They say if you have healthy food on hand, you’ll eat it. But that’s not necessarily true. Faced with nothing but “ingredients,” it’s often tempting to just order pizza or go out.
And let’s be real: we’ve all chosen that road more than once! But if you keep those ingredients in an easy-to-use form, it increases your odds of actually cooking at home! I’ve written before about 30 things I always keep on hand for easy healthy meals, but this post is going to focus on what I keep in the freezer, with some tips and how-to’s.
Some people are into meal prep: having whole recipes pre-cooked and ready to dump in the crockpot or oven. But if (like me) you’re one of those people who wants more flexibility than that, or you just don’t like casserole-type food, ingredient prep can be your diet’s BFF!
Note: One tip that applies to many of my freezer stand-bys — In order to make them thaw quickly, place them into a plastic baggie, then spread the items out as flat as possible and lay it on a cookie sheet that will fit in your freezer horizontally. Once frozen, liquids such as marinara and broth can then be stored in a narrow space, either horizontally or vertically. The foods that are small pieces of stuff, you can then break apart and scrunch or roll into a smaller shape for storage. Easier storage, quicker thawing.
Here are several ingredients I always have on hand in the freezer, ready to deploy in various dishes.
Pretty much any meat leftovers can be stuck in the freezer for later use, but there are five items I try to always keep in my freezer. They are all quick-to-thaw (unlike, say, a whole roast, or pork shoulder), and either already cooked or quick to cook.
- individual salmon fillets
- cleaned (deveined), shelled shrimp
- individual fish fillets such as tilapia, mahi mahi, etc. (not shown)
- cooked, crumbled sausage (here are some recipes for homemade sausage)
- cooked, crumbled hamburger – plain, or flavored with garlic, onion, salt & pepper (not shown)
Because the shrimp and the fish are individually frozen, they’re quick and easy to thaw. Once thawed, all cook in about 10 minutes or less.
I label the hamburger and sausage, because it’s hard to tell the two apart once frozen. I divide them into individual-serving sized portions, place those in sandwich baggies, then place all of those in a labeled gallon baggie. I make them individually-sized, because I often use these when cooking for myself. If I were only going to use them for family cooking, I’d bag them in larger portions — but still freeze them in the baggie laid out flat on a cookie sheet first.
Flexible flavor boosters
Things I always/often keep on hand to add flavor to dishes:
- already chopped parsley (I use this all the time!)
- marinara (here’s an easy homemade sugar-free marinara recipe)
- sesame seeds
- orange juice concentrate
Sesame seeds are so small, you don’t need to thaw them. Just sprinkle them on top of any hot Asian dish.
Orange juice concentrate can be added in small quantities to smoothies, salad dressing, or pan sauce to add a potent sweet-tang note.
Other options I use from time to time:
- herbed butter (I have these, but often forget they’re there)
- homemade chicken stock
Note: I haven’t experimented with other herbs — I’m thinking chives and green onions would freeze nicely — but I do know that basil doesn’t work. It turns black. You can, however, make it into basil butter, and freeze that in individual coins that are easy to toss into a soup or on top of any hot fish, meat, or veggies just before serving.
Fruits and veggies
Always in my freezer:
- sugar-free berries
- green beans
- chopped bananas
- chopped greens (not always, but whenever I’ve bought a package that’s too big to use up before it wilts)
I always keep some no-sugar-added berries in the freezer for smoothies and snacks, and very occasionally to make a quick berry sauce to go over pork tenderloin, ice cream, or (about once a year) waffles.
Green beans are usually the only veggie I keep in the freezer; others I buy fresh because I prefer the way they taste or are prepared. (I’m not saying you couldn’t keep more options if you want!) I usually try to buy either french-cut green beans or the very thin beans often called “haricots verts” — which is just French for “green beans.” Because they’re both thinner, they thaw and cook more quickly. Also, my husband prefers them. They make a quick side dish, steamed for about six minutes then tossed with some bacon bits and onion, some herb butter and mushrooms, or my favorite, tossed with butter, olive oil, and pine nuts. I also love green beans with marinara!
I also keep frozen bananas on hand. I use them mostly for a sugar-free sweetening for smoothies, but they can also be used to make one-ingredient ice cream, or tossed with some berries and/or pecans for a quick, sugar-free ice-cream-like snack or dessert.
I first cut them into slices and lay them on some parchment on a cookie sheet, then place them, uncovered, in the freezer till frozen. After that, I cut them into quarters then bag them.
I then place the baggie back on a cookie sheet, spread out so the pieces won’t freeze in one big clump. Here, I’m showing how I also freeze coarsely-chopped greens (baby kale and spinach, in this case) the same way.
The greens will be too mushy for salad, but they work just fine in smoothies and any cooked dish, from scrambled eggs to soup.
As you can see, my cookie sheet is old and cruddy. It’s too blackened and grody to cook on, but it fits nicely in my narrow freezer, so it works perfectly for this.
Here are some examples of dishes I might throw together with these ingredients:
Omelette or frittata with sausage, greens, and leftover cooked or fresh veggies
Hamburger, zoodles, spinach, and marinara – like spaghetti, but with three veggies (tomatoes in the sauce) and no grain, so it’s gluten-free!
…or that same combo, swapping out shrimp for the hamburger
Ancho-crusted salmon with avocado crema (you can use mahi mahi for this dish, too)
I hope this inspires you to start stocking your freezer with some of your favorite ingredients and to explore new ways to create quick, healthy meals! Let me know your favorites.