Credit: hutchyb/Getty Images
Freezing entire pre-made meals is a time honored tradition, stretching back as long as busy cooks have been in a crunch to put homemade meals on the table—a.k.a. since the dawn of freezer technology.
Using your freezer as a kitchen assistant will not only bring some peace of mind to your meal prep, but will also help foster healthier eating habits by making nutritious, homemade meals readily available during times you’re tempted to swing through the drive-thru for an easy dinner option.
Whether you’re freezing prepared meals for convenience, time, or the health benefits, these tips will help you get the most flavor and quality out of your reheated pre-prepped dishes and ingredients.
When embarking on your meal prep experience, pick a dedicated day of the week to hunker down in the kitchen and spend some quality time preparing your dishes to be frozen and consumed later. Whether it’s a lazy weekend afternoon or a free weekday evening, by committing a chunk of time to putting together your make-ahead dishes you’ll have plenty of options ready to go when you’re in need of a quick, easy meal.
Choose Your Ingredients Wisely
Not all ingredients are created equal when it comes to freezing, and certain foods won’t fare as well once thawed. Some cream-based products like half-and-half, cream cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese, and ricotta are less likely to be a success when reheated, as separation naturally occurs during freezing, resulting in a grainy texture once it’s thawed and cooked.
Raw potatoes shouldn’t be frozen, as they will oxidize and turn black, and leafy greens and lettuces will also be unsuccessful in the freezer if frozen raw due to their high water content. Instead, these ingredients should be pre-cooked and incorporated into a dish before heading to the freezer.
Ingredients that are meant to add extra texture to a dish, such as a crumble topping, crushed nuts, or fried onions, should always be added after the dish is thawed. Freezing them with the dish will result in a soggy texture, rendering the crunchy addition pointless.
Nail the Technique
Before slipping your dish into the freezer, it’s essential to allow pre-cooked foods to cool down, as placing a piping-hot dish in your ice box will lower the overall freezer temperature, which could result in foods around it thawing and spoiling. If you’re in a rush, rather than using the refrigerator to cool dishes down quickly—which will lead to the same issue, but with your refrigerated foods—give them an ice bath in the sink. For this technique, fill your sink with a shallow layer of water and ice, and lower your hot dishes into it for a few minutes, making sure the water only comes halfway up the sides of your dish.
While your dishes are cooling, make sure your freezer temperature is set low enough, as all prepared foods should be stored in a freezer that is 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder.
As a rule, when freezing food you want the containers to be as airtight as possible. Individually-sized meals should be frozen in airtight lidded plastic containers to limit the amount of outside oxygen flowing into the dish. It’s also wise to double-wrap your plastic containers in a layer of freezer-proof plastic wrap if you’re planning on storing the dish for more than a week.
When storing larger dishes and casseroles, make sure to thoroughly wrap the entire container to limit the oxygen flow. Start by completely covering the top of the dish with freezer-proof foil, and then wrap the entirety of the dish in plastic wrap. Depending on the length of time you’re planning on storing, adding a second layer of plastic wrap will result in fresher flavors with no risk of freezer burn.
When freezing casseroles, it’s always best to opt for a shallow casserole dish, which will make for a faster reheating process, as well as better distribution of heat through the entire dish.
All frozen foods should be marked with the name of the meal, the date it was prepared, and detailed instructions for reheating before being stowed away. This will ensure the food is eaten within a safe time period, and that other family members will be able to reheat the dish properly if you’re not around to lend a hand.
When freezing prepared meats, vegetables, grains, and pastas, it’s wise to slightly undercook to just tender before freezing. Each of these ingredients will cook slightly more when reheated, so they can easily become overcooked if stored well-done. For tips on how to freeze and reheat premade soups and stews, check out our guide here.
The Size is Right
The size of the dishes you’re freezing will be flexible depending on your personal needs. If you’re prepping food for a whole family, large format meals like casseroles will work in your favor. However, if you’re looking for easy lunches or solo dinners, meal prepping individual portions is also a great option.
For individual meals, freezing fundamental pre-cooked ingredients like brown rice, pasta, proteins, and cooked vegetables can make for easy lunches and individually portioned dinners down the line. These ingredients can be stored in separate containers and combined after the reheating process, or portioned out into smaller servings for easy access and portability. Check out our guides for freezing and thawing meats and freezing and thawing vegetables and fruits for more advice. These ingredients will keep well in airtight freezer bags or plastic containers, which can be stacked for easy storage.
Casseroles make for the ultimate pre-made, family-sized frozen meal, as most will keep well in the freezer for up to 2 months, and are easy to prep and reheat. Plus, most casseroles can be frozen and stored before or after they’ve been baked.
If you’d prefer to not freeze your casserole in the dish—putting that kitchen tool out of use until the dish has been reheated—another option is to flash freeze your casserole before removing from the pan and storing separately. To do so, prior to preparing the casserole, line the casserole dish with a layer of aluminum foil and plastic wrap that hangs over the edges. Prepare your casserole and place in the freezer until completely frozen. Then, use the excess plastic wrap to pull the frozen dish out of the pan, and wrap the dish thoroughly in freezer-proof plastic. When you’re ready to reheat, unwrap the food and place it back in the pan for reheating in the oven. Another option is to stock up on inexpensive disposable foil pans that can easily be tossed after use.
In order to make sure your food is as safe as possible for consumption, food should always be thawed in the refrigerator rather than at room temperature. Once initially thawed, foods shouldn’t be refrozen, unless they’re completely cooked before heading back into the freezer.
For those in a rush, the microwave can be an easy method of thawing and reheating (if the portion size is right). If using a microwave—or high-capacity toaster oven—it’s wise to use a thermometer to measure the temperature of the center of the dish from time-to-time to guarantee it’s reached a safe 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
In order to safely thaw a prepped casserole, transfer the dish to the fridge for 24 hours before cooking. Then, cook the casserole at the same temperature as the recipe originally called for, adding an extra 15-20 minutes to the time and checking the temperature of the dish occasionally.
When reheating a pre-cooked casserole, you can go direct from freezer to oven. Cook the dish at the same temperature you would if cooking it fresh, but give the dish and extra 20 minutes, checking the progress of the dish intermittently to make sure it’s heating properly, but not overcooking.
When reheating a casserole dish in the oven, leave the foil layer in place, folding back the corner or cutting a few slits in the top to allow steam to release from the dish. Rotate the dish occasionally during reheating to allow for even reheating.
Once you’ve gotten into the freezing groove, your meal prep is all but guaranteed be a breeze even on your busiest of days. For more tips on how to freeze and thaw your bread, check out these tips.