The Five-Day Freeze: Batch Cooking for the Rest of Us

By Linsey Knerl on 4 August 2009 (Updated 13 September 2013) 34 comments

When I first left corporate America to stay home and educate my kids, I was certain I would make the most efficient homemaker. I invested in several of the best batch-cooking books available, diving deep into the world of "freeze and eat" and deciding immediately that I hated it. For those of you who have one to two solid 12-hour chunks to dedicate to this cost-effective, yet back-breaking endeavor, my hat goes of to you. If you're working a full-time job, have tiny ones underfoot, or just generally hate cooking for days at a time, here are my tips for achieving the "Five Day Freeze" — or batch cooking for the rest of us. (See also: Intro to Freezer Savings)

We have some amazing batch cooking (or make-ahead) tips here on Wise Bread. I'll share those with you later in this article. What I'm aiming to discuss, however, is how to achieve the same level "cook now, eat later" zen, without the horrid hangover that occurs when you shop for an entire month's worth of food, cook for 12 hours straight, and then collapse in a pile of sweat and tears before realizing you lost two days of your life for some frozen lasagna trays. Some people have mastered the batch-cooking technique without all the drama, but let's be realistic: I'm a work-at-home, home-educating, mom of four little ones. I can rarely find time to sweep and scrub, much less create 30 days' worth of frozen meals on my days off. Here is how I've achieved basically the same results (easy meal prep on a budget) with the spare 30-minutes to an hour I have each day.

Pick Five, Any Five

This will depend completely on what your store has on sale, or what your garden has become overpopulated with. In the case of last week, I used the following five: hamburger, green peppers, zucchini, eggs, and chocolate chip cookies. No, you cannot go 30 days with just these five items, but they are great for building the foundation of a well-stocked freezer. (And if you rotate with a new five items each week, you'll have a variety of frozen goodies in no time!)

Day 1: Hamburger

Here is the least favorite day for my freezer prep routine. I bring home 30+ pounds of lean hamburger on sale (in my case, about $1.78 a pound), and set it in the fridge until the evening, when the kids are in bed. I break it up into 5-pound sections and do the following:

  • Brown 5 pounds and freeze them in bags of one browned pound each.
  • Brown 5 pounds, season it with homemade taco seasoning, and bag them in1-pound freezer batches.
  • Use 5 pounds in my favorite meatball recipe, bagging 30 meatballs to a freezer bag (this makes about 5 batches).
  • Divvy up the other 15 pounds into 1-pound chunks, which I freeze individually for whatever. (I like to wrap each pound in wax paper, then a heavy duty 100% recycled aluminum foil — or break out the Seal-a-Meal, if I have extra bags on hand.)

Day 2: Green Peppers

When the garden is just busting with green peppers or I find a few extra pounds of past-date peppers in my local grocer, I get freezing. I thoroughly rinse them, cut off the tops, and core them. Then I freeze them any of these various ways:

  • Dice them finely and freeze them with a little bit of water in ice cube trays. After they are solid, I pop them out into a freezer bag for an easy addition to soups and stews.
  • Blanch the peppers whole, let them cool, and then freeze them whole for stuffed pepper recipes.
  • Slice them lengthwise and freeze them for fajitas.

Day 3: Zucchini

There are a few ways I like to freeze zucchini. My favorite is to bake them up in a nice zucchini bread or muffin recipe and free the baked goodies. I also like to freeze the zucchini shredded by steaming it in a steamer tray for 3 minutes before bagging it up. (Slices work nicely as well. I just place them on a freezer tray after slicing, and then batter them after they get firm. Then I pop them back into the freezer for a bit to harden them up. You can freeze bags and bags this way and fry them whenever you want!) These same methods work really well for squash, too!

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Day 4: Eggs

My husband hates eggs, but with 100 laying hens, we will soon have them coming out of our ears. My favorite way to freeze them is in a lovely quiche (I prefer a bacon and cheddar or a crab meat and scallion recipe). You can also scramble them up and fry them into a little square or circle using a pancake mold. Then lay them flat on a tray to quick freeze before putting them all into a baggie in the freezer. These make excellent breakfast sandwich eggs.

Day 5: Cookies

This is my favorite batch cooking day. I pick a recipe (only one) and triple or quadruple it, freezing all but a few for later eating. CookieClubRecipes.com has a really good tutorial on freezing cookies.

Each week brings a new opportunity to cook, freeze, and save. I don't fall into the habit of thinking I absolutely have to have a meal plan and only freeze according to it. (With an ample supply of fresh and frozen veggies, a few garden treats, and the browned ground beef and some split chicken breasts, there really isn't anything I can't make on the fly.) How have you adapted batch cooking to work for you?

Batch Cooking Tips You Can't Live Without:

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Julie Rains's picture

Trying batch cooking...again...is on my to-do list for this year. I bought a book, equipment, etc. many years ago but though I could set aside a weekend to cook, my family didn't bond to the recipes as I hoped they would. Getting the basic ingredients ready rather than cooking lots of the same kind of casserole ready for assembly is what I've learned from you and Myscha.

My adaptations are basic but I want to do more: make and freeze spaghetti sauce (my family can nearly always eat this); freeze fruit and veggies from the farmer, and use in at least 1 dish per month; buy the frozen cookie dough or whatever my or my kids' group is selling and break those out occasionally (I'll also try your cookies though!) 

Myscha Theriault's picture

I agree that doing it the traditional way is way harder. That's how I started out and it nearly drove me to drink. Hell, who am I kidding, I'm sure I had a cocktail in my hand before the first day even was over.

Now I do things way differently and it's more about ingredients being prepared ahead (as you do with the lean beaf) and large batches of the things we eat the most of. In our house, this also includes dry mixes in gallon jars for things like cornbread, pizza crust mix, baking mix and dry cream of whatever soup mix.

Good article Linsey, and thanks for the links!

 

Check out my various projects and services at Itinerant Tightwad. I also have a monthly education newsletter.

Guest's picture
Hannah

Ah, this is more my style!

I too, like to keep my freezer stocked with ingredients such as browned hamburger, meatballs, pepper chunks, etc.

I also have containers of:

-turkey taken off the bone (Thanksgiving sales)
-rhubarb frozen in 6 c. bags (the amount needed for my 2 favorite recipes)
-beans cooked up from dry beans (I do a big pot or crock pot full and then divide up).
-blended up tomatoes from the garden (good for adding to soups, taco meat, etc.)

Guest's picture
Dave

I hate frozen food....unless I make it.

In college I quickly learned the cost and health benefits of performing the batch freeze. To this day I try and do the same.

One of the best meals I pre-prepare, but don't freeze are salad parts. I chop lettuce and other glorious veggies I would put into my salad one night. I would put them into separate plastic containers about 2 serving size and I have these small plastic containers that I keep separate for dressings which I can put a healthy amount of dressing in instead of just squirting globs of unhealthy dressing on and realize later I put too much. These last 3-4 days.

Just my sugg...

Good luck and well wishes....

Dave
LifeExcursion

Guest's picture
Kristina

I guess I just do what my mother always did. . . Whenever I make something "double-able", I double or triple it. Lasagne, chili beans, etc.. Hey, when I'm at the point where I'm practically doorbell-ditching with the produce from my garden, I take 50# of tomatoes and 2 bushels of basil, add a few heads of garlic, salt, and some good olive oil, and I've got summer in the freezer for the entire winter -- I've got the base for tomato soup, pizza, pasta sauce, lasagne, you name it. All from one morning's work and a little time on an outdoor burner that afternoon. Same can be said for any time of the year, but especially summer. PIe fillings are great to freeze ahead. Put a ziploc-encased pie filling in a pie tin to freeze it in the right shape, and later pop it into a crust and bake it. It's divine to have "fresh" peach pie in January.

Linsey, I'll bet those mulberries you mentioned a few weeks back would make a fine pie.

