Monday, June 15, 2009

feasting from our freezer...

okay...many of you asked about this post long, long, long ago. and each time my facebook posting includes mention of freezer cooking many of you leave comments requesting more info. as i was removing the skin and tossing 12 split chicken breasts into the crock pot with salsa and taco seasoning this morning (prep for a big ol' batch of chicken chimis we'll be whipping up on wednesday), i realized it was high time i live up to my promise to post a blog about freezer cooking. note: after composing this blog-post and going downstairs to check on aforementioned chicken i have a new recommendation. do not, i repeat NOT, try to fit 12 split chicken breasts, salsa, and taco seasoning into your crock-pot...that is, unless you like a counter covered with salsa-y, taco-y, icky, sticky goo....apparently 10 might have been the limit!

disclaimer NO means am i am expert! my first freezer cooking experience was with a large group at my church. while i enjoyed the big group things...i quickly realized i could recipes that were already family favorites...with the ingredients we most prefer...AND, as a bonus, spend quality time with friends who also needed to feed their doing this at home in a smaller setting. since then i have grown to rely quite heavily on freezing cooking to feed our family.

disclaimer #2...i don't even know where to begin giving credit for many of my recipes...friends, family, cookbooks throughout the ages. also, don't feel like you necessarily need "my recipes" or anyone else's for that matter...i am finding that just about ANY recipe your family enjoys can easily be worked into a freezer meal.

perhaps the easiest way to do this would be in a Q&A format. please leave me more questions in the comments, and i will add answers as i get questions.

1. do i need to have a huge/separate freezer for freezer cooking?
this completely depends on how much you plan on cooking. i do have a standing freezer in the garage...and i LOVE it. i would say it is well worth your money if you plan to do a lot of freezer cooking. it allows me to stock up on meat when it is on sale (and ice cream too for that matter), have plenty of room for other "freezer stuffs" (like our annual home-made applesauce from applesauce making day, frozen bagged veggies and fruit, frozen waffles (or pancakes or whatever else is left when we do breakfast for dinner nights), etc.), AND still have room for LOTS of freezer meals.
however, i recently cooked with a friend who does not have a separate freezer. she tweaked some amounts to make fewer servings of some meals, packaged "creatively" (ziplocs take up less room than pans), and had plenty of room for quite a few meals. i also have talked to several others who just use their normal freezer, and they suggest just making sure the freezer is fairly empty before your cooking day.

2. how many people should i cook with?
again, this is preference. i would suggest starting with no more than 2 other people...and especially for the first time or two make sure you have childcare for kiddos if at all possible. (although, that said, i've only once had childcare for my girls during a cooking you can definitely make it work with kids around!).

3. how do you plan/shop, etc.?
perhaps because i was the "initiator" in my group of freezer cooking friends, i tend to be the one who compiles recipes, grocery lists, etc. i would definitely recommend having ONE person who does the actual planning, figuring out ingredient amounts, making a list, getting together a "cooking day plan", etc.
as for shopping, we have always taken the "buy our own meat" and "packaging" approach. each person purchases and prepares their own meat for recipes before the cooking day. each individual is also in charge of their own freezer bags and pans. beyond that, there are a couple approaches for shopping. my preferred method is to pick one designated shopper...this allows for buying more items in bulk and really taking advantage of warehouse stores and aldi's. i list out ingredients for EACH recipe and breakdown how much TOTAL we will need. then i inventory what we have on stock (spices or other "common" items). i e-mail out a list of everything...just to make sure people aren't wanting to leave something out, etc....and THEN i go shopping. after all the shopping is done, i total up expenses, divide it out, and on the day of cooking everyone writes me a check for groceries. when we are finished cooking, we divide up leftover ingredients (or keep them for the next cooking day).
the other approach we did one time was putting each person in charge of particular meals. this worked...BUT here is what i didn't like as much. several recipes used cheese, but instead of buying in bulk we each bought for our own recipes and ended up paying more. plus, at the end of the day we still had to total up expenses and write checks to one another...only it seemed to be more entailed than when i just did the shopping.

4. what does a "cooking day plan" involve?
first, it is easiest if everyone does as much work as possible BEFORE coming. all meat should be cooked, diced, shredded, divided for recipes, etc. BEFORE the day of cooking (which is why i prefer cooking on a monday--weekends are easier for me to get that prep work done). for pasta dishes, pasta should be cooked and ready to go. getting as many veggies chopped beforehand is even helpful. EVERYTHING should be labeled ahead of time. LOTS of stuff is flying around the kitchen on the day of label, label, label, label!
second...i find creating a plan for each recipe "station" makes things go more smoothly. we have found that putting one person charge of each station goes more quickly. (ie. i would make EVERYONE's chimichangas while my friend jill makes EVERYONE's potpie). this "cooking day plan" includes details like what size measuring cups and spoons you need at that station, what size bowls, a copy of the actual recipe, directions for assembly, any preferences someone might have (ie. NO olives in christy's chimichangas). this helps everyone know exactly what they are doing...even if it is their first time!).
i'm also a firm believer that an essential sanity portion of the "plan" should be washing dishes AS YOU GO! i've been amazed at how little clean-up we have when finished. and, of course, you should probably include some snacks for along the way!

