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Freeze and Reheat: 10 Make-ahead Meals

Reheating meals from the freezer will save you a lot of time and money.
Reheating meals from the freezer will save you a lot of time and money.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Busy days make for frazzled nights. Having a jam-packed schedule usually means something has to give, so it's not surprising that many of us frequently choose not to prepare dinner. One too many trips to the drive-thru though, and you'll notice the effects on both your wallet and your waistline.

Luckily, with a little planning, you can still have all the benefits of a home-cooked meal without the nightly preparation. Just use your kitchen's secret weapon: the freezer. Many meals are perfect for freezing and saving for those days when you only have time for a quick reheat.

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We know, spending time now to save some later sounds great, but when are you supposed to come up with the minutes or hours required to to make extra meals for your freezer? You can make double when preparing meals and then freeze the extras, or schedule a weekend afternoon when you can devote a few hours to cooking several different dishes. Either way, let the food cool down before you freeze it.

What types of dishes work best for freezing and reheating? Read on for 10 great possibilities.

Nothing warms you up on a chilly night like soup, and when you make and freeze your own, you can avoid all the sodium and preservatives that are in conventional canned offerings. Broth-based soups are ideal for freezing. Creamy soups and those with potatoes don't hold up in the freezer as well because they get watery when thawed. Pasta can get doughy in the freezer, so if the recipe calls for it, add it after you reheat the meal.

After making the meal, keep bacteria at bay by cooling it quickly. Put the soup in a bowl and let it sit in shallow ice water (stir it a few times while it chills). After it's cooled, toss it in the freezer, where it'll keep for two to three months.

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Lasagna is easy to freeze and heats up well.
Lasagna is easy to freeze and heats up well.
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The key to easily freezing this comfort food favorite is to line your baking pan with aluminum foil before preparing the lasagna, making sure the foil extends a few inches over the sides of the pan. Add a little extra sauce so the dish doesn't dry out during the freezing process. Once it's made, let it cool, and then put the pan directly in the freezer. When the lasagna becomes firm, wrap it in the foil and freeze the entire package. It'll keep in the freezer for three months.

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With a few exceptions, casseroles lend themselves well to freezing. So what works and what doesn't? Dishes made with canned soups are great, freezer-ready meals that reheat so well many people swear they're better the second time around. However, dishes made with milk sauces don't work on ice because milk tends to separate or curdle when frozen. Also, potato-rich meals like hash brown casserole aren't ideal because, as we mentioned earlier, potatoes don't freeze well.

Whatever kind of casserole you decide to freeze, it'll keep for three to four months. Divide it into individual portions before freezing so you can reheat it in appropriately sized servings, and the smaller pieces will thaw more quickly.

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Like it or not, frozen sloppy joes will still be messy once they're reheated.
Like it or not, frozen sloppy joes will still be messy once they're reheated.
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Sloppy joes are a kid favorite that don't get as much credit in the adult world as they should. Of course, you can help remedy that by making a batch for dinner and another for the freezer. Your kids will applaud the promise of future joes, and you'll also look forward to another messy meal.

Just make a big batch of sloppy joe meat, eat what you want, and let the rest cool. Place the meat into one or more freezer-safe containers, leaving a half-inch or so of room at the top for it to expand during the freezing process. It'll keep for two to three months in the freezer.

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Chicken is an incredibly versatile meat, and it also freezes well. Baked chicken breasts are particularly easy to make and reheat. All you need to do is add whatever seasonings you like to the breasts and put them in the oven. Once they're done cooking, let them cool; then place them in a freezer-safe container, making sure they remain flat and not stacked. They'll keep in the freezer for two to three months.

