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How to Prepare Make-Ahead Freezer Meals – Tips & Recipes

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In some circles, being insanely busy is a badge of honor. It’s assumed that people who run nonstop to just barely meet their personal and professional obligations are more successful than people whose lives, while full, aren’t quite so frenetic.

Whether 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 painful 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 for lunch, 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 pre-made, reducing dinnertime prep requirements without compromising taste, quality, or overall healthiness. It’s the freezer meal, and it’s a budget-friendly choice for anyone who has faced the thought of 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 entrées you assemble from scratch ingredients in advance and reheat or cook before eating. In the meantime, they can be frozen indefinitely in plastic bags, foil baking pans, or reusable quart- or gallon-sized food storage containers.

Virtually any meal that can be safely pre-assembled, frozen, and cooked is worthy of the freezer meal name:

  • Complex pastas, such as ravioli and lasagna
  • Potato-based dishes, such as hash
  • Casseroles and bakes
  • Hearty soups and stews
  • Stir fries
  • 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.

Process of Creating a Freezer Meal

Creating Freezer Meal Process

Freezer meals are designed to be fast and convenient. They’re not necessarily faster overall to prepare than scratch-made meals, though they can be faster per serving if you prepare larger batches all at once. But, because they’re prepared in advance and frozen 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 main steps:

1. Preparation

Though the preparation step obviously varies depending on the menu, the basic idea is to assemble raw ingredients into a form that can be cooked on the day it is to be eaten with as little additional work as possible. In some cases, this requires a decent amount of work – for example, assembling a seven-layer lasagna or mixing a casserole. In other cases, prep can be as simple as slicing a few veggies or just dumping raw ingredients into a freezer-safe container. Light cooking, such as parboiling potatoes for hash or 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 preparing freezer meals for the coming week or month.

2. Storage

Freezer meal storage varies by meal type. Overriding concerns include safety and capacity – storage containers need to be durable enough to survive freezing, thawing, and sometimes cooking, and to 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-sized, are great for storing stir fries, stews, and soups. They’re not recommended for delicate or form-set items, such as ravioli or casserole, as compression and shifting can occur. Look for dishwasher-safe containers that can be reused indefinitely. Example: 18-pc Pyrex set, Target, $26
  • Plastic Bags. Plastic bags are great for holding liquid or semi-solid items, such as pureed vegetables or soup stock. They can be reused, but they’re not as durable or as easy to clean as rigid containers. Example: 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bags, Home Depot, about $6.30 
  • Baking Trays. Foil baking trays are ideal for larger volumes. They’re also convenient for items that need to be cooked in conventional ovens, such as lasagnas and casseroles. If you’re concerned about waste and have room in your budget for the added upfront cost, consider using reusable metal baking trays, which are more durable, and are dishwasher-safe to boot. Example: 13″ x 9″ aluminum lasagna pans, 100 count, Party Source, $40
  • 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. Example: Ball widemouth preserving jar (0.5-gallon), 6-pack, Ace Hardware, $13

With the exception of plastic bags, it’s generally not a good idea to use any container that isn’t dishwasher-safe.

Freezer meals can theoretically be stored indefinitely, but that doesn’t mean they should be. To avoid freezer burn and reduce food waste due to power interruptions, try to consume meals within six months of preparation. Label every meal with its name, prep date, and any special dietary notes.

Furthermore, you should follow the “first in, first out” rule. Organize your freezer with this objective in mind, placing newer meals behind or below older ones.

