If we are Instagram friends or you follow me on Twitter, you will know that a few Sundays ago I spent the day cooking and prepping enough food to feed a few armies. I called it #FilltheFreezerDay (because all my special days need names, natch) and I started at 9am making meals that are simple enough for us to grab and heat that are not take out. A lot of people asked me to share my recipes in a blog post, so here we go. I’ve actually posted the process and tips in this post, and have then posted the individual recipes separately so you aren’t scrolling through a mile of stuff you aren’t interested in just to get to a recipe.
I also got asked how I decided to do this. I got the idea to do #FilltheFreezerDay because last year I did a week or so of meal prep and I got so annoyed and tired of it by the end of the week that I stopped caring how it tasted or looked or how much it cost. This year I wanted to do a tonne of frugal and simple cooking for a day, and then be lazy for a few months.
Time: I planned out all the meals I wanted to aim for using the assumption that each meal = one hour. That wasn’t really how it worked, but it did help me to plan based on time.
Storage: I wish I had done a better job of actually thinking about how much physical space all this prepped food would take because at the end of the day I was literally out of space. I have a small and old fridge with a freezer portion up top. I’ve noticed it doesn’t get as cold as I’d like so mostly it stores fruit for smoothies, random black bananas, yogurt tubes, and lots of gin.We also have a small chest freezer. Ross found it on Craiglist for $20. It measures about 33″ X 22″ X 36″ and has two baskets I use to keep organized. I once calculated out the cost of the freezer in terms of the electricity it used, and I feel like it was a reasonable tradeoff for having an appliance that actually froze to solid and provided the ability to stock up. If you at all have the room, please consider one – they get colder than your fridge and you can really stock up. Another note is that I keep a deep freeze inventory upstairs on the fridge. When I meal plan, I can easily remember what’s in the freezer downstairs, and focus on using up stuff that’s maybe been around longer than it should and keep my eye out for sales. For most recipes I froze in foil containers or freezer bags. We don’t have a microwave so the aluminum isn’t the issue (taking things out in advance is!) and I think the disposable nature of these containers is awful but also keeps you focused on easy meal preparation and cleanup.
Recipe Selection: The recipes themselves I spent about a week doing my research before hand, including writing an exact shopping list. I googled, used some of my go-to regulars, and asked friends for a few of they recipes I liked (the meatloaf is an adaptation of my mom’s recipe). There are also some really wonderful resources online and in print books for freezer-friendly foods, and I really do recommend taking a few books out from the library, even in you have some crowd favourites in your head. Looking through some books gave me the mushroom lasagna and inspired me to make the cannelloni, and I probably wouldn’t have added that level of diversity without reference materials. I use Trello to keep my food planning organized and save things I want to try out. (That link goes to a sign up form that gives me a free month of their premium service if you sign up – I use Trello to keep my life organized, no they aren’t paying me to say that.) Ask your spouse and your kids for their input too. I had no idea that Kale even like meatloaf until I asked him what he thought I should prepare and he suggested it.
Shopping: The day before #fillthefreezerday, I did my shopping. We went to Urban Digs Farm, a local and sustainable farm I like supporting, to pick up certain items, and purchased (among other things) two whole chickens, 6 lamb chops, a rack of lambs, and 5 packets of the best sausages in the world. Our bill came to about $150. All of the meat is local, small farm produced, and ethically and humanely raised.
We also went to Costco. I shop regularly at Costco and find they have an impressive selection of organic items, including staples like quinoa, rice, and other pantry fillers. I purchased a tray of chicken thighs, some skinless and boneless chicken breasts, some bone-in, skin-on breasts (my favourite), a pound of local shrimp, a big packet of frozen prawns, four one pounders of ground turkey, some lovely grilling steaks, some marinating steaks, and a tonne of ground beef and pork. Our bill at Costco came in around $300 (we also picked up some organic pastas, Island Farms butter, and other household items like the ever exciting laundry detergent).
Finally, I stopped by a local produce stand to pick up the items that I needed that Urban Digs didn’t have right now, like leeks. I think I spent about $20, but it was pretty negligible. I did also get a crazy great deal on onions the week before at a produce joint – 20 pounds for $7 for beautifully fresh, BC-grown, white onions.
Miscellaneous: Any meat I didn’t use in the meals I prepped was frozen, raw, in family meal-size portions. I’ve been working hard to get us down to actual recommended protein portions (super helpful visual guide here) rather than monster servings of meat. One of the best ways to do that is to bulk buy, portion small, and offer lots of veggies with the meal to fill your tummy with. Your plate really should be half veggies, and North Americans are obsessed with protein intake (right Melanie? Also: sidenote: I love your rules.) I love me some meat, but we need to be sensible. /rant over
Plan for meals that are winners in your house. Seriously. If you’re going to experiment with something you then make multiples of and have to store, you want it to be an easy win, right? The effort to make it + the energy and space you need to store it = a strange complicated balanced equation. Pick food you like to eat.
