Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Fit Freezer -- Thrifty Thursdays

If you like frozen dinners like those made by Lean Cuisine®, Weight Watchers® or Jenny Craig®, you'll love these homemade alternatives. The meals offer the speed and convenience of going from microwave to table in minutes. More importantly, they cut down the urge to cheat, as they give you a portion controlled amount of food that takes the guesswork out of dieting.

With the recipes and instructions in this article, you can stock your home freezer with delicious homemade, portion controlled low fat foods that have many advantages over their store bought counterparts:

  • More Wholesome - A lot of commercially prepared foods are loaded with unnecessary sodium, sugars, preservatives and other ingredients that you don't need. By making your own meals at home, you control what goes into the foods you eat and you can season them according to your own tastes.
  • Less Expensive - The prepared diet meals you buy at the supermarket are pricey and those sold at commercial diet centers like Jenny Craig cost even more. By preparing your own meals at home, you can easily save 50%-75% or more.
  • Greater Flexibility - When you're counting fat and calories, every little bit counts. Who wants to waste calories on foods you don't really like? When buying prepackaged diet meals, you're unfortunately stuck with whatever combos the manufacturer has chosen - you might like the entrée but not the side dish. Maybe you'd prefer high fiber, nutrient rich brown or wild rice instead of white rice. By making your own meals, you can mix and match entrées and side dishes to create low calorie, low fat healthy meals that suit your individual tastes and needs.
  • Saves Time - As each recipe makes several meals, you can plan to cook several recipes in a single session and have enough food in the freezer to last for weeks. Get together with your diet buddy or a group of health conscious friends and have a "cooking party" -- you can all eat well, stay on your diets, and have a fun day preparing meals together.

Cooking for the Freezer Basics:
If you've never prepared foods for the freezer before, don't worry. It's easy. And don't worry if you only have a small, fridge-top freezer -- if you pack carefully you can easily fit a month's worth of meals in the space you have. In order to prevent freezer burn, which occurs when large ice crystals form during the freezing process, cool foods completely before freezing (cool for no more than 1 hour at room temperature -- otherwise cool in the refrigerator to prevent foods from sitting in the danger zone for bacteria growth between 40°F and 140°F).

Unless you like playing dinner roulette, be sure to label your freezer dinners, not only so you'll know what inside, but also in order to use the oldest foods first. Permanent markers, like Sharpies® work great -- you can even write directly onto aluminum foil or freezer bags. Or you might want to tape an index card on the package with heating instructions (especially handy if other family members will be doing the reheating).

Packaging Freezer Meals:
You probably already have some containers in your pantry that will work -- small glass dishes that can go from freezer to microwave or conventional oven. These containers work great for freezer cooking, although most people don't have enough of them. Keep your eyes peeled for sales at department stores or you might even get lucky and pick some up dirt cheap at garage sales or thrift stores.

Another option is to purchase some of the great containers made by Glad® or Ziplock® (you can use and re-use them over and over again), as they are designed to go from freezer to microwave. But don't limit yourself. Get creative -- any food-grade containers will do, like margarine or whipped topping tubs, Tupperware® or whatever other small containers you might have in the house.

If you plan on cooking your meals in a conventional oven, foil take-out containers like those used by restaurants are terrific (again, I use and re-use mine multiple times). They are quite inexpensive when bought in quantity at a local restaurant supply house.

Of course some recipes, like the French Bread Pizzas, need no more packaging than a tight wrap in aluminum foil. Others you can carefully place in a zippered freezer bag, freeze flat, then place in a baking dish when you are ready to heat them.

For lots more information on what does and doesn't freeze well, click here for the Freezing Primer.

Fit Freezer Recipes
I'll be adding to our archives of Fit Freezer recipes as time goes on. In the meantime, here are a few of mine and a few from Holly Clegg (who has a terrific Trim and Terrific freezer cookbook, click here for details) to get you started.
Thrifty Thursdays is a blog event created by my fried Amanda Formaro from Amanda's Cookin' blog. I've agreed to participate, so look for a frugal themed post here each Thursday. In addition to reading my posts, be sure to visit Amanda's blog for a round-up of all the thrifty home and cooking tips and recipes that came in this week from folks around the blogosphere.

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