No-chop freezer meals
March 11, 2020 1:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for make-ahead freezer meals (either something you dump in the crock pot, or something you can heat up in the pan or a microwave) that don't require a bunch of chopping/peeling or a ton of effort in general. What are my options?

My partner and I are chronically ill. We tried the whole freezer meal prep thing last weekend, got absolutely murdered by this dish even though the only things we actually ended up chopping were the sweet potatoes, onion, carrots, and meat. We were both in pain for several days afterward, so trying to avoid that. We're looking for more recipes like this or this which require little to no chopping or cooking ahead of time. I know the term "slow cooker dump meals" but those often still involve chopping vegetables. We also don't want something that requires a bunch of assembling/cooking after it's taken out of the freezer.

Some notes:
- Anything that calls for garlic we'll just substitute minced garlic in a jar
- Fresh herbs we'll just replace with either dry ones or those little tubes of paste (we currently have one for basil, it worked well for the chicken parmesan wraps)
- If it calls for shredded chicken we'll just get a rotisserie
- We'll just skip the celery in any recipe that calls for it
- We'd be willing to chop one thing per recipe if necessary (cutting up meat counts towards this), but potatoes of any kind are out (whole potatoes are fine, it's just the peeling/chopping that's too much)
- For chronic illness reasons, no peppers, tomato bases to be avoided, nothing too spicy
- The general problem is effort/pain, so recipes that don't require a lot of chopping but involve many steps or things like juicing a fruit or kneading dough are also out

Suggestions on how to substitute chopped ingredients are also welcome (is there something equivalent to minced garlic for onions and where would I find it?). Thanks!
posted by brook horse to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Would using frozen vegetables to replace fresh veggies you would have to chop work? I know for potatoes, you could for example get frozen oven fries or chunks of sweet potato or butternut squash, pre-frozen that you could sub in.

I've seen pre-chopped onions popping up in the veggie section of our slightly fancier grocery stores lately near the salads, that could work too.

Baby carrots can be cooked just like chunks of chopped up big carrots.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 1:19 PM on March 11, 2020 [7 favorites]

I've made this beef stew several times because it's the easiest thing ever. You can make it without chopping a thing, and you don't have to shred the beef as this person did. It tastes just as good as a beef stew that requires way more prep. Also you could take out the bit of tomato paste if that is a no go for you.
posted by Fuego at 1:20 PM on March 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Where I am, I can often buy a minced mix of mirepoix vegetables (carrots, celery, onions) in the produce coolers of all but the least expensive grocery stores. Also, pre-chopped sweet potatoes, butternut squash, sometimes beets. Nowadays, riced cauliflower shows up, too. They are, unfortunately, more expensive than just buying the vegetables and chopping them yourself. You can also find those things in the freezer section sometimes, too, and they're usually cheaper frozen than fresh.

Another goodish substitution for chopping onions in a dish you are going to slow cook anyway is dehydrated onions. They're not as sharp, but if you use a lot they'll bring the oniony flavour with no effort at all. Doesn't work for a stir fry, but if you're stewing the dish for a long time they'll rehydrate and hide in the sauce.

I just buy those bags of mini-carrots from the produce section and throw them into things whole. They're small enough to cook through in the same time as slices of larger carrots.

Broccoli slaw (found in bags in the produce section cooler) is meant to be used for salads, but I throw it into stir fries or soups all the time. It has a bit of cabbage and carrots in with it, usually, but those are good in stir fries and soups, too. Bagged cabbage slaw is a similarly useful substitute for chopping up cabbage, though I really only have one cabbage based dish that I make so I don't use that much.

You can avoid chopping mushrooms and just pop the stems out and then tear the caps into pieces without using a knife, if that would be less demanding.

I cook a lot with boneless skinless chicken thighs. Even if the recipe calls for chicken cut into 1 inch cubes, the thighs are generally thin enough that they cook through in about the same time as cubes, so I often don't bother to chop them up.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:28 PM on March 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

For celery, I buy it pre-chopped from my grocery store's salad bar. Perhaps that will help?
posted by mcduff at 1:32 PM on March 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Prechopped is the way to go, but grocery stores really vary in what they have available. The slightly fancier one near me has a lot of variety, including medium diced onions. The standard one has less available and they are in the fancy part of the produce section with the bagged salads and potsticker wrappers.

