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
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*
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
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:
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.
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.
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:
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
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:
- refried beans
- most sauces
- very moist casseroles
- cooked meat – cook up a bunch of ground beef or homemade sausage to use in quick pasta meals or egg scrambles in the morning
- homemade chicken nuggets
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
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!
- 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).
- 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)
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?
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by neat-os, but all opinions and tips are my own, of course. See my full disclosure statement here.