Guest's picture
Guest

There are only 2 of us at home, so my batches are a little smaller. Here are some items I freeze:

-cookies: I make a batch or double batch of dough, roll up in waxed paper and freeze the rolls. Then every week or so, I can bake a few rolls of different types of cookie dough.

-chili: I have a crock pot recipe, eat some for dinner and freeze the rest.

-mac n cheese: I bake some for that night and freeze the rest in serving size dishes.

-meatballs: So much work initially, but so easy to freeze and heat up in the toaster oven.

-ravioli: I make them fresh using wonton wrappers. You can use any combo of leftover meat and veggies. Freeze on a baking sheet to avoid sticking.

-soups: I freeze and re-use any leftovers.

-pot pies: I drain and toss stew leftovers into a pie crust.

-casseroles: I cook some that night and freeze the rest in a few smaller dishes, just the right size for the 2 of us.

I also make semi-frozen meals when I'm rushed:
-frozen Marie Callendar's Broccoli and Beef meal, frozen Sam's Club noodles & veggie dish, add fresh edamame or a stir fry

-frozen chicken tenders (heat in toaster oven), frozen corn (microwave), mashed potato flakes

-frozen fish sticks & french fries w/a fresh salad

Guest's picture

this seems like a good way to help us to keep our fridge well-stocked with nutritious food. hmmm viable ways to cut down on those canned stuff. thanks for the tips! :)

Linsey Knerl's picture

Wow!  I love hearing how everyone else has adapted batch cooking to be a little less overwhelming.  I think it's great that it's possible to practice moderation with this process.  It's so compatible to my take on frugality -- a little goes a long way!

Thanks so much for the comments!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Erik

How do you cook (reheat) the eggs after frozen? Does it change texture or taste?

Guest's picture
Guest

http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FactSheets/Focus_On_Freezing/index.asp#18

I love this site for ways to safely freeze & thaw foods. For eggs, they recommend thawing in the refrigerator.

Guest's picture
Miriam Ottawa

One thing no one has remembered to mention is that it helps to have a freezer chest to keep large quantities of food!
A regular freezer gets full very fast!

For frozen eggs microwave works best or also in a dish with a bit of water in the microwave so the eggs do not dry out.

Subway when they make their breakfast sandwiches they cook their eggs in the microwave in a glass cup

Guest's picture
Jenn

Yesterday I made a quadruple batch of meatloaf mix and made 2 loaves and turned the rest into meatballs. The meatballs cooked up easily in the crock pot which definitely saves on work and mess. You'd think they'd all stick together but they don't.

I ran into a mini-dilemma with the leftover "juice" in the crock pot. I know there's good flavor there. I could save it for stews this winter, or a giant batch of gravy. And that my grandmother wouldn't have thought twice about saving it. But I also considered it gross. I'm saving it in the freezer while I think about it.

I also often roast 2 chickens at once, although I'm getting tired of picking all the meat off. I'll be more inclined come winter.

There's only 3 people in our family, so doubling a recipe usually leaves us with plenty of leftovers. I have to be careful not to get too far ahead. My freezer seems to burn things quickly so I try not to keep too much on hand.

Guest's picture
Guest

My freezer does that, too! I try to use foods within a month or so.

Guest's picture
Robin

I love to freeze roasted green or red peppers. Bake them whole at 450-500 degrees for about 20 minutes until they start to char. This also works at a lower temp; just cook longer. (Line the pan with foil for easy cleanup; run the foil through the dishwasher and it's ready for re-use.)

Move the cooked peppers to a covered dish and leave to cool. The steam will loosen the skins. When cool, slide the skins off (if some of the skin is undercooked it won't slide off; this is no big deal), remove the seeds, and either spread the peppers flat on a metal pan to freeze, or spread them in layers in a large freezer bag, with layers separated by parchment or foil. I like to use the inner bags from cereal boxes, cut open and laid flat, to separate the layers. It's stronger than waxed paper.

It's a good idea to put the peppers in something sealable rather than freezing on an open tray, because the pepper odor can permeate your ice cream and frozen cookies.

Roasted peppers are good in a lot of things, but they're especially wonderful to pop out of the freezer and put on a
pizza.

