Answering the "What's for Dinner" Question
TEXARKANA, Ark. –
What’s for dinner? These dreaded three word sentence we hear every day. I don’t like that question. It makes me want to say, “I don’t know; what are you making?” What happens on nights like this at your house? If you are like many and you haven’t planned and you’re too tired to come up with something, you grab take out, right? But this isn’t good on your budget or waistline.
So, what is the solution? It has many names – freezer meals, once a month cooking, investment cooking – but what it can be is a lifesaver for your time, budget and waistline.
I have always cooked up quantities of ground beef and chicken and kept them in my freezer. Then when I need them for a recipe, I have the beginning of my meal. I package them in 1 pound and 2 pound containers so that step in my recipe is already finished. I also do this for ingredients such as diced onion, peppers, and other vegetables. I do a mix of this and one-dish meals like casseroles, chili and stew. That way, you don’t get tired of casseroles, but also have ingredients on hand to throw together a fast meal.
To get started, think about planning multiple meals at one time. Look over your recipes and sales papers; be sure to check the pantry to see what you already have on hand. Did you find ground beef & Italian sausage on sale? Buy extra for freezer meals, and plan to make ahead spaghetti sauce, lasagna or baked ziti to freeze for later.
Whole chicken on sale? Buy several and cook, debone, freeze the broth and freeze the chicken for chicken and dumplings, chicken salad, quesadillas, chicken spaghetti. The list is endless. This is such a time saver when I want to make chicken and dumplings, but don’t have time to stew and debone the chicken. I have everything in the freezer I need and only have to worry about the dumplings.
Now create your shopping and cooking plan. Need ground beef for hamburgers, stew, etc.? Figure out how much you will need altogether and write that amount on your shopping list. Do the same for all other ingredients.
Now, you are ready to shop. Get to the store early to avoid the rush. Purchase all food items, process, package, and freeze any straight-to-freezer items. Now gather utensils, cookware, and pans.
I made the mistake once of using my nice baking dishes to freeze my lasagna in. I learned my lesson with that and now my freezer meals go in foil baking pans. I can reuse them a time or two, of just toss them once empty, if I don’t feel like washing it.
If it is something that can go in a freezer bag, that is even better. Keep a variety of sizes but remember, they must be freezer bags; regular bags are not as thick and will not provide enough protection against freezer burn. I fill the bag, flatten it out and seal it, removing as much air as possible. Then I lay them on baking sheets in the freezer until frozen firm. This keeps them from falling between the shelving racks and freezing around the wire shelves. (Um, yes I’ve done that.)
This works really well with meat, soup, or anything else that can be poured into a bag and frozen flat. It saves space in your freezer because it allows you to freeze them flat and stack them as high as possible.
Finally, it’s cooking day. All ingredients and equipment is handy and you are ready to start. Perform all chopping, slicing, crushing, and grating tasks at one time. Start with recipes that will take the longest to cook, such as marinara sauce or chili. Do all possible projects together. When sautéing onions for marinara sauce, sauté onions required for all recipes; brown ground beef all at the same time, etc. Assemble recipes one at a time & set aside common ingredients. Move from recipe to recipe until all are completed.
Using freezer tape or a permanent marker, label everything with the recipe name, cooking directions and date. If you are cooking from frozen, you will need to adjust the cooking time.
I keep a list on my freezer to track my freezer inventory. When I add diced onions, I write it down. I just added three casseroles of macaroni and cheese, write them down. As I remove each meal, I mark it off the list as well. This makes it much easier to know what I have on hand and what needs to be made again.
Want more information on freezer cooking? Contact me at the University of Arkansas, Division of AG in the Miller County Courthouse, call 870-779-3609, or e-mail Chadley@uaex.edu. You can also get tips and recipes on facebook UAEXMillerCountyFCS/CarlaHaleyHadley, and twitter at @MillerCountyFCS
This recipe has been used at several cooking programs and demonstrations. It always gets rave reviews.
4 lbs. ground beef, uncooked
4 cups onions, diced
4 taco seasoning packets
64 oz. canned, stewed tomatoes
8 cups cooked brown rice
8 cups cheese, shredded
Brown meat and onions in skillet; drain. Add remaining ingredients to skillet, minus the cheese. Simmer until thick, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Cool well. Package equally into 4 freezer bags and attach a freezer bag with 2 cups shredded cheese; label and freeze.
When ready to use, thaw completely and warm over medium heat. Use in taco shells or flour tortillas for burritos. Melt cheese on top of corn chips and Taco Rice for nachos. Or make taco salad over a bed of romaine lettuce instead of chips for a healthier version. Makes 4 – 4 serving meals.
By Carla Haley-Hadley
County Extension Agent - FCS
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Media Contact: Carla Haley-Hadley
County Extension Agent - FCS
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
400 Laurel Street, Suite 215 Texarkana AR 71854
The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service is an equal opportunity/equal
access/affirmative action institution. If you require a reasonable accommodation to
participate or need materials in another format, please contact your County Extension
office (or other appropriate office) as soon as possible. Dial 711 for Arkansas Relay.
The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.