A dear friend of mine and fellow culinary teacher is a native of Sweden.† One of the first things he said he noticed when he came to the U.S. was that Americans eat in their cars.†† He said everywhere he went, he would see people eating at stop lights and while driving down the road.† This phenomenon at the time was apparently unique to the United States. He found it curious that Americans didnít eat at home with their families.

As Americans we know our lives are fast paced, in a hundred different directions and thereís no time to stop for dinner.† This seems to have happened steadily over the last 40ish years.† Some of us are fortunate to look back on a, ďLeave it to BeaverĒ childhood where family members enjoyed a home cooked meal served at the table on real dishes.† Dinner was as it should be; the time when we caught up on what happened to each other that day, what was going on in the world and who needed help with what.† Today, our families are so busy, doing great things of course, but sometimes at the cost of family time and our health.† Fast food is on the rise, childhood obesity is at an alarming rate and general health among Americans is suffering often because of our diet.† We need to find a healthy balance.†† †

Families.com says one of the top 10 things that happy families do is eat dinner together. Most families eat dinner together only about four times a week and ten percent of families only eat together twice a week.†† As children get older and the number of activities they are involved in increases the meals eaten as a family decrease.

With school starting, schedules are being passed out, date books and calendars are filling up.† The fast food/drive-thru frenzy will soon be well underway.

Iíd like to suggest to you that there are many other healthy food options that require only just a little planning ahead.† Your health and your family time do not have to suffer because youíre busy.

Make ahead freezer meals is a great way to save valuable time.† With just a little planning, you can be on your way to freezing homemade meals that take minutes from freezer to table.† Meals such as these would be suitable for dinner at home or for brown bagging on the way to an activity.

Letís start with the basics:† What can I freeze?† Just about anything, with a few exceptions.† Most meats, veggies, dairy products, fruits, sauces, breads, cakes and casseroles freeze just fine.† Some things that donít freeze well are pre-fried foods, mayonnaise, sour cream, high water content vegetables such as lettuce, raw tomatoes, and celery.† Some raw fruit will turn dark or get mushy unless blanched and some herbs and spices get sharper in the freezer.† Check out the web for a more detailed list.

What kinds of recipes freeze well?† A great place to start is with a casserole.† An easy way is to make two at a time, one to eat and one to freeze.† Itís just about as big of a mess to make one casserole as two.† A freezer space saver for casseroles is this:† place the covered, unbaked casserole in the freezer and allow to freeze solid, several hours or overnight.† When frozen remove from the dish, wrap, label and place back into freezer.† The dish can be used for something else and the casserole doesnít take up as much room in the freezer.† The casserole maintains its shape when in the freezer and when itís time to cook, just unwrap and put it back in the dish and bake.††† †

How long will foods last in the freezer?† Freezing slows but does not stop the deterioration of food.† There are many time charts available on how long food will stay at its best available on the internet.† The best approach when preparing foods for freezing is to try to get as much air out of the package as possible and wrap it well so that moisture canít escape. Freezer burn occurs when the moisture on foodís surface evaporates. †

What kinds of containers will I need?†† Some containers that will help you get started are the standard 8.5x11 Pyrex casseroles.† The foil disposable kind work great too.† Freezer containers are also helpful; just make sure that they maintain a tight seal.† Freezer zip-locks are an option as well as canning jars.† Some additional supplies you may need are freezer paper, freezer tape, plastic wrap, foil and a sharpie permanent marker.† The best way to keep food fresh it to keep it well protected in the freezer. If youíve gone to the trouble to make ahead, you want to be sure itís stored properly.† Be sure to label the contents of your packet or youíll be playing dinner roulette.

Do I have to thaw before baking?† No, but it takes a little longer to bake frozen foods.† You can start the thawing process the night before in the refrigerator or in the microwave to speed things along.† A bimetallic stemmed thermometer is helpful in determining if your food is at the proper serving temperature.† (You can buy these anywhere kitchen utensils are sold.)† The best reheat temperature is 165í.† I tape heating instructions to the top of my freezer packets so that whoever gets home first can help me out by putting dinner in the oven so it will be ready when we need it.

What are the health benefits of frozen foods?

Nutritional values of typical purchased frozen meal as opposed to homemade are often monumental.†† Generally speaking, purchased casseroles are full of extra fats and lesser quality meat products that we would use if making at home.†† Purchased foods contain preservatives, sodium, nitrates as well many other substances that our bodies donít need. When we make it ourselves, we use the best ingredients and leave out the commercial preservatives.

How do I get started?†† The internet of course.† There are many helpful websites on making ahead meals such as www.30daygourmet.com.† You can Google ďmake ahead freezer mealsĒ and find everything you ever wanted to know and more.† Clemson University has two well researched fact sheets on the subject just go to Clemson.edu/factsheets/hgic360.htm and to Clemson.edu/factsheets/hgic3065.htm.† There are also hundreds of books out there such as The Everything Meals for a Month Cookbook by Linda Larsen and Fix, Freeze and Feast by Kati Neville and Lindsay Tkacsik.

Many recipes you already make on a regular basis will freeze great, so get out your tried and true recipe favorites.† Make ahead a few meals and you can have dinner anytime you need it.† I encourage you to plan a meal together with as many family members as possible present.† It a great time to tell someone special that you love them.

One of my favorite make- ahead meals is Tarragon Chicken Casserole.† Recipe below.

Tarragon Chicken Casserole

12 servings

2 cans cream of chicken soup

2 cups evaporated milk

4 teaspoons dried tarragon

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 (16 oz) package cooked spaghetti

6 cups cooked chicken, diced

1/3 cup parmesan cheese

Dash of paprika

In a large bowl combine soup, evaporated milk, tarragon and pepper.† Stir in spaghetti and chicken.† Transfer to a greased 8.5 x 11 baking dish.† Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and paprika.† Bake uncovered at 350í for 30 minutes.† If you are going to freeze, do not bake.† Instead, cover top of casserole with waxed paper, and wrap in foil and plastic.† Be sure to label with contents and baking directions.† To bake frozen casserole, remove plastic, leave foil on and bake at 350í for 45 minutes, remove foil and waxed paper, bake an additional 10 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 165í.†† †

Jenean Perryman

Culinary Arts Instructor

Northeast Technology Center

P.O. Box 219

19901 Hwy 69

Afton, Oklahoma 74331

(918)257-8324