How-To
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min read

Freezer Cooking for Beginners: How to Plan, Prep, and Cook Ahead to Reduce Food Waste

Our guide to all things freezer cooking. With the right recipes and techniques, you can create amazing freezer meals with your CSA bounty to reduce food waste and allow you to enjoy the flavor of summer year-round.
February 21, 2024

We’ve previously covered freezing your CSA produce in another post, but what about freezing whole meals?


You may have unpleasant memories of eating those sad, bland, frozen meals you can get from a supermarket and think that freezer cooking will be the same. Trust me, it’s not! With the right recipes and techniques, you can create amazing freezer meals with your CSA bounty to reduce food waste and allow you to enjoy the flavor of summer year-round.


What is Freezer Cooking?


Freezer cooking is freezing meals or ingredients for a meal, in order to make meal times easier and help preserve your CSA produce. Some people do it by simply doubling a recipe they are making, serving one immediately and freezing the second for later. Others plan ahead and dedicate a day or a weekend to cook and freeze multiple meals for the future. No matter how you do it, freezer cooking can save you time, money, and sanity by having ready-made meals on hand for busy days, unexpected guests, or special occasions.


But before you start filling your freezer with delicious dishes, there are some things you need to know to make your freezer cooking experience successful. Here are some tips and tricks to help you get started:


Label everything: This is one of the most important tips for freezer cooking, as it will save you a lot of time and confusion later. Use labels, markers, stickers, or tape to write the name, date, and instructions of each meal or ingredient. Labeling will help you identify what you have in the freezer, how long it will last, and how to prepare it.


Test recipes before freezing: Not all recipes are freezer-friendly, and some may lose their quality, texture, or flavor after being frozen and thawed. Some may just not be to your liking, frozen or not. To avoid disappointment and waste, test recipes before making large batches for freezing. Make a small amount and freeze it for a few days, then thaw it and see how it tastes. If you like it, you can make more and freeze it. If you don’t, you can tweak it or skip it.


Keep an inventory of what you have in the freezer: Another way to avoid confusion and waste is to keep an inventory of what you have in the freezer. You can use a spreadsheet, a notebook, or an app to track what you have, when you made it, and when you used it. This will help you plan your meals, use up what you have, and avoid duplicates or expired items.


Use the right containers and bags: To prevent freezer burn, leakage, and contamination, use the right containers and bags for your meals or ingredients. Use freezer-safe, leak-proof, and airtight containers and bags, and leave some headspace for liquids to expand. You can use aluminum pans, glass (make sure it’s tempered) or plastic containers, freezer bags, or vacuum-sealed bags. You can also invest in reusable containers and bags, but make sure to wash and dry them thoroughly before using them again.


Freeze in portions that suit your needs: To make your freezer cooking more convenient and efficient, freeze in portions that suit your needs. For example, you can freeze in individual servings for easy lunches or snacks, or in family-sized portions for easy dinners. If your household is small, its best to freeze in smaller portions to reduce food waste, or eating the same casserole for 4 days straight.


Thaw safely and properly: To ensure the safety and quality of your frozen meals or ingredients, thaw them safely and properly. The best way to thaw is to transfer them from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before you plan to use them. This will allow them to thaw slowly and evenly, and prevent bacterial growth. You can also thaw them in cold water or in the microwave, but make sure to use them right away. Never thaw at room temperature, as this can cause spoilage and food poisoning.


What Freezes Well and What Doesn’t


Not all foods are suitable for freezing, and some may lose their quality, texture, or flavor after being frozen and thawed. Here are some general guidelines on what does and does not freeze well:


Do freeze: cooked or raw meat; soups, stews, casseroles, and other saucy dishes; cooked beans, grains, and pasta; bread, muffins, pancakes, and waffles; pies, cakes, cookies, and brownies; fruits and vegetables (preferably blanched or cooked).


Don’t freeze:  mayonnaise, sour cream, yogurt, and other dairy products that may separate or curdle; lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, celery, and other watery vegetables that may become limp or mushy; fried foods that may lose their crispiness; custards, puddings, and other creamy desserts that may become watery.


Best Techniques for Freezing and Reheating Different Kinds of Dishes


If you’re new to freezer cooking, you may think that all it takes is popping something in the freezer, but it’s a little more nuanced than that. Some foods, such as soups and casseroles, can just be tossed in the freezer as is (properly packaged, of course). But other things, like stir fries and skillet meals, which have different components that will need to be added to the pan at different times, need a bit more packaging and prep work to freeze and cook them properly.
Here are some best practices for some common types of dishes:


Casseroles: Casseroles are one of the easiest and most versatile dishes to freeze and reheat. You can either freeze them in the baking dish, baked or unbaked, or cut them into portions and freeze them in individual containers. Wrap them tightly with plastic wrap and foil, or use freezer bags, and label them. To reheat, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator, then bake them in a preheated oven until bubbly and hot. You can also reheat them in the microwave, but they may become soggy or dry.


Soups and Stews: Soups and stews are another great option for freezer cooking, as they usually freeze and reheat well. You can freeze them in large containers or in smaller portions for individual servings. To prevent freezer burn, leave some headspace in the containers, as liquids expand when frozen. To reheat, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator, then heat them in a pot on the stove or in a bowl in the microwave, stirring occasionally. You can also reheat them from frozen, but it may take longer and require more stirring.


