Batch Cooking: Meal Starters

grilled-chicken

If I need to cook dinner fast and all I see in the freezer is frozen blocks of uncooked meat, then I’m so tempted to go out to eat. If however I see a couple of chicken breasts that are already cooked, then it feels like dinner is almost ready! It’s no problem to boil some water for pasta or rice and have a full home-cooked dinner.

I thought about this as I was getting ready to have our next baby. I wanted to have meals ready in the freezer, but I knew my freezer space would only hold enough for maybe a week or two.

I decided to focus on preparing meal starters, instead of complete meals.

We started at the grill and made about 50 small burgers and 30 chicken breasts. Cooking that much meat in the kitchen would have required several hours of time plus a huge mess.

doug-grilling The best part about the grill is the help. If I were to say, “Hey Doug, don’t you think it’d be nice to do some batch cooking today?” then he’d raise an eyebrow. But if I say, “Hey Doug, why don’t you grill some meat for us?” then he’s much happier.

The burgers make a good lunch. Sixty seconds in the microwave and they taste like they’re straight off the grill. We can also break them up to add to spaghetti sauce or scrambled eggs.

The chicken breasts are nice for dinner, but we mostly shred them for pizza topping, stir fry, salad, or soups. Some of the chicken was added to a double batch of Santa Fe Chicken Chili.

The ground beef that didn’t make it to the grill went into another huge pot of chili, and I mean really big, like 22 servings! Chili freezes well. When I freeze soup or stews, I use a quart freezer bag to hold two large adult servings. I stack the bags on top of each other in the freezer, and when it’s time for dinner they don’t take long to defrost because they’re thin. Ten minutes in a sink of water to defrost is usually long enough, and then I heat the soup for a couple of minutes in a pot on the stove.

I made 6 cups of basil pesto and froze it in a muffin tray for adding over pasta or as a pizza topping.

I didn’t have any freezer space for loaves of bread or muffins, so I made bread mixes.

I prepared and froze several pounds of strawberries, blueberries, and peaches to use in smoothies.

We brought home frozen french fries, pasta, and cereal from the grocery store. Eggs make a quick, easy meal with no advance preparation, so we always keep those in the fridge as well.

A few weeks later, we’re still eating from the freezer. It’s been so nice not having to clean up a bunch of pots and pans after meals, and we’ve hardly gone out to eat at all.

What kinds of food do you like to prepare in advance?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Oh, don’t get me started :). My husband is starting to get afraid of opening the freezer because I have so much stuff jammed in there that I’ve made in advance. It’s for the post-baby period, of course, but this is what we have in there: taco meat/bean mixtures (use in mexican scrambled eggs, make taco salads or burritos, add to quesadillas, etc.), bean mixtures to go over rice (red beans and rice, Cuban black beans, etc.), a great turkish eggplant dish that you can serve over pasta with yogurt, pizza dough, pre-shredded cheese for the pizza, enchiladas w/ sauce, thai chicken curry sauce, chicken-broccoli-rice casserole, spaghetti sauce w/ homemade meatballs, shredded slow-cooker pulled pork to make sandwiches (just toast or grill the hamburger buns in a skillet, and you’re good to go!). I also like to have granola on hand as I’ve read that eating oats every day are good for nursing mothers. We have lots of cereal, eggs, bread, fruit, and cheese and crackers for snacking. Can you tell I went a little crazy during the nesting stage too? :)

    Jenni @ Life from the Roof´s last post…How is it . . .

  2. I like to make a big batch of marinara sauce, and then freeze it in smallish jars, so I can thaw one or two at a time as needed. I have recently started cooking up a couple of pounds of ground beef at once, seasoned just with salt and garlic. Then I can freeze small portions, and if we want tacos, thaw and reheat with cumin and chile powder. If we want spaghetti, thaw and reheat with basil or oregano.

    Also when I bake breads or muffins I usually make a double batch, and freeze half.

  3. Hi, Rachel! I am a new reader of your blog, and hope you and the baby are doing well.

    I like to freeze raw materials, but make them really easy to access. With fruit, I freeze it on a cookie sheet and then transfer it to a freezer bag, so I can shake out a little bit as I need it. For liquids, I freeze in an ice cube tray and then put the cubes in a bag (this also works for leftover herbs, I hear, you can chop them and mix them with water.) I also sauteed a bunch of garlic, froze the whole mess in a bowl, and then broke the frozen garlic/oil into pieces. I did the same thing with sage and butter and thyme and butter. The quality is surprisingly good! I think this would work with other herbs, and might be helpful for times where you might not want water because you’re throwing the herbs into a saute rather than into a sauce. I was recently told about freezing larger quantities of liquid in muffin tins. I tried it with tomato sauce last night. I poked at it this morning, and it seemed pretty solid, but it remains to be seen whether I can get it out in a nice smooth chunk. I sprayed the tin, so I’m hopeful. I always forget to thaw meat, so I usually run cold water over it for a few minutes just to thaw the outer layer, then brown it, add liquid, and simmer to defrost and cook it.

