Are you a busy mom who never seems to find the time to cook dinner? Does the idea of what to make every day cause you to curl up with wine and Netflix? Me too, momma.
If this sounds like you, I’ve got a treat for you. I have put together the ultimate guide to make-ahead meals to share with you. I’ve gathered everything I learned about how I prepare for those busy evenings.
You know the ones – where you’ve been on the go all day and now you have to figure out what to feed everyone.
From your freezer to your crockpot, you have the tools to make ahead meals that will feed your family for weeks to come.
Freezer cooking can be life-changing.
So, if you frequently find yourself standing in the kitchen at 4 pm wondering what’s for dinner too many times, then keep reading. We’ll go over exactly how you can use this amazingly simple prep method. It is going to save you so much time and money for dinner.
Make-ahead freezer meals
I first learned about freezer cooking when I saw some friends posting about it on Facebook. They mentioned making 30 different meals and putting them all in their freezer. So I hopped over to Pinterest and started looking for ideas.
I ran into some posts from one of my favorite mom bloggers Money Saving Mom about how to tackle the job of freezer cooking. At that point, I was starting to get overwhelmed but I figured I would give it a try.
And boy was I glad that I did. I have never been able to do what my friend originally posted about making 30 different meals all in one day. But the act of preparing meals ahead of time and throwing them in the freezer has been a game-changer.
It has kept me out of the drive-through more times than I care to admit.
My favorite types of freezer meals are those that I just have to throw in the slow cooker in the morning and let that do all the hard work for me. It’s such a great feeling when you come home after a long day and dinner is already done.
So, just what is freezer cooking?
Freezer cooking is when you make meals ahead of time and put them into freezer bags (or vacuum-sealed bags) to save for when you’ll use them. You can also use those large tinfoil trays with tinfoil on top. This is great if you’re making a casserole or enchiladas or something that can be cooked right in the tray.
Pro tip – Sometimes those meals need to defrost ahead of time, but if you forget, just take it out of the freezer in the morning. And then when you get home in the evening put it in a cold oven. Turn on your oven and let it warm up with your dinner in there. It will finish defrosting while the oven heats up.
How long do freezer meals last?
This is a tricky question. Some might say forever, however, I am not one of those someones. I just feel that once I start to see that freezer-burn shows up then I either need to eat it or toss it.
And I hate throwing away food. So I try to dive into my freezer on a regular basis and stay on top of what’s in there.
I also don’t have a giant deep freezer so I need to keep what I’m freezing to a limited amount. I follow this rule that three months, on average, is about the maximum time that I am willing to keep food in my freezer.
Normally, I am not a fan of plastic, but when it comes to freezer cooking this is one spot that I go ahead and use it. I can write right on the bag what’s in there and the date it’s going in the freezer. This makes figuring out what things are much easier.
As mentioned earlier I also like those tinfoil trays but they’re also usually only good to use once or twice. I write on top of the tinfoil what’s in there and the date.
Again this is super important. You don’t want to open it to look in then shut it and put it back in. You’ve just introduced tons of fresh air and bacteria is now going to grow much quicker.
Since these tinfoil trays aren’t airtight, I also don’t let them go more than a few weeks.
But this isn’t based on anything scientific just my personal preference, so you’ll need to decide that on your own.
Do you thaw freezer meals before cooking?
I do thaw my freezer meals at least a day in the fridge before cooking. However, there have been crisis times when I needed to make something in the house and had to thaw quickly. I don’t like putting things on the counter to thaw (my grandma and mom used to do that, and I just can’t, gross!).
But if I pull something from the freezer in the morning and it’s still not thawed by dinner, then I will put it in the oven before it’s turned on and let it finish thawing while the oven is preheating.
I have also put stews in the crockpot still frozen. I figure the crockpot when on low, warms up slow enough that it thaws the food before cooking it.
But again, when the stars align and I can actually plan ahead, then I prefer to thaw in the fridge for a day or two.
How do I prepare meals for freezing?
This answer varies as much as the dishes do.
For many dishes that are simply dumped into the slow cooker, the only thing I will do is chop the meat and vegetables and throw them in the freezer bag with the marinade.
When I make stew, I will brown the stew meat quickly. Then add it to the bag with the veggies and freeze.
