What comes to mind when you think of helping mitigate climate change? Installing solar panels? Driving less? While these are terrific climate-friendly solutions, there’s another, not-so-obvious solution that’s more effective and will actually save you money: freezing food — as a way to prevent food waste.
Freezing food is one of the best ways to stay healthy, minimize your carbon footprint, and cut down on your grocery bill. It’s also the ultimate fast food that’s healthy and convenient. When properly packaged, frozen food retains nutrients and flavor, and having frozen food on hand is a simple way to improvise a dinner or enjoy a quick and healthy snack (frozen grapes, anyone?). Plus, it’s a perfect way to extend the longevity of our favorite foods and prevent food waste!
Table of Contents
- Food Waste and Climate Change
- Food Freezing Tips to Prevent Food Waste
- How to Freeze Any Food
Food Waste and Climate Change
We don’t think of food waste as a contributor to climate change, but it’s responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Shockingly, around one-quarter of the calories the world produces is simply thrown away. To think of it another way, if global food waste were considered a country it would be the world’s third-largest emitter, surpassed only by the U.S. and China.
To put this into context, in the U.S. alone, we throw away around 133 billion pounds of edible food each year. To put this into an even more understandable context, this means that Americans waste more than $161 billion in food every year. That’s a lot of waste!
While freezing food is an effective way to prevent food waste, there are a number of other methods of minimizing food loss:
- Planning ahead before food shopping.
- Understanding food preservation labeling guidelines so food isn’t thrown out before it turns bad.
- Making new meals with leftover food.
- Food waste recycling or home composting.
- Donating excess food to a local food bank.
Food Freezing Tips to Prevent Food Waste
Freezing food not only makes for a quick and easy meal, but it also helps prevent food waste. Here are a few quick tips for putting that freezer to work to prevent food waste:
Properly frozen food remains safe indefinitely. The freezing process prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause food spoilage and foodborne illness. To ensure proper storage, check that your freezer maintains a constant temperature of at least 0 °F.
While frozen food is safe that doesn’t mean it’ll taste good if left in the freezer forever! The USDA’s Freezer Storage Chart is a handy resource to see how long you can leave certain foods in the freezer and maintain flavor.
Minimize Waste with (Freezer-Friendly) Reusable Containers
Single-use disposable waste (particularly plastic waste) is also an enormous environmental problem. Reduce your use of single-use disposable containers and opt for reusable options.
Reusable Freezer Bags. I like Stasher Brand bags, which are made of silicone and come in a variety of sizes and colors. They’re freezer-, microwave-, and dishwasher-safe. You can even pop them in boiling water or in the oven! (Free of BPA, lead, PVC, and phthalates.)
A friend highly recommends Zip Top silicone reusable bags, which stand on their own and zip shut to seal in food. (Free of BPA, lead, PVC, and phthalates.)
(Re)zip is another brand that gets top marks with its extensive selection of freezer-friendly bags. The bags include a variety of features designed to make them leak-proof and resistant to freezer burn. (Made of food-grade PEVA. Free of PVC, BPA, and lead.)
Reusable Containers. Start with reusing what you have: plastic containers from yogurt, sour cream, soups.
What about those glass jars from sauces, pickles, or jams? Tread lightly with these since untempered glass can shatter when frozen. Leave room for expansion by filling jars to no more than 3/4 full and leave the lid loose until the contents freeze solid. Then tighten. For more details on which jars to use for freezing see Garden Betty’s excellent summary.
For purchased containers, I use a mix of durable plastic and glass containers that come in different shapes and sizes.
I own a variety of Pyrex glass bowls and containers that come with BPA-free lids. The rectangular sizes are perfect for casseroles and other cooked items that can go from freezer to oven. For purchased mason jars, these from Ball are freezer-safe.
I also own an assortment of Rubbermaid plastic containers that seal tight and have lasted me for years. They’re also light and conveniently stackable. That said, if you’re on a plastic-free diet, Rubbermaid offers the same line in glass.
Keep Portions Small
Keeping portions small helps prevent food waste. Invest in some 1/2 cup freezer-friendly containers that you can use to freeze, well, pretty much anything. I use mine for dips, sauces, cooked oatmeal, leftover smoothies (to be used in a future smoothie!), nut butters, soups, milk, diced raw onions… You get the idea. What I like about the 1/2 cup containers is the convenience of having pre-measured ingredients or foods readily available from your freezer.
The ice cube tray is your friend. Use it to freeze sauces, dips, herbs, and stocks. Leftover wine is a perfect liquid to freeze in ice cube trays and then have on hand when wine is called for in a recipe.
