The nesting instinct isn't just for fowl. About this time of year, we, too, feel the urge to prepare our "nests" for the long winter ahead. And one great way to do that is to cook up big batches of our favorite fall foods, then freeze portions of them for easy reheating on busy weeknights (or cozy, lazy weekends).
Yes, it takes a bit of planning and bit of prep work (all that chopping). But when you cook healthy foods in big batches, you end up with a freezer full of your own homemade "light" frozen entrÃ©es. Whether you're motivated by convenience, economics, or health, big-batch cooking is a great habit to get into.
These Freeze Best
Some dishes are more suited than others to cooking in large quantities and freezing in individual portions.
Foods that lend themselves to freezing and reheating include:
- Spaghetti sauce
Food safety can get a bit tricky when you cool off big batches of a dish, then freeze it, only to thaw it weeks or days later.
What you want to avoid is keeping your food at the temperature where it's vulnerable to bacteria growth: that in-between stage when it's not too hot and not too cold. You should get through this stage as quickly as possible when cooling off a dish, and skip it entirely when thawing food.
To accomplish this:
- Thaw your food in the refrigerator. Small items may thaw overnight in the fridge; larger ones will take longer.
- To thaw food fast, hold under cold running water (in a well-sealed bag) or use the defrost setting on your microwave. If you use the microwave, cook or heat the food soon after it has thawed. That's because the microwave tends to start cooking some areas of the food while it defrosts.
- Cool food as quickly as possible before you put it in the freezer. First, make sure it's in a shallow container; the greater surface area will disperse the heat quicker. Keeping the lid off your container will help cool it faster, too.
- Quickly cool your hot food by floating the container in a sink filled with ice water (or in a larger pan filled with ice cubes or ice water). If you use ice water, change it often to keep it ice cold.
- Don't overpack your freezer; the cold air will circulate better this way. Go through the freezer periodically and throw out any old food or food you aren't likely to use.
Preparation and Storage Tips
Here are some more tips to make sure your big-batch recipes stay safe, healthy, and tasty:
- Think ahead to how you might use these freezer portions. If you'll be serving dinner for two, freeze your dish in a container that holds two servings so you can thaw just what you need.
- When preparing foods that are sensitive to overcooking, leave them a little undercooked before you freeze them.
- When making soups, broths, or stews, skim some of the fat off the top before you freeze it. Or, partially freeze it, then lift the layer of fat off the top and discard.
- You can store some dishes, like sauces, chili, and stew, in freezer bags. Be sure to cool them off first.
- To make sure your food freezes as quickly as possible, use containers with no more than a 1-quart capacity.
- Leave as little air as possible in the container, no matter what type of package you use (even freezer bags). But do leave a little space at the top when freezing liquids (like soups or stews), because they'll expand as they freeze.
- Wrap solid foods, like meats and baked goods, as tightly as possible to keep air out.
- Use a ballpoint pen or permanent marker to date the bag or container, or label it using tape that freezes well.
- It's best to eat your frozen dishes within two months.
- Put the foods you made most recently toward the back of the freezer, so you're likely to use the older ones first.
The Big Batch Trade-Off
Wouldn't it be fun to make a big batch of your Grandma's famous spaghetti sauce, then trade a couple of portions to friends or neighbors for their specialty firehouse chili or chicken jambalaya? That way, you'd end up with two or three different entrees out of a single cooking session -- and you might discover some new, healthy dishes that your family loves.
Some things to keep in mind when sharing dishes:
- Share with friends or neighbors who are also committed to eating healthfully. This will help ensure that the dishes they make fit into your higher-fiber, lower-fat, lower calorie-eating plan.
- If someone in your family has a medical condition or allergy that requires you to avoid a certain food, make sure your friends or neighbors know before they cook up their specialty. Ask your friends if there's any ingredient they need to avoid.
- Dial down the salt and/or sodium-containing ingredients. It's easy to add salt to taste, but impossible to take it out once it's added.
Here are a couple of warm and toasty fall dishes that are ideal for making ahead and freezing. Just reheat them, then finish them off with fresh garnishes (make sure not to freeze the garnishes ahead of time).
Quick Chicken Cassoulet
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 cup hearty stew + 1/2 cup vegetable without added fat
You can serve this either as is as a stew, over rice, or as the filling for a quesadilla (that's what I did for lunch the next day with the leftovers). To make the chicken part easy, buy a roasted chicken from the supermarket and shred all the meat off, discarding the skin. You'll have exactly the amount of chicken needed in this recipe!
1 tablespoon olive oil (or substitute canola oil)
1 package Hillshire Farm Turkey Polska Kielbasa (2/3 less fat), about 10 ounces; cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 cups baby carrots, chopped
4 grilled or roasted (boneless and skinless) chicken breasts, torn into chunks
2 cups less-sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon minced or chopped garlic
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
1 dried bay leaf
2 15-ounce cans white beans (cannellini or other), rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley (or 1 1/2 teaspoons parsley flakes)
2 cups croutons of choice (optional)
- Heat a large nonstick skillet or saucepan over high heat, and add onion, carrots, and kielbasa slices. Cook, turning often, until onion is golden and sausage is lightly brown on both sides.
- Add chicken, broth, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and beans and stir to blend. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, and let simmer about 8 minutes to blend flavors and heat chicken and beans throughout.
- Spoon into shallow bowls (or freezer portions). Just before serving, sprinkle a little parsley over each serving along with 1/4 cup of croutons if desired.
Yield: 8 servings
Per serving: 298 calories, 27.5 g protein, 31.9 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (2.2 g saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are not available), 58 mg cholesterol, 7 g fiber, 415 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 21%.
Awesome Turkey & Veggie Chili
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 cup of hearty stew/chili + 1/2 vegetable without added fat
This chili is great on its own, but the garnishes make it awesome. So take a few minutes to dress it up with a garnish of grated cheese, green onions, fat-free sour cream, and diced avocado.
2 tablespoon canola oil
2 1/2 pounds lean ground turkey (7% fat)
2 packages taco seasoning (1 ounce each)
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon chili pepper flakes (optional)
2 cups less-sodium chicken broth
2 cups mild salsa
4 cups canned, crushed tomatoes in puree
7 ounce can chopped green chili peppers
1 large onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)
2 green bell peppers, diced
5 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced (about 6 cups)
1 1/4 cups shredded, reduced-fat Jack or cheddar cheese
1 bunch green onions, chopped (the white and part of the green)
1 1/4 cups fat-free sour cream
1 large avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
- Heat oil in a large, nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat. Add ground turkey, and, as it cooks, use a potato masher to crumble into small pieces. After about 4 minutes, add taco seasoning mix, coriander, oregano, and the chili flakes (if desired). Stir and continue cooking until turkey is well-browned.
- Add chicken broth, salsa, tomatoes, green chilies, onion, bell pepper, and zucchini. Bring to a boil, then cover the pan and reduce heat; simmer for 10-15 minutes.
- Ladle the chili into individual bowls (or into freezer portions). Just before serving (and after heating, if frozen), top each with grated cheese, green onions, sour cream, and avocado, as desired.
Yield: 10 servings
Per serving: 245 calories, 17 g protein, 20 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat (2.6 g saturated fat, 4.2 g monounsaturated fat, 3 g polyunsaturated fat), 55 mg cholesterol, 4.5 g fiber, 990 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 36%.
NOTE: The garnishes add (per serving) 100 calories, 6 g protein, 8 g carbohydrate, 5.5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 2.6 g monounsaturated fat, 0.5 g polyunsaturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 99 mg sodium.