While I consider myself a pretty good cook, I never really cooked very often until recently. Sure, we have our regular quick meals like spaghetti with jarred sauce and frozen turkey meatballs, but I've always found it a huge challenge to plan, shop, prep, cook, and clean up homemade meals. So when it's a special occasion like Thanksgiving, I go to town... but in our everyday life, Wagon Sr. and I often look blankly at each other with the "what should we do for dinner?" look whenever 5:30pm comes along. It's especially tough on workdays since we get home around 5:30pm and the kids' bedtime starts around 6:30pm!
Since we're trying to eat relatively healthier and save money, when I saw Mrs. Polish's post about slow cooker freezer meals, I knew it was time. Time to really roll up my sleeves, dive all the way in and really commit to cooking. The idea that I could pull a meal out of the freezer and stick it in the crock pot before leaving for work was just too good to be true. We'd tried slow cooker meals in the past, but prepping the meal the night before was also a daily time commitment and still tough for me. But coming home to a hot, delicious meal (not to mention the excitement of entering the house and evaluating the aroma!) is exactly what we needed as a family, especially now that Wagon Jr. is trying new foods all the time and Lil Miss Wagon is starting to eat table foods.
So, for those who aren't familiar with slow cooker freezer meals, here's the process I use. I have Mondays off so I start the process on Sunday night, but you could easily push it back to start Saturday night instead if you work 5 days a week.
- Sunday night: Meal planning. I usually just google "slow cooker freezer meals" and start surfing through blogs. I find recipes that are appealing to me flavor-wise and ingredient-wise, and don't require a lot of prep the night before or the morning of. If I find something interesting, I'll then read through the comments and make sure I see lots of great reviews of people who have tried out the recipe. I've learned my lesson (the hard way, with last-minute pizza ordering) that sometimes recipes just don't come out well. I print out the recipes and place them in my recipe binder with sheet protectors. Then I go through the new recipes as well as past recipes I know were successes, and I pick out 3-5 recipes to prepare for the week. I then compile a shopping list for the next day and I clip coupons. Sometimes I will meal plan around the coupons I have that week.
- Monday morning: Grocery shopping. After we drop Wagon Sr. off at the train station, LMW and I head straight to the grocery store. I try my best to stick to my list, but I'm often wrestling with my coupon binder if I see something I need that's on sale. After we get home, I put the groceries away and leave all the ingredients I need for that week's prep in a corner of the counter. Depending on what we have going on that day, I'll either prepare a simple meal for Monday's dinner or we'll do a $7.99 large 3-topping carryout from Domino's.
- Monday evening: Meal prep. I lay out my freezer bags and label them with the meal and cooking directions. I portion out the protein and add them to the bags, and then I go through and prep each meal, one by one. I freeze each bag flat and leave one in the fridge for Tuesday. I usually also make a pot of rice for the week at this time.
- Tuesday morning: One into the pot, one out of the freezer. I put Tuesday's meal into the slow cooker (I use slow cooker liners to reduce cleanup) and I transfer Wednesday's meal from the freezer into the fridge to defrost for the next day.
- Tuesday evening: Finish and serve. As soon as we get home, I prep any other sides (instant mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, pasta, etc) and serve the meals. We eat as a family and I do the dishes immediately afterwards. I wash the slow cooker cover and put a fresh liner into the cooker. Then we are all set for the next morning!
Finding recipes that work for us is a whole different story. While we are trying to eat somewhat healthy, we do not shy away from processed or prepared foods, so that makes it somewhat easier. LMW has shown a sensitivity to soy, so that limits us a bit. But the biggest factor is myself. I'm just a picky eater. I'm not big on soups, which are a slow cooker staple. I also don't eat any spicy foods (even medium salsa is too spicy for me), and I don't like having to sear meat the night before (usually essential in slow cooking because the long cooking process dries out meat like crazy). I also don't like meals like tacos or pulled meat sandwiches, because that requires you to have buns or tortillas on hand, as well as all the fixins.
Left: Wagon Jr. enjoying his Mongolian Beef and -- miracle of miracles -- steamed broccoli! Right: LMW's first taste of broccoli, and she loved it. I had to cut her off. I forgot what it's like to have a good, non-picky eater.
So after a couple of rounds, here are my top four recipes!
In general, the directions are ALWAYS as follows: Place all ingredients in a resealable gallon-sized freezer bag and mix together. When ready to eat, remove from freezer and thaw in fridge for 24 hours. Cook on LOW for 6-8 hours or HIGH for 4-6 hours.
- 1 ½ pounds chicken breasts
- 1 (16 oz) bag frozen broccoli florets
- 2 (16 oz) jars Alfredo sauce (I use light)
- 1 large green pepper, chopped
- 1 (4 oz) can sliced mushrooms, drained
Cook on LOW for 4-6 hours. I serve this on top of whole wheat penne or fettuccine.
- 6-8 Chicken thighs
- 1/2 C Dijon Mustard
- 1/4 C Maple Syrup
- 1 T Rice Wine Vinegar
- 1 can of sliced mushrooms, drained
- 1 onion, sliced
Cook on LOW for 4-6 hours. I serve this with instant mashed potatoes and/or steamed veggies.
- 1 lb. stew meat
- 2 tsp. olive oil
- 1 onion, thickly sliced
- 1 tbsp. minced garlic
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp. fresh minced ginger
- 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
Cook on low for 4-6 hours. I serve this on top of rice with steamed broccoli.
- 1 1/2 lbs cubed beef (stew meat)
- 1 packet Dry Onion Soup Mix
- 1 can Cream of Mushroom Soup (although Cream of anything will work)
- 1 14 oz. can beef beef broth or stock
- Salt & Pepper
Cook on low for 6-8 hours. You must serve this on top of mashed potatoes.
I also have to include two non-freezer, but super easy and crowd-pleasing recipes.
The BEST pulled pork...!
Pour 20 oz root beer over a pork shoulder and cook on low for 8 hrs. Remove pork, shred with forks, mix in Sweet Baby Ray's, serve on buns with coleslaw right on there.
Sweet and Sour Meatballs (thanks SorryCharlie!)
Equal parts chili sauce (find it next to the ketchup) and grape jelly (not jam!) in the pot with frozen meatballs.
Do you have any great slow cooker freezer meal recipes you can share? Please do!! I'll be meal planning on Sunday!