To avoid wondering what the heck you’ve frozen (a lesson I learned a few years ago when I defrosted chili instead of bolognese), label everything you freeze with the name of the food and the freezing date.
So that you don’t end up with ink all over your reusable containers, first put a piece of clear tape on the container, then use a Sharpie to write on the tape, wait a few minutes for the ink to dry, and then into the freezer it goes. When you’re ready to clean the container, simply remove the tape and it’s ready to be reused again!
Avoiding Freezer Burn
Freezer burn isn’t unsafe, but it will change the texture of your food (and not in a good way). To avoid freezer burn, always tightly wrap food or put it in a freezer-safe container. Cut off freeze-burned parts before cooking and only freeze foods once before eating.
Safe Thawing Tips
According to the USDA, there are three safe ways to thaw food:
- Refrigerator. Plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the fridge. While small portions may defrost overnight, most foods will require a day or two. Dense, large foods, such as turkey can take longer. Anticipate approximately one day for every 5 pounds of weight.
- Cold water. Place food in a leak-proof plastic bag and immerse it in cold water. Change the water as needed to maintain a cold temperature. Once thawed, cook immediately.
- Microwave. Use this method when you plan to cook immediately after thawing since parts of the food may begin to cook when microwaved.
Cooking Food From a Frozen State
Most foods, whether cooked or raw, can be cooked or reheated from a frozen state. The key is to ensure that food is thoroughly cooked through. A good rule of thumb is to cook for at least one and a half times as long as you normally would.
Some safe cooking tips:
- Don’t microwave frozen food in glass containers unless they’re shatter-proof.
- Don’t cook frozen meat in a crockpot or slow cooker as the slow cooking process could allow the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Pre-stuffed whole birds must be cooked from the frozen state to ensure a safely cooked product.
What Not to Freeze
While you can freeze almost anything, some foods don’t retain their texture and flavor once thawed. In general, these are foods with a high moisture content or that have a high fat content. Examples include apples, watermelon, citrus fruits, leafy greens, soft cheeses, sour cream, mayonnaise, aiolis, and yogurt. That said, most of these food items can be enjoyed in their frozen state or used in cooking.
Don’t risk freezing shell eggs since you’ll need to toss them if they crack.
How to Freeze Any Food
Produce: Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs
When it comes to freezing produce, one of the first things to consider is water content. Most fruits and vegetables have a significant amount of water and freezing will cause the water to expand when thawed, resulting in a mushier cucumber or strawberry.
This is important to remember because some fruits and vegetables don’t freeze well. I personally enjoy eating some produce frozen – berries, grapes, cut mango – but if you prefer to eat your favorite fruit or veg raw, it’s best not to freeze it or instead, use it in cooking.
When freezing vegetables, select produce that’s ripe and flavorful. Wash in cold water and for most vegetables, blanch them first before freezing. The University of Georgia’s directions for freezing vegetables are excellent and include detailed instructions on how to blanch dozens of vegetables.
Once blanched, let the vegetables cool completely before placing them into a freezer bag or freezer-friendly container. Reduce the amount of air in the package by leaving just a little space (about half-inch) for containers or use a rubber band to tie off the same amount of space if using a bag.
Freezing fruit is a similar, and slightly easier process. Wash and dry fruit, cut into bite-size pieces, freeze in a single layer on a baking sheet for 2-3 hours, then store in an airtight container or reusable freezer bag.
Citrus fruits don’t freeze well but they can still be used in cooking or baking: peel, remove membranes and seeds, and then freeze fruit in water or unsweetened juice.
Don’t throw out your overripe bananas! I peel and dump them in a reusable bag until I’m ready to use them for baking (banana bread!). Thaw the bananas in a colander to remove excess liquid.
Freezing herbs is also simple: wash, dry, and chop into a size for cooking. (You can blanch them but it isn’t really necessary if you plan to use them for cooking.) Place a small amount in each well of an ice cube tray, then fill with water or olive oil before freezing.
Meat and Seafood Products
As with produce, meat and seafood should be frozen in packaging that will minimize its exposure to air and in individual or small portions (to prevent food waste). Tightly wrap food with either freezer paper or plastic wrap, followed with a layer of aluminum foil, before sealing it in a freezer bag. While you probably won’t be able to reuse the freezer paper, you can reuse the aluminum foil multiple times.
Yes, you’ll be using some disposable wrap, but the goal is to prevent food waste, so if you plan to keep meat frozen for a long period of time, minimizing exposure to air is key. If properly wrapped, meat and seafood can be frozen safely this way for up to three months.
