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For Better Living: Make Meals Ahead of Time

By Sandra R. Cain

Sandra Cain
Sandra Cain

Does your family ever text you about 4:30 p.m. and ask “What’s for dinner?”  Instead of grabbing fast food on the way home from work, simply pull portions of make-ahead casseroles or side dishes from the freezer and reheat them. Freezing is one of the easiest, most convenient, and least time consuming methods of putting a nutritious meal on the table in a hurry. There are many wonderful casserole and one‐dish meals that are simple to prepare, offer variety and great flavor, and stand up well to freezing and reheating.

How Freezing Affects Foods

Freezing (0 F or below) preserves food for extended periods, because it prevents the growth of microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts, and molds) that cause both food spoilage and food-borne illness. The freezing process itself doesn’t destroy bacteria. After thawing however, microbes that may be present can become active, multiplying under the right conditions to levels that can lead to food-borne illness. Handle thawed foods like any perishable product. Thorough cooking will kill most microorganisms.

Ideally, foods should be quick‐frozen within two hours and stored at 0 F or lower. Slow freezing creates large, disruptive ice crystals. During thawing, these crystals damage cell walls and dissolve emulsions such as mayonnaise or cream, which will separate and appear curdled. Rapid freezing prevents undesirable ice crystals from forming throughout the product. Most make‐ahead meals should be used within three months for optimum reheating results.

Successful Make-Ahead Hints

We all want to prepare nutritious meals that appeal to our families and fit within the family budget, but tasty meals have to be planned. Take about 30 minutes each week to plan your menus and make a shopping list to save extra trips to the grocery store.

Make double batches of bread, cookies, vegetables, casseroles, soup, stews, and entrees. Then freeze one batch for later. When combining make‐ahead frozen dishes, follow these helpful hints for best results, remembering to start with good quality ingredients:

To prepare foods for freezing:

*Freeze most casseroles before baking, especially when all the ingredients are already cooked. Exceptions are dishes that contain uncooked rice, raw vegetables, or uncooked meat that has been frozen and thawed.

*Some foods don’t freeze well, such as hard boiled eggs, raw vegetables, mayonnaise, or sour cream.

*Undercook starchy ingredients such as potatoes, beans, rice, and noodles, or they can become mushy.

*Freeze casserole toppings separately to prevent sogginess.

*Do not freeze baked pastry. Add the unbaked pastry during reheating.

*Seasoning intensity can change during freezing, so season lightly. Adjust the flavor during reheating. Cloves, pepper, garlic, and celery become stronger upon freezing, while onion, salt, and chili powder weaken.

*Freeze casseroles in containers that are just the right size for a family meal or individual servings.

To freeze:

*Cool hot casseroles rapidly. Set a shallow pan of hot food in ice water and cool to room temperature quickly. Wrap, label, and freeze. Shallow baking pans speed up freezing and thawing process of casseroles.

*To package food for the freezer, use heavy duty foil, moisture‐ and vapor‐proof paper, plastic freezer wraps, or freezer containers. Microwave‐safe or aluminum ovenproof containers are also available. Pack the containers nearly full to prevent ice crystals from forming, but allow some space at the top of the container for expansion. Label the contents of the dish, the date frozen and the weight or number of servings. Include cooking instructions or where to locate the recipe.

* To free up baking pans, line the pan with heavy‐duty aluminum foil. Leave enough overhang around the pan to cover the casserole and seal foil. Add ingredients and bake if desired. Cool, cover, and seal airtight. When frozen, remove the foil from the pan, and place the foil package in the freezer. To reheat, simply peel foil from food, place it back in the original baking pan, and bake as directed.

To serve:

*Use frozen casseroles within three months for best quality.

*The size of the casserole will affect baking time. Use shallow, small dishes instead of deeper, larger dishes to reduce baking time.

*To reheat casseroles without thawing, bake uncovered at 400 F till heated through for 1 to 2 hours. Fully cooked casseroles should not be thawed, but baked at 400 F for the maximum time suggested in the recipe.

*To thaw casseroles before reheating, allow the casserole to stand in the refrigerator overnight. Then cook as directed in the recipe, adding 15 to 30 minutes to the cooking time.

Source:  Kentucky Cooperative Extension

Chicken Broccoli Bake

4 cups uncooked egg noodles

1 medium onion, chopped

4 tsp. butter

5 T. all-purpose flour

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. pepper

1 can (14 ½ oz.) reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 cup fat-free milk

3 cups cubed cooked chicken breast

3 cups frozen chopped broccoli, thawed and drained

1 cup (4 oz.) shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese

Cook noodles according to package directions.  Meanwhile, in a large nonstick saucepan over medium heat, cook the chopped onion in butter until tender.

Stir in the flour, salt and pepper until blended.  Gradually stir in broth and milk.  Bring to a boil.  Cook and stir for 1-2 minutes or until thickened.

Remove from the heat.  Drain noodles. Place in a 2 qt. baking dish, coated with nonstick spray.  Stir in 1 cup sauce.  Layer with chicken, broccoli and remaining sauce.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Uncover.  Sprinkle with cheese.  Bake 5 – 10 minutes longer or until the casserole is heated through and cheese is melted.

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