“I sometimes find,” said Albus Dumbledore, “that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.”
In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore remedies this by using a magical basin called a Pensieve, into which “one simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.”
The Wizarding World is brimming with stress-relieving storage containers and life-simplifying gadgets. Us muggles could use some real solutions—and not silly ones like the internet (psh) that only complicate things.
But—don’t despair! For we in fact have a bloody brilliant, electricity-powered, non-magic invention that rivals Dumbledore’s:
. . . . The FREEZER!
The freezer is so miraculous, even wizards are using it! Advertisement in Witch Weekly:
The Frozen Pensieve is a place to dump your immediate food-related burdens, not only decluttering your kitchen, but your overstuffed brain. If wasting food—or losing galleons (money)—makes you anxious, throw that anxiety into the ice box! With a ready stock of preserved food at hand, you can access it at your leisure, no longer threatened by the guilt and regret of a spoiled dish. (Disclaimer: Frozen Pensieves run small. Use the undetectable Extension Charm to enlarge.)
Food waste is an issue everywhere. The freezer is an essential tool that, in my opinion, should take center stage in magic and non-magic food storage routines alike. But for those of us without House Elves, a few things seem to keep us from growing comfortable with using it.
Common freezer hurdles
- Freezing my food = never seeing it again
- My freezer is too small (not a problem for wizards)
- I don’t know the best way to thaw food
- Freezing and Thawing takes time and effort
- I like eating my food “fresh”
- I hate freezer burn
- I’m concerned about refreezing defrosted food
- I’m not sure what to freeze
- I don’t know how long is too long
Hurdle 1: freezing my food = never seeing it again
- Keep a simple, written log of what’s in your freezer: Attaching the list to the front of your freezer door at eye level means it’ll be hard to unintentionally banish your food to its icy depths. Remember to continually update your list.
- If you store certain foods in designated areas of your freezer, map out your inventory by shelf or section.
- Use freezer bins: Sometimes all you can do is look for a pocket of space to jam a container into. But if you keep your freezer divided into compartments by food type, you’ll find it easier to fill and empty. You can buy bins online or reuse shipping boxes or shoe boxes—really any kind of box.
- Examples of bin categories: frozen fruit + dessert; lunch + dinner leftovers; bread + flours; nuts + spices; meats + dairy; sauces; store-bought frozen meals.
- Label your food: With every container you add to your freezer (excepting store-bought items), give it a label that specifies what it contains and the date you add it. Food can be hard to distinguish once frozen, and we might procrastinate investigating it, letting it occupy space unnecessarily—or we might give up on the “mystery food” altogether.
- For those resistant to labeling, I recommend at least labeling sauces, soups, or other liquids—even if you’re sure you’ll remember what they are. Since we tend to store things in the freezer indefinitely, there is a high likelihood that you will eventually forget what that ambiguous liquid is.
Hurdle 2: my freezer is too small
A full freezer actually works more efficiently than an empty one. That said, it’s best to avoid overpacking it, keeping air vents free to circulate cold air.
This is easier said than done when you’re an active freezer-user, and especially if you share yours with several people; freezer space can feel awfully cramped.
In an ideal, food-waste fighting world, freezers would be as large as refrigerators, and refrigerators as small as freezers (just as recycling bins should be as large as trash cans, and vice versa).
But for the world we live in, here are some work-arounds for limited freezer space:
- Don’t be afraid to dip into your freezer for a bite throughout the week. Think of it as an active and ever-changing inventory rather than a cavern where your food goes to hibernate for a year. Also remember that although frozen food might not look appetizing, it will transform once heated!
- Evaluate your freezer before grocery shopping: Adjust your grocery list according to what’s already available at home—in your freezer, fridge, pantry, and counter—to avoid redundancies. When faced with novel and enticing options at the grocery store, we tend to get carried away with our purchases—ignoring the fact that frozen leftovers await us at home. But if we’re routinely aware of what specifically exists in the freezer, we can easily factor it into our meal plan and grocery goals—arming ourselves with a strategy before entering food wonderland.