    Jenni, my freezer is like yours. I have to just start eating from the outside and work my way backwards. It used to be organized, but lately stuff gets shoved wherever it fits.

  4. I did the same thing to get ready for my now 4 month-old’s (!) birth, and it made things much easier afterwards. I still try to keep the freezer stocked, and it does make things easier when I’m in a time crunch. Lately I’ve been buying extra fruit (while it’s cheap during the summer) and freezing it for use in pies and as snacks, I’ve been freezing chicken stock in ice cube trays for easy use in pot pies (a single cube is a quarter cup), and I always cook up a whole bag of brown rice and freeze it in little baggies for single meals (we love brown rice, but man, does it take a while to cook up).
    Can’t wait to try the chicken chili!

    Adele´s last post…A weekend adventure

  5. When I started reading about your grilling and freezing chicken breasts, I thought “I do that”. Then I read that you do 30 at a time!!! I thought I was doing good with 4 or 5!! When we grill chicken breasts for dinner, we usually grill a few extras for the freezer. I just made pesto and froze it in ice cube trays last week and made freezer pickles from our cucumber plants that are going crazy! When I make chili and soups during the cooler months, I usually make a double batch and freeze half.

  6. Ah, the old fill-the-freezer strategy. I’m a big fan. We got rid of a big, unused cupbaord in the utility room and replaced it with an undercounter A efficiency freezer. Best idea EVER.
    Lots of bolognaise and ragu sauce and mince (ground beef cooked in its own gravy – no idea what it’s called over the pond, sorry!)- frozen in different sized portions for when hubby is home and for when he is away.
    Also scones and bagels, already split and ready to toast straight from frozen.
    Uncooked meat from the “good” butcher which I have to drive to – split into meal-sized portions and ready to be cooked. I get a 10% discount if I buy over £50 so that makes it worth it.
    I also freeze milk when I’m running down freezer-stock and I have the space (I’m sure I’ve read it’s better for the freezer to be filled than half empty.) I order the milk when I do a big online shop and it saves me carting home pints of milk every week.
    Also home made cookies – in an attempt to stop me eating them all in one go, if I’m honest!
    Lastly, portion sized boxes of chopped cooked chicken leftoves from the roast chicken we have every few weeks – perfect for chicken fried rice.

    Love the idea of freezing brown rice. That could make my chicken fried rice the easiest meal ever!

    Great post and hope you’re enjoying the new baby!

    Karen in Scotland

  7. I don’t have any immediate reasons like a baby, but I’ve been doing what I guess you’d call freezer rotations. I buy a sizable amount of meat from a local ranch, so half our freezer is just meat waiting to be used. When I do use it it typically goes into a dish that results in freezable leftovers for later. Last week I made a batch of bolognese sauce which gives us a night’s dinner over spaghetti, and another serving for spaghetti and 4 cups for a really good casserole go into the freezer. That’s 10 meals, counting dinners and leftovers for lunch, with just one pot of sauce. Also, I split my 6 serving meatloaf into three 2 serving loafs and freeze two for later dinners. With just the two of us this seems to work best for us- trying to make sure we get the most out of the food we’re buying and having things in the freezer we can turn to in a pinch.

    Jessica´s last post…Black Bean Confetti Salsa

  8. I’ve got two deep freezers [one upright, one chest] full of food besides my fridge freezer, all full of garden produce from this summer & last summer; occasionally I buy ground beef or sausage in bulk, cook it up and divide into smaller portions to freeze for future use. Vegetables like okra & squash are sliced and frozen in ziplocs, ready to pour out just what I need; the blackberries are ready-to-pour from ziplocs as well. Also had some zipper peas this year that I blanched and packaged in ‘supper-size’ freezer containers. I bought packages of cheese [in blocks and shredded] when on special [and using some terrific coupons] and tucked them in the freezer, too. There’s much more…

    I’ll set packages in the fridge to pre-thaw during the day, then do a quick micro-zap to finish thawing if necessary when it’s time to cook.

    I’ve had a deep freezer all my married life [32 yrs now] and can’t begin to tell you how much money having one has saved us all these years, especially during hubby’s seminary years and the lean years when I stayed home with the kids. You younger moms are smart to take advantage of your freezers and do so much meal planning! I applaud you!