3. Cooking

Freezer meals containing raw ingredients need to be cooked to killing temperature – sustained readings above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The ideal cooking method depends on 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 at any time after a safe temperature is reached, it’s ideal for households that empty out during the day and remain unoccupied until shortly before dinnertime. Cooking a freezer meal in a slow cooker is often as simple as dumping a frozen or defrosted container of pre-cut veggies and meat into a low-set cooker before heading to work in the morning. Example: Crock-Pot 6-quart slow cooker, Best Buy, $60
  • 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 meals that need to be boiled, such as ravioli. To ensure that they’re fully defrosted prior to cooking, put frozen stir fries in the fridge 18 to 24 hours ahead of time – ideally, the night before your planned dinner.
  • Conventional Oven. Oven baking works best for casseroles, lasagna, and other large-volume, fixed-form meals. 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 a great option when time is an overriding concern.
  • Microwave. Microwave cooking isn’t the best way to draw out complex flavors, but it’s safe, simple, and usually faster than conventional oven cooking. However, freezer-safe containers are not necessarily microwavable, so you may need to transfer your freezer meal prior to nuking. Example: LG 2.0-cubic-foot family size microwave, Best Buy, $200

Benefits of Freezer Meals

Freezer Meals Benefits

The concept of the freezer meal might not be rocket science, but not every freezer meal benefit is glaringly apparent. Freezer meals’ biggest advantages include the following:

1. Healthier Than Cheap, Pre-made TV Dinners

Today’s pre-made 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. They lean heavily on sodium to mask flavorless ingredients, often contain eye-popping amounts of saturated fat, use additives and preservatives to extend shelf life and promote homogeneity, and lack key vitamins and minerals.

By contrast, freezer meals’ nutritional profiles are comparable to meals made from scratch – far richer in vitamins and minerals, and far less generous in the sodium department, than boxed dinners.

2. Faster Than Scratch Preparation

On the day it’s consumed, a freezer meal requires less active prep and cook time than a comparable scratch-made meal. That’s because, ideally, most or all of the raw prep has been done already. The meal just needs to be cooked, cooled, and served. 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 the contents of a freezer container 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 and 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 – though, if you order delivery instead of picking up the order yourself, you need to tip the driver and possibly pay a delivery fee too. 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) tend to be healthier than takeout. Many restaurants slather their food with sodium or add artificial preservatives, stabilizers, and other dodgy ingredients. And though it is becoming easier for those with gluten sensitivity to eat out, some restaurants still don’t disclose ingredients containing gluten – and may not offer any gluten-free menu items at all. 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 Pre-made Dinners or Takeout

Freezer meals produce less waste than TV dinners or takeout. Pre-made frozen dinners and takeout both produce substantial amounts of paper and plastic trash, not to mention harmful carbon emissions during production and transport.

By contrast, 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 pre-made frozen meals.

6. Great 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 you’re comfortable, have them design (or execute from an existing recipe) an entire meal from start to finish.

General Tips to Prepare, Store, and Cook Freezer Meals

Freezer Meals General Tips

These general tips, most of which my wife and I follow ourselves, 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 is more wiggle room in your budget, considering springing for higher-quality ingredients, as it offers several benefits. First, freezing is a great 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 of course they’re not immune to freezer burn.

Additionally, high-quality ingredients are more likely 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 out of 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 for a new appliance, consider investing 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-sized 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 cost of the freezer.

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’ll 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 larger, less frequent trips to the store.

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 find yourself with 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 up for future shopping trips.

4. 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 that 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.

5. 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 it is consumed.

To avoid last-minute time crunches or delayed dinners – problems that freezer meals should mitigate – get in the habit of planning your freezer meal nights at the beginning of each week. Advance planning ensures that everything falls into place each night.

When planning, specify which meal you’ll eat each night, how and when you’ll cook it, and what else needs to be done (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.

6. 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 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, why not incorporate them into creative freezer meals before putting them on ice?

Cheap, Healthy Freezer Meal Ideas and Recipes

To give you a starting point, here are several tasty, healthy, and affordable freezer meal recipes. The prices indicated correspond to my first attempt at each meal and are subject to change. They also reflect my efforts to prioritize low cost over high ingredient quality. Unless otherwise noted, all items are non-organic, and canned products are generics or bottom-shelf brands. If you want to replicate these meals with high-quality or organic ingredients, expect to pay a good deal more.

These recipes can obviously be scaled, so feel free to manipulate for larger serving sizes or larger families. And when you label them, remember to mark the date so you don’t consume your meals out of order.