- Unify your storage containers so that they’re square (instead of round); it’s more space-efficient. It’s helpful if your containers are stackable, but if you don’t have unified sets, bins are a good way to keep your freezer tidy and compressed.
- Save your glass jars: I try to buy jams and condiments that come in glass jars, both to cut down on plastic, and for the free Tupperware! Though these are certainly not unified container sets and therefore are less stackable, their size diversity comes in handy. As it’s best for space and food quality reasons to leave minimal air in your frozen containers, smaller jars are great for this. Read about how to freeze glass jars.
- Re-package boxed food: As you eat your way through store-bought frozen food, ditch the box and re-package the contents tightly. You can cut out and adhere the reheating instructions to the top of the new container.
- Hang bags of food: Stacking high can result in avalanches. Instead, try stacking low and filling the space above by suspending food from your freezer’s shelving with binder clips.
- Update your ice box: If your household creates a sizable amount of food waste, it might be worth investing in a larger freezer, or a chest freezer. Like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, it’s worth having the ability to save any overwhelming food for a later date.
Hurdle 3: I don’t know the best ways to thaw food
- It’s best to either thaw your food slowly in the refrigerator, or during the cooking process.
- You can also defrost your food by soaking it in cold water (change the water out every half hour) or in the microwave.
- Avoid leaving food in the “temperature danger zone” of 40-140 degrees F for more than two hours, as this is where things have the potential to start getting dicey. Therefore, don’t thaw your food on the counter.
- It is also not recommended to defrost food by running it under warm water. You want your food to either be substantially hot (above 140 degrees) or cold (below 40 degrees).
Hurdle 4: freezing and thawing takes time and effort
- As I mentioned in my last post, I can be obsessively lazy, bent on streamlining food storage processes to require the least amount of effort. I used to overlook my freezer, believing I could save time and energy by simply making sure I ate all my food before it spoiled. But I found that with even irregular instances of food waste, there is significant time and energy squandered in the cooking and prepping of food that won’t be eaten. Getting into the habit of freezing the food you might not immediately eat will save you time in the long run.
Hurdle 5: I like eating my food “fresh”
I get how you feel. Cooking, freezing, and reheating does add a component of processing to your food, which may cause you to worry about compromised quality and nutrition. But consider that you might not be giving your Pensieve enough credit.
Though most veggies should be cooked before being frozen, heat actually makes certain nutrients more available. This is true for tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, asparagus, and spinach, among others, where antioxidant content is boosted and vitamins can be better-absorbed.
On top of this, compare a bag of spinach that you steam and freeze to raw spinach that lounges in your crisper: the frozen spinach is preserved at the point when it begins to freeze, while the refrigerated spinach is deteriorating in nutrient content each day it is not eaten.
Spinach preserved via freezing or canning is more nutrient-rich than spinach that’s spent a few extra days in the fridge—because it’s been preserved early in its post-harvest life. In fact, after a week post-harvest, refrigerated spinach loses half of its folate. Vegetables lose between 15 and 77% of their vitamin C after a week. By the time these veggies enter your home, you have no idea how long they’ve been in storage—so eat them, or cook and freeze them, as soon as you can.
Hurdle 6: I hate freezer burn
Freezer burn appears as ice-crystally or discolored areas on your food, and is the result of moisture loss. Though it can affect the quality of your food, freezer burnt food is safe to consume. You can always trim off the burnt areas and eat the rest.
To prevent freezer burn:
- Make sure there is minimal air within your food’s packaging or container. Re-package store-bought items that aren’t wrapped tight.
- For a plastic-free option, you can wrap your food in bee’s wax wrap and then stick it in a container, or place the wrap right over the top of the food in its container.
- Make sure your freezer’s temperature is below 0°F, and avoid raising the temperature with large batches of hot food (chill it in the fridge before freezing).
- The longer your food spends in the freezer, the higher the likelihood of it developing freezer burn. To avoid this, eat it within a few months.
