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:

Planning Ahead

As I sit down to write this post, I’m slightly exhausted from the marathon last two hours.  We’re planning to visit family out of town, and it’s much easier on everyone else, and safer for me if I plan ahead.  I got a great idea a while back from a friend that had figured out how to have nice meals each night on her own without having to cook after a long day at work.  She’d picked up those aluminum foil containers, cooked dinners until they were nearly done, packaged them individually, and froze them for later!  With this thought in mind, I was determined to make a variety of dinners for our trip.

Meal #1: Chicken Parmesan with Corn & Rice Spaghetti

I was feeling ambitious for the first meal, you can tell by the number of pictures that as I got further into the process, I was taking less photos and typically running all over the kitchen!  For this meal, I started by dipping each chicken breast into an egg.  I then covered the chicken in Italian bread crumbs.

boneless skinless chicken breasts, egg, Italian bread crumbs

boneless skinless chicken breasts, egg, Italian bread crumbs

I then pan fried the chicken for about 2-3 minutes per side, just long enough to brown the edges.

Browning the chicken breast

Browning the chicken breast

The chicken was transferred to a glass baking dish, where I covered it with marinara sauce (I used Ragu sweet basil).

Sauce covered chicken breasts, ready to go into the oven

Sauce covered chicken breasts, ready to go into the oven

With the oven set to 375ºF, I baked the chicken for about 25 minutes.

Fresh out of the oven!

Fresh out of the oven!

While the chicken was cooking, I boiled my gluten free pasta.  After it was cooked and the water had been drained, I separated the pasta into to individual foil containers.  I took the leftover sauce from the container, and poured it over the pasta.  I think the finished product turned out pretty great!

Two Chicken Parmesan dinners, ready to be frozen for our trip :)

Two Chicken Parmesan dinners, ready to be frozen for our trip 🙂

When it comes time to reheat these, I’ll put these back in the oven for 3 – 5 minutes.  Since this is a first for me, I may have to play around with the reheat temperature/time, but I’ll let you all know how it turns out!!

Meal #2: Balsamic Chicken, Roasted Red Potatoes, and French Cut Green Beans

Here’s where my multitasking started to kick in.  Before I started the Chicken Parmesan, I put two of the chicken breasts in a ziploc bag, covered in balsamic vinaigrette.  While the first dish was cooking, I cut red potatoes into quarters.  Heating a large frying pan with about 3 tablespoons of coconut oil, I added the quartered potatoes.  I never cook these the same way any two times, so for this time, I seasoned them with ground pepper, sea salt, garlic powder, and blackening seasonings.  There’s no magic amount of time to cook these, I just keep the heat at a steady medium temperature, and continue stirring them occasionally until I can cut through a potato with my spatula.

Red potatoes in the frying pan with seasonings

Red potatoes in the frying pan with seasonings

Once the oven was free from the first round of chicken, I put these balsamic vinaigrette covered chicken breasts into the oven.  Again, I cooked them at 375ºF.  Because I hadn’t browned the chicken first, I left these in the oven for about 20 minutes per side.

Balsamic vinaigrette chicken breasts

Balsamic vinaigrette chicken breasts

To round out the meal, I split a can of french cut green beans between the two foil containers.  The finished product for this looks pretty great too 🙂

Finished meal: Balsamic Chicken, Roasted Red Potatoes, and French Cut Green Beans

Finished meal: Balsamic Chicken, Roasted Red Potatoes, and French Cut Green Beans

Again, since I’m new at traveling with meals like this, it’s going to be a bit of a guessing game when I reheat these.  But thankfully, since the chicken is mostly cooked, it shouldn’t take too long to be ready!

Meal #3: Stir-fry Chicken and Rice

Here’s where the craziness of three meals in two hours started to hit me.  I’d been trying to keep up with the dishes, and with what seemed like constantly beeping kitchen timers! For my last meal, I went super easy.  I cubed the last two chicken breasts, and chopped up a crown of broccoli.  I put the chicken and broccoli in a fry pan with Mirin (sweetened sake) sauce, gluten free teriyaki sauce, and ground ginger.

Stir-fry chicken with broccoli

Stir-fry chicken with broccoli

Meanwhile, I cooked a cup of white rice in the rice cooker.  Splitting the rice between the last two foil containers, I topped it with my stir-fry concoction!

Stir-fry Chicken, Broccoli and Rice

Stir-fry Chicken, Broccoli and Rice

All six containers are now safely in the freezer, and ready to go 🙂