Cook-Free Freezer Stocking

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Everyone knows that kids love fish sticks, chicken nuggets and fries. If you're stocking your freezer for the weeks following your baby's arrival and you already have small children in the house, consider adding some of these foods to your meal planner. It's an easy way to extend the time between your baby's birth and resumption of cooking duties without actually having to prepare something.

Healthier versions of these foods are available at most grocery stores. Most brands of frozen fries are lower fat as long as you bake them instead of deep frying them. Chicken nuggets are available in baked versions, and fish sticks are too.

Lasagnas, ready-made crockpot meals and frozen skillet meals are other cook-free options for stocking your freezer fast. Consider shopping at a whole foods market or at a store like Trader Joes for higher quality, pre-made frozen meals. You can also supplement your freezer stock with pre-made burgers, prepared, marinated chicken breasts or other convenience foods. Pack them with a vacuum sealer for best quality.

Even if there is limited time between now and your due-date, you can add extra days or even weeks to your freezer stock with these easy, ready-made meals. Just be sure to spread them out in the weeks following your baby's arrival, as they're probably not going to be as yummy as those meals you've prepared yourself!

Easy Sides

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You're just a couple of weeks away from your due date, and your freezer is stocked with enough main courses to feed your family for three months. You feel like you've had a weight lifted from your shoulders--when your baby arrives, you won't need to waste precious time in the kitchen. You'll just pop a frozen meal in the microwave, thaw it out, warm it up in the pan and voilĂ ! Dinner is served.

Except you still need to serve a side of vegetables, potatoes, salad or some other dish--very few meals are self-contained and most need to be complimented with some fresh produce. You'll need an arsenal of simple, fast side dish recipes--enough to cover all of the dinner options you have in your freezer. Time to start planning!

Fortunately, vegetables don't require a lot of complex seasoning or long cooking times. Some meals are well complimented with very simple side dishes. Pot pies, for example, go nicely with simple steamed broccoli. So do whole chicken breasts and roasted beef. Italian pasta dishes are easy to compliment with a Caesar salad or an Italian salad with a vinegarette dressing (postpartum, buy bagged kits at the grocery store*)

If you get bored of simple salads and steamed vegetables, try roasting broccoli, green beans or asparagus with a little olive oil and garlic. You can also saute sugar snap peas in sesame oil with garlic for a simple Asian side dish.

Vegetables can be quickly jazzed up with a dipping sauce, a light homemade dressing or seasoned butter. Try this recipe with grilled or steamed corn on the cob:

Chipotle Butter

  • 2 tbsp butter, at room temperature
  • 1 chipotle chile with adobo sauce, minced fine

Whip the chile and sauce into the butter and serve with hot corn on the cob. (Note: canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce can be found in the ethnic food section of most grocery stores).

Or combine broccoli with this easy dressing:

Lemon Dressing

  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp melted butter
  • 1/2 tsp lemon zest
Mix all ingredients together and toss with steamed broccoli.

* Do not eat bagged salads while pregnant. Bagged salads can carry the listeria bacterium, which cause a very serious illness that can lead to miscarriage or fetal death.

Organizing the freezer

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In our household, we have three freezers. One side-by-side in the house, one side-by-side in the garage (frozen food goes in the freezer, extra milk and eggs go in the fridge) and one chest freezer where we alternately keep quarter sides of beef (our neighbor raises his own steers) or whatever meat happens to be on sale at the grocery store. But before each new baby's arrival, our freezers have also become storage for frozen meals, sometimes enough to feed us for up to six months or more.

Organization is really important when stocking up for your baby's arrival, especially when you have multiple freezers like we do, most of which have already been purposed for something else (like storing cheap meats, ice cream and convenience foods). It doesn't do you much good to have six months worth of food stocked up if you can't find any of it.

When embarking on your freezer cooking plan, make sure you follow some easy steps so that you'll be organizing as you go. You don't want your "nesting" days in the final stages of your pregnancy to involve having to organize the freezer!

  1. Before you begin, take some time to clear shelves. Put all the stuff you use on a daily basis, like frozen veggies, convenience foods etc. on their own shelf. Likewise, store the ice cream and other treats on a single shelf. Try to clear at least two shelves and make sure everyone else in your house knows not to put anything on those shelves. If you have a chest freezer, clear out a couple of compartments and designate them for freezer meals only.
  2. Label and date everything you make. Before we had kids my husband and I would freeze leftovers all the time, and we never knew what they were because we never marked the bags. We would have "Mystery Mondays" where we'd break out a frozen bag of mystery something or another and eat whatever it turned out to be. Of course this is not at all convenient if you have a family, because you need to know what sides to have on hand for everything you make, so in a civilized household labeling is of the utmost importance.
  3. Store similar foods together. Have a shelf designated for casseroles and bulkier items. Store soups, stews and sauces on their own shelf--these meals can be stored flat in freezer bags and you can get a lot of them on a single shelf if you designate that shelf for soups, stews and sauces only.
  4. Keep a notebook. Every time you freeze something, make a note of two things: How many meals' worth you have (three zipper bags, for example, or two casserole pans) and which shelf/freezer you put them in. The latter note is especially helpful if you have multiple freezers and/or if you plan to stock up a lot of food. You need to know exactly where these items are or there's almost no sense in stocking up at all--you'll spend as much time looking for an item as you would actually cooking it.
If you follow these simple steps, you'll be organized enough to make post-partum cooking a snap. Every week, plan your menu based on what you've written in your notebook (or plan the entire six months ahead of time!), buy your sides and whip up dinner in less than 15 minutes. Your baby will thank you!

Five tips for freezing casseroles

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It's good to have a few casseroles in your freezer when your baby arrives. Casseroles are convenient because you can freeze them in foil pans (which you can dispose of after cooking, saving you from doing dishes as well as from having to cook) and because they require no intervention--just take them straight out of the freezer, turn the oven on and put them in.

Unfortunately casseroles don't freeze easily, and you can't keep them for long. If your postpartum meal plan includes casseroles, make sure you follow a few simple rules:

  1. Cook casseroles last, a week or two before your due date. Remember that even a casserole that has been correctly sealed prior to freezing isn't going to keep well for longer than a few weeks, so you don't want to make and store these too early in your pregnancy. 
  2. Freeze all of your casseroles in the same size foil pan. This will make it much easier to stack them in your freezer.
  3. Devote one shelf in your freezer to casseroles. Casseroles are bulky, so they take up a lot of precious space in your freezer. If you have a single shelf devoted to your casseroles you won't have to worry about where to put each one as it is made. 
  4. Freeze your casseroles correctly. Nothing is more important to maintaining the quality of a casserole than correctly freezing it. Make sure you wrap your casserole tightly with aluminum foil, and allow as little air as possible between the top of the casserole and the foil. Date them so you know which ones went into the freezer first, and store them at 0 degrees F. When freezing a cooked casserole, make sure you remove it from the oven 10 to 15 minutes earlier than you would if serving it (the casserole will finish cooking in the oven the day you remove it from the freezer).
  5. Eat casseroles first, right after your baby is born. If you dip into your casserole stash before tackling soups, stews and other frozen meals, you'll do two things for yourself and your family: you'll guarantee that your meals will be free of freezer burn and other degradations that happen after too much time in the freezer and you'll free up space for other frozen goods you might want to pick up to extend the time before you have to start cooking again, such as pizzas and ready-made lasagnas. Eat them in reverse order, oldest first.
Chicken Dijon and Broccoli Casserole

2 cans cream of chicken soup
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup skim milk
1/4 cup honey Dijon mustard
1 onion, chopped
1 lb frozen shredded hash browns
1 head broccoli, steamed for five minutes and then chopped
4 cups boneless skinless chicken breasts, cooked and chopped
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl.

Spray individual freezer pans with a non-stick cooking spray.

Line the bottom of each pan with a layer of hash browns, a layer of broccoli, and a layer of chicken, then pour the soup mixture over. Top with shredded cheese. Wrap tightly and freeze.

To serve from fresh, bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly (use a meat thermometer for an accurate internal temperature of 145 degrees). To serve from frozen, bake in a 375 degree oven for 1 1/2 hours or until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees.

