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Expert Tips for Freezing Food and Reducing Food Waste

May 30, 2024

Updated June 23, 2023

Anna Perling

Katie Okamoto

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It’s empowering to have a freezer full of ingredients and premade meals. You can throw a fresh-tasting dinner together without taking a trip to the store. You can bake homemade cookies a few at a time, defrost an emergency brownie or two, and toast fresh bagels. And in the dead of winter, you can draw on summer’s bounty of basil, berries, and stone fruit. Plus, freezing food is one of the easiest things you can do to minimize food waste, save money, and reduce your environmental impact.

Globally, food waste accounts for an estimated 8% to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. (To put that into context, aviation accounts for about 2% of global CO₂ emissions.) In the United States, about a third of food goes to waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And food waste is the biggest methane emitter in landfills. It also comes with major financial costs: According to the USDA, the average family of four in the US will lose $1,500 annually to food waste.

One of the simplest ways to reduce food waste is to freeze food, because it helps stretch your leftovers and raw ingredients. (You can read our other tips for reducing food waste here.) Below, we share the best gear and techniques for packing, thawing, and organizing so you can reap the rewards of your freezer while also living more sustainably and saving money.

The key to ensuring your food tastes great after it’s thawed is how you store it: Food stays freshest when it’s frozen in airtight containers and thick, durable wrappings.

The biggest enemies of frozen foods are air and ambient moisture. They both cause freezer burn, which creates a tough or rubbery texture after food is thawed. The right packaging staves off that dreaded aftereffect by limiting the amount of air, odors, and moisture vapor allowed in, said Elizabeth Andress, food safety specialist and professor of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia.

Below, we’ve rounded up our freezer-storage recommendations to help your food taste better for longer.

These heavy-duty plastic bags are designed to last longer in the freezer. And the sliding zip is easier to open and close, even when a bag is filled with saucy foods. Though these are technically single-use bags, they’re made of thicker material and can be washed and reused a few times.

Zip-top bags are great for freezing food because it’s easier to get all the air out of them than it is with rigid containers. And zip-top bags have an added space-saving benefit: You can stack them, if you lay them flat to freeze first.

We like Hefty Freezer Slider Bags, but if you can’t find them, look for an option that’s labeled for freezing. Freezer bags are thicker, and they’re designed to be less brittle than regular bags when frozen, so they’re less likely to puncture or tear while you rummage around. (Another advantage is that you can wash and reuse them for longer before they go kaput.)

Bags with sliding zip tops are easiest to fill, and they seal even when they contain saucy foods, which can gum up the zippered seals on other bags.

These multipurpose, durable bags seal securely and can hold everything from snacks to prepped ingredients to leftovers. And they can go from fridge to freezer.

As an alternative to plastic freezer bags, reusable silicone bags are sturdy, and they seal tightly and store flat. Of all the reusable bags we’ve tested, we recommend Stasher Reusable Silicone Bags. We like the multipack, which includes various sizes in bright, fun colors.

Though they’re much more expensive than plastic bags, the Stasher bags allow less transmission of air and moisture. And they last longer and are easy to clean, even in the dishwasher. If you use them frequently, over time they’ll contribute less to plastic waste—though ultimately silicone is also a plastic polymer.

It can be a little tricky to compress the air from Stasher bags before sealing, but pressing them against a surface and rolling from the base toward the open edge helps. (Or try this handy sous vide trick for almost-like-a-vacuum-sealer results; it works for silicone bags, too.)

This easy-to-find, multipurpose, plastic-free wrapper helps keep brisket, bread, baked goods, and other bulky foods free from freezer burn.

For items that are too bulky to fit in a freezer bag, you can choose from several types of freezer-specific wraps.

Heavy aluminum foil, like Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil, is the easiest to find. You can wrap items in heavy-duty foil only, especially if you want to avoid single-use plastic. But a tight layer of ordinary plastic wrap under the foil wrapping will provide an extra line of defense against freezer burn.

This plastic-coated paper helps to keep meat and fish well wrapped and juicy during long-term freezing, but it can’t be recycled.

Freezer paper is another wrapping option, especially if you freeze meat or fish regularly. (Packaging from the store, butcher, or fishmonger isn’t usually intended for long-term freezing.)

