Guide to Frozen Food Storage & Shelf Life

Properly freezing and storing foods in the freezer ensures a longer shelf life and less food in the trash. Cook more and save more with the help of our infographic guide.

Last week we re-kicked off our Cooking On a Budget series with 10 budget-friendly ingredients that will help you cook without breaking the bank.

This week we’re moving into an under-utilized (or perhaps ill-utilized) resource in your kitchen – your freezer, which is for more than just storing ice packs. Here are all the ways your freezer can help you cook more and save more:

1. It preserves ingredients

Maybe you like to buy shrimp in bulk, or perhaps you have more cheese than you can use before it goes bad. Freezing these ingredients extends the shelf life. It’s especially great if you are cooking for one, but still want to take advantage of bulk deals.

2. Seasonal ingredients are always available

You can buy fruits and veggies when they’re cheaper in season, and then freeze to be used during other seasons.

3. You’ll always have meals

By freezing leftovers, there’s no need to buy frozen foods, and they’re great to have as back-ups for nights when you don’t have the energy to cook.

To help you make the most use of your freezer and save money, we have put together an infographic that tells you:

  • What foods can be frozen
  • How to freeze them
  • How long they can be stored in the freezer
  • What they’ll be like when thawed
  • What kind of cooking method can be used with the frozen versions

To make things easier, you’ll be able to print this chart out to stick on your fridge or kitchen wall, so that you will always have this handy info nearby. Before we get to that, though, here are some helpful tips to get you started:

What Foods Can Be Frozen?

First, it’s important to note that freezing most foods will change the quality and texture. For example, if you freeze fresh tomatoes, they will turn mushy in the freezer, so they won’t be as enjoyable in a salad. But dicing or pureeing them for a soup will yield tasty results!

Our rule of thumb is that most foods freeze well, but some will require more prep than others. Saving time is another way to save money, so you don’t want to buy a ton of groceries just for freezing. After all, frozen foods have a shelf life as well, and forgetting about them is just like buying fresh food and not using them, but you also spent time to prep them for the freezer.

The longer that food stays in the freezer, the lower its quality. Keep track of what you have stored in the freezer by keeping inventory with a magnetic board. That way, you can still enjoy tasty foods from the freezer, since you know how long they’ve been in there. Tweet this tip.

So what foods can be frozen?

  • Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and eggs
  • Fruits and veggies
  • Nuts, beans, and grains
  • Both raw and cooked meats and seafood
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Meat or veggie stock
  • Cooked pastas and noodles
  • Soups, stews, and casseroles
  • Pesto, tomato paste, and tomato sauce
  • Bread, tortillas, and baked goods

See? Anything goes! But the most important thing in freezing foods is how you prep them for freezing. Some of these foods will require less prep and will freeze better than others, so keep this in mind when you shop. Our favorite easy-to-freeze items are raw meat, cheese, and canned tomato products.

Savings Tip #1: Buy easy-to-freeze items in bulk!

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How to Freeze Foods Properly

Now this part requires a bit of time, but if you’re going to save money in the long run, it’s worth it. If you bought a huge package of chicken breasts, don’t just throw it into the freezer. Not only does it take up a lot of space, you would have to thaw the entire package even though you only need two chicken breasts for this week’s dinner.

Put in a little time to freeze properly, and you’ll actually be saving time when you’re ready to thaw and cook. Tweet this tip.

Here are the basics:

1. Whatever you freeze, whether it’s grated cheese, cooked soup, or raw meat, it’s best to portion into specific serving sizes first. That way, you only take out and thaw what you need. Also, the smaller the frozen item, the quicker it will thaw.

If you are freezing liquids, such as milk or chicken stock, they will expand as they turn into solids, so don’t fill the container up all the way. Leave some space to allow for expansion and then freeze.

Make sure you prep the food that is specified first. Most veggies require a cooking method called blanching before they can be frozen to ensure the best quality, as freezing raw veggies will mean a loss of color, texture, and flavor. We’ll cover more on how to blanch in just a minute.

2. There isn’t a lot of room in the freezer, so you have to put your Tetris skills to use and think ahead. Figure out the best way to utilize the space that you are given. Some things, such as soups, stock, and milk, are best frozen in containers, so they will already take up a certain amount of space.

Other foods are best frozen in a single layer on a sheet pan, and then transferred into bags. This not only saves space, but will be a lot easier to thaw as well. If you skipped the sheet pan, you would get one large clump! This works especially well for foods like berries or bell peppers.

A great way to freeze small portions of things where you only need a tablespoon or two at a time is to use ice cube trays. Spoon or pour tomato paste, pesto, stock, harissa, curry paste, etc., into the trays, and once frozen, they can be popped out and placed into bags.

To Store Frozen Foods:
Ziploc bags come in different sizes, like pint or quart. We like to keep a few size options around to freeze a variety of foods.

