Does this sound like a common story in your life? I admit, it happens to often in my life as well. What a difference it makes when you have a meal figured out, even better - have it already prepared and ready to eat!
I received in the mail this week an ad for a meal prep business. It is a great service where you can go to their kitchen and prepare freezer meals, or purchase ready prepared freezer meals that you simply heat and serve. I looked through the menu and ingredients and decided that I could do better myself. So I did some thinking and planning and in less than 2 hours (after the grocery shopping) I had 10 meals in my freezer ready to go (and one of those included a meal for 10 for my family over the holiday weekend).
I have written before about the beauty of the slow cooker ("crock pot"), so I won't go into detail on how to use your slow cooker. But instead focus on making ahead meals to make using your slow cooker even easier! If you simply take 15 minutes in the morning for meal prep, put all the ingredients in the slow cooker, when you get home dinner is hot and ready to serve.
So now let's take it even one step further.
1. Spend 1-2 hours on the weekend, prepare several meals and put them in your freezer.
2. One day ahead, remove tomorrow's meal from the freezer, place in the refrigerator to thaw.
3. In the morning (when life is busy), simply empty your freezer container into the slow cooker. Turn on low heat and arrive home to a delicious smelling house and dinner ready to eat.
Tips for freezing meals
1. Place meat into your freezer container last so when you pour it into the slow cooker it will be on the bottom.
2. Remove all the air out of your freezer container to maintain freshness.
3. Make 2 of each meal and store for up to 3 months.
4. Though more tender foods such as legumes and fish work well in the slow cooker, I recommend sticking to firmer meats such as pork, chicken and beef for freeze-ahead slow cooker meals.
Simply place the ingredients into a freezer container in the layers listed below. Remove all of the air from the container, label your container with meal name and date of storage and place in the freezer.
You can find lots of recipes for slow cooker meals, but it isn't necessary. You can use some basics that you and your family enjoy and put together an array of different flavor options.
1. Start with vegetables or fruit you enjoy - sweet peppers, white or sweet potatoes, winter squash, onions, apples, pineapple. Chop pieces to uniform sizes.
2. Add flavors you love. Adding dried herbs and sauces to your freezer packet works well. For the most flavor add fresh herbs or other finishing touches such as citrus (orange, lemon, lime), cheeses or high quality olive or nut oils before serving.
a. Asian flavors may include basil, brown sugar, curry, garlic, ginger, sesame or soy sauce.
b. Italian flavors may include basil, Parmesan cheese, garlic, oregano, sun dried tomatoes, or marinara sauce.
c. Mediterranean flavors may include capers, feta cheese, garlic, olive oil, olives, oregano, parsley or tomatoes.
d. Mexican flavors may include cilantro, chilies, coriander, cumin, corn, lime, paprika.
3. Add protein - chicken, pork or beef. Often the cheaper and fattier cuts of meat work wonderfully because they will remain tender. Leaner cuts such as pork tenderloin or white meat chicken breasts will become drier with slow cooking.
Chop 2 cups fresh broccoli, 2 large carrots and place in freezer container. Place 3-4 chicken breasts in container (for 4 servings). Mix together ½ C soy sauce, 1 TB maple syrup, 2 tsp. cornstarch, 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 tsp. fresh ginger. ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper and ½ C chicken broth until combined. Pour sauce over chicken and vegetables. Remove air and seal freezer container. Label bag and date. Use within 3 months and top with sliced green onion and slivered almonds before serving.
There are endless options of meals you can prepare - find some interesting recipes or use the simple steps above to create your own. Give it a try and enjoy the benefits: reduced stress, money saved on eating out, a well nourished family - the effort is worth the benefits! Happy cooking!