When I started living on my own, I was most excited to be cooking for myself. As an enthusiastic home chef, the prospect of planning and creating my own meals every day sounded inspiring and rewarding.
My enthusiasm began to wane, however, as I realized that the routine of cooking often left me tired and stressed. Between the work and expense of grocery shopping, food preparation, and the time involved with cooking and cleanup, I found myself turning to easy egg sandwiches and a glass of orange juice at the end of the day.
I decided to put into practice a piece of advice I learned as a child from observing my mom in the kitchen: Use the freezer to make nutritious cooking and meal planning easy. As I began putting my freezer to better use (I even made a Pinterest page), I started eating healthier, maximizing my budget, and relieving the stress of meal prep.
Here’s how to put your freezer to good use.
01. Make Meal Planning Easier
The benefits of meal planning are many. According to the Mayo Clinic, not only does meal planning help you eat healthy, it maximizes your time and money at the grocery store. As they say, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
If you’re anything like me, making meal planning a habit can be a struggle. There is nothing more frustrating than having a wonderful dinner planned for the evening, only to realize you forgot to pick up a key ingredient at the grocery store. Or perhaps your afternoon meeting went over, and you’re arriving home an hour later than planned.
About once a month, I look at my calendar to see what the upcoming weeks have in store for my husband and me. Then, I choose a few meals that are easy to make in big batches. I plan to make those on slower weeks and freeze portions for future lunches and dinners.
For example, my husband and I are currently in the throes of a big move. Last week, I doubled our normal weeknight meals and froze half the leftovers. This not only alleviated some stress for the upcoming weeks of moving but also maximized my time in the kitchen. It only took a few extra minutes to double the recipes and freeze the meals.
02. Eat More Nutritious Meals
By keeping a variety of healthy foods in my freezer, I can keep nutritious ready-to-go ingredients and dinners on hand. This helps me avoid last-minute takeout and makes cooking healthy food easier.
According to a 2014 study from the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, a barrier to eating healthy is a lack of time and competing authorities.
“The time required to shop and prepare food was identified as a major barrier for people who already struggled with busy family and work schedules. Commute time for people who reside in rural communities compounded the issue. Eating out or relying on quick microwave meals often took the place of eating a home-cooked meal.”
My freezer enables me to create healthy meals in advance for the days when cooking is simply overwhelming. One of my favorite meals to keep in my freezer is Santa Fe Chicken (see my recipe here!). Not only is it inexpensive and healthy, but it’s also easy to pull out of the freezer. Just half an hour before dinnertime, I’ll have created a savory meal. Having a freezer stocked with a handful of easy meals curbs the urge to go out to eat because of laziness. I’m able enjoy a healthy and affordable (and in my opinion, more delicious) meal at home.
03. Stay on Budget
As food prices continue to fluctuate, I’m always on the lookout for ways to trim our household food budget.
A 2014 USDA study reported that 31 percent (or 133 billion pounds) of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten. Although food waste has national and global implications, it also has a practical effect on your wallet. In a 2015 survey by the American Chemistry Council, U.S. households estimated that they waste $640 in household food each year.
My freezer is my favorite weapon to combat food waste and trim our budget. Not only do I freeze leftover meals when possible, but I also freeze refrigerator odds and ends that I often forget about until it’s too late. Cooked pasta and rice leftover from dinners, fresh herbs, overripe bananas, or those few tablespoons of tomato paste remaining from the most recent recipe I made can all have an extended life in the freezer.
My freezer also helps me take advantage of deals at my local grocery stores and farmers markets. In the same study from the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism referenced earlier, researchers also discovered that a barrier to eating healthy was the cost of fresh food.
I have a few cuts of meat that I cook with consistently. I rarely buy that meat unless it’s on sale or I can buy in bulk. Without a freezer, I wouldn’t be able to do that. In southwest Ohio where I live, pepper season was in its height at the farmers markets. It was a perfect time to buy fresh, local peppers in bulk, roast them, and then freeze them. If you spot a deal for fresh ingredients you love, consider buying some to store for future use. No more of those “But I don’t know what to do with it!” or “I won’t be able to use it right away!” mentalities. You’ll find a way.
04. Minimize Stress
A 2012 study from Social Science and Medicine revealed that “among both mothers and fathers, greater perceived stress in balancing work and family obligations was associated with a less healthful family food environment.”
It’s no surprise that eating healthy meals is a challenge when individuals, couples, and families are attempting to balance work and obligations outside the home. But good freezer habits relieve you of the burden of eating well and minimize the stress that comes with food preparation.
Moreover, I tailor my freezer plan to help ease specific areas of stress in my life. There are two things I like to have in my freezer at all times: a dessert and a casserole. I find it handy to have a dessert in my freezer ready to pull out when I realize I committed to bring a snack to a gathering. Additionally, I like to have a casserole in my freezer so that I can easily bring a meal into a friend’s or neighbor’s home. This practice helps me bless and help others in a pinch without stressing out.
I have an average-size freezer. But by being intentional with how I use it, I’m able to create a menu plan that works for my household regardless of life’s busy seasons. It’s a tool that helps me keep my food budget where I want it while also helping me cut down food waste. Most importantly, my freezer helps me stay healthy and sane. I now view my work of creating meals not as a burden but as a gift to be enjoyed.