Your Guide to Freezing (and Thawing) Food

Short on friends at the moment? Warm up to your freezer! Your freezer does something miraculous—something no human friend can do (silly humans): it can nearly stop the clock on your food’s life! It is the fountain of food youth, conveniently presenting you with a perfectly preserved meal from weeks ago.

Your freezer helps manage your time and menu, it declutters your fridge, it nourishes you at a moment’s notice, it listens to your problems, and it carries no threat of virus transmission. What a luxury. But it can also help you significantly cut your food waste, saving you money and doing good for the world. 

In this post:

  • Basic freezer tips — best practices in freezing
  • Start freezing these things — items to move from your pantry and refrigerator to your freezer
  • The positive to being negative
    • Cooked food: rule of thumb — when and what to freeze
    • Optimism bias — how optimism bias plays into the food we waste
    • If in doubt, go the frozen route — default to the freezer
    • Take the shortcut — freezing saves time and energy
  • Takeaways

Basic freezer tips

An open freezer that stores ice, frozen berries, and ice cream

Many of us reserve our freezer for frozen food like ice cream and hot pockets, leaving it an empty cavern of icy air. When you rarely interact with your freezer, it can feel impossible to reduce food waste at home.

Rather than reserving your freezer for already-icy things, use it to hold any food from your fridge or countertop that won’t be eaten right away: your bread, chinese takeout, bananas, homemade casserole, apple pie, tomato sauce… even guacamole. Here are some basic freezer tips to get the ball rolling:

  • Divide bulk food into serving-sized portions to freeze. It’ll be much easier to reheat as needed.
  • Use ice cube trays to freeze sauces, hummus, pestos, tomato paste, and guacamole.
    • Your guacamole’s texture might change slightly, but freezing is a good way to prevent browning and waste. This is also a great way to preserve avocados if you have too many—make them into guacamole to freeze. To thaw, leave it overnight in the fridge.
  • Keep your freezer full, but not jam-packed. A full freezer is more energy-efficient than an empty one, but air needs to circulate. As with your refrigerator, keep the air vents unblocked.
  • Keep your food wrapped tightly and sealed to prevent freezer burn. Fill your containers nearly to the top while leaving room for the food to expand. Repackage pre-packaged food as you work your way through it.
  • Use airtight containers to preserve color and flavor if you’re likely to freeze food for long periods of time. Glass and stainless steel are great for plastic-free packaging.

Chopped vegetables in a glass jar
Photo by Kim Daniels on Unsplash
  • Use glass jars to freeze food and liquid: Cutting down on plastic is an important part of a low-waste lifestyle, and reusing your jam jars is economic and non-toxic. Contrary to what many believe, it’s perfectly fine to freeze food in glass, with a few precautions:
    • Leave about an inch of space at the top of the jar, and the lid screwed loosely on. Your food, especially liquids, will expand as they freeze. Once frozen, you can tighten the lid.
    • Opt for wide-mouth jars: the contents are easier to get out later and there’s more room for expansion.
    • Be mindful as you pack and open your freezer—no one wants broken glass on the floor! 
    • Thawing frozen glass jars in hot water may cause them to break, so plan ahead and stick them in the fridge to defrost overnight. 
    • Unless you’re using canning jars, it’s best to let scalding-hot food cool a bit before filling your jars, to avoid thermal shock. Avoid letting your food cool on the counter for over two hours—use your fridge instead.  

Start freezing these things

Converting your freezer into a permanent home for certain staples is a simple and rewarding adjustment (you’ll save so much bread from molding!) Nuts, grains, spices, and any dry good that you typically think of as shelf-stable are still vulnerable to time, temperature, moisture, and sniffing pests.