1. Red Beans and Rice With Chicken (Gluten-Free)

Red Beans Rice With ChickenYield: 16 servings in 4 1-quart (or larger) containers
Prep Time: 5 minutes | Cook Time (inactive): 4 to 8 hours in slow cooker (chicken must be thoroughly cooked) | Total Time: 4 to 8 hours
Total Cost: $26.02 per batch, $6.51 per meal, $1.63 per serving

I’m not sure what to call this exactly. A rice stew? A pilaf? A weird take on arroz con pollo? Whatever it is, it’s good. The finished product mixes tasty pulled chicken morsels with juicy red beans against a puffy backdrop of tender yet crunchy wild rice. It’s thicker than most stews, but more watery than stovetop arroz con pollo.

This red beans and rice dish can be made vegetarian with more rice, tomatoes, and beans, though you might want to toss in other veggies not listed here for texture. If you follow this recipe exactly, it’s gluten-free.

Ingredients and Supplies for Prep – To Be Frozen

  • 4 pounds boneless chicken breast @ $2.99/pound = $11.96
  • 1 pound wild rice @ $7.80/pound = $7.80
  • 1.5 pounds dry small red beans @ $1.99/pound = $2.98
  • 56 ounces canned diced tomatoes @ $1.50/28-ounce can = $3.00

Ingredients for Cooking – To Be Added on Cook Day

  • 4 cubes bouillon (chicken or vegetarian) @ $1.58/24 cubes = $0.28

Optional Ingredients – To Be Added on Cook Day

  • 2 to 5 pinches salt
  • 0 to 5 pinches black pepper
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 1 to 2 dashes of soy sauce (for salt and savory flavor)
  • 1 to 2 dashes of Worcestershire sauce (for salt and savory flavor)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • Other spices as desired

Directions

  1. Wash the beans and set them to soak overnight into prep day, either on your counter or in the fridge.
  2. On prep day, drain the beans thoroughly, wash to remove any build-up, and set aside.
  3. Separate the chicken breast pieces and drop them whole into the containers, making sure each gets a roughly equal amount of chicken.
  4. Pour 4 ounces of wild rice and 6 ounces of soaked beans around the breasts, holding them upright to mix grains and legumes evenly.
  5. Seal each container, label (name, prep date, and special dietary notes), and freeze.
  6. Add 14 ounces of canned diced tomatoes each to four resealable bags, label each bag so that it’s clear which containers they go with, seal upright, and lay flat to freeze.
  7. On cook day, add the contents of the freezer meal container to a low-set slow cooker.
  8. Add 16 ounces of water and one bouillon cube.
  9. Season to taste with the desired amount of salt and pepper, along with your preferred savory spices (such as soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and cumin).
  10. Stir everything together thoroughly. If you’ll be gone for longer than 8 hours, add a few more ounces of water and stir again before leaving. (Your rice will be puffier, but at least the dish won’t dry out.)
  11. Before serving, pull the chicken – which at this point should yield effortlessly – with a fork.
  12. Mix everything thoroughly.

Serve on a plate or in a bowl.

Optional Sides

Consider serving with these optional sides and toppings.

  • Bread. Sliced or whole loaf bread is a great complement here. Though the rice really adds bulk to the dish and soaks up most excess liquid, bread is still useful for dipping (or as an alternative to a fork). Butter and olive oil optional.
  • Cheese. Finely shredded or grated Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago works great as a topping. For a more aggressive approach, cheddar pairs well with a bread side.
  • Asparagus or Other Side Veggie. For a healthier side, microwave or oven-heat fresh asparagus with salt, olive oil, and pepper. This does add some cook time (10 to 15 minutes maximum) on meal day.

