Easy Freezy

September has always been my new year. Of course, it’s the start of the school year and, while it’s been quite some time since I have been in school, it doesn’t seem to matter – I just have the overwhelming urge to “start fresh” and get organized and set goals and so on. My kids are in preschool now, well the little one is in toddler class, but the new school year has begun and I’m revved up to improve stuff.

I’ve been on a very slow, not so steady path toward improved organization around the house for over a year. Some of my favorite near instant improvements are my pantry project, my dry-erase calendar, and my corkboard cabinet doors – all of which I completed between a year and 6 months ago. And then I kind of stalled out. Not in terms of my intent or in my ideas, but in terms of my actual action and progress.

I added a door rack (bought at Bed, Bath and Beyond), battery-powered LED lights, and bins with labels (baking supplies, kid's lunches, grains). It's not perfect, but it stays neat enough that I can find what I want right away.

We affixed cork squares to the inside of cabinet doors. Keeps schedules and paperwork to hand and clutter out of sight.

I'm all excited for October: got some colored dry-erase markers in the back-to-school clearance and I'm planning on color coding future months!

I use these all the time! Why have I lost my get up and go? These should of propelled me full-force into similar planned projects… alas…

There are a number of projects that are in the “work in progress” pile (finishing the under-the-stairs closet, adding chalk board paint for the kids’ play area, paint for the kitchen and also the foyer/stairs/hall, the living room refresh – partly done, but still have curtains, lampshades, throw pillows and floor pillows plus additional final touches to go, shelves for the mini-library in the upstairs hall to build and finish, and little items to install in my daughter’s room, my room, and the bonus room…. plus tidying and organizing my room, closet, and the garage), but none are likely to be done in the very near future (with the exception of the living room curtains – I sewed one of the two panels last week, so look for a post on those in the near future, hopefully!).

The sheer magnitude of what is left to do, coupled with the size of that list and the fact that much of it requires a longer stretch of continuous time without the kids under foot than I ever get in order to complete them has led to some serious stagnation.

But the calendar says September and some mornings are actually relatively fresh and comfortable and I have renewed energy to tackle something and get it done. Something that will make my life better and maybe free me up for more family time or more time to get on with all those crazy projects (before I add yet more to the list!).

And so, naturally, the something I chose was none of the above projects, but a completely different one. Yeah, I know, I make no sense. Two years ago I decided that, in the final months before my son was to be born, I should stock my freezer with meals. I bought a cookbook and read it. I did not cook any freezer meals. I like to point to the holidays as the reason for this (Oliver came along on January 4th), but really, I just did not get it together. Then, I had lunch with a friend and recounted the story and how I *still* think it’s such an awesomely wonderful plan. Next thing I knew, I stumbled on an article from Rachel Ray to make building blocks for 20 meals in one day and, a couple of days later a friend posted a link to “Make your own freezer burritos” – I took this as the fuel to my spark and got movin’!

A few weeks ago I created a personalized standard grocery list (not as impressive as it sounds, but super-useful). I just listed items I buy regularly on an excel worksheet and then organized them into the usual aisles in a grocery store. With the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” in small print at the bottom and extra lines to add on the non-standard stuff, the list was ready for use… you can find lots of lists online, too (like this one). My first trial of the list? Shopping for my crazy make ahead meals cooking day. It was so much quicker to get the list made and was easier to follow at the store than my usual hand-written scrawl. I also keep one up with a magnet in the kitchen for quick notes (like discovering we’re out of pepper while cooking or noticing something is out of date and needs replacing).

My personalized standard shopping list... in use.

