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How to Create Garden-Fresh Freezer Meals

Life is busy; we are constantly inundated with hectic schedules and are pulled in a number of directions by daily demands. Freezing meals ahead of time can be a great time saver for a busy family, all while preserving a healthy option free of preservatives. If you are expecting a new baby or know a big deadline is approaching at work, you can freeze meals and still serve your family healthy food every night rather than ordering take-out or stopping at the nearest drive-thru window. What I love about this method of preserving your garden goods is that it can be tailored to fit any diet or special nutritional requirement. Plus it is a perfect option for storing away the last of your harvest for a winter full of nutritious meals or using items you have gotten on sale at the grocery store.

Before delving into some of fantastic ideas on creating meals from your garden or local farmer’s market goodies, there are a few important basics when it comes to freezing food safely and efficiently. If properly executed, freezing will not diminish the nutritional value of your dish.

  • Most dishes should be pre-baked. While there are a few dishes you may be able to freeze in raw form, most require baking. Not only does this help to set your flavors, but it also greatly reduces the risk of bacteria and food-borne illnesses. This is especially important for any dishes that have meat.
  • Use appropriate freezer storage products.  In order to maintain the quality, freshness, texture, and flavor of your dish, it’s important to use the appropriate freezer storage products. For casseroles and lasagnas, I love using disposable aluminum foil pans. They can go straight from the freezer to the oven to the dinner table. My kind of packaging! For sauces, soups, stews, pastas, and similar dishes, vacuum-sealed freezer bags or plastic jars work well. Freezer paper and aluminum foil can be used for meat or baked goods such as bread or cake.
  • Ensure the quality of your ingredients. Don’t ever use produce, meat, or other ingredients that are over-ripe or bordering on expiration. Only use ripe, high-quality ingredients that are not damaged or otherwise compromised. If in doubt, play it safe; freezing food does not kill any bacteria it may carry.
  • Avoid freezing ingredients that don’t thaw well. Most foods freeze without problem, but be sure to avoid freezing whole eggs, egg-based condiments (such as mayonnaise), sour cream, or whole potatoes. The best types of freezer meals are stews and soups, casseroles, pasta dishes, burritos or enchiladas, mixed vegetables, and pizzas. You can also pre-make sauces or fillings to add to fresh ingredients rather than freezing the whole meal.

Following basic freezing guidelines will help maintain the integrity of your ingredients while giving you a great way to make those delicious fruits and vegetables last through the cold winter months. With those worries out of the way, it’s time to get creative and cook!

Organization is Your Name, Efficiency is Your Game!

Once you have harvested (or purchased) your vegetables of the season, it’s helpful to take some time to organize. One of my biggest pet peeves is getting into the middle of a large cooking/freezing extravaganza, only to stop mid-stream because I hadn’t accounted for everything I needed. Taking the extra time prior to starting will save you time and headaches.

  • Take inventory. First and foremost, it is essential to take a look in your freezer. Take inventory of what you already have and what you need to add. I also find that this is a perfect time for emptying out the freezer, reviewing its contents, defrosting, and cleaning. Throw away any expired products or items that have been frozen for longer than the USDA recommendations. When replacing items back into your freezer, make sure it will be easy to store your new meal additions at the bottom, allowing you easy access to use the older items first.
  • Find recipes and plan meals in advance. After you know what food you have, take some time to research recipes that utilize it. Budget your produce for a variety of recipes that your family will enjoy, and then get to work on that shopping list!
  • Schedule time to bake. Plan a day (or weekend) to cook your meals. The idea of freezing pre-cooked meals is a growing trend, often accomplished in a method of cooking a month of meals in just one weekend. Many websites highlight this theme, but among the more well known is Once a Month Cooking. For getting those harvested veggies frozen in ample time, a day or weekend cook-fest is more for the purpose of preserving the food before it has passed its prime. Either way, it requires a bit of planning and scheduling to ensure that you have enough time to prepare several meals in succession.

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Great Dishes That Showcase Your Tasty Produce

There’s a world of opportunity in the dishes you can create, and your choices will most likely be those that utilize your veggies in the best way. The infinite supply of recipes online makes this process so easy.  I personally love visiting blogs that specialize in frozen meal recipes, such as Freezer Meals for Us. These can be a fantastic resource. There are also many big name sites, such as Martha Stewart, that also have great recipes and tips for freezing meals. Here are some dishes with a plethora of recipe opportunities that you can customize with your own fresh ingredients.

  • Enchiladas and burritos are great for showcasing your yield of beans, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Some variations may even include corn, herbs, and more. If you want a meal fully homemade, you can make your own fresh or whole-food tortillas.
  • Lasagna is a great pre-made dish. It requires significant time to prepare, but if done in advance, you can have all the benefits of a tedious meal on busy days with only the fraction of the time investment. Your tomatoes, homemade tomato sauce, spinach, onions, and even squash and eggplant can be used in this dish.
  • Soups, stews, and chowders are perfect for placing in the crock-pot on the morning of a cold autumn or winter day. Even better, there are so many varieties to choose from, ensuring that you’ll find a variety of perfect options for your vegetable combination. Great fresh ingredients for these can include anything from tomatoes, squash, peas, beans, and corn to onions, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and eggplant.
  • Sauces and fillings can make the nights that you do cook more efficient. Creating spaghetti sauce, meatballs, or pesto ahead of time and adding it to pasta or bread when you’re ready to prepare the meal can lessen your time in the kitchen while still ensuring a scrumptious dinner for your family. These sauces and fillings can include any veggie or herb you choose to include.
  • Casseroles are perhaps the first thing that come to mind when you think of freezer meals. Like soups, stews, and chowders, you literally have every possibility at your fingertips. You can find (or make up) recipes for all of your fresh ingredients.
  • Breads and baked goods are the icing on the cake, so to speak. I love to incorporate squash, carrots, onions, berries, apples, and other fruits into breads, pies, and muffins. This is a great go-to for that extra side dish to complete a meal, a tasty after-school snack, or my personal favorite, a sweet dessert after dinner.

Before You Freeze

Once you have prepared your meal and are ready to move it to the freezer, first ensure that it has completely cooled. Seal your meal in an airtight container, foil pan, or baggy, and if using plastic jars, leave an inch of head space for expansion. Be sure to label your item with the name of the dish and the date it was baked. I also always include the expiration date for quick and easy reference.

The USDA guidelines for freezing food are a great resource for establishing your meal’s expiration date. The freezer life of your dishes should be established as follows:

  • Tomato-based sauces or dishes: six months
  • Meat or meat dishes: six months
  • Soups, stews, and chowders: two to three months
  • Cooked poultry: three months
  • Cooked poultry in sauce or gravy: five to six months
  • Breads and muffins: two to three months
  • Pasta dishes: four to five months

Preserve Your Garden Goodies Through The Winter

Freezing allows you to capture the tasty nutrition of your garden fruits and veggies and make them available to your family throughout those cold winter months. There are literally hundreds of online resources at your disposal to make this process fun and unique to your family’s needs. It’s also a great way to incorporate some family time, so harvest that garden, visit your local farmer’s market, and plan some time to make some amazing meals for your family that will last all winter long.

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