In some circles, being insanely busy is a badge of honor. People think those who run nonstop, barely meeting their personal and professional obligations, are more successful than people whose lives, while full, aren’t quite so frantic.
Whether or not you accept that overscheduling is a necessary condition of productivity and material success, it’s not controversial to say that most working-age Americans are very busy, especially with kids in the mix. And by necessity, very busy people sometimes need to make trade-offs.
Food figures into several of these trade-offs. Millions of Americans have willingly (or necessarily) exchanged full, sit-down breakfasts for cereal bars on the go, healthy lunches for noodles or reheated leftovers, and scratch-made dinners for frozen, prepackaged trays or expensive, not-so-healthy takeout meals.
These trade-offs are facts of life. However, at least when it comes to balancing busy professional and personal lives with wholesome, affordable eating, such trade-offs don’t have to be stark or painful. There’s an increasingly popular alternative that splits the difference between scratch-made and store-bought meals, reducing dinnertime prep requirements without compromising flavor, quality, or overall healthfulness. It’s the homemade freezer meal, and it’s a budget-friendly choice for anyone who’s faced cooking dinner for a hungry, impatient family at the end of a long day.
What Are Freezer Meals?
Freezer meals are not the TV dinners in your supermarket’s freezer section. They’re partially or fully assembled meals or entrees you make from scratch ingredients. You can freeze them in plastic bags, foil baking pans, or reusable quart or gallon food storage containers. When you’re ready to eat, you take them out of the freezer to reheat or cook them.
Virtually any meal you can safely preassemble, freeze, and cook later is worthy of the freezer meal:
- Complex pastas, such as ravioli and lasagna
- Potato-based dishes, such as hash
- Casseroles and bakes
- Hearty soups and stews
- Meaty dishes, such as pork chops with vegetable sides
- Lighter dishes and sides, such as lettuce cup filling and pureed vegetable soups
Beyond safety and the logistics of cooking and assembly, the only limit is your own creativity.
Creating a Freezer Meal
Freezer meals are designed to be fast and convenient. They’re not necessarily faster overall to prepare than other scratch-made meals, though they can be faster per serving if you make larger batches. But because you assemble them in advance and freeze them for future use, they reduce the required time investment when it matters most: when you and the family are hungry, tired, and ready to eat.
The process of making freezer meals has three primary steps.
Though the preparation step varies depending on the menu, the basic idea is to put together raw ingredients into a form you can cook when you’re ready with as little additional work as possible. In some cases, it requires a decent amount of work — for example, assembling a seven-layer lasagna or mixing a casserole. In other cases, prep is as simple as slicing a few veggies or just dumping raw ingredients into a freezer-safe container. Light to moderate cooking, such as parboiling potatoes for hash or parcooking a casserole, occasionally makes an appearance during the prep stage.
To concentrate your resources and efforts, it’s best to set aside a few hours on a weekend day to prepare freezer meals for the coming week or month.
Pro tip: Services like MyFreezEasy help make freezer meals simple. They provide budget-friendly recipes, help you put together shopping lists, and provide you with step-by-step freezer prep instructions. Sign up for MyFreezeEasy.
Freezer meal storage varies by meal type. Overriding concerns include safety and capacity. You need storage containers that are durable enough to survive freezing, thawing, and sometimes cooking. And they must have ample volume for stored food after accounting for expansion in the freezer.
Common freezer meal storage containers include:
- Rigid Containers. Rigid plastic or Pyrex containers, usually quart- or gallon-size, are appropriate for storing stir-fries, stews, and soups. They’re less desirable for delicate or form-set recipes, such as ravioli or casserole, as compression and shifting can occur. Look for dishwasher-safe containers you can reuse indefinitely, such as an affordable 18-piece Pyrex set or 48-pack of plastic deli containers. Note: Pyrex cookware can crack or shatter due to sudden temperature changes, according to Southern Living. If you store freezer meals in Pyrex, always allow the cookware to reach room temperature before placing it in a preheated oven. After heating, store hot glassware on a dish towel to prevent thermal downshock (a rapid drop in temperature that can weaken the dish).
- Plastic Bags. You can use plastic bags for liquid or semisolid dishes, such as pureed vegetables or soup. They’re reusable, but they’re not as durable or as easy to clean as rigid containers. Just make sure you get freezer bags, like 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bags. Always freeze bags flat for easier storage — flattened, stackable bags take up much less freezer space than lumpy ones.
