Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of experimentation with meal prepping, with the goal of having lots of home-cooked meals in the freezer that I can pull out at a moment’s notice. I’ve tried all kinds of different things, sometimes successful and sometimes a complete failure and often in between. When something works, I take note of it and try to reuse that strategy going forward.
What follows is the single most efficient and successful meal prepping strategy I’ve yet tried. It makes a bunch of lunches and family meals quite easily and they’re all quite tasty, even right from the freezer.
Wait, what is it you’re doing, and why? Meal prepping is simply the practice of making meals in advance and freezing them late in the preparation process so that they can be pulled from the freezer and very quickly finished when time is tight. This helps keep meal costs low, since making meals at home is less expensive than eating out and meal prepping usually lets you take big advantage of bulk purchasing, and it also saves time over the long run, though there is some up-front time investment.
This article focuses on the absolute easiest meal prep I’ve ever done that managed to have really successful results. This isn’t going to be a complex gourmet meal; rather, I’m just aiming for a very quick meal prep that results in pretty tasty individual meals for future lunches.
So, here’s what I do. Note that you will need quite a bit of freezer space to pull this off well, but I account somewhat for different freezer sizes in the article.
Start off by getting your stuff ready. You’ll want a pound of dry pasta, a jar of your favorite pasta sauce, and about two cups of shredded mozzarella for every four lunches or one family meal you want to prep. This whole procedure can be multiplied by the amount you want to make with ease. For this example, let’s say you’re just making four individual meals, so you’ll want a pound of pasta, a jar of your preferred pasta sauce, and two cups of shredded mozzarella. You can get your favorite type and brand of each – I just snagged store brand versions of each kind and I think that rotini turns out very well when you make this. You can add additional ingredients if you wish, like frozen vegetables or cooked ground beef, but I’ll leave that up to you.
You’ll also want some meal prep containers. By “meal prep container,” I mean any container with a lid that’s dishwasher safe, freezer safe, microwave safe for individual meals, and oven safe for family meals. I want it to be safe in all of those environments so that I can use it in a multitude of ways. These are wonderful meal prep containers for individual meals that are well worth the investment if you plan on doing a lot of meal prepping. If you’re just starting out, you can (and probably should) get inexpensive plastic individual meal prep containers like these; they’ll last for about ten to twenty uses before cracking and becoming problematic, in my experience. That’s plenty long enough to figure out if meal prepping is right for you.
If you’re interested in doing family-sized meals, I haven’t yet found a reasonably priced freezer-to-fridge-to-oven casserole-sized dish that’s reasonably priced. Basically, choose two of these features – cheap, highly reusable, won’t break – and that’s what you get. Because of that, I stick with these, which work really well for about twenty or so uses until the lid starts cracking. I have had cracks form in somewhat more expensive glass reusable dishes when I moved them from cold areas to hot areas, so I don’t view them as reliable; I’ve seen very expensive earthenware and enameled cast iron dishes work well but they’re very pricy and unlikely to recoup the investment in any reasonable amount of time.
The actual procedure is really easy. Just boil the pasta according to your package directions. When it’s done, strain it thoroughly, then toss it with the pasta sauce until all of the pasta is coated evenly. If you have other ingredients you want to add, toss them in now – things like cooked ground beef or frozen chopped vegetables. Then separate the pasta equally into each of the containers – in this example, with one pound of pasta and one jar of sauce, just divide it equally among four individual meal prep containers or put it all into one family sized container.
Then – and here’s the trick – put the containers in the freezer open for about three hours or so. You can certainly leave the containers in there for longer if you wish, but don’t leave them in there for much longer than a single overnight period if you did this in the evening.
After the basic meal is frozen, put half a cup of shredded mozzarella on top of each individual container or two cups on top of a family-sized container, put a lid on each container, label it with some masking tape, and pop it back in the freezer. It’s good to go whenever you want it!
The individual containers of this recipe reheat really well in the microwave straight from the freezer and, in my opinion, even better from the fridge if you move a container to the fridge to let it thaw. I find I don’t even need to defrost it for it to turn out pretty well, though I think a short period on defrost mode if it came straight from the freezer helps. The cheese melts into the pasta and when you pull it from the microwave, just toss it around with a fork to distribute the cheese and sauce evenly. It makes for a really great lunch.
The thing is, if I buy the ingredients for this at my regular local store prices (and don’t buy an overly expensive sauce), this makes super-filling, super-tasty, and super-convenient lunches that cost less than a dollar each. If I happen to hit on a sale, the price goes down even further – this can often be made for about $0.70 per individual meal, or even less, with a regular sale.
What’s next? I’ve found that this basic procedure works really well with most one-pot meal (meals that you would serve out of a single dish); I simply used this very simple pasta dish as an example of how easy it is.
If you want to try this with other one-pot meals, follow the basic structure above. Make your one-pot meal, serve enough for an individual person’s full meal into an individual container or a full family meal into a family-sized container, then freeze it with the lid off for just long enough for the meal to freeze – three hours usually does it. If you tend to put on a topping at the very end of the actual meal preparation, like some cheese or seasoning on top, put that on after the initial freeze. Once the meals are frozen, put a lid on each one and return them to the freezer.
This basic strategy scales well. It’s not too labor intensive. It enables quite a lot of variety – there are a lot of one-pot meals out there – here’s a bunch from Food Network – and most of them work well with this basic framework.
This pasta recipe, though, is incredibly easy and it just works like a charm for loading your freezer up with very easy, tasty, fast, and incredibly inexpensive meals. If you ever wanted to dabble your toes in meal prepping, it doesn’t get much easier than this.