Cooking Ahead: A Basic How-To
Now, I rely on the things that I've prepared ahead of time. It's a big job (I learned not to attempt to make 12 pounds of meatballs in one afternoon with a 4-week old baby to care for!) but well worth the effort. So here's my basic how-to, for those of you who feel like I did: It's a great idea... but how?!
First, why? Fewer dishes. More efficient frying/cooking/baking (for example, your oven is being turned on once and being left on for a longer period of time rather than being turned on and off so many times). And, you can sale shop! :)
Second, how... and what? :) Different people have different cooking needs and styles, so this is just what I've found works for us. Some of the things I regularly make ahead (and freeze) are: meatballs (for spaghetti, or meatball sandwiches), fried gound beef for taco meat or casseroles, mashed potatoes, pre-formed burger patties (since we buy the meat on sale and make our own), cooked cubed chicken, homemade alfredo sauce, soups, pre-baked pizza crusts, pie crust (raw or pre-baked, for different recipes), and chicken fajita filling. Other things that I sometimes make ahead and freeze, but not always, are: chopped onions, breads, meatloaf (raw), garlic bread (homemade bread spread with garlic butter, ready to be baked or grilled), stuffed peppers (raw), lasagna, stuffed shells, enchiladas, or other casseroles. I would probably freeze more ready-made casseroles, except that I am limited to a small freezer. Casseroles take up a lot of space, so I usually just freeze the meat part, pre-cooked. There are many more things that can be frozen well, also.
Let me go into a little more detail.
One of my main make-ahead items is cubed cooked chicken. This is often the leftover chicken from an oven-roasted chicken, or even Thanksgiving turkey. I freeze the cubed chicken in 1-3 cup sized bags. I use this chicken for casseroles (like chicken vermicelli, white lasagna, chicken potpie, chicken and stuffing casserole, or chicken enchiladas), gravys (like chicken gravy over egg noodles, chicken gravy and drop biscuits, or chicken alfredo over pasta), chicken salad sandwiches, chicken fried rice, mandarin chicken salad, or soups (like white chili or chicken noodle soup). It's so quick to make up a soup or casserole when the meat is already prepared. And I find that freezing leftover chicken means we don't get tired of having chicken several days in a row. (Sometimes we do eat chicken several days in a row, but only if I've planned it and we're in the mood for it!) :D
Another staple is cooked hamburger meat. I find a good sale on some leaner burger meat (like ground chuck or ground round) and purchase 10-20 pounds. I use my largest skillet and fry it in 4-5 pound batches with some chopped onions, minced garlic, and chopped green peppers added. I drain the meat in a strainer while I start the next cooking. Some of the meat gets made into taco meat, where I add seasonings (our favorite taco meat recipe is here). All of it gets frozen in 2-cup (for casseroles like taco pie, enchiladas, lasagna, stuffed shells, etc.) or 3-cup (for taco salad, chili, or burritos) bags. It's unbelievably quick to make stuffed shells or lasagna when the meat is pre-cooked, and it saves a lot of dishes (cutting board, knife, garlic mincer, skillet, strainer, etc.). Taco salad can be a last-minute meal when the meat is already cooked and seasoned, and just has to be warmed. (And it tastes as good as fresh!)
When I make meatballs, I use a large bowl and double or triple or do whatever I need to do to my meatball recipe to make the right amount for the meat I have. I form the meat into balls and bake on cookie sheets. (It's almost like making cookies! ;D) While some is baking, I'm busy forming. I drain them on paper towels and freeze in bags, with enough for a meal or two of spaghetti or meatball sandwiches.
Freezing homemade bread will keep it fresh, but be sure to freeze it as soon as it's cooled. When I make pizza crust, I often make extras and pre-bake some for the freezer. Then they just have to thaw and have the toppings put on.
Some things just require making a large batch whenever you're already making them for a meal. For example, think of soups, mashed potatoes, alfredo sauce, breads or pre-baked pizza crusts, chicken fajita filling (saves on gas grill usage!), and a multitude of casseroles.
Now for some tips on successful freezing. Here's what helps me:
Wrap foods securely. I am blessed to own a Food Saver (for vacuum packaging foods), which seals things nicely and keeps food fresh. I only get that out if I am doing a large batch of something, since it's a bother to get out. You don't need a vacuum packing machine to preserve your foods well in the freezer. Just purchase good-quality freezer bags (hopefully on sale, because they can be costly!) and try to remove the air before freezing if possible. If you have to use plastic wrap, use several layers (I use this for pie dough, or pizza crusts). Foods frozen in thinner packaging will need to be used sooner.
Label foods well. Be sure to put the date, as well as exactly what you are freezing. I would always think, "Oh, I'll remember what this had in it" and then I would find myself not wanting to use things I had frozen because I couldn't remember what exactly it was or how well we liked it.
Rotate. When you add new things to your stash, put the oldest on top or in front. This way you won't have to worry about finding stuff that's so old it got freezer burn. :)
Organize. And don't over-do. A freezer needs to be organised, or you will end up running out of things, having too much of something, not being able to find things, or using the newest first instead of the oldest. Don't pack your freezer so full that you can't retrieve things from it practically. I do keep my freezer quite full (usually) but I organise it every time I add something, and I always rotate the oldest food to the front. And, my freezer is small, so even when it's full I can still get to things in the back fairly quickly if I need to.
So, if you've never tried making things "in bulk" to save time... have confidence! (It once seemed so daunting to me.) You can! (If I can, you can!) Start small and find what works best for you and your family. Involve your children! (Yehoshua loves to help me!) And have fun. :D
Another great resource is my friend Crystal's article, "Once-A-Month-Cooking: How to Make Your Plan Work"