One-person freezer meals?
August 28, 2012 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Teach me how to make, freeze, and reheat meals for one person quickly, cheaply, and easily...

I'm starting a new job that requires me to stay on-site for 12 hours, which means I'll be eating at least 2 meals a day there. I'd like to learn how to make cheap and easy meals that I can quickly thaw and eat.

- I am not good at cooking. I'm willing to learn, but some things are well beyond my skill set.

- I have a limited time in which to thaw and eat my meals. I've googled Once-A-Month-Cooking, but most of the portions are too big or take too long to serve.

- Meals need to be reheatable in the microwave, since I might not always have access to an oven.

- I am trying to cut down on carbs and red meat. I am not in an area where organic produce is readily available.

- Also, I'd like to do this as cheaply as possible.

I'm really not sure how to get started on this, so any advice or links are appreciated!
posted by meesha to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
You can start by only partly cooking; grains such as brown rice with a low GI, stir fried up with frozen veg & topped with ready chicken (fresh rotisserie perhaps) bits. Break into single servings & package in a ready to microwave bowl.

Fresher option is a bag of salad and premade chicken; divvy up a weeks woroth & store in fridge; throw in some goat cheese and oranges with each days meal.

Crock up a hearty veggie chili or chicken stew; make up eggs & wrap in tortilla portions.

Make smoothies & carry along in a thermos.

Keep a couple protein bars in your bag for emergencies.
posted by tilde at 2:35 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Crock. Pot. Slow-cooking produces meals that freeze easily and reheat well, and as a bonus the recipes generally follow the form of "chop up ingredients, mix in pot, wait."
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:35 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Besides recipes, you'll need containers. I like stealing the plastic containers with lids from the food bars at the supermarket, or asking them for a stack if they keep them at the deli case. As long as you're buying a decent amount of food, they should hand you some for free.

Chili is really good for this, but so are lots of soups. Freeze in individual plastic containers.

I also have had success with burritos, especially breakfast burritos--scrambled eggs, salsa, onions, peppers, bacon, shredded potatoes (come pre-made as frozen hash browns)--wrapped in a tortilla, then wrapped in tin foil. Unwrap and microwave.

Lasagna freezes well. You'll need to use glass containers for this, though, since plastic can't go in the oven and those disposable tin foil dishes can't go in the microwave. You can find mini single-person-sized glass tupperware dishes that will be a good size. Follow any lasagna recipe but cook it in the individual dishes instead of in one big dish.
posted by thebazilist at 2:46 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lasagne can be a bastard to reheat though. I've found soups, stews, rice and noodle dishes easiest to reheat. Curry is AWESOME for this. You can do a chickpea and lentil curry, with whatever vegies etc you want and freeze it in portions - I suggest making the portions as thin as possible for easy thawing.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:57 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to make pseudo-chilli like things that also substituted as pasta sauce or curry sauce depending on which/any carbs I had with it. It basically consists of:

1) Stir fry garlic and onions in olive oil
2) Stir fry meat (I usually used chicken breast but beef would also work)
3) Stir fry veg (put slow cooking ones first like potatoes/carrots, and/or boil them first)
4) Add water/stock/canned tomato (depending on how watery you want it)
5) Add spices (I usually used chilli powder, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper)
6) Stew for however long you think it takes for the veg to go soft. Add any other extras (lentils [needs pre-cooking], canned beans [excellent with kidney beans, and good source of protein if you're laying off meat])

I used all sorts of veg like carrots, potatoes, butternut squash, aubergine, courgettes, onions, shallots, spring onions, celery, basically anything that was left in the fridge. Just make sure you cut/dice everything into similar sized pieces, and to keep tasting the mixture so that it won't be zomg hot. I used to make about 6 meals out of this and froze it in tupperware; took about maybe 30 mins from start to finish.

You can tweak the recipe above by stopping at step 3, then adding some other spice/flavouring (e.g. chinese stir-fry mix, cajun spice etc) to just make it into a Generic Stir-fry With Flavour, or skip the spices and just use stock to make a brothy soup, etc.

