I worked at one of those new "assemble your own meals" places for a while and learned a lot about freezer meals. They are fabulous for those busy days when you don't have the time for a home cooked meal. If you can afford to go to one of the stores that do this (like Super Suppers), it is nice because you don't have to worry about ANY prep, cleanup, or even bags to store them in. However, if you want to do this at home, it is also very easy, and usually not very messy! In fact, a lot of the recipes we post can be frozen. Here are some tips:
1. Meat safety: When you buy meat from the store it can go straight to your freezer if you desire. However, once you have thawed meat from your freezer, you cannot re-freeze it UNTIL you have cooked it. Then you can freeze the cooked meal or leftovers.
2. Length of time in the freezer: Fish-for at least 3 months (I don't suggest longer, but some do.) Chicken-6 months. Beef-up to 12 months (although some say ground should be eaten in less time.)
3. Marinades: These are great if you have chicken breasts, pork chops, fish, or beef tenderloin or steak, either already frozen or bought fresh. Combine your marinade in a freezer bag, add your meat, toss back in the freezer. Your marinade will do its work while your meat is thawing.
4. Casseroles: These can easily be frozen, too! Most ingredients are already "cooked" before you actually cook (or heat) your casserole. One example is Betsy's Manicotti. Once everything is assembled-just before you were to bake it, place in container or pan and freeze. Once it is thawed out, continue with original baking instructions.
5. Label and Date: Write on your freezer meals what it is and the date it was made. That will save a lot of guess work getting the right food out later, and avoid eating things that are too old.
6. Freezing other things: Some side dishes can be frozen, like rice, seasoned vegetables (using already frozen veggies), breads, and pasta dishes. With rice and pasta, err on the undercooked side before freezing or they may be a little "mushy." You can add a little water in re-heating if needed. I suggest frozen veggies because once cooked, frozen, then recooked they can become mushy as well.
7. Desserts: Your basic cookie dough recipes can be frozen before baked. Roll in wax paper then wrap. It is easy to slice off how much you want at a time. Cakes can be frozen after they are baked. I would wait to ice them if you can. Cakes can be wrapped "whole" or can be sliced and the pieces wrapped individually. Pies & pastries can be frozen. Underbake the crust just slightly so when you "re-cook" it doesn't turn too brown.
8. Recipes: I'll post some specifically for the freezer. There are also recipe books out there. One cookbook Betsy and I have tried is Meals For a Month, found at Borders Bookstore.
9. Containers: The type of container you use is important for avoiding freezer burn. The best choices are anything that is made for freezer storage, can be made air tight, and will fit in your freezer! Examples include Tupperware, Corningware, Pyrex, freezer quality ziploc bags (we love these!), and freezer paper. Make sure you wrap plastic wrap and then foil over any pan that does not have its own lid; if you use freezer paper, make sure you seal all seems or place it in a ziploc bag. Many pasta casseroles (ones that use smaller noodles--not something like manicotti) can be frozen in a ziploc bag and then molded into the pan once thawed. Meat, veggies, and rolls can also be frozen in ziploc bags.
10. Flash freezing: This is for individual items, usually baked goods, that you want to freeze. Simply put the items (muffins, cookies, rolls, etc.) on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer until they are hard to the touch (no more than 24 hours). Then, put the items all together in a ziploc bag--they will keep their shape since they are already frozen.