Food isn’t getting any cheaper. Prices are expected to rise by 3.5 percent in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with potentially even more of an increase occurring because of the drought in California, which is a major fruit, vegetable, and dairy producing state.
The good news: You can still slash your grocery bill. The trick is to use your freezer’s valuable real estate to stock up.
Although many consumers use their freezer to stock frozen dinners, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokeswoman Libby Mills points out that a freezer can do so much more, especially if your mission is to save money.
Here are three of her ideas that will help you use your freezer to maximize your food budget.
Freeze peak-season produce
When fruits and vegetables are in season, they’re abundant and at their lowest prices. So, for example, don’t just buy a pint of seasonal blueberries or strawberries. Buy several and freeze them for later. Most types of fresh produce will freeze well.
To-do tactics for fruit: Rinse berries, sort for damaged pieces, then dry thoroughly before freezing. For fruit that tends to brown, such as apples, peaches, nectarines, and apricots, take an extra step and toss sliced fruit in a solution of one quart of water to one tablespoon of lemon juice. Strain and dry thoroughly before freezing.
To-do tactics for vegetables: Blanch vegetables then submerge them in ice water to stop the cooking process; strain and dry thoroughly before freezing.
Store fruit and vegetables in your freezer in freezer-grade plastic bags, glass food storage containers or vacuum-sealed plastic bags, such as those that are part of the FoodSaver V2865 Vacuum Sealing System, which keeps food fresh up to five times longer. “Air is the worst enemy for freezer food,” Mills says. “Freezer air is drier than outside air and will dry out food it comes in contact with and distort the color.” Fill freezer containers to the top and remove as much air as possible from freezer bags.
To freeze fresh (in season) herbs, such as basil for cooking, “chop basil in a food processor then put a tablespoon or two into an ice cube tray compartment and cover with a little water,” Mills says. The water creates a seal to keep air out. You can freeze cubes of homemade pesto the same way. Store the frozen cubes in a freezer-grade plastic bag and use as needed.
No matter which type of freezer container or system you use, label and date everything and stick to this freshness strategy: First in, first out.
Stock up on meat deals
Meat is one of the most expensive items in the supermarket, so be sure to fill up your freezer with bargain buys. But don’t just pop a supermarket package of meat straight into your freezer. “The plastic or paper it’s wrapped in at the supermarket isn’t a high enough grade to keep the moisture and air out,” Mills says. Instead, either repackage the meat into sealable packages or put the meat package into a freezer-grade storage bag before freezing.
If you’ve purchased a large quantity, such as a 3-pound package of lean ground beef, which is more than you’ll need for one meal, divide it into correct portions before sealing and freezing. A hamburger patty maker can help you preform perfect hamburger patties. “You can even just use a chopstick or any utensil with a straight edge and indent the ground beef to make three 1-lb portions,” Mills says. That way, when it’s time to thaw, you can easily retrieve the amount you need for one meal.
Freeze your own ready-made dinners
You’ll be less tempted to resort to expensive take-out, eating out or opting for a pricey frozen dinner you have no nutritional control over if you have a freezer full of DIY, budget-friendly side dishes and entrees that you can just pop into the oven or microwave on a moment’s notice. When you’re making soup or lasagna, for example, double or triple the recipe so you’ll have a batch for the freezer. To stretch your food budget even further though, don’t double or triple the amount of meat. Use the amount called for in a single recipe.
Mills also recommends cooking up and freezing inexpensive and heart-healthy meat alternatives, such as quinoa, lentils and beans. “You can cook them in advance, put them into freezer bags, and then use them in soup, rice dishes and pasta. You don’t have to thaw them beforehand.”
For more tips on how to freeze food properly, check out www.homefoodsafety.org.