Adapted from The Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, published September 2015.
About 40 percent of all food produced in the United States does not get eaten. That’s like buying five bags of groceries and dropping two in the parking lot without bothering to pick them up. It’s crazy!
Collectively, consumers are responsible for more wasted food than farmers, grocery stores, or any other part of the food supply chain. The lettuce that went bad, the leftovers you never got around to eating, that science experiment in the back of the refrigerator you’re hoping will disappear—it all adds up. In fact, the average American household of four is throwing away $120 each month in the form of uneaten food.
Fortunately, you can fix the problem—and improve your experience with food in the process. Wasting less food is about keeping ingredients fresh, being creative with what you have, and getting to know your food, especially how it ages and how it is best stored. And despite its bad rap, frozen food—and freezing food—is one of the keys to turning around the food-waste trend.
Food storage is really an ancient art. Cave dwellers buried their hunted game in snow, and Inuits preserved seabirds in the hollowed-out bellies of seals. Storing food was a survival skill and the inspiration behind all sorts of delicious traditional foods that we still enjoy today. In this day and age, we have it pretty easy. What those cavemen wouldn’t have given for a freezer! Buying frozen foods can help you, your supermarket, and the whole supply chain waste less. It can also make it easier to land healthy foods on your plate on a lazy night. Less food goes to waste when it’s shipped frozen, since it’s not as perishable on the journey from the farm to your refrigerator.
But are frozen foods as good for you as fresh? The consensus is, pretty much. Research shows that the nutrient profiles of frozen fruits and vegetables are nearly equivalent to those of fresh produce. In fact, because they are often picked at their peak ripeness and frozen within hours of harvesting, they may in some cases have more nutrients than raw produce that travels for days and degrades in refrigerators.Frozen meat and fish are also good choices. “The technology of freezing fish has evolved to the point where it’s comparable to, if not better than, fresh fish,” explained chef Barton Seaver, who is also the director of the sustainable seafood and health initiative at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. In fact, frozen fish is delicious, economical, nutritious, and often better for the environment. The additional travel time allowed by freezing also means the fish can be shipped by land instead of air.
So now you understand why the freezer can be the food waste warrior’s best friend. In the freezer, you can safely store food for long periods of time without feeling as though you have to eat it. Sure, you had the best intentions when you bought ingredients for that chicken Parmesan meal, but somehow the week has gone awry and now the chicken has been in the refrigerator for a few days, uncooked. What do you do? Pop it in the freezer. That extra cooked pasta you’re not in the mood to eat tomorrow? Throw that in, too. Going on vacation? Dump everything in the refrigerator into the freezer! Though some foods might alter in texture, pretty much anything can be frozen. Seriously.
If you’re going to throw something into the freezer for just a couple of days, you don’t really need to worry about how you do it (except for fresh fruits and vegetables, which usually require a quick blanch or purée beforehand). If you tend to forget what’s in the freezer, however, or are planning to leave the food in there for longer, it’s worth taking the time to follow some basic guidelines to help preserve the quality of the food.
Generally speaking, if frozen food has been thawed in the refrigerator, it’s fine to refreeze it, even if not cooked, though the quality might suffer a bit. If it was frozen raw and then cooked, you can refreeze the cooked portion. Leftovers should be frozen within three to four days. If food has been out of the refrigerator for less than two hours, it’s still okay to refreeze it.
Fruits and vegetables can be frozen if no mold, yeastiness, or slime has developed and they haven’t been left out of the refrigerator for more than six hours. Refreezing meats or seafood after thawing in water or in the microwave is not recommended unless they’ve been cooked.
The freezer can allow a once-a-week cook to provide meals all week or even longer. Entire books have been written about freezing, in fact, with recipes and meal plans that can get you through a month with minimal cooking. Quality does deteriorate over time, though, so it’s best to eat frozen food within a few months.
Bottom line: Freezing is easy. The real challenge is remembering to use what you freeze! So many people “lose” things in the back of their freezer. One way to deal with this is to be super-organized. Another is to plan a “freezer night” every week or two so that you actually eat that container of beef stew before it is covered in ice crystals.
Food is simply too good to waste. Together we can make a major dent in what’s currently getting tossed—and put a little cash back in our wallets at the same time.