The dairy section has diced potatoes, usually the Simply Potatoes brand. They need to stay refrigerated, but they are nice quality potatoes in my opinion. The other place to check is the frozen aisle. If you are assembling dishes that will be going back in the freezer, you can let the bag sit and thaw just enough to break apart the pieces into serving sizes and mix them into your dish as if they were thawed.

Seconding a can of minced dried onion to let you have the flavor without the chopping! You can think about onion soup mix as well, but it does have a lot of salt in it.
posted by soelo at 1:39 PM on March 11, 2020

The website Budget Bytes might be a good resource (apologies if you're already familiar with it!) I searched "slow cooker" and found some potential candidates:

Slow cooker pineapple teriyaki chicken-calls for garlic and ginger, but I'm pretty sure you can get garlic as a paste. You could also totally skip the step of thickening the sauce to save effort.

White chicken chili-only requires chopping one onion if you skip the jalapeno.

Chicken taco bowls-zero chopping, and you could try replacing all or some of the salsa with broth to cut down on the tomato-ness.

Shredded taco beef-zero chopping
posted by LadyNibbler at 1:45 PM on March 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you’re having trouble finding pre-chopped items (because some places I’ve lived had not as wide a selection) I would use a food processor to chop up things like celery or onions or any other vegetable you want chopped up. I do this just because I hate chopping. If that works for you, you may want to look into buying a big jar of pre-peeled garlic, throwing it in the food processor, and then you have a big batch of minced garlic. Maybe also garlic infused oil? Would not have the stronger flavor as raw garlic but could be used to add flavor without as much chopping.
posted by buttonedup at 1:48 PM on March 11, 2020 [8 favorites]

Bootstrap Cook, aka Jack Monroe, has a book out called Tin Can Cook. She is British and due to the current panic is getting lots of attention. She cooks cheap, easy meals. Her website/blog is free. You can find her here She has arthritis in her hands, so she uses pre-chopped, canned, dried, whatever is available. Be sure to have a conversion calculator available as she uses grams, kilos, etc.
posted by Enid Lareg at 1:57 PM on March 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

Jumping on the freeze-dried onion bandwagon. Also, some freezer sections have prechopped frozen onions, but you have to look hard to find them. Trader Joe's and now a couple of other grocery stores have garlic frozen in little 1-clove cubes, along with cilantro and basil. You just pop the cubes out of the plastic package and into your dish.

If you decide to employ the food processor, as mentioned by buttonedup above, you can also freeze the things you've chopped for future use.

But yeah, buy your veggies pre-chopped from the freezer aisle or the salad bar.
posted by sarajane at 2:00 PM on March 11, 2020

Trader Joe's leads the way in pre-chopped food. They have a lot of veggies, and veggie combinations (e.g. cole slaw mix), but also pre-chopped meat. I've been eating their pre-cooked chicken strips for lunch recently, and it's not bad. From what I've seen, most grocery stores seem to be moving in this direction, and it's just a matter of time.

One thing I noticed recently is frozen avocado chunks, which is cool. You could theoretically make a whole Chipotle burrito with just a microwave and a spoon to stir the guac.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:03 PM on March 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

We make a number of these, most of which have instructions for both slow cooker and instant pot, and most of them are not terribly fancy in technique.

My primary power move for all chicken dishes is to use boneless skinless thighs, which will fall apart after cooking, or b/s chicken leg quarters (thigh + drum still together, bones removed), which my two main grocery stores offer for a better price than thighs. They may need a bit extra hacking with a big spoon at the end to come apart into more serveable/lunch-pack-able pieces.