2. Stuffed Poblano Peppers

Yield: 8 servings in 2 8-inch square dishes
Prep Time: 40 minutes | Cook Time: 20 minutes | Total Time: 1 hour
Total Cost: $17.05 per batch, $8.53 per meal, $2.13 per serving
Adapted from Deb Wise’s Cooking Light recipe

This is a light, flavorful dish that’s easy to make even lighter – just replace the ground sirloin with your preferred mushroom variety at a 1-to-1 ratio. But do be sure to set aside ample time on prep day. Of all the weeknight-friendly freezer meals here, this one requires the most effort upfront. On the bright side, meal day is a breeze, and you won’t need to break out the slow cooker.

Ingredients and Supplies for Prep

  • 8 large poblano peppers @ $0.37/ea = $2.96
  • 1 oz dried ancho chiles @ $2.98/5 oz bag = $0.60
  • 3 cups onion (1 large onion) @ $0.89/ea = $0.89
  • 10 garlic cloves @ $0.50/bulb = $1.00
  • 12 oz 90/10 ground sirloin @ $5.24/lb = $3.93
  • 4 ounces reduced fat cream cheese @ $1.96/8 oz box = $0.98
  • 1 1/2 cups precooked brown rice @ $1.37/2 lb bag = $0.51
  • juice of 2 limes @ $0.79/ea = $1.58
  • 1 1/2 cup queso fresco @ $2.84/12 oz = $2.84
  • 1 28 oz cans diced tomatoes @ $1.50/28 oz can = $1.50
  • 2 tsp sugar (negligible)
  • 1 tsp salt (negligible)
  • 1 tsp pepper (negligible)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin (negligible)
  • Cooking spray (negligible)
  • 1/4 cup cilantro leaves @ $0.78/bunch = $0.26

Directions

  1. On prep day, preheat broiler.
  2. Place poblanos on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil 3 inches from flame for 12 minutes or until blackened, turning halfway through.
  3. Boil 2 cups of water.
  4. Set ancho chiles in a bowl and cover with boiling water for 10 minutes.
  5. After broiling, place blackened peppers in a paper bag and close tightly. Let sit for 15 minutes.
  6. Turn off broiler and reduce oven temperature to 400F.
  7. Drain water from chiles.
  8. Peel and discard pepper skins, then cut a lengthwise slit in each pepper and discard seeds and inner membrane.
  9. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add oil and swirl to coat.
  10. Add onions and garlic to skillet. Cook for 4 minutes or until tender. Remove half the mixture from the skillet and reserve.
  11. Add 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper, and beef (or mushrooms). Cook 8 minutes or until beef is done, stirring to break up chunks.
  12. Add cream cheese and stir until well mixed. Stir in rice and half the queso fresco (about 2/3 cup).
  13. Place ancho chiles, remaining onion mixture, juice, cumin, sugar, tomatoes, and remaining salt in a blender. Process until smooth.
  14. Coat 2 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dishes with cooking spray. Pour 1 cup sauce from blender into each.
  15. Open each poblano and flatten slightly with your hand. Divide beef mixture evenly between them, filling each pepper to the brim. Place four peppers in each dish and top with remaining sauce.
  16. Cover with heavy-duty foil and freeze.
  17. On cook day, remove foil from dishes and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Poke four or five holes in each dish’s wrap.
  18. Microwave on high for 14 to 15 minutes or until piping hot.
  19. Remove from microwave and allow to cool slightly before topping with cilantro.

3. Sausage and White Bean Soup

Sausage White Bean Soup

Yield: 16 servings in 4 2-quart (or larger) containers
Total Time: 4 hours 5 minutes to 8 hours 10 minutes | Prep Time: 5 to 10 minutes | Cook Time: 4 to 8 hours in slow cooker
Total Cost: $30.94 per batch, $7.74 per meal; $1.93 per serving

This is a soupier creation that’s easy to customize and goes great with the suggested sides. If you’re vegetarian, you can substitute a grain or soy-based vegetable or vegan sausage in place of meat sausage. If you’re gluten-sensitive, use certified gluten-free sausage – regular sausage can have traces of gluten in the casing.

