Optimize Your Freezer

Optimize your freezer - Learn about buying the right freezer, energy efficiency, storing food, and organization
Learn about buying the right freezer, energy efficiency, storing food, and organization

If you are wondering whether a deep freeze is worth it consider these advantages:

  • it makes a monthly meal plan and grocery shop possible – yup that’s right. With my freezer I only need to grocery shop once a month. Which means way more time for the people and things I love, including myself!
  • it saves money by offering space to buy in bulk and take advantage of store specials
  • it makes getting a wide variety on meals on the table a snap and reduces cooking frequency
  • it allows some favourite seasonal food items to be available year round

It is so essential to our functioning as a busy family that when we moved from our tiny apartment to a somewhat bigger house, it was our first purchase – and many months before the couch, the kitchen table and chairs, and patio furniture.  But – we had a few things to learn to get the most out of it. Here are a few key pointers to optimize your deep freeze:

1. Get the right freezer

When purchasing your freezer you need to consider:

  1. Energy efficiency – there are many excellent, second hand models available as boomers downsize, but if it’s not energy efficient it could cost you more than you save over the life of the freezer. To be sure you are getting a good deal look for an EnergyStar Freezer.
  2. Upright or chest – Chest freezers are more energy efficient, offer more usable space per square foot, and are less likely to cause freezer burn. Uprights take up less floor space, offer a flexibly organized space and provide easier access to items.
  3. Freezer size – A freezer that is too small, will limit how you can use it. A freezer that is too big will not be energy efficient. To figure out the right size consider how much space you have, how you will use it (e.g., for bulk purchases, seasonal food storage), and what goals you have for the number of ready to go meals. Finally, make sure it will fit through all the doorways it needs to pass to get to where you are going to store it.

2. Optimize storage for energy efficiency

To run your freezer so that it is energy efficient:

  1. Fill it – Full freezers are more energy efficient because there is less space for warmer air to rush in when the door is opened. But you don’t have to fill it with food. Buy a few bags of ice, or make your own by filling ziplocks, empty yogurt or ice cream containers with water. Newspapers and packaging also work.
  2. Locate it away from heat sources, including hot sun, and not right against a wall
  3. Defrost any ice build-up greater than 0.6mm
  4. Cool food before storing it in the freezer
  5. Keep your freezer -18 C (0 F). As a rule of thumb, if ice cream is too hard to scoop, your freezer is too cold.

3. Store Food For Freshness

The key to avoiding freezer burn and deterioration of flavours is making sure that any contact with the air is minimized. You don’t need the gold standard vacuum sealer to preserve the freshness of your food:

  • Freezer zipper seal bags come in different sizes and are great for flat freezing sauces, soups, stews etc. To minimize air contact individually wrap items like cookies, fishcakes, or burgers in freezer plastic wrap and then store in a zip lock bag being sure to squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing.
  • Freezer plastic wrap can be pressed against the surface of items stored in containers such as casseroles, before covering with an airtight lid. It is also great for individually wrapping items (e.g., burgers, baked goods, chicken pieces) before storing in a zip lock. On it’s own, it should only be used for very short term storage as it is not air tight
  • Air tight freezer friendly plastic containers are great for protecting foods that can be crushed such as cookies, or pies, although they take up more space.
  • Heavy duty foil provides an extra layer of protection around plastic wrapped items, although it is also not air tight, so it is a shorter term option.
  • Buy foods already packaged in individual portions. For example – Costco sells salmon in individually sealed portions.

