Turning an Afternoon of Cooking into Weeks of Healthy Eating

| 12/18/2008 11:48:54 AM

Tags: recipes, healthy cooking, easy meals, affordable food,

Somewhere between private chefs and in-home help are personal chefs. During my days as a personal chef, I would enter my clients’ kitchens with armloads of fresh ingredients and, several hours later, leave their freezers full of healthy heat-and-eat meals.

healthy meals

I hung up my chef’s coat long ago, but in order to live affordably and eat as healthfully as I want, I often dip back into my old bag of tricks. By following these tips, you, too, can transform an afternoon in the kitchen into weeks of healthy frozen dinners.

  1. Plan. I generally shoot for five to seven meals, with no fewer than four servings each, for one cooking day. It’s important to balance labor-intensive dishes, like lasagna, with throw-together dishes, like roasted vegetable sides. Remember, it takes less time to make more servings than a greater variety of meals.
  2. Organize. I can save an hour or more on the back end if I spend a few minutes upfront mapping my day, everything from how many cups of onions to chop for all the recipes to when to put the water on to boil.
  3. Cook (maybe). Because all of these meals will be reheated, I do as little cooking as possible. I cook vegetables halfway, so they don’t get mushy upon reheating, and walk the line between scary raw poultry and rubbery reheated chicken puck. I assemble casseroles and baked pasta dishes but freeze them without baking. Finally, I prepare pasta sauces and fish sides but wait to cook the spaghetti and fish until it’s time to eat. They cook in a flash and there’s a clear difference in taste and texture.
  4. Cool. Food maintains the best flavor and texture if they’re perfectly cool before freezing. I divide everything into portions that make sense for my family of two and cool them on the counter for an hour or so. I chill them further in the fridge before moving them to their place in the freezer.
  5. Thaw. I usually move a few days worth of food to the fridge at once. With the exception of fish, meals will generally stay fresh for three to five days once thawed and this gentler thawing method means no microwave-induced gumminess.

Soups are easy, but roasted veggie tacos freeze beautifully, too. What are some of your frozen meal successes? Tell us about them in the comments section below. 

Sarah Beth Jones and Rob Jones sold their business in the big city to learn how to live mindfully in Floyd, Va. Photo by Rob Jones.
5/21/2009 11:32:23 PM

I just bought one of those vacuum sealers, OMG, I love it!! Freezes great and I can make a whole bunch of meals at once. My garden will be forever frozen! www.whatupduck.com

2/26/2009 9:02:01 AM

Life here is always busy. We are both retired teachers who live on 12 acres and raise cattle, turkeys laying hens and broilers and own and operate a specialty "locavore" grocery. We both volunteer for causes we believe in and sometimes one or both of us have to run to a meeting and don't have much time between work and meeting time. I frequently spend Sunday afternoons relaxing in the kitchen cooking bunches of stuff for meals later in the week. A whole chicken can become Crusted Chicken Breast, Chicken Stir Fry, and Chicken in Dressing or Chicken Soup. Three meals out of 1 chicken isn't too bad. With the help of the pressure cooker table from one of the Mother Earth CDs, I make Ham Hocks and Beans and lots of other pressure cooker delecacies. I experiment a lot and haven't made anything inedible yet and it makes meals not so boring.

2/13/2009 2:35:25 PM

I discovered a thing about freezing in jars. You take the lid off until it is frozen, then reattach lid. I haven't thawed any of these out yet, but if this works, it will be the greatest discovery for me! I make meatloaves which I stuff into freezer bags and flatten out, squeezing out all the air. Also pasta dishes, breaded chicken breasts (leave the breading in the bag as a buffer) and twice baked potatoes. Also if you want to add a topping of cheese or herbs but don't want to put it in the bag, place it in a separate smaller bag. Put both bags into a meal "kit" / larger bag.

