I saw you cringe a little when I said those words. It’s understandable; for most of us, frozen food conjures up images of fat-laden instant dinners or sad vegetables in pouches of mystery sauce. I think for most moms, it also has another connotation: Feeding our kids frozen foods gives us yet another thing to feel guilty about.
But what if I told you that there are frozen foods that are actually good for your family, and can also help dramatically reduce your household’s food waste? Maybe it’s time to stop giving frozen foods the cold shoulder.
Last week, the Environmental Working Group released some tips for parents to help them make smart decisions when shopping in the frozen food aisle, and they gave a shout-out to these five foods:
1. Organic vegetables (like whole green beans or green peas)
Frozen green beans and frozen green peas are not only more cost-effective than their fresh counterparts, they also retain more of much of their vitamin content. Who knew?!
2. Organic fruits (like whole strawberries or blackberries)
Switch out your usual frozen sugar-rich dessert with frozen fruit. They’re a healthy option, and a better choice than dehydrated fruit. Also, if you’ve had sticker shock from fresh blackberries, you’ll appreciate this.
3. Additive-free baby and toddler food
Try skipping the jarred food and look to the frozen aisle for baby food made from frozen fruits and vegetables. These products need less added flavors, additives and fillers since they are often harvested at the peak of the season.
4. Sustainable, low-mercury seafood
Adding seafood to your diet is a good thing, and frozen seafood is usually cheaper and of higher quality than fresh fish (which can sit on ice for more than a week before reaching your grocery store).
5. Better burritos
Who doesn’t like burritos? They’re often a savior for mid-week meals, but just make sure to steer clear of the varieties that are high in sodium and loaded with additives. Look for ones that highlight beans and environmentally friendly protein, like the Amy’s Kitchen brand.
To get a better idea of how to incorporate frozen foods into a healthy lifestyle, I spoke to Dawn Undurraga, EWG’s nutritionist, who was kind enough to answer all my burning questions.
When handled and stored properly, frozen food can help decrease waste by allowing households to only prepare as much as they need. And when fresh food is threatening to go bad, freezing offers a way to extend the shelf-life of the food until it can be used later. The Frozen Food Foundation also has this chart, which illustrates the role frozen food plays in reducing waste.
Is it advisable to freeze fresh produce yourself? If so, do you have suggestions for doing so?
Buying the right amount of food and eating it fresh is best. But when fresh food is about to go to waste, freezing is a great way to reduce food waste. Cut and freeze fresh fruit when it's on sale or overripe. Use the fruit later in smoothies, oatmeal or yogurt. To eliminate clumping, lay pieces on a tray in the freezer or freeze pureed fruit in ice cube trays. When frozen, transfer to a container. You can do the same with vegetables.
What frozen foods do you suggest steering clear of?
EWG’s Food Scores app can help you find the best frozen foods available in the grocery store. We recommend regularly steering clear of things that rate higher than a 6 in Food Scores. It’s best to stay with foods that score 4 or less, and every once in awhile venture into the 5s or 6s. And definitely steer clear of foods that score 10s. Foods like:
* Banquet, Chicken Fried Chicken Meal [10.1 oz.]
* Bob Evans, Bacon, Egg & Cheese Burritos [14.4 oz.]
* Jimmy Dean, Sharp Cheddar Cheese And Sliced Apples [5.2 oz.]
* Marie Callender's Lasagna Three Meat & Four Cheese [31 oz.]
* Boston Market, Swedish Meatballs [13.1 oz.]
* Nestle, Hot Pockets, Premium Pepperoni Pizza Sandwiches. [9 oz.]
* P.F. Chang's, Sesame Chicken [22 oz.]
Frozen chicken breasts are such a lifesaver for parent chefs. They’re not on your Top 5 list, but are they recommended (as long as they’re organic)?
Frozen organic chicken breasts are a top scoring food in EWG's Food Scores. We chose to highlight seafood in this list, since frozen seafood is typically cheaper than fresh fish, and most people don’t eat enough seafood with heart healthy omega-3s.
Your recent report stresses the importance of not microwaving food in plastic—is it safe to freeze foods in plastic? If not, what do you recommend?
Plastic degrades under extreme temperatures. Until there is better information available, EWG advises against freezing in plastic. Glass Mason jars and Pyrex are two good options. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics does not recommend reusing plastic containers to store food since some "containers were not designed to safely freeze foods.”
Your analysis indicates that there is a significant loss of nutrients in food frozen past 12 weeks, but is it still safe to eat? What’s the longest any food item should be kept in the freezer? (I’m looking at you, mystery meat on shelf #3!)
Yes, frozen food that has been handled and stored properly—in airtight containers—will still be safe to eat past the time when it has lost a significant amount of its nutrients. According to consumer guidance from the FDA, freezing at below 0 degrees F “keeps food safe indefinitely.” They recommend storage times for many different products and state “recommended storage times are for quality only.”
Essentially, that mystery meat on shelf #3 is likely safe to eat. Whether it will taste any good or still be an excellent source of B vitamins is another question.