Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

5 Things to Remember When Freezing Food

June 30th, 2014 · 22 Comments · Tips

5 Things to Remember When Freezing Food

I often say my freezer is one of my most important kitchen tools, and it’s in constant use to make my life easier.

If you know how to master your freezer like a pro, you can make so many meals more quickly and give yourself a night off from cooking here and there without much extra work at all.

Unfortunately, for many people in both real food and processed food homes, the freezer is a pre-garbage landing ground for wasted food. Either because of un-organization or freezer mistakes, frozen food gets icky and ends up being wasted (breaks my little heart).

Here are some secrets from my kitchen to yours to help you maximize your freezer and utilize it like a pro!

This post is sponsored by neat-os, a company to whom sustainability and reducing our waste is very important. Their reusable bags are made in America and one of their business goals is to see the brand "be a springboard to expand national conversations about the environment and food." So here goes!

Treat Your Vegetables Right

cast iron peppers

I think some people are afraid to preserve an overflow of produce in the freezer because either (a) they know they don’t the rules for freezing and hate to mess it up, or (b) they have had a bad experience with freezing something in the past that didn’t thaw for use very nicely afterward.

In my opinion, there are some vegetables worth buying in bulk to freeze and some that just aren’t.


Veggies I Love to Freeze

The following vegetables can just be frozen raw and do not need to be blanched (lightly steamed) before freezing:

  • onions (I’ll dice and freeze if I have too many)
  • green, red and spicy peppers (I buy bushels (or pints of jalapenos) in August and freeze diced, sliced, and halved for stuffed peppers) We even took them camping for an easy skillet meal, above!
  • zucchini (diced, shredded or sliced – zukes can sneak into all sorts of meals you wouldn’t expect, even chili or lasagna, and people usually don’t even notice!!)
  • tomatoes (freeze them whole or halves and then thaw partially, blend or crush and toss into chili or soup in the winter, yum!)
  • greens (it’s recommended to blanch them, and I do if I have the time because it reduces their size and neutralizes oxalates and goitrogens, BUT in a pinch I’ve just tossed kale or spinach in a bag and used it in smoothies, and it was no problem)

NOTE: This is so important! Don’t expect to put diced peppers from the freezer on your salad or sliced tomatoes on a sandwich – ALL these frozen veggies are going to come out mushy, so they’re really only for cooked applications, smoothies, or maybe dressings like this spicy dressing from Natural Fertility and Wellness.

If the veggies do require blanching, it’s obviously a ton more work, and I’d rather just buy them in frozen bags or fresh on demand personally (although if I grew my own garden, I’d take the time to preserve in the freezer):

  • green beans*
  • broccoli
  • carrots
  • cauliflower
  • peas
  • asparagus

EDIT: a reader says she freezes green beans without blanching and they’re absolutely lovely upon thawing…which makes me start to question the value of blanching any of this stuff!

I’ve always been a "freezer queen," and this post from 2009 "Easy Prep Foods You’ll Always Find in my Freezer" will give you a few more tips, as well as the dishes-saving strategy in Why I have Empty Ziplocs in my Freezer

Shape Matters if Space Matters

Best way to freeze in glass jars (7) (475x317)

Choosing the right container can make the difference between loving your freezer or crying every time you try to manage it.

If you have limited space, you need to take that into consideration. Round containers waste a ton more space than square containers, and plastic zippered bags take the least space of all, no matter what you’re freezing. If you’re super anti-plastic, you’re stuck with freezing in glass jars or buying containers just for freezing – if you do have to do that, get square shapes to save space.

Even if you have lots of room now, you might not later – check out how quickly I filled the new freezer I bought last summer off Craigslist, without moving one thing from my mini chest freezer:

full freezer of food

This was taken about ONE WEEK after we brought it home, thinking it would replace the other one – and now both of them are packed to the gills by the end of summer/fall and finally getting a little breathing room by May, when I start filling them up again with summer produce!!

If you don’t believe me that plastic bags take less space, try putting four cups of cooked beans into a quart jar and then into a quart bag. There’s no comparison, and you can stack bags super flat to maximize every square inch even more.

I do wash and reuse my zippered bags and get a few uses out of them, but they always get holes in them (or the zipper plays out) and then I have to pitch them.

One non-disposable FLAT alternative is neat-os reusable bags, which I’ve been testing out for the past month. I bet it took two weeks after I received my samples from the company to use them, because I wasn’t freezing much as far as produce this time of year, and if I did freeze anything, it seemed so long-term, and I wanted to be able to test out the bags in more than one way.

