Recently, I’ve made a few mentions of the fact that Sarah and I (honestly, mostly Sarah, as she has really jumped on board with this concept since spending an evening with a friend of hers doing this) have been preparing meals for the freezer with the intent of actually cooking them in the slow cooker on the day we intend to eat them.
The Basics of Freezer Slow Cooker Meals
Here’s the basic process that we’re following.
First, we identify a bunch of slow cooker recipes that meet our family’s needs as well as one additional specific requirement. The key requirement that you really need to address with freezer-to-slow-cooker meals is that they are essentially “turn it on and leave it” meals, meaning that they amount to putting a bunch of ingredients into the slow cooker, turning it on low for several hours, and then putting it on the table. For us, this usually means putting it in the slow cooker first thing in the morning, turning it on low (or setting the timer for it to turn on mid-day if needed), and just letting it cook all day long.
Recipes where you have to do a lot of additional steps in the morning don’t really cut it, nor do recipes where you have to do anything during the day. We even kind of frown on recipes that require you to do something a little while before serving. We want “dump it in and leave it” recipes for this, because these recipes are meant to make home-cooked meals as easy as possible for us.
This is probably as good of a point as any to tell you that my family eats perhaps 99% vegetarian meals, primarily for health-related reasons. We make sure that our meals are protein rich and we’ve discussed this with our children’s pediatrician (who is most decidedly not vegetarian) before embarking on this diet.
I like to collect these kinds of recipes using Paprika. Once the recipe is in there, it’s really easy (with just a few clicks or finger swipes) to build a grocery shopping list from those recipes.
Second, we build a big shopping list for several recipes at once, using the grocery store flyer as a guide. We’ll start by looking at the grocery store flyer. We look for raw ingredients that are on sale – particularly produce, but meat is definitely something to look for if you’re doing this – and then we’ll look through our collection of good slow cooker recipes to find ones that include that ingredient. For example, if tomatoes are on sale, we’ll look for a few recipes that include diced tomatoes.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say our local grocery store is having a sale on fresh spinach. I might then go to our recipe database and start pulling out recipes that use spinach, such as this delicious crockpot lasagna from Eating Well and this slow cooker spinach and mozzarella frittata from Skinny Ms. and these crock pot spinach and mushroom enchiladas from Crockpot Gourmet (which I would make upside down in a freezer container and then invert in the slow cooker when it came time to prepare it).
My favorite “on sale” item is mushrooms, because there are so, so many dishes you can make that really use mushrooms amazingly well.
This ends up making a giant grocery list, so one of us heads to the store to buy those items. Magically, that grocery list already lines up with the items on sale at the store – because, as you recall, we planned the recipes based on grocery store sales – and it spells out just the ingredients you need for delicious meals.
Recently, we made nine of these slow cooker meals and the receipt came in at under $100 – $96.15, to be exact. Remember, this covers nine family dinners, so that reduces the cost of each dinner to about $10.50 each. Out of that $10.50, all five members of our family get a delicious supper, plus there’s usually enough leftovers for Sarah and I to each have at least one more lunch off of the meal, and there’s usually enough left over after that to have the food again as part of a “leftover dinner,” which we have about once a week when we’re cleaning up leftovers. The cost per meal, in other words, gets down pretty close to $1 – and that’s amazing.
Next, we bring all of those ingredients home and start preparing meals. This is where the fun happens. We just go through and prepare each recipe up to the point where it says to put it in the slow cooker for several hours, so we’ll do all of the chopping and dicing and cooking of vegetables and so on up front.
One good approach is to do this with a partner. Maybe you can do it with a friend and make it into a social event. What you’ll do is simply have both of you start prepping ingredients until there are enough ingredients ready to start prepping one recipe for freezing, then one person starts assembling the recipes and getting them ready while the other person keeps chopping and preparing individual ingredients.
(Sarah is an amazingly organized person when it comes to pulling off things like this, so she often just takes on the whole project herself. I might serve as a sous chef to her. I’ve only prepared a batch of freezer meals by myself once in the last few months.)
Storing the meals can be the tricky part. One method is to simply use gallon Ziploc freezer bags. If you do this, I strongly suggest that you double-line the bags as there can occasionally be splitting or leakage problems during thawing. Another method – and the one that I prefer – is to use large freezer-safe reusable containers. A great entry-level option for this are Glad FreezerWare large containers, which hold 64 ounces of food quite well in the freezer and can be used many, many times.