Ingredients and Supplies for Prep

  • 4 pounds medium sausage @ $3.99/pound = $15.96
  • 4 pounds dry white beans (cannellini) @ $2.25/pound = $10.00
  • 1 pound celery @ $0.99/ bunch (roughly one pound) = $0.99
  • 1 pound carrots @ $0.99/pound = $0.99
  • 56 ounces canned diced tomatoes @ $1.50/28-ounce can = $3.00

Optional Ingredients – To Be Added on Cook Day

  • 2 to 5 pinches salt (may not be necessary if sausage is pre-salted)
  • 0 to 7 pinches black pepper (may not be necessary if sausage is spicy)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (may not be necessary if sausage is spicy)
  • 2 to 4 dashes of soy sauce
  • 2 to 4 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
  • Other spices as desired

Directions

  1. Soak your beans overnight into prep day, either on the counter or in the fridge.
  2. On prep day, drain thoroughly, wash, and set aside.
  3. Dice celery and carrots.
  4. Add celery and carrots, along with the sausage and white beans, to your containers.
  5. Label and freeze the containers.
  6. Add 14 ounces of canned diced tomatoes each to four resealable plastic bags.
  7. Label the bags such that they clearly pair with containers, seal upright, and lay flat to freeze.
  8. On cook day, dump the contents of the container into a low-set slow cooker and add 16 ounces of water, bouillon optional. Add more water if you plan to cook for longer than 8 hours or if you prefer watery soup.
  9. Before you leave the cooking area, season to taste with salt, pepper, and spices (if desired), though keep in mind that the sausage may be salted already. Savory flavorings such as soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce can complement this dish nicely as well.

Serve in a bowl. Sides are optional, though cheese topping is highly recommended.

Optional Sides

Consider serving with these sides:

  • Rice. White or brown rice is a natural fit here, either as a side or mixed into the soup during cooking. For separate rice sides, you need to budget 20 to 25 additional minutes to boil the water and cook the rice.
  • Bread and Cheese. This dish begs for dipping bread, as well as grated Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago.

4. Beef Fajitas (Gluten-Free)

Beef Fajitas Gluten Free

Yield: 16 servings in 4 1-quart (or larger) containers
Prep Time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending on meal size | Cook Time: 15 to 25 minutes | Total Time: 30 to 45 minutes
Total Cost: $33.26 per batch, $8.32 per meal, $2.08 per serving

Tired of boring ground beef tacos? Though it requires more prep time upfront than some of the other meals on this list, the end product is worth the effort: an upscale taco alternative that won’t leave you much lighter in the wallet.

Meat quality matters in this dish, particularly if you plan on preparing in a slow cooker. Stovetop preparation is definitely preferable if you have the time and energy. If you follow this recipe exactly, your meal will be gluten-free.

Ingredients and Supplies for Prep – To Be Frozen

  • 4 pounds chuck steak @ $5.49/pound = $21.96
  • 6 green peppers @ $0.99/each = $5.94
  • 2 red peppers @ $1.79/each = $3.58 
  • 2 large yellow onions @ $0.89/each = $1.78

Note: Pepper color is a matter of personal preference, but green tend to be cheaper.

Optional Ingredients – To Be Added on Cook Day

  • 2 to 5 pinches salt
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper (may not be necessary if sausage is spicy)
  • 2 to 4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons cumin

Directions

  1. On prep day, slice the meat and peppers into 1.5″ x 0.5″ strips (approximately).
  2. Finely chop onions.
  3. Add peppers, onions, and steak evenly to each container.
  4. Label and freeze.
  5. On (or the day before) cook day, defrost the beef fajitas in the fridge overnight or during the workday.
  6. Remove from cold storage and drain most of the excess liquid, leaving some for flavor and moisture.
  7. Add the contents of the container to a large pan (ideally cast iron) over medium-high heat and cook until nicely seared.
  8. Lower heat to medium or medium-low, stirring periodically, until at least medium rare.

Serve plain or with one (or more) of the suggested sides.

Optional Sides

  • Soft Tortillas. You may want to pan-heat your tortillas – it only takes a few minutes, and it adds a ton of crunch.
  • Rice. Rice is a great fajita side. Just remember to budget adequate time on meal day.
  • Corn Chips. Hard corn tortilla chips complement beef fajitas nicely.

