March is National Frozen Foods Month! But before you run out for a few DiGiornos, I’d like to share some easy tips and recipes so you can stock your freezer with healthy, homemade meals guaranteed to make mealtimes easier.
Whether you are cooking specifically for the freezer or thinking of freezing some leftovers, here are a few things to consider:
Fully cooked ground meat dishes rock. Almost any dish containing ground meat or ground poultry freezes (and thaws) like a dream. Fully cooked meatballs, hamburgers, turkey burgers, taco meat, Sloppy Joes, meat sauce, meatloaf, and just plain old cooked ground beef, chicken, or turkey are fantastic to have handy, especially in small serving sizes (which thaw quickly and are convenient for the hungry teenager or smaller family). Sock away your leftovers, or prepare a batch specifically for freezing, and dinner can be on the table ASAP any night of the week.
Downsize (and freeze) your favorite casserole. Many casseroles are freezer-friendly, whether baked or unbaked. You don’t have to freeze crowd-sized portions, either. Aluminum loaf pans are a perfect two-person size. A 9x9 pan will give you 4 servings. Or go for the gold with a full 9x13 pan of mac and cheese, lasagna, burritos, or enchiladas.
Use your noodle when freezing soup. Soups, stews, and chili all freeze well. However, if they contain pasta, rice, or potatoes, those items will get a little mushy when thawed. If you are making a soup specifically for the freezer, leave out the pasta or rice and make a note on the container to add the rice or pasta when you heat the meal in a saucepan on the stove.
Breakfast can be frozen, too. Having healthy breakfast options in the freezer is a big help on busy mornings. Think homemade whole-grain (or grain-free) waffles, breakfast burritos, muffin-tin quiche cups, and individual bags of smoothie ingredients.
Top tips for freezing food
1. Cool food completely and quickly before freezing to eliminate the chances of ice forming on or in the food. It also keeps food out of the “Danger Zone” (see sidebar, below).
2. Place a layer of wax paper or plastic wrap on the cooled food’s surface before covering with a lid or wrapping tightly in aluminum foil. This will help protect the surface of the food from freezer burn.
3. If freezing food in Ziploc bags, squeeze as much air out of the bags as you can before sealing and freezing. This not only saves space in the freezer, but it also minimizes the formation of ice on your food.
4. Clearly label each item as to what it is, how many servings, and the date it’s being frozen. I recommend using your frozen foods within 3 months for best taste and texture.
5. Thaw foods for 24 to 48 hours in the fridge before heating. A frozen meal may be thawed in the microwave on the “Defrost” setting or in a saucepan over medium-low heat.
Favorite Turkey Burger
* 1 ¼ pounds dark meat ground turkey (not turkey breast)
* ½ cup mild Gruyere or Swiss cheese, grated
* 2 scallions, very finely chopped
* 3 tablespoons gluten-free or regular bread crumbs
* 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
* 1 squeeze garlic paste
* Salt and pepper
* Buns or lettuce leaves for serving, plus condiments of your choice
Place the turkey in a large mixing bowl or aluminum pan. Place grated cheese, scallions, breadcrumbs, Dijon, and garlic on top of the meat. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Very gently but thoroughly work the ingredients into the meat. Divide mixture into 4 patties, using your thumb to make an indentation in the center of each. Lightly oil a grill pan or nonstick skillet and place over medium heat. When the pan is hot, cook the burgers for about 6 minutes on each side, or until cooked through.
Cool the burgers completely and package in a freezer-safe container with a layer of plastic wrap or wax paper on top of the food. Label and freeze. When ready to eat, thaw the container of burgers (or an individual burger) 24 to 48 hours in the fridge, or in the microwave on the Defrost setting. The thawed burgers may be heated on a loosely covered microwave-safe plate at 50% power for 3 to 4 minutes per burger. Serve on buns or lettuce leaves with ketchup, mustard, and mayo. Recipe adapted from Everyday Food.
Chicken Noodle Bake
Note: This makes four hearty servings. You might want more or less noodles and chicken. You could add cooked peas, green beans or broccoli to the dish.
* 8 ounces egg noodles
* 1 recipe easy chicken gravy (see below)
* 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
* 1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
* 1 rotisserie chicken, skin and bones discarded, meat chopped into large bite-size pieces, anywhere from 2 to 4 cups of meat.
* 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
* 1 tablespoon melted butter
* 6 tablespoons butter
* 1 clove garlic, minced, or a little squirt of garlic paste
* 6 tablespoons flour
* 3 cups chicken broth
* 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme (optional)
* Salt and pepper to taste
In a large stockpot over medium heat, melt the 6 T butter with the garlic. Add flour and whisk to combine. Heat until mixture starts to bubble. Whisk in the broth and bring to a boil, whisking constantly.
Reduce heat to a simmer until the gravy is thickened, about 5 minutes. Add thyme, salt, and pepper. Adjust seasonings to taste. Makes about 3 cups.
Grease a 9x9 pan or 2-quart baking dish (four servings) or two loaf pans (2, two-person servings).
Cook noodles to al dente. Drain and cool (this may be done ahead of time).
While noodles are cooking, make the gravy (see instructions, at right). Stir 1/3 cup of Parmesan cheese and parsley into the gravy. Add chicken and as many noodles as you think you’d like. Spoon mixture into prepared dish(es).
In small bowl, combine the panko, the rest of the Parmesan, and melted butter. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle on top of each dish.
If preparing to freeze, cool the dish completely, then place wax paper or plastic wrap on the surface before wrapping completely in foil. Label and freeze.
