Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

Using Our Freezer Efficiently Saves Money & Time

We freeze almost everything!  Our kitchen refrigerator has a large freezer section, and we also use a stand up deep freezer in our garage.  Taking time regularly to prep for our freezer and keep it organized has made weekly menu planning and daily meal cooking a breeze.  

Bulk buys that make sense

As I talked about in an earlier post, we consider our freezer part of our home’s well-stocked pantry strategy.  We buy in bulk (usually from Costco) many items that we use once a week.  This includes a number of proteins (ground beef, steak, chicken, ground sausage, hot dogs, hamburgers, bacon), breads (sliced sandwich bread, hot dog buns, hamburger buns), frozen vegetables (sweet corn, peas, spinach, green beans), and some specialty frozen items that we’ll actually use (ice cream, pizza, stuffed chicken breasts).  

For the proteins, if they come in freezer-appropriate packaging, they can go straight in — the 6-packs of chicken from Costco — we cut them apart right when we unload the car and they go straight into the freezer unless we keep one out for dinner that night.  Other proteins come in packaging that’s not good for saving in the freezer, either because it’s not airtight or because the quantity needs to be broken down.  For things like bacon and ground beef, we’ll measure out portions for how we cook (e.g., 5 slices of bacon for a weekend brunch, a pound of ground beef for a weeknight dinner with leftovers), using our kitchen scale where necessary, and we store those items in quart-sized freezer bags.  For more expensive items, like steak, we’ll use vacuum-sealed bags to ensure their freshness during their stay in the freezer.  

A note about the environment — We use plenty of plastic zipper bags, and we would like to reduce our use of those.  We’ve started researching reusable kitchen freezer bags but haven’t yet made the investment in buying those supplies.  A positive trade-off for our freezer approach, despite the extra plastic bags, is that it keeps us from wasting much actual food, since we portion for the freezer how we’ll eventually use it.  We don’t let an open pack of bacon spoil since we only thaw the handful of pieces we’re going to use that Saturday morning.  For other items we buy in bulk (like Costco ground beef), we throw away less styrofoam than if we were to buy each pound individually packaged at the grocery store.

Bread freezes really well, provided you have a toaster with a good temperature adjustment.  We’ll buy several loaves of sandwich bread at Costco, keep one out, and freeze the rest.  After the fresh loaf is gone, we move a loaf from the garage freezer into the kitchen freezer and take slices out as we use them each day.  Warming them in the toaster on a low setting thaws them quickly without creating crunchy toast for a fresh sandwich.  Burger and dog buns work well too — James warms those on the grill as he’s cooking the protein for a delicious dinner sandwich. 

Make-ahead dinners (and desserts)

For a couple weeks, every few months, we’ll do freezer meal prep.  There are certain dishes we know we like and by prepping large batches all at once, we save time and money when we can pull it for dinner.  Lasagna is a great example.  We love our homemade marinara sauce and our ratio of sauce to meat to pasta to cheese when we make homemade lasagna.  Other frozen lasagna’s are plenty tasty, but we feel like we’re getting more value for our buck making it ourselves.  So occasionally, we’ll do a big batch of homemade marinara sauce followed by prepping lasagna noodles and ground meats.  We assemble several smaller lasagnas in aluminum loaf pans, wrap them tightly, label them with the meal name and the date before storing them in the freezer in the garage.  

Other great make ahead bulk dishes include: chicken pot pies, enchiladas, pasta bake (be sure to undercook the pasta a little bit), meatballs, and chili.  We’ll also freeze in individual storage containers homemade sauces to pull for faster dinners, like tikka masala sauce, the remaining marinara sauce, and homemade enchilada sauce.  We love to cook.  It’s not always most cost efficient to cook from scratch with fresh produce, but by making it ourselves, we know exactly what’s in our meals.

Desserts can be made ahead too!  When peaches are in season, I’ll make a big batch of peach cobbler split across smaller aluminum pans and frozen.  Cookie dough can be made in a big batch, scooped onto a sheet pan and then flash frozen before transferring to a different container for freezer storage.  We individually freeze on a sheet pan before moving to a different container to keep the cookie dough balls from sticking to each other.  Then, when we want to make cookies, we’re not stuck making 40 cookies for a family of 3.  We can pull out just a handful and bake one cookie sheet.  Or, we pull one out at a time and cook in a bowl in the microwave, serving with ice cream for a fun dessert.

