Learning how to freeze meals so that you can stockpile homemade, ready-to-heat dinners should be considered a talent. It may seem easy — just double up on tonight’s dinner so that you can relax later in the week — but it’s not always that simple. Especially when you’re rushing around trying to get one dinner on the table, let alone more than one.
But with a few helpful guidelines and the right recipes to get you started, you too can learn how to freeze meals. Then, when the sun sets on a particularly rough day, just reheat, relax, and grab that well-deserved glass of wine.
Top: Sweet Potato Black Bean Enchiladas at Weelicious | CME is an Amazon & rStyle affiliate
How to freeze meals: Helpful tips
* Let food cool completely before freezing. Of all the things I learned in culinary school, the most important for home cooks is to never, ever put a hot dish into a cold fridge or freezer. When you do, the inside of the dish ends up spending more time in the “danger zone,” the temp at which bacteria flourish (40 to 140 degrees), and can cause food poisoning.
* Avoid re-freezing: Technically, you can do it, but it degrades the quality of the food, as a lot of moisture is lost in the defrosting and re-freezing process. Skip it if you can.
* Skip egg-based recipes: Eggs that have been frozen will likely separate or curdle upon reheating, so skip those, too.
* Freeze flat: When freezing sauces, stews, grains, or anything else that can be stored in plastic zip-top bags, lay the bags flat in the freezer so that you can stack them and save on space. (Flashbacks of pumping and freezing breastmilk, anyone?)
* Get in the habit: Even if you don’t want to freeze meals, get in the habit of freezing leftover tomato sauce, broth, or fresh herbs packed in oil. Doing so helps cut down on waste and can provide a great cooking shortcut later in the week. I love my Tovolo King Cube trays for individual portions.
How to freeze meals: Supplies you need
Whatever supplies or method you use, you just want to remember one thing: Wrap it tightly. More air equals more freezer burn (those icky ice crystals), which equals undesirable texture and taste. With that in mind, these are must-haves for making freezer meals:
* High-quality freezer bags: They’re easy, recyclable, disposable, and you can write on them. Make sure to use the ones made for freezing, which will resist moisture better than flimsy sandwich bags. I like how home cook Arlene at Flour On My Face describes how to pre-portions chicken breasts (above), labeling them for easy id’ing and cooking later.
* Glass storage containers with tight fitting lids: Glass is a good choice, especially if you’re trying to avoid plastics. Pyrex makes great glass storage containers meant to go from freezer to oven or microwave. Just remember to always leave about an inch of space between the food and the lid so that there is room for the food to expand as it heats up.
* Plastic containers: If you’re at all worried about glass breaking, Tupperware and Rubbermaid make great BPA-free containers. They have flexible on/off lids, stack well, and many are designed to help items freeze quickly. Use square ones if possible, as they save space in the freezer. Though we don’t recommend using a microwave to reheat food in plastic. Best to transfer to non-metal dishes and bowls first.
* Sharpie markers: You can never have enough Sharpies in the kitchen! Use them for dating and labeling containers. I write directly on bags or foil. Otherwise, place masking tape on containers and write on that.
Freezer meals: Casserole recipes
Here’s my general reheating directions for casseroles: Unwrap any plastic and/or remove the lid from the storage container. Cover with foil, and reheat at the original cooking temperature.
You can use a thermometer to make sure that the inside reaches 160 degrees before serving, or sometimes I just stick a knife in the center. If it comes out nice and hot, I know we’re good to go with any of these awesome recipes below.
The Sweet Potato Black Bean Enchiladas at Weelicious (above & top) are an ideal make-ahead freezer dish. Sometimes I fret that enchiladas are nothing more than sauce, cheese, and tortilla, but Catherine brilliantly adds mashed sweet potato and black beans for an extra healthy and hearty meal. I’d suggest making two pans at once and wrapping one—or individual portions—tightly in foil. Then, pop in the freezer for up to 3 months. If you like your enchiladas topped with shredded cheese, wait to add that until right before reheating.
A friend was so kind to bring me a version of these Lasagna Rollups created by The Pioneer Woman when I first had a baby, and it was a lifesaver. If you’re going to put the work into making lasagna, you might as well make some for later, too. I love Ree’s suggestion of using disposable loaf pans to wrap and freeze individual portions. This is just the type of dish that I want to be able to grab for the kids when the sitter is on her way and I’m out the door.
Freezer meals: Soup recipes
Soup makes a perfect freezer meal since it’s easy to cook in large portions, it’s nutritious, and all that yummy broth nicely protects the ingredients inside. To reheat, put the container in a little hot water to loosen the frozen soup from the sides. Then, it should pour (or pop!) out easily into a pot. Be sure to stir often until heated through.
I love the guilt-free days when we eat pizza for dinner. But I invariably start to plot how I will compensate the next day by making some sort of power vegetable soup like this Chickpea Farro Soup recipe at Two Peas and Their Pod. Loaded with delightfully chewy farro and packed with tasty veggies, this budget -friendly soup is a great candidate for bulk cooking. Just double the recipe to enjoy half now and freeze the rest for next month. Note that you can easily make this soup vegan by omitting the cheese.
I make a version of the 30-Minute Tuscan White Bean Soup from Serious Eats whenever my family requests it — so pretty much all the time. This soup gets better with age, so you’re actually doing a good thing by freezing those leftovers. Just make sure to add the not-so-secret ingredient of a Parmesan rind to the broth (remove it before freezing); it adds the most wonderful flavor to this simple soup.
Freezer meals: Meat and fish recipes
It’s true that some meats and fish can turn mushy or simply get overcooked in the process of freezing and reheating. If you’re not sure what will work, stick to ground meat or a firm white fish (nothing too delicate). Thawing meat in the refrigerator is ideal so try and remember to put the items in the fridge the night before, or even the morning you plan on serving them.
Listen up mamas and papas! The Rao’s Meatballs recipe found at Food52 are the meatballs to make and freeze, and not just because they are utterly tender, mouthwateringly delicious, and from one of the most authentically amazing Italian restaurants in the country. They are suuuper easy to make and the recipe yields a ton. I like to freeze the raw meatballs between sheets of parchment paper in a big freezer-safe dish with a lid. You can also freeze them in a durable gallon freezer bag; just lay the bag flat and add the meatballs in one layer. Thaw them in the fridge overnight or starting in the morning.
I have to admit, fish isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of freezing (flashback to bad elementary cafeteria meals), but the Classic Fish Sticks at our editor Stacie’s site, One Hungry Mama, have changed my mind for the better. I love the idea of having a quick, kid-friendly protein I can take straight from icebox to oven, and her version is just that, with a subtle twist that makes fish sticks a great dinner for grown ups, too. (Really!) Her tips on how to bread and bake fish sticks instead of frying are also super helpful. And healthful.