Friday, August 9, 2013

{Cooking} What's for dinner?

Cooking doesn't come to me naturally, but I've learned to like to cook.

Sort of. {It should be noted baking is not the same as cooking in this case. I bake exactly two things that don't come from a box. And one of those things does come partially from a box.}

I like to plan meals. I like to grocery shop. I don't mind taking the time to prepare dinner. I have gained enough cooking confidence to tweak recipes after I've tried them once. But, honestly, a homecooked dinner is one of the first things to go when a day gets too crowded or I need to let go of a chore.

And I married a man that has never once made me feel like a slacker wife for sending a text at 5:05 p.m. and referring to whatever current circumstance prompts me to ask him to meet us for dinner or bring home dinner when he leaves the office.

Without meal planning, we'd never eat dinner at home. Or, rather, we'd never eat something that wasn't carry-out at our table. Even the most simple meal planning helps me through the 4 o'clock hour when I need to decide what time to start cooking dinner. Jotting down meals and making sure I have the ingredients for them is enough to propel me to the kitchen and keeps me from asking, "What's for dinner?"

Taking meal planning to the next level is even better. You know, when that actually happens. The two best ways for me have been freezer cooking and subscribing to eMeals.

Freezer Cooking
Courtney is my freezer-cooking friend. Before we had school-age kids, we freezer cooked regularly. It's been far too long since we made a productive mess while tackling a list of meals. I'm thankful we had a freezer cooking session yesterday before summer wraps up.

I've had a few people ask for recipes and for suggestions on a process, so I thought I'd share what we do. Like many things in life, there are many ways to go about it, but this is what works for us.

  • Find a time you can devote yourself to the kitchen. We typically block off a day and use every bit of at least six hours. Keep in mind we have four kids between us who want to eat lunch. {OTHER IDEAS: If you're not making a day of it, doubling a recipe or diving a casserole are great ways to store extra meals in your freezer as you go about your regular cooking. One time I swapped meals with friends. In that case, I prepped one meal six times and then we all left with six different meals.}
  • Compile the list of recipes. Our go-to resources are "Don't Panic - Dinner's in the Freezer" and "Don't Panic - More Dinner's in the Freezer." We've made several recipes out of these books more than once -- and not just when we're preparing meals to freeze. 
  • Make a grocery list. It'll be long! Usually, Courtney and I decide what we want to make. And then I take all the recipes and list all the ingredients {in order of Kroger aisles, of course!}. Before I got to the grocery store, I mark off any items we have, like milk, eggs, soy sauce, or seasonings. 
  • Grocery shop. In our team, this is my job. I like to grocery shop more than Courtney does. So I just buy all the items and then we split the bill. {It's quite an adventure if I'm shopping for our stuff as well as regular items for my own house. In fact, this most recent trip to Kroger for our freezer cooking goods came the day after I'd shopped for my family and was the only time I wasn't juggling two lists, dividing groceries into two sections so I could keep the totals separate.} BONUS tip: We don't necessarily plan ahead well enough, but if you watch your grocer's ads and plan meals based on what meats are on sale, you'll not only be prepared but save yourself some money.
  • Cook any meat ahead of time. Now, this may sound silly considering you're already preparing to cook ahead of time. But the first few times we cooked, Courtney and I spent tons of time browning beef and cooking chicken. We finally realized if we'd throw some chicken in a Crock Pot before we met to prepare many meals, we'd be better off. {I learned this summer that frozen chicken breasts can be tossed into the Crock Pot and good just as well as the ones I wasted time thawing. Seriously.
  • Bring casserole dishes to store your meals. {If you don't want to have your favorite Pyrex dishes in the freezer for weeks, then buy some of those disposable aluminum pans.} Soup and marinated meat are best stored in Zip-locs, so bring some of those along too. And foil works well to wrap those disposable pans freezer tight. 
  • Divide and label meals so it's convenient for you. If your family won't usually eat an entire 9-by-13 casserole, then divide it into two 8-by-8 dishes. If you're supposed to top the casserole with cheese or leave it covered with foil to cook, then label it as such. So, yes, bring a roll of aluminum foil and a Sharpie so you know what's in your freezer once you start piling it in there. 

And in the spirit of transparency, after six fun, productive hours in Courtney's kitchen yesterday, I stashed all the lasagna, manicotti, chicken enchiladas, sesame chicken, pizza, chicken bundles, broccoli cheese soup, and meatballs in my freezer and then took my kids to dinner. My husband had a meeting. And, well, I had a full freezer. 

Now, for some recipes. This earlier post includes recipes for Parmesan Garlic Chicken, Hawaiian Chicken, Colorado Beef Enchiladas and Taco Soup. And another post includes Black Bean Tortilla Bake. Soups, lasagna and casseroles usually do well in the freezer.

Just don't forget to thaw them before you actually want to bake/cook/heat them. Yes, I'm speaking from experience. 

I've mentioned eMeals more than once and recently posted about this subscription program. I even included a recipe for King Ranch Chicken Casserole. I have since then discovered an eMeals recipe that may go down as my favorite. I already want to make it again, but I don't want to burn out my family on this one recipe. {I sort of do with recipes what I do with new songs I discover: Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.}

Our only complaint about the Baked Sweet and Sour Chicken is we wanted more. All four of us wanted more. Isn't dinner truly a success when the kids are asking for more? 

Now, I was really glad to discover Kroger carries bags of frozen stir-fry rice and vegetables. I mean, who knew this even existed?! It was alright, although my own fried rice is better and isn't really that complicated so when I put this recipe on repeat, I'll probably break out some of my own rice mixture, you know, the one made from instant rice and frozen Asian-seasoned vegetables. Yeah, that's how homemade works around here.

Yes, you have to pay for eMeals. But it's worth it when the seven meals planned and organized into a list according to my specific grocery store chain show up in my inbox. It's usually three or four pages. Each recipe looks like the one above with the ingredient, instructions, preparation/cooking time estimate, and suggested side dish. I don't always make the side dishes planned, but they are helpful for inspiring side dishes that are in our family's regular rotation.

It's totally a worthwhile investment of our family, especially because the recipes have been easy and don't require tons of prep time. And, hey, I've got a deal for you: Use the code SCHOOL15 to save 15% off any new purchase of an eMeals plan.

So, what's for dinner?

You can read previous freezer cooking posts here. Want more stories? Like 152 Insights on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Follow 152 Insights at Bloglovin'. Subscribe to receive "Insights in Your Inbox." Affiliate links included.


  1. I applaud you for doing this. I did it once and was too overwhelmed to do it again! :) I love emeals, I have been using their Clean eating menu for the last several months and the recipes are very tasty.

  2. KristinHillTaylor8/11/2013 4:35 PM

    I've loved the recipes on the plan I've been using, so I'm excited to see how the Crock Pot ones are. I'm sure they'll be good too. I'm glad you've liked the ones you've been getting too. Such a great service!