Full-Time-Working mom, Part-Time-Working mom, Stay-at-Home, Homeschooling mom, one kid, four kids, pregnant, nursing- I’m telling you I have done it all and NONE of it is easy. The summers offer some relief but I have often chuckled to myself as other moms talk about the break they will get with the start of the school year. As a teacher and now as a homeschooling mom, I have never really known that relief. In fact, after a few weeks back to routines, I think most moms agree- school year schedules never seem to have enough down time and the days never seem to have enough hours. The daily juggle of carpools, clubs, homework, projects, games, and concerts can often get overwhelming. Trying to squeeze in healthy, home-cooked dinners is a task that can be quickly tossed aside. Last year however I was able to put together a project that freed up time and saved me from the drive through on more than one occasion. Enter- the freezer to slow-cooker meal.
We had two days a week that were crazy-busy from sun-up to sun-down (and beyond). These were the days that, despite my best intentions, I was very likely to turn to fast food or boxed items. While this is not bad once in a while, twice a week was getting both expensive and unhealthy. So, when I found a great deal on chicken I decided to make 36 freezer meals. I came up with that number easily- 2 meals per week for one full school semester (18 weeks). I knew 36 meals would last until Christmas break when I would again be able to dedicate a full day to making the meals that would last us through the next semester.
Now, here is the crazy planning part. First, I gathered my recipes. This felt risky as I hadn’t tried any of them I was really worried. Some are better than others I will admit. And some needed a little tweaking (the recipes given reflect my changes). But all passed the test- my four children ate them and hubby didn’t complain in fact, he enjoyed them.
After recipes were gathered I had to make my “shopping” list. I have to use the word shopping loosely because the key to keeping my cost down was actually Bountiful Baskets. I made this plan months before I actually made the meals and I used that time to gather items from my baskets. If zucchini showed up I made sure to chop and freeze and set aside just for this purpose. Same with carrots, celery, onions, and a few other items. BB didn’t take care of everything of course, but the baskets certainly supplied a good chunk of it. As I was gathering produce I was also stockpiling a bit of money each month. I use a cash-only grocery budget system and I took $20 or so every month and set it aside to help off-set the cost of the project. I did not want my budget for one month to be so drained that we would need to eat freezer meals every night thereby draining my supply and starting up the vicious drive-through cycle.
The morning of- Chop, Chop, Chop…oh, and did I mention Chop? I turned on “Master Chef” and watched episode after episode as I chopped bowls and bowls of produce. It may sound tedious but the Happy Homemaker side of me was in culinary heaven!
Once all was chopped I used a sharpie marker to label all my freezer bags with recipe title, cooking times, additional ingredients, and serving directions. Then, I gathered the minions (ie children and hubby) and we put together the meals assembly line style. I printed off a copy of each recipe and taped them to the wall one at a time. I lined up the ingredients for the recipe and we proceeded to fill the bags.
When the bags were filled I wiped them down with a paper towel (this is REALLY important- any little spill will cause your bags to stick together during freezing and tear as you pull them apart…not good). Then, I laid the flat on a cookie sheet with a clean paper towel between each bag. This method of freezing saves space and makes them very manageable in the freezer. One thing I learned- do not stack too high. When I stacked more than 3 or four bags the bottom ones took much longer to fully freeze and the pressure from the top bags caused some liquid to squeeze out…again, not good.
Some tips I’ve learned the hard way and am willing to share with you:
1- A little bit of citrus juice (orange, lemon, or lime) added just before serving will brighten up the flavor and
reduce the “freezer” taste.
2- Shop for the add-in items (like broth, green sauce, coconut milk, etc.) when you shop for the other items then
label them with the meal they are for and Don’t use them for anything else. There is nothing worse than needing
run to the store on a busy day.
3- The chicken will come out more tender and the meal more flavorful when cooked on low. High times are there if
needed but the final product just isn’t as good.
4- The night before my crazy day I transfer a meal to the fridge to let it defrost, then I follow the cooking
directions on the bag. You can skip the step of defrosting if you have to- it just makes the first hour of
cooking a little awkward (see picture below)
5- Adding different fresh vegetables the last hour or so can really improve the flavor and texture. Mushrooms,
water chestnuts, corn, peppers, onions, etc. can be fun additions.
With a little extra planning ahead of time I can use these meals to ensure that I get everyone fed and where they need to be and even have a few minutes to spare. (I spoke too soon- the third grader just informed me that he has a science project due tomorrow…there go those spare minutes)