Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Freezer Cooking 101: Planning your menu and location

Miss my Freezer Cooking 101 intro? Find it here.

As promised, my topic this week is on planning your menu and location for cooking day. 

Location
I'm going to start with location because that seems easier.  If you only have your kitchen to cook in, well then your decision is easy and you can skip ahead to the menu part.  If you have more than one choice of location (for instance, you have freezer cooking partners and can choose between your houses or you have a separate available kitchen to add to the mix), there are a few factors to consider:
  • Amount of counter space - In our experience a big cooking day requires LOTS of counter space.  You'll need space to mix and assemble meals as well as a place to chop up all your ingredients.  Of course you can move a table in from another room, or set up a few card tables to give you extra work space as well.
  • Ovens/stoves available - If you have the option of having more than one oven or extra stove eyes, that would also be beneficial.  Another thing you can do is to set up electric frying pans on a counter to use.  You can brown your meat in these and free up stove eyes for sauce pans and stock pots.  
  • Fridge/freezer storage - Before you cook, you'll need refrigerator space for all your ingredients. If you are cooking with 2 or more people, this could be a significant amount of space (we had 12 lbs of ground beef and 20 lbs of chicken to keep in our fridge).  As you are cooking, you will need freezer space available for your completed meals.  A stand-alone freezer would be the ideal place; however, you can also use a refrigerator freezer as long as you empty it out ahead of time.
  • Convenience - You have to get supplies and ingredients to your cooking space and you have to get your completed meals out.  Keep the distance from your car to the kitchen in mind as you choose your spot.
Our spot:
We are very fortunate to have found a great spot to cook in.  When we first started out, we cooked at my house.  My kitchen is OK for freezer cooking.  There is a fair amount of counter space and a large island that helps.  However, I am limited on oven/stove space as well as fridge/freezer space (or I was then).  So we struggled through. 

But then my loving mom suggested we move the cooking to her house.  She has a complete basement set up as an apartment, which means there is a full kitchen down there.  The kitchen has lots of counter space.  There is only one oven and stove, but if we need to use it, her regular oven and stove are available upstairs.  There is an empty fridge available for supplies and 2 freezers available for completed meals (they have a second fridge/freezer in the garage that we use).  She also has a driveway that runs around the back of the house which makes taking supplies in and taking meals out much easier on our backs.  So needless to say, I think we have found the perfect place for our big freezer cooking days.

You may not be as fortunate as I was in finding such a great place, but with some rearranging, any kitchen can be made to hold a big freezer cooking day.

 Our cooking spot.

Our 4 electric skillets lined up and ready for ground beef.

Let me take a minute and talk about what I consider a big freezer cooking day, because you may be wondering why it's such a big deal.  When we do our big cooking day, we spend ALL day, from 9 AM until 4 PM cooking.  We always have several recipes going at the same time.  We make at least triple of every recipe so that all three of us can go home with some of each recipe.  When you triple recipes, cooking and assembly gets more complicated.  You have to find enough stove eyes to cook 3-5 lbs of meat per recipe (and we made 4 recipes with ground beef), or find enough ovens to cook 24 chicken breasts in.  If you don't think about these quantities and what it take to cook them ahead of time, you will run into a lot of headaches on your cooking day.

Menu Plan
Menu planning is very tricky for us and we still have a lot of refining to do in this area.  The cookbook we have been cooking out of (Dinner is Ready by Deanna Buxton) divides recipes by cooking type- crockpot, oven, stove, assembly.  For our big cooking day in December, we cooked 1 crockpot meal, 1 oven meal and the rest were stove or assembly.  We ran into the problem that even though we started our crockpot meal first thing in the morning, we still had to just sit there and wait for it to finish after we were done with the rest of our meals.  Our conclusion was that crockpot meals can be started in the morning and done at dinner time so there isn't much of a benefit to cooking these ahead of time and freezing them (you might have a different opinion and that's OK).  So we did not include any crockpot meals in our January cooking.  Try to divide out your other recipes by not having too much of the same type of cooking needed.  You are limited in stove eyes and oven space so you can only have so many recipes going at one time on one cooking apparatus.

After cooking type, look at your ingredients.  We made the mistake of having meat in every meal we cooked this time.  While that's good for our protein levels, it can get very expensive and cooking all that meat is a lot of work.  So I recommend choosing a few meatless recipes (like the one I've included below).  After you have chosen those, choose your recipes that require meat.  We tried to get an even amount that needed ground beef (lean), chicken and pork.  That gives your meals variety. 

Also keep in mind the flavor of the meals - Italian, Mexican, etc.  You don't want to have all enchiladas or all lasagnas in your freezer.  Keep the variety.

For your first time freezer cooking, I would try 3 or 4 recipes.  If you are cooking with friends, you will be doubling or tripling these recipes, which should give you enough to handle to begin with.  After you have had a cooking day or two, up the number of recipes you cook.  Last time, three of us cooked 9 recipes and went home with 17 meals each (for all but one of the meals, we split the portions in half so we got two of each meal).


  Our 17 meals each (51 meals total cooked in one day!!)

Also remember in your planning to decide ahead of time how you will package each meal.  We have found that most casseroles and layered recipes are written to be made in a 9x13 baking dish.  Since that would be way to much for our families of 3 or 4, we decided to divide those in half and put each recipe in two 8x8 disposable tin pans (buy Hefty brand, not the store brand).  That way we get twice as many meals out of our recipes.  Use freezer bags for soups, meats and mixed meals.  You can choose to double bag these if you are afraid of leakage.  Freeze them as flat as you can make them.  Once frozen you can stack these in your freezer or turn them upright and fit a lot of food in a little space.  Also plan to put your 8x8 pans inside of a freezer bag so you will have a place to write the name and date of your meal.

I hope that's a little bit of information to get you started. 

Here is a meatless, super yummy recipe from Dinner is Ready - 30 meals in one day by Deanna Buxton:
(found at Freezer Meals 30 Meals in One Day website)

 
Simply Lasagna
  (Dinner Is Ready page 164)
12 lasagna noodles
2 cups cottage cheese
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 T dried chopped parsley
2 T Parmesan cheese
1 cup Mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 1/2 cups Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
3 - 4 cups Spaghetti sauce

Do not cook the lasagna noodles. Combine the cottage cheese, slightly beaten egg, parsley and Parmesan cheese. Grease foil baking pan(s). Cover bottom with thin layer of sauce. Layer noodles (do not cook them, break them to fit), sauce, half the Mozzarella and half the Jack cheeses. Top with another layer of noodles, then the cottage cheese mixture. Top with another layer of noodles, then the rest of the Mozzarella and Jack cheeses and cover with a thick layer of spaghetti sauce. Cover with extra heavy foil. Label and freeze. Makes 1 9x13 or 2 8x8 pans.

To serve: Thaw. Bake covered for 45 to 60 minutes at 375°. Uncover, top with more Mozzarella cheese and bake an additional 5 minutes or until cheese is melted.


4 comments:

  1. This is great information. I have been wanting to do this for a while and after reading your post, I set up a freezer cooking day with a friend for the end of the month. Can't wait to read the rest of your freezer cooking posts!

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  2. Yay! How exciting. I am really enjoying having frozen meals available. Let me know if you have any questions.

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  3. Cathy I am going to do this, too. When wedding season starts, I just don't have time to cook, and I feed my crew, so this will really help.

    You offered some great tips. Thanks!

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  4. I love cooking maybe twice a week now!

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