In a previous post, we talked about some healthy kitchen staples that can inspire you to cook and eat well. Now we’re offering encouragement and pointers on embracing frozen foods and using them to best effect in your healthy cooking. Frozen foods used to have a less-healthy rep compared to their fresh counterparts because of the processing involved. (Okay, to be fair, some frozen foods, such as a vegetable coated in sauce or a breaded chicken breast, may be higher in calories, fat or sodium than their unadulterated versions.) But here’s the deal: Often, plain frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at the peak of the season, where flavor — and often nutrition profiles — are also at their peak. And frozen whole grains keep their fiber intact, and their texture doesn’t deteriorate with a quick freeze and thaw. This makes cooking with peas, pitted cherries and a host of other great produce within reach when they’re not in season and also gives you a leg up in the kitchen with some prep work or cooking already done for you.
Here, our nutrition pros share their favorite frozen items and best uses:
The greatest advantage of frozen produce, such as sweet peas or diced butternut squash, or quartered artichoke hearts is being able to enjoy a vegetable in the off-season. Besides, you don’t spend precious kitchen time shelling peas, peeling stubborn winter squash, or dealing with artichokes; it’s a win-win. To reap the most nutrition, seek out plain frozen vegetables without any sauces or breading. In this Indian-inspired entrée, frozen peas add color, flavor, and texture. Plus, the peas contribute nearly five grams fiber per serving, almost 20 percent of a day’s needs. This colorful kale and squash side dish comes together in a snap with thawed (from frozen) diced butternut squash. And that pre-prepped squash supplies about a day’s worth of vitamin A. Frozen artichoke heart quarters have a soft texture, and can add fresh artichoke flavor to grain salads or add heft to simmering pasta sauces. The bonus is that the frozen artichoke hearts aren’t processed with sodium or oil, unlike many canned or marinated versions.
But vegetables aren’t the only items from produce enjoying the deep freeze. Frozen fruit is another great option for a frozen staple. Not only do you get fruit preserved at its peak, but you also often get some prep work done for you. Frozen cherries are pitted and are free of any sugary syrup adding extra sugar or calories that may come in canned varieties. Try frozen cherries at breakfast in Overnight Cherry Oats or as the base for a sauce over chicken. Another great option: Organic frozen berries or berry blends come bagged and easy to measure what you want for a great smoothie such as this Blueberry-Banana Smoothie. Pro tip: Look for berries and cherries that are labeled “quick-frozen,” a process which helps preserve the good qualities of the fresh fruits; these bags of frozen fruit may have a few small clusters frozen together, but the berries and cherries should be easy to measure in cups.
Many other nutrition pros cited frozen whole grains, such as farro or brown rice, that can take 30 to 40 minutes or so to cook. Have some in the freezer, and that 40 minutes of waiting time means a chicken-and-rice salad dinner can be on the table as fast as you can measure out that rice. Try frozen brown rice with blackened tilapia for a quick weeknight dinner, using 3 cups frozen brown rice in place of the 1 cup dried brown rice. One tip: Batch cook and freeze leftover, cooked and cooled brown rice (or any whole grain) on a rimmed baking sheet overnight. Break into small clusters (to make measuring frozen rice easy) before transferring to a re-sealable plastic bag for freezing for up to six months.
While many greens are available fresh all year, frozen greens are a cook’s best friend for recipes that cook, steam, or sauté greens. Frozen kale or spinach are stemmed or can come chopped, respectively, and ready to throw into a simple kale entrée or a hearty beans-and greens soup. The kale and beans dish has about 1 to 1.5 ounces of kale per serving; that amount of greens offers nearly a third of your daily vitamin C needs and just over half your day’s needs of vitamin A. (A standard serving size of kale, about three ounces, provides a little more than half your day’s vitamin C needs and 10 percent of daily calcium needs.)
And several nutrition pros mentioned trying made-at-home pizza using a frozen whole-wheat pizza crust or whole wheat frozen dough. You can boost your whole grain servings plus control what you put on the pizzas, from lean grass-fed beef to small amounts of flavorful cheeses. The prepared frozen doughs need a few hours in the fridge to thaw, but that gives you time to prepare toppings, like for these Spicy Grilled Vegan Pizzas with Summer Squash and Pine Nuts, Beef Taco Pizza or Chicken Taco Pizza.
But don’t forget the most important meal of the day. For a stellar breakfast, stock up on frozen Engine 2 Plant-Strong® Organic Grain Medley Morning Blend. A nutritious, hot breakfast with whole grains, iron, fiber and protein is a quick heat away. Boost this cereal’s good nutrition ante with chopped nuts or pumpkin or chia seeds, if desired. This would also be a great, quick side next to pork tenderloin or roast chicken.
Stay tuned for more healthy kitchen must-haves from our nutrition pros, including Dan Marek, Whole Kids Foundation School Programs Manager and Chef; Dani Little, MS, RD, Engine 2 Program Director; Allison Enke, MA, RD, Product Compliance & Nutrition Analyst; Jess Kolko, RDN, LD, Nutrition Senior Research Analyst; Akua Woolbright, Nutrition Program Director Whole Cities Foundation; and Carla Conrad, Whole Foods Market Product Developer.
What are your favorite freezer staples for healthy easy meals?