I love coming home from a busy afternoon to the delightful smell of a home cooked meal, don’t you? Thai curry knocking you over the head or sweet chili wafting through the hall . . . YUM. Over the past few years, my slow-cooker has become one of my favorite (and most used) kitchen appliances. I’ve also come to love the idea of freezer to slow-cooker meals—where you prepare a meal like you’re about to dump it into the slow-cooker but instead bag it, freeze it, and put it into your slow cooker on some rainy day in the future.
To minimize my time and maximize my efficiency preparing meals and to attempt to break out of the box of our family’s routine recipes, I’ve organized several freezer to slow-cooker meal swaps with friends (you can read how and why here). I hosted one recently, and we came up with twelve tips to help decrease your effort and increase your enjoyment of your meals. Oh, and **BONUS**—I’ve included a pre-drafted email below that you can modify and send to friends when you want to host your first swap!
- Consider limiting the number and type of veggies you chop. If your recipe calls for a chopped butternut squash and you’re making six batches, you’re going to have to peel, de-seed, and chop six butternut squashes. As I’m sure you know, this particular vegetable is pretty firm, so you’d be using some muscle to get them ready to go in the bag—meaning one very sore wrist and a tired hand. When I look at recipes, I think through what chopping will need to be done and try to limit it to two vegetables. Keep in mind that everything’s going in a slow cooker, so canned water chestnuts or pumpkin and frozen corn, broccoli, and peas are your friends!
- Get the bottle of minced garlic. My husband—when he has time to cook for us—is a food purist. He’ll happily peel and mince garlic all day if it means a delightful sauté, garlic infused mayonnaise, or whipped potatoes. But when you’re preparing meals for a slow cooker, minced garlic is literally time in a bottle and not that much more expensive—especially if you’re prepping for a swap!
- Make an extra batch to eat that night. If you’re making one slow cooker meal, you might as well double it, right? So prep one meal, put it straight in the slow cooker, and put your other in a bag for the freezer. If you’re preparing at night and time is an issue, you can cook it on the stove or in a dutch oven (use this awesome chart to convert slow cooker to dutch oven) or just put your slow cooker pot in your fridge for tomorrow.
- Make an extra batch for later. If you’re making two—or six—meals, you might as well make one more for you, right? Seriously, what’s one more onion when you’re already chopping six? For my last swap, I meant to buy ingredients for six batches, but I totally miscalculated and got enough canned pumpkin and coconut milk for eight . . . so I made seven bags. Making sure five for my friends were complete, I put one batch straight into our slow cooker for dinner that night, and I noted what I needed to add to the last two bags.
- Omit or halve the heat. Preparing meals for another family? Consider including only half of the the cayenne, hot sauce, chili flakes, jalepeno, etc (or leaving it out altogether). Just mark on each bag what people might consider adding when they get ready to enjoy the meal.
- Print directions.
If you’re making a slew of meals, it can be exhausting to write out “Pumpkin Coconut Black Beans / Add 3 cups broth, 3 cups water (1 t cayenne if desired) / Cook on low 8 hrs /Serve with rice if desired.” And is it just me, or has your handwriting significantly deteriorated in the past few years too? It is so much easier to type it once, copy and paste a few times, print it out, and stick it to—or in—the bag. If you’re double bagging (like I recommend), you can just slip it into the outer bag. If you’re not, I guess you could staple the directions to the top of your bags, but that could get lost in the freezer. It’s probably much safer to go the double bag route!
- Just swap at the swap. I used to host playgroups while swapping meals. We’d get together and visit while the kids played from 3-5, and then we’d all leave with our new meals. But I’ve found that getting together for swaps can be kind of like attending birthday parties. You really need to know what time there will be singing and cutting of the cake. That way, if some people need to leave right after the swap, they know what time they can plan their next engagement; and if people have something ahead of time, they can show up in time to give away their meals and grab everyone else’s. Instead of booking two hour windows, I just plan a time for the swap (Sunday afternoons around 4:30 seem to work well so people can shop and prepare the meals on Saturday or Sunday). If people come early or stay late and play, that’s fine with me—but if people need to swap and run, that’s cool too.
