Stretch Your Dollar: Freezing Food to Save Money
The next time you need dinner in a hurry or don't feel like cooking, skip the costly drive-thru and check out your freezer. With just a little planning you can freeze food ahead of time and enjoy quick, cheap, and nutritious meals when you want them. Here are some tips for how to freeze food.
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Food to Freeze.The good news is that just about any fresh food can be turned into frozen food, and that includes milk and dairy products, bread, produce, and meat. The key is knowing how to freeze food and how long any particular item should remain frozen. According to the USDA, food can be frozen indefinitely if proper procedures are followed, although longer stints in the freezer are a drag on quality.
Here's a rundown of the maximum length of time to freeze food:
- Milk: six months
- Cheese: up to three months
- Yogurt: up to three months
- Casseroles, soups, and stews: up to three months, but go by the ingredient with the shortest freezing lifespan
- Fruits and vegetables: six months
- Bread: up to one month in a loose plastic bag and six months in plastic wrap and foil
- Beef: up to 12 months
- Ground beef, chicken, or turkey: up to four months
- Ham: up to two months
- Lamb: up to nine months
- Pork: up to six months
- Poultry: up to 12 months for whole and nine months for cuts
How to Freeze Food.Temperature and air affect how long frozen food lasts before deterioration sets in, says Teri Gault, CEO of The Grocery Game. Freezer temperature must be zero degrees or less and all packages should be airtight to prevent frost and freezer burn.
Meat can be frozen in its original packaging as long as there are no holes. Gault recommends wrapping casseroles tightly in foil and then in a freezer bag with the air pressed out. Bread loaves can be stored in the original bag; just squeeze out the air and knot the bag closed -- no twist ties. Keep an eye out for freezer frost on cheese and bread. If you see telltale signs, it's time to use up the item. Fruit should be washed, dried, and frozen in airtight freezer bags.
Vegetables require a bit more effort, Gault notes. That is, they must be blanched first to maintain optimal color and quality. (Plunge the whole or pieces into boiling water; when the color brightens, remove and plunge into a bowl of ice water; drain, pat dry, and quickly freeze.)
Frozen Food Labels.Affix labels to frozen food with a full description of the contents and the date of freezing (use a permanent marker). Gault also recommends creating a frozen food inventory chart -- arrange by date and then group by frozen food category so you know what you have and the deadline for eating it.
Using Frozen Food.Most frozen food can be used as is after thawing but raw meat or poultry obviously must be cooked. Milk separates after having been frozen so save it for sauces and dishes like macaroni and cheese. Yogurt also separates but makes a good base for smoothies. Chocolate picks up a white cast from freezing but is fine in baked goods.
So, how does freezing food trim grocery costs? Take advantage of coupons and sales on foodstuffs ripe for freezing. In particular, that means meat. Gault notes that doubling up on the best meat deals each week nets you a full and varied frozen larder within a couple of months. Meanwhile, stock up on other sale-priced and long-lasting ingredients that you like and use frequently. When all is said and done, you'll have assembled the components for a range of meal options at budget-friendly prices.