While usually eating fresh vegetables and freshly made wholesome entrees is preferable, there are times when it’s very convenient to have a readymade frozen meal in your freezer. During the winter months, there could be days where going to the store to buy your ingredients is difficult because of bad weather. At other times, the cook in the family might be sick or unavailable. In those times, having some extra food in the freezer is a quick and viable alternative. There are a several ways to fill your freezer:
- When you cook a meal, make a few extra portions, and freeze those. This works especially well for soups and for entrees. When you are already cutting up onions, carrot, and celery for a soup or entree, it really isn’t that much extra work to chop the veggies for a double recipe, and then freeze the extra. I almost always do this when I make lasagna, potpie and/or bean soups (like lentil or split pea soup, black bean soup etc), and the reality is that the dish tastes even better after it has been frozen, as the flavors have had an opportunity to blend.
- Purchase frozen vegetables at the grocery store and keep them in your freezer to eat with basic staples that you may have in your pantry like potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, whole grain pasta and brown rice. Plain frozen vegetables (not the ones with extra sauces) have no added salt or added fats and have good nutritional value. It’s convenient to have them available in your freezer.
- Purchase frozen entrees at the grocery store. When you do this, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Select a meal with 350-500 kcal per serving. To limit unhealthful fats, find frozen entrees with no more than 2 g of saturated fat and no transfat.
- Sodium content is probably the worst and most common offender in most frozen foods, so be on the lookout for sodium content. The average healthy person should consume no more than 2,400 mg of sodium per day. Read labels carefully and choose entrees with no more than 600 mg of sodium per serving.
- Look for entrees with at least ½ cup of vegetables, ½ to 1 cup of whole grains and a protein source of at least 14 grams, so that your meal will have the components of a well-balanced home cooked meal.
- Plate your frozen meal on a regular plate, and serve it with some fresh fruit, or a salad. Make your frozen entrée your own: i.e. if it’s a pasta meal, add some cut tomatoes, or fresh basil and some parmesan cheese. It will look and taste more like a home cooked meal, and can still a healthy but fast and convenient option.
- Remember that frozen foods in your freezer eventually will get freezer burn. The amount of time that you can keep foods in your freezer without it going bad varies. Bread products get freezer burn the quickest, and may taste bad after a couple months. Vegetables, entrees, and soups stay good longer. Store bought entrees have an expiration date on them, so keep an eye on that. When I freeze food myself, I always write the date on the food container with a sharpie, so when I look to take something out of the freezer, I know how long it’s been there.
By Anne Lamberton DrPH, MPH, RD
Some of the information in this article is based on “Healthier Frozen Foods” by Maura Keller in “Today’s Dietitian”, October 2012