Think beyond the refrigerator and use your trusty icebox to make meal prepping even easier.

By Alyssa Sparacino
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Frozen meal prep can save you money, time, and calories—if it's done right. Follow these golden rules from the Fast to the Table Freezer Cookbook by Becky Rosenthal, and your freezer meals will always come together quickly and deliciously.

Do: Arm Yourself with All the Freezing Supplies

Before you can even think about getting started with any kind of chopping or cooking, first make sure you have the proper frozen meal prep tools. After all, what good is a tasty slow-cooker freezer meal if you have nothing to freeze it in? Stock up on parchment paper, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, freezer-safe packaging, and a marker for labeling items. Make sure you have a few baking sheets and large bowls clean and on hand. (Related: 7 Meal-Prep Gadgets That Make Batch Cooking MUCH Easier)

Don't: Skip the Labeling Step

Your food is prepped, cooked, and sealed tight. You're done, right? Not so fast. Always take a moment to label every item in your frozen meal prep. Date the package, list the number of servings inside, and name the dish so you easily keep tabs on what everything is—and when it's past its best-by date (aim to use within a couple months).

Do: Choose the Right Freezing Method

Just as important as having the right supplies is knowing how to properly use them to package, wrap, tie, or close the meals you worked so hard to prepare. Again, what good does a healthy frozen meal prep recipe do you if it's covered in freezer burn? Yuck! The biggest mistake? Assuming all resealable plastic bags are freezer-friendly. Check the label! Another tip: Wrap casseroles and pizza slices in plastic wrap before freezing in disposable foil containers. (Related: Stock Up on These 5 Healthy Frozen Foods)

Don't: Freeze Certain Foods

Sorry to be a bummer, but no matter how you slice and dice it, custards, mayo, yogurt, cream cheese, sour cream, or cakes with frosting are simply not freezer-friendly. While some merely thaw out to have a strange consistency, others just plain old taste bad. Don't put these items on ice:

  • Cooked potatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Cooked pasta
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Dairy products such as yogurt, milk, and sour cream

Do: Always Thaw Food In the Refrigerator

This is the safest way to defrost frozen meal prep items—whether they're raw or have already been cooked. Place them in a container to catch any drips and allow to defrost on the bottom shelf of the fridge (to avoid drips on items below). Defrosting on the counter at room temperature allows bacteria to grow quickly since it's in the "danger zone" of 40° F and 140° F, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) explains. As a last resort, use your microwave's defrost setting, being sure to first remove foil and any plastic wrap that isn't microwave-safe.

Don't: Refreeze Thawed Food

It's one thing to take out a few enchiladas from a frozen dish and forget to return the rest to the freezer for a few minutes (as long as there are still ice crystals, you're good). It's quite another thing to, say, let a roasted chicken completely defrost, change your mind, and then refreeze it. Bacteria can start to grow on the food in as little as an hour. (Related: How to Meal Prep and Save About $1,400 Each Year)

Do: Use Frozen Fruit to Makes THE Best Smoothies

Freezer smoothie packs probably aren't a new concept to you, but there's a solid chance you're doing it wrong. You want to only chop and freeze the solid ingredients (blueberries, raspberries, and spinach, for example). Leave the yogurt, almond milk, and chia seeds for when you're ready to dump and blend. (Jump on the green smoothie train with these recipes that anyone will love.)

Don't: Freeze Everything In Massive Quantities

When you freeze moist food, such as chunks of fruit or homemade gnocchi, they can freeze together into a large clump. The frozen meal prep trick here is to lay the individual pieces-not touching!-on a parchment paper–lined baking sheet, and then place that sheet on a level shelf in the freezer. Once the pieces are frozen completely, transfer them into their permanent freezer-friendly container (say, a freezer-safe zip-top bag or lidded container). That way, when you're ready to thaw just a few pieces, you won't have to chip them off a massive, stuck-together blob.

Do: Think Outside the Ice Cube Tray 

Filling ice cube trays with pesto, spicy tomato sauce, or herbed oil to have on hand when you're ready to whip up a fresh pasta dish is pure freezer food genius. But if you aren't keen to give up all your ice cube trays for the frozen meal prep cause, there are other options you already have in your kitchen! Mini muffin tins or even cake pop pans will work just the same and make removing the frozen flavor bombs super easy. (Related: Portable, High-Protein Snacks You Can Make in a Muffin Tin)

Don't: Feel Like You Must Thaw Frozen Veggies Before Cooking 

Most vegetables hold up well when cooked immediately after you take them out of the freezer (think: in stews, pasta sauces, stir-fries, etc.). Thawing them just results in soggy veggies, and no one likes that. Great news: If frozen when ripe and at their peak of freshness, frozen fruits and vegetables may actually be more nutritious for you than fresh.

Do: Freeze Fresh Herbs for a Simple Flavor-Booster

We've all been there. You really want to make this one dish that calls for half a teaspoon of fresh dill (like these tasty fresh herb recipes!), but you don't really know what to do with all that leftover herb (and you can't just live on tzatziki for a week). Your frozen meal prep solution: Chop the leftovers and store them in a ziplock freezer bag. Then you'll have dill on hand next time instead of needing to buy (and waste) more herbs.

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