Crock Pot Freezer Meals: How to Stock Your Freezer With Last-Minute Dinners
Load up your freezer with bags of ready-to-cook meal ingredients you prepped ahead. Fast forward to a busy week when homemade dinner seems impossible and reach for a freezer bag. Dinner solved!
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The slow cooker offers a range of culinary experiences, from white tablecloth-worthy gourmet meals made in your personal tabletop braiser, to last minute desperation dinners of frantically throwing ingredients into the crock right before you dash out the door. Now, this can make for some odd dishes: “Why does this pork taste like a pine tree?,” especially if you’re not grounded in the basics of slow cooking (learn the simple rules in Slow Cooking 101 here — it’s not your mama’s Crock Pot anymore!). But even if you’re a pro at serving up delicious food, last-minute, tossed-together slow cooker meals can still be a roll of the dice.
Instead of depending entirely on pantry staples swimming in sodium (looking at you, cream of canned soup!) and the odd veggies from the back of the fridge when you’re in a pinch, take a little time when you’re already in meal prep mode to put together these freezer bags of ingredients you can defrost overnight and then pour into the slow cooker (or Instant Pot set to slow cooker function) before a hectic day begins. Pro tip: Learn the fundamentals of freezing here. A little meal planning and prep save you from yet another night of expensive take out or sad, dry frozen pizza. They also give you a break from burnout when you just can’t bear to think up another meal.
Below are tips for how to get it right, along with several tasty recipes to get you started. Ready, set, go! Let us know how it goes!
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Freezer to Crock Pot how-to’s: Braise it like it’s hot
When your days are too full or you’re desperate for a break from the daily dinner grind, you’ll be delighted you followed these simple guidelines for maximum deliciousness … and food safety!
How am I supposed to find time to prep Crock Pot freezer meals? I’m already too busy!
Some of the reasons cooks avoid meal planning include the belief that it eats up a ton of time in the kitchen and the mental effort required is more than they want to undertake. But that’s not so, especially when it comes to freezing ingredients for the slow cooker. The answer is ridiculously simple: When you’re planning to make a slow cooker dish you love, simply buy double the ingredients the recipe calls for, do the prep for both, then freeze half the ingredients (except any broth) in a one-gallon freezer bag with the air squeezed out. (Find some healthy and delicious slow cooker recipes here.) When you’re in the zone, chopping four carrots instead of two, or dicing two pieces of chicken instead of one, adds so little time it’ll feel like you did nearly no additional prep at all.
So can I freeze any ingredient?
Most Crock Pot freezer recipes specifically call for ingredients that freeze well, so trust the carefully curated recipes below. But it’s worth it to note: Raw potatoes that go from freezer to slow cooker don’t hold their shape well, but fall apart in the slow cooker. So feel free to swap potatoes out for a similar root vegetable (When’s the last time you ate a rutabaga?), or accept the texture change and adjust for a naturally thicker dish than originally planned.
Does size really matter?
You know it does! Especially in the slow cooker. If you chop ingredients with similar densities (like carrots and parsnips) into similar sized pieces, both will cook at nearly the same pace to ensure everything ends up at the right doneness and texture.
So I can throw everything into one bag, right?
Ideally each meal would be in one bag, ready to be thawed and cooked as needed. And some are. But taking a moment to separate out any delicate ingredients and storing them in a separate bag can be the difference between a succulent dish and a bowl of mush.
Delicate vegetables like asparagus, spinach, bell peppers, zucchini and yellow squash take less time to cook than sturdier root vegetables. Likewise, shrimp and seafood cook through quickly. Pay attention to your recipe; if certain vegetables are meant to be stirred in toward the end of cooking, pack them in their own bag, label each with a marker as “1 of 2” and “2 of 2,” and clip or rubber band the bags together in the freezer. (But thaw them together. A little extra time in the fridge for the more delicate veggies won’t matter a bit.)
How do I keep track of these in the freezer? And how long do Crock Pot freezer meals keep?
Embrace your inner Beyoncé: If you like it, put a label on it! Frozen slow cooker meals can be stored in the freezer for up to three months as a general rule, but it can be hard, at two months and three weeks, to remember exactly what’s in the bag and how long and at what setting to cook it. But with a piece of masking tape (or specially designed labels) and a permanent marker you can quickly note the date it goes in the freezer, the ingredients inside, and the cooking instructions. Voila! No confusion, and nothing to figure out when you’re digging through the icebox a month later.
So can I cook frozen chicken or beef in a slow cooker? Or: Safety first!
It can be tempting to simply dump a bag of frozen ingredients into a slow cooker and walk away. It sounds like the epitome of convenience, right? Well, except for the potential food poisoning. There is some debate on the subject — some experts think it’s fine, as long as you cut the chicken into small enough pieces to speed the time it takes for it to cook through.
But science suggests otherwise: Both timing and temperature are key to slow cooking safety. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states poultry has to get up to 165°F internally to kill off the bacteria that causes illness (pork, beef, lamb, and veal only have to get to 160°F). But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. In the thawing process, there is a food safety danger zone while it’s between 40°F and 140°F; this is when bacteria multiplies the quickest, and in the process releases toxins. Thawing food in a slow cooker takes way longer than it does on a high heat stove. Most slow cookers are designed to keep food between 170°F and 280°F, and once the food reaches 165°F the bacteria is generally destroyed — but the heat-resistant toxins that have been released don’t always get killed off. That’s what causes illness much of the time.
This is where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of food poisoning cure — free yourself from worry with a pinch of planning: The night before, take the baggies of ingredients out of the freezer and set them on a plate in the fridge before you go to bed. In the morning, everything will be thawed and ready to go. And what a thrill to sit down to a delectable meal you brilliantly planned. Go you.
