Cooking for the Freezer: Part II

by Kim on May 11, 2012

I’m finally back with the much-delayed sequel to my first Cooking for the Freezer post. I haven’t decided if the bulk cooking thing is something I’ll continue doing regularly, but it was fun to try it out again, and it’s nice knowing I still have those meals available to me in the freezer if I need them (“need”=choose to be lazy and blow off cooking for tanning on the deck and reading blogs). In my first post, I mentioned several reasons that freezer cooking is not necessarily the perfect solution to cooking and will not likely lead to world peace. In addition to those, I’d like to add these reasons, which are more related to how bulk cooking can threaten the physical and emotional wellbeing of the cook…

  • A solid day of cooking is not for the faint of heart. People talk about “once a month cooking”…well, my mom and I spent the whole day cooking and ended up with about 10 meals total. Where we were supposed to find the time to squeeze in those other 20, I’m not sure. (Granted, we were also juggling a newborn all day, but that’s a reality for plenty of other women too.)
  • If you hate grocery shopping, imagine a typical grocery shopping trip on crack, a la Extreme Couponing. Like you might need multiple carts. And it could hurt.
  • Your kitchen will get absolutely destroyed. Every surface will be covered in food and dishes, including the floor, and you will find dried spills and food remnants in various nooks and corners for weeks to follow. This is 100% inevitable. If disorder causes you anxiety, like it does for me, you might need to schedule in a few yoga breaks or something.
  • It will get really, really hot, even in your typical cooking ensemble of a bra and biker shorts. And there is no leaving the kitchen, not even to use the bathroom (well, maybe that). I’m usually pretty tolerant of heat, but after 8 hours or so in the hotbox, I was pretty sure I could feel my skin starting to melt.
Again, all that said, the results are wonderful. Dinner prep for however many days is a breeze, and you’ll be laughing as you move meals from freezer to oven, serving elaborate meals without missing a beat in your day. It’s kind of like labor, really–the pain is excruciating, and you have one really crappy day, but the results are even better than you hoped, and within hours you’ve completely forgotten what it took to get there. Before you know it, you’re planning your next bulk cooking day, and hoping it’s a girl this time.

Lessons Learned

Here are some tips for tackling your own bulk cooking day, based on my lessons learned. I’m not going to write up a full “how to” tutorial because there are so many other great resources already out there on the interwebs, several of which I’ve linked below.
  1. Plan, plan, plan–and write it down! We didn’t spend nearly enough time on this step, and it led to some extra pain along the way. Obviously, you need to pick your meals, write up your grocery lists, buy the ingredients, etc.–that’s the easy part. But you should also spend a significant amount of time planning what you will do when throughout the actual cooking day, and writing that down. For example, we started with the meat preparation, including browning ground beef and cooking chicken and pork. We added up the total amount of each meat we needed for all of our recipes and combined the cooking. What we didn’t do a great job of doing was taking good notes about how to distribute those total amounts into each recipe after we’d cooked it (I realize this step seems obvious, but it’s easy to lose track of everything if you just rely on your brain, as we did, rather than meticulously writing everything down). You can also combine prep work for other ingredients, like veggies and pasta. Again, this works great as long as you’ve carefully documented the plan on paper.
  2. Consider storage needs when picking recipes. If you have unlimited freezer space, you can disregard this. But for the rest of us, it’s important to think about this before you’re staring at a stack of giant casserole dishes that’s nowhere near fitting into your refrigerator freezer. Find the most compact storage containers possible (making sure they’re appropriate for freezer storage), and look for things that can be frozen in giant ziplock bags (such as the taquitos we made). Also, make sure you don’t freeze a meal in something you need for everyday use, or you will be sad later.
  3. Don’t put off meal assembly. In other words, don’t feel like you have to wait until the end (i.e. all ingredient prep work is done) to start assembling meals and getting them into the freezer. It’s overwhelming to have tons of recipes going at once, even if you could technically combine steps for all of them. (I spent a lot of time forgetting which recipe I was working on, consulting recipes multiple times for a refresher on the same step, and generally losing my mind. A plan that works on paper might just be too much for your brain.) Plus, it’s great for the ego to start checking meals off the list before noon.
  4. Consider doing two mini cooking half-days instead of one big day. You might want to divide your recipes in half in some logical way (say, beef vs. poultry dishes, or meat vs. vegetarian dishes) and do one group in the AM and one in the PM, essentially creating two mini cooking days. This allows a natural break to take care of dishes and reboot the kitchen. (I feel like we’re in a day in age when I can say “reboot” completely outside of any technological context and you’ll know what I mean.)
  5. Don’t force combining ingredient prep if it doesn’t actually work for your recipes. Say you have 3 recipes that call for ground beef, but one requires you to cook it with taco seasoning, one needs onion and garlic, and the other just calls for salt and pepper. If you try to cook all the beef first and then divide and add these ingredients, you’ll end up with weaker flavored beef. Combining ingredient prep only really works if the prep instructions are identical, or at least nearly identical (if salt and pepper is the only difference, could salted and peppered meat work ok in the recipe that doesn’t call for it? Probs).
  6. Get a babysitter. You might feel like you can suck it up and get by without one, as my mom and I did, but the reality is that if you try to do this while in charge of any kids under the age of, say, 6, you just won’t get done. If you’re ok with that, cool, but just be prepared for this (we ended up needing a whole extra day to finish, and who wants to be in labor for two days when it should have taken only one?).
  7. Stay on top of the dishes. The dishwasher (if you have one) should be running pretty much all day, and you should incorporate dirty dish management breaks throughout the day. This is both for your sanity and for efficiency, since you don’t want to find yourself paralyzed at 2 PM because you’re out of clean mixing bowls and measuring cups.
  8. Make sure dishes are cold before they go into the freezer. This helps reduce freezer burn, which I didn’t learn until after our cooking day. But it makes sense that food does better with slower temperature transitions. Ideally: Oven –> Room temp –> Fridge –> Freezer. So just pop your dishes into the fridge for a few hours before moving them to the freezer.
  9. Adjust cooking times as needed. We did a couple things that impacted the stated cooking times: we divided large recipes into two smaller containers and we used storage containers that were not exactly the recommended sizes for the recipes (because that’s what we had available). Just something to keep in mind if you do anything that impacts the size or shape of your final dish! Also, make sure to note in the cooking instructions you attach to the dish whether it should be cooked starting from a frozen or thawed state.
There are a bazillion other tips and tricks out there, but those are the main things we ran into this time around. For other tips, including full planning guides and even worksheets (which I love!), check out these great links:

How to plan a freezer cooking day + planning worksheets

Feed the Freezer cooking guide

What you can and cannot freeze

Freezing individual ingredients for easier meal prep (love this idea!)

Bulk buying 101

 

Happy laboring cooking!

~Kim

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