If not, it's time to try one! You'll need someone who can be the point person (organizational skills a plus, but anyone can do it). Check out these guidelines and tips, and then give it a whirl - you'll be glad you did.
Guidelines for Preparing Freezer Meals
How much to make:
The number of meals that each person makes is equal to the number of people in your group. For example: if 7 people, including yourself, are participating, you would make 7 of the same meal. If you're doubling it up, you'd make 14, or 2 of the same meal for each person. Meals should generally feed 4 people.
Purchase items on a separate receipt to make calculating your costs easier. Basic ingredients which require small amounts such as salt or pepper, should not be included in your totals. Submit receipt totals to "exchange coordinator" by email at least 2 days prior to the exchange, so the average cost can be calculated and everyone can either pay or get paid to make it even. If you owe money, please bring exact change or write a check to the organizer. This method balances out those recipes which may have more expensive ingredients. Packaging materials are not counted in your meal totals - everyone uses them, so it evens out.
Note: Please do your best to shop for the best prices for all ingredients! Aldi, Woodmans, Sam's Costco, etc. are great options. Don't be afraid to call ahead and ask for a better price since you're buying in bulk - sometimes stores will match or beat others.
Labeling and Packaging:
You can put your meals into heavy-duty freezer bags (Ziploc brand freezer bags really are better) or aluminum pans. Try to use freezer bags where you can to save freezer space, and freeze things flat so they stack nicely. The 8x8 pans can be covered in aluminum foil and then placed in a freezer bag. If you use a 9x13 aluminum foil pan, wrap the meal well with heavy-duty alum foil, not the regular foil. If you put foil over a meal that will stick to the foil (like ziti with cheese on top), spray the underside of the foil with cooking spray before you put it over the meal. That way the recipient can thaw and cook it in the oven without ever taking the foil off. If you're ever in the neighborhood of the Boelter store, stop in and check out all of the great packaging materials they have.. And if you're like me, you'll drool as you walk down all of the aisles of equipment and kitchen supplies.
*NOTE: Not sure where to put this, but I need to include it - make sure you thaw your freezer meals in a container in the fridge, because bags can get holes, etc. I found out the hard way when a bag of chicken fajita meat leaked int a full veggie drawer recently. GAR!
I own a food scale, and I use it to make sure all of my bags or pans are of uniform weight. That might be excessive, but it helps me make sure all of the portions are the same. I notice a portion "creep" as I move along, so it's good to readjust. You can also just use measuring cups and such.
Label the meals with the name of the meal and cooking instructions. A Sharpie pen works great - and it works better to write the information on the foil/freezer bag before placing the meal inside. Avery makes a “weatherproof” address label that works perfectly if you have a laser printer. I loathe writing on bags, so I spend the extra cash on those labels and it makes me happy. If you ever want a template, or a label I've already made, just shoot me a message.
Depending on the size of the families in your exchange group, you might want to split meals. Where it says 6 chicken breasts, you cut the recipe in ½, for example, and you end up with 2 meals of 3 breasts (only do 3 if they are huge - 4 smaller "normal" size breasts should be used). This way, you get double the meals (ex. 7 people get 14 meals). It does NOT work to split items like a roast, so those people would just make one meal, so you might end up with an uneven total # of meals.
If you can't find something on sale, Sam's/Costco is always a great option (someone in the group likely has a membership if you don't, so ask around). Aldi and Woodmans are great options for veggies, condiments, canned/dry goods, etc.
Freezing soups can cause some ingredients to change -- when you're looking at recipes or cooking up a big batch of soup to freeze and you’ll be able to modify your favorite soups for the freezer.
- Vegetables soften when frozen and reheated so I recommend undercooking them slightly for best results.
- Pasta softens in the freezer and again when reheated. I recommend adding fresh cooked pasta when it’s time to serve the soup. Pasta cooks fast and without much attention from the cook so it’s still an easy meal and you save space in the freezer.
- Potatoes that are chopped or diced change texture and become more grainy. Some people don’t mind and others hate the change. Potatoes that are pureed, however, do not have much texture change. Follow your own tastes on spuds.
- Rice can soften but doesn’t become nearly as soft as pasta. Also, less processed rices like wild rice and brown rice don’t seem to soften as much as white rice, converted rice or instant rice.In my opinion it is best to just slightly undercook the rice by about 10 minutes or so if you're worried about it being too soft. Because rice can take 20 minutes to a hour to cook, unlike pasta that cooks in 8-15 minutes I like to have the rice already cooked, frozen and in my soup.
- Milk and cream are often avoided when freezing soups. Many people think they separate or curdle. I have never had problems with curdling and if the milk or cream separates it’s easy to mix it back together. Freeze it ahead in your soup or add when reheating, the option is yours.
- Eggs can become rubbery. So don’t freeze Egg Drop Soup. Freeze the broth base and add the eggs before serving.
Freezing soups that are still hot means the soup takes longer to freeze, has larger ice crystals that can effect the texture, especially of veggies and pastas or rice and results in lower quality. Hot things in the freezer can raise the temperature in the freezer or cause foods near them to start to thaw. Leaving the soup in the fridge overnight if you have to before freezing is better than putting hot soup in the freezer.
Put Soup in Freezer Containers in Useable Sizes
What good is freezing your extra soup if half of it still goes to waste. Freeze in sizes that your family can use and when in doubt use a smaller size. It’s better to grab an extra package of frozen soup than to throw out leftovers no one wants.
1 cup is a snack size for one person, 2 cups a meal. 2 cups plus half a sandwich each is a nice light lunch or dinner for two people. I don’t recommend bothering with smaller sizes than 1 cup. For family size containers freeze up to 2 cups per person in one container for dinner.
Rigid containers or plastic bags work best for freezing soup. Leave room for the liquids to expand when frozen. Half inch of space in rigid containers. A small amount of room in plastic bags. Freezing soup in plastic bags is best done flat, on a cookie sheet so the bags don’t freeze in odd shapes. Flat they take up less room and are easy to stack.
Store 2-3 Months
Store up to 2-3 months according to the USDA. However, per usual, this timeline is a guideline for quality because soup does not spoil in the freezer. I freeze soup for up to six months without any problems.
Thawing and Reheating Frozen Soup
Ideally pull your frozen soup from the freezer about 24 hours before you want to use it. Let the soup thaw in the fridge and then reheat in the microwave or on the stove. Run frozen soup in plastic freezer bags under hot water instead of microwaving plastic bags.
Soup can also be cooked from frozen in the microwave, stopping often to stir, or on the stovetop. I prefer to cook my soup from frozen on the stove.
Soups frozen flat in plastic bags can be broken into smaller pieces by hand if they are not too thick. Put the soup, whole or in pieces, into a pan and add enough water to cover the bottom. The water prevents burning.
For 2 cups of soup cooked from frozen on the stove top, with the lid on, over medium high heat, it takes around 10 minutes for dinner to be ready.
Use a low heat for soups with dairy in them, also try not to boil soups with milk, cream, eggs or cheese or they are more likely to separate.