5. Chicken & Veggies in the Microwave (Gluten-Free)

Microwave Chicken Veggies

Yield: 4 to 8 servings
Total Time: 30 to 60 minutes, depending on chicken size and meat temperature
Total Cost: $13.92 per meal, $1.74 to $3.48 per serving

My mom used to fall back on this one when she’d had a rough day at work. As a kid, I was so fascinated by the concept of cooking a whole chicken in the microwave that I didn’t stop to think about just how little work it requires. And, prepared as-is, it’s gluten-free – though your choice of sides may change that.

Basically, you’re cooking a whole chicken with frozen vegetable sides. With the basic recipe, there’s virtually no prep time, as everything comes in store packaging. If you’re using fresh veggies from a grocery store or CSA, you may need a few minutes to put them in freezer-safe containers.

Ingredients and Supplies for Prep – To Be Frozen

Prep Time: Minimal
Containers: Store packaging and quart containers (if freezing fresh veggies)

  • 1 four-pound whole chicken @ $1.99/pound = $7.96 
  • 1 pound mixed frozen vegetables @ $5.98/five-pound bag = $1.19

Optional Ingredients for Cooking – To Be Added on Cook Day

The fresh vegetables listed here are examples – I personally like asparagus, carrots, and potatoes, but you can mix and match broccoli, cauliflower, or anything else your heart desires. Unlike the three meals above, salt and pepper are virtually essential seasonings here, as store-bought whole chicken can be practically tasteless.

  • 1 bunch asparagus @ $1.99/each = $1.99
  • 1 pound carrots @ $0.99/each = $0.99
  • 1 pound red potatoes @ $1.79/pound = $1.79
  • 4 to 8 pinches salt
  • 3 to 6 pinches black pepper

Directions

  1. Freeze a whole, packaged frozen chicken and a big bag of mixed frozen vegetables in their original packaging.
  2. On or soon before cook day, collect and refrigerate fresh veggies (if desired) to supplement chicken and frozen veggies.
  3. The night before cook day, defrost chicken in the fridge.
  4. On cook day, place chicken in a large, microwave-safe bowl or pan and add salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Heat at approximately 70% power (ovens vary) for 10 minutes per pound. That’s 20 minutes for a tiny two-pounder, or 50 minutes for a five-pounder. (Most grocery store chickens weight less than five pounds.
  6. Stop cooking chicken about halfway through and spread collected juices (if any) over the chicken’s surface, using a baster if one is handy.
  7. When chicken registers an internal temperature of 165F, remove from the microwave and let it sit for 10 minutes.
  8. While the chicken is resting, place the frozen vegetables in a microwave-safe container and add salt, pepper, and any desired spices (such as paprika, cayenne, or cumin).
  9. Heat vegetables until steaming hot.
  10. Carve the chicken into manageable pieces.

Serve on a large plate with optional sides.

Optional Sides

  • Rice. White or brown rice works well as a healthy whole chicken side. Allow 15 to 20 minutes of cook time.
  • Mashed Potatoes. This can be a more involved side, but it goes great with whole chicken. If you have ample time, mash your own red or russet potatoes with butter, buttermilk, salt, and pepper. On busier nights, substitute instant mashed potatoes and see if the rest of the crew notices.
  • Gravy. Highly recommended with mashed potatoes – or not. High-quality store-bought chicken gravy works fine.
  • Cornbread. If you have enough time to mix, bake, and cool cornbread from a boxed mix, go for it. Cornbread is a nice complement to gravy.

6. Ground Sausage Lasagna

Ground Sausage Lasagna

Yield: At least 8 servings 
Prep Time: 30 minutes | Cook Time: 60 minutes | Total Time: 90 minutes
Total Cost: $19.10 per meal, $2.39 or less per serving
Recipe adapted from Must Have Mom!, with modifications

This sounds like an ambitious project – and it is, in some ways. However, if you incorporate its admittedly laborious assembly process into a big freezer meal prep party, you’ll barely notice. And, in pulling it off, you’ll add a pretty impressive feather to your culinary cap. Not everyone can truthfully say they’ve made lasagna from scratch, after all. You can just leave out the part about prepping and cooking on different days.

