Eleven Tactics from the Meal Assembly Line

A few months ago, I posted a detailed guide to making meals in advance. It’s a very useful guide for preparing full meals, but quite often that’s not exactly what you want. You want an individual meal you can pull out when you want.

I want this, too. Often, I eat leftovers, but lately, I’ve been enjoying pulling meals from the freezer in the morning and enjoying it for lunch.

As I’ve been experimenting with this – making several meal items on the weekends and pulling them out during the week – I’ve figured out a number of little tricks to make it easier. I mostly use BPA-free freezer, microwave, and dishwasher safe containers like these, but I’ll occasionally use frozen Ziplocs as noted below.

Here are eleven tips I’ve been collecting. I hope you find some of them useful and they help you make more meals at home and save even more money.

Sandwiches Wrap a sandwich in a napkin, freeze it in a small freezer Ziploc, then allow it to thaw in the morning in your work bag. The napkin will keep the bread from getting soggy, leaving it just slightly moist – perfect.

Pasta When freezing pasta, slightly undercook it. Make an individual container with slightly undercooked pasta and sauce so that it doesn’t get “mushy” when it thaws and will cook just a bit more when microwaved.

Soup If you want to eat the soup in individual portions, use microwave- and freezer-safe hard-sided containers so you can go straight from the freezer to the microwave. If you’re going to freeze it for larger meals, freeze it in a gallon freezer Ziploc and lay it flat so that it thaws in the fridge quickly, making it much easier to reheat while also being space-efficient in the freezer.

Also, make soups, not stews. Don’t have large chunks in your soup, particularly vegetables that are prone to getting mushy like potatoes. Instead, make soups that are still good when the pieces become mushy and consistent, like split pea soup or lentil soup.

Chili Have you ever noticed that chili is usually better when you reheat it? That’s because chili is usually best when the flavor has time to meld. Use that philosophy when freezing chili – don’t make a batch and move it straight to the freezer. Instead, let it sit in the fridge for a few days first, allowing the flavor to meld, then add it to containers or bags as described in the “soup” section above.

Rice Freeze rice in an ice cube tray, then fill up a larger bag with these rice cubes. Plain rice works well in countless dishes and with cubes, you can easily add as much as you wish.

Rice with vegetables Make containers with two or three rice cubes, a cup of mixed frozen vegetables, and a few frozen meatballs (if you’re not vegetarian). Add a spoonful of garlic and/or some soy sauce for flavoring. You can buy bags of mixed frozen vegetables at the store that work perfectly for this. Make these in hard-sided containers so you can pop them easily in the microwave.

Bananas Buy ripe bananas, then peel them before freezing. Lay several of them out on a sheet, then freeze them, then transfer the frozen bananas to a bag. Another option – cut the bananas in half and insert a small stick into the flat side of the banana before freezing, turning them into “banana pops,” which are a great quick treat.

Grapes Freeze a ton of grapes that are laid out flat on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, put them all in a bag. Frozen grapes are an amazing summer treat – just grab a few straight from the freezer. This also works well with cherry tomatoes.

Casseroles Many casseroles and layered pasta dishes (like lasagna) work well, but I highly recommend using pans with resealable lids that are both microwave- and freezer-safe. Ideally, you want a pan that you can move straight from freezer to microwave if absolutely necessary without breaking, but they usually cook better with some thawing in the refrigerator in the middle. As with the pasta note above, slightly undercook any pasta that you’re about to freeze.

Chicken breasts Grill a bunch of these at once, then put the extras into individual baggies for freezing. They thaw wonderfully and provide a perfect protein for lunch. You can actually do the same thing with fish filets, too.

The mix-and-match meal Most of these items, frozen individually, make it easy to remix a custom lunch or dinner whenever you want. Grab a chicken breast and a bag of rice with vegetables and a frozen banana, toss them in a lined bag, and you have a great lunch. Alternately, grab a sandwich, a handful of frozen grapes, and a few flavored rice cubes and you have a very healthy lunch.

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