If you frequently stare endlessly into your refrigerator trying to come up with something you can take to work for lunch that day, only to wind up grabbing a soggy, overpriced sandwich at the local deli, meal prepping some office-friendly lunches may be the answer. It can reduce your stress, help you eat healthier, and save money.
Meal prep generally means you spend a few hours once a week or so planning out your upcoming meals, and then prep as much as you can (washing, chopping, mixing, cooking) in one sitting. Then when it’s time to leave for work, you can just grab whatever you made for that day and, if necessary, reheat it at lunchtime. If a day-long cooking marathon isn’t your style, you can also build up your pre-made meal selection a little at a time by making double batches whenever you cook, eating one batch and saving your leftovers for a later date.
While you can prep for only the week ahead and keep your meals ready to go in your fridge, many savvy home chefs find they save even more time and money by taking it to the next level with big-batch freezing. Freezer meals allow you to plan farther in advance (up to a few months with some foods). But even if that kind of planning doesn’t fit your lifestyle, you may find it handy to stockpile a variety of dishes in your freezer.
Before you begin cooking, learn the ins and outs of big batch freezer meals with these tips.
A smart and safe start
While freezer meal prepping offers plenty of benefits, you’ll want to avoid a few common pitfalls by using these tips and tricks to help you fill your freezer with ready-to-eat meals.
- Think it through
Before you even preheat your oven, make sure you have a plan. Know what meals you’re making, what ingredients they need (ideally, many of the recipes will use the same ingredients to cut down on prep time), and what each meal will be made (and stored) in. After all, you don’t want to whip up a batch of chili only to realize you have nothing left to freeze it in.
- Store meals the way you want to eat them
Once you cook your meals, you’ll be eager to get them safely tucked away in your freezer — but hold up! Allow your food to cool first; this lets it freeze faster, plus it doesn’t raise the temperature of the freezer. That said, food must be refrigerated or frozen within 1 to 2 hours to avoid any potential bacteria growth. When you choose containers, keep portions in mind. If you mainly prep lunches to take to work, for instance, you probably don’t want to freeze a full casserole. Instead, you’d want to separate single servings so you can grab exactly what you need for that day’s lunch. Bonus: Smaller portions freeze faster and preserve freshness better.
- Consider your containers
Use containers designed for the freezer; this ensures they’re thick enough to prevent freezer odors from getting into the food while keeping all the moisture within the container.
- Give it some space
Food expands as it freezes, so filling a container to the brim can lead to a container bursting or shattering. Leave a little space — maybe an inch or so — at the top of your containers to play it safe.
- Avoid freezer burn
While freezer burn isn’t dangerous, it can ruin the flavor of a freezer meal. In addition to using containers designed to freeze, do your best to get all the air out of the containers before freezing (especially if you choose bags), and limit your freezer’s exposure to warm air.
- Remember, not all foods freeze well
Many foods taste perfectly fine after stint in the freezer, but do a little research on the recipes you plan to make to ensure they’re freezer friendly. For example, it’s best not to freeze yogurt, watery produce (such as zucchini, raw tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage, green beans, fresh herbs, oranges), uncooked mushrooms, uncooked potatoes, and many roasted vegetables. If you’re not sure if a favorite meal will handle the freezing and thawing process well, save just a small amount to freeze the next time you make it so you can do a test run. Keep in mind that there’s no shortage of freezer-friendly recipe round ups, so get creative and try making something proven and new!
Every cook has slightly different needs when it comes to how they store their big batch freezer meals. Here are a few of the most common types of containers used for freezer meals, as well as what to consider when making your selection. Regardless of what type of container you opt for, you’ll want to look for stackable options (so, if there’s a lid, it should not have a handle on top) and, when possible, use square rather than round to save space.
- Glass: It’s eco-friendly, durable, available at a variety of price points (canning jars, for example, are very affordable), and allows you to easily see what’s within. However, glass can easily crack if moved from one extreme temperature (such as the freezer) to another (such as your oven), and many freezer-safe glass containers take up more space than other materials.
- Reusable plastic: Freezer-safe options with locking and air- and water-tight lids can make freezing your food a snap. Just keep in mind that while these may be microwave safe, plastic can’t be used in the oven.
- Stainless steel: This option is safe and secure, although you’ll need to make sure the containers you use have lids that seal tightly to keep out air and moisture. While many stainless steel options can go in the oven, they cannot go in the microwave.
- Casserole dishes with freezer-safe lids: In terms of an option that makes the storage step easy, this is certainly a winner. Just keep in mind that in order to enjoy what you’ve made, you’ll need to thaw it all unless you divide it into single servings first. You’ll also want to make sure your casserole dish is designed to freeze. If that big dish takes up too much room in your freezer, you can save a little space with this trick: Line the casserole dish with aluminum foil before filling, leaving enough to go over the edges. Freeze your casserole in the dish, and once it’s frozen through, lift it out of the dish with the foil and place it in a freezer-safe bag. When you want to eat it, you can put it back in the same dish to thaw and reheat.
- Reusable silicone bags: While there are plenty of people who swear by plastic freezer bags, anyone who wants to cut down on plastic waste will find reusable silicone food bags to be a great sustainable swap.
To ensure the time, energy, and money you put into prepping and freezing your delicious lunches isn’t wasted, there are a few additional steps you should take.
First, make sure to label your individual freezer meals. Write the name of the meal, the date you froze it (and perhaps the “use by” date as well), the number of servings, and reheating instructions. The most important piece of equipment you’ll want for this step is a permanent marker, which will write on just about any type of packaging, including glass. (You can use rubbing alcohol to remove it from your glass containers after you reheat your meal.) Hot and cold temperatures can impede your marker’s effectiveness, though, so it’s best to label your containers before adding hot food or putting the container in the freezer.
If you’d prefer not to write on your containers, it’s easy to find a printable label that you can edit or fill out with all the information you need, then tape to the outside of your container. If you tend to make the same freezer meals over and over again, going this route (and saving the labels as you edit them on your computer) could be a real time saver!
Finally, once your meals are cooked, stored, labeled, and in the freezer, create a list of what you made and keep it handy, either on the outside of your freezer or in a nearby drawer. Check the list when you’re looking for a meal and cross off each dish as you eat it. This way, you’ll always know what’s available, plus you’ll be less likely to forget about any of your dishes and let them go to waste, even if they’re in a back corner of your freezer and out of sight. After all the work you put into prepping and freezing your food, the last thing you want is to miss out on enjoying it!