Peruse the frozen food section at any grocer and you’ll find a huge array of convenience foods. But, while some frozen foods are made with healthful ingredients, many are filled with preservatives and additives we’d be wise to avoid. With a little planning, we can create our own frozen food sections right at home, stocked with homemade convenience foods that can help make healthy homecooking easier and quicker—with increased nutrition and for less money, to boot.
If a recipe calls for caramelizing onions, you might as well make a giant batch because doing it right takes time—as in, half an hour or more for that single ingredient. Yet the hard-won sweet and complex flavors of caramelized vegetables enrich many foods. Try caramelized onions as a pizza or sandwich topping; puréed into a dip; sprinkled onto roasted or grilled vegetables and meats; stirred into scrambled eggs or quiche; or tossed with simple pasta dishes. You can also make a substantial meal out of these beauties in the form of a classic French onion soup. Frozen caramelized onions don’t take long to thaw. You can even throw them into a pan while still frozen if the clumps are relatively small.
To make: Dice or slice onions and sauté them in hot oil over medium-low heat until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add a splash each of high-quality vinegar and wine (white or red), plus salt, pepper and fresh herbs, and continue to cook for about 20 more minutes. Add a little water as you go if onions are browning quickly or sticking to the pan. You can also include shallots in the mix, which adds a mild garlic flavor.
Freezing tip: Freeze caramelized onions first in an ice cube tray and then pop the cubes into another container.
Like caramelizing onions, roasting garlic deepens its sweetness and brings out a nuttiness, while mellowing its pungency. Whole roasted garlic cloves add a punch of flavor to anything you can think to toss them with; just pinch them out of their slippery skins whole. You can also smash cloves into a paste to whip into other ingredients such as avocados, butter, goat cheese or hummus to create amazing dips and spreads. And for convenience if you’ve already made a batch, you can replace the fresh garlic called for in many recipes with this garlic paste.
To make: Lay whole heads of garlic on their side and chop off just enough from the top to expose a bit of each individual clove. Put heads stem-side down in a baking dish and drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or chicken/vegetable stock over them. Seal the pan with a tight-fitting lid or aluminum foil. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until cloves are soft and golden.
Freezing tip: Freeze as whole roasted heads, individual cloves or roasted garlic paste.
Whole Peeled Tomatoes
Almost all vegetables freeze well and make for handy meals when the fresh versions aren’t available, but if there’s one vegetable you should eat from the freezer instead of from a grocery-store can, it’s tomatoes. The linings of commercial canned goods often contain bisphenol-A (BPA), which is linked to a number of health concerns from heart disease to reproductive problems. The acidity in tomatoes, in particular, makes BPA leach from the can linings into your food.
Besides being important from a health standpoint, tomatoes are a great freezer item simply because they are so versatile. Nearly every global cuisine makes use of tomatoes, so they show up in zillions of recipes. Whole frozen tomatoes make the perfect base for marinara sauce, salsa, chili and tomato soup, among many other uses.
To make: To freeze whole tomatoes, it’s best to first blanch them in boiling water to make it easy to remove their skins. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut a small X into the bottom of each tomato. Drop tomatoes carefully into the water and wait 15 to 45 seconds for their skins to soften. Remove to an ice bath, and slip skins off before freezing.
Freezing tip: Freeze tomatoes on cookie sheets until frozen, then transfer to containers. This way you can pull out as many individual tomatoes as you need.
Homemade stocks add wonderful flavor when used in place of water to boil pasta or whole grains, cook vegetables, make risotto or become the basis of a tasty soup. Many commercial stocks include excess sodium as well as preservatives and other additives, and often are simply not as rich and nutrient-dense as what you can make at home. Making stock also makes good use of trimmings that would otherwise go in the trash. Keep a container (quart jars work well) for each of these in your freezer: mushroom stems; vegetable trimmings; poultry bones; beef, lamb and pork bones; fish heads and bones. Whenever you have these scraps, put them into their container instead of into the trash. When a container gets full, make up a batch of nutritious stock.
To make: Dump your container of trimmings into a large pot filled with cold water. Stick it on a back burner to simmer, uncovered, over low heat for several hours (four hours is sufficient for veggies, mushrooms or fish; six to eight hours is best for meat stocks). Check periodically to make sure your stock is simmering and not boiling—there’s no need to watch it closely. After your stock is rich and flavorful, carefully strain out food trimmings and allow stock to cool. Stock freezes well for later use.
Freezing tip: Keep various types of trimmings in separate containers. Freeze stock in jars, or use ice cube trays then transfer to a bag.
