Create Your Own Frozen Dinners
Healthier Meals that Save Time & Money
-- By Leanne Beattie, Health & Fitness Writer
You're busy. Whether you work full-time, attend college, care for a loved one, run a household—or all of the above—you don’t always have time to make yourself nutritious meals. Like many people who want to eat healthy on a budget, you probably rely on those handy frozen entrees to fill the gap. After all, they seem like a bargain compared to going out for lunch every day.
But if you do the math, you're probably spending at least $60 per month for frozen meals that don’t taste that great and are processed, packaged, and preserved. Why not make your own frozen dinners and save the extra money? By using better quality ingredients and controlling the cooking method, you’ll always have a supply of quick and tasty meals on hand—foods you actually like to eat!
Compared to store-bought, homemade frozen meals are:
- Healthier. Many commercially-prepared foods are full of salt, artificial ingredients, preservatives and unhealthy fats. By making your own meals, you can control what goes into them and use quality ingredients like brown rice instead of white rice, organic vegetables instead of conventional, and olive oil instead of palm oil.
- Inexpensive. While a frozen meal may be cheaper than a restaurant bill, it's still more expensive than cooking from scratch. If you prepare your own meals with whole ingredients, you can save $100 a month or more.
- Time Savers. Making your own meals doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Set aside one day a month to cook a few recipes and you will have enough meals to last for weeks on end. You can even make cooking a social event by inviting some friends and sharing recipes—you’ll get to try something new while you chitchat with your buddies.
- Eco-Friendly. Frozen entrees are packed in plastic and cardboard that usually ends up in landfills. When you make and package your own foods, you can decrease your impact on the planet by using glass or plastic containers over and over again with little to no waste.
- Full of Variety. Prepackaged frozen meals don’t offer any flexibility—what you buy is what you get. While you might like some of the ingredients in the meal, not everything is going to appeal to you. But by creating your own, everything will be up to your taste level and standards—and you can change the menu, ingredients, and combinations any time!
The choice is yours. Preparing freezer-ready meals isn't a difficult task. To get started, use these meal-preparation and storage tips.
- The containers you use to store your meals in should be both microwave- and freezer-safe. Both glass and plastic may work well, if they meet these standards (all glass and plastic containers are different). Another option is large freezer bags. Certain foods will freeze well in a bag, and can then be defrosted in the refrigerator, placed in a microwave-safe container, and then reheated.
- Before portioning out cooked food into containers, allow it to cool completely first and always leave extra room at the top of to allow for expansion of the food during freezing.
- Make sure food is wrapped well and/or covered with air-tight lids to prevent air from getting in.
- Foods with high moisture content (such as soups) tend to freeze better than drier foods.
- Don’t turn your food into a mystery science project. Use a permanent marker to label each dish with a name and a date. For maximum quality and flavor, use each meal within a couple of weeks. Just like in a store, rotate your stock so that the newest meals are in the back and the oldest are in the front for easy access.
- Vegetables should be slightly undercooked to prevent them from becoming mushy when you reheat them.
- Be careful about bacterial contamination. Completely cool hot food before freezing it to prevent the growth of bacteria. Bacteria can grow when the outside of food freezes while the inside remains warm.
- If you’re not sure a meal will freeze well, cook and freeze only a small portion the first time. If the quality is okay, then go ahead and freeze more in the future.
- Read your owner's manual to find the fill level that will keep your freezer running at peak energy efficiency. Certain freezers run best when completely full, while others shouldn't be filled more than half-way.
- Consider posting a freezer inventory list nearby to track the meals (and dates) of everything in the freezer. Check off each item as you remove it and you will know exactly what foods are available at all times. This also prevents forgotten foods from going to waste.
- Freezing your meals is a great way to keep foods longer, but frozen doesn’t mean forever. As a general rule, fruit and vegetables will stay freezer-fresh for around eight months, fish and shellfish for up to six months, and meat and poultry for three. Trust your instincts and throw out anything from the freezer that smells or tastes "off."
