Friday, March 15, 2013

Adding Convenience to Homemade: Using the Freezer to Shorten Meal Preparation Time

      As much as I love homemade foods, I can't say that I always love spending hours preparing each meal. I think this is a common sentiment, and the need for greater convenience often drives an individual to forego homemade in favor for packaged foods. I enjoy using fresh and homemade ingredients in my meals, and feel that I don't have to entirely give that up for the sake of convenience. Instead, I've realized that it's a matter of figuring out little ways that can save me time (and in some instances, money) later. Although I do not do "freezer cooking" per say, I am learning and getting better about utilizing my freezer as a means of creating shortcuts to my meal preparations.

     Certain ingredients and meals simply do not freeze well. This result is due to water freezing within the product. The frozen state assumes more space and thereby displaces some of the structure of the food.When it thaws, the food may have a bit of a different taste or texture. It's a bit of trial and error to learn what does and doesn't freeze well, but soon enough you'll have a working list of items you can keep stocked in the freezer. 

      Utilizing the freezer to shorten meal preparations can be done in two ways: 1) freeze ingredient components and/or 2) freeze complete or near complete meals. When making a meal that I know will freeze well I may simply make a full recipe or extra. I then portion out the extra into serving sizes and freeze. When I'm in a pinch I can easily pull out a meal from the freezer, thaw, and finish cooking. Even when I'm not pressed for time to prepare a meal I still enjoy having ingredients or meal components already prepared and in the freezer.
  For instance, last week we had BBQ pork chops, freezer slaw and cornbread. I made the bbq sauce for the meal, and the remainder of the sauce was portioned into 1 cup portions and stored in bags in the freezer. This saves me time from preparing the sauce again the next time we have a bbq meal. The effort also ensures that the sauce isn't wasted by sitting in the refrigerator too long. The full recipe for freezer slaw makes about 9 cups of slaw, which is way too much for just two people. So, I divided it into 1 cup portions and again stored in bags in the freezer. The next time we have freezer slaw, all I have to do is grab a couple of bags out of the freezer. Last, I prefer to make my cornbread in individual servings by using a brownie pan. Because each side is cooked and less exposed, they will freeze and thaw better than cut pieces which leaves the sides exposed. Cornbread takes about 45 minutes, and so that's 45 minutes saved from the next meal we have that has a side of cornbread. I didn't have to spend an entire day preparing for future meals. Yet, I still have a really good start on the preparation for future meals. 

Tray freezing bell peppers
       The other means of shortening meal preparation time is by pre-cutting and freezing certain vegetables. A lot of time is spent simply cutting onions, bell peppers, scallions etc. Instead of cutting them when needed, I can dice them ahead of time and store in the freezer so that when I do need them all I have to do is measure out the amount. When freezing diced vegetables, I find it is best to use the tray freezing method. Tray freezing is essentially spreading the food pieces across a sheet tray and freezing. The pieces will freeze individually. They then can be scooped up and placed in a bag to store. If you just dice and place in a bag to freeze, then when you need a portion you're faced with breaking up a solid frozen mass to break apart. I prefer to tray freeze as much as possible. 

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