All you do is just go through and add the ingredients of each meal to their own freezer container except for water. You’ll also want to include a note on any last-second things to do, like adding four cups of water to the crock pot. One method is to write it on an index card and put that index card in a resealable sandwich baggie right inside the package – in between the two layers of freezer bags if you’re using those. Another method is to simply use wide-label masking tape and write the last steps on there.
Here’s an example of a slow cooker meal stored in a Ziploc bag:
In either case, you’re also going to want to label your meal before you put it in the freezer. Again, I recommend wide-label masking tape, which you can write on easily. Indicate what it is, when you assembled and froze it, and how long it should cook on low in the slow cooker.
As you finish these, pop them in the freezer and forget about them until you need them later on!
In our experience, with a typical range of meal challenge, a single person can prepare four or five such freezer meals per hour.
So, what do you do when you’re ready to eat? One to two days before you’re going to cook that meal in your slow cooker, just pull the package out of the freezer and place it in the refrigerator to thaw. Then, on the morning that you’re ready to eat the meal, place it in the slow cooker, add whatever amount of water that you’re supposed to (remember, you wrote that on a recipe card you stuck in the package or on masking tape on the package), and turn it on low (or set the timer so that it goes on low at an appropriate time). Then, when you get home, you’ll have a delicious slow cooker meal ready to eat.
What this procedure does is it moves all of the meal prep time to a lazy weekend afternoon rather than on a busy weekday morning or weekday evening when there’s a much heavier time crunch.
This, of course, saves money in two ways. First, it makes meal prep on weekdays incredibly easy. It can be really, really tempting to just order a pizza or pick up some food for supper when evenings are tight – and with three children all in various activities, it feels like every evening is tight. Knowing that there’s a meal already sitting at home ready to eat makes it a lot easier to just skip that expensive pizza order or takeout meal. Ordering even cheap pizza or takeout food for our family adds up to $25 fast, whereas a slow cooker meal, as I estimated above, costs $8.
Second, by doing a bunch of these meals all at once, we can save money on bulk purchases and take really big advantage of grocery store sales. This means that each slow cooker meal actually becomes quite a bit cheaper on average than just going to the grocery store and buying the ingredients for a single slow cooker meal.
Sound awesome? It is. But what do you need to get started?
What Gear Do You Need?
Here’s what you need to make the magic happen.
A slow cooker is the key item, of course. You simply put food in it, turn it on for a few hours, and the food within slowly cooks. This is achieved by cooking the food within a thick-walled and usually removable crock, which is raised to a fairly low but constant temperature. This is the slow cooker model that we use in our home currently. It does a wonderful job and gets used multiple times a week.
A freezer with some significant free space If you’re going to make a bunch of freezer meals, you’ll need a freezer in which to store all of those meals. They’re going to take up significant space. We have an upright freezer in our garage that provides ample storage space for our needs.
Some freezer containers or freezer Ziplocs Resealable freezer bags cost a little less up front if you’re making a bunch of meals, but they’re nowhere near as versatile as freezer containers, which you can use again and again and again. If you’re in this for the long haul – or even intend to just do this three or four times – the freezer containers are the better deal. I recommend large Glad FreezerWare containers for this purpose. Of course, if you’re just giving this a trial run, the gallon freezer Ziploc bags will do the trick.
Masking tape, a marker, and (maybe) some index cards and resealable sandwich bags If you’re using the containers rather than the bags, all you need is some wide-label masking tape and a marker. That provides plenty of space to write down what you need to know. If you’re using Ziplocs, I’ve found that masking tape tends to peel off of those bags sometimes in the freezer, so I recommend writing the info down on an index card, putting it in its own resealable sandwich bag, and stuffing that inside of the outer Ziploc bag (remember, double-bagging is really recommended here).
A Real-World Example
So, what does all of this actually look like with our family? As I mentioned earlier, we recently made a big set of slow cooker meals – nine, to be exact – and all of the ingredients together cost less than $100. We didn’t even shop at our usual discount grocer, either – we actually shopped at one of the more expensive stores in our area just to be sure that we would have everything on the list on one receipt. At our discount grocer, I’m pretty sure we could have found everything and it would have fallen under $80.
Anyway, here’s what our shopping list looked like for all nine meals at once:
25 vegetable bouillon cubes (on sale!)
