Whether you’re about to start cancer treatment or have a full schedule and need some help with dinner, stocking your freezer with healthy make-ahead meals can relieve the burden of cooking during the week.
“Having meals in your freezer helps you and your family avoid ‘Hangry Hour’—that time of day when you’re hungry and ready to eat now,” says Nancy Waldeck, a chef at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.
The key to healthy, tasty freezer meals is to make your own.
“The freezing process for store-bought frozen foods often degrades the taste of the food,” says Waldeck. “To compensate for this, the meals may be processed with extra salt and fat to add flavor. In addition, because they are made to last a long time, preservatives may be added to these meals.”
What foods freeze well?
Waldeck says the following recipes tend to freeze well:
After you cook your dish in advance, let it cool in the refrigerator, then freeze the recipe in realistic portion sizes for you and your family.
You can also freeze the following recipe staples, says Waldeck:
Butter, grated cheese and milk will freeze well for one to three months
Cooked grains like quinoa farro and rice
Cooked ground or shredded meat or poultry
Most bread (slicing it will make it easier to toast from frozen)
Peeled and sliced bananas
Vegetable scraps for vegetable stock
Stale bread for bread crumbs or croutons
Whole wheat or nut flour, which go rancid quickly
Most vegetables (see below)
Foods that don’t freeze well
Waldeck doesn’t recommend freezing dishes that contain:
Cream (cream-based frozen dishes tend to separate)
High-water content vegetables, like lettuce, spinach, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes (freezing can change their textures)
Eggs (unless in a casserole)
Potatoes (which can become watery with an unpleasant texture; potatoes are OK in small amounts in a casserole or soup)
How long can meals last in the freezer?
“Although meals may last a long time in the freezer without becoming unsafe, I use three months as my benchmark for eating them,” says Waldeck. “At that point, they will still have the original flavors and textures you created. Six months is my ‘drop-dead’ time limit. Prepared ingredients, like cooked grains, will last nine to 12 months.”
She recommends labeling and organizing your meals and ingredients and keeping them in sight in the freezer.
“I use designated storage containers that are freezer and microwave safe,” says Waldeck. “I used to use bits and pieces of takeout containers, but found that when I bought specific containers with lids that I keep much better track of what I have. I also put my containers in plastic bags in the freezer (that I reuse) with a piece of tape that has the name of the item and the date that I placed it in the freezer. I save the bags and relabel when I use them again.”
How to defrost and reheat frozen meals
You can defrost frozen meals or leftovers in the refrigerator, the microwave oven or cold water. Refrigerator thawing takes longer, but is generally the safest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Once your dish is thawed, eat it within three to four days. Heat the dish or ingredient until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees for 15 seconds to avoid food poisoning.
Ready to make some freezer meals of your own? Try the following recipes by Waldeck.
Effortless, easy and economical vegetable stock from the freezer
Next time you cook a bunch of veggies in a dish, save the peels, ends and shavings for vegetable stock.
Use a gallon zip-top freezer bag labeled with "vegetable stock" and the date.
Wash or rinse everything you are going to chop.
As you cut or chop every veggie, take the bits and pieces you would normally toss in the disposer or pitch in the compost pile, and throw them in your labeled freezer bag. Everything goes in from the ends of potatoes, the peeling from carrots, to the tough stems of the kale. Include the lettuce leaves that have gone sadly limp, herbs that have seen better days and onion skin.
Onion skin is the secret to a beautifully colored stock. No onion skin equals gray stock. Also, don’t put anything moldy or spoiled in the bag. Remember, you are going to eat the stock eventually.
Toss the bag into the freezer and serve up dinner.
The next time you are cooking, pull the bag out of the freezer and add your veggies into the bag. Toss it back in the freezer.
Repeat as many times as it takes to fill up your zip-top bag.
When the bag is full, tip the frozen vegetables into a stockpot and add five cups of water. Cover. Bring it to a boil, then turn it down and let it simmer for 30 minutes.
Let it cool long enough to handle and strain the veggies.
Making sure that the stock does not sit out for more than two hours on the counter, pour it into individual containers and put it in the fridge for up to three days, or in the freezer for up to six months. Package it any way you want: in zip-top bags, in one-cup measures, two-cup measures or even in an ice cube tray. Pack it up however it makes the most sense for your cooking style.
1.5 to 2 pounds salmon (or any firm-fleshed fish like cod, amberjack, etc.)
Olive oil Spray
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 large eggs
6 green onions, minced
½ cup panko bread crumbs
½ cup chopped toasted walnuts
Juice of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray the salmon with the oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook for about 10 to 12 minutes until cooked through. Remove and when cool, flake the fish.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the salmon, eggs, green onions, bread crumbs, walnuts and juice. Use your hands to gently combine and form into eight to 10 patties that are no more than ¾ to 1-inch thick.
Place the cakes on a parchment-lined sheet tray and slide them into the oven. Cook for about 15 minutes, flip and cook for about 5 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool briefly on the kitchen counter and then cool for an hour in the refrigerator. Remove and package each burger in two layers in plastic wrap and then place in a plastic bag, label and date.
Check out more recipes and nutrition tips from Cancer Wellness experts.