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Freezing Food and Freezer Food Safety

Reduce Food Waste and Retain Food Quality

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Food is the largest household expense for many families and the homemaker needs to reduce food waste and better manage how the larder is kept for the long term, in order to save money on groceries. Reducing food waste undoubtedly decreases your overall spending and that means more money for other things your family needs. Unless you are able to shop and get what you need for your family on a daily basis, freezing some foods for short or long term use, is essential.  And with gas prices on the rise and their effect on food prices, there's no better time than now, to start looking at how you protect and store the costly food you buy every week.

These tips target ways to freeze food and reduce waste, but they also touch on the recommended freezer life of foods and how to thaw foods properly so they are safe to eat.  There are ways to make sure your longterm food storage is efficient energy-wise, if you want to save even more money in freezer operating costs.  We'll also look at other food preservation methods with little or no continuous operating costs, all in the name of saving money and energy.

1. Food Quality and Preventing Freezer Burn

Foods will not likely ever go bad or be unsafe to eat from a stay in a freezer as long as the freezer temperature is at zero degrees F. or below and food quality was excellent when they were frozen.  However, food quality can be affected during freezer life and that can make foods less than desirable to consume. Food quality includes texture, taste and color. And longterm freezer storage can cause foods to also acquire an unpleasant odor. As for bacteria, any present at freezing time, tends to hibernate during freezing.  Foods should be processed properly as soon as they are defrosted.

While a little freezer burn can be trimmed off, when it is extensive, there really is no alternative but to discard it.  That's a waste of money, food and energy.  A scene that is all too common in today's households.  We buy it, ignore it and then throw the food out.  If you hate food waste, this has to stop.  Adopt a better food managing strategy, reduce food waste and save money:

  • Freeze foods at their peak quality. Don't wait a few days then decide to freeze it; freeze it right away to retain food quality. That makes a difference in the condition of the foods, when you take it out of the freezer later. And as long as a previously frozen food is still cold and has not reached room temperature, you can refreeze it, but there could be a decrease in quality. That means that you can refreeze meats you've just bought, that were previously frozen.
  • Wrap, bag and store foods properly for the freezer. Use only specially designed freezer bags or plastic containers to freeze foods and avoid empty spaces within. Air trapped within the bag or that gets into the bag or container, is what causes frozen foods to deteriorate.  The best method of bagging foods is with a vacuum sealing system - it pulls out the most air from the freezer bag. These are costly appliances, but if you freeze foods often, you'll get your money back in reduced food waste.  Less efficient but still effective are hand pump air removal systems, though the air they pull out of the bag is limited, it's better than no air drawn out.
  • Make use of a freezer's Quick Freeze section for new freezer items, then reallocate once frozen.  Avoid stacking several fresh meat packages together, better to stagger them so they freeze more quickly.
  • Make sure container lids offer an airtight seal and containers are sized appropriately to minimize empty space and that lids are on tight. If you're using butcher type brown paper, consider adding a plastic bag to doubly protect frozen foods.  Never use bags not intended for foods, such as garbage or household bags - they can contain harmful chemicals.  If you're not sure it's food safe, don't use it.  Learn about the causes of freezer burn and how to reduce the risk.
  • Use appropriately-sized freezer containers for tiny amounts. For baby food freezing or jams, use small plastic containers such as Ball's Jam Jars to minimize the presence of air in the container.
  • Avoid freezing foods that don't freeze well.  Things such as milk or mayonaise-based meals and some other foods do not freeze well and some tend to seperate during the thawing process.  And bread and buns though they freeze fine, tend to have a much shorter freezer life than meats.  Their market bagging materials are very light and do not adequately protect against freezer burn. Keep bread and buns frozen only for a few days.
  • Freeze only foods you are sure your family will eat.  There's no sense freezing the left-over soup or stew that nobody liked, unless you have a remedy to make it more appetizing later. You'll just have to discard it eventually anyway; better to save the energy and hassle now.
  • Label and date all frozen foods.  Adding a label helps you to identify foods and to know when they should be used before their quality deteriorates.

2. Best Freezer Temperature and Freezer Storage Times

Freezer foods must be stored at zero degrees Farhenheit or below, in order to retain the food quality present at storage time.  And manufacturers usually denote the recommended freezer temperature for their appliances in the product manuals.  If your freezer has a fast freeze section, that is the best spot to place new items for freezer storage, at least until they are frozen, then they can be relocated to another area of the freezer.

The longer you keep foods in the freezer, the more foods tend to deteriorate in way of quality and color.  Freezer burn will give foods a dry, rubbery and whitewashed look. This can be trimmed off, but freezer foods are best when they have been frozen only for a short time. Sometimes, frozen foods may look fine when it first emerges from the freezer, but after thawing, it might be questionable, especially if you then detect an odor.  Even if these foods are safe, quality has been severely affected and you should discard it.  To reduce food waste, plan on an even shorter freezer time than recommended.

  • Bread and buns: 1 month or less
  • Processed meats, weiners, bacon, sausage - up to 2 months
  • Prepared meals/dinners, uncooked ground meats - up to 4 months
  • Fish, seafood - up to 6 months
  • Poultry, roasts - up to 9 months
  • Fruits, vegetables - up to 10 months

Keep in mind that these freezer storage times are simply estimates and are based on foods that are packaged properly for the freezer.  Several things can drastically reduce food quality and the freezer life of frozen foods such as:

  • Freezer efficiency - it should maintain a constant temperature.
  • Frost/ice build-up can also affect efficiency - freezer should be properly cleaned and maintained.
  • Improper packaging - flimsy food wrap; too much air inside the packaging.
  • Frozen foods can often have a shorter life cycle in a freezer with auto-defrost because temperatures fluctuate more than in a manual defrost freezer.
  • Foods frozen when quality was already diminished.
  • Containers that are too large and have empty space allowing air to remain trapped inside.
  • Dispensing often from a frozen bag, such as with frozen fruit. Everytime the bag is opened, air is allowed in. The remedy? Fill smaller bags for the freezer.
  • Too much freezer browsing - how often the door is open affects the interior temperature of the freezer.

People will sometimes consider placing frozen foods outdoors during a cold winter.  Though temperatures seem to remain below freezing all day, sun rays can warm up certain areas of frozen foods and that can shorten their freezer life and cause foods to deteriorate faster. Frozen foods should also be protected from outdoor critters that may be attracted by food odors.

3. Review, Organize and Rotate Freezer Contents

There is no sense in filling a freezer with food, only to keep buying and adding, while the foods at the bottom are enjoying a overly long and painful stay in the freezer, just to be thrown out when they do eventually surface.  Proper freezer storage includes monitoring, organizing and reorganizing of frozen foods in such a way to make retrieval possible and quick.  You should also rotate foods to make sure the oldest frozen items are eaten first. Here are some tips to help you organize freezer food storage:

  • Keep labels on top and readily visible.
  • For convenience, use a labeler to produce name and date labels for your freezer food.
  • Keep frozen foods used often such as ice cream, treats, some vegetables and fruits in the handiest spot, either in your refrigerator freezer or in a top section or basket.
  • Group like items together: Fish, meats, poultry, ground meats, vegetables and so on; use small boxes or larger bags for groups.
  • Bag in appropriate amounts so the whole bag is removed and there's less reopening of containers.
  • Group spices together into a larger zip-style bag.
  • Keep single servings together.
  • Group nuts, raisins, Craisins™ and other baking items in a certain spot.
  • Place newer cuts of meats in the lower section as they are added and rotate freezer foods regularly to ensure older foods are eaten first.
  • For chest freezers with a lot of empty space, you can place a cardboard box upside-down in the bottom to create a shelf and make it easier to get at frozen foods.
  • Before shopping and while planning your weekly meals, quickly scan and review contents of the freezer for inspiration and to avoid unnecessary spending.

4. Freezer Food Safety & Defrosting Foods Properly

There's no advantage to freezing foods if they are allowed to spoil during the thawing process. Defrosting properly ensures they are safe to consume and reduces food waste. There are basically three methods to defrost freezer foods:

  • In the refrigerator
  • In cold water
  • In the microwave using a defrost cycle

Refrigerator defrosting is the best and safest method. But foods defrosted in the refrigerator take longer, so allow plenty of time - usually overnight for roasts or ground meats and two to three days for a turkey.  As food packages defrost, dripping is evident - place foods on a plate to avoid a mess. When the cold water thawing method is used, foods should be immersed and water should be changed every half hour. Defrost time will vary depending on size; but assume two or more hours for mid-to-large items and turn a turkey over periodically.  A turkey can take several hours to thaw in cold water; remove gibblets and neck from cavity as soon as you can to help with thawing. Follow the microwave instructions for best defrosting.  Some models have preset functions based on weight.

After defrosting, always inspect before cooking.  Fruit tends to lose a lot of juice as it thaws. Frozen meats should be cooked immediately after defrosting and not allowed to stand at room temperature for any length of time. Trim off dried or freezer burn areas and discard foods when there is any doubt as to spoilage.

5. Freezer Food Safety After a Power Outage

Learn what to do during a power outage to protect your freezer food.  There are also steps to take to protect freezer food and learn how to know if those foods are safe to eat after an extensive power outage, a long distance move or freezer failure.

6. Freezer Efficiency - Save Energy and Reduce Food Waste

Your freezer's efficiency plays a large roll in protecting frozen foods and reducing waste.  If the freezer is full of ice or frost, air cannot circulate properly and the temperature will fluctuate rather than keep a constant prefered temperature.  Always turn off and unplug a freezer before cleaning/emptying and where possible, transfer frozen foods to another freezer during cleaning.  Clean a manual defrost freezer regularly, or when you see a build up of frost.  After the ice/frost is removed, wipe down walls and dry with a cloth, plug it in and replace frozen foods, taking care to reorganize freezer foods as you load it.

Freezers that have auto or self-defrost will cycle on/off on their own to keep ice from forming on the interior walls. Though they needs less maintenance, a self-defrost freezer should still be cleaned regularly and foods reorganized. The same should be done to the refrigerator freezer, which is an integral part of your kitchen food storage. As part of your strategy to reduce food waste, plan every six months to cut down on food buying and concentrate on using what you have.  As the freezer level drops, this a good time to clean it and reorganize before stocking up again.

Always ensure that the temperature control dial is set at the preferred number to keep the freezer interior at zero degrees Fahrenheit or below.  Some freezer or refrigerator controls tend to be placed in an inconvenient location, where they can be nudged as foods are removed.  This can cause the dial to turn, lowering or increasing the temperature.  These controls should be checked periodically for optimum temperature settings for either the refrigerated or freezer compartments.  Your appliance manual will state optimum control settings.

7. Buying a Freezer & Making Capacity Decisions

While it's very nice to have a huge freezer with ample room for lots of bulky foods and made-ahead dinners, an overly large freezer will cost you more in electricity to keep it running and if there's a lot of empty space in it - you'll be cooling that area for nothing.  A large freezer is also bulky to place and difficult to relocate, should there be a move in your future.  It's also much harder to keep a large chest freezer organized, cleaning is more difficult and sometimes it's harder to retrieve freezer foods. Here are some buying tips to keep in mind when shopping for a freezer or deciding on capacity:

  • Buy a freezer capacity that meets your current needs, plus a little more. Freezers generally have long life cycles.
  • Two small units may be better than one.  A small upright for most freezer foods plus a compact chest freezer for seasonal use or the overflow, might be easier to place and more practrical than one large chest freezer.
  • An upright freezer allows better organizing, monitoring and finding what you're looking for.
  • A chest freezer is ideal for large bulky items such as a turkey.
  • Also base freezer capacity on whether you buy a lot of bulk freezer foods, make several meals aheads or have garden produce to freeze regularly.
  • Those living in rural areas tend to use a freezer more than those in urban areas, where the food supply is more readily available.
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8. Canning as an Alternative to Freezing Foods

Canning foods is a great alternative to freezing fruits, vegetables and other foods.  However, canning and home preserving must be done correctly to ensure foods you have canned will be safe for your family to eat.  There's more to canning than simply placing hot foods in jars and applying a lid that appears to seal.  Canning must be done with utmost of care, adhering to recommended food safety guidelines for each type of foods canned and reviewing contents before consuming.

You'll need a preferably cool and dark area to store your processed home canning. And not all foods can be successfully canned at home.  Using specially designed canning and preserving equipment is key to proper home canning. Learn how to can properly and find out what you need for home canning.  Canning is a great way to reduce the bulk in your freezer and canned foods can be stored longer than those in the freezer. Other methods of preserving foods include dehydrating and smoking.  Not all types of preserving are best for all foods; some foods are best preserved only by certain methods.

9. More About Food Storage

Using specially designed freezer containers or bags with tight closures will help to protect your frozen foods from deteriorating. Understand the differences in plastic food containers, especially when it comes to recycling. And in the short term, learn some tips on how to store spices, dry goods and other foods. Find ways to reduce food waste and save money.

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