I also freeze the juice inside the roasted peppers. If you make your own vegetable stock, the pepper juice is a great addition -- besides adding flavor, it's viscous and makes the stock smoother and thicker.

If you don't have time to do all this in one shot, you can stick the covered dish of cooled peppers in the fridge, to skin and freeze then next day.

Guest's picture
croatian1

I also am not of fan of how some food tastes after being cooked, then frozen and then prepared again. I will do odds and ends of beef or chicken to be added to soups. I also will thinly slice leftover roast beef and freeze it. I use that with some nice aujus and hardrolls.

My family are big fans of anything italian! Every fall I can sauce; usually 40 quarts. This amount feeds us for close to a year, and I share with friends. The recipe I use is from an old Italian friend of the family. It must cook for a minimum of 6 hours. Now, I tried freezing it one year. What a waste of some awesome sauce that was. It becomes watery upon defrosting. It might take longer to can it, but with a good sized canner, I can do 7 quarts at a time, but that time invested canning the sauce versus freezing it is so worth it. Again, the one time I did freeze it both family and friends asked if I did something different to the sauce----they said this not in a good way!

Guest's picture
lynnkz

Great post and a lot of good tips in the article as well as the comments.

I do most of my freezer cooking by doubling or tripling any freezable meals as I cook them. Easy ones are: pasta sauce (my favorite is a Bolognese sauce from Marcella Hazan - freezes beautifully and oh so easy to reheat!), sloppy joes, chili, and soup.

One trick we've learned with soups - cook your noodles or starch separately and add when serving. That way, if you freeze the soup, there are no noodles in it to get mushy. We make fresh noodles to serve with the thawed soup.

Another thing I freeze regularly is chopped celery. When we have some going a little mushy, I chop it up for soup and freeze in baggies. When I am making soup, it is easy to just toss a handful in. I do the same with overruns of green peppers as was mentioned above.

Guest's picture
valletta

I'm not a big fan of dishes that have been frozen. I was the same way as a kid. I'm big on texture and there are very few things that retain a good texture for me. As for ingredients, some freeze well.
Instead of batch cooking, I batch "prepare".
In France it's called "mise en place", basically getting all your ingredients ready to go so that when you start cooking you look like you belong on the Food network, haha. And most ingredients that you chop, mince, slice, etc. can be put in the fridge for a couple of days. Or if you must in the freezer :)

I like to take a Mediterranean approach and cook simple, fresh and seasonal.

But basically I look back to my grandmother for inspiration, who was from Spain, and think about how she put together meals for 8 children (including plucking the chickens!) I never complain.

Guest's picture
Justin

My wife does batch cooking and it works for our food budget great. She does a great job cooking great meals and eating them and converting them into something else the next day.

Guest's picture

I've never tried batch cooking before. Although it sounds fun and convenient, I prefer to "batch prepare" so as to eat fresh.

Guest's picture
Operagal

Someone needs to sing the benefits of the Roast. What is easier than salting but a roast, popping it in the oven and then walking away for a couple of hours. Every Sunday I devote 2-3 hours of time to cooking and my weekly cooking is simple (by now my friends know and it's when they usually 'happen to be in the neighborhood').

Usually I will cook a roast, make a quick frittata, pick whatever meat seems to be on sale that week and cook it on the stovetop or the grill, portion off 5 breakfasts, 5 meals for lunches during the week and then when I get home from work, I just saute or steam some vegetables (prefer them fresh) and have a good meal on the table from keys in door to kitchen in about 15 minutes.

Chicken soup freezes incredibly well. When I make it, I go ahead and make a vat of it, portion it off and again, cook some vegetables when I get home, maybe boil some noodles and quick soup in no time.

Guest's picture
Marcia

I'm mostly a vegetarian, and when I remember, and have time, I bulk cook. Generally, after about 4 days, when I'm tired of something, it goes in the freezer (maybe not the best way, but...)

For us, it's often soups or beans and rice. The occasional burrito. It's harder in the summer when I'm not interested in baking. Can't really freeze salads...