Uncooked Crockpot Meals: There’s nothing quite as magical as being able to put something in the crockpot before you head to work then come home to a hot, delicious meal! You can use just about any of your favorite crock pot recipes to create a freezer meal, so long as it doesn’t include any ingredients on the Don’t Freeze list above.
To freeze them, you’ll want to flash freeze all of the ingredients. Freeze any liquid ingredients together in a reusable plastic container, then add it along with the other flash-frozen ingredients into an airtight container and label them.


You may also want to place any meat you’re using in a separate container as well Why? So that you can have it separate from the rest of the ingredients to easily brown your meat before putting it in the crock pot. Yes, this adds a little more work, but it is well worth it! Your meat will be much more tender and juicy if you take the time to brown it first. Try cooking a pot roast with and without browning the meat first and tell me I’m wrong.


To cook, thaw it overnight in the refrigerator, brown your meat (yes, I am dying on this hill!), then dump all of the ingredients in the crockpot and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or on high for 3 to 4 hours, until hot and tender.


Stir-fries and Skillet Meals: This is another type of dish that you’ll want to flash freeze all of the ingredients separately, with any liquid ingredients in their own container. Be sure to chop and marinate the meat (if applicable), and chop and blanch the vegetables before freezing. Toss all of the ingredients & liquid container together in a freezer bag or container. To cook them, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator, then stir-fry or sauté them in a hot skillet with some oil, until hot and cooked through. Add your sauce in last and simmer until it reaches the desired thickness.


Raw Marinated Meat: We’ve all had that moment, standing in the meat section of the grocery store, staring down a giant pack of chicken breast on sale that you just can’t pass up. Instead of just shoving the extra chicken in the freezer as is, be kind to your future self and freeze it in a marinade! Not only will you save yourself time in the future, but the process actually helps the meat absorb a bit more of the marinade so it comes out more tender and flavorful.

Freeze the meat and your favorite marinade together in a freezer bag, squeezing out the air and sealing. To cook, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator, then grill, bake, broil, or pan-fry them, until done to your liking.


Cooked Meat: Some people say you shouldn’t freeze cooked meat, as it will become dry and tough when reheating. This is sort of true, if you don’t know this trick.
To do this, you’ll need to own a vacuum sealer. You’ll start by flash freezing your meat. If it’s a saucy dish, you can do this either in silicone molds or directly in the freezer bag. For grilled or roasted meats, you can freeze them on a baking sheet. Freezing the meat before you seal it is crucial, as the vacuum will suck out any liquids, leaving your meat dry. Freezing it first locks in those juices.

To reheat the meat, just defrost, then place the still sealed bag in a pot of simmering water until heated all the way through, usually 5 – 10 minutes. You are essentially using the sous vide method to reheat your meat, which will result in it being just as tender and juicy as when you first cooked it.


Another great thing about using this method is that it makes for super convenient camping meals. You just bring your sealed bags with you and pop them in your pot of water and you’re done!


Pies and Pastries: Pies and pastries are a treat to have in the freezer, especially for special occasions or unexpected guests. You can either freeze them whole or in slices, baked or unbaked (we recommend unbaked). To prevent freezer burn, wrap them tightly with plastic wrap and foil, or use freezer bags. Label them with the name, date, and serving instructions. To serve pre-baked items, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator, then let them come to room temperature, or warm them slightly in the oven or microwave, if desired. To bake frozen items, simply thaw them in your fridge overnight, then bake according to the recipe instructions.


Cakes: You can freeze baked cakes, so long as they’re unfrosted. Frosting tends to sweat when it’s defrosting, which can leave the cake soggy. You can either freeze them whole or in slices, baked or unbaked. To prevent freezer burn, wrap them tightly with plastic wrap and foil, or use freezer bags. Label them with the name, date, and serving instructions. To serve pre-baked items, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator, then let them come to room temperature, or warm them slightly in the oven or microwave, if desired.


Recommended Equipment for Freezer Cooking


To make your freezer cooking easier and more efficient, you will need some basic equipment and supplies. Here are some of the essentials:


Containers and Bags: You will need various containers and bags to store your meals in the freezer. You can use disposable aluminum pans, glass or plastic containers, freezer bags, or vacuum-sealed bags. Make sure they are freezer-safe, leak-proof, and airtight. You may also want to use different sizes and shapes, depending on the type and amount of food you are freezing.


Labels: You will need to label your meals with the name, date, and heating instructions. You can easily do this just by writing the information on a blank label. Or, if you are an organizational freak like me, you can create a spreadsheet with the cooking instructions for every freezer meal you cook, then use that to create printable labels in a Word document.


Plastic Wrap and Foil: You will need plastic wrap and foil to wrap your meals and prevent freezer burn. You can use regular or heavy-duty plastic wrap and foil, or freezer wrap and foil. Make sure they are large enough to cover your meals completely and securely.


Vacuum Sealer: This is optional, of course, but it is a huge game changer! It will significantly extend the shelf life of your frozen food and preserve the taste and quality of it. By removing all of the air, it prevents the growth of bacteria and that dreaded freezer burn. It’s also necessary if you plan to use the method for freezing cooked meat outlined above.


Bag Holders: In our post about freezing veggies, we mentioned that bag holders were nice, but not necessary. But, if you’re freezing meals, they are a must! They’ll keep your bags upright and held open while you fill them. This is especially handy when it comes to filling bags with any sort of liquid, like soups or stews.

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