How to make your freezer your friend when it comes to food waste

Frostbitten faggots, a tub of mystery white sauce and a big lump of blue cheese sit on my counter defrosting: is this food still even edible, I ask myself, and if so, how should I cook it? I haven’t had time to check my freezer for a while, but when used properly, it’s an excellent food-waste-prevention tool, prolonging shelf life by months.

You can freeze pretty much anything, to preserve nutrients as much as to prevent waste. Freeze food before its use-by date, and make sure it’s packed in airtight bags or freezer-proof containers to avoid freezer burn.

In case of any spillage and therefore cross-contamination, ideally keep meat and dairy in the bottom drawer, cooked food in the middle and fruit and fresh foods at the top. Inspect your freezer’s contents before going to the shops, not least because building them into your meals will both prevent them getting freezer burn and keep your weekly shopping bill down.

Label items clearly, with a description and use-by date, to avoid freezer confusion. Most foods will freeze well for two to six months, after which their texture will probably deteriorate, though it’s often still usable for up to a year. Blend defrosted food into soups to avoid any unpleasant textures, while even freezer-burnt meat can be marinated, minced or stewed to help improve its mouthfeel.

Defrost food in the fridge overnight, to avoid the so-called danger zone, because bacteria can form above 8C. Once defrosted, it’s a good general rule to eat it within 24 hours, and don’t refreeze unless it’s been cooked since thawing. The Food Standards Agency says: “It doesn’t matter if you cook your meat from frozen or fresh, you can use your leftovers to make a new meal. This new meal can then be frozen, but make sure you only reheat it once.”

How to freeze
Fruit Love Food Hate Waste estimates that 81.25% of the fruit we waste is because we just haven’t used it in time. Raw or cooked fruit can be frozen whole or sliced for ease of use in smoothies or porridge, say (we even freeze brown bananas and our daughter’s half-eaten ones, peeled and sliced, in a tub). Foods that have a high water content, such as fruit, may turn mushy as they defrost, but they are still fine to blend or cook.

Vegetables The National Center for Home Food Preservation in the US recommends blanching vegetables before freezing to prevent flavour, colour and texture loss; if you have time, prep and cut them, too, for ease of use (if need be, though, you can always freeze something whole to prevent it from going to waste). At home, we keep a freezer container for vegetable scraps to make stock, and if we have an excess of vegetables at the end of the week, we blanch and freeze them for later.

Herbs These perish quickly, so catch them before they turn to mulch. Chop up, spread on a tray, freeze, then pack into a container so they don’t freeze in one solid block. Or pack into ice-cube trays, top up with water and freeze.

Meat and fish The cost and resources that go into producing meat make it a product with a big foodprint. Even a small amount of frozen leftovers is a win-win, and can form the basis of a future thrifty meal, be it ragu, curry or pie. And remember, meat stores better in liquid, such as in a stew or curry, or double wrapped in a sealed bag to reduce the risk of freezer burn.

Dairy The equivalent of 3.1m glasses of milk are wasted in the UK every day, yet only a quarter of the population freezes the stuff, compared with half who freeze meat, fish and bread. The government waste scheme Wrap estimates that just matching those levels for milk would cut more than 10,000 tonnes of waste, saving £5m. Freeze in a suitable container with space for the liquid to expand. (Milk can sometimes turn lumpy when it’s been frozen, in which case it’s best used in cooking.) Freeze cheese in portions or grated for ease of use.

Other Freeze leftover wine for sauces. Freeze batches of pastry or bread dough (it defrosts really quickly and is much better than shop-bought). Batch-cook meals and freeze, ready to reheat and fake-away a takeaway. According to the food systems charity Feedback, UK households throw away 24m slices of bread a day, so freeze and pop straight into the toaster as required.

Incidentally, in the end, I made a blue cheese fondue with my freezer scraps, while the faggots fed the compost monster. What will you make from your freezer this week?

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