Even though some frozen dinners are less unhealthy than others, they’re still pricey. You pay for that convenience. There’s a better option: make your own homemade freezer meals.
What are the advantages to homemade freezer meals?
- Save money. While frozen dinners at the store can be very affordable (and that’s part of the appeal), you can usually make much better frozen dinners for the same or less at home.
- Save time. You can make these in big batches, just like you do with bulk cooking, so one day of cooking gives you meals for a week or more. You can even get the rest of the family involved once a week or so and turn it into a family event.
- Control what goes in them. Whether you want to avoid preservatives or a food allergen or just stuff you or your family don’t like, it’s nice to have quick microwave meals on hand that are just the way you like them.
- Make healthier choices. If you’re following a particular diet, this is a great way to have an easy convenient meal that won’t break your rules.
- Better flavor. A frozen dinner made from fresh food that was only frozen within the past few weeks will always have more flavor than a frozen meal made ages ago and laced with preservatives to ship it to the grocery store where it sits for who knows how long.
- Kids can fend for themselves. If the kids are old enough to microwave a TV dinner, they’re old enough to follow your instructions and reheat one of these. That’s great for when you can’t be around for dinner time.
In fact, let’s go into some detail about that last one: not only are they cheaper than store-bought frozen dinners, but homemade frozen dinners help you use up all your groceries. That’s a big money saver if you’re someone who finds food going to waste in your fridge or on your shelves.
How to make a frozen dinner
Of course the easiest way to make a frozen dinner is to freeze a one-dish meal: chili, stew or a casserole, for example. Put it all in one freezer container and let family members scoop out the amount they want to heat, or store individual portions in freezer wrap.
This is simple and wonderful, but not all of your food that’s going to waste can be used in these recipes. If that’s part of your goal, read on.
In theory, you can make complete homemade frozen meals in compartmentalized dishes like these bento boxes, which are pretty similar to the one pictured in this post. The problem with this is that not everything reheats at the same time.
Sometimes it’s easier to use individual freezer and microwave safe containers (or freezer bags) for each dish. This also has the advantage of allowing everyone to pick their own combination of main course and side dishes.
- Always let cooked foods cool to room temperature before putting them in the freezer. Skipping this step can lead to bacterial growth.
- Write dates (and names of dishes) on your containers! You don’t want to find yourself wondering what it is or how long it’s been sitting in the freezer. These waterproof freezer stickers are perfect for the job.
- Put a list of the available dinners in the freezer on the door of the freezer so you won’t forget what’s in there.
- Most frozen foods should last about 6 months in the freezer. Some may last longer, but ideally you should aim to eat frozen meals within 6 months of making them.
So, how exactly do you go about this? There are a number of strategies, and you can pick whatever works best for your situation.
- Cook your meat or vegetarian entree all at once and portion it into containers.
- You can use frozen or fresh vegetables as side dishes.
- Pre-cooked frozen shrimp, chicken, or other meats can save you time and money compared to buying the same meats fresh and freezing them. Look at the packaging to see the ingredients – if it’s just the meat plus perhaps a reasonable amount of salt or seasonings, it’ll be a healthy choice as well as a savings.
- Salmon cakes are also easy to freeze and reheat on demand, and they’re so tasty.
- Things that freeze well: most vegetables, omelets, meat dishes (like our Cheesy Salsa Chicken), bread and baked goods (surprisingly), casseroles, cooked bean/lentil/chickpea dishes, burritos (with any traditional breakfast or lunch ingredients – check out our Taco potstickers), egg rolls, pasta dishes, rice dishes, quiche, mashed potatoes, soups (like our Corn Chowder, Chicken Noodle, or Potsticker soup), stews, and chilis.
- Look at your canned goods way back on the shelf where you forget they exist. Which of them make good sides, or even main courses? Go ahead and portion them into containers so they’ll be eaten.
- Ditto on those veggies you bought that wound up not going with any of the dinners you fixed. Cook them in a nice big patch and portion them out.
- This can be a great way to use up your leftovers before they go bad – and that includes leftovers from restaurants and fast food.
The goal with making your own frozen dinners is for you to actually do less work than cooking every night, eat healthier than most “convenience” food allows, and save money.
Something I like to keep in stock in the fridge is homemade frozen pizzas. For the crust, I use tortillas that are about 9 inches in diameter to make a nice individual-size pizza. They hold up well in the freezer. (If you want the crust to be crispy, you will have to put it in the oven for just a few minutes after microwaving it.)
Spread on tomato sauce or olive oil or any other sauce you like. Then add cheese, pepperoni and whatever else you or your family likes. Or make a flatbread with whatever ingredients you like.
Got family members who fight about which ingredients to get on a delivery pizza? Make customized pizzas for each of them and pop them out of the freezer on demand. You’ll also save a ton compared to ordering pizza in.
These taste surprisingly fresh because everything on them was fresh when it was frozen. So much flavor comes through.
Choosing Homemade TV Dinner Containers
The first thing you’ll need are freezer-ready containers made of glass or BPA-plastic. You have two main choices when it comes to these containers: bento box compartmented style or single dish container.
What you need will depend on how you plan on making frozen microwave dinners. The bento box style is great if you’re taking a meal of several dishes to an office or school to heat and eat. The single containers are better if you’re freezing each dish separately and then reheating several items to prepare a family dinner.
- Check out these BPA-free plastic Bento Boxes with one large compartment for an entree or sandwich and two smaller compartments for side dishes. Microwave, freezer, and dishwasher safe.
- Or these single compartment freezer meal boxes let you store one item in bulk in the freezer for easy meal prep at dinner time. Also microwave, freezer, and dishwasher safe. If you’re trying to avoid plastic, you can get nice glass containers that also work wonderfully.
- These soup containers also work from freezer to microwave to dishwasher, and the secure lids keep liquids from leaking. These can also be great for sauces, gravies, mashed potatoes and refried beans, just for starters.
- Square snack boxes can be great for carting around a single-dish lunch. These are also microwave, freezer, and dishwasher safe.
- Freezer bags can also be great for storage. And you can use them in the microwave if you follow instructions – always place them on a microwave safe dish of some sort just in case they overflow or tip over. (Between you and me, you can also run every brand I’ve tried through the dishwasher to reuse.)
The point of learning how to make your own make-ahead freezer meals is to simplify your cooking. You can use as many frozen vegetables as you like to keep it easy. Or you can make everything from scratch, but in bulk so you get several meals for the effort it takes to make one.
Either way, you’re able to put a good, home-cooked meal together with just a few minutes of preparation. And you can take a home-cooked meal to work, as long as you have a refrigerator and microwave in the break room.
It’s good eating that’s easy, affordable, relatively easy and as healthy as you want it to be.