By: Hilary Meyer, Associate Food Editor,EatingWell Magazine
When I’m in a rush to get dinner on the table (which is often), I turn to my freezer for help. I like to keep it well stocked with a few essential ingredients that will allow me to get a quick and effortless dinner on the table fast. Plus filling my freezer with healthy options makes it less enticing to run and get takeout. Here are a few of my favorite foods to have on hand and some of the recipes that use them:
1. Whole-Wheat Pizza Dough: With all the topping combos out there, I think it’s impossible to get tired of pizza–and with the dough at the ready, it’s a quick meal to pull together. Just take the pizza dough out of your freezer and let it thaw in your fridge 24 hours before you want to use it.
2. Fish Fillets: I’m a huge fan of frozen fish, especially when you can buy fillets in individually vacuum-sealed packages–that helps keep it from getting freezer burn. I like to stock up on wild Alaskan salmon and farmed U.S. tilapia. If you buy a big bag of fillets, just pull out what you need the night before you’re going to cook it and put it in the refrigerator. A 5-ounce fillet takes 8 to 10 hours to thaw in the fridge.
3. Fruits and Vegetables: There are many advantages to having bags of frozen fruit and vegetables on hand. For starters, many of them come already chopped, so that cuts down on prep time. And depending on the season, they can actually be better for you. Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at their prime, meaning more flavor and more nutrients than their out-of-season counterparts. And most don’t have added sodium like canned vegetables do. If you thaw frozen fruit and vegetables, drain off any water that has collected in the bag or thaw them in a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl. Depending on the recipe, you may not have to thaw them at all. You can find almost any vegetable and fruit frozen, but I especially like to keep peas, spinach and a vegetable medley or two on hand. For fruit, I like blueberries and strawberries.
4. Whole-Grain Bread: Bread spoils easily, especially if it’s kept on the counter in plastic. For a while I avoided buying big loaves of bread because of this, until I discovered that bread (or bread products like wraps and hamburger buns) freeze beautifully. They don’t take much time at all to thaw. If fact, slices of bread go from freezer to toaster without a problem. Or just pull out what you need and let it thaw on the counter or in your fridge. It should only need an hour or two (depending on the temperature) to be ready to use.
5. Chicken Tenders: Why chicken tenders? They’re much smaller than conventional chicken breasts so they thaw out quickly. Plus, since they’re so small, they’re easy to cut up and add to a soup or stir-fry without having to commit to thawing and cooking a whole breast. Buy tenders at the store and repackage them in quart-size ziplock bags for convenience. Just transfer them to your fridge to defrost the night before you’re ready to use them.
6. Nuts: Nuts are full of good fats (especially walnuts, which have omega-3s), so I try to have them around as much as possible. They are great for baking, topping a salad or just plain snacking. And as it turns out, storing nuts in the freezer is actually better than storing them in your pantry: it prevents the oils from going rancid. They don’t take long to thaw–just 10 minutes or so on the counter and you’re ready to go.
7. Shredded Cheese: Even though I use cheese a lot in cooking, I used to inevitably end up with loose ends of forgotten blocks getting moldy in my fridge. Now I shred what I don’t use and freeze it. This works best with solid cheeses like Cheddar or Monterey Jack. When I need just a little bit (to top a salad, for example), it’s there. It thaws almost instantly and the texture and flavor remain unchanged.
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