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Empty Nest Shouldn't Mean Empty Menu

Has your family shrunk in size? Just because the nest has emptied, doesn’t mean your home dinner menu should be empty too.

Nashville, Ark. – Has your family shrunk in size? Dealing with the last child to leave home, brings all new challenges when it comes to preparing meals for just the two of you. Just because the nest has emptied, doesn’t mean your home dinner menu should be empty too.

            When deciding how much to prepare for just one or two, a surprising tip may be to cook in larger batches, not necessarily smaller ones. Planning ahead and preparing several dishes you enjoy and that will freeze well can help you achieve the goal of eating better and healthier.

            Here’s how to do it. Begin by selecting recipes you currently enjoy. They should be recipes that are easy to prepare and that freeze well. Great recipes to choose include most casseroles, soups, chili, beans, or meatloaf.

            Once you have recipes and ingredients in hand, plan to spend a couple hours preparing the foods. Recipes should be prepared for the total servings. You can go ahead and eat a serving portion that day. Then divide the remaining amount into serving sizes for the two of you and put them in the freezer.

            To ensure the frozen food is at its peak when used, be sure to label the packages before putting them in the freezer. They should be labeled with the contents, any additional baking instructions, and of course the date. Freeze the food quickly, which is done more easily with small batches. I like to put the meals in freezer zipper type plastic bags and freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. The next day, I remove the cookie sheet and stack the bags for easy access.

            When it comes to deciding which type of freezer container to use, you have some choices.

  • Zipper type plastic freezer bags – make sure they are designed for the freezer. Squeeze out all the air before sealing. This helps prevent ice crystals from forming. Freeze in a single layer before stacking.
  • Airtight plastic containers made for the freezer also work well. Be sure to use those made especially for the freezer.
  • The bundle wrap – place odd-shaped or semi-moist food on a square of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Bring the four corners together in a pyramid shape and squeeze the foil close to the food. Seal by folding the ends over and pressing them together.
  • The drugstore wrap - place food on a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil large enough to allow for folding at the top and sides. Bring two sides together above the food. Fold foil over and down until it is tight against the food, pressing the air out. Mold the foil to food and fold the short ends up and over again. Press out air and crimp ends.
  • The casserole wrap consists of lining a casserole (or small dish for one or two) with foil, leaving a 1.5-inch collar around the edges. Add food and cover the dish with enough foil to extend across the top, plus an extra 1.5-inch all the way around. Press out the air and fold the edges up and over and press together. Label and freeze. When frozen solid, lift wrapped food from dish and return food to freezer.

            Allowing the air to reach the food during freezing may produce freezer burn. According the Federal Food Safety and Inspection Service, freezer burn does not make the food unsafe, merely dry in spots. FSIS also said that food can change color during freezing due to drying or lack of oxygen. Quality and taste of the food is lost.

            What is great about freezer meals is that most of the preparation is done for you. All that is left to do is to allow the food to thaw in the refrigerator and heat before serving. You will need to allow at least 24 hours to thaw completely in the refrigerator before heating. Otherwise, you may need to allow extra time to reheat.

            Even if you are not experiencing an “Empty Nest”, freezer meals are great for today’s busy families. Spend a few hours doing the prep work and then enjoy a home prepared meal each night of the week!

            For more information about freezing food effectively, contact the Howard County Cooperative Extension Service at 870-845-7517 or visit our office located on the second floor of the courthouse. You may also visit the website, www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/freeze.html which is the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

            The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the University of Arkansas Research and Extension.

Recipe of the Week

            This recipe was prepared at the “Cooking with Friends” lesson recently. The workshop focused on freezer meals and all stated this recipe would be a family favorite.

Make Ahead Meat-Lovers’ Lasagna Roll-Ups

 16 uncooked lasagna noodles

1 lb. lean ground beef

½ lb. bulk Italian sausage

½ cup chopped onion

1 ½ cups tomato pasta sauce (commercial spaghetti sauce)

2 containers (15 oz. each) ricotta cheese or 1 large container cottage cheese

1 box (9 oz.) frozen spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry

2 Tablespoons Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 egg

*3 cups tomato pasta sauce (commercial spaghetti sauce)

*2 cups (8 oz.) shredded mozzarella cheese

            In a 5-quart Dutch oven, cook lasagna noodles as directed on package. Drain; rinse with hot water. Drain well.

            Meanwhile, in 12-inch skillet, cook beef, sausage and onion over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until meat is no longer pink; drain. Stir in 1 ½ cups pasta sauce. Reduce heat to low; simmer uncovered 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

            In small bowl, mix ricotta cheese, spinach, seasoning and egg. Spread about 3 Tablespoons ricotta mixture over each cooked lasagna noodle to within 1 inch of one short end. Spoon about ¼ cup meat mixture over ricotta mixture on each. Roll up firmly toward unfilled end. Line 15 x 10 x 1-inch pan with foil. Place roll-ups, seam side down on pan; cover loosely with foil. Freeze about 30 minutes or until firm.

            Place frozen rolls in airtight freezer container; label. Freeze up to 3 months.

            To bake 16 lasagna roll-ups, spray two 13 x 9-inch glass baking dishes with cooking spray. Remove roll-ups from freezer bag; place 8 in each baking dish. Cover with foil; thaw in refrigerator at least 8 hours but no longer than 24 hours.

            Heat oven to 350 degrees. Pour 1 ½ cups pasta sauce over and around roll-ups in each baking dish. Cover tightly with foil; bake 30 to 40 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Sprinkle each baking dish with 1 cup mozzarella cheese; bake uncovered 3 to 5 minutes longer or until cheese is melted. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

            *Indicates it will not be used until the day the entrée is served.

Note: You do not have to prepare 8 at a time. Take out only what you will need (2 or 4) to prepare.         

By Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
421 N. Main St, Nashville AR 71852
(870) 845-7517
jince@uaex.edu


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