How can you use a freezer to help with meal planning?

This is the second in a two-part series on how you can use a deep freezer to help with meal planning.

As I mentioned yesterday, we see meal planning as the best process for planning healthy meals, creating a simple shopping list, and avoiding the stressful “what’s for dinner” moment in front of the open refrigerator. A meal plan helps to keep clutter out of your body, and streamlines your at-home eating.

One of the ways you can use a freezer to help with meal planning is by vacuum sealing foods you buy in bulk. If you don’t own a product like a FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer, using freezer-safe zip-top bags and squeezing out as much air as possible can work as well. To get the air out of a zip-top bag, close the bag except for an inch at one of the corners. Submerge the exterior of the bag in water almost to the top of the bag. Let the pressure of the water release air from around your food, and then quickly close the last inch at the top of the bag. Be careful not to let any of the water into the bag and onto your food.

The way we use our FoodSaver is pretty straightforward. We start by buying fish filets, beef filets, chicken breasts, roasts, ground turkey, some pork cuts, and usually one or two other meat items based on what is freshest at our butcher’s shop. (If you buy half a cow from a CSA or another animal in larger portion, ask to have the meat butchered for you. My butcher does the vacuum sealing for his customers for a small fee.) Then, we head to our farmer’s market or grocery store and pick up some lettuces and other vegetables that are in season. We buy what we know we like and will use in the next three months.

After shopping, we go home and divide everything up into meal-size portions (we’ll put two fish filets in one vacuum bag, for example). We seal up the storage bags, adhere a piece of masking tape with the date written on it, and throw them all in the freezer. Well, except for the vegetables we want to eat fresh and the lettuces. Lettuces should never be frozen — you don’t want to freeze vegetables with high water content. When you put meat into their bags, you also can add marinades in with the food and they can absorb flavors during the time in the freezer.

When I create my meal plan, I “go shopping” in my freezer and see what I have and what meals I can create from the food in the freezer. I write down what meat I need to pull out of the freezer and transfer it into the refrigerator to thaw two days in advance. (Don’t thaw meat or fish on the counter.) Vegetables I usually don’t thaw ahead of time.

How do you use your freezer to keep meal planning simple? I’m looking forward to getting our deep freezer and having the convenience of being able to buy more in bulk than we already do.

30 Comments for “How can you use a freezer to help with meal planning?”

  1. posted by Sheryl on

    I cook things like dried beans and brown rice in bulk and freeze them in quart-sized ziplocs (enough in each for one meal.(For the beans, I add some of the cooking liquid to the bag, too.) It saves a lot of time (and money).

    We also buy the big bags of cheese at Costco, and divide it into ziplocs in amounts that will work for things that we eat frequently, like pizza, taco salad, spinach-cheese pie, etc.

  2. posted by Becky on

    I’m curious to know how long the food in the freezer can be kept for after vacuum-sealing it.

  3. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Becky — It depends on the food item. In theory, you can preserve food forever in a freezer (think of animals we find in glaciers that haven’t decomposed). Just because you can freeze foods indefinitely doesn’t mean you _should_ do it. The quality of food deteriorates the longer it’s frozen. The U.S. government has a pretty decent chart that shows how long you can keep foods and retain optimal flavor: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FactS.....dex.asp#19

  4. posted by A. on

    Great article. I’m wondering a couple things about using a vacuum-sealer:

    1. Do you find it cuts down significantly on freezer-burn?
    2. Do you find it to be worth the cost of said sealer and all the supplies it requires?

    I’ve debated getting one and just can’t seem to pull the trigger when I have a huge supply of zip-top freezer bags on-hand. Of course, one large bag of freezer-burnt salmon has now made me think otherwise. :)

  5. posted by Gabriel on

    I’ve always kind of regarded these vacuum sealers in the unitasker department – not because of their function, but because they appear to create a dependency on special bags.

    Do most models use brand-specific bags? Do different types/brands of sealers use interchangeable bags? How much are the bags?

  6. posted by adora on

    Meat with higher fat content freeze better, like chicken tights rather than chicken breast. Minced meat is fine too because the structure had been destroyed.

    I put mostly cooked meal in the freezer. When I make curry, I cook 4 times more than we eat. Then pour the leftovers into small Ziploc bags, freeze the portions laying down flat. Once it is frozen, I stand them up vertically, label them on the side like library books. It works for people who don’t have an additional freezer. I bank my “assets” like such, so I’m only cooking 1/4 of the time.

    I also don’t drink milk regularly, but a lot of recipes call for milk. So I buy 2L carton and freeze it in 250ml portions. Same with red wine or sake, but in 50ml portions.

