Providing healthy meals for friends and family
Freezer Gifts for the Holidays
by Ellen Lawson Ferlazzo
A good friend's elderly mother recently took a fall. This had quite an affect on her ability to comfortably prepare dinner for herself and her husband. I was about to spend half a day cooking up some chicken dishes to have on hand for my freezer, so I included a few extras for her. When we went to visit, we brought her a chicken pot pie, chicken cacciatore, coq au vin, a broccoli quiche, a quart of homemade vegetable soup and a bag full of frozen homemade French toast for their breakfasts. She was overjoyed and kept saying "No one has ever done this for me before!" Her son and I agreed she probably enjoyed all that prepared food far more than any other gift he could have brought her! And she has let us know she would love to get some more food for Christmas.
Every year people talk about the holidays and what gifts to give people who "have everything they need." Consumable items are always recommended: postage stamps and stationary, donations to charity in their name, chore days to help around the house, and edible gifts. What I see offered as edible gifts though is too often rich treats that aren't on many people's diet. But edible gifts are a great idea: give a gift of healthy home cooked meals! If your recipients don't have a freezer, arrange one day a month to deliver something they can easily heat up for dinner. It's always a treat to take the night off from cooking when you do it every day. If they do have some freezer space available, consider spending a day cooking up a few meals for them (and bag a few extras for yourself as well for those busy days).
Many of you probably already know a few favorite dishes that freeze well that your friends and family would enjoy.
- meat loaf
- pot pie
- spaghetti sauce, with or without meat
- quick breads (banana, zucchini, pumpkin, apple)
But you can really round out the types of meals you can deliver by adding:
- shredded meat to reheat for hot sandwiches
- oven baked chicken strips
Don't forget some side dishes, such as:
- mashed potatoes
- twice baked potatoes
- biscuits and rolls
- favorite bean recipes in meal-sized portions
- breaded chicken strips
- stuffed pasta shells
For breakfasts, you can easily make ahead and freeze things such as:
- omelets in a bag
- breakfast burritos
- breakfast sandwiches
- French toast and pancakes
- cinnamon rolls
For those with a sweet tooth, add some deserts:
- cakes (cut and freeze in serving size portions)
- fruit turnovers
Someone elderly who still enjoys cooking might also appreciate some starter packs of things they could use to make fresh meals. Do some of the work ahead of time for them:
- boiled/browned ground beef in serving size packages
- cooked diced chicken
- cooked chicken with carrots, peas, and white sauce so they can make their own pot pies or even just heat and serve over rice or toast
- various pieces of meat frozen in your favorite marinades (chicken breasts, pork chops, flank steaks)
- homemade chicken broth for easy soups
- sliced or chopped peppers and onions
- frozen slice and bake cookie rolls so they get those fresh baked cookies
Small is Beautiful
For elderly recipients who are only cooking for one or two people, think small. Package things in individual servings so they can pull out enough for just one meal. Make miniature meat loaves (use your muffin tins), package a few meatballs in some sauce, slice up some roast beef or turkey breast and freeze in the juices/broth so the meat won't dry out when reheated.
Use mayonnaise sparingly in things like tuna or chicken salad. Use butter on the bread instead of mayonnaise so the sandwich fillings don't soak into the bread. Don't freeze lettuce and tomatoes in sandwiches.
Omelets in a Bag
You can freeze raw eggs if they are opened and mixed together (scrambled eggs). Add the chopped vegetables of your choice (peppers, onions, etc.) and freeze in a serving size. Use egg substitutes for a healthier choice.
Boiling Ground Beef
This is a win-win proposition: less mess to clean up and healthier besides! Instead of browning your ground beef in a frying pan, boil it up in a bit of water, stirring to break up the clumps. Add seasonings of your choice (onions, green peppers, salt and pepper for example). When the beef is done, drain it and package in portions appropriate for your recipients. (A pound is equivalent to 2-3 cups of meat.) Your friends and family can use these to make shepherd's pie, tacos, soup, chili, pizza, and anything else that calls for ground beef. They're great for crockpot dishes calling for ground beef as well. If you are saving the broth, just refrigerate overnight and remove the fat that has risen to the top and solidified. It's a lightly flavored broth but can be enhanced with some beef base or bouillon.
Label everything! Do not trust yourself to figure it out later. Note the date, the contents, and the quantity on each and every item you place in the freezer. If you are using freezer bags, a Sharpie writes on the labels quite well. For gift items, write down the reheating instructions as well.
Freezer bags are easy and save you from having to retrieve dishes later.
Put a cookie sheet in your freezer and lay the bags down flat to freeze.
Later, you can stack them vertically in a shoebox or some other container so you can "flip through" them to find what you want. If you lay them flat in the freezer, it means they will sooner or later fall onto the floor and most likely hurt your foot and/or tear the bag so that you have to eat what you dropped! Make sure you leave a bit of room in the bags for expansion as the food freezes.
Another option is to line a standard pan with foil before adding the food, leaving enough extra to cover the top. Cook the dish if necessary, then cover the top and freeze. When it is completely frozen, remove the food from your container, and place in a freezer bag. Your recipient can thaw and reheat the food in the same sized pan.
Various companies make some fairly inexpensive freezer to microwave containers that come in various sizes. There are even containers with divided compartments so you could make a whole meal. Your recipients can use the containers later, making it a doubly nice gift-though they may bring them back to be refilled!
Baked cookies do well in some sort of hard container so they don't get broken. Coffee cans work great and are frugal (assuming you've been saving them!).
As you cook ahead and prepare things for your freezer, keep track of what you have! You might want to give your recipients a printed list of what you are giving them and the date the dishes should be used by. In general, you can probably allow 3 months in a good freezer for prepared foods if they are packaged properly.
Healthy Gifts from the Heart
Food is a welcome gift for most people. Busy young mothers, young adults busy working and/or going to school, and elderly people can all enjoy a night off from cooking now and then, without the expense of going out to a restaurant. Providing wholesome and healthy meals rather than just the sweets that are so often given this time of year is a loving thing to do for your friends and family.
Reviewed March 2018
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Ellen is a software user interface designer and technical writer by trade but a cook at heart. A single mother, stretching those dollars allows her to spend more time with her children and pass on her love of cooking. You can see some of her favorite recipes at CheapCooking.com.
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