  9. It’s funny to try and think back to my ‘nesting’ stage – that’s when I started using the freezer so much as well!

    I find it even more essential now that the kids are older and I spend so much time shuttling them to activities [and mine do less than so many kids - how do those families do it?]

    If it were not for my freezer I would have no choice but to pick up dinner when we’ve got 20 minutes between activities to change and eat!

    One thing I don’t think anyone mentioned are meatloaf [in a loaf, in patties, in muffin tins - as it works for you] which is always a great emergency meal here – I take one out and can microwave it to thaw in a few minutes if I’m really desperate – leftovers are great for sandwiches, or in sauce with pasta etc, also good for my husband [who is sometimes anti carb ;p] who comes home very late most weeknights and sometimes just wants something like that for dinner. I also have found that for us chicken thighs work better COOKED in the freezer than breasts – people tend to complain about texture here with the breasts – not sure why [though they'll eat them fresh cooked] I keep boneless cooked thighs on hand and they are great to add to stews, pasta, make into enchiladas etc – very quick.

    Also while you’re breaking up your protein into meal sized bags to freeze raw don’t forget to add a marinade – then you can just dump the raw bag into the pan or crockpot and cook it without any mess to clean up from raw stuff [a huge deal when you have little ones and they want you to pick them up NOW despite your raw chicken hands!]other than the plastic bag to toss. I also do this with flank steak [we don't eat much steak but do like this on the grill and the flat steak thaws so quickly - fabulous!]- I pour in 2:1 soy sauce and maple syrup – then add some rosemary, a little oil, garlic and onion – a hit every time.

  10. My freezer is my friend! No infants at my house but my babies are 13 and 16 so we are busy during the school year with sporting activities and all the other extras that come with those teen years. At the end of the summer I stocked our freezer with things that will help me get a meal on the table rather than inviting the delivery guy to our house.

    meatballs ~ to serve over pasta with a variety of sauces, meatball sandwiches or chopped up for pizza toppings

    homemade chicken stock ~ for soups, cooking rice, etc.

    seasoned black beans ~ for black bean soup and all things Mexican or just Burrito Bowls (which is what I call beans and rice because my girls don’t wrinkle their nose; we dress it up with extras so it’s very similar to an item on Chipotle’s menu)

    zucchini bread ~ quick snacks or for breakfast with fruit

    angel food cake ~ baked in loaf pans for easy desserts

    marinara sauce with meat ~ with pasta or on pizza

    precooked chicken ~ cooked up 6# of thighs, chopped up the meat and froze it in 2c. portions to use in an array of recipes

    I also like to do a large batch of taco meat and sloppy joes.

    Nancy´s last post…feel good weekend

  11. This is a great idea! Sometimes I try to do batch cooking, but it takes forever and then I’m not very enthusiastic about doing it ever again :)

    Grilling sounds like it would be so much easier! And little clean up too!!!

    Rachel´s last post…Banana Caramel Walnut Cake: SRK Rerun

  12. I’m so jealous of everyone who has a big freezer!

    I keep a few pre-made pie shells – great for quiche – which is great as leftovers.

    Lots of muffins and homemade baby food.

    I also freeze any extra wine or stock in ice cube trays to throw into a soup or stew later.

  13. I have a small chest freezer and I like to make Feta Spinach Rolls which are basically lasagne rolled up and frozen. Then you thaw them and bake them with marinara sauce and cheese. It is quick to make a lot and the are always a welcome treat after a long day at work.

    Banana bread freezes really well so when I am feeling ambitious, I make 2 or 3 loaves and slice them and freeze the slices (Glad freezer Cling Wrap is amazing for this, but I’m having trouble finding it.) The slices make a wonderful breakfast when I have no time to even sit and eat cereal.

    Sometimes, I make a few small turkey meatloaves also and freeze them. They take about 2 days to thaw totally in the fridge, but it is worth the time savings.

    I love batch cooking because it really stinks to come home after a really tiring day and not have the energy to cook for an hour.

  14. Question ~ Do you season the chicken breasts before you grill them?
    I used to buy hamburger meat already divided into patties from Sam’s. Made it easier for dividing since each patty is approx. 1/2 lb. I would then cook 2 – 3 patties per skillet chopping it back into ground beef and bag it. At one time I would also go ahead and season some of the meat with taco seasoning.
    I recently bought a 1/4 of a grass fed cow that’s already divided into 1 lb blocks of ground beef, steaks etc. so I have to remember to thaw it out early because it is so hard.

