Not too long ago, I would have told you the freezer was just a storage area for binge-worthy ice cream and fancy cocktail cubes. The only thought I gave to freezer meals was those slightly cardboardy-tasting Lean Cuisine trays I used to microwave in college. But then, something happened. When I started repurposing my leftovers and reducing my food waste, my freezer started to bulk up. It turned into a storage unit for sauces, stocks, meatballs, baguette ends, gnocchi, pasta, dumplings, and so much more. Just like that, I became a freezer hoarder.
Look in my freezer now and you’ll find everything you need to make a home-cooked meal. Not only that, but since my freezer has become an extension of my pantry, it’s usually where I kick-start my weekly meal planning. Once I start thinking about what’s in there, the dinner ideas start to materialize. As a bonus, those plans usually tend to be healthier and pretty budget-friendly, too.
People ask me all the time how I meal-plan, and really using the freezer is my main secret. Follow these tips if you’re interested in learning how:
1. Think before you freezeI used to have this bad habit of throwing leftovers into the freezer. No label, no portioning, no planning – just chuck it in there and hope for the best. It made it really hard to reheat them or reuse the leftovers in a creative way, and I usually ended up tossing them.
Now, I’ve learned an important lesson: Before you freeze those leftovers, consider how you might eat them in the future. A single slice of lasagna could make a great work lunch, whereas an entire tray would only be helpful for serving multiple portions. Or, I might not freeze tonight’s pesto grilled cheese sandwiches, but you better believe I’ll make a double batch of the pesto so I can freeze that for later. When you put some thought into the portion size of your leftovers and how you might reuse them before you toss ’em to the freezer, you’ll get a lot more out of them.
2. Bulk up on proteins
If you’re a vegetarian, you can pretty much skip this section, but I’m an avid omnivore so you better believe my freezer is full of proteins! This has been a really good thing for me – it means that if my pantry is stocked and my freezer is full, I probably only need to shop for seasonal produce.
The best way to bulk up without breaking the bank is to pay attention to the deals. Lamb goes on sale around Easter, hot dogs and sausages always seem to be on special in the summertime, and beef roasts drop in price around Christmas. Take advantage of whole pork shoulder sales and chicken wings specials right before the Super Bowl. Then, process your purchases down into easily cookable portions – like cutting those roasts into individual steaks, smoking the pork shoulder and freezing servings of pulled pork, or pre-pattying up the on-sale ground beef into burgers.
3. Get a vacuum sealer
If you have don’t have a vacuum sealer, you should really consider buying one. It’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. Sealing up that frozen food is the only way to really prevent freezer burn. While freezer burn isn’t exactly dangerous, it can ruin the flavor and texture of your food. When it’s vacuum sealed, it’ll last longer and it will taste just as rich and tender as the day it was sealed.
4. Keep an inventory
OK, I know this sounds super dorky, but bear with me. Have you ever cleaned out your freezer only to stumble upon something you totally would have eaten if you knew it was there? Yeah, me too! If only you had kept a log …
So, yeah, I do keep a log and I use it for two major purposes. The first is to avoid that “I didn’t know it was there” situation. The inventory reminds me of what I have and I don’t end up making stock or buying tomato sauce when I already have some. The second – and maybe more important – purpose: I use it for inspiration. If I’m trying to think of what to cook for the week, I often browse my inventory list. Seeing green chili on there might inspire me to make burritos, or pate might put banh mi on the list. Before I know it, a week’s worth of meals are planned with very little effort.
There you have it: my easy, little meal planning secret. Using the freezer to the max has really changed the way I put healthy, home-cooked meals on the table. So give it a try – what do you have to lose?
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected].