Cook Now, Freeze For Later
One of the oldest tricks in the budget-savvy book is buying and cooking in bulk. Thanks to freezing and canning, that's all the easier these days. My grandpa will only eat homemade food, and when my grandma travels (sometimes for a month at a time!), she prepares all his beloved dishes and freezes them in single-serve containers -- from meatballs to stuffed peppers to meatloaf. In that same spirit, here are some great dishes to freeze -- plus, a few words of caution.
If you're not already an old pro, start out with a few of these freezer-friendly classics:
Tomato or BBQ sauces and soups such as minestrone or corn chowder are great for large batch cooking, too. Divide in them in small, freezer-safe containers and defrost when needed. Use the stove top or microwave to thaw them out.
Freezing stock in small batches is also a big money saver. At $2 to $4 a pop, those canned or boxed stocks can start to get pricey. Here's a tip: for freezing a single-portion of stock, use muffin tins. Dana taught me to freeze pesto sauce in ice cube trays. Once they've frozen, you just pop the cubes out of the freezer trays and store in freezer-friendly bags or containers.
Freshly baked brownies and muffins work in the freezer. Prepare raw cookie dough and freeze it in a roll for easy slicing. You can also spoon chocolate chip cookie dough onto parchment paper and freeze it; then place the pieces in a freezer bag.
Now, freezing cooked foods isn't as simple as spooning it into a container and popping it in the freezer. Before storing your dishes, proper cooling is a must. Never put hot food in the freezer -- it will raise your freezer's temperature (and melt your ice cream); the center of the dish will not cool quickly enough and that leaves time for food to spoil. One way to avoid this is to divide food into smaller quantities.
Think about what you'll need the frozen food for. Are you going to reheat for a family of 4 or just make yourself a quick meal? Choose airtight contains that are designed for freezer storage and pre-determine the size you need. Using containers that are less than 1 quart, if possible. Freezer bags are great space-saver since they can easily stack up. Always date and label containers, too -- that way you won't chisel pull something from the back of the freezer later and wonder where it came from. Typically, frozen foods last about 3 months.
Caution: Do not defrost on the countertop! That’s an open invitation for bacteria to come party on your food and a potential for disaster (who wants to poison their dinner guests?). Place frozen food in fridge the night before or use the microwave.
Once you've defrosted a frozen dish, do not refreeze! Again, it's a bacteria thing -- bacteria can get into food when handled and defrosted and they aren’t killed by freezer temperatures. Once food is defrosted, eat within several days or throw it out.
Need more ideas? Our sister site, Recipezaar.com, is all over the "Once-A-Month Cooking" trend; they have more than 1,600 recipe ideas -- that should be enough to last you, well, almost a lifetime!