Healthy Freezer Meals

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Pregnant women should not diet. But it's also important to eat healthy food when you are pregnant, and six weeks after your baby is born you're probably going to want to start slimming down a little (a nursing woman shouldn't start dieting until her milk supply is well-established, about six weeks postpartum).

If you know you're going to be counting the calories after your baby comes, it is obviously a good idea to think along those lines when planning your freezer meals. Just be sure you're not eating a dieters diet while you're pregnant--cook healthy meals but also eat healthy portions, and make sure to include plenty of healthy fats in your diet, too (add sliced avocado to your salad, for example, or snack on almonds and pecans).

Most recipes can be lightened up pretty easily--there's no need to go searching for healthy freezer meals when you can just use common sense. For example, substitute olive oil (a healthy fat) for butter whenever possible, buy reduced fat cream soups, use ground turkey instead of ground beef, and buy reduced or fat free cheeses, milk, sour cream and other dairy products.

This freezer recipe for sloppy joes (originally from Erica's Recipes) includes healthy vegetables and has been lightened up with turkey instead of ground beef:

Healthy Slow-Cooker Sloppy Joes:

2 lbs lean ground turkey
2 16-oz jars your favorite salsa
3 cups mushrooms, sliced
1 1/2 cups red bell pepper, finely chopped
3 medium carrots, grated
4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1/3 cup tomato paste
2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt

Brown the ground turkey in a skillet over medium heat.

Add the turkey to your slow cooker, then stir in the remaining ingredients.

Cover and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.

Serve on toasted, whole-wheat hamburger buns with a side salad or grilled corn on the cob.

And don't forget, a pregnant woman should never feel hungry. If you are expecting, eat until you are full. With healthy recipes like this one, you can do so guilt-free!

Cook for fun, not 'cause you need to

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My son will be four months old this week, and Friday night was the first time I've cooked since before he was born.

I made a pot of chili. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to (I still have another four months worth of food in my freezer). Incidentally, I made sure I cooked a huge pot of chili, thus adding a couple of weeks to the date when I have to go back to being a full time chef for my family.

I love to cook, so having a fully stocked freezer while my son is still so little means that I can cook when I want to instead of when I need to. Some days my son is quiet and perfectly happy to sit in his bouncy chair in the kitchen while I do all that chopping and prepping, other days he's just in a mood all day long and there's no way I could do much more than defrost a bag of chili and boil some rice.

Chili is a great freezer food, by the way, my husband even thinks chili tastes better after it's been frozen. Packed correctly, a chili will keep in the freezer for a year or more. We eat our chilies the English way: over white rice with taco shells, cheese and sour cream. Yum!

Basic Freezer Chili Recipe:

5 onions, chopped
5 lb ground beef
1/4 cup chili powder
1 tbsp cumin
1 head garlic, crushed
3 jalapeno peppers
1 28 oz can petite diced tomatoes
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 28 oz cans dark red kidney beans, drained
1 14 oz can beef stock (more or less, depending on how thick you like your chili)

Saute the onions with the ground beef. When the beef is about half cooked, drain off some or all of the fat and add the chili powder, cumin garlic and jalapenos, stirring to incorporate.

Add the tomatoes and kidney beans and turn the pot down to simmer. Add the beef stock as necessary, 1/2 cup or so at a time until the chili reaches the desired consistency. (Hint: chili gets better the longer it simmers).

Serve over white rice with taco shells, shredded cheese and sour cream (served this way, the recipe makes about 32 servings. When eaten in bowls by itself you'll get about half as many).

Too Busy to Cook

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No one needs a well-stocked freezer more than a new parent. After the birth of a baby, the last thing moms and dads should have to worry about on top of diapers, late night feedings and colic is what to fix for dinner.

Instead, why not fix it and freeze it? In the time it takes for you to complete your pregnancy, you can stock your freezer with enough ready-made meals to last six weeks or even six months after your baby arrives. Imagine spending all that time with your baby instead of in the kitchen!

Visit my blog for recipe ideas, freezer storage tips and your pregnancy-specific freezer cooking plan! And keep your eyes open for the publication of my upcoming book, "Expecting Dinner."

--Becki Robins
Mother of Four
Author, "Expecting Dinner"