Most of these recipes use dried powdered seasonings. I do usually swap out garlic powder for jarlic, and I buy dehydrated onion bits in bulk for when I don't want to cut onions. They could all use a little black pepper, or red pepper flakes or ancho or cayenne. They're all quite riffable - I often make one of the chicken recipes and finish it at the end with salsa verde, curry paste or pouch sauce, or gravy mix.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:21 PM on March 11, 2020

Steel-cut oats via the crock pot/Instapot are easy and require basically no prep, and can be frozen to reheat/eat later.
I do:
-- 2 cups of steel-cut oats. (Not "quick oats" or anything like that. The instructions on the can will probably say something like "cook for 30 minutes" or around there.)
-- 6 cups of water.
-- Dump that all together into the pot.
-- I do Instant Pot for 3 minutes + natural release. Google if you're using a different brand/type.
-- Once it's ready, I protect my hands with oven mitts because the pot is hot, then pour the hot oatmeal into a pan -- the kind of thing you'd cook brownies in. I use a glass rectangular pan.
-- Let it cool, then slice as if you're slicing brownies. As large or small as you like.
-- You can wrap up the whole thing or wrap up individual portions, then freeze.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:52 PM on March 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I loathe chopping so I generally use a lot of the following:

In the frozen vegetable section: bags of chopped onions, chopped green peppers, sliced carrots, peas and carrots, cut green beans. These are great for dumping into a recipe in lieu of fresh. You can also roast frozen vegetables on a cookie sheet like you would fresh. I've roasted green beans, squash, brussels sprouts and others from frozen bags.

In the fresh vegetable section: chopped celery, chopped onions, mirepoix (a mix of chopped celery, onions and carrots), sliced mushrooms, shredded carrots, coleslaw mix (shredded cabbage and carrots in a bag, with no dressing.) I find the two grocery stores I frequent most often have an abundance of pre-chopped fresh vegetables these days, great for cooking or putting into salads (such as pre-sliced cucumbers.) I also see things like chopped squash for roasting, and bags full of "pot roast vegetables" ready to be dumped into a crockpot with a roast.

Bagged salads, of course. But also bags of "baby greens". You can grab a handful of baby spinach or baby kale out of the bag and toss it into a soup or saute with no chopping required.

Instant mashed potatoes. Yes, they are not as great as those made from fresh. However, I make mine pretty darn tasty by using plain, unsweetened almond milk for the liquid and adding garlic powder, salt and pepper. They are really flavorful even without adding butter (but of course you can add butter, cheese or what-have-you to take them over the top.)

Salad bar ingredients: if your grocery has a salad bar, you can often find pre-chopped ingredients there as well.

Meat: you can often find packages of meat cut into small pieces. It will usually be labeled with some purpose in mind, such as "stew beef", "lamb for stew", pork or chicken "fajita meat", etc. If it hasn't been pre-seasoned you can use it for whatever.

Also, if you don't have them already get a pair of kitchen scissors so you can open bags with ease. I also recommend this jar popper thingie and this jar lid gripper for getting lids off of jars without strain. The red cupcake-liner looking thing is some sort of witchcraft for jar opening.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:01 PM on March 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh! If you can find it, John Morrell ham is great for throwing into a bean soup, or a black beans & rice dish. It comes in small cubes or an even smaller diced version.

I know you were looking for stuff that can be frozen, and this isn't that, but since I'm on a roll I will tell you that my lazy-ass secret for making potato salad is to use canned sliced potatoes. I make a big batch (which also utilizes pre-chopped celery and pre-sliced green "salad olives") and we eat it for a few days.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:14 PM on March 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

is it specifically knife skills that are ruining your day or is it doing anything at all with your hands/arms? i had a LOT of trouble with using knives for a long time due to hand issues with grip strength and tremors and pain, and i got a cheap mandoline that came with a big safety glove and a tupperware attachment on the bottom so it catches everything you slice, and it made a big difference. it's still something i have to slide veggies back and forth over with my dominant arm but it's absolutely nothing at all like the physical stress and exertion of trying to use a kitchen knife while holding slippery wet vegetables with 2 hands that barely have enough strength or dexterity to pass for one.

otherwise you can absolutely get pre-peeled, pre-chopped, pre-everythinged vegetables from most big supermarkets these days. it costs more, obvsly, but it's worth it if actually preparing your own food is important to you. i eventually decided it was not important to me and spent most of the bad hand years eating fully prepared reheatable meals (not freezer meals, regular fresh food) for slightly more money than the cost of pre-cut everything and the amount of time and energy it saved made me feel a lot better about feeling terrible all the time in a way that attempting to do things for myself did not.

also unless the texture really bothers you, you don't have to peel potatoes before cooking and eating.
posted by poffin boffin at 4:33 PM on March 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

