and other sauces are also good options, but note that a sauce with fat may separate during freezing. If this happens, toss it in a blender after thawing to recombine the ingredients. Fresh meat, butter or margarine, cheese, nuts and spices also tend to freeze well.
Choose the right container. Select glass containers that are designed for freezing and can withstand heat, advises Theodorou. It’ll save a step if you can freeze and reheat meals in the same container.
Plastic containers with a snowflake symbol close securely and will not become brittle in the freezer. Vacuum-sealed bags can also be an excellent tool to help prevent freezer burn and maintain flavor. If in doubt, look for “freezer safe” on the container or package label.
Safety first. To help prevent bacterial growth, Theodorou recommends thawing foods in the refrigerator. Allow approximately eight hours per pound of meat, six hours per pound of fruit or vegetables and 12 to 24 hours for stews and casseroles to defrost.