Sliced loaf of bread
Photo by Mariana Kurnyk on Pexels
  • Bread: freeze it!! Slice your loaf before freezing. Toast the slices to thaw, or let sit at room temperature.
    • If you like the texture of untoasted bread, keep a portion of a loaf on your counter and the rest in your freezer.
    • You’ll be surprised how quickly bread defrosts at room temperature. If you remove a slice from the freezer and let it sit for around half an hour in a bag, it’ll be perfectly fresh.
    • I also tend to store bread in my fridge, since my freezer gets full. I have not noticed moisture loss in the fridge, as some do. Beware though: although the fridge slows the growth of mold, it doesn’t prevent it. Once food is out of the freezer, don’t doddle with the eating. 
    • Bread butts: If you don’t like eating the hind quarters of your bread loaf (they’re great toasted, though!), collect them in a designated container in your freezer. When you’re ready, defrost them in your oven and throw them in the food processor to make breadcrumbs.
    • You can freeze other breadlike products like tortillas, baked goods, and raw flour. These are some of the few frozen items that can be thawed at room temperature. 
  • Nuts: nuts can go rancid pretty easily. Even if stored in air-tight containers and in a dry, dark place, time is not their friend. If you don’t think you’ll get to your nuts quickly, freeze them! Refrigerating is a temporary solution as well. Thaw frozen nuts in the fridge, at room temperature, or through cooking.
  • Butter, hard cheeses, and shredded cheese: Freeze them! Soft cheese may not fare as well in the freezer. Thaw in the fridge.
  • Milk: if you don’t drink a lot of milk, you may find it spoils before you’ve finished the bottle. Freezing milk is a great option if you intend on baking or cooking with it. Thaw frozen milk in the fridge. If you drink thawed milk directly, you may notice a difference in texture. 
    • Note: for your refrigerated milk, avoid storing it on your fridge door, where it is subject to fluctuating temperatures. Keep it within the fridge and preferably in the lower-half, where it’s cooler. 
  • Eggs: Eggs can last a while in the fridge, but if you’re worried you won’t get to them within 5-6 weeks, you can freeze them. Freezing them in the shell can cause the shell to crack as the liquids expand: divide your eggs based on how many you’ll use at once when you’re ready to defrost them, crack them into containers, and whisk the whites and yolks together within each container. Put these in the freezer. Thaw in the fridge.
Frosty berries
Photo by Devin Rajaram on Unsplash

  • Fruit: Freeze cut fruit that may soon be overripe. Use them in smoothies, “nice cream,” or add them to dessert or breakfast. If you have the luxury of a wide and spacious freezer, spread your chopped fruit on a tray, let freeze, and package them into containers once frozen. 
  • Veggies: Freeze your vegetables for soups, sauces, or stir fries. Thaw in the fridge or through cooking.
    • To prevent vegetables from becoming mushy or discolored in the freezer, steam or blanch them (dunk them briefly in boiling water, then transfer to ice water) to retard enzyme action. Onions and peppers are exceptions and can be frozen raw. 
  • Ginger and spices: you can store a partially-used ginger root in the freezer. Pull it out and grate it as you need. 
    • The freezer is also a good place for dried herbs and spices, as they tend to lose their flavor over time. They like cold, dry storage—but where do we often see them kept? Right next to the stove! Especially if you have a bountiful array of spices, or if you cook less often, best to move them to the freezer. The fridge is also a good option.
  • Herbs: it’s unfortunate that herbs are usually sold by the bundle. If you’re not making a party-sized batch of pico de gallo, it’s easy to let half your cilantro go to waste. Freeze your herbs by adding them to ice cube trays and pouring olive oil or water over them. Add the frozen cubes to your cooking as needed. Alternatively, you can hang-dry your herbs, crush, and store them. 
  • Food scrap treasure box: collect edible food scraps like leftover herbs, broccoli stems, lemon rind, carrot stems, and vegetable peels in a container in your freezer. When the container’s full, use this flavorful assemblage to make soup, stock, or sauce! Thaw in the fridge or through cooking.

The positive to being negative

A spread of prepared food, including pizza, falafel, Indian food, salad, and desserts
Photo by Cristiano Pinto on Unsplash

Cooked food: Rule of thumb

Accurately estimating how much food you will eat in the coming week is a learned skill. And when it comes to reducing your food waste, it takes trial and error and mindful observation. 