    Garnishes can be frozen too. I used to waste a lot of spring onions because I can’t finish it. Now I chop them up and freeze them. Mushrooms too. They are very handy when I want to add something to my soup.

  7. posted by Megan on

    In regards to freezer burn, Alton Brown had a whole show about this. He suggests that you thoroughly cool meat in your fridge first — this speeds up the freezing process (cold meat is that much closer to being frozen than room-temperature meat) and thus cuts down on the time for ice crystals to form (ice crystals = freezer burn = enemy).

    We love to buy Emeril’s Chicken-and-Apple Sausages from Sam’s. We include 3 per Ziploc for freezing. They’re great for quick meals because they thaw quickly and they’re pre-cooked. We make hash, pasta… whatever.

    Another thing we do is to cook a big batch of ground beef before freezing. It thaws much quicker than the solid chunk of raw meat, thus making for a quicker meal. And I love the pre-roasted chickens! I clean them and freeze the meat in single meal portions.

    Another time-saving thing I do is to buy a bulk round of smoked gouda (again, from Sam’s). I save a ton of money on it! I shred it in my food processor and then freeze it in Ziplocs. Then, I can whip up a quick and delicious cheese sauce for an easy pasta dinner. Cheese doesn’t always freeze well, but in this case it works for me and saves me a lot of money. Just add some chicken (from the freezer, too!), some fresh basil from your garden, and maybe a few pine nuts. Voila!

    Gosh, Erin. As you can see, I’m all for freezing. :)

  8. posted by Jim @ Getting Ahead in Life on

    I had a vaccumm sealer. It was hit or miss. When it worked it worked great. But when it didn’t quite do the job the bags would not seal and freezer burn or worse.

    The bags created another problem. I would wash and reuse them but they would take for ever to dry. Not easy to wash hamburger fat from them either. I aslo felt guilty using so much palstic that would not be recycled. I am trying to be eco friendly.

    After a year of haphazard use and another year just sitting in the cupboard unused, we uncluttered it and sold it on eBay.

    I would never own one again. It was easier to ask the butcher to package and wrap the meat in freezer paper. If you buy a bigger cut of meat the butcher will usually cut it up for nothing extra.

    Now I etnd to use Glad or Ziploc containers. They are just like Tuperware and easier to wash and dry. I reuse them all the time and they last over a years if you don’t abuse them. Plus they stack nicer for an unclutter freezer.

  9. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @A — Our vacuum sealer was a Christmas gift two years ago from our in-laws. I don’t know where I stand on buying them. We use it because we have it and because it does a good job. This is probably a better question for someone who has had one and now doesn’t.

  10. posted by Lisa on

    @Becky and Erin — We freeze vegetables from our garden and fruit we buy in bulk. Quality depends greatly on how you prep and what you store it in. (and what you plan to do with it -casserole vs. frying vs. steaming/microwave?) For instance, when the squash is in season, I mix up squash casseroles and freeze it. I thaw it out and add my topping and bake. Just recently I used a casserole that I froze last summer and everyone thought I made it fresh! Strawberries, apples, peaches and other fruit can be put in the freezer without any prep other than wash/slice, etc. (no blanching needed) Seal in airtight container or zip-lock bag. They are great for cobblers and pies or making ice cream. It may sound bad but we’ve successfully kept fruits and veggies for a couple of years. Again it all depends on how airtight it is. Chicken and fish can be kept in the freezer for 6 months at least if you put it in a container and cover it with water, then freeze. We’ve kept fish for a couple of years and its always great. My husband is an avid fisherman and we could never eat all he catches without long term storage. (We hate to waste food!) I know this probably sounds gross to some people but I assure you we’ve never gotten sick from it! Obviously, when in doubt about its condition, just throw it out! But you’d be surprised at how long things will keep when stored properly. Obviously, I use the oldest stuff first. I don’t have a vacuum sealer and the only reason is the dependency on expensive bags. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the bags and what brand of vacuum sealer to you recommend?

  11. posted by Celeste on

    I don’t have a vacuum sealer, but I know some people love them. I like the idea.

    My timesaver (from Once A Month Cooking) is to freeze browned ground beef for use in something else later. I feel like this cuts down on the opportunity for spoilage because it seems like hamburger is more perishable especially with thaw time added.

    The only cooked item I regularly freeze is sloppy joes. That is my go-to dinner when we are short on time. I don’t freeze the buns but that might be a good vacuum-sealer trick. We typically do have buns on hand.

