Keep make-ahead freezer meals safe

Making meals ahead and storing in the freezer is a popular trend – following safe food guidelines will keep families safe from foodborne illness.

This time of year tends to bring out the organization skills in some people. I hear a lot of talk about preparing meals ahead of time to make dinner easier to get on the table for when everyone arrives home. I am all for this concept, but as I scroll through individuals creative webpages, blogs and other social media message boards, I become concerned that sometimes what was started as an idea to create time-saving meals may become a big mess if careful thought and planning aren’t first applied to the concept.

A few key ideas to keep in mind as you begin the planning process:

  • How long do foods stay good in the freezer?
    • A freezer is not designed to hold food forever; freezing foods at zero degree inactivates microbes, bacteria, yeasts and molds, present in food. This storage chart helps determine how long foods are good in your refrigerator and freezer.
  • Do I have enough freezer space?
    • If you have a chest or upright freezer you will 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 degree 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. Not all food will freeze well, the 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 – freezer bags, disposable foil pans, plastic containers or other safe freezer material. Ensure the material is made for freezing (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 one large one. A rule of thumb to remember is a food 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 makes the most sense; 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. 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.

Michigan State University Extension recommends you leave perishable food in the refrigerator until you have lined up all other ingredients, packaging materials and 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. Frozen, slow cooker meals should be thawed in the refrigerator prior to putting them in the slow cooker.

Planning ahead, working quickly and efficiently to keep your food safe from harmful bacteria can lead to some delicious freezer meals. You will also have a healthy meal on the table in minutes when you come home after a busy day, and you may be less likely to go through the drive-thru or buy convenience foods.

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