Stews from the slow cooker taste like your grandmum spent all day stirring a cozy pot … and make your home smell a little like her love.
This cozy, Old World, vegetarian freezer Crock Pot meal creates a stew that warms both the belly and the soul on a cold night, and with its collection of healthful ingredients — mushrooms, barley, leeks, rutabaga, carrots, celery, parsnips, and tomatoes — it’s a great easy meal when you need a healthy pick-me-up.
A classic beef stew that’s fragrant with rosemary and thyme comes together in a snap when all the prep is done and in your freezer. Be sure to add the beef to the bag last so it goes to the bottom of the slow cooker first.
This elegant soup eats like a stew and makes a great weeknight dinner with a hunk of crusty bread; the bacon is cooked and crumbled before freezing, the little green French lentils are fun to eat, and it’s full of diced vegetables and garlic.
Sometimes you want a nostalgic taste of some old school Crock Pot classics. Here are a few — but with cleaner flavors and less tin can tang.
Any fully cooked frozen meatball can be popped in the Crock Pot for this yummy and simple dish!
The sunny flavors of lemon, basil, and garlic will brighten up every bowl at the table, especially with juicy boneless chicken thighs braised in a buttery sauce laced with white wine.
Everything except the sour cream and mushrooms (neither freezes well) is ready to go in this slow cooker freezer meal. Be sure to thaw the ingredients thoroughly in the refrigerator before adding them to the Crock Pot.
This healthful Crock Pot freezer meal is naturally gluten-free and is delicious over rice or sautéed green vegetables.
There are many slow-simmered or smoked dishes in Southern cuisine, but today’s cook doesn’t always have a day to devote to the stove. These Crock Pot freezer recipes help ensure that busy cooks don't need to sacrifice flavor for time.
This flavorful jambalaya has sausage, chicken, and shrimp, is easy to assemble and will make your kitchen smell like a party in Louisiana. Be sure to thaw the ingredients thoroughly before adding them to the Crock Pot.
Everybody loves a zesty pulled pork sandwich, and this one is super simple: All the ingredients (except the buns!) go into a freezer-safe plastic bag, and voila! Your Arsenal of Deliciousness is armed and ready.
This traditional Southern dish usually calls for a block of processed cheese and salsa from a can; in this easy Crock Pot freezer recipe, low-fat shredded cheeses and fresh salsa not only make it healthier, but provide fresh flavor as well.
Fiesta! Beyond Taco Tuesday
Can you really make great Mexican food by going from your freezer to your slow cooker? Sí se puede! Yes you can.
If you skip the cheesy toppings, this vegetarian tortilla soup recipe becomes a hearty and comforting vegan freezer Crock Pot meal! And putting it together for the freezer (simply leave out the broth and toppings) takes fewer than 10 minutes!
A big pork shoulder is slathered in a savory wet rub full of traditional spices from South of the Border, then slid into the freezer to await the call. Then simply thaw in the refrigerator before low-and-slow cooking for a lush and satisfying dish. (And yes, this nod to carnitas would be great in tacos.)
A sincere homage to the great flavors of Mexico: cumin, pinto and black beans, tomatoes, corn, taco seasoning, and more. Plus, this kid-friendly freezer Crock Pot meal instructs you to sauté the ground beef, yellow onion, and garlic, cool, then mix with the remaining ingredients (except broth) and pop it in the freezer, for a food safety thumbs up. Olé!
Better than takeout: An homage to Chinese & Thai favorites
Your go-to takeout dishes are even yummier made at home in a slow cooker. Just have a stash of chopsticks at the ready.
Once you’ve thawed the ingredients, brown the chicken and proceed with the slow cooking for an homage to Chinese take-out. Feel free to briefly brown the cashews with the chicken for more depth of flavor.
The sauce that gets mixed in with the chicken thighs creates a delicious marinade before it hibernates in the frozen tundra in your kitchen. This is an ideal chicken freezer Crock Pot meal.
This clever recipe takes two one-pound pork tenderloins and freezes them in a Thai-style sauce. Once it thaws, the whole recipe simmers in the slow cooker, then has creamy peanut butter stirred in at the very end.
This fruity and sweetly-spiced meal enrobes boneless, skinless chicken breasts with fresh ginger, jam, and minced garlic. And with the addition of green beans, all you need is some rice or quinoa on the side for a quick and complete busy night meal.
This sweet and spicy curry balances sweet with savory, with a kick from the curry and red pepper flakes.
Mangia! Italian favorites
Enjoy an Italian feast in a flash, even without a nonna cooking in the cucina.
This slow cooker freezer meal is vegetarian yet rich in protein and fiber, and full of interesting textures and flavor.
Who doesn’t love a soup with tiny meatballs? Plus, this soup includes escarole, a hearty Italian type of chicory green that stands up beautifully to the freezer and slow cooker.
This frozen slow cooker meal is redolent of the Tuscan countryside with notes of oregano, rosemary, garlic, and thyme. Freeze ingredients except the broth; add that to the slow cooker with the thawed ingredients.
These stuffed peppers are easy to assemble, and are essentially an easy homemade Italian meatball cradled in a bell pepper. Feel free to swap out green for red or yellow peppers if you like.
Have a living room picnic and eat like you’re around a campfire in the old American West with these hearty chili recipes.
This colorful chili recipe can be prepped in about 15 minutes, and since it’s high in fiber and protein, makes for a healthy freezer Crock Pot meal with minimal effort or fuss.
Steak chili is the Rolls Royce of the beef slow cooker freezer meals, and this one delivers big time in Tex Mex tastiness and homemade comfort, all with minimal prep!
Slow cooker central!
Below are some additional stories designed to help you become a slow cooker savant: