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How Long Can You Freeze Your Meals Before They Go Bad?

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Making your meals ahead of time and freezing them to keep fresh until you’re ready to eat them seems like a pretty fool-proof plan. But what exactly are the rules that come with meal freezing? How long do they stay good for when they’re chilling in your freezer? Is there anything that’s off-limits when it comes to freezing meals? Can you get sick if you eat them after they’ve been frozen for too long?

To get to the bottom of these questions and more, we asked Ken Immer, president and chief culinary officer at Culinary Health Solutions, to take us through the best practices for freezing meals. Here’s what he had to say about the dos and don'ts of meal freezing.

How long can you freeze meals for?

When it comes to the shelf life of the meals in your freezer, Immer says there are a few factors to take into consideration in order to make that call. “First is the water content of the item in question,” he explains. “As a rule, liquid-based meals will freeze best (i.e. soups, stews, sauces). They will also last the longest in the freezer. I would say up to a year or more, but we really shouldn’t be thinking about freezing anything more than a few months, honestly.”

Why do meals with a high water content stay good for so long? “These items will be almost ‘immune’ to any sort of freezer burn because any meats or tender vegetables will be encased in the icy liquid,” Immer explains. “Most other cooked foods do have a short freezer life if you want to maintain texture and quality of the meal. They will start to dry out unless kept very well sealed. A vacuum seal is best.”

What can you freeze?

Liquid-based meals like soups are your best bet for freezing, not only because of the way that they freeze but for how easily they can be reheated. “They can be heated up directly in a pan, for most things, and do not require any pre-thawing,” Immer says. “Lightly cooked vegetables are the next thing that freezes well. Those without any sort of sauce work best and can be kept separate. This is actually how all frozen vegetables you buy at the store are made. They are quickly blanched—or briefly boiled or steamed, and then plunged into ice water to stop the cooking—and then frozen by laying them out (you can use a cookie sheet) to freeze quickly and separately.”

If you had hopes of freezing meat that you already cooked, Immer says you’ll need to be diligent about your storing methods. “Cooked meats by themselves (i.e. not in a stew) don’t do all that great in a home freezer because they generally lose moisture in the freezing and thawing process as well as during the actual freeze itself,” he explains. “Vacuum sealing can be a way of making this work, but we do not recommend it. Casserole-type foods are similar to stews and will tend to freeze well as long as they are cut into small portions, and the portions frozen separately, and they can include cooked pasta. However, by themselves, pasta does not freeze well, neither do grains when they are generally “plain.'”

Do they lose their value?

“Generally, freezing at home will tend to degrade the quality and texture of pre-cooked foods,” Immer says. “This is mostly because our home freezers are too warm. Commercial freezing of cooked foods generally happens at -10F or below, and it happens quickly. This doesn’t allow the ice crystals to form in a way that will degrade the food, especially with meats.”

If you’re really into the idea of freezing meals, Immer has a recommendation that will help preserve the quality. “If you do freeze in your freezer at home, be sure to cool the item to be frozen to room temperature first, and then do not open the freezer door for several hours while the item freezes completely.” Also, the smaller portions you can break your meal down into, the better the freezing/thawing process will be.

“A big hint for freezing is to make what you freeze into individual portions/units so that it freezes separately, and you can remove/thaw only exactly what you need when it’s time,” Immer says. “It can take a lot of free space in your freezer to be able to do this because it generally means you need to lay things out on a cookie sheet and stay flat and level until completely frozen. But the good news is that once things are frozen this way, it does allow for easy storage of the items. If you freeze in large pans or portions, you have to pull the whole thing out, it extends the thawing/heating time (potentially degrading the quality), and is not as appealing to prepare once frozen.”

Can you get sick from frozen meals?

According to Immer, the likelihood of getting sick from frozen meals has to do with the method you use to freeze and thaw your meals. “Foods need to be cooled to room temperature first before going into the freezer, but you don’t want to leave anything sitting out too long before going into the freezer!” he says. “This is especially important for casserole-style foods. Allow them to cool slightly, then cut them up to speed up the cooling process for each piece, as the ‘center’ of a really thick lasagna can stay hot/warm for a long time, and this is where potential food-borne pathogens start to develop.”

The process of freezing stops these pathogens from being able to develop, but the thawing process opens that possibility back up again. “The pathogens may or may not ‘die’ in the freezer,” he says. “This can be mitigated by heating to a high temperature for several minutes when reheating. However, the item itself might not sustain that high-temperature reheat, unless it’s a soup/stew, which is another reason why they are truly the best items for freezing.”

To avoid this, Immer stresses the benefits of freezing meals in smaller portions, making the freezing and thawing process easier to execute and minimizing the margin of error.

Written by Danielle Page. This post was originally published on ClassPass's blog, The Warm UpClassPass is a monthly membership that connects you to more than 8,500 of the best fitness studios worldwide. Have you been thinking about trying it? Start now on the Base Plan and get five classes for your first month for only $19.

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