2 packages extra firm tofu (on sale, too!)
1.5 cups ketchup
Soy sauce (3 tbs)
Brown sugar (3 tbs)
Lentils (1.25 c.)
1 large jar minced garlic, or 8-10 garlic cloves
1 can (13.5 oz) coconut milk
Quinoa (enough to make 3 c. cooked)
Corn meal (1.25 c.)
Salsa (3.5 c.)
2 cans (4 oz) mild green chiles
1 can chopped or sliced black olives
1 pkg canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
1 pkg (16 oz.) frozen cheese tortellini
Frozen corn (1.5 c.)
1 bag shredded cheddar cheese
1 bag shredded Monterey jack cheese
1 pkg (8 oz) cream cheese
Cans of beans:
4 cans black beans (I would have used dried beans for this, but Sarah made the astute point that most people wouldn’t bother)
1 can chickpeas
1 can red kidney beans
1 can pinto beans
Tomatoes: (I prefer fresh when they’re in season, but it’s late fall in Iowa…)
1 can diced tomatoes
2 cans crushed tomatoes
Seasonings: (we already had most of these on hand)
Red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
Green curry paste
Onions: (these were on sale, so we selected several recipes with onions)
1 small yellow
1 large yellow
2 medium yellow
1 small red
4 medium Vidalia or other sweet onion
Other vegetables and fruits:
4 celery ribs
2 lbs sweet potatoes
5 red bell peppers
3 granny smith apples
5 kale leaves
1 c. baby bella mushrooms
8 oz. fresh spinach
We did have a few of these items on hand, particularly the spices, but most of this list was purchased at the store. Our final bill was, as I mentioned above, $96.16.
So, what recipes did we make? I did my best to source all of the recipes online, but some of them came from cookbooks and our own handwritten notes. Here’s what we made:
Red bean and sweet potato chili (from Fresh From the Vegetarian Slow-Cooker by Robin Robertson)
African coconut chickpea soup (from onceamonthmeals.com)
Lentil soup with kale (from Fresh From the Vegetarian Slow-Cooker by Robin Robertson)
Barbecued tofu (from vegetarian.about.com)
French onion soup (from Fresh From the Vegetarian Slow-Cooker by Robin Robertson)
Black bean soup (from moneysavingmom.com)
Stuffed peppers (from Fresh From the Vegetarian Slow-Cooker by Robin Robertson)
Slow cooker cheese tortellini (from allrecipes.com)
Enchilada-inspired polenta pie (from Fresh From the Vegetarian Slow-Cooker by Robin Robertson)
We simply took the ingredients from the shopping list, made a single batch of each of these recipes, and stuck them in the freezer. It took approximately two and a half hours.
For each meal, we just pulled it out about a day and a half early and allowed it to thaw in the refrigerator. For most of them, they just went directly in the slow cooker the morning we intended to eat it and was piping hot and ready to eat for dinner that evening when everyone got home.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, our family eats almost all vegetarian meals for health reasons, but it’s pretty easy to follow this kind of plan with recipes that utilize meat. In fact, I’d argue that it’s even easier, as there are countless slow cooker recipes that use pork, beef, venison, chicken, turkey, and even seafood.
All you need to do is start digging through slow cooker recipes – I love browsing through the slow cooker section at AllRecipes – and find ones that look tasty to you and save them. I also love looking at Slow Cooker Revolution from America’s Test Kitchen, too. I really recommend using Paprika for this process, as it makes it really easy to save and search through the ones you’ve found. My only recommendation is to try to focus on ones that involve minimal work in the evenings, like soups and stews and roasts.
Once you’ve got a healthy collection of slow cooker recipes – fifty or so is a good number – and you’ve got the basic gear mentioned above, just head to your grocery store flyer and look at what ingredients are on sale. Then, search through your recipes for ones that match up with the on-sale ingredients and use those as your backbone. Make a grocery list and you’re off to the races!
This entire process takes perhaps three or four hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, from simply looking at the grocery flyer to choosing recipes and building a shopping list to actually shopping for those items to actually preparing all of the slow cooker meals and freezing them. It’s a pretty inexpensive process, too, considering how many complete meals you produce.
Once you’ve put in that initial session and made a big pile of meals, then it becomes easy – really easy. It’s just a matter of thawing out a meal, putting it in the slow cooker one morning, and coming home to a delicious supper for the whole family.
I hope you’ll give it a shot!