1/22/2009 1:29:20 PM

Like most kids, mine like "chicken nuggets". I really do not like to fry food, but even less like buying fast food for my kids. So, I have come up compromise: spend a few hours cutting battering and frying lean chicken breast in pure vegetable oil, then cooling, freezing and packing in a resealable plastic bag. This makes for super quick and easy lunches or dinners for the kids during busy times. They call it "Chinese Chicken", but it is really just a simple seasoned batter with 2 tablespoons of corn starch to give it the special crisp. They reheat beautifully too! See www.akinadventure.blogspot.com for the recipe for these and more.

sarah beth jones
1/15/2009 2:39:43 PM

Easy to bake cookies would be seriously dangerous in our house - I have no self-control when it comes to cookies! My sister, on the other hand, makes great whole-grain, low-fat cookies and will sometimes freeze the dough in half-pint mason jars to give as gifts - just thaw and scoop for one pan of cookies! -SBJ

1/12/2009 11:06:24 PM

One of my kids' favorite things to have in the freezer is cookie dough. It doesn't take any baking ahead of time, or thawing before cooking. I just make regular cookie dough (made from scratch, with whole wheat flour, of course), scoop onto a cookie sheet and stick it in the freezer. When the dough is frozen, it gets moved to a freezer bag and labeled. Whenever someone wants fresh, homemade cookies, all they need to do is pull out the bag and pop a few in the oven. On Saturdays we have homemade pancakes and waffles, then freeze the leftovers. If you freeze them indiviually, they toast up just like store-bought, but all the benefits of being made from scratch.

lori s
1/12/2009 10:13:33 AM

I freeze leftover sloppy joe meat mix in muffin pans. After they're frozen hard I pop them out of the pan and into ziplock bags. They're the perfect size for a single serving.

sarah beth jones
1/12/2009 8:24:15 AM

What great ideas - especially the baby shower! I use canning jars quite a bit for freezing, too, though I had to go through more ruined quarts of stock than I'd like to admit before recognizing just how much head-space is needed to avoid breaking the jar. Keep those great ideas coming!

ken c
1/9/2009 3:31:35 AM

I picked up a good idea from a cooking magizine on how to make lasagna for 2. Use the flat no boil noodles (Barilla) and instead of using one large dish use 2 bread pans, in which the noodles fit perfectly. You can have one for dinner and freeze the other.

1/8/2009 11:27:58 PM

I freeze individual portions of pot pies and shepherd's pie and big triangles of spanikopita so there's always a quick meal. soups and stews too. the pies are usually put in 6oz ramekins so they can go straight in the toaster oven. the chicken pot pie is usually made after a roast chicken meal - pickings go in the filling and stock made from the carcass.

betsy k
1/8/2009 5:54:18 PM

Cooking ahead and freezing makes a lot of sense for us single folks! I often place a whole chicken on a bed of rough-sliced onions, unpeeled garlic cloves and herbes de Provence and roast in the crockpot overnight; the next day I cool the chicken and remove the meat from the bones. The bones get tossed in with the juices and I add carrots, celery and water to make a rich stock that I strain before cooling and freezing in small containers. I freeze the meat in 4-6 separate packages, and defrost one when I want chicken salad or a casserole that utilizes cooked chicken. For soup or chicken and dumplings, I also defrost a container of stock, add sliced veggies and water or broth, and simmer half an hour, then add cooked chicken and noodles or dumpling dough to finish. Frozen stock can also be thawed to use for gravy or sauce (I've even heard of people freezing stock in ice cube trays to have small amounts available to thaw for this purpose).

1/8/2009 4:11:21 PM

I have a friend who planned a baby shower, though it was a unique shower. It was a stock the freezer baby shower. Everyone invited was told to bring their favorite, freezer friendly dish to share with the expecting parents. When the baby was born they didn't have to worry about cooking for weeks. It was such a blessing for them.

mother earth news fair


Oct. 21-22, 2017
Topeka, KS.

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!