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm like the doubler -- I find that if I multiply a recipe so that it will feed our household of three adults and a preschooler 4 times, we get 6 freezer meals out of 2 dinners, and it doesn't require gobs more effort than making those two dinners. I can do this casually during the month and the food rotates -- I don't feel "locked in" to a decision made weeks ago.

On hamburger, I brown the beef with onions and green peppers (which we like) and maybe some italian-type seasoning. I then use it as the basis for:
- chili (plus tomatoes, beans, cumin, & chili pepper)
- spaghetti (plus tomatoes, pasta, & cheese)
- picadillo (plus tomatoes & green olives, served over cheesy cornmeal)

As you can tell, stewed tomatoes on sale are a major pantry staple for us.

When I'm freezing food for my 85 year old father at his farm in the boonies, I make the whole dish, including its complementary starch, and freeze it as a complete meal (I mix together the pasta, meat, and cheese before freezing). (Actually, I cook the meat mixture & make one of the three dishes for our dinner on one night, refrigerating the rest of the meat mixture for the next day; then sometime during the next day I make the other two dishes & freeze them).

At home, I just freeze the meat, onions, peppers (I substitute red ones when I can get them cheap), and seasonings as a meal starter. With a garden and gourmet markets accessible, all sorts of other interesting things can make their way into the pan when dinner is on -- kalamata olives or wine in the spaghetti, cilantro leaves or berries (coriander!) in the chili . . .

Guest's picture
Guest

Another freezer favorite for us is berries. I have favorite ways of preserving each of the berries, though:

- strawberries, sliced, sugared, let set a bit to bring up the juices, then frozen
- black raspberries, cooked into corn muffins, then frozen (or used to flavor balsamic or rice wine vinegar & not frozen -- another story)
- blueberries, frozen whole on a cookie sheet, then zipped into freezer bags (to be munched by the handful or stirred into yogurt)
- blackberries, baked into my stepmother's buttery blackberry spice cake recipe, which is iced with caramel frosting (used to be Jiffy!) after defrosting
- red raspberries, made into freezer jam with a lower-sugar pectin (I miss sure-jel lite!)

Having thereby maximized the return on my picking & preserving time for each berry in its season, I then buy several bags of commercially frozen berries for smoothies (adding bananas to my freezer stock when they appear on the discounted produce cart).

I don't have a good source of mulberries at present, but wondered if anyone has a favorite use for them.

Guest's picture
Guest

Another big batch favorite when I'm stocking up for my father is poached turkey breast (inspiration from a Better Homes & Gardens or Family Circle article years ago).

I'll poach a large turkey breast in water and a can of chicken broth, plus onion, carrot, a bay leaf, and poultry spices (this takes about an hour and 15 minutes). Add sides & that's dinner with lots of leftover broth & meat. When visiting dad, broth is used for other dishes over the week (at home, it's usually frozen). The meat can be used for sandwiches and/or made into casseroles. The article suggested turkey tetrazzini (with mushrooms, red or green peppers, spaghetti, and parmesan) and turkey pot pie for additional meals.

Check back issues of the Thanksgiving issues of women's magazines in your local library for more leftover turkey inspiration.

Guest's picture
Guest

I like to saute my "edgy" celery in butter with onions & freeze into ice cubes for future use. Can also do this with green peppers.

Odds & ends of fresh squeezed lemon juice are also frozen into cubes.

Periodically, I take a vegetable peeler to a lemon, lime, or orange before juicing & keep a baggie of zest in the freezer (much better than those crusty little jars of dried peel!). At cook time, I either mince it in its frozen state with my chef's knife or toss it in the food processor with other ingredients.

Cubes of frozen pesto or broth are also wonderful to have on hand.

I've also had good success with freezing pitted Kalamata olives.

Linsey Knerl's picture

You have my praise of the roast:

http://www.wisebread.com/one-pot-roast-a-week-of-cheap-and-delicious-lun...