- Don’t re-freeze defrosted foods because the taste and texture will decline and you could be risking bacterial contamination.
As a general rule, the following dishes tend to freeze well: baked goods, burgers (sometimes uncooked will freeze better), burritos, calzones, casseroles, cooked beans, cooked grains, egg rolls, enchiladas, French toast, quiche, lasagna, manicotti, mashed potatoes, meatballs and meatloaf, pancakes, pot pies, poultry, roasted meats, sauces, sloppy Joes, soup, stuffed shells, taco fillings, tofu, TVP, and waffles. Foods that do NOT freeze well include: egg- and cream-based sauces, instant rice, salad, stuffed poultry, hard-cooked eggs and fried foods.
If you’re ready to start making your own frozen dinners, here are a few healthy SparkPeople recipes to get you started with flair!
15 Minute ChiliNutritional Info
- Fat: 13.3g
- Carbohydrates: 32.3g
- Calories: 370.8
- Protein: 31.3g
- 1 pound ground turkey
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1 16 oz. can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 16 oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 28 oz. can chopped stewed tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon cumin powder
- 1/2 cup salsa
Directions1. In a large pot, brown turkey with chopped onion.
2. Add beans, tomatoes, garlic, chili powder, cumin, and salsa to turkey mixture. Cook until hot.
3. Serve with cornbread, cooked pasta, cooked rice, or on top of a baked potato. Sprinkle with cheese if desired.
Makes 4 servings.
Chicken Vegetable Soup with RiceNutritional Info
- Fat: 3.0g
- Carbohydrates: 34.3g
- Calories: 224.3
- Protein: 15.1g
Ingredients2 cups roasted chicken
1 can low-soduim/lowfat chicken broth
4 cubes soduim-free chicken bouillon
6 cups water
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried thyme
1 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup brown basmati rice (not cooked)
1/2 cup chopped onion
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup each red, yellow, and orange bell pepper
1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper
DirectionsPut all ingredients into a slow cooker and cook on high until done, 3 to 4 hours.
Number of Servings: 6
Potato SoupNutritional Info
- Fat: 0.2g
- Carbohydrates: 19.3g
- Calories: 85.6
- Protein: 2.1g
Ingredients2 cups cubed potatoes
2 cups water
1 cup chopped carrots
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 chicken bouillon cubes
pepper to taste
DirectionsCook potatoes, carrots, onion, and water until tender.
Add bouillon and pepper.
Simmer 10 minutes.
Number of Servings: 4
Tomato-Basil SoupNutritional Info
- Fat: 3.6g
- Carbohydrates: 24.7g
- Calories: 151.7
- Protein: 6.4g
Ingredients4 cups chopped seeded peeled tomato (about 4 large)
4 cups low-sodium tomato juice
1/3 cup fresh basil leaves
1 cup 1% low-fat milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/2 cup (4 ounces) 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened
Basil leaves, thinly sliced (optional)
8 (1/2-inch-thick) slices diagonally cut French bread baguette
DirectionsBring tomato and juice to a boil in a large saucepan. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes.
Place tomato mixture and basil in a blender or food processor; process until smooth. Return pureed mixture to pan; stir in milk, salt, and pepper. Add cream cheese, stirring well with a whisk, and cook over medium heat until thick (about 5 minutes). Ladle soup into individual bowls; garnish with sliced basil, if desired. Serve with bread.
NOTE: Refrigerate remaining soup in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1 cup soup and 1 bread slice)
Low Sodium Vegetarian White Bean ChiliNutritional Info
- Fat: 0.5g
- Carbohydrates: 22.0g
- Calories: 119.4
- Protein: 7.9g
Ingredients3 cups white beans (navy, great northern, cannellini)
1 Onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 ounces chopped chiles
2 teaspoon Oregano
1 1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/4 teaspoon Ground Cloves
1/4 teaspoon Cayenne
2 quarts (8 cups) water
DirectionsSimply combine all of the ingredients in a large pot and gently simmer for 60 minutes.