I chose a Friday afternoon when I was able to be kid-free for a few hours to start my experiment. I’ve made some modifications to the plan in the 20 meals article and also learned some stuff along the way. In addition to the 20 meals, I also banked a couple dozen freezer burritos. Here’s how it went:

  • 1 hour to shop, get home, and unpack
  • I decided *not* to make the tomato sauce or the squash – instead I bought 3 jars of tomato sauce and 3 cans of fire-roasted diced tomatoes as well as 8 cups worth of frozen, cut butternut squash
  • start the oven pre-heating for the chicken
  • meanwhile, rinse and pat dry chicken, place on parchment on baking sheets, drizzle with oil, season (this took almost exactly the time it took the oven to preheat)
  • plug in the slow cooker, add the liquid ingredients and get it heating
  • trim excess fat from the pork shoulder(s), season and stick them in the slow cooker (high for ~5 hours, low for ~8 hours and no lifting the lid! it adds tons of time to the cook-time)
  • cut onions for the rice (cut 2 instead of 1) and the roasted veggies
  • start two thick bottomed pots for rice (one for burrito rice and one for the rice pilaf) and sweat the one onion per pot for the rice
  • cut the peppers for the roasted veggies (keep an eye on the onions on the stove)
  • add the rice in each pot, and follow instructions to get the rice cooking for the pilaf; for the burrito rice, add a can of diced tomatoes and subtract any liquid from the tomatoes from the overall liquid added to the pot
  • once the rice is cooking, finish cutting the peppers
  • toss the peppers and onions for roasted veggies with oil and seasonings
  • when the chicken is done, remove from the oven (I used tongs to pile all of them on one sheet so I could use the other sheet to start the veggies)
  • put the veggies in the oven (these get undercooked so that they will not be overcooked in the final recipes)
  • brown 1lb of ground beef for freezer burritos
  • start packaging the chicken, per the instructions, in 1.5 cup portions: make sure the air is fully removed from the bags and the chicken is spread flat and even in the bag
  • next, package the roasted vegetables per the instructions
  • next, package the rice pilaf, per the instructions
  • next, get out your burrito toppings (I chose 2 avocados – smashed, with the juice of one lime and some salt, can of black beans, can of fat-free refried beans, salsa, greek yogurt, flat leaf parsley – my husband doesn’t like cilantro, and shredded cheese)
  • make a stack of foil squares for wrapping burritos
  • wrap a package of burrito size flour tortillas in a damp paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds
  • start building your burritos (I chose one protein per burrito: ground beef or black beans or refried beans, then marked my foil with GB, BB, or RB), topping, and wrapping tightly in the foil
  • try to stuff everything in the freezer!
By this point I was ready to collapse. The packaging is the long part. I spent about 4 hours in the kitchen doing all this. At least we had dinner ready: microwaved burritos (I just zapped them a little less time, since they were not frozen, just refrigerated).
After dinner, after the kids were in bed, the pork was ready. I removed the chunks to a platter to cool. When it was cool enough, I shredded it, removing excess fat, and packaged it in 1 cup portions. I added about a tablespoon of the cooking liquid to each bag before sealing.
Done!
It was exhausting and I was wondering if it was worth all that.
It was! Here’s why:
  • it forces me to plan my meals and stick to the plan
  • we eat better as a family
  • we save money because we have little motivation to go out to dinner and because this is a more efficient use of food
  • I save a ton of time each evening in the kitchen (prepping dinner takes zero thought and about 15 mins of very relaxed cooking/ reheating)
Now, for what I’d do differently:
  • to save my back and my sanity, I’d break up the prep over 2 or 3 days: I’d cook a little extra of the building blocks I chose and make that dinner for the night… for example, I’d make the chicken and the rice pilaf one night, with an extra few servings for that night’s dinner, then I’d make the burritos for dinner and for the freezer the next night, and finally the pork and veggies for dinner and for the freezer the following night
  • now that I’ve got a stocked freezer, I can replenish before I run out, making just one building block at a time when I feel I have a little extra time – that will be a lot less burdensome
I’m planning on adding to my freezer stash with some bulk slow cooker meals and soups (make 3-4 meals worth, eat one, freeze the rest), but that’s for another post (and I need to wait until I free up some space in the freezer!).
Do you do prep-ahead meals or freezer meals? Any favorite recipes or tips?
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2 Responses to Easy Freezy

  1. Pingback: Meal Planning that Works (for me)! | MamaNut

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