- To be extra clear, freezing your food for more than a few months is perfectly fine—but to avoid freezer burn, eat it as quickly as possible.
- Avoid over-crowding and under-crowding your freezer. You want room for air to circulate, but enough frozen items for your freezer to efficiently maintain a low temperature.
Hurdle 7: I’m concerned about refreezing defrosted food
The idea that you cannot refreeze defrosted food is a myth. Any food—even meat—can be refrozen, as long as it hasn’t lingered on the counter for over two hours or spent too many days in the fridge. Tina Hayes, a USDA registered dietitian, says that “it is safe to refreeze raw meat, as long as it’s not spoiled.”
The myth that food can’t be refrozen may come from instances where food handlers didn’t have enough information about their thawed food. For example, when I worked in food rescue, we would not accept frozen meat that looked like it had been thawed and refrozen. This was not because food shouldn’t be refrozen, however: rather, in this setting we had to assume any thawed food may have been improperly handled and exposed for more than two hours to warm conditions, since we had no proof otherwise.
Hurdle 8: I’m not sure what to freeze
For details on what to freeze, read Your Guide to Freezing (and Thawing) Food.
- Freeze any cooked food that you won’t eat in the next three days: if you won’t immediately eat (and finish) fresh pastas, sauces, take-out, baked goods, cooked meats and vegetables, throw them in the freezer. This may involve dividing food into separate containers, depending on what’s freezer-bound and fridge-bound.
- Of course you can move most of these things to your freezer later, but the danger there is forgetting about doing so. It’s better to get into the habit of emptying any freezable groceries into the freezer when you bring them home, and to freeze large batches of cooked food right after cooking.
- Items that don’t spoil easily can be kept in the fridge (condiments, cheeses, hardy produce, unopened yogurt, eggs, recently-bought items.)
- Freeze any pantry items you won’t quickly finish: bread, herbs, flours, nuts, dried fruit. Make sure these items are well-sealed and tightly wrapped.
- A lot of what you freeze will depend on freezer space. But if you have the space, and you’re in doubt of whether you should freeze something—freeze it! If you don’t have the space but you want to freeze something, work your way through eating your frozen food before buying more fresh groceries.
Hurdle 9: I don’t know how long is too long
Have you ever discovered an item from 2016 in your freezer and wondered if it was ok to eat? The podcast Every Little Thing did! In one episode, a family had eaten four-year old frozen fish. It tasted fine, and there were no ill-effects, but the family wanted the opinion of an expert.
“As long as the food remained frozen,” said food safety and foodborne pathogens expert, Haley Oliver, on the podcast, “it’s not going to be unsafe.” She said that “the process of freezing is designed to stop the growth of microorganisms. That’s why freezing works. So from a safety standpoint, it’s good for the long game…. This becomes the difference between quality vs safety. It’s not going to be unsafe. It’s just that the quality will have reduced over time.” So, you don’t need to throw your frozen food out after a year. It just might need a little extra seasoning.
If you are not already intimate with your muggle Pensieve, don’t feel overwhelmed. When it comes to the freezer, you can hardly go wrong. The main things to remember are:
- Freeze any food that you won’t immediately eat: even if you plan to eat it later in the week, freeze it. Find tips on best practices for freezing here.
- To avoid overcrowding and freezer burn, don’t forget to chip away at your frozen food. Keeping a list of what you have in your freezer and labeling your food can make it easier to locate your food, and to incorporate it into your meal plan and grocery list. But if you forget about a frozen food item in the back of your freezer, it should be safe to eat even years later.
- As you thaw your food, avoid keeping it in the temperature danger zone (40-140 degrees F) for more than two hours: you should not thaw it on the counter or under warm water.
Food waste comes with many casualties…. the environment, social justice, and your wallet. American families lose nearly $2000 each year due to food waste. The freezer is your shortcut to stamping out this problem in your home.
I’d love to hear your freezer tips! Email me or comment below.
Your Guide to Freezing (And Thawing) Food
An Imperfect Food System: Reducing Waste While You Shop
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