Got more kale than you can handle? Enough chili to feed an army? Fear not! You can save just about anything if you freeze it for later. The trickier part: not neglecting what you’ve frozen. (Icicle-flecked mystery soup in the back of the freezer, we’re looking at you.) Turns out, taking care to properly prepare, pack, and stash what you freeze can pay off big time on hectic weeknights. “Having frozen options on hand allows you to fit in veggies you might otherwise skip,” says nutritionist Cynthia Sass, RD, author of S.A.S.S.! Yourself Slim. “It allows you to eat a fast, nutritious meal rather than relying on take-out.”
Plus, no more tossing leftovers: “Freezing food is the simplest way to make sure it doesn’t go bad—and to avoid spending money on food that you ultimately throw out,” says Dana Gunders, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s good news, because according to the USDA, Americans trash up to 40 percent of their food, amounting to the average consumer wasting roughly $390 every year. You’ll be doing your wallet, your diet, and the planet a favor by making the freezer your best friend. Get started with these simple tricks and ideas:
1. Mind Your Portions
Divide food into single servings before freezing—no Tupperware crammed with a year’s worth of quinoa allowed. “I like to freeze whole grains in individual portions so I don’t have to thaw any more than I need to add to a casserole, stew, or stir-fry,” says Sass. Want dinner on the table in a jiffy? Small helpings of frozen lasagna defrost faster than a whole tray, and provide portion control too. “When a family-style-sized dish is sitting in front of you, it’s easy to sneak extra forkfuls and lose track of how much you’ve consumed,” notes Sass. “When you only have one portion, you can’t mindlessly continue to nibble.”
Try this Freeze leftovers in a muffin pan, suggests Gunders. Fill the pan cups with soup or sauce, and stick in the freezer. “A few hours later, I pop the food out and put the perfectly sized portions into a freezer bag,” she says.
2. Don’t Get (Freezer) Burned
Avoid that moisture-sucking, flavor-zapping frost called freezer burn by removing as much air as you can from freezer containers, and sealing them well. “No matter how good your packaging—unless it is truly airtight—there will eventually be some drying out of food,” warns Elizabeth Andress, PhD, project director at the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation. Using freezer bags? After filling, press out the air, then flatten for easy storage. Prefer glass? Wide-mouth pint-size Mason jars work well for saucy stuff, especially if you can build a moisture barrier to keep the burn at bay. Think beans covered with cooking liquid, canned tomatoes with juices, and fresh herbs with oil. (And don’t forget to leave some head room for liquids to expand as they freeze in the jar.)
Try this You don’t need a vacuum sealer to close freezer bags like a pro. “Just using a straw to suck out as much air as possible extends food’s frozen lifespan,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wastelandand founder of wastedfood.com. Close the bag except for a slit, slide in the straw, suck until the bag shrinks, remove the straw, and seal.
3. Stash With a Plan
Never toss bags and jars willy-nilly into the freezer. Instead, keep masking tape and a Sharpie nearby (or invest in erasable food storage labels), and label everything with name, date, amount, and any important instructions. Next, group items. “I tend to keep ‘like’ things together,” says Sass. “Veggies, fruits, whole grains, beans and lentils, herbs, entrées. It’s just easier to be able to reach into the freezer and know exactly where to find what I need.” Bloom, meanwhile, favors “the first in, first out method,” placing older foods up front as a visual reminder. Psst: now’s a good time to go through your freezer and purge any ancient artifacts that you know you’ll never eat.
Try this Keep a detailed freezer inventory on your freezer door, recommends Andress. “I use a full sheet of paper, so there’s room to write a brief description of how every food was prepared,” she says. Tech-y option: download the free GroceryHero app to your smart phone to keep track of what goes in and out of your freezer (and fridge and pantry too).
4. Make Haste
Don’t wait forever and a day to defrost your frozen goodies. “Actually use what’s in your freezer, so you’re not just constantly adding to it,” says Bloom. For best flavor and texture, VT food editor Mary Margaret Chappell advises eating what you freeze within three months: “It’s fine for up to six months, still edible up to a year. After that, I get rid of it because even if it’s safe to eat, it probably doesn’t taste as good as it should.” No rush if your freezer doubles as storage space for nuts, seeds, flours, and the like. In airtight containers, pantry staples will freeze well for one year.
Try this For faster turnover, try incorporating your freezer into mealtime. “I’ve made the freezer a regular part of my what’s-for-dinner fridge assessment,” says Gunders. “I sometimes also plan ‘freezer night’ to make sure nothing gets lost in there for too long.” Plan a day ahead, and you can defrost any food you need in the fridge overnight.