Other random tips:
- You can freeze solid stuff just in clingfilm without using up containers. I do this with rice all the time, freezing it in one-portion sized squares.
- You can boil several eggs at a time; kept in their shell they'd last for 3-4 days in the fridge, and they're great nutrition.
- For lunch, make the filling at the start of the week and just put it in a wrap/bread of your choice in the morning. Good fillings are tuna&onion salad, houmous mixture, salsa mixtures etc. Or just plain ol' ham and cheese.
- If you want to lay off carbs and read meat a very good source of protein and pseudo-carb-like food is quinoa. Couscous is also stupidly easy to cook compared to other sources of carbs (rice, pasta etc).
posted by pikeandshield at 2:58 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mysteriously, lasagna seems to take just as long to reheat in the microwave as it does in the oven.

I do a lot of soups, chilis, and curries when I'm cooking to freeze. You mostly just stick the ingredients on the stove or in a crockpot until they're done. I mean, obviously you can get as fancy as you want but you don't really have to.

Also, on the container front: I usually freeze things in Ziploc 1-cup containers, then pop the big ol' chili cubes out of the container and stick them in a plastic bag. Then I put one of the cubes into a slightly larger container to take it to work.

Finally, I submit my incredibly lazy soup recipe, which I have mentioned in other threads but which I am too lazy to look up:


* one four-cup container of chicken broth;
* one or two bags of mixed frozen vegetables;
* a couple of handfuls of pre-cooked chicken (rotisserie or those pre-cooked strips or even canned)

Combine in a vessel. Heat until it reaches a comfortable soup temperature. Makes four servings.

(Also you can do this soup one serving at a time: take a big coffee mug, fill halfway with frozen veg, add some chicken, fill up with chicken broth, heat in microwave until hot. This works well if you have a fridge and freezer at work; you can just leave all the ingredients there.)
posted by mskyle at 3:08 PM on August 28, 2012

I am a fan of spaghetti squash. Top with chicken, or feta, or tomato sauce or all three. Freeze in reasonable portion: reheat.
posted by slateyness at 3:11 PM on August 28, 2012

I like The Kitchn — they have lots of ideas for freezer meals, and no-fridge lunches. The comment threads often have the best ideas.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 3:14 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you steam vegetables, they're better for reheating later. They are less likely to turn into one soggy mess as opposed to boiling (which isn't all that great for nutrients anyways) and stir fries.
posted by cyml at 3:25 PM on August 28, 2012

Make your own freezer burritos!!!!

These things take a little prep time at first but are so easy to customize and quick to reheat.

Plus, c'mon...burritos!
posted by quietta at 4:21 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know you said you were trying to get away from carbs, but once in a while a person just NEEDS spaghetti and meatballs. Here's how it can be done in advance and re-done for a single person.

Step 1. - Make big pot of plain old pasta sauce thusly:

Drizzle a little olive oil in a pot and turn on the heat on about medium. Chop up EITHER one onion OR two cloves of garlic. Throw that in the pot and leave it there, stirring it every now and then, until either the onion is starting to look a little see-thru or the garlic starts smelling delicious. Then dump in a 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes, and let that bubble away on the stove for about 10 minutes, stirring every now and then. Take it off the heat, let that cool down, then get a bunch of 1-cup size Glad containers and divvy up the pasta sauce between them all. Freeze them.

Step 2. - Make meatballs thusly:

Throw a slice of white bread into a food processor and let it crumble up. Dump that into a bowl. Dump in 1/2 cup of parmaesan cheese, a pound of ground beef, an egg, salt, and pepper. Mix that all together with your hands (go ahead and squish everything around between your fingers -- whee, just like you're three and playing with play-do again!). Then when that's good and mixed, get out a big plate and start pinching off lumps of the meat mixture and making little balls out of them. As you make each ball, put it on the plate. Then - heat up some oil in a skillet, and cook the meatballs by frying them, basically (chuck a few meatballs in the skillet and let them cook, rolling them around every so often until all the sides get browned). As the meatballs finish cooking, move each batch to another plate to cool down. let all the meatballs cool down, then dump them all into a big freezer bag. Freeze them.

Step 3. - when you want your spaghetti and meatballs.

Start a big pot of water boiling for the spaghetti. Then, take one of those containers of sauce out of your freezer, pop it into a separate pot, turn the heat on "low" and let that thaw the sauce that way. By the time the water boils, the sauce should be pretty thawed (if not, you can nudge the heat up to "medium"). When you put the pasta in the water to boil, then grab a few of the frozen meatballs out of your bag and drop them right into the pot with the sauce. Let the spaghetti cook, and let the meatballs thaw and heat up right in the sauce. By the time the spaghetti's done, your sauce and meatballs will be too.

Dump spaghetti into strainer, then dump into bowl. Dump sauce and meatballs directly on top. Ta-da.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:23 PM on August 28, 2012

If you have access to a sink, I would suggest buying some sturdy thick china mugs and a bowl from the dollar store or thrift shop. I've found that it makes it much easier to reheat leftovers in a decent bowl than in the flimsier plastic containers used to transfer food to work, and it's easier to wash them out too.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:37 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You say most of the portions are too big or take too long to serve - you can freeze just about anything in small containers for single portions - make sure to label them. Just put the container in the fridge the night before, and by the time lunch comes around it shouldn't take long to thaw and heat.

I love chicken thighs, which lend themselves to one-pot cooking and are really inexpensive and versatile. You could make them with tomatoes and olives "provencal" style, with some salsa and beans, even cooked until they fall off the bone in barbecue sauce. Beans are great too. I've frozen just about everything and it's surprisingly rare that something freezes badly.
posted by beyond_pink at 5:42 PM on August 28, 2012

If thawing quickly is a problem, you can pre-thaw frozen food at home. Take it out of the freezer and move it to the back of a bottom shelf the fridge 24 hours before you leave for work. It should be partially thawed by the time you go into work, and if you put it in the fridge there, it will continue thawing.

I'm very fond of making huge pots of chili, minestrone, etc. and freezing them in small serving-sized containers. One recipe to which I frequently return is a minestrone from one of Jane Brody's cookbooks: brown some ground meat (I use beef, but you could use turkey or chicken, or substitute TVP or tofu), then add chopped onion, carrots, celery, and any other veggies you want (bell peppers, summer squash, etc.), a couple large cans of diced tomatoes, some chicken or vegetable broth, a couple cans of beans, some dried herbs for flavor (marjoram or tarragon are great), salt to taste, and some water if it all looks too thick. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the beans are heated through and the veggies are done to taste. You can then add rice or soup pasta if you wish. When the soup is ready, add chopped parsley and cider vinegar or lemon juice. You can do variations on the recipe, depending on the veggies you have on hand or have a hankering for; use a different vinegar or some hot sauce to change the flavoring, toss in croutons or stale bread crusts to thicken, etc.

Another simple recipe: heat 1 Tbsp of curry powder and 1 Tbsp. of flour in the bottom of a stock pot or large saucepan. After a few minutes, when the curry starts to become fragrant, add a large can of diced tomatoes, a chopped onion, and a third of a cup of mango chutney. Stir and bring to a simmer. Then add 4-6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Simmer until the thighs are just cooked through, then add chopped parsley, 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, and any other seasonings you want. Serve over rice or noodles, or with a hearty bread. This freezes and reheats really well.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:21 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Brand name tupperware is superior to take out containers, although there are a lot more high quality fancy take out plasticware now. Go for glass if you're worried about plastics - if you're reheating in them they will inevitably get pitted/burnt.

Instead of defrosting/reheating all in one go, grab what you want for dinner from the freezer and put it in the fridge (place on a plate if you live somewhere humid so you don't get sweat puddles in your friedge) before you leave for work. After work, give it a stir (it should be thawed by now) and reheat in the microwave with the lid partially on (but loose enough to let gasses escape). This results in a much more even reheat especially if you give it another stir halfway through reheating.
posted by porpoise at 7:11 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Note re chicken thighs - they are better with long cooking (unlike chicken breasts which get stringy and dry if overcooked.) Throw some (without skin or bones) in a crockpot, add whatever -- some chopped up carrots, onions, celery, mushrooms, canned beans, canned tomatoes, broth, wine, really it's hard to go wrong - and leave it on low overnight. It'll be tasty.