- Baking Trays. Foil baking trays are ideal for larger volumes. They’re also convenient for recipes that call for cooking in conventional ovens, such as lasagnas and casseroles. If you buy them in bulk, you can get them for a few cents each — for example, a pack of 100 aluminum lasagna trays costs less than half a dollar each (though smaller quantities aren’t outrageously expensive). If you’re concerned about waste and have room in your budget for the added upfront cost, reusable metal baking trays are more durable and dishwasher-safe.
- Glass Containers. Depending on their construction and capacity, sturdy glass containers may be suitable for freezer meal storage. For example, Mason canning jars can survive multiple freeze-thaw cycles. However, it can be difficult to find resealable glass containers large enough to hold entire meals, so glass is probably a better choice for sides or condiments. Also, watch carefully for cracks after each freeze-thaw cycle, and discard any glassware that seems compromised. Follow the same gradual heating and cooling precautions used for Pyrex cookware.
With the exception of plastic bags and disposable aluminum baking pans, it’s generally not a good idea to use any container that isn’t dishwasher-safe.
You need to cook freezer meals to a safe temperature — sustained readings above 140 degrees F. The ideal cooking method depends on the meal type and the amount of time you have on meal day:
- Slow Cooker. Slow cooking works best for soups, stews, and some meat-centric dishes (such as roasts). Since slow-cooked food requires minimal supervision and is ready to eat any time after it reaches a safe temperature, it’s ideal for busy families. Cooking a freezer meal in a slow cooker is often as simple as dumping a frozen or defrosted container of veggies and meat into a cooker set to low before heading to work in the morning.
- Pressure Cooker. A pressure cooker can help you save money in the kitchen. It can also be a lifesaver when time is short (and when you forget to set up your slow cooker in the morning). The Instant Pot Duo seven-in-one cooker is appropriate for most casual home cooks.
- Stovetop. Stovetop cooking is best for stir-fries, hashes, and other foods that benefit from grilled flavor and don’t need excess liquid to remain palatable. It also works for boiled meals, such as ravioli.
- Conventional Oven. Oven baking works best for large-volume, fixed-form meals like casseroles and lasagna. It’s also suitable for meat-centric dishes with small meat portions (such as cubes or strips) that don’t require lots of cook time — larger hunks of meat are probably better in the slow cooker, which is much safer to leave unattended. Remember that oven cook times (including preheating) tend to be longer than that of other cooking methods, so this isn’t the best option when time is an overriding concern.
- Microwave. Microwave cooking isn’t the optimum way to draw out complex flavors, but it’s safe, simple, and usually faster than conventional oven cooking. However, freezer-safe containers aren’t necessarily microwavable, so you may need to transfer your freezer meal before nuking.
Pros of Freezer Meals
The freezer meal concept might not be rocket science, but not every freezer meal benefit is glaringly apparent. Freezer meals’ most significant advantages include both financial and physical benefits.
1. Healthier Than Cheap, Store-Bought Dinners
Today’s store-bought frozen dinners aren’t the tasteless, uninspired, freeze-dried TV dinners of the “Mad Men” era. They’re flavorful, inventive, and even sometimes healthy.
However, as a general rule, budget-friendly TV dinners remain less healthy than meals made from fresh, whole ingredients — including freezer meals. According to WebMD, store-bought freezer meals lean heavily on sodium and often contain eye-popping amounts of saturated fat and calories.
By contrast, freezer meals’ nutritional profiles are comparable to meals made from scratch, putting you in control of the sodium, fat, and calorie content.
2. Faster Than Scratch Preparation
On the day you consume it, a freezer meal requires less active prep and cook time than a comparable scratch-made meal. That’s because, ideally, you’ve already done most or all the raw prep. You just need to cook, cool, and serve it. In a slow cooker, that can take virtually no active time at all.
3. Less Energy Required Than Preparing From Scratch
Freezer meals aren’t just quicker to prepare — they’re also easier. It takes much less effort to dump a freezer container’s contents into a slow cooker or slide a baking tray into a hot oven than to make a stir-fry or seven-layer lasagna from scratch. At the end of a tough day at work, every ounce of saved energy matters.
4. Cheaper & Healthier Than Ordering In
Ordering takeout is the ultimate low-energy dinner option. If the food arrives in time, you don’t even need to heat it up. And if your order is complete and thoughtful, you don’t have to worry about adding any sides or seasonings.
Of course, ordering takeout is far less cost-effective than preparing quality meals from scratch using affordable, widely available ingredients. Takeout is nearly as expensive as dining out — and if you order delivery instead of picking up the order yourself, you need to tip the driver and possibly pay a delivery fee. All the strategies for saving money at restaurants can’t alter the economics of paying a team of professionals to make your food. Unless your personal budget has plenty of room for discretionary purchases, frequently ordering takeout just doesn’t make financial sense.
Furthermore, freezer meals (and homemade meals in general) can be healthier — and easier for people with dietary restrictions or food allergies to control — than takeout. As long as you stick to fresh, whole ingredients in your freezer meals, you’ll always know what’s in them and can honor any special dietary needs.
5. Less Wasteful Than Store-Bought Dinners or Takeout
Freezer meals produce less waste than TV dinners or takeout. According to retail and restaurant industry service provider Lightspeed, takeout produces substantial amounts of paper and plastic trash, not to mention harmful carbon emissions during production and transport.
While all food produces some carbon footprint, you can reuse dishwasher-safe freezer meal containers indefinitely. Plus, the amount of inorganic waste (plastic bags and packaging) accompanying your meals’ fresh, store-bought ingredients is likely to be lower per serving than that of takeout or store-bought frozen meals.
6. Excellent Teaching Opportunity for Kids
Cooking with kids can be very enjoyable, and freezer meal prep day provides an excellent opportunity. You can’t expect to hold your kids’ attention every time you make a meal from scratch. However, you can probably corral them into spending an hour or two with you on a weekend afternoon as you get your freezer meals ready.
Engage smaller children in each step of the process with step-by-step explanations. Give bigger kids more responsibility during the prep process — if age- and skill-appropriate, have them design (or execute from an existing recipe) an entire meal from start to finish.
Cons of Freezer Meals
Make-ahead freezer meals do have some drawbacks, ranging from surmountable to costly.
1. Significant Ongoing & Potentially Costly Storage Space Requirements
No matter how efficiently you store them, freezer meals take up precious freezer storage space. If you have only one freezer, as is the case for millions of middle-income homeowners, your ability to make freezer meals well ahead of time is sure to be limited by cold storage needs of equal or greater importance.
2. Greater Vulnerability to Extended Power Outages
Though they’re more common in places with frequent severe weather, fragile power grids, or both, power outages are a fact of life everywhere. Unfortunately, a weeks-long supply of meals that need to remain frozen at all times is uniquely vulnerable to an extended outage. Depending on your freezer’s tightness and efficiency, an outage as short as 24 hours could irreparably damage (or render unsafe) your freezer meals, forcing you to write off hundreds of dollars in wasted food.
3. Potential for Significant Time Investment on Weekends
While freezer meals undoubtedly save time on meal days, they do require some preparation. If you plan to make several weeks’ worth of freezer meals consisting of multiple recipes, you should expect to spend the better part of a weekend day in the kitchen to prep them. You won’t have to do this every weekend, but finding time could prove challenging if your off days are overscheduled already.
4. Long Defrost Time for Some Meals
Some freezer meals need to thaw ahead of time, usually overnight. It’s easy enough for busy folks to forget that first simple but crucial step in such meals’ cooking: taking them out of the freezer. I’ve done it myself. You can avoid the long defrost period by choosing recipes that can go straight into the oven or onto the stovetop, though. And it’s not always the end of the world if you do forget — while it’s not ideal, you can use water or your microwave to defrost things quickly if necessary.
General Tips to Prepare, Store, & Cook Freezer Meals
These general tips can reduce the financial and logistical hassles of preparing, storing, and cooking freezer meals.
1. Use High-Quality Ingredients If Cost Is Not Paramount
If per-meal cost is your top freezer meal concern, don’t be shy about going cheap. Buy affordable cuts of meat at your local discount grocery store, stop by a farm stand right before closing, and stock up on bulk seasonings and staples at warehouse clubs such as Costco or Sam’s Club.
If there’s more wiggle room in your budget, spring for higher-quality ingredients, as they offer several benefits. First, freezing is a fantastic way to preserve food, but it’s not perfect. High-quality ingredients tend to taste better after months on ice than lower-quality ingredients. They’ll seem fresher for longer too, though they’re not immune to freezer burn.
Additionally, high-quality ingredients are more likely to cook better. My wife and I found out the hard way that cheap cuts of meat aren’t always worth the savings. The low-grade beef fajitas we heated up in our slow cooker came out greasy and tough, a far cry from the succulent fajitas that materialized from our next batch made of higher-quality cuts.
