Freezer Meals Can Alleviate Dinnertime Dilemmas

Back in 2009, I was busy preparing our house and freezing dinners ahead of time. Considering all this “nesting,” you would think I was preparing for the arrival of a child, but our youngest was 5 at the time.

I wasn’t bringing a newborn home. I was bringing my husband home from the hospital after hip replacement surgery. At his age, he was kind of a pediatric case.

I’d better stop making comparisons between babies and husbands right now. My husband tends to read what I write.

To prepare for my added responsibilities during his recuperation, I spent an afternoon cooking. I put 12 entrees, or about 72 servings of food, in our freezer and the cost was about $1.50 per serving.

Of course, frozen dinners are readily available in the grocery store, but making your own frozen entrees allows you to prepare your favorite meals. You also can control the amount of fat and salt you add, so the home-prepared meals can be healthier. Most of the time, homemade foods will be less expensive, too.

Making meals in advance takes some planning and effort. However, you will solve the “what’s for dinner” dilemma. The make-ahead technique works whether you are cooking for yourself or a growing family. Consider these tips:

  • Choose your favorite recipes, but check the ingredients in the recipes. Entrees containing sour cream, mayonnaise and raw vegetables do not freeze well. Most of the time, you can leave these items out before freezing. The entree can be thawed and the extra ingredients can be added right before baking. Be sure to note ingredients to add when you label the entrees.
  • Create a grocery list. To save time, organize your list according to the layout of your favorite store. If you are short on pans, consider buying some aluminum freezer pans or follow the tip in the provided recipe.
  • Set up your kitchen in assembly line fashion and plan for efficiency. For example, chop all the ingredients, such as onions, at the same time.
  • Undercook starchy ingredients, such as pasta, rice and potatoes, because the casserole will be baked later and could become overcooked.
  • Leave casserole toppings, such as breadcrumbs, off the casseroles, so they don’t become soggy.
  • Package in meal-sized portions whether you are cooking for an individual, couple or family. To free baking pans, you can line them with heavy-duty aluminum foil, bake and freeze. Then you can pop out the entree, seal securely and return to the freezer.
  • To protect your food from freezer burn (dehydration of the contents, leading to quality losses), use heavy-duty aluminum foil, freezer containers or freezer paper.
  • Label the freezer container with the date and contents so your dinner menu does not feature “frozen surprise.” Include baking time on the label. For best quality, enjoy your homemade casseroles within three months.
  • Be sure your freezer temperature is zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
  • You can bake frozen casseroles or you can thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. The amount of baking time depends on the number of servings. For frozen, fully cooked casseroles, bake at 400 degrees for the maximum time stated in the recipe or until the contents reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. For thawed, fully cooked casseroles, bake at the temperature directed in the recipe, but add about 15 minutes to the baking time. The internal temperature of the casserole should measure 165 degrees.
courtesy of morguefile.com

A special thanks goes to the University of Kentucky Extension Service for providing this recipe and some of the tips listed above.

Tex-Mex Chicken Enchiladas

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (10.5-ounce) jar salsa
3 c. roasted chicken, seasoned as desired and cubed
2 c. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
8 large flour tortillas
Low-fat sour cream (optional, as garnish when served)

Line a 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan with foil, but leave enough overhang to cover food and seal foil. In a mixing bowl, combine black beans, chicken, 1 cup of cheese and one-half jar of salsa. Fill each tortilla with 1/2 cup of mixture. Roll and place seam side down in baking pan. Sprinkle remaining cheese over enchiladas. Reserve salsa for garnishing by freezing in a separate container (or be sure to have salsa on hand when this meal is served). After the enchiladas are frozen, lift aluminum foil package from pan, seal and freeze. You also can package enchiladas individually or in meal-sized portions.

To prepare for dinner, remove packaging and thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Place in a pan loosely covered with foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 to 15 minutes more, until the enchiladas reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Top with salsa and sour cream if desired.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 334 calories, 16 grams (g) of fat, 25 g of carbohydrate and 22 g of protein.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)