Then, I really thought about it... and put some effort into looking up recipes that I know my family would enjoy. Especially after a month of paying even closer attention to the budget, adjusting more to life with two kids under 4 (we don't have a lot of time uninterrupted in the kitchen), and realizing that I'm officially back to work (which means 12 hour shifts/13 hours away from home 3 days a week, leaving my husband to pick up the kids, make dinner and handle at least one bedtime on his own), I knew I had to jump on the freezer meal cooking train.
I am so happy that I did!!
I was able to make: 8 Burritos; 16 Servings of Turkey and Kale Chili; 8 Servings of Chicken and Wild Rice bake; and 8 Servings of Chicken Teriyaki for $72! (That's a lot of food!)
Here's how I did it:
1. I found a partner in crime. (This was, for me, one of the most important parts.) It isn't fun to spend an entire day in the kitchen alone- no matter how much you love cooking, you eventually start to run out of steam. Having my friend by my side kept it fun, split the workload (there was a lot of chopping involved), and kept me motivated. It was great that I got all the cooking done, but even better that I got to hang out with a friend while doing it. Also important: music- turn the radio/Spotify/Pandora on your favorite channel and feel free to sing along!
2. I found recipes that I know my family will eat. (This is big.) No one wants to spend the money, time, and energy cooking/prepping meals that will sit in the freezer until they eventually make their way into the trash can. I made sure that the meals we made were meals that we would enjoy, and were interesting enough that we wouldn't get tired of them. I also made sure we had variety, and complete meals- limiting the need for side dishes. Soup freezes really well, but will my family be happy with soup 3 nights a week? No. We made one chili, one crockpot complete meal (just needs rice/quinoa on the side), one oven baked meal (just needs a veggie of some kind on the side), and one batch of individually wrapped burritos (perfect for lunch, or dinner if I forget to take something out to defrost).
3. To be budget-friendly: we didn't really use any outrageous/expensive ingredients. We kept it simple. I bought the meat in bulk, used store brand items (canned diced tomatoes, broth, frozen veggies, rice), and planned my shopping list carefully so that I didn't over-buy.
4. The night before, I cleaned the kitchen and adjoining dining room to make sure that we had the space to spread out (the dining room table made a perfect burrito making station). I also double checked to make sure that we had everything we needed, and laid out the recipes/ingredients together so we weren't running around looking for things. (Next time, I'll lay things out on the buffet table in the dining room so I don't run out of counter space!)
5. Planning: I looked at which recipes required longer prep times and tried to plan our cooking so that something was always in the works. (For example: The burritos we made required roasted veggies, rice and shredded chicken, but we needed them at room temperature before we could assemble our burritos- so those ingredients were the first to cook and then cooled while we worked on other recipes.)
6. Everything is in freezer bags. The use of freezer bags really maximized the available space in my freezer, and helped everything freeze quickly and evenly. (It also means that I still have a full supply of clean tupperware to use for other things, instead of tying them up with freezer goodies.) I also made sure to freeze some smaller portions of the chili so that we could grab and defrost enough for dinner and not end up eating it for 3 days (or wasting leftovers).
I did not make up my own recipes this time around. I was focused on perfecting storage, mass-cooking (this is a little different than cooking for a holiday or family gathering), and making a variety of meals I knew we would like. I also wanted to make sure that I was making something that I knew would freeze well (because someone else ironed out those details) so that I could get an idea of how well things defrosted and tasted when cooked from frozen. That being said, small adjustments were made to the recipes to make them match our taste.
1. The Roasted Vegetable Burritos with Black Beans and Rice from the kitchn. We each made one batch of these burritos, (8 burritos each). We used multigrain tortillas, and brown basmati rice (I had this already in my pantry). I did not use any meat in my burritos- I used just rice, veggies, beans and cheese. But my friend used chicken in hers along with the other ingredients listed. (The chicken breast was poached in water, with salt, pepper, and bay leaf then shredded.) We seasoned the veggies with olive oil, salt, pepper and smoked paprika.
2. Crockpot Chicken Teriyaki from New Leaf Wellness. We each made 2 batches of this (4 servings each batch). The only adjustment is that we used 20 oz. of frozen stir fry veggies. (The family pack was 80oz. and made more financial sense than buying a smaller amount of veggies in several smaller packages.)
3. Easy Turkey Chili with Kale from the kitchn. We each made 2 batches, or 16 one-cup servings of this. We didn't make any real adjustments here. We used 1 1/2 lbs. of turkey per batch, no salt added diced tomatoes, and Organic chicken broth (its even lower sodium than low sodium chicken broth).
4. Chicken and Wild Rice Bake from the kitchn. We each made 2 batches of this (4-6 servings per batch). Only very minor adjustments here too... my friend made hers without mushrooms, and I doubled the mushrooms in ours- I used baby bellas. If you're on the fence about buying/using the smoked paprika, don't be. It is a definite must- it's delicious!
I am super excited; everything we made tasted/looked delicious! (I snuck tastes of the teriyaki marinade, the vinaigrette for the chicken and wild rice, the turkey chili, and the burrito components along the way...)
We are already planning our next cooking session (we plan on doing this about once a month to make sure we always have meals on hand).