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Julie Garden-Robinson, Published April 26 2013

Freezer meals take heat off daily cooking

In the Midwest, most of us have been looking out our windows at a giant walk-in deep freeze since late fall. I think most would agree that we are ready for the outdoors to go through a “defrost cycle.”

However, instead of complaining about the weather, let’s be inspired by it. If we are “cooped up” in our homes by ongoing snow, sleet or rain, we could use some of the time indoors to prepare meals ahead of time and freeze them.

That way, when warm weather welcomes us outdoors, we can grab something homemade from our freezer. It can cook while you are gardening or mowing the lawn.

Preparing a few meals at a time and freezing them has several advantages. If we have food ready to pop in the oven, then we are less likely to eat out. Meals in restaurants often cost three or more times the cost of preparing them at home.

Having meals in the freezer helps prevent the “what’s for dinner?” dilemma. You have the main course ready to heat and serve. All you need to do is add a few items, such as a salad, fruit and milk, to have a balanced meal.

If you prepare your own “convenience food” at home, you also maintain control over the ingredients that you use. For example, you can use reduced-sodium or reduced-fat products if you prefer. If you prefer enchiladas with less “zing” you can adjust the spiciness of the salsa you use to create them.

To add variety to your menus, you can try “meal exchanges.” This works like a holiday cookie exchange. Try preparing an extra recipe of a casserole and exchanging it for one a friend prepared.

To expedite home food preparation, you can set up an “assembly line” and encourage other household members to join in the fun of creating some meals. Turn on some music to energize your crew.

Keep things moving smoothly with these tips:

E Be sure you have space in your freezer before you begin. You may need to reorganize your storage area.

E Gather freezer containers or freezer bags, marking pens and other supplies you need. You might prefer to use disposable foil pans, especially if you are exchanging meals with other people.

E Check which ingredients you already have, and then create a detailed shopping list that combines the ingredient amounts from all your recipes. For speedy shopping, organize your list according to the layout of your favorite grocery store.

E Organize your workspace and assemble the tools and equipment you need.

E Combine similar tasks. If several recipes require chopped onions, chop them all at once.

Check out this handy freezer-meal planning publication from Utah State University Cooperative Extension. It provides a week of menus and preparation instructions featuring chicken and ground beef. It’s available at http://tinyurl.com/foodpres.

For more information about nutrition, food safety and health, see www.ndsu.

edu/eatsmart or check out the Prairie Fare blog at www.

prairiefare.areavoices.com.

Here’s a way to create some ready-to-go, single-serving burritos that just need to be heated in a microwave.

Make Ahead and Freeze Black Bean and

Rice Burritos

3 cups uncooked rice

3 cans black beans, rinsed and drained

1 (1.25-ounce) package taco seasoning

1 cup salsa

8 ounces pepper jack cheese, shredded

8 ounces Monterey jack cheese, shredded

20 burrito-sized tortillas

Salsa (at serving time)

Cook the rice according to the package directions. In a colander, drain and rinse the black beans. In a large bowl, stir together the black beans and taco seasoning. Add the cooked rice and cheese and stir to combine. Fill the tortillas with the rice and beans. Wrap each burrito in plastic wrap and store in zip top freezer bags. Be sure your freezer maintains a temperature of 0 F or lower. For best quality, use within three months.

To heat, remove plastic wrap from burrito and place in a microwave-safe container. Microwave for 1.5 to 2 minutes. Note: Microwave ovens vary, so experiment with your microwave oven to determine a cooking time when the burrito is fully heated. Write it on the outside of the freezer bag for future reference.

Makes 24 servings. Each serving has 350 calories, 9 g of fat, 54 g of carbohydrate, 14 g of protein and 730 mg of sodium.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.