Saturday, January 29, 2011

Solving a Few Once a Month Cooking (OAMC) or Freezer Meal Issues

At the time of this writing, you will not find these tips on the web elsewhere or at the very least I can't find them. I don't know why. Maybe people are too germaphobic or paranoid, but these are strictly tips resulting from my own trial and error. I see all kinds of tips that are repeated everywhere on the web and in the end, they are really no help at all but common sense. Hopefully these tips will give you newer insights in how to approach common problems. Now let's get to it!

Problem #1: Freezer bags vs storage bags.

You'll see posts everywhere warning you that storage bags, which are considerably cheaper than freezer bags, are bad, bad, bad when it comes to freezing. Yet in one episode of Good Eats with Alton Brown, he states quite clearly that in the end, it makes no difference. I would love to give you a citation of which episode that was but I have searched long and hard to find it. I fully admit that I cannot. I just know he said it.

Now this doesn't mean that you should automatically believe me either. There is, in my experience, some truth that freezer bags are better. They are thicker, they seal better and so forth. Here is where the difference is though.

If you make what is commonly known as dinner kits, that is you bag several components of a dinner in separate bags then put all into another larger bag, then you're double bagging. To use freezer bags when double bagging is ridiculous! Would you use two sandwich bags when bagging a sandwich? Of course not. If you're going to double bag anyway, then stick to the storage bags. You now have cut your cost in half and you have double assurance that the seal is good enough.

Do what is right to you, but I recommend you try it just to see.

Problem #2: Freezing a casserole.

Freezing a casserole can be a pain in the neck. Oh sure, OAMC/Freezer Meal folks will tell you how easy it is. In theory, it does sound easy. That is until you try to do it. It makes me wonder if proponents have ever actually tried themselves! You quickly find several problems, depending on your situation.
  • You have one casserole dish that is a 9x11 and you have to make 5 or 6. Should you buy 4-5 more dishes? That sounds outrageous.
  • You follow the advice to place foil in the bottom, you freeze it, pull it out and wrap the rest in foil. When you go to remove the wrap, all the foil wrinkles are stuck, literally, into the casserole and now you have shreds of foil still attached to your casserole that you cannot remove. Your family will love you for their bites of foil.
  • If you decide to go ahead and bake the casserole with all of the foil intact, only removing the top covering, then you have burned, stuck on, wasted casserole.
You get the idea. It is obviously problematic. I have three solutions for this, but I will fully admit that they are imperfect solutions.
  • Instead of using glass baking dishes, switch to non-stick metal. You can reuse them easier than glass because once the casserole is frozen, you can dip it in hot water for 5-10 seconds and plop the frozen casserole out, then wrap with foil. This prevents the foil bits sticking into the casserole since it's already frozen. There are two cons to this method though and one is the same con to the glass method, in that you have to have several metal dishes. The second con is that most casserole recipes assume you're using glass and the baking temp and time will need adjusting. In the end, this is probably the method I would recommend last.
  • Like the metal method, you can instead find plastic freezer containers that are close (operative word here is close) to the glass baking dish size. Finding a plastic 9x11 container will not ensure that what pops out of the plastic container will properly fit into your 9x11 glass dish. Plastic containers tend to have more angular corners whereas glass dishes have more curved corners. You may find that your casserole won't even fit into the glass dish at all! Still, this method is worth taking the time to find one that will work. Like the metal method, once the dish is frozen you dip it in hot water, pop it out, then freeze it.
  • Finally the last method is a last resort. Instead of assembling the casserole in advance, you can package the ingredients together as in a dinner kit. The con to this method though is that not everything freezes well separately. This is really only good for non-layered casseroles such as green bean casserole or broccoli cheese and rice casserole. Something like a king ranch chicken casserole would be difficult.
As you can see, it takes quite a bit of planning for a simple casserole. A lot of OAMC folks just forgo the casseroles altogether. Maybe you can too. I just know that there are a few that I love and cannot live without.

Problem #3: Freezer space.

This is the A#1 problem and unfortunately there is no easy solution. You'll see common tips of maximizing space but let us face it; those ideas do NOT help! Your freezer is not going to get bigger and no matter what you do, there is only so much you can stuff in there. It's a done deal. In this case, you have to rethink the whole freezer meal process and in the end, it probably isn't going to work for those with small freezers. Yet do not despair. The whole idea behind OAMC/Freezer Meals is to cut your kitchen time and for most to save yourself money. Those are really the goals and to that end, there are some things you can do to help solve the problem.

First, you'll need to prioritize and follow that by getting creative. Think about what you do most often in the kitchen that takes up your time and go from there. For me, that's easy and involves knife use.

The number one thing for me is slicing, dicing, chopping and trimming off fat. A close second is shredding cheese. So then for me, it would be beneficial if I could do all of this in advance and freeze those items. Onions, bell peppers, and even carrots can all be frozen easily and well. That said, I do not recommend using frozen anything for salads. However for soups, stews and so forth, frozen vegetables are just fine. There is plenty of online information on blanching and flash freezing. The main problem with flash freezing is, once again, freezer space. Just use whatever you have, to spread them out, when flash freezing. A simple paper plate will work!

When freezing vegetables like this (using chopped onions as an example), I divide the onions up for each meal using a sandwich bag, or a snack bag. I think place all the onion bags in one gallon size storage bag and label it. I do the same with all the vegetables I frequently use and even shredded cheese! I freeze my cheese in one cup portions and place them in sandwich bags, shaking it loosely so it doesn't pack down. It's great and a HUGE time saver.

Another goal of freezer meals are having "go to" meals in a hurry. With freezer space as an issue, there is another way to cut space that you don't often see suggested, if at all. This one is slightly more complicated and requires some common sense thinking, but is a very useful tip in my opinion. That being reduce, or even eliminate, liquids before freezing. Also try eliminating canned ingredients and adding those when ready to cook.

The common sense immediately comes in to play here. Obviously not all dishes will freeze well without the liquid, however once you consider it, a good number can and actually most can with at least reduced amounts. The downside is that this really only works well for soups and stews. Still, it'll free up a little space. Just be sure to write on the package what you have to add, because if you're like me, you will forget.

You can Google other freezer space ideas. There are plenty out there and you may find some that will be helpful.


In any case, with a little creative thinking and preparation, most can find at least some benefit here. Even if you can't do something for the whole month, you can at least pare back your cooking and preparation time.

Good luck!

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