In Defense of Frozen Foods

By Emily Thorson

In our discussions about school lunch on the IFA and elsewhere, there’s been quite a bit of talk about frozen food. Since we’re on the topic of school anyway, I figured I’d start off this post about freezing with a quick quiz. Ready?

Many commercially available frozen foods are highly processed, tasteless, and bad for you.

If the statement above is true, which of the following must also be true?

a) All frozen foods taste bad
b) All frozen foods are bad for you
c) All frozen foods have additives and chemicals
d) All of the above
e) None of the above

I’ll be honest: I have a dog in this fight. An entire freezer full of delicious dogs, actually. One of the commenters on Mark Bittman’s post used the phrase “cooking to feed the freezer,” and this pretty well describes my weekday cooking and eating lifestyle. For me, cooking to freeze is the most practical way to eat well: as a grad student, I’m relatively poor, I cook for one, and most days I eat both lunch and dinner at the office. So does this mean I survive entirely on frozen corn and mushy Salisbury steak meals? Absolutely not.

Here’s a typical day’s menu:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal with berries and pumpkin
  • Snack: Apple and peanut butter
  • Lunch: Sweet potato soup with kale and sausage, homemade pita chips
  • Snack: Carrot sticks
  • Dinner: Vegetable curry, dal with cabbage and walnuts
  • Dessert: Banana, dark chocolate

With the exception of the apple and banana, nothing on that menu is technically “fresh”.

The berries and pumpkin were frozen and microwaved with my oatmeal, I made the soup way back in November, and the curry and dal went into my freezer last month. Alice Waters would probably pass on my pita chips: I took a whole-wheat pita out of the freezer last week and toasted it in the oven with some salt and garlic. As for the carrots, they came from a giant Tupperware in my fridge, where they’ve been sitting for quite some time.

Given menus like these, I get defensive when people make blanket claims about the horrors of frozen food. Although most of what I eat comes straight from my freezer and almost none of it is technically fresh, I eat more than enough fruit and veggies and my food tastes great. It is wonderful that some people have the time and money to make/buy a big salad for themselves for lunch, or to pick out whatever looks good at the farmer’s market and cook it up that evening. Someday I would like to live like that. But for now, I am operating on a food budget of well under ten bucks a day, and my cooking time is confined to a few hours on Sunday evenings. Freezing food is the best way for me to eat healthily and cheaply. And it’s not as though my options are limited: other foods that I’ve had success freezing in the past include black bean burgers, split pea soup, chili, burritos, stir-fries, quinoa with tomatoes and spinach, egg sandwiches, homemade fish sticks, white bean and collard stew, chicken soup, veggie lasagna, sweet potato fries, and calzones.

I don’t mean to be prescriptive about how anyone should eat or live. Frozen food isn’t the Only Way, and I believe that everyone deserves the experience of biting into a ripe late-summer tomato. But the argument over kids’ meals–or anyone’s meals–should not be reduced to “fresh, local and healthy VERSUS frozen processed crap”. Food can be frozen but healthy, local but processed (I live in Philly surrounded by locally-made Tastykakes), and, depending on your dietary needs, it can even be fresh but not particularly good for you (I’d rather eat a bag of frozen spinach sauteed in olive oil and garlic than a bushel of fresh-from-the-farm potatoes).

There is more to frozen foods than Lean Cuisine and French bread pizzas. Freezing is just a method of preservation that works well with some foods and poorly with others, and in situations  where people (be they elementary school kids or busy grad students) need to eat healthy food given limited resources and limited time, freezing can be a lifesaver.

(Also: yes, that is a photo of my actual freezer)

40 responses to “In Defense of Frozen Foods

  1. I imagine carbon footprint-wise it’s terrrible, but I always have giant bags of frozen fruit in my freezer for morning smoothies.

  2. You mean because you’re running the freezer? I guess, but it’s not like you wouldn’t ever use your freezer if you didn’t have those berries. Or am I missing another aspect of frozen berries that leaves a huge carbon footprint compared to fresh ones?

  3. I suspect that the first poster is referring to the carbon footprint of frozen berries vs fresh one. not the marginal one of adding berries to his freezer.

    While this is true it ignores some other considerations. We’ve been spoiled by the availability of fresh berries year round though berries imported from South Africa or South America have their own carbon footprint problems. Also, there are other considerations for some commodities. For example , shipping fresh peas ultimately involves removing and discarding the shells by the consumer which means that the output of edible food per shipment is pretty low thereby raising the transportation and carbon footprint per unit of peas consumed.