4. Organize Your Freezer

Digging through piles of food to find something is a big waste of time, can damage the food by jostling it around, and freezes the fingers. Avoid this by:

  • Store your food in usable portions: individually wrap chicken breasts or group a small number of chicken thighs together before storing in a large ziplock. Store sauces in the quantities you will use it. If freezing something like tortillas or pancakes separate the number you would typically use with a bit of parchment or wax paper so that they don’t stick and break.
  • Label items: You can get fancy with pretty printer labels, but masking tape and a sharpie do the job just fine.
  • Invest in some crates: It doesn’t need to be anything fancy – three of the large boxes of almond milk from Costco fit perfectly across the width of my freezer and separate my meats, fish, soups and stews (flat packed and stored upright), and veggies and frozen berries. My breads and baked goods are stored on top in a cloth bag that can easily be lifted up to get at what’s below. For something more aesthetically pleasing, I love this idea of using bins from the dollar store.
  • Group similar items together: Have a designated place for each type of food and create a little map of this and post it on the door of your freezer. It’s a good reminder for you, but especially a good reminder for anyone else in your family that is going to be putting things into the freezer or taking things out.

5. Track what you put in and take out of your freezer

While food in your freezer will be edible for a long time, maybe even for years, the flavours will fade and the textures will not be at their best. Keep a list of what you are putting into your freezer with the date it was made and a use by date. As you remove items, take them off the list. The most convenient way I’ve found to do this is just to use the Notes app on my iPhone. When I’m doing my meal planning I review it, and it’s at my fingertips if we’re out and need to make a decision between something readily available at home versus dinner out.

6. Use it in coordination with your refrigerator freezer

The freezer on top of our refrigerator freezer is the little buddy to our deep freeze. At the beginning of each week, I transfer the meals we are going to eat that week from the big freezer downstairs to the freezer right in the kitchen. Dinners, lunches and breakfast items are all there – a conveniently close reminder to take items out to thaw the night before.

7. Train others in your house hold on how to use your freezer system

You’ve created a great system – now help others in your family to follow it. Explain your tracking system and post the plan of where to find things (and put them away) on the freezer door so that they can do their part to make the system work.

Now that you have a plan for the freezer, on to the fun work of filling it.

Read more in this series:

Meal Planning – Once a Month For A Month

Printable to help create a monthly meal plan and shopping list
Get free printables to help create a monthly meal plan and shopping list

Previously, I posted tips on how to efficiently feed your family.  The cornerstone of this is a monthly meal plan and grocery shop.

When I experimented with this a few years ago, I had doubts it would be possible and wasn’t sure it was even desirable. But with a few years of this approach under my belt, not only is it doable, but the benefits have been far greater than anticipated. Specifically:

  • We eat healthier through setting and sticking to eating goals
  • Our footprint is smaller through eating local, in season foods
  • We save money by buying bulk, taking advantage of flyer specials, and having less food waste
  • We conserve our energy by not using it in daily small decisions on what we are going to eat, and then rushing to get food on the table
  • We gain tonnes of time by batching meal planning, grocery shopping, food prep and cooking
  • There are less hanger meltdowns from our little guys, because we get dinner on the table on time
  • We include friends in our meals more frequently
  • And all that advance planning, means our meals are much more delicious!

It is daunting to first consider, but in this post I’ll take you through the principles, tools and steps I use, and also share some handy printables to  get you started.

The Principles:

1) Make it fun!
Eating food is fun. Thinking about what you are going to eat should be fun too! Make meal planning a date with yourself, where you go to a favourite coffee shop, treat yourself to a beverage and/or listen to some enjoyable music. The first few times you do it, expect that it will take more time and brain energy. But once you have the basic framework, it should take less than 90 minutes to come up with the plan, link the recipes, and make a shopping list. I consider my meal planning done when I’ve ordered my groceries for pick-up on a particular date and time.

2) Assume you will only be doing one big grocery shop that month
This might sound like an impossibly long time if you are currently grocery shopping every week, but you can make it work and reap all the benefits. Just think of all the time and energy you will save by not constantly running back and forth to the grocery store, standing in the check out line, unloading groceries, making space in the fridge and then putting everything away… Ugghh! Just writing that out was exhausting!

Sometimes it is worthwhile to plan for a secondary pick of groceries partway through the month, particularly in the summer when there are so many nice fruits and veggies in season. If doing this, create the mid month shopping list at the same time as you do the monthly meal plan. If you are ordering your groceries online, you can go a step further and create your order so that when you are ready you just need to click a few buttons and stop by the store for pick-up.