Vegan Tomato and Tofu SoupNutritional Info
- Fat: 10.9g
- Carbohydrates: 23.7g
- Calories: 248.2
- Protein: 21.1g
Ingredients5 large ripe tomatoes; peeled and cored
1/2 pkg. (454 g) medium tofu
2 tsp vegetable stock
1 celery stalk; finely chopped
1 medium onion; finely chopped
1 tsp lemon or lime juice
1 tbsp parsley
salt and pepper to taste
DirectionsPuree tomatoes with tofu.
Put into pot with rest of ingredients.
Cook for 20 minutes or until celery and onions tender. Serve.
Number of Servings: 4
Broccoli QuicheNutritional Info
- Fat: 7.3g
- Carbohydrates: 9.3g
- Calories: 166.0
- Protein: 17.0g
Ingredients1 cup egg substitute
1/4 cup fat free half and half
1/4 cup skim milk
3 oz low fat swiss cheese
1 large stalk broccoli
1/2 cup canned mushrooms
DirectionsPreheat oven to 400*F. Steam and chop broccoli.
Add broccoli and mushrooms to cake pan sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.
Mix egg substitute with half and half and skim milk.
Pour egg mixture over broccoli.
Sprinkle with cheese.
Bake in 400*F oven approximately 40 minutes.
Number of Servings: 4
Fabulous Vegan French ToastNutritional Info
- Fat: 3.4g
- Carbohydrates: 28.2g
- Calories: 162.2
- Protein: 6.2g
Ingredients1 1/2 cups soy milk
2 tbsp flour
1 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tsp sweetener
1 tsp cinnamon
8 bread slices
Directions1. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, flour, yeast, sweetener, and cinnamon vigorously. Soak 1 slice of bread in batter until bread is gooey. Fry in a non-stick pan or a lightly oiled frying pan on medium heat until golden. Flip and fry other side. Repeat until batter is gone.
2. Garnish with fruit and maple syrup.
Makes 8 servings (1 slice of bread each.)
Greek Breakfast WrapsNutritional Info
- Fat: 10.4g
- Carbohydrates: 24.1g
- Calories: 223.9
- Protein: 10.6g
Ingredients1 cup hard boiled egg, chopped
1 cup red peppers, chopped
1 thin slice of onions, raw
1 oz feta cheese
100 grams jumbo black olives
3 tbsp fat free mayonnaise
1 tsp oregano, ground
1 thin slice red ripe tomato
Small whole-wheat pita,(4" dia)
DirectionsCombine all ingredients except black olives, onion slices, and tomato slices in a covered container.
Refrigerate for later use.
When you want a wrap put 1/3 of the filling on a warm pita and add slices of onion, tomato and black olives.
Add a leaf of lettuce if you want a more salad-like wrap.
Number of Servings: 3
Turkey Bacon Breakfast BurritosNutritional Info
- Fat: 9.5g
- Carbohydrates: 29.8g
- Calories: 259.6
- Protein: 12.9g
10 Slices TURKEY BACON, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 Cup green pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 Cup onion, chopped
1/2 Cup skim milk
1/4 Teaspoon pepper
1 Cup reduced-fat Cheddar cheese, grated
10 8-inch flour tortillas
As needed Salsa
Directions1. In large non-stick skillet, over medium heat, cook bacon, green pepper and onion 12 to 15 minutes or until bacon is lightly browned, stirring frequently. Regulate heat to prevent sticking and burning; remove skillet from heat.
2. In small bowl combine eggs, milk and pepper. Pour egg mixture over bacon mixture. Return skillet to low heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until eggs are almost done; stirring frequently. Remove skillet from heat and stir in cheese.
3. Place 1/4 cup egg mixture on lower 1/3 of each tortilla. Roll tortilla and place in 9 X 13-inch microwave-safe dish; cover with plastic wrap. Cook in microwave oven at HIGH (100% power) 2 to 3 minutes or until burritos are hot.
4. To serve, drizzle salsa over burrito.
Makes 10 servings (1 slice turkey bacon each.)