For many casseroles and other pasta dishes, I will start making the meal according to the recipe. And then right before the step calling for the dish to be put into the oven, I will freeze it. Then when it’s time to cook I will simply put it in the oven and cook it according to the instructions.
As you can see there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Once you start to see which recipes your family likes, you will need to note which preparation steps each meal needs before freezing.
As a general rule of thumb, dump and go crockpot meals are the easiest thing to make ahead and freeze. Simply prepare the meat and veggies to be dumped into the crockpot. Then let the slow cooker do all the work while you reap all the benefits.
What are meals that freeze well?
Let’s start with ingredients that don’t freeze well and then go from there.
I have learned *the hard way* that white potato does not freeze well. Once you cut open the potatoes they start some sort of starch process that turns the potatoes this weird gray color. When I did this I was so heartbroken about having this lovely stew that didn’t look right. There it was, all ready to be thrown in the slow cooker but it just looked weird. I even Googled whether or not these weird-looking potatoes were still edible.
Funny enough, I found that they are in fact, okay to eat even though they look funny. But as I was doing the research and re-assessing these weird-looking potatoes I decided I didn’t want to cook and serve weird-looking food.
It’s hard enough to get kids to try new things let alone when they look less than appetizing. So I cried my tears of pain as I tossed all that food and literally threw money down the drain.
But lesson learned certain foods don’t freeze well.
However, there are plenty of foods that do.
My favorites are Italian and Mexican dishes. It is so insanely easy to make a big lasagna dish or pan of a dozen enchiladas and then freeze them. Follow the instructions right up until the part where they tell you to put them in the oven. Then cover and freeze.
As I mentioned earlier, I like the single-use aluminum pans covered with aluminum foil. But it does feel wasteful.
I also was able to score a couple of my grandma’s corning dishes. (My family was a little surprised when that was one of the things I asked for! But they are sentimental and they work amazingly well.)
With the corning dishes, I remember my grandma making up the dish during the day when everyone else was gone and then putting the lid on it and just putting it in the fridge. Then when everyone started coming home she would slip into the kitchen and heat up the oven and just pop the dish right in. Then when the family was visiting she could still be part of it all and we still had a warm yummy dinner.
Batch cooking on a Sunday and then freezing basically does the same thing for us, busy mommas, in today’s society.
There just isn’t time during the middle of the day to cook (I used to do this during nap time…but sadly those days are behind me…no more naps…cue sad music). Anyway, do this on a Sunday and then when you get home from soccer practice, just turn on the oven and focus on baths and homework while a yummy homemade dinner cooks itself!
Crockpot freezer meals
My second favorite thing to cook after those dishes mentioned above are the dump and go dinners that I can put straight into my crockpot in the morning and then let them cook all day long!
Again, the trick is to batch cook on a weekend and then freeze everything right before it says to cook it. Crockpot cooking does take a bit more preparation just for the simple reason most want you to thaw them before you put them in.
So on the days when I am really prepared and already looking a day ahead at our schedule, if I see a day where a crockpot meal would really benefit me (ie: crazy busy, more so than usual) then I will take something out of the freezer and let it thaw overnight.
Then in the morning dump the bag right into the crockpot, set it, and forget it. The best!
Here are a few of my favorite dishes:
- Beef stew
This is one of my favorite meals in the slow cooker. Simply chop up an onion, throw in some cheap stew meat, and then add some hardy root vegetables.
It’s just so quick and you have your entire meal cooking up all day long while you get all your stuff done.
Then as we all get home in the evening the house smells so good and we just dish and serve.
- Beef and broccoli
Again, this one is so easy. If you’re making rice to go with it, that will be the thing that makes this meal take longer than 30 minutes. And 30-minute meals are my absolute favorite way to ensure dinner gets on the table each evening.
When I make this as a freezer meal, I might go ahead and brown the beef for a minute or two on each side before putting it in the bag with the broccoli. Then add the seasoning and freeze.
Thaw it well and then toss in the wok with some sesame oil. Your family will devour this faster than you can say turn off your tablets and come to dinner.
- Rubber chicken
I learned about this trick from FlyLady and Leanne Ely. They showed me that you can use the entire chicken and make the most of one small bird. Even with the price of meat going up, whole chickens are still only a dollar a pound where I live.
