By Eleanor Frederick, NC Cooperative Extension Agent and Alamance County Lifestyle Coach
Well, it’s happened; the calendar has rolled over from July to August. The “Back to School” sales are upon us and Halloween decorations are already on the store shelves. In the blink of an eye, you’ll be planning Thanksgiving dinner and deciding what to take to your neighborhood Christmas party. The New Year is basically next week. Need to catch your breath?
Fall is one of my favorite seasons, but it always seems to be the fastest-paced. When we’re busy, we let our guard down and make choices that might not be…in our best interest. This year, get AHEAD of the runaway train and navigate this autumn/holiday season in good health. Who is going to be your trusty sidekick to help make this happen? Your freezer.
That’s right, the sometimes neglected coldest spot in your kitchen is one of your best tools to get through this crazy time of year. Studies have shown that eating meals prepared at home is one of the best ways to manage your health. Cooking requires time and energy, but planning ahead and making good use of your freezer can help you get a delicious meal on the table in a snap. Here’s a list of items that are simple to prepare and freeze so you can have fast, healthy options when life starts getting in the way.
- Rice: Actually, most whole grains can be cooked and then frozen for a night when you don’t feel like waiting on water to boil. Cook the rice in a big batch, let cool, then spoon portions into bags. (Want four portions of rice? Freeze in two cup increments). Try to get all of the air out of the bag, label with the date and amount of rice in each bag, and freeze. For best results, spread the rice out in the bag to make a thin layer. The rice will freeze more consistently and you’ll have a better product when you pull it out.To use, pull it out of the freezer and heat up straight from frozen. (Thawing the rice before reheating will just make it mushy). Cook in the microwave or on the stove until the rice is hot.
- Fruits: Fruit is a great topping or addition to just about anything sweet (and sometimes savory!). Next time you see a great sale in the produce section, grab extra to freeze for later. It’s also okay to buy fruit that is already frozen! Produce is picked, washed, and frozen in quick succession to preserve the nutrients we need to maintain good health. Look for items with zero added sugar on the ingredients label.
- Most vegetables: If chopping up vegetables for a busy weeknight dinner sounds like a lot of work, you’re not wrong. Frozen vegetables are excellent to have ready for those inevitable rushed evening meals without compromising on your health. Like frozen fruits, veggies that you can buy in the freezer aisle are a great option. Buy plain vegetables and add your own sauces and seasonings to keep the sodium content to a minimum. If you plan to freeze veggies at home, learn how to blanch them (boiling for a very short time and then cooling down quickly in ice water) to preserve color, taste, and texture.
- Herbs: Along with spices, herbs are a healthy way to add flavor to whatever you’re cooking. Whether you grow or buy your herbs, it can be challenging to use up what you have before they start to go bad. Freeze what you won’t use within a few days and you’ll never throw herbs away again.Try freezing herbs in olive oil using ice trays and you’ll have a burst of flavor every time you grab a cube to cook with.
- Soups: Soup is a great way to sneak in some added servings of vegetables, but most store bought varieties are high in sodium. Making a big batch of soup at home is simple. Eating on it for 5 days straight may be a challenge. Just like with the rice, freeze the soup in portions that make sense for your household.Need some recipe ideas? There are plenty here.
- Breakfast sandwiches: Lots of people skip their morning meal because it’s time consuming, but breakfast isn’t called the “most important meal of the day” for nothing (see our previous post for more about this). Try preparing a week’s worth of breakfast sandwiches to keep in the freezer and watch as your busy mornings are transformed. Here’s a great recipe to try.
- Taco meat: While this may sound oddly specific, I find that taco meat makes a great addition to just about any meal. You can add lean ground beef or turkey to tomato sauce for spaghetti, as a filling for enchiladas, layered in a lasagna, etc. Sneak even more vegetables onto the table with this delicious taco meat recipe.
What is your favorite thing to freeze?