Making Time and Elbow Grease
I had actually placed an event in our family’s calendar to block off the time at least two weeks in advance. Ross was actually feeling kinda crappy that day, so he was happy to be at home and putz about with Kale but had he been feeling well they likely would have gone for a bike ride and left me to it. I originally planned from 9am to 3pm, and I started on time. but in the end I kept going till 7pm, with a break for dinner and a break for lunch.
Be prepared to wash your pots and pans a lot and do it after each round if possible. Like a lot of people, I have one big stew pot, and then two sauce pans, one small and one medium. I have five skillets though (seriously how did that happen I don’t know help so much cast iron), so that helped a bit. I also have four different measuring cups in 1, 2, 4 and 8 cup amounts which I found helpful.
Meal # 1: French Onion Soup
This soup is a huge favourite for Ross and I. It’s warm and ooey and gooey and is an excellent way to use up a whole bag of onions and stale bread. Kale is less of a fan, so when we eat it for a meal, he often gets another serving of veggies and something like a hard boiled egg and a tiny portion of French Onion Soup. For this recipe you need about 2 pounds of onions, and the biggest thing is the time it takes to prep the onions themselves (all the peeling!) and if you have a mandolin it is way faster. I started with this one mostly because it’s a recipe I know really well, and also because I felt like it might need some time to cool before I could actually put it in the freezer.
Meal # 2: Beef, Barley, and Leek Soup
Oh do I ever like Beef and Barley soup! It is a great tummy filler and just feels like a winter soup. On a related side note, my brother and sister-in-law uses barley to make stuffing in a turkeys or chickens rather than bread and I’ve asked for his recipe because I’m spoiled for life now. This soup was made in my crockpot because I wanted to really get tender beef and to keep an element free on the stove for the day. I also marinated it the night before to ensure tenderness, but I think you could marinate for an hour and get the same result. it comes out super thick and when you’re reheating to serve you can add water, stock, or even cream. Nom. You make this one, chick it in the slow cooker, and then you’re going to
Meal # 3: Teriyaki Sauce for Prawns, Chicken, Beef, or Tofu
This is a really versatile sauce. I put it on prawns in this case, and then cooked it up into a chow mein and thickened it using corn starch. Kale loved in and gobbled it up. My only complaint is that the prawns were awfully chewy but really they were frozen, partially thawed from having hot teriyaki poured on them, then frozen again. I should be surprised. This is a great one for a super fast meal, like 15 minutes or less.
Meal # 4: Lemon, Honey, and Fresh Herb Marinated Chicken
This one I’m proud of. This is raw chicken breasts marinated in local honey, fresh lemon juice, and a huge selection of herbs from my garden. I’m caring less and less about growing veggies in my garden these days, and think next year that aside from the asparagus I’m still babying along, the garlic that’s a staple, and the tomatoes we can’t get enough of, my garden shall be full of herbs. I can preserve them well and they don’t take up much room and frankly, they are in every meal I prepare. In this marinade was rosemary, sage, chives, tarragon, oregano, and basil.
Meal # 5: 40 Clove Chicken with Potatoes and Yellow Beans
This is one of the few recipes I put together that also included the whole meal, not just the main. I paired this one with parboiled potatoes and raw fresh yellow beans from Urban Digs, so that all three parts of the meal would be cooked correctly at the same time when it was reheated. Note: this one took ages to make, I really underestimated how long it takes to peel 40 cloves of garlic. This is a good job for a helper if you have one.
Meal # 6: Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni
This one was so so so easy and I feel like it will be really versatile and easy to use up leftovers. I used oven ready cannelloni tubes and wouldn’t do it any other way – it was so much easier to stuff hard tubes rather than pre-cooked ones. I also wanted to make this one because it isn’t a meat-led meal.
Meal # 7: Mushroom Lasagna with Bechamel Sauce
This one was a bit experimental for me but will likely result in a really wonderful and rich meal and I loved that it was again, not a meal-led meal that used up crimini mushrooms I had gotten on a super sale.
Meal # 8: Meatloaf
Meatloaf is super versatile and it seems most every family has a winner secret recipe. Some people add in barbeque sauce or ketchup or mustard or all sorts of other things. I tend to make a very meat-y loaf, and focus on smaller portions with great sides, like garlic mashed potatoes and greens, etc. Some people also make a gravy. There is no one “right” meatloaf so use your imagination.
Meal # 9: Zucchini Rice Gratin
I didn’t make many changes to this recipe so for this one I’ve just noted some comments and added some pictures and then am linking to Smitten Kitchen’s blog post, because I basically followed what she suggested exactly.
Meal # 10: Turkey Meatballs
These are a major major favourite in this house and Kale will ALWAYS ask for meatballs if I give him choices for dinner. They are a snap to make, freeze nicely, can be prepared in a big batch, and go with a lot of stuff. We don’t always serve them in a traditional way with tomato sauce and noodles, sometimes we serve them with buttered egg noodles on their own and sometimes in a cream sauce and sometimes Kale gets them in his lunch cold and plain. The trick is to make them the same size, even when you get bored of rolling these suckers around in your hand.