I used to buy the rotisserie chicken at Costco. And now, making my own has saved so much money. Check out my recipe here to make your own knock-off rotisserie chicken.
- Any and all Soups
Soups in the crockpot get me through those long winter months. Depending on where you live, maybe you don’t have long winters. But if you do, or if you just love warm comfort food despite it being 75 in January, you need to start adding soups to your meal plan.
Chili is one of those amazing all-in-one dinners that everyone seems to love. It is comfort food at its finest and all you need is a little garlic bread and this is a complete meal.
Just as with the stew above, I throw this in the slow cooker and then serve at dinner time and it is a complete dinner without needing to fuss with anything else.
When I make it in the crockpot, I make a ton of it. Then we have chili and rice one night, chili on hot dogs another night, and then possibly grab some tortilla chips and make haystacks another night.
This one day of cooking feeds us for many days to come. And that my friend, is when you really start to see the fruits of your labor when it comes to make-ahead meals.
Can I prepare enough make-ahead meals for a month?
Absolutely! It takes quite a bit of prep work and planning. But you can definitely make enough meals for the month.
My biggest thing here is that the batching is a lot easier if you make 2 or 3 of each meal. So I will prep 7-8 meals at once, but it is really only 3 or 4 different recipes that I make 2 or 3 meals with them.
Also, I feel I should mention one caveat here. I don’t make a separate and unique dinner seven nights a week. Sorry, not sorry momma.
But you deserve a break too. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself to be Martha Stewart, it’s not necessary.
Because there is nothing I hate more than feeling tied down in my kitchen. I want to make healthy dinners at home and I love saving money by not eating out as much as I used to. But I do not want to have to make 21 unique meals every single week. My family is lucky to get four!!
So, most weeks we will pick up a take-and-bake pizza on Friday night. Then at least one night is leftovers/clean out the fridge night. Depending on how much you make for each meal and how good of eaters your family is, this could account for multiple dinners each week. We average 1-2 nights a week for leftovers.
This averages to only 4-5 nights a week of needing to plan a unique dinner dish.
Doing the quick math: for the month this is an average of 16-18 meals needed. Personally, I like to keep the meats similar when I am batch prepping my freezer meals. I might do 3-4 chicken meals and 3-4 ground beef meals. And, of course, I am doubling the recipe, so this will make 12-16 dinners.
Really, when you break it down, it’s not that hard. But if I were to sit down and think that I need to figure out 30 unique freezer meals for a month, I just get so overwhelmed.
How my process looks IRL
So, instead, of getting overwhelmed I break it down. I ask myself: what are three chicken dinners the family loves? Chicken enchiladas, chicken tortilla soup, and cheesy chicken with rice.
For all three recipes, including doubling them, I will need to buy about 8-10 pounds of chicken. You know your family and how much they eat at each dinner, so adjust this accordingly.
Now, I need three dinners that include ground beef. So, I am going to choose chili, cheeseburger casserole, and stuffed taco shells.
Now, again for all three of these meals, I am going to pick up at least 6 pounds of ground beef. Ground beef can be very expensive if you just randomly pick it up whenever you happen to put it on your shopping list.
This is definitely one of those items that I watch the sales. I am getting pickier about which “level” of ground beef I buy.
I don’t know if this is the way they do it everywhere else, but here in my stores, the ground beef is different prices for each percentage of meat-fat. So the cheaper the price, this usually means the higher the fat content. And it just all cooks off when you brown it, so you really aren’t getting a better deal.
When I see the good stuff reach a price near the $3/pound price point then I will pick up as much as I can that week. Grab some onions and brown it up the next day. Then separate it into freezer bags and you have half a dozen ready to go the next time your recipe calls for browned ground beef.
Wrap it up and take it to go
Learning how to master the art of make-ahead meals takes a while. And this post turned into a monster post! If you made it to the end, congratulations!
My biggest piece of advice is to just jump in and try it once. You will make mistakes and that’s okay! Learn from them and do it better the second time.
So, grab a notebook and start brainstorming meals your family likes. Then group them by meat and head to the store.
I know you’ll appreciate having ready-made meals waiting for you in the freezer just as much as I do. I have linked some of our family’s favorites in the post, but I also love cruising through Pinterest looking for new ideas.
Freezer cooking can change your life, give it a try. Then let me know how it went!