Mix & Match Bagged Meals At Home

Bagged meals found in the frozen section at your local grocer can make for a quick weeknight meal. Unfortunately, they come with a heavy price tag and don't always leave you satisfied after a long day's work. But if you fill your freezer yourself with mix and match individually portioned ingredients, you'll be set for dinner when time is of the essence.

Most bagged meals have 4 basic, individually frozen/packaged parts. Some meals keep these things in separate bags and some freeze everything individually, but package it all in the same bag. Here's how to prepare each part:

Protein - Pork, Beef, and Chicken are all great candidates for this method. Cut your choice of protein (tofu chunks work great as well!) into strips or cubes and cook just shy of your preferred level of done-ness. Keeping pieces small will allow them to thaw and reheat at the same rate as other ingredients. Keep seasonings simple, salt, pepper, olive oil and garlic are easy and versatile and will blend well with whatever dish they're added to later on down the line. Freeze on a baking sheet with parchment paper until solid.

Starch - Most bag meals will contain some form of rice or pasta. Pasta and rice can all be par cooked, patted dry and frozen in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Once frozen, they can be bagged into family portions or individual amounts depending on how the meals will be used. It might seem time consuming to freeze rice in individual grains, but it pays off in the end and won't take as long as you think! Fresh pasta can be frozen in nests, try to keep them around the size of a golf ball.

Vegetables - The best part about making your own bagged meals means you don't have to include veggies you aren't exactly fond of. Not a fan of snow peas? Don't worry! Just leave them out! With gardens coming to a close, with end of the summer goods, make sure to check Farmer's Markets for the freshest finds. Give them a quick blanch before tossing them into the freezer so they keep their color and make sure to freeze individually so they can each receive the same amount of cooking time once they hit the pan. That way everything ends up fresh and flavorful instead of part mushy and part crunchy. You can of course use pre-frozen vegetables (most of which were picked at peak times) with great results and skip the whole blanching step.

Sauce - Most sauces made at home are perfect for freezing. Simply freeze them off in ice cube trays or muffin tins (although more difficult to remove) and pop them out when solid. Plan on using 3 cubes per person or 1 muffin tin shape. You can also freeze fresh herbs in water to add to the mix as well. Not only will this provide a little extra water for your pasta and veggies to finish cooking in, but it will add a splash of freshness to a frozen dish! If you're unsure what to use, try heading to the grocery store (without your shopping list) to do a little research. You can't go wrong with tomato and pesto based concoctions.

Assembly: You can either portion out enough food to feed your family and seal it in a zip top bag with the air removed (or a food sealer if you have one), or keep a bag of each type of meat, sauce, starch and vegetable in your freezer. You can then choose the portion size and flavor depending on who's sitting down for dinner that night.

Ingredients will last 3-6 months in the freezer in this manner, so look for sales and specials to purchase larger cuts of meats and vegetables in season.

When you're ready to eat, add the protein and sauce to a pan with a little olive oil over medium high heat, after 3 minutes add in the starch, after 3 more minutes add in vegetables and herbs. Reduce heat to medium low and continue cooking until everything is warmed through. Add a bit of whimsy with a crumble of your favorite cheese, bacon or other topping that might be lurking in your fridge from a previous meal. Finish things off with a squeeze of lemon for a little extra freshness and dinner is served!

Related: Quick Tip: Buy Baguettes to Freeze

(Image: Flickr Member FotoosVanRobin licensed for use under Creative Commons)