To serve, thaw the dish for 24 to 48 hours in the fridge. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove the layer of plastic wrap/wax paper. Bake for 30 minutes covered and then 10 minutes uncovered, or until hot throughout.
Recipe adapted from Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook
Vegetable Quiche Cups
Makes 2 dozen
Note: This recipe is very adaptable. Change up the vegetables and cheese to any variety you enjoy.
* 24 aluminum baking cups (Reynolds)
* 1 16-ounce container Egg Beaters
* 2 boxes frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
* ½ green bell pepper, chopped small
* ½ sweet onion, chopped small
* 1 ½ cups reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese
* Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place aluminum baking cups inside two 12-cup muffin tins. Spray the liners with nonstick spray and set aside.
Combine Egg Beaters, spinach, vegetables, cheese, salt and pepper in a large bowl and mix well. The mixture will not be very liquid-y. Divide the mixture evenly into the 24 prepared muffin tins. Bake on the middle rack of your oven for 22 minutes, or until quiche cups are puffed and cooked through. Cool completely. Quiche cups keep for 5 days in the fridge and up to 3 months in the freezer. Remove aluminum liners and heat two frozen quiche cups for 1 minute in the microwave.
Recipe adapted from The South Beach Diet Cookbook.
Chicken Chili Mac
Note: I have successfully adapted this for gluten-free and dairy-free clients using non-dairy cheese and rice pasta, as well as gluten-free chicken stock.
* 1 tablespoon olive oil
* 1 pound ground chicken
* 1 clove garlic, minced, or a squirt of garlic paste
* 1 tablespoon chili powder
* 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
* 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
* 1 14.5 oz can diced tomato, undrained, use the kind with seasonings if you’d like
* 1 14 oz can tomato sauce
* 1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
* 2 tablespoons dry white wine (optional)
* 1 cup elbow macaroni, uncooked, white or wheat
* 1 cup green beans — fresh, tops and tails trimmed, cut in 1” lengths
* Salt and pepper
* 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese or cheddar/jack blend
Heat oil in a large skillet. Cook chicken over medium heat until chicken is no longer pink, adding garlic during the last minute or two of cooking.
Drain fat, if you’d like.
Stir in chili powder, oregano, and cumin and incorporate fully into the meat. Then add tomatoes, tomato sauce, chicken broth and a splash of wine (optional). Bring to a boil.
Stir in macaroni and green beans, reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans and pasta are tender (10 to 15 minutes). Season to taste with salt and pepper (you might not need salt).
Cool the mixture by placing it in a large aluminum pan, which is set inside another aluminum pan filled with ice. Stir occasionally and replace ice as needed, until the food is perfectly cool. Ladle into a greased freezer-safe 9x9 pan or casserole dish. Top with cheese. Place a layer of plastic wrap or wax paper on the surface of the food, and wrap the entire dish in foil. Label and freeze.
To serve, thaw the dish for 24 to 48 hours in the fridge. Remove layer of wax paper/plastic wrap, recover and heat at 350 for 30 minutes. Uncover and heat 5 to 10 minutes more, or until hot and bubbly.
Recipe adapted from The Best Freezer Cookbook.
Oatmeal Breakfast Bars
Makes 24 squares
* ½ cup canola or other neutral-tasting oil
* ½ cup honey
* 2 teaspoons vanilla
* 1 large egg
* 2 cups old-fashioned oats, uncooked
* ¾ cup flour
* ½ cup light brown sugar
* ½ cup toasted wheat germ
* 2 tablespoons ground flax seeds
* ½ cup raisins/Craisins or combination
* ½ teaspoon kosher salt
* ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13 baking dish with parchment paper. Spray the parchment with nonstick spray.
In a 2-cup liquid measuring cup, whisk the oil, honey, vanilla, and egg until well blended.
In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Stir the honey mixture into the oat mixture with a rubber spatula until blended. It will look like there’s not enough liquid at first, but keep mixing. It will come together.
Use the spatula to scrape the mixture into the prepared pan. Use your wet hands to pat the mixture into the pan.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until pale golden around the edges. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, at least 1 hour. Lift the parchment out of the pan when cool, and place on a cutting board. Cut into 24 squares. Store bars in a tightly covered container at room temperature for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Recipe adapted from Good Housekeeping.
Beware The Danger Zone
As the name suggests, the Danger Zone refers to the most dangerous temperature for foods, between 40°F and 140°F. This is because bacteria double approximately every 20 minutes under the right conditions: food, moisture, oxygen, and warm temperatures.
Harmful bacteria are one of the main sources of food poisoning in the United States. Populations at a high risk for food poisoning — pregnant women, young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems — are at a greater risk for food poisoning even when small amounts of bacteria are present.
Conditions in which your food may be in the Danger Zone include:
* Placing a very hot dish directly in the refrigerator after cooking (it would likely be in the Danger Zone for several hours as it cooled off).
* Leaving a hot meal out on the counter or buffet (its temperature would drop to less than 140 degrees). Also, if you placed a frozen meal on the kitchen counter to thaw, its temperature would rise above freezing, into the lower end of the Danger Zone.
In order to avoid food poisoning, make sure to keep your foods out of the Danger Zone. Quickly cool hot meals by flash freezing or using an ice bath, fan, or ice paddle; refrigerate all perishable foods within 2 hours (or 1 hour if it is over 90°F outside); do not thaw frozen meals on the countertop; and always heat foods to a safe minimum internal temperature.
Martha Ruch is the owner of Simply Delicious Personal Chef Service, helping busy families come together at the dinner table since 2007. Find pictures, recipes, cooking tips and more at simplydeliciouschef.com; on Facebook @SimplyDeliciousPersonalChefService; and on Twitter @chefmartha