For shorter freezing periods, I’ve found that placing meat or seafood in reusable freezer bags is sufficient, with no need for wrapping.
To defrost, place meat and seafood in the fridge to slowly thaw. If you’re in a time pinch, place the wrapped food in a bowl and submerge in cool water.
Baked Goods and Doughs
Freezing is the perfect vehicle for preserving leftover cakes, muffins, cookies, and other baked goods. If you’re not planning to consume foods in the near future, wrap them in freezer wrap and aluminum foil before placing them in a reusable freezer bag. Otherwise, I find that baked goods freeze well without all the fuss of wrapping and can be simply stored in a container or bag.
Breads, rolls, bagels. Store sliced bread in the freezer to preserve that just-baked taste. You can either defrost bread products in the fridge or simply pop them in the oven or toaster.
Homemade pancakes and waffles freeze very well. I reheat waffles in the toaster. For pancakes, I microwave them a few seconds to thaw the interior and either toast or reheat them in a pan with a bit of butter.
Muffins, cookies, and other small baked goods. Muffins and soft baked goods (chewy cookies, brownies) are one of the easiest foods to freeze. Simply pack them in containers and then microwave for 20-30 seconds. So easy! For more flaky baked items — scones, crispy cookies, flaky hors d’oeuvres — avoid the microwave and reheat in the oven. For cookie/brownie dough, it’s easiest to freeze them in individual portions and bake directly from a frozen state.
Cakes freeze well but for optimum flavor, freeze the component parts (each cake layer, frosting) separately. You can cheat on that rule if you’re freezing for a short period of time: for example, I freeze my holiday yule log, filled with chocolate mousse, for a few days, and it never loses its flavor. Defrost in the fridge.
Nuts, Seeds, and Beans
Frozen nuts and seeds are so easy to freeze. Buy them in bulk, raw, and simply use an airtight container or bag to store them in the freezer. They’ll stay fresh for up to one year. When I’m ready to use or eat them directly from the container, they don’t need to be thawed. Just enjoy!
Freeze canned or cooked beans in their cooking liquid or water. Dried beans don’t freeze well and are best stored in air-tight containers in your pantry. They’ll last for a very long time and free up space in your freezer!
When it comes to milk, it’s perfectly safe to freeze, but the appearance and texture will change. Use smaller containers with extra space available for when the liquid expands. You can also freeze directly in ice cube trays and use the frozen milk for smoothies or iced coffee drinks.
For cream, the best way to freeze it is as whipped cream. Place portions of whipped cream on parchment or waxed paper, freeze, and then store in the freezer.
Cheese will also change in appearance once frozen and become crumbly when thawed again, so it’s better to use grated in dishes or cooked into meals. Grate or cube hard cheeses to use for cooking or baking.
Again, yogurt will change when frozen, but freezing it works well when using the yogurt for smoothies or to eat as a frozen treat. Plan to consume frozen yogurt within four months.
Unsalted butter and salted butter can be stored in the freezer for about five months and nine months, respectively. For an even longer freeze, wrap the butter like you would meat (in plastic, then foil).
The best way to freeze eggs is to crack them first, then scramble and add a pinch of salt before freezing. For individual portions, crack an egg into each well of a muffin tin or ice cube tray, scramble, freeze, and then transfer the frozen eggs to a reusable bag. The same process works for egg whites and yolks. Eggs will keep for up to a year. (Don’t forget to label!)
Soups, Sauces, Dips, and Condiments
First, let soup completely cool. Remember to leave a clearance of around two inches or more at the top of the jar, then place in the refrigerator for further cooling before labeling and freezing. Soup will keep its flavor for about three months.
Begin the defrosting process in the fridge overnight. You can then place the thawed soup with any remaining frozen ball in a saucepan, cover, and simmer until completely defrosted. Make sure to watch it carefully to avoid scorching. Alternatively, you can microwave soup, stirring frequently to defrost.
For dips, sauces, and condiments, freeze in ice cube trays or small 1/2 cup containers. If you’re running out of room in your freezer, transfer the cubes to a reusable bag.
Baked Pasta and Casseroles
For casseroles and baked pasta, let them cool thoroughly before wrapping in plastic wrap and aluminum foil. Consider the size of the container before you freeze. If you’re cooking for family or a crowd, using a freezer-safe casserole dish will work well, but transfer the casserole into smaller containers for individual meals.
Note that even a sturdy glass dish can crack if placed in the oven directly from the freezer. If the dish is a frozen block, I usually let it sit on the counter for an hour or so before putting it in the oven.