Meal planning = Shopping in our own freezer

With a fully stocked freezer (and pantry!), planning our menu for the week and grocery shopping is so fast.  We start with what proteins we’re going to have, varying combinations of chicken, beef, pork, and fish.  We have some type of pasta dish most weeks.  We usually have something Mexican-inspired.  And we look in our freezer to see what we have.  For busy days where we want an easy dinner, we know we’ll pull a lasagna for dinner that night and heat up some peas for a quick side vegetable.  No new groceries needed for that meal.

If we see chicken thighs in the freezer for a chicken meal, it’s easy enough to brainstorm whether we want to do a stir fry or fried rice or grilled chicken with mashed potatoes (or any number of other chicken ideas).  For that meal, fresh vegetables go on the weekly shopping list, but everything else is already in our pantry or freezer.  Same for fish meals.  We keep frozen fish in our freezer pulling out just the fillets we want for dinner when we’re cooking it.  So, a fish dinner usually just requires some fresh produce to accompany it.  

In a pinch, I can do a grocery store trip without meal planning for the week because I generally know what’s in our freezer and pantry.  Most often, our grocery store trip includes quite a bit of fresh produce: carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, leafy greens, green beans, asparagus, bananas, and berries.  Then I walk through the dry goods section, seeing if anything catches my eye that I know we’re low on.  I get dairy items: milk, eggs, butter, cheese, sour cream, before finally grabbing any chips on my way to check out.  Those weeks aren’t the most creative menus, but that’s ok.  We can get creative the following week (if time allows…).

Categorize and organize

The key I’ve found to taking advantage of our deep freezer is knowing what’s in it.  We’ve split it into a handful of sections and we use medium boxes to keep different categories of items together.  One shelf has a box with frozen peas and corn on one side.  The other side and the shelf below have our made-ahead meals (e.g., chicken pot pie, lasagna, chili) and made-ahead sauces (e.g., pasta sauce, enchilada sauce, tikka masala sauce).  On the bottom shelves, we keep our proteins.  There are separate boxes for beef, chicken thighs, and chicken breasts.  We keep the ground beef and steaks in the same box because they are easy enough to distinguish when pulling out one or the other.  Note: with ground beef, if transferring it to a freezer quart bag for storage, flatten into a rectangle before freezing for easy stacking!  The bottom shelf has pork, sausage, and whole chickens.  The door of the freezer is for any odds and ends.  Made-ahead meatballs or cookie dough balls are stored in freezer bags on a door shelf.  Ice cream cartons also fit perfectly in the door.

With the freezer arranged by type, with items labeled and dated, we can easily see what’s in there, what we’re running low on, and if anything has been there a little too long and needs to be on the menu that week.  When I’m menu planning, I can mentally go through the shelves for inspiration for our meals, and then do a quick check before leaving for the grocery store to confirm we have everything I remembered.

Convenient baby food

Baby Lou has been eating solid food for about 6 months now.  We started with thin purees and progressed into much more adventurous flavors and textures.  She eats plenty of store-bought crackers and peanut butter, Gerber baby snacks or fresh produce, but much of her food comes from our freezer.  We bought the Mumi&Bubi Solids Starter set of two ice cube trays with lids.  These trays let us freeze 1 ounce portions of purees in easy to remove ice cubes.  Once frozen, I transfer them to a different freezer storage container and prepare another type of puree.  When she was first trying new foods, we offered those purees with a spoon, eventually graduating to more textured finger foods and mashes.  Now, these cubes make for a very easy pouch refill using the Weesprout Nature’s Little Squeeze reusable baby food pouches.  

I also prepare in bulk a number of baby finger foods that freeze well, like mini blueberry or carrot cake muffins, baby meatballs, veggie sticks, and lentil cakes.  Each night before bed, we’ll pull out whatever frozen foods Louise will eat the next day, letting them thaw overnight in the refrigerator.  Throughout the next day, it’s a quick 5-15 seconds in the microwave to lightly (and carefully) warm the item before giving it to Lou to eat (or, in the case of the pouch, sit in a cup of warm water for several minutes) at mealtime.  We use the Rubbermaid Brilliance food storage containers and Louise has a dedicated shelf in our kitchen freezer where six of the 9.6 cup flat containers fit.  Keeping her items neatly stacked, separate from the rest of the kitchen freezer food makes it easy for us to grab and thaw her foods without having to dig through food that should remain frozen.

Optimizing our freezer strategy saves us time during menu planning and meal prep each week, for ourselves and Louise.  We also save money by stocking up on food that we know we’ll use when we find it at lower-than-usual prices.  And we have more time for enjoying each other’s company while cooking together and over a good meal.

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