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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk
Freezer Week

How to Fill a Freezer with Food: The Ultimate Guide to the Ultimate Gift

updated Aug 17, 2020
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Stocking a freezer with homemade meals is more than just making a few casseroles — it’s assembling a safety net of food to sustain a friend or family member experiencing a life-changing event. The circumstances of that may be joyful, like the birth of a baby, or difficult, such as a deployment, illness, or loss. When words don’t feel sufficient, offer the gift of filling the freezer. Without the burdens of meal planning, grocery shopping, and food preparation, loved ones can focus on their own emotional or physical well-being. And what better gift than that?

But what does it mean to really stock a freezer? How can this expression of care be the most helpful without overloading your own budget, time, or mental load? Instead of relying on the all-too-common generalized advice, we’ve put together a specific plan with actionable steps that can help you give this gift and fill someone’s freezer. Step by step, recipe by recipe.

Before We Get Started, Some Practical Advice!

A few things to consider before you jump into our plan and get cooking.

1. Are You the Right Person to Fill This Particular Freezer?

Before you extend the (very generous) offer to fill someone’s freezer, reflect upon whether or not you are truly the best person for the task. Asking too many questions about food preferences and providing too many recipe options can actually cause more stress for the recipient. If you already know the family’s eating habits and are aware of any food sensitivities or allergies, you are able to avoid the emotional toll of asking questions during an emotional time. You are the right person for the task if you can create a menu with certainty that the family will eat and enjoy what you make.

2. Cooking on a Budget? Define Your Budget, and Ask for Help

Our plan here is pretty budget friendly. However, adjust and don’t break your budget. Any amount of help is bound to be appreciated! If your budget is limited, solicit help from other family members or friends. Often, a family’s support system just needs a coordinator to strategize and assign specific tasks — in this case, what food to make. You can be the liaison between the recipient’s support system and the freezer.

3. Save Time By Combining Prep

Budgeting your money is one thing, and budgeting your time is another. Dovetail the freezer prep with meals you are already making for your own family. Double recipes — one for you and one for the freezer — to reduce prep time and allow for budget bulk buys whenever possible. Remember, if you don’t have the time to make everything from scratch, grocery stores have a variety of pre-packaged marinated proteins, all-in-one meals, or sides that would still be appreciated. Finally, don’t forget that the recipient may already have some foods in their freezer. Check for frozen vegetables, proteins, and sides that may just need to be labeled or reorganized.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

How We Chose the Foods & Recipes for This Freezer Plan

Before you begin, make sure you know or ask about any allergies, food sensitivities, or strong food aversions. Plan to pack the freezer with both complete meals and mix-and-match meal components that can be supplemented with fresh, refrigerated ingredients (like dairy, fruits, vegetables, deli meats, etc.). There is no expectation that the freezer be completely filled with from-scratch foods. Give yourself permission to include pre-marinated meats, frozen vegetables, or bakery breads to round out meals and give the recipient flexibility. Breakfasts can include burritos, muffins, quick breads, or oatmeal cups. Individually portioned heat-and-eat lunches are best, while dinners can be made of all-in-one meals or mix-and-match meal components. And most importantly, don’t forget the cookie dough!

If your loved one must have final say on the recipes, provide a limited menu of options in each category in our plan for them to choose from instead of expecting them to provide suggestions on their own. Be as specific as possible in your query, as the recipient may be too distracted or overwhelmed to respond to open-ended questions. Remember, the goal is to remove tasks and responsibilities from their plate, not add to them.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

Our Ultimate Cooking Plan for Stocking a Freezer with Meals!

How much of a freezer will this fill? If you like us enjoy freezer Tetris, this is your chance to play! The foods in this list will fit inside an 18-cubic-foot top-mount freezer, assuming no (or very few) other foods are already there. (In reality, most home freezers haven’t been empty since the day you moved in, so expect that you may need to edit the list to be certain that all of the foods you prepare fit.)

How many people will this feed, and for how long? This plan will feed a family of four for about one week if they ate nothing but the food from this freezer.





Your Shopping List

These are the ingredients you’ll need to prepare this freezer plan. As with any meal prep plan, shop your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator before heading to the store. Staple items like salt, pepper, vegetable oils, and olive oils are not included in this list.

  • Produce: 3 lemons, 2 limes, fresh chives, 8 cups baby spinach or baby kale, 7 very ripe bananas, 4 bell peppers, 3 carrots, 6 stalks celery, 5 cloves garlic, 2 mangoes (or 2 cups chopped frozen), 1 small red onion, 4 yellow onions, 2 small sweet potatoes, 1 medium Yukon gold potato, 1 large zucchini, 2 navel oranges
  • Bakery: 1 (16-ounce) loaf unsliced soft white bread, 1 pound pizza dough
  • Meat: Cooked bacon or sausage (optional for burritos), 3 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 8 ounces (1/2-inch-thick) deli ham
  • Dairy: 1 1/4 cups buttermilk, 2 cups heavy cream, 1/2 cup whole milk, 4 cups any type of milk or coconut water (for smoothies), 12 large eggs, 1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese, 4 sticks (1 pound) unsalted butter, 1 wedge (including rind) Parmesan cheese, 6 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese, 24 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese, 4 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese,
  • Dry goods: Salsa (optional for burritos), nuts or chocolate chips (optional for banana bread), 1/2 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal, 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, vanilla extract, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, chili powder, garlic powder, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, smoked paprika, red pepper flakes (optional for baked ziti), basil pesto, 1 pound dried ziti or penne pasta, 10 (10- to 12-inch) flour tortillas, 46 ounces marinara sauce, 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, 6 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth, 1 cup pizza sauce, 1 can cannellini or Great Northern beans, maple syrup
  • Frozen: Grilled or breaded chicken tenders, tater tots, frozen vegetables, frozen rice, ice cream
  • Supplies: 4 colors washi, masking, or freezer tape; permanent marker; plastic wrap; heavy-duty aluminum foil; 6 gallon-sized freezer zip-top bags; 8 quart-sized freezer zip-top bags; 2 (8×8-inch) disposable foil pans; 3 quart-size deli containers; plastic sheet protectors
Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Our Step-by-Step Guide to Filling a Freezer

1. Triage the freezer. Clearing and stocking a loved one’s freezer is a deeply personal act —where else will you find the remnants of meals loved and left, treats tucked away, and specialty items preserved for another occasion? Still, there is no use in spending an entire weekend preparing meals for a freezer that is already filled with food. At the same time you offer to fill the freezer (and before you start cooking), ask for permission to reorganize and triage foods left in the freezer. With your loved one’s permission, discard old, freezer-burned, and unlabeled items. You may find ingredients to work with or entire meals (once lost in the back corner of the fridge!) to integrate into the plan, and at the very least you can gauge how much space is available to fill. Organize what is left, and estimate the amount of space available to fill.

2. Prepare food for the freezer. Here’s a breakdown of how to prepare each item.

  • Breakfast Burritos: Make 1/2 recipe (6 burritos), wrap in foil, then freeze in a single layer. Once frozen transfer to 1 gallon-sized freezer zip-top bag.
  • Banana Bread: Bake the bread, then once cooled cut slices before freezing. Line the slices back up, then wrap in heavy-duty aluminum foil.
  • Mango-Orange Smoothie: Make 4 smoothie packs, dividing the fruit and greens between 4 quart-sized freezer zip-top bags.
  • French Toast Sticks: Cool the French toast sticks completely then transfer to 1 gallon-sized freezer zip-top bag.
  • Ham and Cheddar Muffins: Cool completely then transfer to 1 gallon-sized freezer zip-top bag.
  • Club Sandwiches: Make 1/2 recipe (4 sandwiches), wrap in foil, place in 1 gallon-sized freezer zip-top bag.
  • Chicken Fajita Packets: Wrap in heavy-duty aluminum foil then stack in 1 gallon-sized freezer zip top bag.
  • Pizza: Make 2 small pizzas, then wrap in plastic wrap.
  • Baked Ziti: Prepare in 2 (8×8-inch) disposable pans to reduce thawing time, cooking time, and leftovers. Cover with heavy-duty aluminum foil.
  • Minestrone Soup: Divide between 3 quart-size deli containers, leaving about 1-inch headspace in each container.
  • Lemon Pesto Chicken: Make enough for 4 servings. Toss lemon-pesto marinade and chicken breasts together in a large bowl, then place 1 chicken breast and its marinade in quart-sized freezer zip-top bags for individual portions.
  • Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies: Prepare the cookie dough and scoop onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Freeze the dough balls until solid, then transfer to 1 gallon-sized freezer zip-top bag.

3. Color code and label. Food must be completely cool before packaging and freezing, making sure to leave headspace in containers to allow for expansion. Use disposable or reusable freezer containers that need not be returned, and choose square or rectangular containers whenever possible to maximize space. Assign each meal a different color tape, such as yellow for breakfast foods, purple for lunches, blue for dinners, and pink for treats. Label with the contents and date using a permanent marker on colorful tape.

Freezer Zones Stock a Freezer

4. Stock the freezer by zone. Remember your goal — the freezer needs to be organized and well-labeled so that your loved one barely has to think when they open the freezer door. Accomplish this by dividing the freezer into color-coded zones. Arrange all of the yellow-tagged breakfast items into one corner of the freezer, lunches into another, and so on. With the meals assembled in this way, it is easy to quickly glance into the freezer to see what meals are available with no digging or guessing. Affix the labels to the packaging where they are visible from the open door without having to move them. This may mean placing the labels on the side or top of the containers. The recipient won’t have the muscle memory of preparing the food or packing the freezer, so hold their hand and make things clear and easy for them.

5. Provide cooking instructions. Print copies of all of the recipes you prepare, highlight the preparation instructions, and slide the recipes into a sheet protector. Leave the packet on the counter or hang on the refrigerator. Provide the reference in case your loved one needs to check the ingredients. Plus if they fall for a certain meal then they can add it to their own meal rotation to make in the future. If you want to go above and beyond what you have already done, provide a chart or list of the freezer contents to hang on the fridge for easy viewing and check-off.

A Printable Version of This Meal Plan

Print Our Plan Here: Freezer Meal Plan

What tips do you have for stocking a freezer? What are your go-to meals to make for friends and family in need?