The ease of freeze and bake dishes has another advantage if you’re making your own --- you often can save by buying in bulk and using a range of ingredients,
Recipes that ordinarily would be too much for just one or two can be used, with extra portions frozen for future meals.
If you like to have a weekend cooking frenzy, you could make three or four meals that use some common ingredients (more bulk savings) and freeze portions for future use. You get variety in your diet with just one cooking foray and with the ability to conserve steps, too.
For instance, if you’ll be making spaghetti, ground beef/veggie soup and pot roast, you can chop the veggies for each and share among dishes. It may even give you inspiration to more finely chop some of those carrots that are going into the soup and pot roast for inclusion in the spaghetti sauce.
Freezing meals ahead is a great idea for busy families where some members may have schedules at odds with others. Also, if your schedule sometimes calls for unexpected overtime on the job or at after-school activities, you have the meal most of the way ready even if you’re running late.
Here are some ideas about frozen meals and a recipe for a stuffed-shells dish from The Associated Press:
Buy now, save now, freeze now, eat later
By JIM ROMANOFF
Smart cooks know there are times when cooking just can’t happen. So they keep frozen homemade meals on hand.
This not only saves you time and sanity during busy weeks, it also can save you money. Making and freezing extra portions or whole meals ahead of time lets you take better advantage of sales.
For example, a sale on chicken breasts is a good time to prep and freeze packets of marinated chicken with veggies and cooked rice. Meat, fish and poultry will keep for 3 or 4 months when tightly wrapped in plastic and foil.
This also is a great way to preserve items you bought, but won’t have time to eat before they go bad. Don’t just toss the package of fresh pasta in the freezer; combine it with chopped fresh veggies and broth for a ready-made soup.
Buying in bulk also means lower prices and presents the perfect opportunity to double or triple recipes and cook timesaving meals for the future.
Some dishes freeze better than others. Recipes that contain creamy sauces, mayonnaise or other fat-based ingredients aren’t great candidates because they tend to separate and get watery when thawed.
Ground meat dishes, such as meatloaf and meatballs, freeze with almost no change in flavor or consistency. Soups, stews and chili freeze well, though it’s best to avoid those with potatoes, which can degrade in the freezer.
Casseroles hold up well in the freezer. Line casserole and baking dishes with heavy-duty foil before assembling, then, once the casserole is frozen, you can lift everything out and use the dish for another project.
Most casseroles can be pre-cooked, then go directly from the freezer to the oven. But lasagna and other pasta dishes get watery when they’re cooked ahead and then thawed, so it’s best to freeze them uncooked.
This recipe for sausage, spinach and cheese-stuffed shells makes enough to fill two baking dishes, each with four servings. Assemble both, then cook one for now and freeze the other for later.
The stuffed shells cost less than $2 per serving and can be done for even less when the pasta, cheeses, sauce or sausage are on sale. If you like, you can use turkey sausage or vegetarian sausage crumbles.
SAUSAGE, SPINACH AND CHEESE-STUFFED SHELLS
Start to finish: 1 hour 20 minutes (40 minutes active)
12-ounce box jumbo pasta shells
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup finely chopped yellow onions
1 pound hot or sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 large egg
16-ounce container part-skim ricotta cheese
10-ounce box chopped frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
32-ounce jar pasta sauce (4 cups)
If serving immediately, heat the oven to 375 F.
Bring a large stockpot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta shells according to package directions. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the onions and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sausage and cook, breaking it up with a spoon, until no traces of pink remain, about 5 minutes.
Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and set aside to cool.
In a large bowl lightly beat the egg. Add the ricotta, spinach, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese, dried basil, bread crumbs, salt, pepper and the reserved sausage mixture.
Spread 1/2 cup of the pasta sauce over the bottom of each of two 9-by-13-inch or similarly sized shallow baking dishes. Fill each of the reserved shells with some of the sausage and ricotta filling.
Arrange half of the shells in each of the baking dishes, then spread half of the remaining pasta sauce over each dish of shells. Cover the pans with foil and bake for 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbling.
Uncover and sprinkle each dish with 1/4 cup of the remaining Parmesan cheese. Bake for another 10 minutes.
Alternatively, one or both baking dishes can be frozen for up to 4 months. The dishes should be covered tightly with foil and plastic wrap before freezing.
When ready to serve, heat the oven to 375 F. Remove the plastic wrap (leaving the foil) and bake directly from the freezer for 1 hour, or until hot and bubbling. Uncover and sprinkle each dish with 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese. Bake for another 10 minutes.
Makes 8 servings.