In your quest to eat healthier, don't overlook the power of your freezer.
Stocking the freezer with wholesome ingredients and batch-cooked meals can save oodles of prep time on hectic weeknights.
Freezing food also reduces waste by extending the life of foods you might otherwise have thrown out.
That mess of kale, for instance, will eventually rot in your crisper if you don't use it up – or freeze it for later use.
To keep your eating habits on track when pressed for time, stock up on nutritious freezer meals and ingredients.
Batch cook a stew, chili, soup or pasta sauce and freeze in single servings for quick meals. Freeze breakfast items such as whole-wheat pancakes, frittata and whole-grain muffins.
Freezer standbys also include cooked pasta (cook to al dente before freezing), cooked quinoa, grilled chicken, turkey burgers, cooked ground meat and leftover vegetables such as sweet potato, winter squash, green beans and carrots.
You can't freeze foods indefinitely, though. Quality – but not food safety – suffers the longer food stays inside your freezer. Texture, colour, flavour and nutrient content deteriorate over time.
In general, most cooked foods (e.g. soups, stews, casseroles, leftover meats) can keep for two to three months in the freezer. Fruits and vegetables maintain their quality for eight to 12 months and nuts can be frozen for three months.
Of course, how you store frozen foods can affect their lifespan.
To keep out air and moisture (and freezer burn), store foods in resealable freezer bags and remove excess air. Glass and plastic containers designed for freezing work well, too.
If you put your freezer to constant use, consider investing in a vacuum sealer.
These heat-sealing appliances – many of them small and compact – work by pulling air away and creating a tight seal around the food.
You'll find them in the kitchen appliance section of most department stores.
Don't let your freezer become a collector bin for packages of frozen food past their prime. Label items with the date you put it in the freezer, the number of servings and, if needed, the name of the food.
Four foods to freeze
Add these four foods to your freezer to boost the nutrient content of meals and snacks. Learn their nutritional perks, how to freeze them and how long you can keep them.
Pomegranate seeds: Pomegranate season ends soon, so now is the time to stock your freezer with these juicy and sweet, tart-tasting seeds. Pomegranate seeds deliver fibre, folate, vitamins C and K and potassium, but their claim to fame is their exceptional content of polyphenols, antioxidants thought to have anti-cancer and heart-healthy properties.
To easily (no mess) extract the seeds, cut a pomegranate into quarters. One at a time, place each quarter in a large bowl of water, then break out the seeds with your fingers. The seeds will sink to the bottom and the white fibre will float to the top of the water (skim it off). Strain the water and rinse the seeds.
To freeze for later use, spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Freeze for two hours, and then transfer to a freezer bag or container for storage. Pomegranate seeds can be frozen for up to one year.
Mix pomegranate seeds into yogurt, blend them into smoothies, sprinkle over hot cereal, add them to muffin and pancake batters, and toss them into green salads.
Kefir: This calcium-rich fermented dairy drink is teeming with beneficial probiotic organisms linked to improved lactose intolerance, digestive health, immune enhancement and, possibly, obesity prevention.
If you end up with more kefir than you can use before the expiration date, freeze it in a freezer bag or container and remove as much air as possible. You can also pour kefir into an ice cube tray.
The liquids and solids in kefir will separate during freezing; blend thawed kefir to reincorporate. Freeze kefir for up to three months.
Kefir isn't only for drinking. Use it anywhere you'd use yogurt, buttermilk or sour cream – dips, salad dressings, smoothies, sauces, pancake batters and baked good recipes.
Kale: Compared with other vegetables, kale is a front-runner when it comes to vitamin K, for healthy bones, and lutein, a phytochemical that guards against cataract and macular degeneration.
To freeze, first blanch kale in a pot of boiling water for two to three minutes (you may need to do this in batches); remove and immediately immerse in a bowl of ice water for two minutes to halt cooking. (Blanching prevents the loss of flavour, colour and texture during freezing.)
Drain in a colander, and then press down to remove excess water. Transfer to a freezer bag and remove as much air as possible before sealing.
You can also purée blanched kale with a little water in the blender, pour into muffin tins and freeze for one to two hours. Then transfer to freezer bags. Frozen kale "muffins" can be added to smoothies, soups, stews and pasta sauces.
Freeze kale for up to one year. Ditto for collard greens, Swiss chard, rapini and cabbage.
Pulses: In honour of International Year of Pulses, I encourage you to cook up a batch of dried chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, even pinto beans.
I love the convenience of canned beans, but you can't beat the taste and texture of home-cooked dried beans. Either way, pulses are chock full of nutrition: fibre, low-glycemic carbohydrates, protein, folate, magnesium, iron, zinc and potassium.
Once cooked, let pulses cool and store in freezer bags or small containers in one- to two-cup portions so they're ready to add to tacos, chili, curries, soups and salads.
To use in dips and baked goods, purée cooked pulses (1 cup beans and ¼ cup water) until smooth and then store in freezer bags.
Cooked pulses can be stored in the freezer for up to six months.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.