    I think the vacuum sealer would be great for saving portions of things for picky eaters. I bought a bag of meatloaf servings from Market Day and they are a lifesaver for eating at home with our picky eater child. No way should we be bound to only eating what she will. This way she eats a good dinner and we get variety. She may or may not grow out of her pickiness; for now we are just trying to work around it.

  12. posted by infmom on

    That trick of using water pressure to empty the bags is clever! I never heard of that before but you can bet I’ll be doing that from now on.

    In the days before I took early retirement, my husband and I would cook on weekends and freeze meals for use later in the week. Most casseroles worked well, but macaroni and cheese was less than successful.

    What I would do was line the (glass or Corningware) casserole dish with foil, extending well over the edges of the dish. Then I’d assemble the casserole, fold the foil over the top and seal it, and then freeze dish and all. A couple hours later the freezing would be to the point where I could pull the foil wrapped package out of the dish and let it freeze the rest of the way on its own. That way I could just unwrap the casserole when needed, put it back in its dish, put it on “defrost” in the microwave, and once it was reasonably thawed, reheat it. I think now I would just put the casseroles in one of those reusable Glad or Ziploc containers, so I wouldn’t have to do all that wrapping and could just slide the meal from the container into its dish. Those containers are an amazing invention and I wish they’d come on the market sooner.

    I still buy packages of frozen hamburger and turkey-burger patties, which can be peeled off their stack and grilled or fried without thawing. Just right for a quick meal of burgers without going out. I keep packages of hamburger buns from the day-old department in the freezer. You can take the frozen buns out of the package and just thaw what you need in the microwave.

    We had a bag sealer when we were first married (wedding gift). It was one of the very first Seal-A-Meal units. We were on a tight budget then and the rolls of bag material were pretty pricey. So although it worked just fine, we didn’t use it much. Somewhere out in storage I have one of those “pump and seal” gizmos that uses regular plastic bags and seals stuff in jars if you punch a hole in the lid and use their special stickers. Used to be advertised on TV all over the place. My mother-in-law got one and really liked it, so she got me one too. It worked fine, but at some point I misplaced some small part of it or other, and by the time I finally found it I realized that it probably wasn’t worth the hassle to assemble, use, disassemble and clean the thing.

  13. posted by Farmwife on

    LOL, we have 3 big freezers, plus 2 fridges. But we raise or hunt ALL of our own meat, so ours have to hold our food until the next year.

    I vacuum seal our elk/deer/antelope/goat/fish and it is a lot easier than the wrapping we used to do. Much faster, and the meat keeps just as well.

    The meat we have butchered is still all paper wrapped, but it too does just fine for the next year.

    I doubt that we spend more on bags than we spent on paper/plastic/tape to do up the meat before. And it’s sooo much faster to stick it in a sealer bag and zip it shut.

    Oh by the way — you don’t have to belong to a CSA to buy half a cow (or pig, or lamb) There are plenty of us small folks around who raise clean and humanely kept animals to sell. Just call your local butcher and ask! They usually have lists of folks they call when they have people wanting meat.

  14. posted by Cynthia on

    Great tips, especially using water to get the air out. I’ve thought about getting a vacuum sealer, but wasn’t sure if it really worked. I guess from reading the comments, it’s a hit or miss.

    Lately, I’ve been buying my meats and veggies at the beginning of the week and then cooking things during the week. I’ve saved time and money by planning my meals on the weekends and getting only what I need at the grocery store and not what I think I might need (if that makes sense)

    We used to buy a lot in bulk, but I found that I forgot about the meat and it would end up with freezer burn. But now that I’m in a habit of putting together a weekly meal plan on Sunday, then it might work well and I’ll be saving money and time if I go “shopping” in my freezer instead of at the store.

    Great tips from everyone. I really enjoyed this post.

  15. posted by Lawrence on

    We tried the larger systems and found them, as someone else has stated, very hit and miss. Cutting the bags and getting the thing to seal was a real pain most of the time. Then we found the new Reynolds HandiVac bags and little vacuum device and haven’t looked back.

    http://www.reynoldspkg.com/rey.....n/home.asp

    We find it less trouble, and best of all less expensive than the alternatives.

  16. posted by Yolanda on

    We are on our second FoodSaver (over a period of six years) and I honestly love it. I consider it an essential to preserving food for long-term freezer storage. We also have a deep freezer (I grew up with one, so my food buying habits were already built around having one). We use the deep freezer to reduce our grocery shopping, avoid waste, and reduce our excuses for eating processed food.

    Here are our top strategies:

    1. We have found that it’s helpful to keep an ongoing inventory of the items we have in the deep freezer. We keep this list pasted to the inside of our pantry for easy access and update it as we take things out. The master list is on the computer and we update it every month or so, when the printed list is too marked up. This makes meal planning easier and keeps us from having to rummage through the entire freezer to find things.

    2. We buy packaged foods like ice cream, frozen vegetables and french fries either in bulk sizes or in quantity when on sale at the regular grocery store. We also take advantage of sales on items we use a lot (like chicken breasts). We would rather spend $30 on chicken breasts at one time and eat from them for weeks or months, rather than spend smaller quantities of money and have to buy the item every time we go to the store.

    3. I have also made a habit of freezing leftover in meal-sized portions immediately. After Thanksgiving, for instance, I dished out leftover turkey and sides onto small plates and froze them. I then removed the frozen meals from the plates and vacuum-sealed them. I had fresh-tasting, homemade meals to break up my lunch monotony all the way until March. This is far more frugal than keeping those same leftovers in the fridge for four days and dumping them, when the picked over portions aren’t eaten.

    4. I make a batch of muffins once a month and freeze them. 20 seconds to defrost in the microwave and 3 minutes in the toaster oven, and I have a homemade muffin ready to eat and run out the door with (if needed). Pancakes, waffles, french toast also freeze excellently.

    5. Lastly, pizza dough. I make a big batch about once every six weeks and freeze individual 6 to 8 oz balls in plastic bags. I take out a dough ball to defrost every Thursday. We have homemade pizza every Friday.

  17. posted by maxie on

    I wouldn’t be without our Foodsave. We’ve had it almost 10 years and it’s still going strong. However, they’re now made by a different company so I’m not so sure if the quality is the same (I know their customer service isn’t).

    Regarding bag material: I buy commercial vacuum bag material online and, including shipping cost, it’s a little bit cheaper than buying it at Costco. Problem with Costco is that you have to buy an assortment and you end up with too much of this and not enough of that.

  18. posted by maxie on

    Whole point of my first paragraph there was to say we’ve never had freezer burn on anything. We catch a lot of salmon and steelhead, and most years have an elk. It all stays fresh till we use it,and occasionally that takes more than a year. We had a package of Alaskan salmon that “got lost” and it still had that just-caught aroma and taste 18 months later when it reappeared.

  19. posted by Karen the Californian on

    My top two uses for the Foodsaver: freezing garlic and resealing chip bags and other plastic/mylar bags. I still use it to store meats and meals and stuff, but I’m not disciplined enough to use it that way on a regular basis.

    Garlic:
    1: buy a bulk portion of garlic from Costco
    2: peel them
    3: run them through the food processor so that it’s finely minced
    4: scoop the minced garlic into the Foodsaver bag
    5: press out the air
    6: seal the bag
    7: press it so that the garlic is one big flat patty in the bag
    8: freeze
    9: drop the frozen garlic patty on the floor and against the edge of the counter to break into smallish pieces
    10: when I need garlic, I just snip off a corner of the Foodsaver bag, drop out a few broken shards of minced garlic, and re-seal the bag.
    Why do I go through all this? My garlic would go bad if I kept it on the counter or in the fridge. I’ve tried keeping it in a ziploc, and unfortunately the garlic smell would go straight through the ziploc bag and into everything else in the freezer. Great for garlic chicken, horrible for iced tea. And because I only cut off a small corner of the bag at a time (and I don’t vacuum seal it after that first freeze, just seal without vacuuming!), I’ve been able to re-use this same bag for three batches of frozen garlic.

    And for bags of chips? I buy a bag chips and hate to throw them away, but I hate the thought of eating them all in one sitting. So I’ll take some out of the bag and then re-seal the bag! I don’t need to transfer the chips into a special Foodsaver bag — mylar and most thicker plastic bags (not the thin grocery store shopping bags or the bags on rolls in the produce section) seal beautifully. I use my Foodsaver to re-seal chips, frozen pot stickers, frozen meatballs, etc. (And obviously I don’t vacuum-seal the chips!)

  20. posted by pidgeon92 on

    I’ve begun freezing portions of things I’ve made from the garden…. I use my mini muffin pans (silicone) and have frozen sage & pecan pesto (sans the parmesan, which will be added fresh later) and roasted red pepper sauce. I freeze the muffin portions, then put them into plastic containers.

  21. posted by Justina Selim on

    I double my recipes and then freeze the leftovers to eat the following week. Save me tons of time and energy!

  22. posted by timgray on

    I strongly recommend the foodsaver brand of vacuum sealer. I tried all the others and that was the only one that worked every time. Now I bought the bottom of the line foodsaver sealer. I tried all of them and unless you have to have the matching stainless steel for all your appliances the cheapest foodsaver sealer works as good as the $399.00 model. By using it my wife and I have found you can freeze for a long time things like butter, cheese, and other items you would never think of and we have not had a instance of freezer burn since we switched to the foodsaver setup.

    There is a trade off though. you will spend a LOT of time now on food prep with this. when you come home you need to cut things up, bag them and clean up. you are saving money but you are spending time. If you have the time to spend, or you make it quality family time, then great this is a benefit all around.

    you need to gauge if the time spent is worth the money spent. Plus it does increase your kitchen clutter. you have not only one more gadget but all it’s parts and then the boxes of the bags.

  23. posted by Dream Mom DBA www.dreamorganizers.com on

    I use my freezer like this.

    I freeze fresh fruits and vegetables in 1/2 cup serving sizes. That way, if I need something for a recipe, it’s all ready to go. Also, if I want some for a meal, it’s ready to go. This allows me to take advantage of the farm stands. Also, if I cook and dice a vegetable, it’s all ready in 1/2 cup serving size.

    I cook a whole turkey in my Showtime Rotisserie. Jennie O has a “Classic” turkey where they remove the legs and wings and you simply have the whole turkey minus those two parts. I cook a 8.5 pound bird and once it’s done and cool, I put the white breast meat in 3 oz ziploc bags and I can use it for sandwiches, dinner or to top a salad. Plus, it’s entirely white meat. I do the same wit chicken-cooking it in a rotisserie.

    I also make homemade veggie burgers every ten days or so. (You cook the veggies and make the burgers but do not cook the burgers.)I make individual patties and store them in the freezer. I also make a home made veggie hamburger (made with four diced fresh veggies and lean chopped sirloin) and store them uncooked in freezer bags. When I am ready to cook, I’ll microwave it for one minute and then cook it in a single serve grill pan. I’ll eat this with a salad.

    I also purchase skinless boneless chicken breasts on occasion and store them in individual bags.

    By storing fruits and veggies in 1/2 cup serving sizes and poultry in 3 oz serving sizes, I can make anything I like.

  24. posted by JoyB on

    I use very little plastic in my kitchen. Especially with the recent studies about the health negatives of the BPA build-up in our bodies (it leeches from plastics into our food), I would not eat vacuum-sealed food.

  25. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @JoyB — Before you stop using all plastics, you should get the facts about BPAs. They’re only present in some plastics, not all. You’re obviously free to choose what you want to use in your home, I just wanted you to know that not all plastics have BPAs.

  26. posted by JoyB on

    A lot of USA kitchen plastic contains BPAs – including plastic blender jars, polycarb food processor pieces, the 5-gallon water bottles we used to get delivered to our home, and it can even be found in the thin plastic lining the interior of food cans – if you eat food out of cans you are dining on BPAs. Yum!

    I still buy canned food occasionally, but I try to eat more fresh food to avoid this. When I freeze food, I only use pyrex glass containers, which still have flexible plastic lids, but less plastic is touching my food. I cook w/stainless steel & cast iron pans and cook w/ceramic bakeware, never use non-stick.

    When grocery shopping (not as often since I joined a CSA), I take my own cloth produce bags to avoid using the plastic store produce bags (better for environment too). It is darn near impossible to completely avoid plastic, but I’ve cut down my family’s exposure by at least 75% in the kitchen.

    Check out http://www.ewg.org for more info on this kind of thing. Although initially this change made my life way more complicated, now that I’ve done the “plastic purge” (not just in my kitchen), my life is simplier. There are so many things I do not consider bringing home to junk up my house because they are made out of plastic. Fewer choices = happier me.

    My kitchen is less cluttered. I found a blender w/a stainless jar (they make glass ones too), but I can’t find a non-plastic food processor. I use my good ol’ knife and a cutting board instead.

  27. posted by Shalin on

    As a guy who likes to cook, I’d think about the FoodSaver product, but the Reynolds Handi-vac product seems better for me as a single guy. Great post!
    –S

  28. posted by Patricia Rogers on

    Do you have to freeze pecans in you vacuum seal them?

  29. posted by Susan Mikulecky on

    LOVE my Seal a Meal. I found it at a store closing sale, so it was a bargain. Kohls has great sales on kitchen small appliances though! I only buy the bags on sale…
    I have belonged to a CSA this summer and had a huge amt. of bell peppers. I diced them, froze on cookie sheets, then used my vac sealer and have diced peppers for white chili all winter. I plan on doing big freezer meal cooking soon and will have my freezer full of well sealed pkgs.

  30. posted by Potluck Linklove — Almost Frugal on

    [...] Unclutterer, comes a two part series on deep freezers. This post talks about the practical [...]

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