2. Invest in a Chest Freezer
Freezer meals require freezer space, especially when planned weeks or months in advance. If you’re committed to consuming freezer meals often and have enough space (and a spare electrical outlet you won’t need for anything else — ever), invest in a chest freezer. Freezer costs and quality vary widely, but it’s possible to find a reliable, energy-efficient model for less than $200. (My wife and I purchased a GE chest freezer for approximately $190 after tax. It’s filled with freezer meals, frozen meat, and frozen veggies.)
Depending on how you value your time, a $200 chest freezer investment can quickly pay for itself, as most freezers can hold dozens of carefully stacked quart containers and baking trays. In fact, a chest freezer that holds 50 family-of-four-size freezer meals at an average cost of $10 per meal contains $500 worth of food. If those freezer meals replace takeout dinners at an average cost of $25 per meal, that’s $750 in savings, or $550 after subtracting the freezer’s cost.
3. Work Well Ahead
Instead of frequently making freezer meals in small batches, determine how many freezer meals you expect to consume per week, on average, and prepare enough to cover several weeks or months. For instance, if you consume an average of three freezer meals per week and want to work four weeks ahead, you need 12 freezer meals.
You’ll naturally be limited by your freezer space, funds on hand, and the expected shelf life of the meals in the freezer. However, it’s worth adjusting your grocery budget to account for more substantial, less frequent grocery store trips. As an alternative, you can kick off your freezer meal phase of life with a marathon cooking session that produces enough freezer meals for several weeks, then shop and cook as necessary to replace what you eat during the week.
For a temporary solution that doesn’t require long-term budgetary adjustments, look into a low-APR credit card with an introductory 0% APR interest promotion to fund your freezer meal expenditures. If you work far enough ahead, you’ll have plenty of extra freezer meals — meaning there could be months between marathon grocery purchases. That also means plenty of time to pay off previous grocery purchases and save for future shopping trips.
4. Consume Meals Roughly in the Order You Make Them
While this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, aim to consume meals within six months of preparation to prevent freezer burn and reduce food waste due to power interruptions. Follow the “first in, first out” rule, placing newer meals behind or below older ones. And label every meal with its name, prep date, and any special dietary notes.
5. Make It a Party
Hopefully, the thought of saving lots of time and money on future dinners is enough to get you through your next freezer meal prep session. But it’s fair to bet you’d enjoy the experience even more — and, perhaps, learn some new tricks — with some company.
Why not gather a group of friends and have a freezer meal prep party? With nothing to cook, you won’t have to worry about oven or stovetop bottlenecks — though a large party might be unrealistic if your kitchen is cramped or lacks ample counter space.
6. Plan Freezer Meal Nights in Advance
Having a hot and ready-to-eat freezer meal isn’t instantaneous. Most likely, it requires at least some cook time on the day you want to eat it.
To avoid last-minute time crunches or delayed dinners — problems freezer meals should mitigate — get in the habit of planning your freezer meal nights at the beginning of each week. Planning ensures everything falls into place each night.
When planning, specify which meal you’ll eat each night, when you should remove it from the freezer to defrost, how and when you’ll cook it, and what else you need to do (such as side prep) to make it complete. Take 10 or 15 minutes to lay this all out on Sunday afternoon, and you’ll surely reduce your dinner anxiety during the week to come.
When planning your freezer meal nights for the week, note which (if any) need to defrost overnight. Set a reminder on your calendar or phone to warn you with enough time to spare — say, at 8pm the night before. To ensure they fully defrost before cooking, put any containers that need to thaw in your fridge 18 to 24 hours ahead of cook time, keeping in mind that larger volumes take longer to defrost.
If you forget, all isn’t lost. You can use a bowl of cold water or your microwave’s defrost feature to accelerate thaw times. Get the full instructions at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Eat Right.
7. Get a Warehouse Club Membership
For around $60 per year, a warehouse club membership is a cost-effective complement to a freezer meal routine. Warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club sell high-quality ingredients in large packages. If you can use everything you buy, you’re sure to save money over daintier grocery store portions. Rather than freezing the lion’s share of those portions as soon as you get home, incorporate them into creative freezer meals before putting them on ice.
So many life decisions come down to a choice between two limited resources: time and money. The freezer meal is a rare proposition that, done right, saves both time and money.
Sure, cooking a frozen meal you prepared months earlier isn’t quite as magical as composing an elaborate scratch-made meal from start to finish. It’s also not as relaxing after a long day at work as waiting for the delivery guy to arrive from the comfort of your couch. However, on the all-important time vs. money continuum, it’s pretty darn close to a win-win.
Do you think make-ahead freezer meals would work well for your family? Do you have a favorite recipe that would work well as a freezer meal?