I love freezer meal cooking. I really do. In fact, it is the whole reason I started this blog! But, I have been pretty busy lately, and forgot…truly, just forgot to make freezer meals. After eating out way too many times in a week, I decided it was time to get back on the bandwagon, and to set up my own freezer meal group so I wouldn’t forget again.
I made several meals this week, and can’t wait to share them with you. But in the meantime, I figured I better share some of the guidelines for setting up a freezer meal exchange group, just in case you guys have busy lives too and could benefit from freezer meals! (Couldn’t everyone?)
What is a freezer meal group? Each participant make multiple batches of one freezer-friendly meal, then meets with the other participants to exchange the meals on a regular schedule. So you make one dish (in quantity), and exchange it for a variety of other dishes.
There are inherent problems with a freezer meal group, like getting foods you don’t like, or spending more on your meals then someone else spends, or having too many meals, and wasting food. But there are also really great benefits too. For example, you cook once, and get a variety of easy meals. I mean, how can you beat that? When you cook in bulk you save money, you save time, and you only have to clean once!
Here are my top 10 tips in no particular order:
1.Get a schedule together. Life is busy, and chances are with a group of say 5-10 people, it will be hard to coordinate schedules between ballet and soccer and piano and family… The best way to make it work is to pick a day, and stick with it. For example, “The 3rd Wednesday of every month at 5 pm” is when the swap will occur. Set up a backup plan for those random days the swap doesn’t work for someone. For example, what if you are out of town? Can you drop your meals off early at the host and have them hold the meals until you get back?
2. Figure out a portion size that works for everyone in the group. Chances are you don’t have the same amount of people in your family as everyone else in the group. Or maybe you don’t like left-overs, but someone else really wants them for lunch for the next day. The point is, everyone is different (no surprise there), so come up with a quantity that works. For example, each meal should feed 4 adults. Or, if someone in the group has a larger family, you could maybe do each meal feeds 8 adults, but the meals have to be split into 2 containers for those with smaller families.
3. Figure out how healthy you want meals to be. Believe it or not, everyone has their own ideas about what it means to be healthy, and so it is important to have a discussion with the group about what your “healthy” eating expectations are. For example, if you don’t want a lot of processed stuff, like canned cream of whatever soups, set some ground rules with the group. Everyone has different expectations, so the best thing you can do is clarify. Do you expect hormone free meats? Do you want vegetables included in every meal? What are your thoughts on hot dogs? You get the idea.
4. Set a price point. Do meals have to cost a certain amount? What if someone gets something on sale? Do they need to add something to the dish to make up the difference? This is very important to figure out, as you certainly do not want anyone to feel taken advantage of. Certain foods cost more than others, for example, flank steak is twice the price of chicken. So if one person makes Orange Chicken and another person makes Flank Steak the person making the flank steak might feel a little frustrated. Will the person making orange chicken be adding something else to the meal, such as a side dish of vegetables? Or will they chip in a few dollars to the person who made the steak? There is no right or wrong way to do this, it is totally up to you. You could say everyone makes chicken on the same month, everyone does beef the next, etc. but this will limit your variety. Figure out a solution that works for the whole group! I recommend setting a basic price per meal ($8-$10) and ask that meals include something extra (rolls, dessert, etc.) if the main dish is less than this price point.
5. Decide on the menu together. A great way to do this is to set up a Facebook group, then have each person propose three or four options for what they want to cook for the next swap, then vote. This way no one ends up with something they do not like, and everyone has some say in the menu. You could set up a group Pinterest board and pin the options, letting everyone vote. If everyone has a say, and something doesn’t turn out, the blame doesn’t rest on just one person. You get better variety. Everyone knows what to expect. There are a lot of pros to deciding the menu together. You could even do it at the exchange, have each person bring their ideas with them, and decide in a few minutes while everyone is together what meals will be cooked for the next exchange.
6. Account for allergies and aversions. This is very important. Allergies are especially important, but aversions should not be ignored. If one family does not like seafood, it is important to get this out there upfront. What if they hate meatloaf? You get the idea. Remember, you are looking at about ten meals total, so even if you love seafood or meatloaf, you can always make it for yourself for a different meal, just don’t include it in the swap.
7. Decide on a monthly review. Try to keep the philosophy of “you win some, you lose some” in mind. Truthfully, not every recipe turns out, and everyone has different tastes. I have tried a number of recipes that had rave reviews online only to find that they were not successful for my family. The best way to get a really great freezer meal group that can be successful long term is to rate the recipes. If there is something everyone loves, put it on your “make again” board. If there is one that gets less than stellar reviews, chalk it up to a miss, and move on.
8. Include recipe with the meal, instructions, etc. Make it a rule that instructions need to be printed/written/attached to the containers. I love printing mine on stickers and simply applying them to the freezer bag or top of the foil container, but writing it on is just as effective as long as everyone can read the hand writing. Include the recipe with the swap so that if someone loves it they can make it themselves. This can be done by printing the recipes out, sharing via social media, or indicating which recipes are used on a Pinterest board, etc.
9. Complete meal or main dish? This is very important as well. I love freezer meals because they mean no work for me. But what if all you get is some marinated chicken? Then you have to come up with sides, as well as cook. It won’t feel very fair if you too time and made lasagna. But if you get that same marinated chicken, twice baked potatoes, and some creamed corn, the swap for lasagna makes more sense. I like the rule: You only need to add a salad. In other words, what you exchange should be a complete meal, like a Buffalo Chicken casserole, or a meat and a starch (think Easy Garlic Lime Chicken and Creamed Corn)? Decide what your rule will be.
10. Decide on containers. Are you going to buy matching sets of containers so you can exchange and it won’t matter whose containers you end up with because they will be the same as everyone else’s? Will you use freezer bags? Will you use foil containers? I love the foil containers at Costco and Sam’s Club. They cost about $6 for around 30, if you buy the lids too you are looking at about $10 for 30 good sized (casserole sized) containers. You don’t want to have to worry about getting dishes back. Figure out as a group how you want to handle the container situation. I recommend disposable containers unless doing Soups, then a few freezer friendly containers will work.
There are likely other things, but if you do this, you will find that your group is much smoother. Pick a host, rotate hosts, or meet at a neutral location (park and ride) swap meal, and enjoy!
Also, if you are planning to do a freezer meal cooking day (by yourself or with a group), consider my 3 part tips:
Freezer Meal Cooking: Part One How to Plan Your Freezer Meal Cooking Day
Freezer Meal Cooking: Part Two Implementing Your Plan
Freezer Meal Cooking: Part Three Tips and Tricks
I would love to hear what has worked for you.