This post is from KS contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with freezer-inventorying and photography assistance from her son Nicholas Efran, age 13.
As I started getting more serious about eating real food, I kept hearing, “Just freeze it!” Even Katie swears by her freezer stash!
That seemed to be the secret to stocking up on fruits and vegetables in season, cooking in big batches, making our own convenience foods to eat at busier times, keeping bulk-purchased nuts fresh until we use them, and putting aside leftovers while we’re on vacation.
Most food bloggers speak of freezing so casually that you feel they must have a gigantic deep-freeze or at least something beyond the little freezer compartment of the refrigerator.
Well, I don’t have an extra freezer. My family and I do a lot of home cooking and freeze some of it for later, and we also rely on frozen convenience foods for a small part of our diet, but we make our fridge-freezer work for us!
Our strategies for using all the food and staying organized are effective, no matter how much freezer space you have! Let’s talk about some things to consider when you’re deciding whether or not to buy an extra freezer. Then I’ll explain how to practice good kitchen stewardship with any size freezer.
The Costs of an Extra Freezer: Money and Pollution
Looking at the array of freezers on Amazon, I see that a freestanding freezer that holds 3-6 cubic feet can be bought new for under $200. (My refrigerator’s freezer compartment is 4.11 cubic feet. To measure yours, use a yardstick to measure height, width, and depth inside the freezer; multiply these numbers together, and divide by 1728.)
Getting some extra freezer space doesn’t mean you have to buy a freezer as big as your refrigerator! A smaller one that would double your total freezer space might be enough. Smaller freezers cost less to buy and use less electricity.
If you’re buying a freezer, you probably do want to invest in a new one–or a used freezer that is only a few years old–because improvements in technology make newer freezers about twice as energy-efficient as those built in the twentieth century. Here’s a handy calculator that estimates how much energy a freezer will use.
That calculator doesn’t get very specific about freezer size, but it says that a new chest freezer smaller than 16.5 cubic feet uses about 292 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year. At the average American electricity price, that costs $35.33, so adding a small freezer to your home adds about $3 per month to your electric bill.
What about the environmental impact?
- Two-thirds of electricity in the United States is generated by burning fuel, which produces air pollution that contributes to respiratory illnesses, global climate change, and acid rain that harms our food crops and acidifies our water, increasing our risk of lead poisoning. Many power plants also discharge water pollution and hot water that harms fish.
- Nuclear power plants pollute the air much less, but storing nuclear waste is a long-term problem that only gets bigger.
- Solar, wind, and water power are cleaner but do have some impacts. (However, windmills kill far fewer birds than are killed by cats, windows, or cars!)
Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Power Profiler to learn about the environmental impact of electricity generation in your local area.
I found a bunch of different estimates of how much pollution is released for every kWh produced by a coal-burning power plant, but all of the estimates were between 1 and 2 pounds. So if it’s 1.5 pounds, adding a small freezer to your home adds 438 pounds of pollution per year to our environment.
That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? If you picture a mound of black dust the size of 3 adults, blowing into the air, that seems like a very irresponsible thing to do!
But you have to consider the environmental and financial impact of the appliance compared to what you would do instead. If you have more freezer space, will you buy food in larger packages, reducing plastic waste and spending less per serving? Will you freeze locally-grown vegetables when they’re in season so that less food has to be trucked into your area from far away? Will you stock up when frozen foods are on sale so that you spend less on the same food? Will you be motivated to do more home cooking–instead of spending money on take-out and throwing away all that packaging–when you can double the recipe and freeze half?
These questions are complicated, and calculating the environmental impact of each decision is even more complicated! Don’t take it for granted that you need a big freezer to be a real-food family, but think about what makes sense for your household’s needs.
Why We Don’t Have an Extra Freezer
My family has decided, so far, that we don’t need an extra freezer. Here’s why:
- There are only 4 of us, and we rarely host large gatherings at home.
- Although we eat a lot of frozen foods and store some ingredients in the freezer, we feel that the limited space helps us to be disciplined about not over-buying and not letting things hang around in suspended animation forever.
- Limited freezer capacity helps motivate us to eat lots of fresh veggies and fruit when they’re in season. We do save some for later, but we can’t go crazy with it.
- We have a general tendency to accumulate clutter, and we’ve seen how this tendency has played out with relatives who have more storage space. It was fun drinking grape juice my great-grandmother bought before I was born, but that kind of thing should be a rare novelty! We’re wary of keeping a bunch of frozen food for years without getting around to eating it!
- We don’t want to waste electricity, space, or organizational energy on an appliance we don’t really need.
- My friend Laura bought a house that came with a gigantic chest freezer. She’s happy to store things for us indefinitely! So when big bags of frozen spinach ravioli go on sale at Costco, we buy several and stash them in Laura’s freezer. Then I have an excuse to go over and see her every once in a while. 🙂
What we strive to do is make efficient use of our refrigerator’s freezer. We take a complete freezer inventory, and then we use a list to keep track of what we have.
