About six weeks ago I did my first try of making a bunch of pre-made crockpot meals that are put into ziploc bags and stacked in the freezer. (Here for blog post details of that). My first attempt was a lot of work – the greater part of one day with shopping and all– but the payoff the past five or six weeks has been totally worth it. I’ve loved having twelve meals that I can pull out of the freezer, throw in the crockpot, and know that we will have a good meal for dinner. (Stay tuned to the end for I my favorite recipes at the end).
Yesterday, my friend Jennifer wanted to try, so the two of us prepared and did this together. We worked hard but it was a fun time to share and spill! and laugh together. I loved the company and think two is always better than one when it comes to this kind of thing. I might have cried at the messes but instead — all we could do was laugh! (And nearly howled when it happened two – and then three times!)
Here are some tips from my experiences in making freezer-crockpot meals.
- Choose your recipes, and pre-make your ziploc bags with instructions. (This is a good evening job a day or two ahead of time). I think you can use any of your favorite crockpot recipes.
- Make a shopping list. I made a table with 3 categories: Meats, fresh vegetables, and canned goods/misc. Then we just needed to go through each column while shopping. crockpot freezer . (Herbs and other items that I know I had on-hand I didn’t add to the list.)
- Do your shopping. Because this is Japan (and we live in an area without many large grocery stores), shopping requires some work for meat and colored bell peppers, especially. Jennifer went to three stores the previous day, and I went that morning for the last few things.
- We had a number of crazy things happen while doing this yesterday. The first was when my box broke while I was leaving the grocery store! Note to self: reinforce cardboard boxes for heavy groceries like meats.
- Jennifer and I together made 11 recipes (doubled – one for each of us) yesterday. It took us about 4 hours together to cut all our veggies and meats and assembly all of our ziplocs. (As I stated in a previous post, in Japan we have to do a lot more meat prep than in the US, like taking the skin off the chicken, cutting beef, etc.) But we also made three more sets today that didn’t happen yesterday so we now both have 14 meals in our freezer. Woohoo!
- Best way to chop a bunch of onions – I can tell you now– I chopped 23 onions. I did some research on the best methods not to cry while chopping. Based on what I read and trying myself, may I suggest: a) using a very sharp knife; b) chopping each onion quickly, and most importantly c) chop under or very near to your exhaust fan. I didn’t cry once. Twenty three onions. I also lit a candle as one author suggested – I don’t know if this helped or not. The top two methods I read that I didn’t try are: a) wear contact lenses; b) wear goggles. As a glasses wearer right now, I couldn’t do those. but the exhaust fan seemed to do the trick. And my husband’s latest sharp knife purchase. Phew. (We had some chopped onion left over. I threw this in a small ziploc and froze it for when I need some quick).
- Mushrooms – my best research suggests that you slice and sauté recipes ahead of time, and then put them in smaller ziplocs separately in the freezer. If you don’t want to do this, just throw them in the day you are cooking in the crockpot. For some reason they don’t seem to freeze well with other ingredients.
- We decided at the end of the day that in the future we will not add canned tomatoes. You can write on your bag (and on your freezer list) what needs to be added later. This will save on freezer space (which for us with smaller storage options in Japan is key), and also save on potential mess. We had the unfortunately problem of ziploc bags that were too full, tipping over and spilling. Photo below is Jennifer putting together southwestern chicken chili, which went both south and west, unfortunately:
- Which leads me to the next best practice: put each ziploc bag into a bowl or container when you are filling it. (See above photo and you will be sure and do this every single time.) This did not just happen once, but three times. We did not learn.
- Buy strong ziploc bags, or double-bag each meal. We had two of our generic bags burst. It wasn’t pretty. (Sorry – we were too tired at that point to take photos).
- Get as much air out of the ziploc as possible after you have filled it. I read a tip of using a straw in the corner of the ziploc to suck the extra air out. I tried. It looks ridiculous. And we weren’t convinced that it helped. It just leaves you feeling light-headed. So use your hands to get out the extra air.
- For chicken thigh recipes, I like to dredge in flour, salt and pepper for a number of the recipes. This will make the chicken a bit more tasty, and it will also thicken the liquid that remains as a sauce. This is especially good for chicken cacciatore, drumsticks, etc. The beautiful thing is that you can do it directly in your pre-made ziploc bag, and not need to waste a bag for dredging. Simple throw in your chicken, add about 1/4 C of flour, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 t pepper, close your bag and shake. From there you can reopen and add the rest of your ingredients. Here is my meal ready for the freezer:
- Make a list for your freezer door of the wonderful meals available for choosing in the order in which you have stacked them. Otherwise you will forget your options. It’s not neat (I was bushed by this time!) but it’s for me and I am very excited about this list!
- Check off a meal when you pull it out, and then rate it after dinner so you don’t forget. I used 1 (not very good) to 5 (delicious and a keeper) – to rank mine last month. I asked my family to help with the ranking. I clearly remember my husband one night saying, “So…. -I guess this isn’t a keeper!” (It was either the orange chicken or the lemon chicken – these were the two we were least thrilled about). But I then took my best-ranked Freezer Crockpot Meals and have repeated a few of our favorites:
- Molly’s drumsticks – this sauce is delicious. It sounds weird but it is really good. A number of reviewers shared that they have used chicken thighs or breasts. I did drumsticks again but may try thighs next time. Great over rice because the sauce is so crazy delicious.
- chicken cacciatore – my husband said it needed more flavor. I think I went to soft on the herbs and spices the first time around. Be sure and taste your dishes before serving. I am going to add some red wine when I start cooking it and some green olives at the end, which I do with my regular stove-top recipe. Overall a really great recipe for variety over spaghetti.
- honey cheese pork chops — LOVED this flavor. Don’t overcook. we used parmesan cheese instead of romano based on what is available here
- mock beef stroganoff – this is an old family favorite from my growing up that I have just converted for the crockpot. Easy – but I know if its been a hard day this meal will make everyone at our dinner table happy.
- chicken fajitas – this was the only recipe that I liked using chicken breasts. I find that this is the only meat i really don’t love in the crockpot because it dries out. But with fajitas, you end up shredding it and mixing it with enough other things that it can still taste quite good.
I found a number of new recipes that we are trying, as well. We will rank these and let you know! Here are some of the ones I am excited to try:
- Sausages and peppers (this uses Johnsonville sausages, which we can buy locally!)
- southwestern chicken chili
- honey bourbon chicken (which incidentally doesn’t have bourbon in it)
- chicken taco soup
- ground beef chili
- chicken and sweet potato
- beef broccoli – the sauce sounds really awesome.
- coconut chicken curry -a Martha Stewart recipe – we are both excited to eat this one! It called for butternut squash which we can’t get here so we threw in sweet potatoes.
A few more tips I have discovered on the cooking part of this method:
- If you forget to defrost your bag the night before, just throw it in that morning, adding about two hours onto the cooking time
- You can also defrost frozen meat in the crockpot and just continue cooking it through.
- For chicken recipes, I find that it uses cooks fine in 5 hours – 6 at the most — in order not to dry it out. Soups, pork, and beef generally take longer.
- Make sure and mix your whole meal well once it is cooking, to be sure and spread the herbs and tastes that may all be stuck in one place. Taste it and be sure you have enough seasoning.
We were pretty exhausted by the end. (We had cleaned up a few spills along the way, in addition to making 22 meals). But we were both so glad to do it.
What is your best crockpot-freezer practice? Your favorite recipe?
Signing off now to go and pull out of the freezer — a bag of chili for dinner tomorrow night.