For prepackaged options I've been liking the Asian and Italian "heat in a pan for 10 minutes" items in the frozen section. Oh, "skillet meals." The smaller bags are enough for two with a salad or some kind of side to fill out the plate. A company called Innovasian (scroll down to "Multi-serve") makes slightly larger helpings. Obvs you'd avoid the tomato-based Italian ones, and I have noticed that bell peppers are used a lot (but not all!) in the frozen Chinese food meals, but you should be able to tell from the packaging. Spiciness isn't always apparent, but in general avoid Kung Pao and probably General Tso for the PF Chang's bags, and "Arrabiata" in Italian food.
posted by rhizome at 4:51 PM on March 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Taco soup has no chopping. Just a bunch of cans/packets and some ground beef.
posted by bunderful at 4:53 PM on March 11, 2020

If you don't have one already, you should probably invest in a food processor. There are shredding and slicing tools as well as the basic chopping thing. I can't see any reason you shouldn't use it in your situation.
I let go of my very much beloved food processor when I was gifted a fancy stand mixer, because I don't have the kitchen space for two big machines. Instead I invested in a high-end immersion blender, which takes up less space and has attachments that can handle some of the food processor tasks. It's not ideal, but it works. If you aren't baking bread or cakes, I think you should prioritize the food processor over either stand mixer or immersion blender.
Since I've let go of the processor, I've improved my knife skills radically. Part of it is practice, which you can't do. But another part is much sharper knives, which you can do. With a very sharp knife, a lot of slicing and chopping becomes a whole 'nother thing. I just use a manual sharpener, but my brother has an electrical thing that requires no force. That might be worth investing in.
You might also want to look at food cultures. In many Asian food cultures, scarcity of fuel is a determining factor, so it's really important that the different elements of the meal are cut to a size where they can be cooked with as little fuel use as possible. In Europe and North Africa, this has not been as much of a problem as prep time and perhaps bad tools, so many dishes have big chunks of meat and veg thrown in to cook for a long time over low heat. I don't know enough about cooking in the Americas to say how that plays out there, but look for the concept.
posted by mumimor at 5:27 PM on March 11, 2020

Sweet potatoes are really hard and require effort to cut; ouch. microwave them, and use the cooked innards.
Frozen diced onion works great, readily available.
Trader Joes has frozen ginger in a packet that you just press out the delicious ginger.
I seldom peel potatoes. For shepherd's pie, instant mashed potatoes are fine, and, to be honest, instant mashed potatoes with jarred gravy is one of my secret comfort foods.

Shepherd's pie - layer of ground beef cooked with a packet of taco seasoning, topped with a layer of 1 can corn, drained, combined with 1 can creamed corn, topped with instant mashed potatoes. I don't eat cheese, but adding shredded jalapeño jack cheese to the mashed potatoes, and some on top is a bonus.
posted by theora55 at 7:30 PM on March 11, 2020

I make shepherd's pie and freeze it, baked or not, and it's fine.
posted by theora55 at 7:47 PM on March 11, 2020

Chicken Tinga is a good one! Get the pre-seasoned fire roasted tomatoes in a can and then you won't have to worry about the onions and garlic. You can use powdered chipotle too. You can either have it over cauliflower rice, regular rice, on a lettuce wrap, or in a tortilla.
posted by Ostara at 8:28 PM on March 11, 2020

Another alternative vegetable chopper like one of these might be a big help? It's what I use, and it's pretty aces.
posted by vers at 2:44 AM on March 12, 2020

Coconut-lentil curries are a good base with 0 required chopping. This pumpkin one from budget bytes is in my regular rotation right now
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 6:10 AM on March 12, 2020

Response by poster: These are all amazing suggestions and I'm kind of embarrassed I didn't think of some of them myself. Wedge fries for potatoes is particularly brilliant. Thanks so much all!

Also, re: knife skills--my partner has fantastic knife skills, but tires/pains easily; I have terrible knife skills, but due to motor issues have given up on trying to learn and just let partner do anything more difficult than carrots or mushrooms. I do most of the peeling. Going to look into one of those slicing machines though, that could definitely help a lot!
posted by brook horse at 5:28 PM on March 12, 2020

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