Not to be confused with wax, butcher, or parchment paper, freezer paper has a wax or plastic coating on one side that acts as a moisture barrier to hold in juices. (The other side is uncoated, so you can easily label and date the contents.) Andress likes using paper such as this one from Reynolds. Unfortunately, because of the coating, this paper can’t be recycled or composted.

If you choose to wrap your food in freezer paper, make sure to wrap it tightly. You can follow this demonstration of two folding methods (video) from the extension program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

These containers stack neatly and are made from durable tempered glass. The colorful lids make it easier to match each one to its corresponding container (you may need to replace them over time).

Compared with bags, reusable containers stack more neatly and may be easier to fill with liquids. After testing dozens of sets for our guide to the best food storage containers, we recommend the Pyrex 18-Piece Simply Store Food Storage Set. These durable tempered-glass containers stack well and won’t pick up stains or smells.

They’re also safe to use in the oven, as well as in the freezer and dishwasher. Just be careful to let the container defrost in the fridge before reheating, and place it on a room-temperature baking sheet before transferring it to the oven. (This will help prevent shattering, from the sudden temperature change.) We’ve used this method for baking chilled pies, and we’ve never had an issue.

These containers have locking lids that will prevent leaks. But these lids also put stress on the lips of the containers, so the glass may be prone to chipping over time.

Our top-pick Pyrex containers aren’t leakproof—for that, we like the Glasslock 18-Piece Container Set. The Glasslock containers have locking lids that prevent leaks. But the lids also put stress on the lip of the containers, and this makes the glass prone to chipping over time.

These inexpensive plastic containers come in multiple sizes and are freezer-safe.

For an affordable plastic set, we like the Rubbermaid TakeAlongs Food Storage Containers. These containers are tight-sealing and microwave-safe, though we do suggest that you transfer your food to a non-plastic container for heating.

For freezing, you might also consider reusing plastic yogurt or sour cream cartons—a frugal, sustainable approach. Just know that, unfortunately, their lids don’t seal well and will let air in. So you’ll have to wrap the whole container with foil or plastic wrap for the best quality.

We’d also avoid using plastic takeout containers, which can become brittle in the freezer and then crack or shatter easily.

This vacuum sealer has the suction capability of models that cost twice as much. It offers multiple controls, too, so you can adjust how you seal your food.

People who frequently freeze items or buy food in bulk may want to invest in a vacuum sealer to keep ingredients fresher for longer. Vacuum sealers get as much air out of a bag as possible, which helps reduce freezer burn.

For our guide to the best vacuum sealers, we sealed ground beef and bone-in cuts of meat using 12 different machines. Nearly all of our test items came out with minimal freezer burn after spending several months in the freezer. We recommend the easy-to-use Anova Precision Vacuum Sealer Pro, which offers powerful suction and has several useful settings.

In addition to the containers and bags you use, the way you pack foods will change how they freeze and thaw. We have some tips:

Freeze foods as quickly as possible. The slower the freezing process, the more likely it is that larger ice crystals will develop, making foods soggier or tougher when you reheat them. Avoid adding a ton of non-frozen food to your freezer at once, and consider lowering the temperature the day before freezing a lot of food. Packing smaller portions will also help speed up freezing times.

Let food cool down before you freeze it. Warm foods in a cold freezer will cause condensation to form, which is bad for frozen-food quality, according to Andress.

For liquids, leave enough headspace. Water expands when it freezes, so when you are putting anything in a jar, a container, or even a bag, leave some headspace to prevent cracks or rips. You should generally leave about half an inch of room, but the amount varies based on what you’re freezing and the kind of container you’re using.

Freeze different kinds of food separately. Do this if you’re freezing a meal with several components that will freeze and thaw at different rates, such as chicken and broccoli. Packing components separately will reduce freezer burn and improve the quality of the reheated meal.

Use the dry-pack method to prevent clumping. For foods that you want to freeze in bulk but plan to use little by little, the key is to use the dry-pack method. Line a baking sheet with wax or parchment paper (moist ingredients will stick to bare metal), arrange items in a single layer so they’re not touching, and then put the sheet in the freezer. After they’re individually frozen, you can pack up the foods to save space. This technique is great for berries (which would normally clump together), balls of cookie dough, slices of bread, or bacon from a pack you won’t eat all at once.