Here’s a simple rule of thumb for how to reduce the amount of cooked food, or “leftovers” wasted at home:

Identify what you think you’ll eat in the next three days. Freeze the rest! 

Optimism bias

A three-day cutoff may sound short, but that’s because we tend to be overly hopeful about how productive we’ll be with our future endeavors. No matter how much evidence we have from the past that we will not single-handedly finish a pot of pasta before it spoils, we are still inclined to believe that this time we will. 

As you plan your meals for the week, grocery shop, and select what to put in your freezer, be aware of your propensity to predict that 1) you’ll need more food than you really might need 2) you’ll eat more healthy food, like veggies and fruits, than you might eat 3) you’ll cook more than you really might cook. Being realistic, sadly, should not be a realistic expectation.

A note: I implied above that you might want to buy fewer vegetables if they will realistically end up a mushy pile at the bottom of your crisper. Since it’s good to have a supply of healthy foods in case you get inspired, here’s where the freezer shines once again! Freezing your veggies means you won’t need to buy as many weekly, as less of your shopping will go to waste. Instead, they sit happily in the ice box, awaiting your consumption—no time pressure to speak of.

If in doubt, go the frozen route

A snowy road flanked by snowy trees
Photo by Freestocksorg

Do not let that Chinese takeout languish, hoping you’ll get to it at some point. Be an active participant in reducing your climate footprint. If you’re unsure if you’ll eat it soon, just throw the dang thing in the freezer!

Question: Can’t I wait a few more days to freeze my food, in case I end up wanting it on day 4?

Answer: Of course you can. But if you haven’t eaten it by then, it’s likely you’ll put it off one more day, then another day, then another… especially if you have other options in your fridge or tend to order in.

Plus, by then its freshness will have unnecessarily waned, or you may forget to make the transition to the freezer… or you might lose it in the clutter of your fridge… or forget that it exists altogether. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.

It’s simple enough to pop frozen food in the microwave when you’re ready to eat, so why wait?

Take the short cut

A wooden arrow pointing to the right, backed by snowy mountains
Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels

Lowering your expectations to match reality prevents you from being disappointed. It’s sad, but true. So if you give yourself room for error by getting friendly with your freezer, you’ll succeed more easily at reaching your waste reduction goals, and feel bolstered to continue pushing yourself.

My inner perfectionist likes to play the game of How Precisely Can I Plan My Food for the Week? which involves producing minimal waste while expending the least amount of effort. Because freezing food is an extra step, I used to avoid doing so—and food would go bad. Then I’d be frustrated at myself for both the wasted food and the lapse in judgment. 

I’ve since learned to default to the my handy freezer and avoid the drama. It truly is the shortest and least effortful route to waste reduction success. The time and energy spent cooking your food is no longer wasted when it spoils, and that more than balances out the effort it takes to freeze and thaw it. We are not perfect! Luckily, our pal the freezer is there to help mitigate our tendency to be human.

Takeaways

  • The fact that you and I can have a mini polar climate in our kitchens is a serious feat and privilege. The freezer is about as close as we get to slowing time, and most Americans are lucky enough to have their own! Your freezer should not be overlooked.
  • Most foods and meals can be seamlessly frozen and thawed, and I recommend doing so with any prepared/cooked food you won’t eat in the next three days. Instead of looking at your freezer as a place to keep icy things from thawing, look at it as a preserver of freshness.
  • Assume that you’ll forget, lose, and neglect %40 of your food before it spoils, even if you have the best of intentions. Life gets in the way. Most Americans underestimate how much food they waste, so make life easy for yourself by utilizing your freezer.
  • Time is no one’s friend, and shelf-stable food is not exempt. Even when tightly sealed and stored in a cold, dry place, foods like nuts, grains, and spices will lose their flavor. For long-term storage, use your freezer.
  • No one can succeed at stamping out their food waste on their own. Accept help from a reliable, frozen companion.

Related Posts:

An Imperfect Food System: Reducing Waste While You Shop

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

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