A full freezer is only useful if it's stocked with foods that can help you put dinner on the table quickly on a busy weeknight — unfortunately, ice cream doesn't fit the bill. Over the years, I've learned through trial and error what to always keep in my freezer so that I can, with the help of a few pantry and fridge staples, throw a variety of dishes together quickly with little effort. Here's a list of my top 10!
Bacon is always in my freezer and I get anxious when we start to run low. The slices don't take up very much room, and bacon defrosts quickly (or I even cook it frozen) so I can toss it with pasta, throw it on a salad, or make a BLT that's satisfying and hearty. It's a great way to add just a little meat and savory flavor to whatever you're cooking.
2. Cooked Rice, Grains, or Beans
The next time you make rice, grains, or beans, make a double batch and freeze what you don't eat, especially since these things can take a while to cook and might not be practical for a weeknight dinner. Now you have a heat-and-eat side dish or the foundation of a fried rice or grain salad ready to go! It's a great, inexpensive way to always have something nutritious and filling around without resorting to buying instant mixes or other convenience versions.
3. Homemade Stock
Having homemade frozen stock in the freezer means that a soup can come together in minutes if you just add some noodles, dumplings, vegetables, or pasta. Homemade stock can also make a flavorful cooking liquid for rice and grains.
I love dumplings because they're hearty and easy to cook in just a few minutes. They're great just steamed or pan-fried and served with some vegetables for a light dinner, or added to broth and noodles to make a hearty soup. Homemade dumplings freeze very well, but I've also found great versions at ethnic grocery stores and even Trader Joe's that are staples in my freezer.
If you find yourself with leftover bread, throw it in the freezer — it actually keeps better in there than the refrigerator — and don't worry, sliced bread won't stick together. Frozen bread defrosts in just a few minutes, and toasting it or grilling it into a sandwich will bring it to life again. Freeze chunks of leftover rustic breads and use in panzanella salads.
Having a few pre-cooked or smoked sausages in the freezer means a flavorful dinner is just around the corner. They defrost quickly and add salty, smoky goodness to a simple pasta or soup. One of my favorite quick weeknight dinners is to sauté sliced sausages with greens and serve it over couscous or polenta.
Did you know that most shrimp is frozen immediately after being caught and very little of it is sold fresh? Stock up on a bag of frozen shrimp for the best flavor and quality — they'll defrost under cold running water in the time it takes for your oven or pan to preheat, or they can be roasted or sautéed quickly for a main course.
8. Soups, Stews, Chilis, or Sauces
The easiest freezer meals of all are the ones you just heat and eat or toss with pasta. Don't forget to make extra the next time you cook a big batch of soup, stew, chili, or pasta sauce so your freezer has the best frozen food possible — delicious ready-to-eat things you made yourself.
My freezer always has an assortment of frozen vegetables so I never have an excuse to not serve vegetables with dinner. My favorites are broccoli, green beans, peas, corn, and edamame — they hold up well in the freezing process and can be tossed into soup or cooked into fried rice or noodle dishes.
Sometimes I find myself with a few extra tortillas leftover from taco night, so into the freezer they go. Having frozen tortillas mean I have the base for wraps, burritos, and quesadillas — all dishes that can be quickly made with leftovers or an assortment of foods you probably already have in the fridge.
And don't forget you can freeze flavorful herbs, caramelized onions, and sauces like pesto for quick, easy punches of flavor!
What foods do you keep in your freezer for quick meals?
(Image credits: Nealey Dozier; Faith Durand; Emma Christensen)