A foodie’s take on freezer meals

Cutting to the chase on freezer meals: Except in limited cases, no. Just, no.

First you should know who you’re dealing with though.

I’m a home cook who has gotten good enough in the kitchen to put on airs and alternatively, throw fits when dishes do not come out just right. I believe strongly in proper texture for foods–tender-crisp vegetables, falling-off-the-bone chicken, pasta al dente. Dishes should always, yes, always be enjoyed at their optimum temperature. Cooled off pizza with starting-to-congeal cheese? Disaster. Luke warm yogurt? Disgusting. And of course, meals should be appropriately balanced in the flavor department. Salty enough. Not too much sweet. Enough acid or spice for oomph.

The good news? These eight dinners came together in less than a couple hours.

With this mindset, I went in search of time saving freezer meal options a few months ago. In August, I started a new job with a 90-minute (on a good day) commute, each way, three days a week. I knew that in order not to default to easy comfort food and take out, I’d need to prep and plan. Especially if I was going to make my “Christmas tree diet” goal.

So I scoured Pinterest for freezer meal recipes that met two criteria: 1. They had to be healthy-ish. 2. The author had to explicitly discuss food texture in the recipe, and differentiate between ingredients that do and do not freeze well.

Consequently, I spent way too long combing through posts with hyperbolic titles like: “I made 75 freezer meals for $4 in three hours!” and “These 17 freezer meals will change your life!!” I learned about freezer meal process–always write the name/date/cooking directions on the ziplock BEFORE you fill it, and NEVER start assembling before you’ve fully shopped and prepped. I learned what types of recipes to avoid. Rice, potatoes and cheese toppings apparently do not freeze and thaw well.

I picked out eight recipes, running them by Mr. T to make sure he’d actually eat them, created a detailed shopping list (in excel, organized by protein, veggie, dairy, starch, etc.) and made the mother of all Costco runs. I bought chicken and beef like our household hosts seven teenage boys instead of two adults and a geriatric dog. I lumbered home with a stack of tortillas 100 deep and cheese by the pound.

In a weekend, I set out to make the following, most of which came from the Fun, Cheap or Free blog:
Teriyaki chicken
Divine Chicken
Savory Chicken
Ground Beef and Bean Enchiladas
Shredded Beef Enchiladas
Southwest Pot roast
Beef stew
Lasagna
Plus: Shawna’s best-in-the-west spaghetti sauce

Freezer meal rule: Always write on the ziplock before filling the bags! 

Now, with the exception of the enchiladas, lasagna and roast, most of the recipes are crockpot “dumps.” Meaning, dump the ingredients in a bag, freeze, thaw, and dump into a crockpot. Unlike most crockpot or regular recipes, there’s no searing of meat or sauteeing of vegetables in advance. And hence, probably, the reason I hate these meals.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It took a solid three days to prepare everything, although the dump meals came together in a couple hours. Chest freezer stocked to the brim, I felt proud to have made so many meals months in advance. I crowed on Facebook and bragged to T (in large part to justify spending the aforementioned king’s ransom in groceries). And I should have remembered that thing about pride and falling.

We tried the teriyaki chicken first. I took the bag out of the freezer the night before, leaving it in the fridge to thaw. The next morning, I dumped the contents into in the crockpot, went to work, and thought about the “yummy!” and “delicious!” and “crowd-pleasing!” meal we were to enjoy later that evening.

No dice. The chicken breast was overdone. The carrots a weird texture of firm-ish on the outside but hollow-ish in the middle that I can’t quite describe. The onions fairly well disintegrated. The pineapple an awkward shade of brown with an unrecognizable flavor. The sauce seemed more like au jus, but not in a good way. And the smell. It was just off. Something not quite right.

But I blamed myself. It was a long day at work so the chicken cooked for two hours too long, which probably accounted for the texture. I kicked myself for using breasts for all of the recipes when thighs would have probably held up better to the cooking method. I shoved the leftovers in the fridge and waited an appropriate amount of time before throwing them out.

Next we tried the Divine Chicken, which is chicken, carrots, and onions simmered in cream of chicken soup, with broccoli added in later. I picked a shorter work day, planned fresh veggies as a side dish, and kept my fingers crossed.

No dice.

The chicken, while not over cooked, had the same weird smell as the teriyaki, and the carrots? Icky, icky texture. The fresh broccoli side was the only good part.

With a freezer still full, I started to panic.

So I switched to a beef stew. Chunks of beef with carrots, onions, green beans, and tomato paste. I added wine and a bunch of spices.

NO. DICE.

The meal was bland, the beef tough, the carrots unrecognizable, the smell still weird. The only good part? The side dish mashed potatoes that I cooked separately.

The crowning jewels of my freezer meal experiment: enchiladas. Also pictured: A vat of my famous spaghetti sauce that freezes beautifully. Hopefully the lasagnas made with it also turn out well.

All in all, I call this freezer meal experiment a big fat bust with the exception of the enchiladas. We tried both the shredded beef and beef-and-bean, and they were just as delicious as fresh. (The secret being to freeze bare and add sauce and cheese right before cooking.) We haven’t tried the lasagna yet but my fingers are crossed.

And what about the other six perfectly fine meals in the freezer? While I did consider letting them languish for years until freezer burn claimed them, I realized I could just re-purpose the ingredients. Starting next week, I plan to defrost, ditch the veggies, and incorporate the meat into other dishes.

Long, long story short: Don’t believe the Pinterest hype (!!!). Just say no to freezer meals. (Except for enchiladas and maybe lasagna. I’ll report back.)

xoxo,
a disappointed foodie

P/S The one other exception: Frozen breakfast burritos. I made those last winter and all I can say is YES, YES, YES. I plan to try these “ultimate” burritos next.

PP/S Please don’t take this post as being anti-crockpot. I am a “set it and forget it” slow cooker magic queen.

Among about 290 others, I consulted the following articles:
http://www.ringaroundtherosies.net/2012/04/more-freezer-cooking-meals-part-3.html
http://funcheaporfree.com/2014/12/31-freezer-meals-freezer-meal-e-book/
http://www.theshabbycreekcottage.com/2013/10/freezer-meals.html
https://newleafwellness.biz/2015/02/17/17-freezer-meal-prep-sessions-that-will-change-your-life/
http://www.passionforsavings.com/week-easy-freezer-meals-menu-shopping-list-recipes/http://www.thirtyhandmadedays.com/2015/10/25-crockpot-freezer-meals-with-five-ingredients-or-less/

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