I'm sure you've heard of people cooking meals for a month or two and freezing them. I've often thought it was a great idea EXCEPT I have no where to put it! We have a big family and a little freezer. But at the same time I know how often we were falling back on sandwiches or cereal when mama was exhausted and I looked up and realized it was 6:00 with nothing planned. So after talking to several friends I came up with a plan that has worked very well for us.
I cook 2 weeks in advance and I don't put it all in tin pans, I make kits! My girlfriend Sena shared that after her daughter had some major food allergy issues she was so bummed that she could no longer buy those quick freezer kits like fajitas or stir fry so she started making her own. For some reason this just was a light bulb moment for me. We always shop for 2 weeks at a time so now when grocery shopping is done I start cooking right away. I can generally get 10 meals cooked and in the freezer in 2-3 hours (and that's with 5 kids and a husband under foot "sampling"). I decided on 10 meals because in theory I could use one every week day when were dealing with school and craziness but also because I do like to cook and somedays I just have to make a big pot of soup because it's grey and rainy and cold. I should add that every two weeks I'm only choosing 5 meals and I'm doubling them. That helps keep us in budget and once we started we don't always use all 10 before our next shopping time so over the weeks we have a larger variety. I pull out today's meal the night before or in the morning and let it thaw in the refrigerator until dinner. In general I warm them on the stove top or in a 9x13 pan covered with foil for 20-30 mins at 350.
Here's an example of five meals I make and how I store them:
Tacos- YUP! Tacos. I brown and season the meat and put it in a zipper bag. Then I put cheese in a small baggie and grab a bag of tortillas. In a large zipper bag I'll put the tortillas, bagged burger and cheese, squeeze the air out and done. I thaw it during the day and then I can warm the meat on the stove top with just a little water if needed while I chop tomatoes and onion. I know it seems like just as much work to brown the meat as it is to warm it but somehow it's not. No grease to deal with and I guess just no brain needed at all.
Sloppy Joes- I just brown meat and make up the sauce (I usually add lentils to ours to stretch our meat too). I put it in a zipper bag and freeze flat. The day I use it I throw it in the crock-pot on low in the afternoon and it's warm by dinner.
French Bread Pizzas- I'll make a few loaves of french bread and freeze along with a baggie full of cheese and pepperoni. To make we just slice the loaves into four and top with spaghetti sauce, cheese and pepperoni and throw it under the broiler till melted and brown (5-10 mins). You could easily buy a loaf of french bread too.
Fried Rice- (this one was from Sena) Make up white rice and at the same time scramble up eggs in a little sesame oil (I use a dozen eggs and no meat in this recipe). In separate baggies put chopped onion, minced garlic and the eggs. Mix a cup or two of mixed veggies in with the rice and put that in a large baggie. Add those little baggies right in and then again freeze flat. To make saute the onion in a little oil, add the garlic for the last minute or two so it doesn't burn then dump in the rice and eggs and "stir fry" until warm. I add a bit of salt and soy sauce as it's cooking and even a dash of sesame oil for flavor.
Black beans and sausage- I make this one if I have dried beans in the house before shopping day. I cook them in the crock-pot the night before so there ready when we are home from groceries. Make a batch of rice (white or brown your choice). To the black beans I add salt and whatever spices I think of. Usually cumin, garlic/onion powder, I've even used steak seasoning before. Then I take smoked sausage (the thicker kind that comes in two long links and use one link per recipe) and cut it like you cut a hot dog for a toddler- in half lengthwise twice so then when you slice you get 4 pieces per slice. Throw that in with the beans in a bag and freeze flat. Put the rice in a separate bag and freeze. When it's dinner time put the rice in a 9x13 pan and top with the beans, cover with foil and bake at 350 for 20-30 mins. Top individual servings with sour cream, shredded cheese, tomato and onion... YUM!
Other meals that freeze well are chili, spaghetti noodles (yup, freeze them and then you can dump the spaghetti sauce over top in a 9x13 and top with mozzarella cheese and you have a spaghetti bake), homemade chicken nuggets... the list is endless. There are also several once a month cooking type cookbooks you can try but just do it in shorter periods. I can stack all 10 meals on one shelf in our upstairs side by side freezer. We have a small freezer downstairs that basically holds bread and veggies for us but because it's in baggies frozen flat we can squeeze some meals in there too.
The best part of this whole thing is Daddy or the big kids can "cook" if mom is gone or busy. The other day Carter (12) dumped the tuna fettuccine in a 9x13, covered it with foil and baked it while I was picking up and chasing the 1yo. All I need to add is our choice of veggie/applesauce and maybe cornbread or rolls depending on the meal.
Cooking ahead works for me!