- Many people are stocking up on food to reduce grocery trips while self-isolating, to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
- According to nutritionists, your freezer can be a helpful tool for storing healthy foods like whole grain bread, fruits, veggies, and pre-made meals like soup, chili, sauce, and baked goods.
- Even things like dairy and eggs can be frozen to keep them longer — the texture might change, but they're still safe to eat and good for recipes.
- Here's how best to use your freezer efficiently, avoid freezer burn, and make sure food is still safe to eat.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
As shelter-in-place and social distancing measures have taken hold, many grocery stores have run out of food staples like pasta, beans, and canned goods as people prepare to stay home.
But nutritionists say you should not give up on all perishables: your freezer can be just as good for keeping the foods you need like fruits and veggies, meat, fish, but also some surprisingly kitchen hacks like herbs, citrus juice, and even eggs and dairy.
Here are some top tips for using your freezer most effectively to make healthy, delicious meals, according to nutritionists.
With a little planning, fresh items can be just as good frozen
Freezing can extend the shelf-life of a huge variety of foods. You can stock up on frozen items right from the store, but if supplies are running low, it's just as good to pop your own perishables in the freezer.
"There are so many fresh foods that have a long life in the freezer," registered dietitian Kajsa Ernestam, who works with the digital health app LifeSum, told Insider. "If you think about all the things you'd find in the frozen food aisle, you can buy all those things fresh and freeze them yourself."
Berries, mango, peaches, cherries freeze well, as do bananas. They can all make for a convenient smoothie or, slightly thawed, a sweet treat. For veggies: corn, peas, and green beans, spinach, peppers, and onions are all good options. Avocados can also be frozen in chunks when they're ready to eat.
The key, Ernestam said, is to freeze things before they start to get overly ripe.
The same is true of fresh herbs: you can pre-chop a mix of herbs that you'd use in a recipe, or leave them mostly intact and unmixed. Fill each ice cube tray segment with about 2/3 fresh herbs and cover the rest with olive oil and freeze overnight. After it's completely frozen, remove the cubes and store in a Ziploc bag in the freezer.
You can do a similar trick with citrus fruits, minus the olive oil. Pour the juice of lemons, limes, or even oranges or grapefruits into an ice cube tray and freeze for an easy way to add a burst of flavor to tap water, smoothies, sauces, or anything else.
For all of these items, the frozen variety has just as much nutritional value as fresh. In some cases, if you buy frozen at the store, it may be even better, since those items are frozen at peak freshness before they're transported.
"When it comes to nutritional value, freezer has a bad reputation, but it usually doesn't harm things," Ernestam said.
For convenience, chili, soups, sauces, and baked goods are good basic recipes to pre-make and freeze
With all of the stress and anxiety of a pandemic, registered dietitian Rachael Hartley says that it's important to keep things simple and focus on the basics, and convenience foods.
"One thing I've been reminding my clients is that it's OK if nutrition the isn't utmost priority — there's more important things to worry about," Hartley told Insider via email. "Right now the healthiest thing to do is stay inside and wash your hands, not eat more greens. Give yourself permission to eat whatever is comforting, satisfying and accessible to you right now."
Some simple recipes, she suggests, include fish with tomato sauce, burrito bowls, pasta with veggies, or breakfast crumble with fruit, all of which incorporate common frozen or shelf-stable ingredients.
To make things easier, consider making large batches of meals and freezing them to heat up later, advises Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com, author of "Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table."
Taub-Dix said her favorite recipes to freeze are spicy dark chocolate chili and split pea butternut squash soup (which can also be made vegan). Any of these recipes can also be modified based on what ingredients are available, what you feel like eating, or your own creative twist.
"You don't have to stick exactly with those ingredients and instructions," she told Insider in an interview. "For people at home, don't feel like you have to have pressure to get it right or be an Iron Chef. Be creative, be inventive."
Chocolate zucchini muffins are another go-to to make in large batches, since they'll keep well in the freezer for about three months, Taub-Dix said.
Although the texture of some foods may change in the freezer, they're still safe to eat (with some common sense safety tips)
Many people don't think to freeze items like milk, cream, or yogurt, according to Ernestam — that's because the consistency of these items can change dramatically when frozen. However, they'll keep longer, and can be used in sauces, soups and other recipes where the texture won't matter.
"I see a lot of people throwing away dairy products but can have a life of up to 3 months if you freeze them before they expire," Ernestam said.
You can also freeze bread — simply toast or heat in the oven before serving.
Similarly, a lot of frozen food is thrown away if people notice freezer burn, but that's not necessary, Ernestam explained.
"People throw food away if they have freezer burn, but it's nothing dangerous. It can affect texture and color, but it's usually fine to eat," she said.
To tell if something from your freezer is still good, Ernestam recommends thawing it, and then checking the smell and taste.
"If it smells fine and tastes fine, nothing to worry about. When it's bad, you will smell it for sure," she said.
To make sure your food stays good, however, cool it before you put in the freezer — an ice bath is a useful way to do this. Otherwise, hot food in the freezer can develop bacteria, and it can also raise the temperature of nearby items.
To avoid freezer burn, try to get as much air as possible out of the container before freezing.
Organize your freezer and label items with the date for maximum efficiency
Finally, an organized freezer system makes sure you get the most out of your food.
"You tend to take what you see first" Ernestam said. "Put newer dates in the back and older things in the front, you'll remember to eat things before they go bad."
Since most of us don't have unlimited freezer space, Hartley recommends prioritizes items that don't otherwise store well in your pantry. You can save rice or beans in the freezer, for example, but that space might be better used for fruit, meats, fish, and other perishables.
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