Frozen Meals: Make Your Own StewCredit: bunko @ morgueFileMaking your own frozen meals can save you money and alleviates stress on busy nights when cooking is the last thing you have the time or energy to do.  You might be skeptical about the amount preparation time required, but investing energy on your family's needs is rewarding.  Here is a quick guide to preparing frozen meals for your family.

Frozen Meals Saves Money and Time

Time Saving with Make Ahead Meals

If you worry about the day or weekend you need to spend in advance preparation, think about all the times you need to make a stop on the way home from work to pick something up.  Think also about the evenings in front of the stove trying to balance onion chopping, helping with homework, and mentally preparing for your presentation at work the next morning.  Week nights are busy times for most families, and although there is always plenty to do over the weekend, the time spent on Saturdays is generally more flexible.

Money Saving with Make Ahead Meals

Preparing freezer meals increases your ability to resist a tempting stop for fast food on the way home.  Fast food is a treat and should only be consumed sparingly as it nutrient deficient and an unnecessary strain on your finances.  While many families try to manage their grocery spend, you may still find yourself throwing away rotten meat and vegetables.  In planning your frozen meals, you will need to make a grocery list.  If you know you are only using two bell peppers, you won't buy a bag full to slowly rot in the fridge until you have no choice but to throw them away.

How to Prepare Frozen Meals

There are several stages to preparation, from planning to freezing.  You may have fun shopping, but not cooking - or the other way around, but try to make preparation the enjoyable experience it can be.

Menu Planning

Take the time to sift through some of your favorite recipes and decide which recipes are suitable for freezer storage.  Soups, stews and casseroles are all good ideas.  Pizza, pastas and enchiladas also freeze and re-heat nicely.  You can also make meals such as chicken, beans and mash which you freeze as a package for easy single meals.  There are several good cookbooks with recipes for make-ahead meals which are an investment if you are planning to regularly prepare frozen meals for your family.  Make a list of the recipes and then a shopping list.  Don't fret if your recipes are not as varied as you would normally serve during the week.  You don't need to make ahead every meal and there are some that can never be made ahead, like tacos or salads.  Plan on a few things that lunch sized portions as well as family dinners.  These are great to grab when you don't feel like the same old sandwich or you don't have time to prepare it.  

Grocery ShoppingFrozen Meals: Using Fresh IngredientsCredit: hotblack @ morgueFile

With list in hand, hit the grocery store.  You might be eager to start cooking, but take your time to enjoy your shop.  Hand-pick vegetables instead of just grabbing the pre-packed bags and compare prices on dried goods.  While you know what you are planning to make this time, feel free to take some notes on some products you may like to try in the future.  You can work these into your next menu plan.  A couple of things to add to your list, if they aren't already on it, are freezer storage bags and disposable aluminum pans.  Buy big ones for storing whole meals for the family, such as lasagna, and smaller ones for storing smaller portions or to separate mains and sides.  Also grab a bottle of wine to help you enjoy the hours spent in the kitchen.  When you get home, put away all the groceries and clean up any dishes you may have waiting for you on the counter.  It is easier to begin with a clean kitchen.

Cooking Meals

Before you begin, grab some entertainment.  Whether its music or DVDs of your favorite TV series you watch on your computer, make your cooking process as enjoyable as possible.  You will be in the kitchen for a while, but you don't need to feel as though you are missing weekend relaxation.  Pour a glass of wine and then jump in.  Divide the recipes on your list into those that need the oven, the stove top or your slow cooker and rotate them so you can have a couple of meals cooking at once.  Start with the recipe that has the longest cooking time.  Make it the way you normally would and get it in the oven or simmering gently on the stove before moving on to the next meal.  Load the dishwasher or do the dishes between meals to keep the kitchen in order as much as you can.  Cleaning while you go avoids the terrible task of cleaning a kitchen you have torn to shreds when you are ready to sit down for a break.  

Freezer Preparation

When you finish your first meal, package it according to portion sizes.  Label each package and include serving size and date prepared.  Even in the freezer, food doesn't last forever.  Ensure your package is wrapped safely for freezer storage, but don't put it in the freezer just yet.  You should allow it to cool closer to room temperature as much as possible before freezing for the safety of the other foods in your freezer.

Some General Tips 

Food, such as ground beef and chicken can not be re-frozen once they are defrosted, so always buy fresh foods instead of frozen when making meals ahead.  If you decide halfway through your cooking that you aren't able to do all the recipes in one day, keep these ingredients in the fridge instead of the freezer.  But don't forget to move them over if you can't get back to your preparations within a day or two.

Although you may have planned out a full week of meals, don't feel like you need to stick to the schedule.  There are nights when no one feels like the options on offer and you aren't too busy to make the soup and sandwiches everyone would prefer.

Frozen Meals: Enjoy the Cooking ProcessCredit: alexfrance @morgueFileIf you write or print out re-heating instructions on the package, you can ask another family member to help with preparation on the night.  Just think, a call before leaving could have dinner on the table when you get home.

Don't prepare too much of one recipe, regardless of how economical it is.  If the same package of beef stew greets you every time you open your freezer, you may never want to get to it.  Adjust how often you prepare your frozen meals according to how long they stay in your freezer.  

Consider making a frozen meal notebook for the recipes your family enjoys and notes on which recipes haven't worked.  

And when you begin to tire of marathon cooking, just remember how much time and money you are saving.