    Finally isn’t the whole purpose of food preservation to “preserve” food for different or fallow seasons? Freezing, cooking (canning), drying are all historical ways of preserving a perishable commodity. Now they are all given the dirty appelation of “processed” as if we were dousing food with nuclear waste.

  4. Yeah — it’s worth pointing out that the marginal energy cost of putting more stuff in your fridge can actually be negative (assuming you never turn your fridge off, and depending on how long the it stays in there and how hot it is when it goes in). A fuller fridge is a more efficient fridge.

    But actually, I take that back: it isn’t worth pointing that out. This, like so many individual choices related to food, has environmental implications that are essentially unfathomable. Ultimately, we need price signals from carbon pricing to resolve the issue and show us what’s what. Until then I suggest we all take solace in the fact that the modern food transportation system is generally extremely efficient.

  5. Ditto. You are absolutely right. Besides, Joel Salatin, the great Organic Food Farmer God, says if you want to eat local, get a freezer. When stuff is in season, you buy it, freeze it, and have it all year round. Freezers are dirt cheap. And you’re right – foods like soups and stews freeze great.

  6. I’m glad to have started the conversation off with a bang, but my original intention with the frozen berries/carbon footprint was lighthearted – even if it’s a very serious topic.

  7. e) None of the above

    I would say that 2/3rds of what I eat is stuff I buy fresh and I cook. Slightly less than 1/3rd is frozen dinners. (rest being stuff like energy bars). When someone says they think frozen foods don’t taste good they are usually someone who had one bad experience and wrote them all off.

    The simple fact is that several days of the week I have 7 minutes to eat – throwing a dinner in the microwave accomplishes that goal.

    There is also a cost issue – frozen dinners are cheap. Buying fresh foods isn’t. The economics of this sucks but that is the way it is.

  8. Freezers are dirt cheap.

    This is true, but you have to have SPACE for them, which if you live in an urban setting, as we IFA-ers do, is generally a much bigger (and costly!) challenge.

  9. Emily – I think the general criticism of frozen foods has more to do with the fact that the majority of the stuff you find in the frozen food section is processed. Cooking your own food and freezing it is a fine thing to do, and if you’re using frozen foods to do it, so be it. Sure, the frozen veggies might not be local or fresh, but they are not processed junk. Based on your menu, it looks like you’re making healthy meals out of the healthy options from the frozen foods section, which is ideal. So in your case, you are making the best of what you can within your budget while still maintaining a healthy diet.

    But going back to my first point, take a walk down the frozen food isle(s), in your local grocery store (Giant or Safeway, not Whole Foods) and I’d bet that at least 70% of the section is made up of processed foods and ice cream. To me, that’s the rub. So while there are healthy options available, most of the options in frozen foods are in fact processed.

    This is not to say there isn’t a role for frozen foods, as you noted, we just need to find better ways to make sure those options are healthy.

    BTW – This is a great dialogue you all have been having on IFA.

  10. Justin: that’s certainly true, but I think the paucity of healthy options in the freezer aisle is a product of the marketplace, not something inherent to the technology.

    Presumably we can make better choices on behalf of schoolkids with careful consideration than we do when we find ourselves in the freezer aisle on our way home from work.

  11. I think the real issue if you like to cook and eat well, in these times you have to get the most bang for your buck. Quick answer, make something that freezes well.
    I suggest buying an inexpensive “Foodsaver” vacuum packager. I bought the low end “Foodsaver” at “Linens n Things for $22.
    I can take any large item, divide it proportionately, seal it and save it for later consumption. Usually without any loss of flavor or texture.
    It was a new way to work ,but certain items , rice and beans, cuts of meat, even fruit can take a frigid blast and wind up on your table surprisingly good.

  12. you make a great point. a lot of things i eat are from farmers’ markets in the past seasons that have been frozen or canned.

    but i do believe the way children are fed, and the ridiuclous food recommendations made by our government, need to change.

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  14. Emily — bravo! My husband and I eat this way (though I mix in lots of fresh veggies) all the time. When we cook, we purposely cook enough for 2 or 3 meals and freeze the leftovers. Then when we are busy and working late, we still get to have real food for dinner. Worlds better than processed food and tons less expensive than restaurants.

