Keep make-ahead freezer meals safe

Freezer meals are a great way to help you save money and eat a balanced diet, but there are some steps you should consider along the way to keep them safe.

A large chest freezer with the door open.
Photo: Shutterstock.

Preparing meals ahead of time can make dinner preparation easier and provide a more cost-effective, healthier lunch option. Without careful thought and planning, though, creating time-saving meals may become a big mess.

Here are some food safety tips for common questions about preparing freezer meals.

How long do foods stay good in the freezer?

A freezer is not designed to hold food forever. Freezing foods at zero degrees Fahrenheit inactivates microbes, bacteria, yeasts, and molds present in food, but does not destroy these. That is why it's important also to use the oldest food first when you pull food from the freezer. This storage chart helps determine how long foods are safely stored in your refrigerator and freezer.

Do I have enough freezer space?

If you have a chest or upright freezer, you should have room to make several meals to use at a later time. If you are relying on the freezer in your refrigerator, you can still make up some freezer meals, just not as many. Be aware of how much space you have and what you already have prepared. It is always a good idea to keep a freezer inventory list of what is on hand. This inventory sheet is useful for both meal planning and grocery shopping.

Is frozen food safe?

The United States Department of Agriculture says keeping food frozen at zero degrees Fahrenheit constantly, will always be safe. Only the quality suffers with lengthy freezer storage. Freezing preserves food for extended periods, because it prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness. Keep in mind that if food had previously been exposed to pathogen growth, those pathogens will be preserved as well, so only freeze food that has been handled safely. Also, not all food will freeze well. This National Center for Home Food preservation chart is helpful in determining what can and cannot be frozen. 

How can I safely package freezer meals?

Proper packaging helps maintain quality and prevent freezer burn. Consider how you will be preparing the food when you thaw it. Will it be cooked in the microwave, slow cooker, oven or by other means? This will determine what kinds of packaging materials you will use (e.g., freezer bags, disposable foil pans, plastic containers or other safe freezer material).

Ensure the material is made for freezing (i.e., thick enough to withstand time in the freezer), can seal air-tight and does not leak. As you prepare foods for freezing, label items with the date, a description of the food product and cooking directions. Food will freeze more quickly if several smaller containers or packages are used instead of a large one. A rule of thumb to remember is food that is two inches thick should completely freeze in about two hours. Never stack packages to be frozen; instead, spread them out in one layer on various shelves, then stack them after they have frozen solid.

What cooking method will I use with the meals I am freezing?

If you are planning on slow cooker meals, utilizing freezer bags is convenient; the bag of food can be thawed in the refrigerator and added to the slow cooker in the morning before you leave for the day. You should not cook food from the frozen state in a slow cooker, but rather thaw it first.  If you are looking for individual pans of food, some pasta dishes or casseroles freeze nicely in disposable foil pans. These can be pulled from the freezer and put in the oven and cooked from a frozen state.

Many recipes are easily doubled, so you can eat part now and freeze the other part. Michigan State University Extension recommends you leave perishable food in the refrigerator until you have lined up all other ingredients, packaging materials and have read through the recipes. Label your containers prior to beginning the assembly of meals. Working quickly and efficiently will keep your potentially hazardous foods out of the temperature danger zone and help control the growth of bacteria that could cause foodborne illness.

Planning ahead, combined with working quickly and efficiently to keep your food safe can lead to some delicious and convenient freezer meals. For more food safety tips and tricks, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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