Eating real foods is much easier to integrate into your life when you cook and freeze meals ahead. When you have a grab-and-go selection of meals and snacks, eating healthier feels more automatic and seamless.
Even with the best intentions, if healthy food isn’t easy and convenient, we’re more likely to head for the drive-through or grab prepackaged food laden with fat, sugar, and salt. Even prepackaged food sold at natural health food stores contains a plethora of unprounceable ingredients.
But you don’t need to prepare a month’s worth of food in advance. Some foods can be prepared ahead a week and others several weeks. Nonetheless, eating junky food for those rushed mornings, on-the-go lunches, and pooped-out evenings can be entirely avoided by having a system:
- Cooking healthy food and recipes ahead in bulk
- Freezing the individual- or family-sized portions
- Thawing and/or reheating
What about the quality of frozen food?
Freezing may worry you because the quality can degrade if not stored properly. You may also wonder how long food can be stored in the freezer. Rest assured that when stored at the right temperature and in the right container, food can last in a good-quality state for a long time.
Cooking ahead in batches
I’ve talked a lot about the kinds of food you can cook ahead in my nutrition posts. The only things you shouldn’t freeze are food in cans and shell eggs (really, who would do that?). You should cook and freeze what you want to eat – period. You may want to buy precut frozen veggies for convenience, but be sure they aren’t in a sauce or with added salt. I’ve provided some creative food ideas at the recipes at the bottom of this post.
Of course, any time you cook something it’s wise to make extras for storing. But on one or two weekends a month make a habit of grilling big packages of chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, or salmon steaks; baking turkey or bison meatballs or burgers; making your own veggie or black bean burgers, boiling a large package of wild rice; whipping up a casserole, stir-fry, or sauce; baking or boiling sweet potatoes; cooking pancakes; preparing fresh beans, and so on.
The following applies to all precooked foods, including vegetables, meat, grains, and casseroles.
- Be sure the freezer temperature is 0° F or below.
- Let food cool completely before freezing.
- Overwrap meat and other packages that might let air penetrate.
- To freeze in individual- or family-sized portions, here are a few ideas:
- Divide portions into separate quart-sized freezer bags that you can wash and reuse again.
- Place meat pieces in a large gallon-sized bag and separate with waxed paper. I cut chicken breasts in half before freezing because I rarely eat a whole one for lunch.
- Divide pasta, casserole, sauce, or potato portions into muffin cups or ice cube trays and place in a large plastic bag. Muffin tins work too but obviously can’t be defrosted in the microwave.
- Write the date on wrapping.
- Spread out packages in freezer to allow for the quickest freezing. Slow freezing can cause ice crystals.
- Check out this food storage timetable to see how long you can freeze foods.
- Consider vacuum-sealing foods. Food doesn’t stick to the plastic!
- Thaw in the refrigerator, cold water, or the microwave. Never thaw in the garage or basement.
- Fridge: Before you leave for work, take dinner out of the freezer and put it in the fridge. For lunches and breakfast, take it out the night before or earlier. Large items will take longer but you are only thawing individual or family-sized portions!
- Cold water: To thaw food faster than the fridge, put it in a leak-proof plastic bag and immerse it in cold water. (If water enters the bag it’s not good – bacteria could be introduced or the food could be ruined.) Check the water frequently to ensure it stays cold and change it every 30 minutes.
- Microwave: Defrost at 50% power to prevent the middle from cooking and eat immediately.
- If frozen food is stuck to the bag, run cold water over the bag to loosen it.
- After thawing foods, either keep in the fridge for 2-3 days or reheat immediately.
- Do not freeze food in a can; foods taken out of a can are fine. Do not use shell eggs that have broken in the freezer.
- It’s recommended that you reheat food to an internal temperature of 165° F to kill all bacteria; stews and soups should be brought to a boil. I’m not super anal about this step; I usually just heat until it’s hot all the way through. But it’s especially important if you’re reheating food that’s been cooked and frozen a few times (see Refreezing).
- Once thawed, either reheat individual items separately or together in the over or microwave. I typically heat veggies, meat, and pasta separately before combining in a salad or other meal.
- Microwave pasta or dip it briefly in boiling water.
- Cooking meat, poultry, or casseroles without thawing first will take about one and half times as long to cook. Discard original wrapping before reheating.
- You can freeze food again when it was:
- Frozen –> thawed –> cooked/reheated
- Uncooked –> frozen –> thawed
- Cooked –> frozen –> thawed
- Do not refreeze foods that were left outside the fridge longer than 2 hours or 1 hour in temperatures above 90° F.
Creative Food Ideas
While you can certainly eat chicken breasts, brown rice, and broccoli all the time, it’s more fun to get a little creative:
- Burritos. These make-ahead burritos take about an hour per week. Use rinsed, unsalted beans or turn it into a breakfast burrito (go easy on the cheese).
- Muffins. I’m not endorsing muffins that are loaded with sugar and fat, which unfortunately most muffin recipes have. Instead aim for less than 2 to 4 grams of fat per serving, avoid chocolaty and sweet recipes, and watch portions. Wrap individually and freeze up to a month. Then defrost in microwave for a minute or two. Here are a few carb-lover recipes:
- Crockpot recipes. I was impressed when I found this post that includes 9 healthy recipes with instructions for freezing.
Enjoy the benefits of your very own “prepackaged” food! Do you have any tips for freezing or recipes to share?
I’m always happy to answer questions and offer online personal training programs as well as train clients in the Denver area.
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.