In the first half of the 20th century, Americans gained a new type of food product: the frozen food item. As supermarkets grew in prevalence and size, so too did their offerings of frozen food items — whose popularity and palatability were boosted by advances in freezing technology that better preserve the texture and flavor of fresh foods.
Today, virtually every supermarket in the country has at least one aisle devoted to delicacies that have been put into a state of suspended animation, ready and waiting for us to heat and eat.
While TV dinners have long been viewed as a less healthy option, not everything in the freezer aisle is bad for you. In fact, there are some wonderfully healthy options there, and knowing what to look for and how to work with these foods can help you stretch your budget while eating healthfully all year long.
Why Reach for Frozen?
Fresh is sometimes best, but frozen can often be a close second, and in some cases the superior alternative depending on the food item and your situation. Advantages of using frozen produce include:
— Higher nutrient levels.
— Reduced waste.
— Extended season for produce.
Higher Nutrient Levels
“Frozen fruits and vegetables often get a bad rap for being less nutritious or less fresh,” says Carole Jones, founder of mykitchenescapades.com and author of “The 30-Minute Cooking from Frozen Cookbook.” But that’s a misconception.
“Frozen produce is usually processed within hours of being picked, retaining the nutrients within that fruit or vegetable,” she explains. For example, “both frozen peas and frozen spinach contain more vitamin C than their fresh counterparts, which take weeks to get to your table, as peas and spinach lose 50% of their vitamin C with the first 48 hours of harvesting.”
What’s more, using frozen fruit and vegetables instead of fresh can be very budget friendly — there’s less waste involved with frozen produce that’s already been chopped and bagged. And because it’s frozen, you have more time to eat it than fresh produce, which may spoil before you get to it.
Plus, after cooking a meal with fresh items, any leftovers can be stored in an airtight container and frozen to be enjoyed later as a healthy, do-it-yourself TV dinner that costs just a fraction of what you’d pay for a boxed dinner at the grocery store.
You can also cook whole grains or beans in big batches ahead of time and freeze them in smaller portions to make whipping together a nutritious weekday dinner super quick.
[READ: Ways to Reduce Food Waste.]
Extended Season for Produce
The freezer helps you enjoy the delights of your summer garden all year round. And rather than having to rely on produce that’s shipped from other states or countries, you can freeze local produce during the summer and enjoy it all winter long.
One of the great things about frozen veggies, Jones says, is that you can often find whichever item you’re looking for in a variety of styles and sizes, making it that much more convenient to throw together a healthy meal quickly.
“For example, you can find frozen butternut squash cubed, riced or spiralized, depending on how you need it for your recipe.”
Selecting the Best Frozen Foods
The freezer aisle is full of options, and it can be bewildering to find the healthiest items there. But the basic rule of thumb that applies to foods elsewhere in the store applies in the other freezer aisle too, says Michelle Mix, a registered dietitian for Hannaford Supermarkets and owner of The Nutrition Mix, a nutrition consultancy based in the greater Boston area. “Look for foods that are whole as much as possible. Try to get as close to a fresh food a possible.”
In other words, opt for veggies that were flash frozen plain, without sauces or other ingredients that could add calories, sugar and sodium that you don’t need.
And when shopping for prepared frozen food items, Mix recommends keeping an eye on the sodium levels, which will be listed in the nutritional information label on the back of the package. You should also scan the label for other things you don’t need such as added sugar or high fat or cholesterol levels.
She also encourages you to “make sure that your meals still contain all the food groups that are on MyPlate,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s healthy eating guidelines that classify foods into five categories:
— Protein foods.
Including food items from each of the five groups into your diet every day “is the first thing you should be thinking about when building a meal out of the freezer,” Mix says.
Meal and Meal Starter Ideas
A simple way to make full use of the freezer in a healthy way is to throw together a stir-fry that contains lots of vegetables and maybe some lean protein like chicken or a frozen salmon filet. When choosing a protein, look for un-breaded options, as these tend to have fewer calories and less sodium.
Soup or Stew
Or try a soup or stew that uses frozen beans or grains and adds a rainbow of frozen veggies for a colorful and nutritiously quick meal. Start with a batch of cooked, frozen beans, some water or stock, and add whichever garden veggies you have on hand to make a hearty veggie soup. Simmer until it’s bubbling and fragrant, and you’ve got lunch or dinner. Or start with some frozen meat, add some vegetables and potatoes and simmer to build a robust beef and vegetable stew that likely will have less sodium and calories than a pre-made frozen stew option.
[READ: Heart-Healthy Soups.]
For a quick breakfast, Mix recommends cooking up a big batch of oatmeal and then wrapping up individual portions and freezing them. Or, you can find prepackaged oatmeal and high-protein pancake batter that you can store in the freezer to be at the ready on those busy mornings when you need a quick but hearty meal.
“I always keep recipe starters on hand, such as riced cauliflower, spiral veggie noodles, already chopped or diced onions,” Mix says. All of these frozen food items are as healthy as their fresh alternatives and can save you time. She also says having a package or two of edamame on hand at all time “is helpful to add to salads, stir-frys and soups” because they’re high in protein and add plenty of fiber.
Jones says some of her favorite frozen foods to quickly build healthy meals with include:
— Grilled zucchini strips. Season with your favorite seasoning and maybe a little cheese for a fast and nutritious side dish.
