I found a love of freezer cooking when I was late in pregnancy with Elliott. With our restricted diet, running out for dinner on nights when I am just too beat or busy to cook is not an option. But, when I had our third child coming, the inevitability of not being able to cook dinner in a timely manner every night was something I couldn’t deny. So I needed a way to prepare for that and to manage it when it happened. Enter freezer cooking.
For those who don’t know, freezer cooking is simply creating meals and freezing them for future use. When I first started doing this, I would plan and cook a double batch of the meal I was making for dinner that night. That sounds easier than it is, when there were already so many big eaters in our family and we count on dinner leftovers for lunches. But, it was a pretty good way to build up several different meals in the freezer for the coming months of newborn mayhem.
But, when you are double cooking, you are still doing a lot of daily cooking. And that was where I found myself struggling with it. The weekly grocery budget wouldn’t allow for extra meals this week (or next, or…). I am so tired tonight that I just can’t manage to bag up all of that food for the freezer – I’ll get it tomorrow (or we’ll nibble at it until there isn’t enough to freeze and then the rest will go bad). Obstacles, obstacles, obstacles… I really wanted to do massive freezer cooking days where I made a ton of meals in one day and then could eat from the freezer for several meals in the month afterward. But, and I may not have mentioned this previously, I have a whole slew of kids that I take care of 24 hours a day! It can be really hard to get breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks on the table in an average day. The prospect of creating a whole batch of meals in one day, with no help, was completely overwhelming for me. I have dreamed of doing freezer cooking sessions with a group of friends who eat similar foods. But realistically, we have so many dietary restrictions – I thought the entire thing would be overwhelming for anyone else.
You would think that I would have learned by now, that if I want something, I just have to put it out there. It doesn’t always work out for me, but most of the time, it does. I finally posted something on Facebook about wishing that I could do a big freezer cooking session, and someone else pointed out that there are many foods that are inherently free of our food allergens. It was a lightbulb moment for me. Of course I know that there are tons of great foods out there that work for our diet, without a lot of modification. But a lot of other people don’t know that!
So, I went through my recipes, and I made a list of all of the recipes I had that would work for freezer cooking that were inherently free of all of our allergens. I found that I had over 40 recipes that met this criteria! And that was when I truly knew that I could freezer cook with a group of friends, if only I could get my friends to join me. So, in December, I made the leap. I asked on Facebook if any of my friends would be interested in joining me for a cooking session. One friend jumped on the offer! We made 28 meals in about 6 hours. Not too shabby, considering that one meal typically takes me an hour and a half, what with the troops helping or needing help. And the meals were such a blessing during our move! So, this month, I asked again. And this time, I ended up with 2 friends here cooking! We were able to make 25 meals in about 2.5 hours!!! And it was so much fun!
The first session, we made chili, taco meat, and sweet and sour chicken (and pork) that all had to be cooked, along with three different marinades. I learned from this experience that cooking takes a lot longer than simply preparing marinades that are cooked later. This time, we made only marinades. We had 5 different marinades and made 5 bags of each. This went much faster because what we could make wasn’t limited by stove space.
My tips for allergen friendly freezer cooking:
1. If at all possible, cook in your own kitchen, if your family has food allergies. There is nothing like throwing away several meals because you realize that they were cross contaminated by bread crumbs on someone’s counter top.
2. Make a list of recipes that are inherently free of you food allergens and won’t require others to buy expensive substitutes. Marinades for meats, soups, and chilies are some great starters.
3. Toss dinner in the crockpot before you start cooking! A lot of sites talk about ordering a pizza, or going out to dinner after cooking all day. While that may be great for a lot of people, it does not work for a lot of families with food allergies. Instead, toss a meal into the crockpot first thing in the morning, so that if you are exhausted at the end of the day, you can just put your feet up and call it good.
4. Use good packaging. If you want your food to stay good for as long as possible, use good packaging. This is not the place to save money. If you are storing in zip top bags, be sure you get freezer bags and not storage bags, as the plastic is different and the freezer bags will keep meals much fresher for much longer in the freezer. If you are using plastic wrap, or aluminum, plastic or glass storage containers, make sure they are high quality, freezer safe, and leave little room for air.
5. Label everything clearly. Using a permanent marker, write the name of the food and the date at a minimum. I strongly prefer to also write on cooking instructions. I do this for a number of reasons – I don’t want to have to find the recipe again when I go to cook the food in a month or more. Also, having the instructions on the bag makes it easier for someone else to finish the cooking as well. If I am sick and my husband has to make dinner, it is far easier for him to pull a bag from the freezer and read, “Thaw. Dump contents in crockpot. Cook low 6-8 hours.” than it is for me to explain to him where to find the recipe, or to possibly tell him what to do with it. Also, this gives me a great way to help someone else out by bringing them a meal. The instructions are right there, so that even a novice cook knows what to do with the meal, and they can cook it whenever they want.
6. Make several batches of a few recipes on the same day, instead of a few batches of several recipes. One of the reasons that cooking like this works so well is because you are simply doing the same step over and over again, assembly line style. When you put the olive oil into one bag, it is a mere motion to put it in the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.
7. Make food that is fun to eat! There are a lot of foods that freeze well that my family just won’t really eat well. If we won’t eat it, there is no point in buying, preparing and freezing it. So, rather than go with the standbys that a lot of people favor, I look around for new recipes that work for us. When I find something interesting, I try it out. This also helps to not get burnt out on eating something when there are 3 more bags of it in the freezer!