When and How to Do a Freezer Inventory
Whenever your freezer gets out of control so that you’re not sure what’s in it, it’s time for a freezer inventory!
We do it about once a year, maybe even less often when we’ve been good about keeping an accurate list of the freezer contents.
Our old list was really smudgy and had a lot of things crossed out or preceded by “0” to indicate that they’d been used up. It was hard to read. If that were the only problem, I would just have rewritten the list!
But I knew that this list was not an accurate representation of the actual contents of the freezer. Somebody had bought more frozen vegetables and not added them to the list, and somebody had eaten some frozen meals and not crossed them out! And I had defrosted that pumpkin hummus in hopes that somebody would eat it (about 10% got eaten; we won’t make that recipe again!) so I had only myself to blame for it still being on the list.
Furthermore, the freezer looked dirty. Coffee grounds and tiny flecks of kale were all over the shelves. That may not really matter hygienically, but a messy freezer is dispiriting to look into when you’re trying to get inspired for meal preparation.
It’s hard to arrange a small and nearly-full freezer so that you can see what all the things are. But we try to have general areas for general categories of food, and those had gotten somewhat mixed up as we crammed stuff in wherever it fit!
Take Everything Out and See What You Have
Although the photos show subgroups of our freezer contents, we really did take everything out at once. You want to clean the freezer while it’s empty–just wipe with a damp cloth, maybe a little soap for sticky spots, but minimize the liquid because you’ll have to wipe it all off before it freezes onto the surfaces.
As my son Nicholas took things out of the freezer, I wrote down what he found. The list you see here is just the stuff I thought we were going to keep–although he talked me into throwing away the baking chocolate after I was unable to recall when we bought it or why! On the other end of the paper, I noted what we were throwing away.
Start putting things back into the freezer as soon as possible. Use your list as a reference for what you have, instead of letting the food thaw while you ponder it! Sort into categories and put similar things together. Try to place items so the labels face outward.
Could You Eat Some of It Right Away?
We decided to use some of the food in meals that day and the next:
- I thawed the grated carrot and cooked it into oatmeal the next morning. Mmm, carrot-cake flavor!
- I thawed the zucchini and made a batch of Whole-Wheat Zucchini Bread.
- I used the breadcrumbs in an experimental lasagna-type casserole. It tasted great, but the texture was too mushy, so I won’t make that again.
- We had some of the Nutshroom Burgers (homemade veggie burgers) and all of the fries for dinner the next night and more burgers for lunches. (Normally I don’t buy pre-made potato products or non-organic potatoes–but we got those fries free with a Target coupon!)
- Nicholas cooked the gnocchi for his lunch…and then he found that they were too gummy to eat, so he cooked the enchilada meal.
- I cooked the mozzarella sticks for my lunch but threw away the packet of marinara sauce that came with them. Nicholas had talked me into buying these cheese sticks “buy one, get one free,” months ago, but when we cooked the first box he admitted that they weren’t very good, and we all agreed the sauce was disgustingly sweet. Marinara sauce should contain little to no sugar, let alone corn syrup! Lesson learned about processed foods!
Eliminate Antiques and Mysteries
I’m no stickler for sell-by dates. I used my homemade frozen shredded vegetables that had been frozen more than a year, and they were just fine. But there comes a time when frozen foods just aren’t good anymore, especially if they’ve been stored a long time in an open package. Here’s what we threw away:
- Yeast. We had no plans for baking anything with yeast, and if we did we’d want fresh yeast.
- Edam cheese. A friend who was staying with us in 2014 bought this and used half. I froze the other half thinking I’d “use it in something someday,” but I hadn’t, and it looked really freezer-burned.
- Decaffeinated coffee. I remembered opening the packet to make a cup for my cousin Audrey years ago, so the remaining coffee would probably taste like freezer, even if we could find anyone who wanted decaf! (I later mentioned it to Audrey, who told me she was here in 2008! Gee. I guess in previous freezer inventories, I thought, “That will come in handy someday…”)
- Grated eggplant. Two summers ago, I was frantically preserving food before a vacation, and we had a whole eggplant. I thought if I grated and froze it, then I could…um…well, I recall that I thawed out the other bag and roasted it on a cookie sheet with a lot of paprika and made something nobody wanted to eat on crackers at coffee hour.
- Basil and parsley that I froze in 2013 because for some reason I thought that would be better than drying them. It wasn’t because I kept forgetting they were there! (Lori’s salt preserved method might have worked better for us.)
- Mystery sauce. We have no memory of what that packet is! But it looks like one of those sauces that comes inside a package of some frozen food…and if we didn’t eat it with that food, we must not like it…and packaged sauces tend to be unhealthy…so why did we save it?!