There are at least a week's worth of super make-ahead meals from a good-sized pot roast.  Thanks for the comments!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
neverland~

actually, i prefer fresh food to frozen food, but the five-day freeze is telling us a good way for batch cooking~[img]http://www.photosnag.com/img/4713/n09x0302vnsn/clear.gif[/img]

Guest's picture
Shannon

Lindsey,
As another work-at-home, homeschooling mom to 4, I'm with you. I'm not always up for a full day or weekend of cooking and freezing, though periodically I'll do some. Like you I've adapted the whole batch/freezer cooking thing to fit our time.

Every time I buy meat, I do all the prep work and freeze it in portions so that all I have to do is grab a bag and start cooking. I blogged about how I do this here:

http://workathomehomeschoolingmom.com/2009/07/saving-money-on-groceries-...

Like you, I also chop up bell peppers for my husband's pizza. Peppers are nice because you don't have to blanch them before freezing them, not for chopped peppers anyway. I've never tried freezing whole peppers - might have to give that a try.

I also do what others have suggested and make bigger batches of normal dinner meals to freeze for later as either dinner or lunch portions. My husband hates the feeling of having last night's dinner left overs, so I just freeze lunch portions and he picks from his "lunch shelf" in the freezer of what to take to work that day/week. It saves us from buying things for his lunch, and he gets much healthier lunches too. :)

I would really like to try freezing cooked eggs for breakfast sandwiches. Never tried that before, but I have frozen raw eggs using the instruction Lisa Vitello shared in her New Harvest Homestead newsletter. That works well as well. But since we don't have laying hens, we don't tend to have a surplus of eggs too often.

Stratas and Quiche are fun to make in muffin tins for freezing later as portable breakfast foods. I've had fun with that too.

Rolls freeze great. I usually make a big bunch, and then freeze in portion size bags for snacks and dinner.

Chicken stock and the ingredients to make chicken stock are always in my freezer as well. That way I always have it on hand to make up a new batch or to use when I need it.

Oopps..this is getting rather long. Great article.

...Shannon

Guest's picture

I like it, especially when talks going about the eggs. =))

Guest's picture
Guest

So far I'm really enjoying and learning from your website. But I haven't noticed anything about coupons, and I really do seem to save a lot with coupons. I've been known to save anywhere from 55% to 85% on my food bill with coupons. Just thought I'd bring it up.

Guest's picture
Betty

I'm a doubler too. I also try to make good use of the oven when it's on. So if I'm making meatballs that I brown in the oven, I'll also make a meatloaf and some chicken breasts. Only turn the oven on once.

I've learned to be careful of how many meat dishes I have frozen though. If (when) the power goes out, you will lose your food in a day. Last summer we had no power for 3 days due to a storm.

Great article!

Guest's picture

Those cookies look sooo good! I live alone, so if I do any batch cooking it's usually just making a big pot of chili, soup, lasagna, or whatever else I happen to make in a large batch, and freeze into single size servings. If I had a deep freeze, I probably would do more batch cooking, but I just have the top of my fridge (I live in an apartment). Great tips though.

Guest's picture
Guest

You pay $1.78 a pound for lean hamburger? Wow... Where I am (Perth, Australia) the lean stuff is $6.50 per pound (and higher still at the butcher), and our poorest-quality stuff (which is 30% fat and goodness knows what else) is still $5.00 per pound! Hamburger is something we don't get to buy very often - and the same goes with any meat, really...

Guest's picture
Rachael

Hi there in Perth from the East Coast,

Can you get roo mince in Perth? It costs about $8 a kilo from Woolworths and Coles over here and is 98% fat free. We buy it because it is a very lean high quality meat that is cheap, but I can understand that some people would have difficulties bringing their heads around eating it (after all, it is our national emblem!). Also, I have heard some people worry about animal rights (but I think they might be worried about animal rights in general).

If you haven't tried it, and are willing and able to give it a go, it has a slightly stronger (gamier) flavour than beef mince, so a good introduction is bolognaise where the tomato and other flavours can mask it. I have served up roo bolognaise to lots of people (when that was all I had) and they didn't mention the flavour.