Unfortunately, one thing this meal definitely is not is gluten-free. Wiggle out of the gluten trap by switching to a gluten-free sausage and using vegetable-based lasagna noodles, either bought in-store or made from scratch.

Pro Tip: This meal requires some cooking on prep day, and takes longer to cook on actual cook day. Use the extra cook day time to catch up on household chores, work emails, or family time.

Ingredients and Supplies – All for Prep

  • 1 pound ground sausage (sweet or Italian) @ $3.99/pound = $3.99
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion (approximately 1/2 small yellow onion) @ $0.89/each = $0.44
  • 1 clove garlic @ $0.50/bulb = $0.10
  • 3 tablespoons fresh parsley @ $0.89/bunch = $0.20
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil @ $1.99/bunch = $0.10
  • 14 ounces diced tomatoes @ $1.50/14-ounce can = $1.50
  • 15 ounces tomato sauce @ $2.49/16-ounce jar = $2.30
  • 16 lasagna noodles @ $1.99/pack = $1.99
  • 2 cups cottage or ricotta cheese @ $3.49/16-ounce container = $3.49
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese @ $4.99/hunk = $1.50
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese @ $3.49/pack = $3.49
  • Salt to taste

Directions

  1. On prep day, cook ground sausage, chopped onion, and garlic in a medium foil or reusable baking pan (9″ x 13″) over medium heat.
  2. Stir occasionally until sausage is browned, but not cooked through. Drain excess sausage grease.
  3. Stir in 2/3 of the parsley (two tablespoons), basil, tomatoes, and tomato sauce. Cook to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix cottage cheese, half the Parmesan (1/4 cup), and the rest of the parsley.
  5. Take out a 9″ x 13″ foil pan or reusable baking dish and spread half the cooked sausage mixture along the bottom. Cover with a full layer of uncooked noodles.
  6. Spread half the cottage cheese mix over the noodles, then sprinkle with half the mozzarella cheese (one cup).
  7. Add another layer of uncooked noodles and top with the remaining sausage mixture.
  8. Add a final layer of uncooked noodles.
  9. Top with the rest of the cottage cheese and add the rest of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.
  10. Wrap the pan tightly in plastic wrap, pushing down to keep the cheese from expanding.
  11. Cover the pan and wrap with a layer of tin foil.
  12. Label with the prep date and dish name and freeze.
  13. On the night before cook day, thaw the pan in the fridge.
  14. Cook covered for 45 minutes in an oven preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, then uncover and cook for another 15 minutes, until the top layer of cheese bubbles freely.
  15. Top with more Parmesan or mozzarella if you desire.

Serve on a plate or in a bowl with one of the suggested sides.

Optional Sides

  • Bread. What goes better with meaty, saucy lasagna than a hunk of Italian bread?
  • Cooked Vegetables. If the lasagna is starchy enough for you, add some roughage with boiled or oven-cooked vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, or whatever you please.
  • Green Salad. Need more crunch than cooked veggies can offer? Chop up some fresh lettuce, onions, peppers, and carrots, then dress with oil and vinegar. Maybe throw some walnuts or sunflower seeds in for good measure.

Final Word

So many life decisions come down to a choice between two limited resources: time and money. For example, every year, millions of taxpayers with complex tax situations choose between saving money with a daunting, labor-intensive DIY tax filing option, or spending more money for guided online tax software or accountant-led tax prep service. Which is right for you? It all depends how much your time is worth and how much extra cash you can afford to spend.

The freezer meal is a rare proposition that, done right, saves both time and money. Sure, cooking a frozen meal that you prepared months earlier isn’t quite as magical as composing a complex scratch-made meal from start to finish. Nor is it 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.

Have you ever made freezer meals for your family?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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