I finally realized I didn’t have to only use them in freezer (I know, I know, sometimes the darn simplest solutions escape me for weeks!) and suddenly, life changed.

Neat-Os reusable zippered bags (1)

Now the two sizes I have, the gallon and the produce bag (larger than a gallon) are practically never in the drawer because they’re in constant use. I found that I love them for washed fruit (see above) or our nightly raw cut veggies – the zipper is so easy to open and close and even my littlest ones can manage it, unlike a traditional zippered plastic bag, and it’s so durable that I just smash it into my produce drawer, rinse it out every 5-7 days or so when things get a little gooky, and keep filling it with more.

I’ve also used the larger bag for an entire pound-box of lettuce, seriously saving fridge space which is always at a premium, and the bags keep produce plenty fresh. I also slid a whole loaf pan of meatloaf into another one making it easy to store and saving dishes and time that I didn’t have to spend repackaging the loaf.

Neat-Os reusable zippered bags (2)

The very first use was for these popsicles for my daughter’s park birthday party – so easy to toss them in and serve the kids! I was hooked!

My one criticism is that the corners don’t fully and easily turn 100% inside out, so when you’re washing the bags it’s a little tricky to get crumbs or goo out of the corners (more of a problem with the smaller sandwich size bag). I’d put neat-os small bags at number three on my list of reusable sandwich bags, which is still above a lot of other brands – but the larger sizes are incomparable with anything I’ve seen on the market yet.

I would totally use them to freeze leftover produce, but I’d be hesitant to freeze meat or a whole meal in them because they’re not water-tight and I’d hate to have major leakage before something froze or as it thawed. They’re also not ideal for bread products for more than a day because they’re not airtight, although the uses for neat-os does list many bread products, so maybe it’s worth a try for a few days (just not long-term).

You can see through the bag without opening it, which is one advantage over just about every reusable snack bag we tested here:

Neat-Os reusable zippered bags

Here’s just a bit more about the product from the neat-os FAQs, for your information:

"neat-os are made of FDA certified food-safe materials. All materials have been certified as bisphenol-A (BPA)-free, phthalate-free, PVC-free, and lead free. The fabric is a cotton canvas that was designed for chefs and is coated in food safe plastic, that can withstand high temperatures and is non-abrasive, making it easy to clean lots of different ways."

They are washable by hand or dishwasher or washing machine…

Thanks to the company for sponsoring this post so I can share my best freezer tips and help you save more money and waste less time and food!!

Secrets to Freezing Leftovers

Cabbage Secret Superfood Soup

If you want to have a night off cooking without relying on take-out or doing a massive, exhausting freezer cooking day, doubling a meal and freezing half is definitely the way to go.

You just have to know what freezes okay. The best, never fail meals to freeze include:

Speaking of pasta and eggs, those are two very good examples of things that do NOT freeze well. (Saucy pasta dishes do okay, but plain pasta isn’t very nice).

Potatoes can also be hit and miss, usually depending on how much sauce is in the dish. For example, cream of potato soup freezes acceptably (be ready for the taters themselves to be mushy), but mashed potatoes lose a lot of moisture and many people don’t like the result. I don’t mind it, but you definitely sacrifice some quality.

Know when to lower your standards just slightly for the reheated finished product (and freeze in portions that you’ll use!) and you’ll be all good…

Set Realistic Thawing Expectations

peaches to freeze (1) (475x353)

Like any appliance, you can’t expect more out of your freezer than it’s designed for.

You wouldn’t be mad at your refrigerator if you pulled out month-old leftovers and they were totally nasty, but many people think it’s the freezer’s fault (or something other than themselves!) when they’re not happy with frozen food once they try to use it.

The key is to know what you’re going to end up with and set realistic thawing expectations.

  • Frozen veggies can’t be used raw, only cooked. (see more above)
  • Frozen fruit is awesome eaten frozen, great in cooked recipes, but will be mushy if you let it thaw naturally. Sometimes that’s ok (blueberries in yogurt), sometimes it’s not (apple slices maybe?). Sliced peaches (photo above) are amazing if you eat them still half frozen, like ice cream without the ice cream! Winking smile 

Whole Wheat Homemade English Muffins and Tortillas - productive morning

  • Some breads will need to be toasted or heated in order to be enjoyable because they’re likely to be a bit dry or crumbly otherwise (homemade tortillas, English muffins, pitas and flatbreads, cornbread, biscuits).