And remember, a plan is just a plan. If you get a hankering for some juicy peaches part way through the month, go get some!

3) Create Your Meal Plan Framework
Remove some of the decision making by creating a framework of the types of food you will eat each day of the week, based on your eating goals for the month and how much time you have to prepare food each day of the week. More on this below.

4) Involve Others
Consult with others in the family on what they might like to eat that month or when they will be able to help share the cooking load. Letting your kids plan what you will eat for a few meals, from the main dish, to the sides, to the dessert, is a great way to get them excited about what’s for dinner and learn about healthy choices. And if they are old enough they can help make it too!

5) Include Time With Friends
This has been maybe one of the best spin-offs from looking ahead at our meal plan. Once we had kids, we found it difficult to find time to get together with friends regularly. Now we have friends over for brunch and dinner a few times a month, and without stressing ourselves out.

6) Plan Around Seasons and Special Deals

Meal planning can help you take advantage of what’s in season and flyer specials. I use Eat The Seasons as a guide to what’s in season and then our local flyers to identify feature foods for the month.

7) Use Your Freezer 
The freezer gets us through a month with only one grocery shop and gives me a few nights off from cooking each week. And it’s not all casseroles! We have a choice of things like stuffed chicken breasts, fish cakes, duck confit, and fish chowder and biscuits. I batch cook a few meals a month to replenish my freezer with quick, easy and delicious options.

8) If you love to cook
If you love to cook, make time for this in your meal plan. Choose a few days where you will be able to putter in the kitchen, or experiment with a new recipe. I love to unwind by perusing food blogs and Pinterest – when I find a recipe that I want to try, I just pin it to my Pinterest board and then review it when I am doing my meal planning.

9) Give yourself a break
A night where someone else gets the food on the table, fetches the oscillating requests for “Water! No milk! No water!”, and does the dishes is a mini vacation. At least once a week plan to get take-out, go to a restaurant, eat a freezer meal that just needs to be heated, or serve something straight from the package. One month my primary meal goal was to feed my kids take out or a pre-packaged food and not feel guilty about it. And honestly, when I look at all the good stuff I’m putting into their bodies over the rest of the month, I don’t need to feel bad about giving myself a few nights off.

The Tools:

For recording the plan:
Download these printables to guide you through the process the first few times. Once you’re comfortable with the approach, keeping your plan in the notes app on your smart phone is easy and convenient. Just number out the days, add a reminder of the meals you will be eating each day, and then paste the link to any recipes you are using so they are at your fingers tips when it’s time to cook.

For figuring out what to eat:

  • To identify what is in season I use Eat the Seasons as well as the page for our local farmers market
  • For recipes I use Pinterest boards in categories like foods I want to try, vegetarian meals, freezer meals
  • For tracking what’s in my freezer, I again just use the notes app on my iPhone and update it as I put new items in and take items out. This is more convenient than my old practice of keeping the list on the freezer – I can easily consult it if out shopping or if I need to make a quick change to what we are eating that day.
  • Planning for a month, means that fresh meats and many of the fruits and vegetables will need to be eaten in the first two weeks. This infographic gives examples of the types of foods we are eating over the course of the month.

    Food ideas for a monthly meal plan and grocery shop
    A guide to food ideas for a monthly meal plan and grocery shop

The Process

1) Pick a date and time when you will have a couple of hours to yourself
Either go somewhere where you will be in an atmosphere you enjoy or create some quiet time for yourself at home. Get yourself a special drink and favourite music to enjoy while you plan. Make it fun!

2) Create Your Meal Planning Framework
This framework is based on what a balanced diet looks like to you and how much time you want to spend preparing food each day of the week. The good news is you only need to do this once. Once you have a plan in place for how you want to eat, you can use the same framework as your starting point each month, tweaking as you go along.

To create your framework identify (you can use the printable here):

  • What are your eating goals? For example – how often do you want to be eating fish, vegetarian, chicken, or red meat? What variety of vegetables? Do you want to limit certain grains or starches?
  • What days are you short on time and need to be able to pull something from the freezer and just stick it into the microwave or oven?
  • Who cooks on what days? You don’t necessarily have to do it all. Is your husband, child, mother, father-in-law, etc willing to prepare some meals? Accepting help means you will have more time for the things (and people) you love!
  • Can you come up with a rotation of quick breakfast items you can lay out the night before? What about lunches?
  • What days do you have the time and desire to make a more involved meal or try a new recipe?
  • Will you stock your freezer with something home made this month? What days will you set aside to do this?
  • How often will you go to a restaurant or get take out? Don’t forget to give yourself a break!
  • Are there any special holidays, social events or anniversaries where you want to have a special meal?
  • Are there days where you would like to be able to have some friends over? Plan for this now.

From this you should be able to come up with a framework of the type of food you want to eat each day and how much time you have to prepare.

3) Review what’s in season and special deals

When I am starting my meal planning I first look at what’s in season so that we can enjoy foods that are at their best that month and then review the flyers for specials I want to take advantage of.

4) Review and select the recipes I want to try this month

Cooking is a hobby I love, and one which I used to have trouble incorporating effectively. I would try new recipes, but they often took longer than I anticipated and then by the time supper was on the table the kids were cranky and I was tired. Now I’ve learned to limit myself to a few new recipes a month and to choose a day when I will have the time to pull them together without any hanger meltdowns.

5) Fill in Your Plan

Now that you have your framework of the type of food you want to eat when, you can just fill in the actual meals, paying attention to your eating goals for that month. Linking the recipes right in the plan will save time. I make my grocery list at the same time, which I just do in another notes page on my iPhone.

As you are planning for a month, plan your meals so that you are eating your foods with the shortest shelf life first, and then extending into those with a longer shelf life (e.g., carrots, apples, oranges), frozen meats, frozen fruits and veggies (just as nutritious as fresh), and dried and canned items.

When filling in the plan I find it easiest to start with the most limited choices and work my way up to the most open:

  1. No Cook Days: Identify the days that you will not be cooking due to that being a restaurant/take-out night or someone else is doing the cooking. Add this to your meal plan.
  2. Freezer Days: Review what’s in my freezer that we can have those days, or figure out what we will buy that can just be popped into the oven.
  3. Quick preparation days: These are days when I have a bit more time to pull a fresh cooked meal together. I typically use very simple recipes, or use recipes where most of the preparation can be done the night before or use my slow cooker.
  4. Guests coming for dinner: Figure out what you will be serving for these meals. If you love to cook, you might want to go all out, but don’t be afraid to keep it simple – the time together is more important than the food.
  5. Freezer stocking days: If you will be making some meals for your freezer, figure out what days you will do this and what you will make.
  6. Kitchen puttering days: Again – if you love to cook, make time in your meal plan to do this. Just be realistic about how much time (and energy) you will actually have to do this over the month. My first few monthly meal plans had some flops because I was too ambitious about what I wanted to cook that month.

6) Review Your Plan

Double check:

  • Will you meet your eating goals for this month by following this plan? If not, switch out some recipes.
  • Are your meals complete with any side dishes you want to include?
  • Are you eating fresh, frozen, dried etc ingredients at the right time?

7) Review Your Grocery List
Review the list of ingredients against what is in your cupboards. Add any additional items you need for snacks, breakfasts, lunches, or drinks and any household items (e.g., cleaning, toilet paper, pharmacy items, etc)

8) Decide When You Will Go Grocery Shopping
I go to Costco for bulk and order the rest of my groceries on line from Loblaws and then just pick them up on my way home from Costco.

9) Reward Yourself
Wow! If you’ve gone through all these steps and follow through on your plan you will save yourself a tonne of time and energy. Now all that effort you put in needs to be rewarded. How about a hot bath, a manicure, or time with a good book?

