By Patricia Chuey, Msc., RD, FDC, Dietitian
While the idea of frozen food might not conjure up the same vibrant image as a meal made from garden fresh ingredients picked that day, a freezer can really go the distance in supporting healthy eating over the long haul. Savvy use of a deep freeze has become extra important in this time of staying close to home yet keeping a good supply of meal items on hand. Not talking salty frozen tv dinners here.
10 “Cool” Cooking Hacks
When freshly made meals generate leftovers that won’t get eaten within 3 days of fridge storage, freeze them. Date and label the contents with masking tape and a marker. This spares the item from never making it out of the freezer or becoming an unrecognizable ice block. Most cooked meals freeze well. Particularly freezer-friendly are meat, lentil or veggie balls, veggie fritters, salmon or crab cakes, mini frittatas or egg bites, chili, soups, individual slices of homemade pizza, pasta dishes, even pancakes and crepes. Plan to use these meals within 3-4 months for optimal texture, although they are safe if fully frozen and stored longer.
Whole grains and legumes
If cooking whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, millet, barley or legumes (chickpeas, lentils, black beans, etc) takes more time than you have, prep ahead and freeze in individual containers. Take out the night before needed and thaw in the fridge. Pre-cooked grains like barley are a handy meal starter for a barley soup, veggie and barley wraps or even a casserole. Great addition to a salad too.
When the fresh celery, carrots and onions start looking a little limp, wash and chop them. Place in little labelled bags in the freezer to make quick work of a homemade soup. Simply add them frozen to heated oil in a pan and build the soup from there.
Frozen fruit and even vegetables like kale or spinach are magic ingredients lending texture and nutrients to smoothies. Keep a bag of banana chunks in the freezer. Peeling very ripe bananas and slicing before freezing makes them super easy to grab. Wash and freeze chopped raw leafy greens. Purees of cooked vegetables like carrots, peas or cauliflower can also be frozen and used in smoothies or for baking muffins.
Ice Cube Tray
Ever need juice of half a lemon or lime for a fresh recipe but don’t have any on hand or want to avoid the hassle? Use an ice cube tray to freeze the juice, transfer to a bag, then simply grab a cube or two when needed. The same can be done with fresh herbs. Chop finely, add a little water or canola oil and freeze in ice cube trays for a shot of fresh flavour when cooking.
Meal Sized portions
If buying larger quantities of fresh meat like chicken, pork chops or cubes of beef, divide into meal-sized portions and freeze. This is much easier than thawing the entire package or wrestling to chip off what you need from a large frozen block. Uncooked meat and vegetable combinations can be placed in zip bags and frozen for later thawing and cooking. Meals with a sauce such as sweet and sour pork, chili or fajita fillings work well in this way. Search ‘frozen meal prep’ online for many recipe ideas.
Freeze milk and Eggs
If you won’t use them up before the due date, dairy and plant-based milk can be frozen for later use in cooking or baking. Eggs can also be frozen. Eggs have a long shelf life, up to 5 weeks, in the fridge. Because they don’t freeze safely in the shell, crack and whisk whole eggs and freeze for later use in baking or scrambled eggs. The whites and yolks can be frozen separately if preferred.
If only shopping once every two weeks or so but wanting a variety of bread products on hand, freeze items like sliced bread, tortillas, naan bread, bagels and English muffins to keep fresh longer and prevent mold growth that can happen with counter storage. Breads thaw quickly. For example, lay out frozen tortillas while prepping the rest of the meal for wraps and they thaw in time.
Freezer to Cooking
Ingredients that stay fresh longer and can go directly into cooking from the freezer in most recipes include nuts and seeds, nutritional yeast, cranberries, vegetables like cubes of squash, peas, broccoli, and more.
Grate and Freeze
Many items can be grated and frozen for quick use in cooking or baking. Grated, frozen cheese makes a speedy addition to pizza, lasagna or tacos. Washed, peeled and grated beets are much less messy and a quick add to smoothies. Little bags of frozen pre-grated fresh ginger, garlic, lemon, lime or orange rind are also very handy.
Now, to only remember this is all in the freezer. Over time, like practicing anything, using the freezer for the ‘hacks’ here becomes automatic. Good labelling and attempting a first in-first out style of inventory management helps too. Keeping a written list of the freezer contents can be useful. With a smart phone, skip that step by periodically snapping a photo of the freezer contents. The picture will be in your phone gallery to remind you how quickly you can get a great meal on the table.