This sturdy, inexpensive sheet pan fits in most freezers and will last for years.

You save $6 (50%)

The Nordic Ware Naturals Baker’s Half Sheet—our favorite baking sheet—works great for this task. (You can get it in quarter-sheet and eighth-sheet sizes, too, and these may fit better into an already-crammed freezer.)

This tray produces easy-to-remove cubes, and the lid keeps odors out and prevents spills.

Use an ice cube tray to freeze small amounts of sauces, herbs, citrus juice, or condiments so that they’re easy to throw into a dish.

We recommend the OXO Good Grips Ice Cube Tray over others because it has a rigid plastic lid that keeps smells out and prevents spills. Plus, it allows for easy stacking, so you can maximize space. You can freeze cubes of pesto, tomato paste, lemon juice, minced garlic, or even individual, cracked eggs.

The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a timetable for the life span of frozen foods. But when it comes to deciding whether it’s too late to use something, you should employ your best judgment. “As long as that food stays frozen, then there aren’t any bacteria at work or even molds,” said Andress. “But quality will continue to deteriorate in the freezer.” Everyone perceives the shift in quality a little differently. However, it’s a good idea to use something within around eight to 12 months of freezing it.

The best, safest way to thaw cooked and raw foods is in the fridge, because it keeps the temperature below the danger zone (the temperature range in which dangerous bacteria can rapidly multiply).

But thawing food in the fridge takes a long time. A quicker way to thaw cooked and raw foods is to place sealed bags in a large mixing bowl filled with cold water (never use warm water), which you change out every 30 minutes until your food thaws.

If you need to thaw even faster, you can always use a microwave. Just make sure that you use what you’ve defrosted immediately so the food isn’t sitting at an unsafe, warm temperature at which bacteria can grow.

You can cook many frozen foods directly from the freezer, as long as they will heat fast enough. Premade frozen meals like soups and stews are fine to reheat directly in a pot, or you can use a sous vide machine (keeping the water bath above 140 degrees Fahrenheit) or an electric pressure cooker. However, Andress advises against putting anything frozen—especially meat—straight from the freezer into a slow cooker, which takes too long to heat foods to safe temperatures and thus allows bacteria to grow.

If you organize your freezer, label everything, and keep an inventory of what you have, food won’t just disappear into a black hole. Instead, you’ll be rich in ready-to-use, easy-to-find items that you can grab in an instant.

To keep track of expiration dates, label packages using markers and tape that won’t disintegrate in colder temperatures. We like the hardy ScotchBlue Multi-Surface Painter’s Tape, but you can also use freezer tape. Use a Sharpie Fine Point permanent marker (so it won’t rub off) to write the date and ingredients on tape labels.

Keep an inventory of what you have and what you’ve used, and place this list near your fridge so it’s visible. And by doing an occasional freezer edit (going through and reorganizing your freezer, each quarter or each year), you’ll keep your food items tidy and top of mind.

You can freeze almost anything, but not everything is appetizing after it thaws. Freezing temperatures can cause physical and chemical damage to cells and tissues, and that can make some foods limp or watery.

But there are many things that freeze very well: Soups, stews, casseroles, cakes, and cookie dough are just a few examples. Even some ingredients—including sour cream, tofu, and eggs—can be revived after freezing, and breads and tortillas can be zhuzhed up in a toaster or pan.

For recipe ideas and advice on what will freeze best, NYT Cooking has a guide to freezing many ingredients. It also offers several recipe roundups, including Freezer Friendly Recipes and 24 Freezer-Friendly Recipes to Cook for New (and Tired) Parents. The National Center for Home Food Preservation also provides extensive guidelines for freezing (though some of the recommendations are dated).

This article was edited by Katie Okamoto and Marguerite Preston.

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Freeze foods as quickly as possible.Let food cool down before you freeze it.For liquids, leave enough headspace. Freeze different kinds of food separately.Use the dry-pack method to prevent clumping.