Note: Don’t discard your meal plan after the month. Keep it, make notes on what worked and what didn’t and use it as your starting point for the same month the next year.

Read more in this series:

Claim Back Your Life – Meal Plan & Shop Monthly

How much time each week do you spend meal planning, creating shopping lists, doing the shopping, unpacking groceries, preparing the food, and then cleaning up afterwards?

In my quest to become more efficient and claim back my life, I knew this was a potential gold mine. But it wasn’t until I actually processed mapped and timed every step involved in feeding my family that I realized how much time I was throwing away – and how I could get a lot of that time back by being more disciplined and deliberate in my meal planning and grocery shopping.

Right now, I meal plan once a month, grocery shop once a month, do one major food prep of a couple of hours a week, and then on a daily basis am able to spend most of my evening enjoying my kids and doing something for myself. We’ve also created more friend and extended family time around meals, and are saving money through less food waste, buying bulk items and taking advantage of flyer specials.

I saved nearly six hours a month with monthly meal planning and grocery shopping
The time I used to spend grocery shopping each month, versus now with monthly meal planning

In this series of posts, I’ll share just how I am saving a tonne of time and energy getting healthy and mostly delicious meals to the table.

The key principles are:

1) Meal planning – Once a month, for a month:

This is central to everything else. Initially it was onerous and painstakingly slow, but once I figured out a cycle to limit the items to choose from, it became much quicker. And as I make it a date for myself, also quite enjoyable. Having a monthly meal plan means you can take advantage of in season foods, flyer specials, have less food waste and avoid last minute rushing and stress in coming up with meals.

See the approach here.

2) Grocery shop once a month, for a month

This goes hand in hand with monthly meal planning and requires coordination with the next principle of freezer management. Only going to the grocery store once a month means only once a month am I driving there and back, standing in the check out, putting all the bags in the car, and then lugging all the bags out of the car, making room in the fridge and then putting all those groceries away. That’s a lot of steps! Especially if you are often dragging a couple of kids along with you. On average I’m getting back almost 6 hours of time for me by only making the trek once a month.

3) Get a deep freeze and use it effectively

Without my deep freeze, the whole approach would fall apart. It is what makes my once a month grocery shopping possible, and with complete meals ready to go, each week I get a few nights off from cooking. If you aren’t applying freezer management (choosing the right things to put in your freezer, knowing what’s in it, and being able to find it) you are likely wasting food and time, not to mention those frozen fingers.

4)  Routinize, routinize, routinize

Recently there has been lots of articles and studies around the brain’s limited capacity to make decisions over the course of the day – each decision or choice takes some of that capacity. This extends from really tough decisions, like how to restructure your company, to more mundane choices like whether to have oatmeal or yogurt for breakfast. One cornerstone of being more productive, has been to routinize or batch (as in monthly meal planning) these simpler choices, saving energy for the most important decisions.

If you can turn the simple activities and decisions you make around getting food on the table into habits you can reserve your energy for the big decisions in your life. Think about what routines you can put in place to simplify meal prep, meal time and clean-up.

5) Give yourself a night off

Not having to worry about getting food on the table a night or two a week can feel like a mini vacation. Give yourself permission to get take-out, serve something from freezer or even occasionally, straight from the package. And if you have someone who can share in the meal chores, or might even enjoy getting a meal ready for you, take advantage of that.

There are at least three nights a week and sometimes four, where I don’t have to worry about cooking, either because someone else is cooking for us, or I have something all ready to go.

6) Make the most of the time you are around the table with your family

This is the whole point isn’t it? We want to nourish our bodies, but also our souls with quality time together. In our house that means no work papers, computers or smartphones at the table, and for the kids, no toys. The focus is on the food and each other.

I hope these tips are helpful to you. I’d love to hear what you do to make feeding your family easier and enjoyable.

 

Read more in this series: