Cooking and freezing: Ideas for getting past mealtime stress

Since our son surprisingly joined our family two months ago, my husband and I have had weird eating routines. Gone were the days of sitting down and eating a well-balanced meal at the table, and in were sandwiches gobbled over the sink in a groggy, sleep-deprived daze. I don’t like hastily prepared meals that lack major nutritional food groups, so I called my mom and asked her to help me get things back on track.

This past weekend, my mom and I prepared, cooked, and froze about a month’s worth of meals. Beef stew, burritos, pre-mixed ingredients for homemade bread, and dozens of other options now line the shelves of our refrigerator and freezer. It’s nice to once again be working from a meal plan and not feel overwhelmed by the simple act of getting dinner on the table.

I’ve found that extending a formal invitation to a friend or family member to help with an aspect of my life where I need to be better organized can be the motivation I need to get things done. I actually did most of the cooking this weekend while my mom played with her grandson and kept me company. Simply having a set time on the schedule and someone with me meant that I didn’t put off this chore and stayed focused on it. In addition to meal preparations, this idea also works great for closet uncluttering, paper filing, and cleaning out the garage.

If you’ve never worked from a meal plan or used a freezer to help with meal planning, I recommend you read these articles and give these methods a try — especially if you feel stressed out by the question “what’s for dinner?”

Also, last week, the Lifehacker blog ran a wonderful article called “10 Simple Freezer Tricks to Save You Time and Money” that can get you moving in the same direction.

How do you keep from feeling overwhelmed at mealtime? Give us your tips in the comments.

24 Comments for “Cooking and freezing: Ideas for getting past mealtime stress”

  1. posted by Ryan Dunlavey on

    Even though we live in the take-out paradise (New York City), my family always prefer home-made meals – they’re cheaper and healthier and it’s good way to get everyone involved in an activity. We eat home cooked dinners 5 or 6 times a week. My wife and I have built up a repitoire of 20-30 “go to” meals that we make all the time. We never plan meals more than 24 hours in advance, but we have a lot of techniques that keep it from being too stressful or too much work.

    I’m a big fan of all-in-one dinners like Chili, Beef Stew and Pasta with vegetables – only one dish to make a complete, nutritious meal, and plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day, another great way to cut down on time spent on meal prep.

    Rather than do take-out pizza we buy frozen whole wheat pizza dough (Trader Joe’s is pretty good), make our own sauce and freeze it in individual batches. Faster, healthier and tastier than delivery any day.

    CHicken Pot Pie is one of the things I’m best at and it used to be a huge production, but then I switched to buying pre-roasted chickens from the supermarket and using puff-pastry instead of doing it all from scratch and it actually comes out BETTER and I can make it in less than a half hour.

    Meats and fish we buy the freshest available, divide into meal-sized portions and place in zip-lock bags with a simple marinade (olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, etc) and freeze it like that in the bag. Move it to the fridge in the morning, it’s thawed and thoughly marinated by the time dinner rolls around, all ready for grilling or baking. Cook up some rice and a veg and you’re all set.

  2. posted by Uncanny on

    I, too, have discovered the joy of having a meal in the freezer waiting for me. My usual rotation: lasagna, sloppy joes, beef enchilada bake, a quiche or two, egg-stuffing bake, and 4 kinds of marinaded chicken breast.

    I’m not usually a comment-blog-pimper, but my blog is full of freezer cooking recipes and pointers. It really did take the stress off for us.

  3. posted by Amy's Stocking Stuffers on

    I’m not quite as organized as what you describe here, but I did just spend the weekend cooking up a storm! Whole chicken in the slow cooker on Saturday, then I had two separate pots going of chicken soup and chicken stock. Plus I froze individual half-cup portions of chicken which can be used as filling for pita sandwiches and anything else I can think of. Makes me feel good to have the freezer full again!

  4. posted by L. on

    I am looking to find a way to freeze meals without creating so much plastic waste. If you can think of a way please let us know.

  5. posted by ClumberKim on

    Not sure what L. means by “plastic waste”. I use washable, reusable plastic storage containers when I freeze meals. They aren’t perfect but I don’t consider them wasteful.

  6. posted by Celeste on

    We rely on several frozen food items so can often cobble together a meal out of what’s on hand. I love having something like sloppy joes all made up to heat and eat; that is my favorite busy-day entree.

    Meal planning is hampered for me by having a child who is an extremely picky eater and a husband who is equally picky AND prefers eating out and takeout to home cooking. I will eat almost anything and I will cook, but I lose all motivation to cook if people won’t eat it. We all eat something different at a restaurant, and many times at home we all eat something different. Mostly we just get through.

  7. posted by Anita on

    Excellent tips, Erin!

    Seeing as I live alone and 2 blocks from a grocery store, I much prefer buying everything fresh every 2-3 days, only making things in small batches, and eating whatever I feel like making that day. I’m happy to enjoy that luxury, though I think for families meal planning is a wise idea.

  8. posted by chacha1 on

    We mostly eat simple dinners – a piece of meat and a vegetable – which rarely take more than 15 minutes to prepare and serve. On the weekend I like to fix a large quantity of something more complicated … one week it was a pineapple pork curry, this week it’s braised oxtails … which we can eat any time during the week.

    I don’t know how people do it with kids or with “picky” eaters. My DH is one of those who will eat what I give him without complaint. If he gets tired of my cooking, he’ll order in or bring something home. 🙂

    For me, the key to kitchen efficiency is to keep a list, shop in an organized way once a week, and do as little actual cooking as possible on workdays!

  9. posted by lola meyer on

    Beans and rice are some of our favorite freezer staples. I cook a giant crockpot of beans overnight and portion them into freezer containers. Rice can be cooked in large amounts, portioned, and frozen too. Through the week, we keep a container of each in the refrig. for quick meals.
    Cannelini beans, pasta,and Italian seasoning for Pasta Fagioli
    Black beans, spinach, and cheese for burritos
    Rice and vegetables for a quick Chinese stir fry or fried rice
    Black eyed peas make the creamiest Ham and beans dish

  10. posted by Marianne on

    Congratulations on your baby! I swear by meal planning. It cuts down on impulse purchases and helps me to control my grocery purchases.

    Marianne : )

  11. posted by carrie on

    Freezer meals are our sanity saver.

    Like some of the previous commenters, I like to do a ‘big shop’ and then a ‘big cook’ and then freeze meals for later. I make meatballs done a couple of different ways, shepherd’s pie, chicken enchiladas, a meat and tomato pasta sauce that works for lasagna, the meatballs and on it’s own over ravioli or plain pasta. At the same time I make soup or stock. Everything gets frozen in reusable plastic containers and labelled with cooking instructions (for my kitchen-impaired husband) and the date.

    Our local Italian grocery store has a fantastic selection of fresh-made frozen tortellini and ravioli and other stuffed pastas. (Artichoke and lemon, bison and fig, cheese, veal, mushroom…) I always have a couple packages on hand to whip up a quick dinner.

    One tip is to always buy the same size and shape containers. This way everything stacks well, and when a lid is misplaced or cracked the others you have will still fit.

    For nights we want to eat fresh, I thaw some chicken for a stirfry etc and make sure I have salad fixings on hand too.

    A couple of days of planning takes the rush out of cooking for at least a month. It’s really worth the time and effort.

  12. posted by carrie on

    @ L – you could always freeze in muffin tins and then transfer to another larger container. I do this for things like pasta sauce or soups stock, moving them to a ziploc bag once frozen solid. It’s hard to avoid using plastic, but if you are selective about it,there isn’t a lot of waste. I do try to avoid using foil and plastic wraps as they can’t be recycled. In our area the Ziploc/Glad containers are recyclable, so I don’t feel bad about using them knowing I can dispose of them appropriately when the containers are no longer able to be used.

  13. posted by Katherine on

    my son will be born in december and have read the frequent advice of spending less time decorating the nursery and more time prepping your household to run on autopilot.

    one book i cannot recommend enough is called “fix freeze, feast” – using that book and a few free weekends, i have stashed 35+ meals in our chest freezer. the recipes are delicious and do not use lots of processed foods. i researched a lot of bulk cooking books and this was the only one that did not advocate dumping a can of cream soup on a casserole. it also allows you to pace yourself – make a lot or a little.

    i don’t work for the publisher, i just really love this book!

  14. posted by Betsy on

    I think one of the biggest–and often overlooked–strategies for meal planning is to be flexible and go with different strategies depending on your family’s needs. For instance, after my twins were born, I used Saving Dinner–the book, not the menu mailer–because I needed it all spelled out. When the boys started eating solid food, I switched to casseroles and other things that could cook while I fed them. When they got older and I was feeding three toddlers (I have another child), I changed gears again and made more freezer meals because my daily dinner prep time was nonexistent. Now, my strategy has shifted yet again…. you get the picture. Buying basics on sale, keeping a freezer and pantry well stocked with essentials, and having a few ace (and quick) recipes to fall back on ensure you aren’t caught without an option. But no one person’s strategy will work all the time or for everyone else.

  15. posted by Mo on

    One of the things I love about my America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook is that many of the recipes have “make-ahead” tips. It gives the point to where you can stop the recipe and refrigerate or freeze to finish off later. Since the recipes are for 4 or 6, I usually make the recipe up to that point, freeze half (or more), finish that night’s dinner, and have a head start on another dinner!

    I’ve tried meal planning, but my life is just too unscheduled. I end up feeling frustrated that it’s not “working.” Making sure that I’m a few meals ahead (and having a list on the side of the fridge of what’s available in the freezer) seems to work better for me.

  16. posted by Rachel on

    I do a meal plan every week when the ad circulars arrive, but I just make a list of 5 dinners without assigning them to particular days. That way, I can decide based on the weather and what appeals to us which meals get made on which days.

    The other two days are usually taken up by something out of the freezer. I don’t do a specific “freezer cook” — instead, when we have a lot of something left over — say, bolognese sauce or chili — we freeze it down to serve as a meal in the future. Rather than festering as leftovers in the fridge, it gets put directly into the freezer that night, labeled, dated, and ready to save me when I just don’t feel like cooking.

  17. posted by Bet on

    I have never been a fan of freezer meals. I like planning ahead for a few days. Now that there are only 2 children in the house, I can sometimes get away with cooking a larger meal (a casserole, soup, or something in the crockpot) on one night and then having leftovers the next night– my family doesn’t mind that. I also love fixing a lot of the quick and delicious meals from…Real Simple, where else? 😉

  18. posted by JR on

    A recipe sharing post would be fun to add on to this! What are your easiest favourites?

  19. posted by Karen on

    The hardest part of cooking for me is deciding what to make for dinner that night. So, I plan meals for the entire week at the same time I write out my grocery list. I also post the meal list on the refrigerator. That forces me to make the decision ahead of time instead of waiting until the last minute and just getting carryout instead. When I’m doing the dishes after dinner, I check what’s up the next night in case I need to defrost something.

  20. posted by gypsy packer on

    As a single woman, I prefer to eat meatless whenever possible–salads, beans, pasta. Pasta and beans can be made in large quantities and then frozen in meal-sized packs. For curries or stir-fries, make a big pot of rice–brown, white, or black–and freeze in individual portions; purchase a roast and cut it into meal size; purchase bags of frozen veggies. The roast can be thawed slightly in the microwave, then sliced into slivers and put into the marinade as soon as you arrive at home; then left there while you relax for a few minutes. Pasta salads can be made and marinated overnight, then one meal eaten for dinner and a second for a work lunch a day or two later. Chicken breasts can be frozen individually, thrown, still frozen, into a steamer or poaching liquid and served with a veggie or baked tater.

  21. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    I have a couple dozen go-to recipes, most of which use items that I keep stocked anyway. I’m fortunate to have the flexibility of working at home, and I usually go to the grocery store two times a week to get fresh items or a special ingredient for something we’re craving (it’s one of those chores I actually like).

    I am a HUGE fan of coming up with a couple handsful of basic, easy, fast meals that everyone likes and that don’t take a lot of thought or planning, and also of cooking extra of things like soup and stew and chili and tomato sauce so you’ll have plenty to freeze. It doesn’t take much longer than preparing a single batch, and it frees up future time. I buy meats in bulk at Costco and freeze them in meal-size portions (“meal size” being enough for a dinner and a leftover lunch or dinner for most things, depending on how well it works as leftovers).

    I love the idea of freezing meats with the marinade — thanks for that!

  22. posted by Nana on

    Years ago, I learned to cook up a LOT of chopped beef / turkey, mix with stewed tomatoes, and freeze in meal-size containers. Defrost one and add whatever seasonings appeal that day (Italian, Mexican, Greek, etc.) With a starch and veggie…very easy.

  23. posted by Flora on

    Aren’t mothers the best?

  24. posted by Eat Smart Age Smart on

    Leftovers make a lot of sense for a lot of reasons.

    Why grab something that is high in fat,salt or sugar when you can take a few hours each week and prepare meals for the entire week and have much better control over the types of food decisions you make?

    I love leftovers because I know that if I’m rushed, I’ll always have a healthy meal in my fridge!

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