- Omit water. To save space in your freezer, don’t add the 6 cups of water your recipe calls for. You’re bound for ziploc bag explosions. It’s much easier to omit the water and instead include “Add 6 cups water” to your directions on the bag.
- Omit broth. See above. Many of my friends use boxed broth, and we found that everyone was coming with 5 boxes to give . . . and going home with 5 boxes. So instead of doing the broth swap, just omit the broth and let people know they need to add it when cooking the meal.
On the other hand, I like to use Better than Bullion when a recipe calls for broth, so typically I’ll just put the gloop in the bag and then add the liquid needed to the total water required for the recipe. For example, if the recipe calls for 3 cups of broth and 3 cups water, I’ll add 3 teaspoons of Better than Bullion to the bag and then write “Add 6 cups water” on the bag.
- Lay them flat to freeze, then store stacked and standing up. To save space in your freezer, if you have a shelf or well to fill, consider lying your bags flat to freeze on a baking sheet. Then stack or stand them on their sides. This is way better space-wise than six lumps filling your freezer in a massive and lumpy configuration (and it’s much easier to read the name and directions for each meal quickly). When you’re ready to cook your meal, just cut the bag off and place the contents in the slow cooker. PS If you’ve frozen it flat it’s easier to break the frozen block apart, and it will thaw more quickly—ensuring the ingredients mix and that you don’t have a frozen ball floating around in your meal at dinner time!
- Take off the lid and turn down the heat before serving. About 20-30 minutes before you eat, take off the lid, turn off your slow cooker, and give the contents a good stir. Letting it sit and allowing some of the moisture to escape gives your stew/chili/curry a chance to thicken.
- Don’t eat them all in one week. If possible, spread out your new meals over several weeks. Slow cooker meals are super convenient, and you can get a lot of variety using different techniques. However, in general, if you’re taking six pre-made frozen meals and heating them for 4-8 hours, they all might taste different and exciting . . . but the texture is going to be pretty similar. Unless your family is cool with different and delicious takes on stew—such as curry and chili every day (plus leftovers!), try to ration your slow cooker meals to once or twice a week. I know it’s hard. The prep is already done, and the clean up is super easy! Pace yourself, mama.
**BONUS** Want to get a swap started with some friends? Here’s a pre-drafted email you can use. Feel free to cut and paste and modify to suit your situation! I typically send this to 5 to 7 friends because at least one or two of them is bound to decline (but usually asks to be included the next time).
Wondering if anyone is interested in a freezer-to-slow-cooker meal swap soon. I’m thinking [[Sunday, Jan 10th at 4:30 :: Propose a date and time so people can look at their calendars and commit!]].
[[Gluten free, vegetarian recipes would be great. :: Specify here if you have any dietary restrictions or requests.]]
If you haven’t done it before, the idea is to pick a recipe and to prep that same recipe for all the people participating (maybe 4-6). By prep, I mean you put everything into a bag that you would put into your slow cooker. However, instead of turning the slow cooker on, you’ll put the bag into the freezer and then we’ll trade our extra meals for the ones other people in our swap make. By doing this, your freezer will be stocked with 4-6 slow-cooker ready meals! Here are some blog posts I’ve read about them if you need a visual or recipe ideas: Mom Life Hack – Slow Cooker meal Swap, Slow Cooker Swap
When considering recipes, I tend to go for ones that don’t have any precooking needed and that only have a few things to chop. Otherwise, doing 4-6 of the same thing can be daunting. Please leave out water and broth (but make sure to include the need for them in the cooking directions on each bag!).
When we all make vegetarian meals, it ends up being pretty equal price-wise, and everyone can add their protein of choice when preparing the meal.
Let me know if you’re interested or have a friend who might be!