— Cooked brown rice. Brown rice is a nutritious, high-fiber staple that pairs well with stir-frys or can be added to a pot with lentils and veggies to make a delicious soup. You can use brown rice most anywhere you might use white rice to add a little extra nutrition.
— Cauliflower pizza crusts. Top these versatile crusts with tomato sauce, a medley of veggies and a sprinkling of your favorite cheese to make a fast and healthy pizza or flatbread meal.
— Crushed garlic cubes. Many recipes call for garlic, which can be time consuming to peel and chop. Frozen garlic cubes — which you can purchase already made up or make your own by crushing a garlic bulb adding a little olive oil and freezing it in an ice cube tray — can save you a lot of time on those busy weeknights.
And don’t forget about dessert. “Frozen fruit is awesome for any meal, including dessert. It can make a great substitute for ice cream,” Mix says. Take a handful of frozen berries and pour a little milk over top. “The berries freeze the milk on the spot, and it gives you the same mouthfeel as a frozen treat. It’s not as sweet and has less sugar than ice cream,” but can still make a delicious indulgence.
Freezing Your Own
Many foods can be frozen before or after cooking, giving you a wide range of options.
When freezing your own fresh produce, consider which items will fare best in the arctic environment inside your freezer. Generally speaking, vegetables that hold their shape and texture well when cooked, such as corn, green beans and peas, usually freeze better than vegetables that tend to wilt or change texture when cooked such as cabbage and spinach. Produce that has a high water content, such as lettuce, cucumbers or watermelon, typically ice over in the freezer and will become super mushy when thawed.
To help preserve texture in fresh produce, Mix recommends “blanching vegetables before freezing.” Blanching means to boil the vegetables for a minute in slightly salted water and then immediately submerging them in ice water to halt the cooking process. This helps vegetables retain their texture when cooking from frozen. It also helps kill any bacteria that might be on the item before it goes into the freezer.
When fruit is frozen, the water in it expands. This can lead to a mushy texture for some fruit when it’s thawed — think how mushy a thawed banana is. For recipes such as smoothies or banana bread, this texture change isn’t an issue, but in some instances, it might not be desirable. To help reduce this change, set your freezer to the coldest setting to freeze fruit more quickly.
Other foods simply don’t freeze well at all, such as sliced or whole avocados and some dairy products. However, Mix says “mashed avocado does freeze well.” Try mixing freshly mashed avocado with lime juice and packing it into a ball before sealing it tightly into an airtight container or a plastic bag with the air pressed out. Guacamole that doesn’t contain other vegetables can also be frozen; you can add the tomatoes and onions after you thaw it out.
For recipes that include dairy, you can freeze the rest of the ingredients cooked together and add the dairy after thawing. Butter usually comes out of the freezer just fine, but other dairy products don’t. Milk, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese and cream cheese all change texture substantially when frozen.
Still, while thawed cream cheese won’t have the right texture to be used as a spread on bagels, for example, it can work very well in casseroles and other dishes where it’s melted in with other ingredients.
Fresh or hard-boiled eggs also shouldn’t be frozen — the liquid inside them expands when frozen, which can crack the shell and allow bacteria to enter. Whisked eggs put into a sealed container, however, are OK to freeze.
How to Cook Frozen Foods
Standard cooking advice typically recommends thawing food items that have been frozen before using them, but you don’t always have to. Indeed, Jones says you’ll often get better results when cooking directly from frozen rather than thawing out first.
“The majority of frozen foods work best when they are used from the frozen state, and you’ll never be able to tell the difference between fresh and frozen.” For example, she recommends cooking “your favorite frozen fish fillet straight from freezer” because skipping the thawing process “actually keeps you from overcooking it in your recipe.”
The key to making great meals straight from the freezer is high heat, Jones says. “Your pan or oven need to be preheated so you can properly manage the higher moisture content in frozen whole foods.”
While it might be tempting to skip that preheating the pan before you toss in the veggies, when it’s done correctly, “the excess moisture will quickly evaporate and your veggies will saute and brown.”
For some foods, you do want to thaw them out first, such as a thick steak. But Mix recommends avoiding the microwave. “Using the microwave can really damage the proteins because it’s too high. It cooks too quickly.” Instead, defrost meat by transferring it to the refrigerator several hours before you need to use it, or submerging it in cool water in the sink.
Once the item is defrosted, you need to cook it or put it in the fridge. But Mix recommends using care with how long you keep these items uncooked. “You can hold it at that temperature, but only for the amount of time the food was originally good for.” For example, if you bought a package of fresh chicken breasts and put them in the freezer the day before they were set to expire, you only have that one day left to use them after thawing them out. Otherwise, bacteria can grow and make you sick.
When using frozen meat, poultry and fish, take care. Freezing any of these items once is fine, but you need to be careful to cook it thoroughly when you unfreeze it and “err on the side of caution” when reheating leftovers, Mix says. Alternating between heated and frozen or cold is a bad idea as it can encourage the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. If in doubt, throw it out.
Lastly, Jones encourages you to take a culinary adventure through the freezer aisle. “Go explore your local grocery store and see what frozen foods they have to offer. You’ll be amazed at the whole, unprocessed foods that are stocked and the organic frozen offerings are rapidly expanding as well.”
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