  15. Very good post. I have a lot of luxury in the way I eat (I can cook at home during the day if I choose to) but I’m often making meals just for myself. It’s hard to make a mean that serves just one, once!

  16. I’m having a hard time understanding what this “fight” is in which you have a dog.

    Do you really think anybody believes a, b, or c? Do you really think Waters or Pollan or Salatin or any of the saints of the fresh & local would have a complaint about your diet?

    I tried to find some blanket statements about frozen food in the conversation you’re referring to. Alice Waters’ op-ed doesn’t include the word ‘frozen’. The only mentions of ‘frozen food’ I could find in a quick perusal of some of your links were people defending non processed healthy food that’s been frozen.

  17. Jake–it was mainly in the comments that I noticed the tendency for people to use “fresh” as a synonym for “nutritious.” I argue that this is dangerous thinking because it closes you off to possibilities that may be economically more feasible than fresh-from-the farm but just as healthy/tasty (eg frozen veggie lasagna).

  18. Emily,

    I certainly agree with you on the merits of frozen foods, and that it would be dangerous to ignore them in thinking about, e.g., school lunch policy.

    But I also think it’s dangerous to overstate this disagreement. The people who honestly think that fresh (no matter what) is better, nutritionally, environmentally, or gastronomically, than frozen (no matter what) are very few and inconsequential.

    My bet is that the vast majority of people who are crying for more “fresh” food, and decrying “frozen food” are by and large on your side, despite being a bit too general in the usage of these terms.

  19. Pingback: A Neater Freezer Than Mine - Bitten Blog - NYTimes.com

  20. I have frozen breakfast for quite a while. I don’t have time for making breakfast in the morning and dislike cereal all the time. Is atrted freezing pre made lunches about a year ago. I eat out less often, saving money.

    Just make sure you keep the refrigerator and freezer at the right temp. Having it set 10 degrees to low will cost you up to 25% more energy. http://changejarsavings.com/?p=48

  21. This is exactly how I operate as well…please share your secret for “success” with freezing egg sandwiches!! I’ve experienced nothing but failure on that front.

  22. I don’t buy much frozen food, but I do freeze the majority of the local meat I buy (usually by the 1/2 animal) and I put up a lot of veggies out of my summer garden in my freezer. Plus, I’m also single, so unless I want to eat 12 portions of meatloaf at a time, the freezer is my friend. Out here in ranching/hunting country, nearly everyone has a chest freezer — here’s a piece I wrote a year or so back for Ethicurean about this issue: http://www.ethicurean.com/2007/09/07/montana/

  23. Jake,

    I didn’t see any real overstatement in Emily’s article. As a grad student just getting into cooking (and trying to be nutritious in doing so) I had a misconception that Emily helped to clear up. Before reading this article I figured that frozen food (even fruits and veggies) would be significantly worse for you. Kudos to Emily for helping to clear that up for me and others.

  24. Beautiful. I’m very grateful to see/read that someone else feels as I do about a freezer full of healthful meals. My partner and I work opposite schedules (I’m days, he’s graveyard) and he’s a diabetic. Rather than send him to work empty-handed to be tempted by whatever fatty/salty/sugary snacks he might find along the way, I spend one or two Sundays a month cooking big batches of well-balanced meals that freeze well.

    I usually make a couple of two-person meal sized containers and the rest goes into single servings for his lunches. The freezer on our apartment’s fridge holds half a dozen ice trays and his lunches, and I got a 3cf upright for everything else. That way, he can just grab any container and toss it into his backpack on his way out the door.

  25. I too resort to freezing food at home for lunches and the like. I grew up cooking for five but, as an adult, there’s only two of us eating. That makes for lots of leftovers and I don’t like eating the same thing for multiple days in a row.

    I also make my own stocks for soups and freeze them. This way I know exactly what has gone into them and I have full control of the flavors.

  26. Emily’s post and the Bitten article that linked here underline the interesting and unfortunate irony of “frozen” becoming synonymous with cheap-processed-bad for you; I especially like Bittman’s air of losing his cred by admitting to using his freezer. When in fact, as Emily makes clear and Charlotte too (and some of us have talked about this in Charlotte’s comments on her own blog), using a freezer well – to stash ingredients in season, to store home-made building blocks such as stock and breadcrumbs – is a great defense against having to resort to frozen-processed food.

  27. I don’t totally understand where the equation of frozen and bad is coming from. Every cookbook I’ve ever read calls for lots of freezing! Stocks, beans, soups, pesto, etc. It’s constant.

