Beans and whole grains, even organic versions, are among the cheapest foods you can buy. They're also the healthiest. But who has time (or can remember) to soak a pot of beans overnight and then boil them on the stove for two hours? And who wants to get up an hour earlier in the morning to let a nice pot of steel-cut oats cook for 45 minutes?
Nobody, particularly not me! The solution? Your freezer. That oft-forgotten, ignored space sitting atop (or beside) your refrigerator is a great resource for preserving and storing everything from cooked dried beans and oatmeal to waffles and piecrusts, making your life easier and your meals healthier. And because all of those foods (or their basic ingredients) can be purchased in bulk, you'll save a bundle on organic foods, and cut down on plastic packaging, to boot. According to the "Bulk Is Green" Council, you can save anywhere from 30 to 96 percent on bulk versions of packaged foods.
Make big batches of the following foods on a Sunday afternoon, or make extra whenever you're cooking them for a meal, and freeze them for easy weeknight dinners:
Brown rice and other whole grains like pearled barley, wheat berries, and farro
Freeze cooked grains (and all your staples, for that matter) in ½-cup portions; smaller portions thaw faster than larger ones, and single portions allow you to prepare food for the number of people on hand. I use a measuring cup to scoop them onto a lined cookie sheet, and put the sheet into the freezer overnight to freeze. When frozen, transfer the portions into a large freezer bag or other freezer-friendly food-storage container. Tossing cooked grains with a little oil while they're warm prevents them from sticking together. When it comes time to reheat them, just toss them into a saucepan with a little water or into a skillet a little additional butter or oil.
I freeze cooked dried beans loose by draining any remaining liquid, spreading the beans on a lined cookie sheet, freezing them overnight, and dumping the frozen beans into a freezer container or bag. I can then take out a handful to add to a salad or measure out as much as I need for a recipe.
Whipping up a pot of homemade stock is a little time consuming, but do it on a weekend afternoon, and then freeze it, and you have an amazing way to add quick flavor and a nutritional boost to quick homemade meals (or just freeze leftover stock from the large carton you bought but didn't use up). You can even use your frozen stock instead of water when you reheat your frozen grains. The most convenient way to freeze stock is by pouring it into a stainless steel ice cube tray. Once frozen, pop the cubes into a container or freezer bag.
Go easy on yourself. Whenever you're making one pot of soup, make two, and freeze the second. Portion it out into one- and two-cup freezer-safe wide-mouth canning jars, leaving lots of head space so your jars won't crack.
Sure, it only takes 10 minutes to boil water and cook pasta, but cooking a single serving or two at a time isn't energy efficient. And frozen cooked pasta takes only two minutes to put on the table hot! Toss cooked pasta in a little olive oil or butter so it won't stick together, and freeze in single-serving portions. Coil servings of spaghetti on a lined cookie sheet to freeze, and freeze smaller types loose (a silicone muffin pan or set of muffin cups works well). Drop frozen pasta into hot tap water to thaw, then drain and serve.
Forget the instant stuff. It's full of sugar and may contain brain-damaging mercury. Cook up a pot of the good stuff whenever you have the 20 to 45 minutes it can take to cook hot cereals, and freeze it in single servings (use freezer jars or freeze scoops of hot cereal on a cookie sheet). It will be ready to eat in minutes cooked in the microwave or heated in a small covered saucepan with a little water.
Pancakes and waffles
L'eggo your Eggo. Really, it's easy to make your own. When you're making waffles and pancakes on the weekend, cook extra. Let them cool at room temperature, and freeze them, stacked between sheets of parchment or wax paper in a freezer bag. Waffles reheat just fine in the toaster (just like the commercial ones) and pancakes reheat well in the microwave.
Bacon and sausage
The best way to cook bacon is slow and low—not an ideal grab-and-go breakfast on a busy morning. Fortunately, cooked bacon freezes just as well as uncooked bacon, so fry up an entire package when you have the time, and freeze it, spreading it out on a cookie sheet then storing it in a bag. When it's time to reheat, pop a few strips in the microwave or reheat it in a skillet. For tips on making and freezing sausage, see Homemade Sausage in 10 Minutes or Less.
Whoever said Hungry Man invented the frozen dinner? If food companies can freeze dinners, so can you. Any leftovers you don't think you can finish within three days can be frozen. Single portions are perfect to pack for lunch or whip out and combine for nearly instant meals! Pretty soon you just may find yourself cooking extra so you will have more leftovers to freeze.
Here's a good tip for holiday baking: Next time you bake a pie, make an extra crust and either roll it out between two sheets of wax paper (my mother's secret for easy crust rolling) and then loosely roll or fold it and put it in a bag in the freezer, or if you have an extra pie pan and there's room in your freezer, put the crust into the pan and freeze it whole, ready to fill.
Once you have a stocked freezer, you'll never have to stress over that seemingly daily conundrum of "What's for dinner?" Before you get started on your freezer stocking, however, here are a few basic freezing tips that will keep your food tasty and safe:
- Always let food cool to room temperature before you freeze it. Putting hot food in your freezer can increase its temperature and cause bacterial growth, and may make other freezer foods go bad.
- Cook staples plain (unseasoned) to leave yourself more options when you're ready to use them.
- Put an extra pot of a freezer-bound staple you are out of on to cook just before you sit down to eat; it will be done and ready to portion in the freezer when you are tidying up after the meal.
- Don't go too crazy. I don't use a freezer to preserve and store large quantities of foods for months or years; I use it to store small amounts of ready-to-eat foods that I plan to consume and replenish every few weeks or, at the most, within about two months. If you let food sit for too long, you risk it getting freezer burn or taking on unpleasant flavors and textures.