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Many people consider pulled pork to be the ultimate sandwich meat.
Many people consider pulled pork to be the ultimate sandwich meat.
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Pulled pork is one of those building-block meats that can be the start of many great dishes. You can add pulled pork to any number of meals, but sometimes it's best to just pour on some of your favorite barbecue sauce and slide it between a few slices of bread or just eat it on its own. To get pulled pork to the perfect level of tender goodness, you need to cook it for several hours. Use your slow cooker, or, if you're going to be home for a while, make a big batch and let it bake in the oven while you do other things around the house.

To freeze it, put 1-cup portions into resealable bags, making sure to add some broth to keep the meat from drying out. Then squeeze out the extra air and store flat.

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Meatloaf is another comfort dish that freezes well. Be sure to let it cool completely and wrap it tightly in foil to prevent freezer burn. Another fun option is to make meatloaf muffins, which are the perfect size for individual portions. A cooked meat dish like meatloaf will stay good in the freezer for two to three months.

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Frozen enchiladas reheat perfectly.
Frozen enchiladas reheat perfectly.
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Regular taco night can get tiresome, so liven up your Mexican meals with enchiladas. You can even mix it up a bit by using different kinds of meat. Try beef or pork, or -- if you're looking for something a little leaner -- try chicken or turkey. This casserole-type dish also works well as a vegetarian meal if you replace the meat with beans. It'll keep in the freezer for about three months.

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Much like soup, chili is another slow-cooking dish that you can make in big batches and freeze in smaller portions. Before you put it in the freezer though, use the ice bath technique we discussed for soups so it can cool down before you freeze it. Once it's properly cooled, spoon it into sturdy containers and leave 1/4- to 1/2-inch room at the top to allow the liquid to expand when it freezes. It'll keep for two to three months.

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These peppers are ready to be frozen.
These peppers are ready to be frozen.
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Stuffed bell peppers are the perfect food to freeze and reheat. You can buy the peppers while they're in season, prepare the meal, and then freeze them for later. Use a beef-based filling or go for an entirely vegetarian meal and stuff them with vegetables and cheese. To freeze, cool them after cooking and place in a freezer-safe plastic container. For best results, don't stack the peppers on top of each other. They'll keep in the freezer for about 3 months.

Learn more about freezing foods on the next page.

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Sources

  • Andress, Elizabeth L., Ph.D. and Judy A. Harrison, Ph.D. "Foods That Do Not Freeze Well." National Center for Home Food Preservation. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/dont_freeze_foods.html
  • Barrett, Teri Tsang. "One Month of Make-Ahead Meals." EveryDay with Rachael Ray. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://www.rachaelraymag.com/food-how-to/grocery-shopping-tips/one-month-of-make-ahead-meals
  • Bastin, Sandra. "Make-Ahead Meals." Cooperative Extension Service, University of Kentucky -- College of Agriculture. Aug. 2007. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://www.ca.uky.edu/hes/fcs/factshts/FN-SSB.095.PDF
  • Better Homes and Gardens. "Freezing Soup." (Nov. 27, 2011) http://www.bhg.com/recipes/how-to/food-storage-safety/freezing-soup/
  • Fink, Leslie. "5 Make-Ahead Meals." Weight Watchers. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://www.weightwatchers.com/util/art/index_art.aspx?tabnum=1&art_id=10201&sc=126
  • Food and Drug Administration. "Refrigerator & Freezer Storage Chart." (Nov. 27, 2011)http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/ResourcesForYou/HealthEducators/ucm109315.pdf
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Freezing and Food Safety." June 3, 2010. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/index.asp
  • Good Housekeeping. "Homemade Chicken Broth." (Nov. 27, 2011) http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/recipes/cooking-tips/homemade-chicken-broth#slide-1
  • Oesterle, Allison M. and Elizabeth L. Andress. "Freezing Casseroles, Soups and Stews." National Center for Home Food Preservation. Mar. 2004. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://nchfp.uga.edu/tips/winter/Freezing_Prepared_Foods.html
  • Reader's Digest. "Facts for Freezing Soup." 2005. (Nov. 27, 2011) http://www.rd.com/food/facts-for-freezing-soup/

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