You want to eat well and save money. It seems like every day we see new articles reminding us of how much healthier it is to eat whole foods. Then, how relying on takeout and packaged food is hard on the budget.
But between work, other commitments, and just plain getting tired of cooking three meals a day, this can feel like an impossible dream most of the time.
So you might be wondering: what’s a busy person to do? One great way to beat the weeknight burnout is with freezer meals and batch cooking.
This is an idea that’s getting more and more popular, since in return for spending just a few hours one day a week, you can skip that weeknight stress and ease into a relaxing, healthy dinner instead. The best and fastest way to do this is to use an electric pressure cooker to make Instant Pot freezer meals.
Want to know the best part?
There’s even a way to have a hot dinner ready and waiting for you the minute you walk in the door.
The idea behind make-ahead meals is to prep all your ingredients and pre-cook some of them (or even whole meals) and then freeze most of it for later.
By doing this, you have your own personal stash of quick meals to draw from when you’re not in the mood or don’t have time to cook.
No big freezer? No problem. Just be sure not to cook more meat or starches than you’ll be able to use in a few days so that they don’t go bad before you can use them.
Nobody enjoys food poisoning. Not sure what the guidelines are? Here’s a handy way to search and find out.
If you DO have a separate freezer, you can really go all out with this, since you have the room to freeze plenty of things for future use.
Make sure you have the right size instant pot depending on how much food you want to cook at once. If you’ve got a warehouse store membership and have ever asked yourself what a person could do with 20 pounds of chicken thighs, now is the time to find out!
Once they’re cooked, you can package things up in a variety of ways. You can freeze the meat in single servings, or in the right quantity for a favorite recipe, and either way you’ll be ready for a quick weeknight feast. You can also make your own frozen dinners, packing up a full meal in each container, ready to heat when needed.
Do you have kids?
This is a great way to get them involved in the cooking process. They can learn important life skills like how to shop, cook, and plan meals (even college students can’t survive on ramen forever).
It might even have the added benefit of making them less likely to complain about what you’re serving, since they got to help select meals and ingredients. They can also take pride in knowing that they chopped the carrots in that stew, and it helps them build confidence in their abilities.
This all sounds great, right? Wondering where to start? We’ve got 7 easy steps to take you through the process from start to finish.
1. Plan Your Favorite Meals
Check out the website for your favorite store, or look at their most recent ad flyer. What’s on sale? You’ll spend less money and time in the kitchen if you can buy and cook in bulk, especially with meat.
Checking your local farmer’s market to see what produce is in season is also a great first step. It’s fresh, healthy, and you’re supporting local farmers.
It’s also a great way to source your vegetarian freezer meals. Think about your favorite recipes, or one you’ve been wanting to try. Have a Pinterest board with food that looks delicious but you haven’t made it yet? Now’s the time to try it.
2. Create a Helpful Shopping list
Once you have some ideas about your meal plan for the week, inventory your pantry and cupboards for staple items. Write your grocery list as you go, and be sure to check your supply of freezer containers and bags while you’re at it; you’ll be going through a lot.
Ideally, your storage containers will be reusable, and able to go from freezer to microwave for thawing and/ or reheating.
You can even find containers that have separate sections, which let you make your own “TV dinner” style meals. These can be great for single meals, or if you’re feeding picky eaters and want to have a family dinner that still lets everyone choose something they’ll enjoy.
3. Shop Smartly
Ideally, try to do your grocery shopping at a time when the stores won’t be too crowded. Especially if you’re planning to freeze a lot for future use, you’ll need some extra shopping time, and will have a full cart to steer around. It’s nice to have a clear path ahead of you.
Be sure to take your shopping list.
4. Prep and Cook Your Instant Pot Freezer Meals
Find time when you can cook for at least a couple of hours, if not 3 or 4, so that you can get it all done. Look at what you have to cook, and what’s going to take the longest. Get those started first.
If you’re using the same ingredient for multiple dishes, cook all of that ingredient at once and then divide it up.
You also don’t have to cook everything. Wash and cut fresh veggies and store them in the fridge. Chop up some of your meat and freeze it raw to cook later.
Bag up some meat with your favorite marinade and let it soak in the flavor.
Where your Instant Pot shines is in quickly cooking your “slow cooking” proteins. You can cook weeks’ worth of chicken thighs in 20 minutes.
Have a tough roast that needs all day in the oven? Not anymore.
Cut it up, either into a few pieces or bite size morsels and it’ll be incredibly tender in under an hour. You can even cook a big pot of beans (a bad idea with older pressure cookers) and have them ready to go in an hour. Did we mention you don’t even have to soak them first?
5. Package and Label for Future Convenience
Wait until your cooked food is cooled before you package it. When you do, be sure to label it clearly with what it is, and today’s date.
If you’ll be packaging individual Instant Pot freezer meals, or large dishes such as casseroles, it’s nice to include thawing and cooking instructions, especially if you’re not going to be the one to cook them when the time comes.
Writing on painter’s tape is a great way to label your reusable packaging, since you can easily peel it off the container before it goes in the dishwasher.
6. Inventory Your Freezer Using FIFO
Restaurants use FIFO (first in, first out) when restocking their perishable inventory.
This is always a good idea with home cooking as well, but becomes really necessary if you’re stocking up a big freezer. It’s easy to forget what you cooked several months ago, and lose all that time and money to freezer burn.
If you’ve got multiple packages of the same item (like boxes of cooked meat), pull out the older ones so you can put the newest in behind or underneath, before replacing the oldest on top so they’ll be the first ones you grab.
A magnetic white board on the front of the freezer is a fast way to note what you put in and the date you did. More analytical types might like a spreadsheet they can search by meat type or cuisine.
7. Relax (and Eat)
Do we need to say more?
But wait. Where’s the hot meal waiting when you get home that we promised you? That’s another place where your Instant Pot comes to the rescue.
If you have a multi-function cooker with a “keep warm” setting, that’s when the real weeknight magic happens. Put in your pre-cut meat and vegetables and add some seasonings in the morning, and when you get home from work, you’ll find a delicious hot meal that tastes better than takeout and is so much easier on your budget.
You can even make it an easy freezer dump meal. Use your frozen prepped meat and vegetables, toss them straight into the pot with some broth, and set the cooking time.
The cold ingredients will make it take longer to come up to pressure temperature, but that’s not a problem, since you won’t be home to eat it til the evening. Just set it and forget it.
Is this better than a slow-cooker?
You might be wondering: isn’t that what slow cookers are for? Sure, people have used them for this for years, and they are still great for some recipes, but there are places where a pressure cooker wins hands down.
Since slow-cookers are all about the low and slow, they can sometimes struggle to get food hot enough for food safety, especially if you’re starting with frozen meat.
Many slow-cooker recipes will also tell you to brown the meat on the stove first for best flavor, since otherwise you’re missing out on the Maillard reaction, which gives food a huge boost of flavor.
It certainly tastes better, but does add extra kitchen time to the process, and if you’re busy, you shouldn’t have to choose between flavor and time.
With your Instant Pot, the timer for how long it’s in cooking mode is based on when the contents come up to temperature, so you can safely toss in that frozen meat and walk away, knowing you’ll come back to food that’s both delicious and safe to serve.
Because pressure cookers are also able to get up to nearly 250 degrees instead of 212, you’re getting all the flavor, without the need to pre-brown your meat. More flavor, less time, no food safety concerns? What’s not to love?
Give Instant Pot freezer meal cooking a try, you’ll be so glad you did!