One of the best ideas I've come across and put into our family routine is to shop, prep, and freeze-ahead crock pot meals for those busy nights when I know I just won't have time to get a good meal on the table. I find that Fall is an especially great time to bust out the crock pot because the days are cooler (and often wet) and a nice hot plate of comfort food always sounds especially pleasing.
I try to prep between 3-6 meals at a time. Depending on your chopping skills and ambition, this task can take between 1-2 hours (usually) but when you're finished you'll have several meals at your fingertips and ready to cook when you need them.
Start by getting your groceries, spices, and kitchen gear (measuring cups and spoons, cutting boards/knives, pan for browning, etc.) ready.
Next, label and make the necessary notations on your gallon FREEZER bags. I would suggest printing your recipes and having them readily accessible as you assemble your meals. When you're working between several recipes at a time, it's easier to get "lost" along the way--so pay attention.
After the bags are labeled, I like to get all of my proteins in their bags before adding additional ingredients. Having this weight in the bottom keeps the bag from tipping over. In addition, once the meat is in the bag, you can change out your knife and cutting board and get your hands clean again--knowing you'll only be working with veggies past this point. Once your protein-filled bags are lined up on the counter, you can add ingredients in a more efficient way (for example: chop all the onions at once and then portion them out between the meals).
When you go to place your meals in the freezer, be sure to lay them as flat as possible. Not only will this save you freezer space, it will also facilitate the thawing process later.
To get you started, I've created a file with three terrific, family-tested, crock pot recipes (that I've found work well when frozen too) and a shopping list. You can access it here --> Fall Freezer Meals. And here is a recipe for Cranberry Pork Roast that works well as a "freeze-ahead" meal too.
Tips that will save you time without sacrificing flavor:
- Don't use jarred garlic. I know mincing garlic can be a sticky, messy process but processed and jarred garlic does not come close to the delicious flavor that fresh garlic provides. Instead, simply smash the garlic cloves with the side of the knife, peel the paper off and toss the whole clove in the recipe. Because you're cooking in the crock pot, the flavor has lots of time to mellow and harmonize with the rest of the ingredients. Just be sure you fish out the whole garlic cloves before serving!
- The same goes for fresh grated ginger. Have you tried grating ginger lately? It's time-consuming and difficult and what's left over in your hand is typically way more abundant than what you've managed to grate (or juice). The tubed ginger will do in a pinch if you can't find ginger root (it's not nearly as offensive as jarred garlic). A cheaper and more flavorful option is to peel the root using the edge of a spoon (just face the spoon toward the root and scrape it gently along the outside of the root until the skin is removed) and then to slice the root into disks. Add these to your recipe but again, remember to remove them before serving.
If any of YOU have a tip for ME, I'd LOVE to hear it. Particularly, I'd be so grateful if someone could let me know how to chop onions without this happening. I swear it's gotten 10 times worse since my LASIK surgery. I'm always a MESS after prepping onions (even innocent little green onions and shallots!).