    The problem I’ve had is that a lot of frozen items degrade. But that’s a different issues, and I guess depends o what you’re freezing.

  28. You are right Emily: frozen food is not intrinsically despicable. One need to learn how to freeze and the expected result (don’t expect to make a salad with frozen tomatoes!).

    Ceratinaly the freezer can help you better and at a much lesser cost. For example, I cook quite a bit, freezing extra for those times I do not have time to cook. I buy meat in bulk (1/2 a pig for example which allows me to get pastured organic meat at the price of conventional low-end meat in the store) and preserve what’s fresh, abundant and in season, as well. So my freezer is constantly is use. In summer, it’s getting filled with fruit & veggies to spruce up the winter diet; in fall and early winter, meat comes in; in winter, slow cooked dishes, casserole, lasagna, bread & broth go in etc. In spring it really gets depleted until the garden starts to produce well again (and I can start buying peaches by the bushel). As a result, my food expenses are well below $10 a day for 2 people (each eating 3 meals, and one some snacks too…)

  29. My only problem is not with frozen food but with the freezer itself.

    I too really heavily on frozen foods, all of which are healthy, eco-friendly, and tasty. What drives me crazy is that there’s a freezer chugging away 24/7 in every house in the U.S. when there must be a more energy efficient way to keep food cool.

    Surely such technology is within our grasp, whether it’s more (solar charged?) or less (deep hole in the ground?) advanced.

    The energy required to keep all of our freezers going seems even more bonkers during the winter. Because it’s cold out, we use energy to keep our houses warm, then use more energy to keep one little box in our house the same temperature that it is outside.

  30. Aaron: I see your point.

    A ground (root or dug) cellar will do for cool food indeed but not frozen food – and in summer may get too warm even to cool food to the temperatures recommended by our regulatories agencies. . And the deeper you dig, the warmer it gets, you know… Many areas in the US are not consistently (nor sufficiently) cold to keep food safely frozen outside in winter. As far as solar, certainly using more solar energy would be beneficent generally speaking, especially coupled with conservation (do we really need an electric dryer for clothing?)

    That said, a well stocked freezer is more efficient than a mostly empty one. For giggle I just checked my chest freezer specs: it specs at 435kWh/year (at 10 cent a kWh, that’s $43.50 operating cost per year. I bet you that’s a lot less than the commercial freezer in grocery store, and since a lot of the content goes directly from the my garden (or farm, or market) to the freezer, I would argue that I use less energy keeping the freezer going, than driving 30 miles (one way) to the closest grocery store to buy food that has been trucked from California or Florida. As a comparison basis that 435 kWh is equivalent to having 4 60-W light bulbs on 5 hours a day 365 days a year.

    If one is concerned about energy consumption, especially of fossil fuel, than one should look at the total consumption from the food to your plate: how what it grown? transported?warehoused? stored? purchased? cooked? I bet you my freezer (and many other around the country) allows me to be a lot less wasteful in my energy use than shopping often and not freezing.

    It’s not the technology, it’s how we use (or not use) that’s the issue.

  31. Frozen foods really save our time and you know that time is money.

  32. This is great advancement in technology.

    And we should have a benefit of this improved food technology instead of banning something that is really good for us in this machine age.

    This is superb.

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  34. Love this post. Totally agree, freezing is the way to go. Saves time, and keeps things fresh. Also, when stuff is on sale (“stuff” usually being cheese…) I buy lots of it and freeze. People are always amazed at how good things taste after they’ve been frozen, but I’m a total convert.

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  36. Pingback: Against the Freezer « The Internet Food Association

  37. contamination has become so widespread that major frozen food purveyors admit they can no longer ensure the safety of their products

  38. I started to cook and freeze thinking it would make life easier. But I ended up spending all day Sunday cooking. I don’t do this anymore, but spend an hour each evening with my husband chatting while cooking, instead of being on my own Sunday feeling exhausted by the end of it.

    Sandwiches with salad in them didn’t seem to work. If anyone can tell me how to freeze lettuce I’d be very greatful :)

  39. The technology of frozen food has improved dramatically in recent years and it is now possible to freeze fish, meat and vegetables in a matter of minutes. The end result is that frozen food is often a ‘fresher’, better quality and more nutritious product than its ‘fresh’ equivalent – as ‘fresh’ foods can take a week to get to your plate.

  40. Pingback: Against the Freezer | kashwaynepromotion.com

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