This week I've been sharing my first-ever freezer meal party — a small get-together where we cooked and assembled meals for our freezers. It was a totally fun and worthwhile way to spend an afternoon, but as it was my first time coordinating the many moving pieces, it certainly took longer than I expected!
To improve my next meal party, I turned to Stephanie Eakins, who runs freezer meal parties as part of her business, The Retro Dinner Diva. Here's a little more about Stephanie, her business, and five of her best tips for a successful meal-assembly party.
The Retro Dinner Diva
Stephanie Eakins is the owner of The Retro Dinner Diva, a service that offers home delivery of casseroles and homemade meals as well as large-scale freezer meal parties. Guests pay a fee, then show up and assemble meals with ingredients that Stephanie has prepped. It's a freezer meal party at its easiest and most convenient.
I discovered Stephanie while doing some research on freezer meal parties and found, to my surprise, she was running her business right here in Columbus, where I live. Stephanie left the corporate world and started a meal delivery business in September 2013. She had always loved food and cooking and she was ready for a new entrepreneurial career, as well as more flexibility in her work life.
"I started the delivery service," she told me, "because I know what it's like to be a busy person and a busy mom." Meal parties followed quickly, thanks to a friend's request for parties or classes. She tried it out, and it was instantly a hit. "People love it!" she says. "At one party we made 220 meals in just over an hour."
The Business of Freezer Meal Parties
Stephanie hosts her parties at The Commissary, a commercial kitchen collective that many small local food businesses use for storage and prep. She handles all the more challenging parts of a freezer meal party: recipe planning, bulk shopping, mass prep of vegetables and meat.
"I try to keep it fun," she said. "I usually look for recipes that are comforting and family friendly." But she has also branched out, with great success, beyond traditional comfort food and now offers parties with Paleo, gluten-free, and low-carb recipes.
Stephanie's smart business model has received attention beyond Columbus. "I get calls from all over from people who want to do this," she said. "People from Milwaukee, Dallas, Boston, have asked me how to start something similar. And I've had people drive all the way from Cleveland for a freezer party. People just love the idea of putting meals in freezer."
What Makes a Great Freezer Meal?
I asked Stephanie what she looks for in a freezer meal. "To me, an awesome freezer meal is one that retains its quality after frozen — it tastes just as good as it would have been never frozen — and is all about saving you time, money, and effort in the long run." Stephanie spends a lot of time researching new freezer recipes, combing through magazines and cookbooks.
Casseroles are perennially popular with her guests, but as she has branched out into Paleo and low-carb meals, she's discovered other good ideas, like stir-fry kits and freezing a whole seasoned chicken for the slow cooker. "You can season it in so many ways. Then just put it in the slow cooker and crisp up under the broiler."
5 Tips for a Successful Freezer Meal Party
Obviously Stephanie's process for a freezer meal party is different than most of ours. She spends about two days prepping for a meal party. She orders food — some is delivered and some she shops for directly. She spends a day browning meat and doing any other hot cooking so all the food can cool. Then she chops and organizes cold ingredients and lays out bags and labels so that the guests only have to assemble. In about an hour and a half of hands-on time her guests usually put together about 200 meals.
But whether or not you do so much prep ahead of time, Stephanie's process has a lot of good take-away tips. Here are five of my favorites.
- For healthy meals, freeze for the slow cooker: I love her tip about seasoning and freezing whole chickens! If you have the freezer space, this is a great way to prep ahead for your slow cooker. The slow cooker can also help you prep meat and poultry for use in salads and grain bowls.
- In warm weather, freeze for the grill: Like the slow cooker, the grill is a great way to cook healthy food with flavor. As warmer weather approaches, think about freezing meat and seafood in seasonings and marinades for quick grill meals.
- Prepare (and cool) hot ingredients ahead of time: The most time-consuming part of my freezer meal party was the actual cooking. We browned ground beef, roasted potatoes, and more. All of these things had to be cooked and — just as importantly! — cooled thoroughly. If one person has time to do this ahead it can make assembly so much smoother.
- Each team makes only one recipe: At Stephanie's parties, they don't go through the recipes consecutively, each team or cook moving from station to station. Instead, each cook makes all the batches of their one assigned recipe. Stephanie explains how this would work at home: "Each person picks or is assigned one recipe and is responsible for just that recipe (this saves a lot of time and money because everyone just buys in bulk for that one recipe versus ingredients for 10 different recipes)." This streamlines assembly since people aren't moving from recipe to recipe; they just create an assembly line and bag up all of one kind of meal.
- Double-bag your meals (and put the label on the inner bag): Stephanie uses the same kind of labels I do — basic Avery office labels — and they're not waterproof. But she double-bags each meal to protect from marinade leaks and spills. The label goes on the inner bag, which keeps it clean and firmly affixed in the freezer.
Stephanie reinforced my own findings — which is that freezer meal parties are just a lot of fun, besides the time and cost savings. "Wine always makes it better, and assembling with friends is more enjoyable than doing it alone."
→ Visit Stephanie Eakins online: The Retro Dinner Diva