AMES, Iowa – As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts work and family routines, Iowans may find they have more time to spend in the kitchen. Make the most of this time by getting a jumpstart on future meal planning, suggest nutrition and wellness state specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
“You can prepare freezer meals or freeze leftovers now to use when you return to the office. Freezer meals will limit your time in the kitchen, especially after a long day at the office,” said Sarah Francis.
“Having frozen, home-cooked meals is a healthy alternative to store-bought frozen meals. They also save you money and reduce stress around planning and preparing mealtimes,” said Ruth Litchfield.
Three steps for freezing meals
Many items such as soups, casseroles, baked goods and meat entrees can be frozen and later reheated or baked. Freezing leftovers provides a meal for another day while helping reduce food waste. Francis and Litchfield recommend following these steps.
Step 1. Plan ahead. Planning meals ahead of time saves time by making sure you have the food items you will need. Decide how many days or meals you want to prepare ahead and freeze. Review your schedule or calendar and take into account days where you will not need a meal. When planning your menu keep in mind: How much space do you have available in your freezer? Do you have appropriate freezer containers such as freezer bags, jars or plastic containers? Use the Spend Smart, Eat Smart website to help plan your menu.
Step 2. Choose recipes and foods that can freeze well. Many recipes and foods freeze well. Most casseroles should be frozen before baking, especially when all the ingredients are already cooked. Exceptions to this rule include dishes containing uncooked rice, raw vegetables or uncooked meat that has been frozen and thawed. It is recommended to undercook starchy ingredients such as potatoes, beans, rice, and noodles or they will become mushy. Double your recipes — eat one now and save the other for later. Making double the recipe doesn’t require as much prep time as making the same recipe twice. You can also maximize prep time by prepping multiple recipes at one time. Visit Spend Smart, Eat Smart for freezer-friendly recipe ideas.
Step 3. Store it safely and correctly. Freezer meals are only as flavorful as their packaging. Food items that are not packaged correctly are more likely to develop freezer burn. Many household food containers are not suitable for long-term freezer storage. The cartons that come with milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, margarine and many other refrigerated foods are not moisture vapor resistant enough for freezing and do not produce seals airtight enough for freezing. Also, waxed paper, paper cartons, cardboard ice cream and milk cartons, or any rigid carton with cracks or a poorly fitting lid are not sufficiently moisture vapor resistant.
According to Francis and Litchfield, packaging that helps keep frozen foods safe from freezer burn includes canning or freezing glass jars, plastic freezing containers, heavyweight aluminum foil, plastic-coated freezer paper and freezer safe bags. Remove as much air as possible from each package to reduce loss of quality. Foods containing water expand when frozen; therefore, frozen food containers must be expandable or sealed with sufficient headspace for expansion. As a rule allow one-half to 1 inch headspace for all frozen foods.
“When you have packaged your meals or food in freezer-safe packaging, remember to label and date the packages,” Francis added.
This Spend Smart Eat Smart video shows how to safely freeze leftovers. This will help you easily identify the food items and follow the first in, first out rule. When packaged correctly, foods can be kept for up to three to six months in a standard refrigerator freezer or up to one year in a deep freezer.
For more information on freezer meals and other health meals, explore “Healthy and Homemade” from ISU Extension and Outreach, https://www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/healthy-homemade.
Have other food-related questions? AnswerLine provides information and resources for Iowa consumers with home and family questions. Call 1-800-262-3804 or 1-800-735-2942 (Relay Iowa phone linkage for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing). The hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. - noon and 1 - 4 p.m.
For information on how to freeze various foods see Preserve the Taste of Summer - Freezing: Fruits and Vegetables from the Extension Store and visit University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s webpage on freezing food.
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