Easy Gluten-free Pumpkin Muffins

  • A whole loaf of yeast bread or quick bread freezes really well and can thaw to regular room-temp eating beauty. Very moist muffins (like the ones pictured above or these grain-free muffins) also do awesome and can be eaten without heating once completely thawed. Muffins on the dry side are another story.
  • Most cookies, if frozen right away when they’re fresh, thaw excellently and can be eaten without heating.
  • Be sure to follow the best practices for freezing, like getting all the air out of your bags, leaving headroom in glass jars, and freezing meals that will thaw nicely, and you’ll be happier with the results.

Bonus tip: If whatever you’re thawing might possibly leak – raw fruit, meat, leftovers in a zippered bag – please be smarter than me and put it in a bowl to thaw in the fridge. I’ve cleaned up too many raw meat juice messes to count, and I still don’t always learn my lesson!

Make Your List, And Check it Off (Not Twice)

Freezer List Organization

Hint: This might be THE most important tip!!!

With three freezers in the house used extensively, if I didn’t have lists of what’s in there, I’d be creating a landing pad for garbage instead of food storage and wasting a lot of my own money and time.

I personally think that freezer lists are vital and can’t imagine living without them. The photo above is an older one but shows how I keep it accessible – on the side of my fridge, with a pen for writing on the list and a permanent marker for writing on the food, all right there.

My newer system is seriously 3-4 pages, but it’s all organized by category: broth/stock, cooked beans, nuts, chicken, beef, pork, fruits, vegetables, baked goods, ready-to-eat meals, and miscellaneous. I use the printables that come as a bonus item with the purchase of my eBook Better Than a Box, and I’m more organized than ever!

Some of my family members who visit often will marvel at the fact that I can keep up with it and often say, "I could never do that; I’d forget to update it and it would be obsolete within weeks and not helpful anyway…"

I’m totally the opposite; I could never not do it. It’s not always easy to remember to update it, but after this many years, it’s totally second nature. I get something from the freezer, and it’s like not washing my hands after using the restroom until I’ve marked it off on my sheet. Usually I’ve already just looked at my list to see what I needed to go get anyway, so it’s sitting on the counter anyway.

It’s the same putting things in the freezer – if I set something in there and haven’t written it down, I have a foreboding feeling like "I’m going to forget all about that!" until it’s documented.

I don’t think there’s one perfect way, probably hundreds of methods that will work, but I do think you have to keep a list if you’ve got more freezer space than just what’s attached to your fridge.

I’d love to hear about how you organize and keep track of what’s in your freezer(s) and if you have some tips for how to remember to keep your lists current! Does anyone do it with technology?

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Disclosure: This post was sponsored by neat-os, but all opinions and tips are my own, of course. See my full disclosure statement here.


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22 Comments so far ↓

  • Lisa

    I don’t know why people say to blanch green beans before freezing? I came across a blog post where the author said she didn’t. So I’ve started putting them straight in the freezer after we bring them in from our garden. The taste and texture is just fine after defrosting and cooking.
    I love my freezer too! This post is very helpful to give me more ideas. :)

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Lisa, That’s great news! I say it because the other books say it ;) and because they’re sold frozen that way, but I’m SO all about the cheats! I’ll update the post…

    Thank you! :) Katie

  • Judy Stewart

    I sometimes freeze soft bananas for baking. They can’t be too soft. You need to catch them before mushy to freeze.

    The tip about the list is very interesting. My freezer is stuffed right now with who knows what. All of it is sealed nicely in opaque containers.

    Thanks for the info.

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Judy,
    You bet, and those are excellent in smoothies, too! Hope you can find everything in that freezer. :) Katie

    GingerBeachy Reply:

    My favorite was to use up bananas that we haven’t gotten to! We freeze them to add to our smoothies – makes them nice and thick without adding ice :)

  • Vikki K

    I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned nuts, seeds, grains and flours. Nuts and seeds and their flours will keep fresher for longer in the freezer and can be eaten or used straight from the freezer. In addition, if you are buying lots of bulk flours and grains, and they are not irradiated or sprayed with pesticide, then freezing will kill the bug eggs so you don’t get grubs and moths the week after you buy your oats/rice/chia. SO glad to get a freezer this past weekend myself so I can fit my big containers in!

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Vikki,
    I do keep all my nuts (opened at least, and made “crispy” by soaking and dehydrating) in the freezer along with all my flours…I should just make an entirely comprehensive list of “what’s in there?” to share with readers! ;) Sticking to five tips was tough, but the post got long enough… :) Katie

    Vikki K Reply:

    That explains it!

  • AshleyB

    I should be better about keeping a list, but my biggest thing right now is labeling *before* it goes in the freezer! I so often think ‘I’ll remember what it is’, only to pull it out a few weeks later and not having a clue! (other than recalling my original thought of ‘I’ll remember…’) I’ve gotten better at tearing off a little piece of tape for containers or writing directly on the baggie–what it is, with month and year it’s going in :)

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Ashley,
    Having that marker on hand is key! Bethany is even good at marking what’s in her fridge like this: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2014/05/19/monday-mission-upgrade-your-food-labeling-organization/

    :) Katie

  • Veee

    I put a whiteboard (actually adhesive backed sheets of white board stuff) on my freezer. When I put something in I write it down, put tick marks for the quantity, location, and date. When I remove something, I just erase a tick mark or the item if that was the last of it. Easy Peasy.

  • Amy

    I disagree about freezing mashed potatoes. I buy potatoes & sweet potatoes in bulk when they are super cheap around Thanksgiving/Christmas. I then plan a day to cook, season, mash & freeze them. I usually make enough to last until next November! My family can’t tell the difference between the fresh and frozen.

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Amy,
    Good to know! I bet the secret is making sure you have enough moisture both before freezing and then adding a little afterward, do you think? Thanks for the good tip! (I do freeze mashed potatoes but just figured my standards might be lower than some) ;) Katie

    Amy Reply:

    Moisture is definitely the key to good frozen mashed potatoes. I add extra milk & butter to the ones that I freeze. It took some practice to perfect them, but it was definitely worth it!

  • Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    These are great tips! I love having meals in the freezer to pull out on nights dinner just isn’t happening. I agree that keeping a list is the best tip. Before I did that, I had waste – now I don’t. Thanks for the post!

  • Cindy

    so interesting!!!! I am new to freezing (honestly, you were my inspiration and then an 1/8th of a cow came up for grabs and the rest is history!) and I just threw a bunch of asparagus in the freezer w/o blanching – is it okay?
    also, we are still working out of our attached freezer (ahh!) so I’m headed to craigslist now to look for another. thanks for the tip :)

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Hey Cindy – way to go! The asparagus is fine safety-wise, but it won’t taste as good as if you’d blanched it. Maybe use in soup or something else where it doesn’t have to be the star of the show? Good luck on CL! :) Katie

  • Audrey W.

    I have to disagree about the need to blanch green beans. I have a large (2000 + square foot) garden and have grown green beans for the past 8 years, so I know from experience (in other words mistakes) what veggies really do need to be blanched and green beans are one. There is some sort of enzyme (if I’m remembering correctly) that is neutralized by blanching. If green beans are not blanched, the enzyme is not neutralized and they taste HORRIBLE! I’d really hate for folks to make the mistake of not blanching them!

    Kresha Reply:

    Then, out of curiosity, why do they taste so good raw? Is there something that happens to that enzyme in the freezing? Hm… I’ll have to research that one. :)

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Interesting! Thank you for sharing! :) Katie

  • Kim

    I have a different system for organizing my two full-sized upright freezers: The contents are arranged from top to bottom, left to right, and front to back by *date.* With a few special locations for certain items, also organized by date. For me, this keeps similar foods together, because it is all seasonal. Frozen meals have a special place (because they aren’t seasonal.) And the dog food is separate.

    Now I do keep track on paper of how many pounds of meat I purchase in bulk. That’s for making calculations for how much to buy next year for my growing family.

    My tip: Use boxes in an upright freezer, for keeping meats stacked well. I’ve heard that boxes are also helpful in a chest freezer, so you can lift out a box and access what’s underneath it.

    Another tip: When buying a freezer for long-term storage, get a *manual* defrost, which holds a continual deep freeze. The “frost-free” types warm up just a bit, daily, to keep ice from forming. The warmer cycles are not helpful for long storage of frozen foods.

    Thanks for your post. Very helpful. Especially about the bags.

  • Kelly

    FWIW, I never blanch anything. Specifically, I freeze carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, cabbage, greens, I can’t think what else. Just chop it up and throw it in the freezer. However, I cook all my veggies til very soft, and like them that way. That may make a difference.

Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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