Google "white chicken chili" recipes for more ideas.

I prefer not to nuke stuff in plastic. Glass freezes and reheats just as well if not better.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:27 PM on August 28, 2012

You need a couple of big pots and pans so you can cook for a lot at once. Imagine you are cooking for six or eight friends.

You need a bunch of identical Tupperware-like containers. Get square containers, not round ones, to maximize freezer space use. Make sure they are microwavable with the top on if possible -- maybe a little steam vent on the top to let the pressure blow off. You want to keep the tops on during reheating so your oven doesn't get splattered, but the top has to be secure enough not to leak in transit.

You need some big spoons and a ladle, and you need a nice big strainer with small enough holes to let you drain your rice without falling through the strainer and into the sink.

You need some all-purpose spices such as salt, pepper, and anything that strikes your fancy in the spice aisle. Choose a recipe before you go shopping and see what ingredients it requires. Get a bottle of olive oil if you're going to fry anything. Maybe pick up some cheap cans or jars of tomato paste for making tomato sauce for pasta, rice, or bean recipes.

Boil up some big-ass pots of beans, brown rice, chili, or soup. Throw it into all the plastic containers, and freeze it until you're hungry. Avoid meat ingredients. Use fresh vegetables.

For recipes, just use the absolute simplest ones you can find on the net (5 or fewer ingredients) and then evolve them according to taste. If you like onions, try throwing lots of onions into the mix. If it's not salty enough, add some salt. It is not science and it is not gourmet cooking. Try picking up some generic soup spices to throw in. It's better for your food to be too bland than overspiced, so go easy on the spices until you're sure. Potato soup = potatoes plus spices plus any other junk you want to throw in; boil until.

If you have a mom or friend who knows how to cook, invite that person over to show you how to cook a big pot of something simple.

Unless you have a giant freezer, you'll be cooking more like once or twice a week than once a month. Decide on a slow day or two when you're usually at home and not busy. Get some music playing in the kitchen. Relax and enjoy yourself. You're allowed to sing and dance while you cook, and you can have friends in there to talk to and to help chop stuff up. If you drink in the kitchen, just be careful not to hurt yourself or anyone else with hot or sharp stuff.
posted by pracowity at 3:32 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I second every recommendation for freezer burritos already made. You can put just about anything in them, and so long as you wrap them up well (I just use a ton of plastic wrap) they'll keep for ages. You can do some breakfast burritos, and some lunch burritos... whatever you think you'll like.

As for other things... As everyone else has said, having small containers you can pull out of the freezer and take with you is key. If you're the sort of person who remembers to bring home your containers, invest in good ones. If you're like me, and forget them everywhere, go for the deli containers. My local dollar store sells four quart containers or six pint containers for a buck (including lids), which is perfect for me, because of the aforementioned forgetfulness.

Start out by making huge batches of food you know you will enjoy eating regularly for a month. If you find a new recipe, try it out in a small batch first. (I didn't always follow this advice at first, and for a while would find random tubs of things I don't care for as much taking up valuable freezer room). You can try techniques like this one to avoid having a ton of containers, too.

If you want to mix-and-match foods, so that you don't get tired or bored, try freezing sauces and side dishes in ice cube or silicone muffin pans. Once frozen, stick them all in a freezer bag, and then just grab one cube to stick on your pasta, rice, or whatever other meal component they'll go with. (I do this a lot for sauces- then I'll have just enough sauce for one serving of pasta, ready to go, and a variety of sauces to choose from. Whenever I make pasta, I just make extra, toss it with olive oil and store it in the fridge, then when I'm hungry combine the plain pasta with one of my sauce-cubes).

Good luck!
posted by Cracky at 8:21 PM on August 29, 2012

« Older Roam, roam on the range?   |   Book recommendations for Marine with PTSD Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.