by Jolene Adams, coordinator, LLCC Culinary Institute
Where did the summer go? Kids are back in school, sports and extracurricular actives have begun, the homework is once again part of the evening routine and the days are getting shorter.
It feels like there is less time to make dinner. Don’t fall into the habit of grabbing fast food on the way home or to game practice. There are plenty of options for making dinner at home without spending your entire evening in the kitchen.
One option is the make ahead freezer meal. There are numerous blogs devoted to the subject, even one that promotes preparing an entire month of meals in one day. Most people do not have an entire Saturday to devote to prepping and cooking. However, you can start small by simply picking a few meals that your family already enjoys, then make twice the amount, eat one serving and freeze the other for another meal later on. Not all meals are designed to be frozen; some items freeze better than others. For best results, avoid meals that contain anything fried, greens such as lettuce and dairy items such as cream cheese and heavy cream.
Another small step to take is to freeze individual foods. Cooked ground beef or turkey freeze well. Cook several pounds at once and freeze in portions that can easily be used in tacos, stews and meat sauces for pasta dishes, sloppy joes or even as a pizza topping.
In a grilling mood? Grill several chicken breasts, freeze individually or in small portions. They can be thawed and used as a salad topping, or in a grilled panini sandwich and even shredded for chicken and noodles or chicken salad.
Casseroles are another make ahead meal that can be a one-dish wonder. There are several recipes that feature chicken and rice with a wide variety of flavors. A casserole can be quickly assembled in one dish in advance, frozen, later pulled out and popped in the oven for an easy weeknight meal. You can find disposable foil pans and lids at almost any grocery store. You won’t even have any clean-up; how easy is that? Plus the lids are perfect to write on with a permanent marker. In addition to labeling and dating, I often write the cooking time and temperature on the lid itself so it is right there when I go to cook it; no guess work.
Freezer to crockpot is a great way to cook throughout the week. It does take some time on the weekend to cook a large pot of soup, but by portioning and freezing, it can go straight from the freezer to crockpot in the morning, and by evening you can walk in the door to a ready-to-eat dinner.
A few tips for safe handling and storage of soups:
*Do not put large batches of hot soup directly into the refrigerator or freezer. They will take too long to cool in the center, leaving the soup vulnerable to bacteria growth and foodborne illness. The best practice is to quickly cool a large pot of soup in an ice bath. Fill the sink hallway with ice and cold water, then place the pot in and stir to cool.
*Don’t forget to label and date the soups, preferably with a permanent marker and not a sticker that may peel off in the freezer.
*Use gallon freezer bags, place them in a large measuring cup or bowl, and cuff the bag over the edge. This makes them easy and less messy to fill. Also it is easy to squeeze out excess air to avoid freezer burn.
*Lay bags flat on a tray to freeze, then stack them to save space in the freezer.
There are additional benefits to making freezer meals and foods. Besides saving time for a weeknight dinner, they also save space. If the freezer is full of meals, there’s plenty of room in the refrigerator for fresh fruits, veggies and salad greens for healthy snacking and side dishes. Food safety is improved. By cooking off and freezing poultry and ground meat, you can avoid cross contamination and the potential spread of salmonella or e-coli.
Hopefully the information given here will get you started on the path to easy weeknight dinners that are not only tasty and time saving, but also healthier than processed and fast foods. A great website to use when getting started is from Six Sisters Stuff. Their site has recipes for eight freezer meals that can be made in one hour! They not only have recipes for all eight of the dishes, but they have compiled a shopping list organized by categories to make your grocery trip quick and efficient. They even include recipes for quick and easy side dishes to accompany the freezer meal. They have a great variety to get you started. Check it out at http://www.sixsistersstuff.com/2012/09/slow-cooker-freezer-meals-make-8-meals.html.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, Baking/Pastry, and Value Added Local Food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.