Old yogurt containers are a budget-friendly way to store foods in the freezer. If you don’t have any, you can buy freezer-friendly quart containers or a set of different sized BPA-free containers that are great for storing food in general.

Any ice cube tray will work for freezing small amounts of liquids or sauces, but the ones with covers (usually used for baby food) help prevent the food from absorbing freezer odors.

3. Now you’ll want to avoid freezer burn, which happens when food is exposed to air. Air can be taken out of bags by sticking a straw into a little opening in the bag, and then sucking all the air out. For containers, you can press some plastic wrap or aluminum foil right onto the surface of the food to prevent it from coming in contact with air, and in turn, preventing ice crystals from forming.

To freeze items like bread or baked goods, it’s best to wrap them tightly with plastic wrap or foil to prevent those darned ice crystals from making your bread soggy.

4. This last step is the most important step: Label, label, label! We cannot stress this enough. The last thing you want to do is rummage around your freezer and find bags and containers filled with . . . what is this again?

Keep masking tape and permanent markers around so that you’ll always remember to label the name and the date. Even though freezing food extends the shelf life, that doesn’t mean that they won’t go bad. You can refer to our infographic to see how long you can store the frozen food.

5. As mentioned earlier, the best way to keep organized is to keep inventory of what is in your freezer. But another useful practice is FIFO – First In, First Out – which not only applies to your fridge and pantry, but your freezer as well. The foods that go in first should be placed closer towards the door / front, so that those will be used first.

How to Blanch Vegetables

Blanching is when you cook food in boiling water for a brief, short time, and then plunge it into ice water or under running cold water to stop the cooking process (a process known as shocking).

Since foods diminish in quality and texture the longer they are kept in the freezer, you would usually cook the foods you freeze, as opposed to enjoying raw or thawed. Blanching and shocking vegetables will allow you to still cook the veggies and have them turn out good and not become overcooked and soggy. Plus, this method makes the food a lot safer to eat! (And a lot easier to pack, since they would have wilted or softened a bit.)

Here’s how to blanch veggies:

    1. Prep / chop veggies as desired.
    2. Fill a pot with water and bring to a boil. (4 cups to 1 pound of veggies, or 8 cups for leafy greens.) As the water is waiting to boil, get your ice bath ready: Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water, and have a mesh strainer on hand.
    3. Put veggies into boiling water and let it come back to a boil. The times for each vegetable will vary, and it will change even more depending on the size, whether or not they have been chopped. Check our infographic below for estimate blanching times.
    4. Use the mesh strainer to scoop out the veggies and put directly into the ice bath, or use cold running water, if you do not have ice.
    5. Cool completely and then drain thoroughly. Excess moisture means extra soggy food!

Savings Tip #2: If this sounds like a lot of work to you, remember that frozen veggies were on our 10 budget friendly ingredient list. If there is a veggie you love, stock up on it when it’s on sale.

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Thawing Frozen Foods

Safely thawing food is just as important as all the other freezing tips we mentioned above, so take a bit of time to plan ahead.

Thawing frozen food in the fridge is the slow method, but it is ultimately the safest, since it keeps food out of the Temperature Danger Zone (40 degrees F to 140 degrees F / 4.4 degrees C to 60 degrees C). If the food is small, it only needs to be thawed overnight, which is why we recommend freezing in small portions. Most food will take about 1 to 2 days. Tweet this tip.

Of course, there will always be those days that you need to get dinner out on the table pronto, but you either haven’t had time to go grocery shopping, or you just plumb forgot. Place the frozen food in a leak-proof bag and immerse it in cold water. You’ll need a leak-proof bag or else bacteria can be introduced into the food, unless you are running the frozen food under potable water. Also, the food can absorb the water and make it watery and not too tasty. Change the water every 30 minutes and make sure the water is constantly cold. Cook immediately when thawed.

The third method to thawing is to defrost with the microwave. However, some parts of the food may become warm and start to cook, so you need to make sure you cook immediately after thawing.

Another good thing about using the fridge thawing method, though, is that it makes it safe to refreeze the food even if you don’t cook it. Of course, quality will be low since moisture would have been lost during the thawing process. If any food has been thawing out of the fridge for more than 2 hours, do not refreeze.

Now that you have become a pro at freezing food, you can use this free printable guide below as a reference to help you out in the kitchen!


Guide to Frozen Food Storage

Everything you need to know about how to properly store food in your freezer.

We hope this lesson on how to store food in the freezer and the shelf life of frozen food will help you cook more and save more. As always, we work incredibly hard to create this cooking info, so please do help us spread the smarts, so that everyone can benefit as well!

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For more tips on how to cook and eat healthy on a budget, see the rest of our Cooking on a Budget series. Coming up next week, we’ll be featuring a Budget Meal Plan, which will contain recipes that you can double up on and freeze. To make sure you receive this in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter below!

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