By Dr. Nina Radcliff
Generally speaking, healthier eating is made a lot easier when we have good options readily available. Last week, we spotlighted what essentials should be in our refrigeration. This week, we will discuss our freezers – and next week we’ll take a look at the pantry – all in an effort to support a year (and lifetime) of healthy eating.
Can you imagine the process of food storage before refrigerators and freezers became a household item in the 20th century? People would cool food with snow and ice found locally or brought from the mountains! Often, ice cellars were made by digging holes into the ground and placing the ice or snow into them.
Today, with our busy pace of life, we are happy to turn to our freezer for help. Whether your freezer is part of your fridge or a stand-alone appliance, it is a valuable extension of your pantry. Not only does proper freezing help to reduce food waste, it can also retain flavor and important nutrients as well as save time and money.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: A Freezer That Helps Support Healthy Eating
Lean meats: Keeping lean meats—boneless chicken breasts, chicken tenders, ground turkey, fish fillets, shrimp, and lean ground beef—in the freezer is an excellent strategy to always have something in the house to cook in a pinch.
But take steps to avoid freezer burn—when air dries out the surface of foods and toughens the texture. This can be done by wrapping meats (and other food items) in airtight packaging. There are a number of vacuum-sealed devices that can be purchased to assist with this. However, you can also do this by pressing the wrapping directly up against the meat and by adding a second layer of protection such as aluminum foil; or placing the items in a re-sealable plastic freezer bag.
Nuts and seeds: Despite being bite-size, they are chock-filled with protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. However, because of their high fat content, they can become rancid when stored on countertops or in the pantry. Freezing nuts and seeds is a great way to extend the storage life and have them ready and available when you want.
These items can be easily stored in a plastic freezer bag or even the original bag that they came in (this way they are already labeled). And, too, they can be frozen either shelled or unshelled; chopped, un-chopped or ground; and salted or unsalted. When you are ready to use them, they can be thawed on a counter top usually within 10 minutes. And if you are using nuts and seeds for cooking or baking, you can just toss them into the pot or bowl, as is, without thawing.
Cooked Whole Grains
Whole grains—such as oats, quinoa, barley, bulgur–contain all parts of the original kernel and are a good source of plant-based protein, fiber, and other nutrients. Unfortunately, it takes time to cook whole grains and they spoil quickly. Fortunately, they freeze beautifully and thaw quickly. Experts recommend freezing them in small batches so they can be easily warmed up for meals, as needed.
Cheese, both shredded and in blocks, can become forgotten and moldy. While there are those who oppose the idea, some advocate that freezing cheese is a great method to maintain an always ready stock for cooking purposes. Generally speaking, the taste is preserved, however, the texture may be affected. So while thawed, cheese may not be suitable for snacking on with crackers, but is great for garnishing and spicing up our meals such as stews, sauces, casseroles, or pizza. Try cutting into ½ or 1 pound blocks or shredding to facilitate easy thawing and convenient portion sizes.
Veggies: Having an assortment of frozen vegetables makes it more likely that every meal we prepare is paired up with a serving. And, too, buying already chopped veggies in re-sealable freezer bags can help cut down on prep time; they are usually picked at their prime, meaning more flavor and nutrients than out of season ones; and most do not have added salt like canned vegetables. Add to that, depending on the recipe, thawing may not be required–you may be able to just add to the pot or pan.
There are a number of awesome options when it comes to freezing fruit–from grapes to berries to bananas. With bananas, choose ripe or overripe ones (they are sweeter), peel them, and slice into desired size, or place skewers/toothpicks in them.
And, to avoid these items from sticking to one another, spread them onto a baking sheet and place them in the freezer. Once solid, they can be transferred to a re-sealable bag or a freezer friendly container. Frozen bananas and berries are great to add to smoothies or can be eaten alone.
Prepared Meals, Sauces, Stews and Leftovers
While there are many prepared dishes that can be frozen to eat at a later date, soups, stews, chili, and sauces are some popular ones that come to mind. These items often take considerable time to prepare and, as a result, are often done in “bulk.” By freezing them, we can avoid eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, several days in a row. And, too, they can also be strategically pulled out to add variety in the middle of the week or help in a pinch.
Before freezing your meal, make sure it cools down to room temperature. And choose a container that has some space at the top. Liquids expand when frozen and this can result in the liquid freezing to the lid or cracking the glass. And take into account portion sizes—this way you will not have to thaw more than you need.
In closing, it is important to use the right packaging gear and select the right temperature to properly freeze foods.
- Select containers and wraps designed for the freezer (most are marked); they are thick enough to keep moisture in and freezer odors out. Thinner sandwich bags and regular kitchen wrap―even when doubled up―are not durable enough to withstand the big chill and properly insulate your foods.
- Whenever possible, pack food in small containers. Large portions in large containers freeze more slowly. The faster food freezes, the fresher it will taste when it’s thawed.
- Also, if the temperature is not set correctly, freezer burn can change the taste and texture of your foods and bacteria can grow, potentially causing food poisoning. Experts recommend setting the temperature to 0o F (-18o C) or lower.
- Mark what you place in the freezer with a date, what the item is, and any related expirations
Making the most of your freezer with yummy, favorite, healthy options will serve you well – it can help save time and actually revolutionize meal-making — enjoy!!
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.