Purge the Ice Cubes
We’ve never had an ice-maker, so I can’t advise on how to clean that. But if you use manually-filled ice-cube trays, some of the cubes sit around for a while and get a stale flavor. A freezer inventory is a good time to dump out all the ice, wash the trays, and start over.
Make Your Freezer List
After you’ve got your freezer all neat and clean and organized, make a clean copy of your list of frozen foods, organizing it in a way that makes sense to you. Nicholas printed out a special paper with a heading!
Why have a list?
So that you can see what’s in the freezer without holding the door open and digging around in there! In cold weather, it’s nice not to be handling frozen stuff. In hot weather, humidity condenses on the contents of your freezer, getting moisture into the packages so that crystals form, damaging the flavor and texture of foods.
You know I like to keep it simple, so I’ve already organized by category for you: broth/stock, cooked beans, nuts, chicken, beef, pork, fruits, vegetables, baked goods, ready-to-eat meals, and miscellaneous.
Maintain Your Freezer Inventory List!
The only way a freezer list can work is if it accurately represents what is in the freezer. Try making your first list on very bright-colored paper so it gets your attention whenever you open the freezer. All family members will have to get into these habits:
- Whenever you use up a frozen food, take it off the list.
- Whenever you buy a frozen food, add it to the list.
- Whenever you freeze a food that was fresh or refrigerated, add it to the list.
We note when we have multiple packages of a food, and when we use one, we erase the number and write the new number. This prevents us from thinking we’ve thawed the last pound of butter when there’s actually another one hiding behind the coffee.
For veggie burgers, the list says how many of each flavor are in the freezer. This helps with meal planning because each family member will eat a burger–if we don’t have at least 4 burgers, we can’t plan a family meal of burgers.
Another tip for meal planning: If there’s only a little bit of a food left, write “<” in front of it. I won’t plan green beans as our side dish for dinner if there aren’t enough green beans for everyone. Instead, I’ll plan a meal like Sunflower Pasta Salad that uses odds and ends of assorted vegetables.
Categorize the Freezer Inventory List
The list is in categories because that makes it easier to read than if we just kept adding new stuff at the bottom. Leave space between categories for adding new stuff.
Different categories might work for you. These are mine:
- Family-sized main-dish foods: (I spelled “clam chowdah” that way because my friend Barbara made it, and that’s how she labeled it. Swai is a mild white fish–but when I looked up information about it just now, I found recent reports saying it’s high in toxins! I’d already promised to buy a different type of fish next time, since Nicholas does not like swai’s soft texture.)
- Ingredients: like butter and .
- Veggie burgers: I noticed when I was reviewing the photos that “soysages” were in the freezer but not on the list–I fixed that! These are sausage-style patties made mostly from soy protein. We usually make or buy soy-free burgers, but the whole family loves the taste of these, so I give in once in a while.
- Frozen individual meals: We sometimes make these for ourselves, but at the moment we only had packaged ones.
What’s NOT on the List?
You can see a few things in the “after” pictures of my freezer that aren’t on my list. These are the things we “always” have in the freezer, so they don’t need to be on the list.
Ice cubes and ice packs truly are always in our freezer.
Coffee is more complicated. We store ground coffee in the freezer because my partner Daniel thinks it stays fresher that way. But we buy whole-bean coffee and keep it in the pantry.
He is supposed to keep us stocked up with a small amount of ground coffee so that when I decide to make coffee, I don’t have to grind it. Sometimes he forgets to do that, so there’s actually no coffee in the freezer. Sometimes we’re given flavored coffee that’s pre-ground, so we have multiple bags of coffee in the freezer. I guess you could say it’s not on the list because we all agree it’s not on the list….
Then there’s that packet in the top right corner of the freezer door, fastened with a binder clip. That is the mixture of grated cheese and seasonings that come with frozen ravioli. Only 2 of 4 family members like this topping, and they don’t use it every time they eat the ravioli, so we always have extra; it’s always there in case they want it, so that’s why it isn’t on the list…but now that I’m explaining myself in public, that actually seems very inconsistent, and I want to go write it on the list!
A Few Tips for Freezing Foods
Keep labeling supplies nearby so you have no excuse for not labeling things! I use a permanent marker to write on freezer bags. For other containers and bags that already have a lot of writing on them, I use masking tape.
Ink and adhesive need to be applied to dry surfaces or they won’t stick–if condensation has formed on the surface you want to label, wipe with a dry towel. It’s easiest to label a bag before you put food into it, if possible.
Always mark the date on homemade frozen foods. You might also want to mark packaged foods with the date you opened them. This helps you to be informed if a food might be past its prime and to use the oldest one first.
Zip-top bags don’t always stay closed like they should! Rubber bands and strong spring-loaded clips (like binder clips) work well for holding bags closed. We’ve given up on using clothespins because the top end sticking up from the bag often catches on another bag or the wire shelving and slides the clip off. Tape also comes undone easily.
The liner bags from boxes of cereal or crackers make great freezer bags! Reusing them helps the environment and your budget.