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)