For parents, time is of the essence—especially at back-to-school time when there simply don’t seem to be enough hours in the day.
The rush-rush can complicate things in the kitchen, especially when it comes to eating well.
“I get it,” says Wesley Delbridge, registered dietitian and director of food and nutrition for the Chandler (Arizona) Unified School District. “Trying to get the kids out the door, off to school, keep them on time for after-school activities, then getting home to prep, cook, and serve dinner—it’s hard to imagine how any parent has time for all of that.”
One way to cope is with freezer meals: meals you can make ahead. It’s a strategy that can help, not only with dinners, but meals for the next day’s school lunch box.
“Prepping and freezing meals when you’re already cooking can make things a lot easier for another day when life is too hectic,” Delbridge says.
But what to make? Not every dish keeps well and, certainly, not every three-course meal is suitable for on-the-go lunches. Here are a few make-ahead freezer meal ideas to get you started as well as more tips for weeknight meal planning.
“Grilling is a less messy and healthier way to prepare foods at home,” Delbridge says. “When meat is grilled instead of fried, the excess fat is melted off, into the grill, leaving you with leaner and healthier meat. In addition frying adds fat and often salt and seasonings in excess. Best of all, grilling leaves little mess. Big frying pots and pans won’t need cleaning after grilling.”
Among chicken’s best assets is its versatility. Having fully cooked grilled chicken in the freezer makes meal preparation an easy process. Simply heat the chicken and add it to whatever meal you want to prepare.
“Next time you’re grilling chicken or steaks,” Delbridge suggests, “think about tossing a couple extra chicken breasts on the grill and saving them in the freezer for a tasty meal later in the week.”
What to do with that grilled chicken at meal time?
- Serve over a salad of fresh green lettuce and vegetables
- Add to whole grain pasta or a rice dish
- Use inside tacos or a quesadilla
- Make a chicken breast wrap or sandwich
“Whole grain pasta is a great alternative to use instead of white pasta for many reasons when preparing foods ahead of time,” Delbridge says. “Besides the better nutritional value, whole grain pasta keeps its shape and texture well when cooked or frozen. It won’t become mushy after heating. You can make baked pasta meals in large amounts, so think about making an additional pan to freeze, then heat and serve for a made-ahead meal.”
- Lasagna (traditional meat sauce, vegetable, or cheese)
- Baked macaroni and cheese
- Baked ziti or penne pasta with a red meat sauce or vegetarian sauce
Chili and Soup
“Chili is a great cook-and-freeze meal because recipes can be doubled or tripled and it stores very nicely until you are ready to heat and serve,” says Delbridge, who adds that chili offers a chance to be creative.
“Serve it as a vegetarian meal or use ground chicken and turkey instead of red meat,” he says. “Also, by adding nutritious vegetables, you can bring in additional flavors that your family will enjoy.
“Homemade soup is great to keep in mind as well. Similar to chili, it’s a good way to incorporate vegetables, and it’s especially good in the fall and winter months. Of course, some soups and stews can be made ahead with use of a slow cooker.”
When thinking about ingredients:
- Vegetarian chili with beans, carrots, onion, corn, bell pepper, potato, and zucchini
- Add ground turkey, chicken, or beef
“Just like grilled chicken, meatballs are very easy to add to many meals when cooked and frozen ahead of time,” Delbridge says. “Meatballs are another great way to get creative as well.
“You can utilize ground turkey or chicken as well as beef and add any number of different flavorings. When mixing up the meatballs, don’t be afraid to add a little bit of sauce for that flavoring.”
- Barbeque meatball sliders
- Buffalo meatball sliders
- Teriyaki meatballs served with brown rice and broccoli
Calzones and Bread Pockets
“A pasty is a bread pocket that you can essentially put anything in,” Delbridge says. “Remember to use a whole grain bread for your calzone or pasty. These can be served as meals or snacks—for breakfast, lunch, or dinner:
- Pizza Calzone (pepperoni, cheese, and red sauce)
- Vegetable Calzone (mushroom, spinach, cheese, bell pepper, and zucchini)
- Cheese Calzone (three cheese Parmesan, mozzarella, ricotta)
- Turkey & Ham Cheese Pocket
- Beef & Potato Pasty
- Breakfast Pasty (egg, bacon, potato, cheese)
Featured Image – Taz / CC by 2.0