5. how long does it take?
this completely depends on how many meals, whether kiddos are around or not, is it your first time or fiftieth time...and on and on. i would plan at least 5 hours for the first time you cook...and that would be for a net of 20-25 meals (4-5 servings each of 4-5 different recipes). however, the more you cook, the more efficient you get. last time i cooked there were three of us, we had childcare for almost all of the kiddos, and i came home with over 25 meals for a grand total of 3 hours of cooking. always plan for it to take longer than you think, though! and know that more "chefs" don't necessarily make things go more quickly...actually i think 3 is a great number for efficiency unless you have a really big kitchen! :)

6.what should i cook?
whatever you like to eat! seriously...we have done soups, marinade packs for grilling, baked chicken meals, casseroles, chimichangas, potpies, and on and on. just about anything freezes! i created a new blog "freezer feastings" where i will be highlighting some of my favorites. for summertime our family enjoys i have stocked my freezer with several baggies of marinaded chicken, pork, etc. they are portioned out, so all i need to do is grab a baggie, let it thaw, and pop it on the grill. sometimes i chop these up for grilled chicken salad, etc. one of our favorites is chicken chimichangas (on the blog already). we've done parsley pamesan chicken, breaded ranch chicken (both healthier versions of fried chicken), chicken enchilada casserole (where i learned that flour tortillas freeze MUCH better than corn tortillas!), beef stew, creamy chicken casserole, baked spaghetti, baked ziti, cavatini, lasagna, chicken tortilla soup, taco soup, chicken potpie (the still need to make the crust the day of), meatloaf, sausage calzones, stromboli, and on and on and on! check out freezer feastings for recipes...and i will do my best in my spare (ha ha!) time to add more!

7. how do i package meals for the freezer?
my all time favorite pans for freezer cooking are GLAD OvenWare. i found mine at target, but you might have to look around, as they can be hard to find. aluminum pans are fine as well...but i would suggest using 8x8s and then placing them inside a ziploc freezer bag to prevent leakage. ziploc freezer bags work fabulously for marinades, potpie filling, etc...basically anything that doesn't have to be layered. they also save room for those without a ton of space. i prefer making 8x8 sized meals, as this feeds my family with another round (or sometimes two) of leftovers. this stretches my grocery budget for sure! :)

8. how do i get started?
to borrow from nike, just do it. seriously, it can seem overwhelming and intimidating, but just get started. pick 4 recipes and find one or two friends. (or even just start doubling every recipe you cook for dinner!) stick with simple recipes...or, even better, look through the grocery flyers, see what meat is on sale and let that be your starting point for recipes...although, i would still suggest staying simple! (but then again, i don't do much of anything that is complicated!) plan a day...and go for it. i would LOVE to answer questions, help you plan, etc. as you get started. just leave me a comment with your e-mail address, and i promise to get back to you!

...okay, so that is my start on my freezer cooking "thoughts"....please, please, please...ask me questions, etc. this has been such a huge help to me in caring for my seems dinnertime was the most stressful time of the day for the longest time, but these days, i can relax and know that dinners already done! all i have to do is pop it in the oven...leaving those harried dinner-prep hours for fun with the girls! not only that, but you all know me, loving a bargain, and this most definitely is saving us money each and every month!


TheSpanishProf said...

Wow, Amanda! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your plans and thoughts with others. I'm going to refer friends to your blog. Hopefully I can find some people in my area to get started.

Annette said...

Bravo! We've been doing similar things for many years. My focus has been on bulk purchases and splitting of equipment with others. We'd buy dozens of organic chickens at once (at huge discount) and there would be no less than 5 group feasts that night in the neighborhood. :-)

Leslie said...

this is awesome, we love to do freezer cooking, but I have always done it on my own...

great brainstorming here.... :) thanks for the inspiration... another thing to put aside for maybe at the new house.. sigh...

staciashaf said...

Thanks Amanda! I did freezer cooking once and loved it. I'll be looking forward to see more and more recipes on the new blog. You had great ideas, although, I wish I could convince a couple friends to freezer cook with me.

Anonymous said...

Hey Amanda! Thanks for the great dinner ideas. As you know, I don't have kids but there are definatly days that I find it very hard to find energy for dinner after a hard day at work. I can't wait to try some of them.

Wendi @ Every Day Miracles said...

Yay!! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!! It was very helpful...and I feel very inspired! Wishing for less than 4 hours between us so we could do a cooking day together. :)

Fortunately though, I do know several friends around here that would be very interested in doing this!

Going to check out the freezer recipes blog!

Carrie said...

I loooooooooooove me some freezer cooking!! I need to get back on it.