    Currently I don’t cook much of anything in advance, but I have taught all 5 of my children to cook, so I rarely have to =)

    Blessings ~

  15. I am a freezer girl! No family to cook for, but I love making a big casserole / soup / chili etc and then freezing the leftovers in individual portions. Instant lunches for me and my coworkers are usually jealous of my homecooked meal instead of a lean cuisine!

    I freeze overripe bananas for quick banana bread. Peeled and stored in a ziplock, they can be thawed in the microwave. Super easy to mash and bake.

    Next I want to tackle cooking dried beans and storing them in the freezer. Should be a significant savings over canned and less sodium to boot. :) Note: This desire has intensified after my latest cooking mishap (my most recent post – sigh).

    Juice´s last post…Don’t Try This At Home

  16. I don’t keep much cooked food in the freezer, but I do have a full freezer, because we are pastors and our schedule is often up in the air, with unexpected dinner plans out or having to stay at church.

    One of my favorite make-ahead items is cookies. My favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe makes 5 dozen cookies, and we definitely don’t need that many cookies lying around the house. But I usually bake a dozen, and portion the rest in balls on a cookie sheet. Once they’re frozen solid, I transfer them to a freezer bag, and write the recipe’s baking instructions (oven temp, time) on the bag. Then, whenever we’re in the mood for a few cookies, it’s as easy as having store-bought ready-made dough.

  17. You are such a smart and prepared lady! I’ve never really gotten into freezer preparation, mostly b/c I never learned from anyone else. But now I’m feeling inspired – I think I’m going to start with soaking dry beans and then freezing them in meal-sized portions!

    Thanks,

    Jamie

    steadymom´s last post…Some Blogging Resolutions

  18. I do meal starters, as well as full meals. I saute onions, bell peppers, and ground beef (separately), then spread them on wax paper lined cookie sheets to freeze. Then I scoop them all into bags. I can always use as much or little as I need. I also do cooked, chopped or shredded chicken, soaked beans, and I’ll sometimes do marinated meat or meals that just need to be cooked, or meals that are cooked and just need to be reheated.

    Right now I’ve got homemade pizza bagels–I made the bagel dough in my bread maker, so easy– yogurt/fruit cups frozen in muffin tins, from a huge batch of homemade yogurt, pumpkin muffins, and I’ll be making egg rolls tomorrow to freeze. It definitely helps on the busy days.

  19. I love your adapting terminology to meet the recipient in a favorable light : ) What man wants to batch cook … urgh.
    Some great ideas here thank you : )

    Tammy´s last post…Moments.

  20. This is a fabulous idea and you’re so right about getting the hubby’s help! If I’d have asked mine to start some batch cooking, he would likely laugh out loud but grilling is another ball game!

    Jenn @ FFP´s last post…How to Make Homemade Crackers

  21. I REALLY wish I would have done this before Aidan came. It really would have saved a lot of time that I spent looking in the refrigerator and cupboards, bleary eyed, for dinner when I actually only had enough energy for a bowl of cereal.
    Well, now I know how we are going to spend this Saturday- grilling through the pounds of meat, sitting in the freezer!!!

    Amanda´s last post…Autumn

  22. ok… I boil or roast (based on my mood) whole chickens and debone them.

    I dice onions, peppers and mushrooms and freeze them so that I can just pull out what i need for pizza toppings or to go into a cassarole/baked pasta.

    misty´s last post…Monday Morning….

  23. I did a day of batch cooking before school started, and I made a ton of pesto, some small parbaked bread loaves (had one tonight!), refried beans, a lasagne, pizza dough… I also like to cook a whole chicken occasionally and freeze the stock and some of the meat.

    I cook enough every night for us to have the leftovers for lunch the next day, and if there’s anything else left I freeze a serving or two for a future lunch. I don’t mind cooking every day, but I don’t want to cook lunch AND dinner. This way I just cook once a day.

    I’ve got a ton of Alaskan blueberries, cranberries and raspberries in my freezer, too. :)

    Oh, and I keep a list in my home management notebook of what’s in my freezer and cross things off when I use them.

    liz´s last post…it’s fall, baby!

  24. Sandra Gonzales says:

    Wow!!! The ladies on this discussion have some awesome freezer skills. I thought I was doing good freezing chicken breast and chicken stock. You guys have given me alot of “food” for thought. Thank you.

  25. OK. I have to admit that reading this and all the posts made me tired. I can’t imagine doing all that at once! I freeze somethings and am really happy when I do. It makes things so much easier. I think I’ll have to really look at this concept when I do my menu/shopping list this week.

