How to make dinner magically appear when you come home at night

Let’s indulge in a little fantasy. You come home at the end of a busy day with hungry people to feed. And you open the freezer, praying for a miracle, and behold! There is a whole meal waiting in there for you and your family. All you have to do is pop it in the oven for 30 minutes or so.

And no, it’s not Lean Cuisine frozen dinners. And it’s not last night’s leftovers. And it’s not takeout. This is food you cooked. But how? You were at work all day. Oh my God, did you clone yourself?!?

Yes! I mean, no. This, my friends, is the mom hack known as freezer meals.

Now before you say, “Pshh, I’m not doing that!” and click away, listen to us now and believe us later: This is easier to pull off than you think, and you’re going to thank yourself when you thaw out that first meal. Seriously. You are going to say aloud, “Thank you, self, for premaking this dinner. I’m welcome!” and your kids are going to think you’re insane. But you’re not. You’re smart and resourceful.

We got tips from our friends at Once a Month Meals (see Tricia Callahan’s BlogHer speech, Productivity and Efficiency: Get More of the Important Stuff Done) on how to make this freezer-meals business your tantalizingly new easier life. Here’s what they told us.

More: The ultimate pantry list that will get dinner made night after night

With these simple steps, you can stock the freezer with healthy, home-cooked meals, even if you don’t consider yourself a rock-star cook.

Pick your recipes

First, you have to know what you are going to cook. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Freezable: There are a wide variety of foods that you can freeze, even ones you think that you can’t, like rice or dairy. But there are a few that don’t maintain a good taste and texture, so steer clear of those.
  • Variety and efficiency: Balance your menu by having some super-easy recipes to throw together while a more complicated recipe is simmering or baking. Look for some overlap in ingredients so that your grocery list isn’t a mile long. Try something new, but be sure to have recipes you know everyone will love too.
  • Budget: Keep things simple so you don’t overspend. Choose recipes based on ingredients you already have in the pantry. And build your menu around seasonal produce and sales. But hint, hint — freezer-cooking in itself is going to save you money.

More: 5-Day Meal Plan: When you crave slow-cooked carnitas tacos and tostadas

Prepare for the big day

I promise — this undertaking won’t be difficult if you get organized first. One step at a time.

  • Equipment: You really only need basic kitchen tools and appliances. But it is helpful to have extras so you don’t have to wash as often. You may want to consider purchasing some larger-than-normal pots and pans for large batches or investing in a few time-saving gadgets like a food processor.
  • Grocery shop: This trip is slightly more involved than your usual shop, so plan for a little extra time. And make sure to go a day (or two) before you plan to cook. Using a planning service such as Once a Month Meals will help you print a grocery list in a snap (and has other helpful planning tools) — no math required.
  • Slice and dice: Take some time to prepare all of your ingredients before you start cooking. Then you can just measure and cook instead of constantly returning to the cutting board when you have three recipes going at the same time. This might be the single most important tip to success in freezer cooking.

More: 5-Day Meal Plan: We have ways of making you love pork chops

Freeze all the things

This is it. Get the kids, pets and other dependents out from underfoot, turn on your favorite tunes and get to work.

  • Where to start: There is a method to the madness. Again, a service like Once a Month Meals will provide you with step-by-step instructions for getting the job done. But basically, you want to start with the recipes that will take the longest: slow cooker recipes and baked. Then work your way through stovetop recipes. You’ll end with the easiest recipes.
  • Before you freeze it, cool it. While you are finishing up those last easy recipes or doing dishes, let your recipes completely cool to avoid freezer burn.
  • Package and freeze: You’ve reached the end! Grab your freezer-friendly containers and label first. (It is harder when they are full of food.) Fill them with deliciousness, and lay them flat to freeze for maximum space efficiency.

Now all that is left to do is enjoy your dinner — and all of your newfound free time.

freezer meals
Image: Liz Smith/SheKnows