Meal Planning and Freezer Meals

It started when I was pregnant, I scoured the internet looking for easy crock-pot meals that could be frozen in advance for those frantic early days of parenthood. I took the month prior to my due date off from work (big thanks to my company being a leader in benefits for new parents), and kept myself busy preparing what I thought was a sizable stockpile of meals. We have a chest freezer in our garage, making plenty of room for everything I’d prepared. After I returned to work, it seemed like our own dinner took a back seat to feedings, bath time, bed time, our dogs needs, and anything else you can imagine that popped up. It took meeting with a new parent career coach to realize setting aside time each week to meal plan really would help our schedule. I’d known it before, but let’s be honest, baby brain is no joke. Lately, it’s been out of necessity, we’ve been without our gas cooktop for over two weeks! You don’t realize how much you use an appliance until it’s suddenly cut off. Ours had to be disconnected to make repairs on the vent fan, which turned into a much bigger undertaking to completely replace the vent. We should be on schedule to have it up and running by the weekend, but oh how I’ve missed it in the meantime. Through each of those periods, being able to prepare meals in advance has truly kept our family eating healthy and feeling good about what we’re eating.

Whatever your reasoning for doing meal prep, there are things I’ve learned along the way that I hope can help each of you. I’ve put together the lists below to pass on those recommendations. Happy meal planning!

Meal planning suggestions:

  • Set aside time each week to write out your plan for dinner each night, then put together your grocery list based off this plan. This will help keep you on track to buy only what you need, and as a bonus, will keep you organized if you use a grocery pick-up or delivery service.
  • Keep that meal plan somewhere visible, like your fridge or a whiteboard. This way, whoever is preparing the day’s meal can quickly see what you had in mind. This is especially helpful in the days and weeks after a new baby’s arrival, anyone stopping in can help you stay on track!
  • Don’t forget about breakfast! It’s easy to focus on dinner only, and leftovers can easily be reheated for lunch, but what about breakfast? If you’re a hot breakfast family like we are, you might love whipping up a batch of muffin tin eggs. We make ours by the dozen (recipe here).
  • If you’re building up a stockpile of freezer meals, for say new baby or back to school, try to make one or two a week. It won’t feel overwhelming, and your budget for groceries won’t take a major hit either. Remember that meals can safely be kept in the freezer for about 4 months (check to be sure, based on each protein), giving you plenty of time to build up your stash.

A few key suggestions for crock-pot freezer meals:

  • Put your veggies in the bottom, sauce ingredients next, and meat in last. This will keep the meat on the bottom of the crock-pot when you dump everything in, and the veggies will soak up the sauce/seasonings so nothing gets stuck in the bag.
  • Mark all bags with the preparation date, low and high recommended cook times. You might be ahead of the game and able to set your meal to low, but in my experience sometimes it was a scramble just to dump it all in with enough time to thoroughly cook the meal on high.
  • Use crock-pot liners!!! This sounds sort of lazy, but when you have an infant at home, really anything that saves on cleanup time is a life saver.
  • Know what freezer meals you have in stock, keep a list somewhere within easy access so you aren’t digging around looking for ideas at the last minute.
  • Keep an assortment of frozen vegetables on hand that can be mixed in the day of with any meat-only recipes.

Last, but most certainly not least, a few of my favorite freezer meal recipes:

A Weekend Away

Usually I only have to worry about food for myself when we go away for the weekend, but thanks to this year’s Whole30, we spent an entire day prepping food for both of us before heading out of town to visit family. I know I’ve written about traveling with freezer meals before, but I always love sharing recipes that are easy to make, and freeze/travel well. I’m sure it makes me a little selfish, but it was nice to have someone else that could only eat food brought from home for a change. I’m sure it was extra difficult for my hubby, since he doesn’t usually have to restrict himself so much.

Trying to keep things simple, we chose three meals to make in larger quantities. This ensured we had enough food for our planned three days away. We also decided we’d stop at Chipotle on our drive home, so we wouldn’t need to worry about reheating food. That meant cooking and freezing each of these so all of our meals were set!

The first thing we got cooking was Chicken Masala. Trying to minimize our efforts, we chose this since it’s a crock-pot meal and always turns out perfect.

 

 

  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons curry
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala (usually in the international aisle of the grocery store)
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 (15 ounce) cans coconut milk, unsweetened
  • 5 large chicken breasts, boneless & skinless
  • 1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes (no sugar added)
  • 1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste (no sugar added)
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish
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Best part of crock-pot recipes, getting to throw all the ingredients in and leave it alone!

After getting that going, we riced a head of cauliflower to go along with the chicken. It was only enough for two servings, but there was plenty of chicken for at least six meals!

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Finished product….Chicken Masala

Our next major task was to get the chili going. This recipe was one we found a while ago, and loved it so much that it’s now a regular in our menu.

Sweet Potato Chili

  • 2 lbs lean ground beef
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 1 large can (29.5 oz) tomato sauce
  • 1 small can (15 oz) fire roasted petite diced tomatoes, with juice
  • 5 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • Dash oregano
  • Dash red pepper flakes
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Cooking the beef and onions before adding the remaining ingredients

In a large pot, brown the beef, onions, and garlic. Drain the fat when browned. Add remaining ingredients to pot, mixing well before bringing to a boil. Simmer for 30-40 minutes. By the way, that little green thing in the pot below actually belongs there! It holds the bay leaves, so you can easily pull them out of the pot when it’s cooked.

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Simmering the pot of chili

While the chili was simmering, we started chopping up sweet and red potatoes for our usual morning side dish. Along with eggs, we start every morning with sauteed potatoes. My go-to spices are chili powder, turmeric, smoked paprika, and a little salt and pepper to taste.

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Looks tasty, right?!

Branching out to something new, our final task was to take on Stuffed Acorn Squash. This was a completely new recipe for us, and thanks to the ease of the crock-pot chicken and simmering chili, most of our efforts were focused on this.

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Acorn squash, ready to be frozen for the trip

We really lucked out with the temperatures for this trip too! Go figure, we managed to see the coldest temperatures I’ve ever seen while we were up in New York that weekend…all the way down to -20°F!!! Thankfully, that meant we could leave the cooler in the car and not worry about anything thawing too quickly. As we bounced around visiting everyone, all we had to do was bring in the cooler to start defrosting and cooking our next meal 🙂