Like to eat healthy and save money on your food bill? Then you should be taking full advantage of your freezer.
Sure, an ice-cold box might not be as sexy as your high-speed blender. But it’s the thing that lets you stock prepped meals or ingredients far in advance, so you always have something good at the ready. Plus, it helps you avoid food waste: If you know you won’t finish that pot of black bean soup before it goes bad, just stick it in the freezer for later.
The only problem? Food that’s delicious pre-freeze can sometimes come out pretty nasty. Improper storage exposes frozen food to air, which creates a dry or mealy texture, explains Institute of Culinary Education chef instructor Frank Proto. It can also cause individual items to form a rock hard clump that takes forever to thaw out.
None of these things should deter you from taking full advantage of your freezer though. With a little know-how, it’s easy to freeze foods and still have them taste great. (Most of the time, anyway.) Here’s exactly how to do it.
Gather Your Tools
Having the right storage items makes freezing easy and helps your food stay fresher longer. Proto recommends keeping these on hand:
- Freezer-safe reusable containers with tight-fitting lids. Use smaller ones for packing up individual servings and bigger ones for full-size dishes, like casseroles. If you plan to reheat in the containers, go for ones that are heatproof. “I’m a big fan of Glasslock and OXO food containers, which are great for freezing and reheating,” says registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist Jessica Levinson.
- Aluminum foil baking dishes. These are also great for casseroles, especially when you need something disposable.
- Zip-top bags. Since they lay flat, they’ll take up minimal space in your freezer.
- Plastic wrap and heavy-duty aluminum foil. Both are good for adding an extra layer of protection against air, which can help prevent freezer burn.
- Erasable freezer labels. Labeling your food helps you identify it later. These Container Store labels are reusable and dishwasher-safe, Levinson says.
Pack Your Food the Right Way
Storing food for freezing isn’t rocket science, but not everything should be packed up exactly the same way. For the best freezer meals, here’s how you should pack:
- Casseroles: Store them in the dish you plan to bake them in. (If the dish doesn’t come with an airtight lid, wrap the dish tightly in plastic wrap followed by a layer of foil.) Pack them up uncooked, then transfer them straight to the oven when you’re ready to bake, says Lindsay Ahrens, co-author of Fix, Freeze, Feast. Thawing first can mess with the texture.
- Proteins: Wrap things like individually cooked chicken breasts tightly in plastic wrap first, followed by a layer of heavy-duty foil. “You’re wrapping the actual product so there aren’t any air gaps,” Proto says. “That can help prevent spoilage.”
- Bread: Store it just like proteins, Proto recommends. For an extra layer of protection, tuck the wrapped loaf into a large zip-top bag.
- Soups and stews: Store them in single-serve freezer-safe containers for quick reheating. Or use a larger container if you’d rather freeze the full batch (like for a potluck), Ahrens says. For faster thawing, stick the container (with the lid on) in a pot of very warm water.
- Cooked grains and beans: Portion them out in individual containers or in zip-top bags. (For extra protection, double-layer the bags.) The method you choose is just a matter of personal preference. Reusable containers are zero-waste. But the baggies will store flat and take up less room in the freezer, Proto says.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables: Lay individual pieces on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze, then transfer to a zip-top bag. Freezing the pieces individually will keep clumps from forming, so you don’t end up with a giant berry or pea ice block, Proto says. It’s fine to freeze fresh fruit raw. For veggies, blanch them first so they’re already cooked when you defrost them.
Track Your Inventory
Foods can be harder to recognize in their frozen state, especially if your cold box is stocked with lots of different dishes. So before sticking anything in the freezer, make sure to:
- Label what the food is. Self-explanatory—but important!
- Label the date when you stored it. After about three months, even properly stored food will start to lose its texture and flavor, Ahrens says.
- Keep a list of what you have. A sheet of paper on the fridge or a note on your phone will help you remember exactly what’s in there, so you can use it up while it’s still in its prime. If it’s been a while and you need to do a cleanout, have friends over for a freezer potluck, Proto says.
Foods You Should Never Freeze
Not everything is meant for icy cold storage. “Freezing causes chemical changes in food, and some foods can’t withstand the freezing temperatures and still be palatable,” Ahrens says. Consider keeping these foods in the fridge instead.
- Lettuce, cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, or other veggies you plan to eat raw (store tomatoes at room temp for the best flavor and texture)
- Apples or citrus fruits
- Whole eggs or egg dishes, like frittatas or quiches
- Milk, yogurt, or soft cheeses (hard cheeses are OK!)
- Creamy sauces
- Cooked pasta
More Pro Tips
You’ve got the basics down, but this next-level knowledge is worth keeping in mind.
- Start with quality food. In other words, stuff that’s fresh—or at least not on the verge of spoiling. “If it’s almost garbage in the freezer, it’ll still be that way when you take it out,” Proto says.
- Cool foods completely before freezing them. Sticking still-warm food in your icebox warms up the whole freezer, Proto says. That can cause food already in the freezer to thaw (and eventually refreeze), which will ruin its texture.
- Consider freezing individual ingredients. Think tomato sauce, chopped onions or garlic, or pre-grated cheeses like cheddar. It’ll help you get a jump on meal prep whenever you’re ready to cook, Ahrens says.