Cooked Beans, Grains, Legumes and Rice
You might not think to freeze these items because they usually begin as dry goods. But when you spend the time making a pot of black beans or barley, why not make a double or triple batch so you have some ready faster next time? Thawed beans and grains work in the same way as fresh-cooked. In the case of beans and legumes, you can also mash them into dip-like spreads. Consider freezing popular staples such as hummus in individual serving sizes. Hummus-type spreads are also wonderful stirred into hot vegetable-based soups, where they add a rich silkiness.
To make: For most grains, cover them with stock or water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover, simmering until tender. For a guide to types of grains and their liquid-to-grain ratios, visit The Whole Grains Guide. For beans, follow any recipe, then cool to room temperature before freezing.
Freezing tip: Freeze grains and beans in your typical serving sizes, depending on whether you most often cook for one, two, four or six; 1-pint canning jars often work well.
Almost any chunk of frozen fruit is the perfect beginning to a smoothie. All you need is a good blender. Frozen berries can also be cooked over low heat with a bit of water and honey or maple syrup to make a lovely sauce to drizzle over pancakes or ice cream. When bananas are turning dark, toss them in the freezer to use in smoothies or banana breads, cakes or cookies.
To make: Simply cut fruit into slices or chunks as needed, then pop into the freezer.
Freezing tip: To make it easier to grab as many as you need, freeze whole berries, fruit slices or chunks on cookie sheets before transferring to larger containers.
Sweet or savory, handheld muffins are the perfect convenience food when you’re in a hurry. Thaw them in the microwave or toaster oven for a quick, nutritious breakfast or snack anytime.
To make: Follow any recipe, then allow to cool completely before transferring to the freezer. See one of our favorite recipes at left.
Freezing tip: To prevent muffins from sticking together, either freeze them first on cookie sheets then transfer to a larger container or bag, or separate muffins with wax paper in a larger container.
Herbs and Greens Ice Cubes
Frozen cubes of herbs and greens can add a quick and easy burst of flavor and nutrition to dishes. They’re also the perfect speedy way to preserve an overabundance of herbs growing in the garden. Chopped herbs can be blended with water or olive oil to freeze into individual ice cubes. Use these to season soups, casseroles, stir-fries, sauces and pastas, or to replace fresh herbs in recipes (substitute one ice cube for a tablespoon of fresh herb). Cubes of water blended with greens such as spinach and kale make an ideal supershot of nutrition for smoothies, soups and sauces.
To make: Finely chop fresh herbs, then combine with extra virgin olive oil or water and blend in a food processor, in a blender or with an immersion blender. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze. For greens, blend chopped greens with water in a high-powered blender then pour into trays and freeze.
Freezing tip: Silicone ice cube trays work well and make easy work out of popping cubes out and into a bag or jar.
Many soup recipes begin with a base of mirepoix, a mixture of equal parts sautéed diced celery, carrot and onion. You can save time later when you use your food processor now to prep plenty of the mixture. Freeze extras for your next soup or stew. If your freezer contains homemade stock, bagged mirepoix and some kind of meat or grain, you are never far from a quick, complete home-cooked meal.
To make: Dice veggies as uniformly as possible. Heat butter or oil in a saucepan over low heat. Add veggies and “sweat,” cooking just until vegetables start to release their juices.
Freezing tip: Allow to cool completely; freeze in ice cube trays then transfer to a larger container.
Doughs of All Kinds
Before being baked, biscuits, cookies and scones can all be frozen on trays in individual portions to be baked later. Pie and pizza dough are equally versatile and can be used to make a quiche for breakfast or lunch, a hand pie or empanada for dinner or snacks, or turned into a wonderful homemade dessert in a jiffy.
To make: Follow a recipe for any kind of dough, then freeze at the stage just before baking. See our Perfect Whole-Wheat Pie Crust recipe above.
Freezing tip: Freeze individual portions (single cookies or biscuits, or a single recipe of pie dough). Once they are completely frozen on the tray, pop them into containers labeled with cooking temperature and time.
Magic Meat Mixtures
If your family likes burgers, meatballs and meatloafs—whether beef, turkey, venison or vegetarian—prep in advance and freeze them, raw or cooked, for quick meals later. Just make an extra big batch when you’ll be in it up to your wrists anyway. And here’s a tip: Load up burgers and meatballs with healthful greens and herbs, which also freeze well this way. Sliced, raw chicken and pork can also be slipped into freezer containers—in a marinade or not—to enable fast stir-fries later.
To make: Thaw meats in the refrigerator overnight and proceed with the recipe the next day.
Freezing tip: Separate patties with wax paper. Freeze meatballs on a baking sheet, then transfer to a bag.
Mother Earth Living food editor Tabitha Alterman is a mother of two who’s always looking for easier ways to prepare healthy meals. Her 2015 book, Whole Grain Baking Made Easy, is filled with healthful, delicious recipes.