  26. What an inspirational post for me! We, unfortunately, don’t have room for a deep freeze, but I wrote down in my planner’s space for December notes some of these ideas that will work for us. With the baby coming in January, I think it will be great to be prepared!

    Minnesotamom´s last post…Sunday Sunshine 09.13.09

  27. Just a word of warning…if you leave on vacataion, have someone who is checking your house also check your freezer. We left for a week in very hot weather, the freezer was working so hard that it shut off and we lost an entire deep freezer full of local beef, frozen meals, frozen berries, jam, and bread. Easily $300 worth of stuff. It was so warm when we got home and opened it that the frozen pastries had actually RISEN beyond their normal size when allowed to rise in the kitchen before baking. It was crushing to lost all that food and time of preparation.

  28. I love it when the comments are a good as the post. Preprepared foods are a necessity when you get home from work and your husband immediately says: “what’s for dinner”?

    Here is a favorite of mine:
    pork that has been crock potting all day. Homemade dutch red cabbage (very Dutch) frozen flat and stacked…baby peas zapped in mw…mashed potato mounds ( leftover mashed potatoes, yukon gold freeze beautifully, russets do not…scooped out with an ice cream scoop, frozen on a cookie sheet and then packaged.) I put a little cream cheeses and sour cream in my potatoes as it makes them a little more substantial. Then add leftover gravy “ice cube” and you have dinner – fast!

    I am a collector of great ideas. Come visit me at “That’s the coolest thing” lornaboot@blogspot.com

  29. I know this is cheating a bit, but the Costco in our area sells whole cooked(!) chickens for $5 each. A normal raw chicken on sale costs at least $7 or $8 dollars here. My sister-in-law and I buy a couple at a time, shred them, and then freeze in portions to put into salads, enchiladas, etc. I still can’t believe they’re cheaper and I don’t have to do all the work of cooking it like I used to. Not sure how prices may be different in other areas.

  30. WOW! that’s awesome … i don’t freeze anything because I don’t have much freezer space but I think I’m going to rethink that … all these freezing ideas mean I need to get to work … I don’t even have any ideas to add to the mix – I’m just here to steal everyone else’s great ideas – sorry!

    bronya´s last post…just the best day

  31. I love reading this post and all of the wonderful ideas. My question to all of you that have posted is: what freezing mechanizisms do you use, ie…freezer bags, foil, etc…I am terribly new to cooking period and wanted to know if there was a “best food freezing” method

    Thanks!!!

    Sherita´s last post…October already

    • Most of the time I use zip-lock freezer bags. It’s important to minimize the amount of air inside the container. Freezer bags are good for this because you can squeeze the air out before you seal them.

  32. Oh, I hope someone might see this, even though the original blog entry was a year ago.
    I took advantage of a sweet deal of a coupon and ordered some groceries from an organic grocery delivery service. Last Friday they delivered half a dozen medium zucchini, some onions, 3 small Asian-sized but local type of eggplant and cans of various tomatoes (and some fresh, toms, too). I have some other items, too, but those are the main stars that come to mind.

    PROBLEM? I have had a stomach bug all weekend; it has improved some, but still plagues me. I can only manage dry toast and Greek yogurt. I hate to see these lovely, local veggies lose their freshness any further. Can anyone suggest someway to put them together… maybe into a decent casserole or two… can feed hub and daughter tonight and freeze rest?
    I’d like to minimize my time in the kitchen, too, as I don’t feel like standing too long or smelling the usually fantastic kitchen aromas. Help!

    Many, many thanks in advance.

  33. Im due in about 8 weeks with our 3rd child and I have been gathering ideas for freezer meals. I am sooooo happy I found your site/post. It has so many great ideas all compiled into one place, which for a busy bee like me is perfect! Well I better get moving while I still can. lol :)

  34. Just started batch cooking so we would eat out less and have meals ready for the nights when I have worked 12 hour day shift. Im starting small, but have cooked up ground turkey and ground beef and am freezing that up ahead of time to be meal starters. Also freezing extra lasagnas I can make 2 if Im making 1. Excited to save a little money.

  35. I am a freezer stocker, but over the years the most used item in my freezer are turkey meatballs. I make Elli Kreiger’s recipe. Get pasture raised turkey while on sale or local and quadruple the recipe. Use a double tablespoon ice cream scooper, parchment lined cookie sheets, and make hundreds! I bake them all up, let cool, store in large ziplocks. Add to spaghetti, sandwiches, or just heat up and put in lunch thermos for kids lunches. They are loaded with veggies that I super chopped up in the blender/processor. And they look “super processed” just the way kids like them, but healthy and no chemicals!