Forget KitchenAid mixers and fancy food processors; the best cooking appliance in your arsenal is probably one you never use for prepping meals—your freezer.
The art of freezer cooking (aka make-ahead cooking) is an ingenious way of getting ahead of your food game. And it isn't just a technique for busy moms. The financial and time-saving benefits appeal to everyone from single guys to college kids.
"Everybody has to meal plan," says Jessica Fisher, author of "Not Your Mother's Make-Ahead & Freeze Cookbook." Fisher also runs the popular blog Life as Mom. "The question is, are you doing it the five minutes before you get in the take-out line? Or are you doing it a day or two before so that you have time to make it at home?"
According to Fisher, making your meals beforehand is a strategy that frees up time, saves money, and takes the stress out of dinnertime. If you're new to freezer cooking, here are a few killer tips to get you started.
MAKE DOUBLE BATCHES OF YOUR FAVE MEALS
For some, the idea of cooking in bulk can be an intimidating one. To ease you into the process, Fisher suggests beginning by doubling your favorite recipes. Making your favorite beef tacos tonight? Simply make a double batch of filling and shred twice as much cheese than you need. From there, stash half in the freezer for a future meal.
"Then you have a super-easy taco night all ready to go; all you have to do is pull that taco kit from the freezer," says Fisher. "Obviously you're not going to freeze the lettuce, but the filling, which takes the most time, can be made in double or triple batches."
If done right, make-ahead meals won't taste funny after you defrost them. The trick is to let the food cool before packing them up and sticking them in the freezer. (This helps prevent freezer burn.) Then let it defrost in the fridge the night before serving.
HAVE A POWER-COOKING DAY
If you're feeling ambitious, a marathon cooking day is a great way to stock up your freezer with fresh, ready-to-eat meals. Fisher, who's also a mom of six, does a big session once a month. To take the stress out of the event, she posts power-cooking plans on her site that range anywhere from two hours to all day.
One clever hack is to simply focus on protein.
"Say you find a good sale on chicken breast," says Fisher. "Instead of just stuffing it all in the freezer unprepared, try chopping it, slicing it or filleting it into smaller portions and then dividing it into plastic bags with some marinade. This only takes about 10 or 15 minutes, and then you have three dinners of marinated chicken all ready to go."
This is an awesome approach for the Crock-Pot. Freeze the meat, spices, dried herbs and marinade into a large Ziploc bag—and you're done. After it defrosts, it can go directly into the slow cooker. You can also use your Crock-Pot on marathon-cooking days.
"During my freezer days, I'll have several Crock-Pots going at once," adds Fisher. "One will be making pulled chicken, one will be making beans, and another making red sauce, for example. When I'm all done, future dinners are just a quick reheat on the stove or in the microwave."
LOOK FOR COMMON INGREDIENTS
When it comes to saving cash, Fisher's best recommendation is to use recipes with common ingredients. While meal planning, instead of picking five totally random meals to make in double or triple batches, look for dishes that have something in common.
"This way there's variety in the flavor profiles, but the main protein may be the same," she says. "That's where you're really going to save the most time and money."
PLAN AHEAD FOR LUNCH
If you're frequently hitting up the take-out line during your lunch hour, take advantage of make-ahead cooking for weekday lunches. This can be as simple as freezing smaller, grab-and-go portions to take with you to the office.
"My husband works in an office, and burritos are great," says Fisher. "I wrap each burrito individually, and then he stores them in the freezer at work. At lunch, he just has to pull one or two out and reheat them in the microwave."
Another great lunchtime hack is to freeze portions of cooked chicken ahead of time. This can be quickly defrosted and thrown onto salads or sandwiches at your desk. Individually packed soups are another easy lunch option.
Again, it's really all about having the forethought to plan ahead. Trust us—you're future self will thank you for it.