Fresh or frozen? How to feed your family during the pandemic

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Photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash
Photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

While lockdown levels change, one thing that stays the same is that leaving home presents a risk. As careful as we may be when we're at the mall, there is always a chance we may somehow pick up the Covid-19 virus

Many of us have therefore reduced the number of times we pop in the shops for bread and milk, and have either learned to stretch our supplies between trips, or set up regular grocery deliveries.

I myself have learned to lean heavily on frozen, dried and tinned foods, and buy more of the fresh produce like butternut or oranges which last longer on the countertop.  

My family loves spinach, but the fresh bunches don't last long enough so I reluctantly tried a bag of frozen spinach, expecting a spongy, soggy mess, but my spanakopita turned out perfectly and it was impossible to tell the spinach wasn't fresh out the ground. 

Emboldened by this success I stocked up on various other frozen foods, from fish to peas, and started freezing portions of fresh ingredients like cream to grab when needed. 

So far we've been enjoying the convenience of not having to head out, masks and sanitiser at the ready, to pick up a missing fresh ingredient at the nearest shop. 

But I did wonder if all this frozen food was healthy. Was I doing the family a disservice because the vegetables weren't dew fresh? 

I reached out to Lorraine Makhura, McCain Foods NPD manager, to find out more about how to make the most of frozen foods, while keeping the family healthy.

Are frozen meals healthy?

"Absolutely," Makhura assures me, "frozen meals and food items, and particularly quick-frozen food items – typically frozen by the manufacturer, and not in the home freezer, have all the locked-in goodness, wholesomeness and nutritional value similar to their fresh counterparts."    

Freezing preserves the nutrients in foods, but care needs to be taken through the preparation stage that we don’t strip the frozen food of all its nutritional value, she adds. 

Although frozen meals are healthy, it is important to still check for the obvious signs of degradation such as sour smells, rancid and off notes, or discolourations before consuming.

Makhura stresses though that, equally important is the defrosting stage (as defrosting at uncontrolled temps, may cause the opposite effect of freezing, and spark the growth curve).  

I also asked about whether freezing food decreases its flavour and nutrient value, but Makhura reassured me that freezing preserves the nutrient value of foods.

"Freezing, if completed correctly, should have minimal impact on flavour and nutrient density for foods, she said. 

What are the best food items to keep in the freezer?

While most foods can very easily be placed in the freezer and preserved in this way to maintain freshness, and nutritional density, Makhura says that the truth is that some foods lend themselves to freezing better than others. 

"A lot of this has to do with moisture and/or water activity in those foods," she explains. "Foods that are generally high in water activity tend to change form and structure once defrosted. For example, defrosted lettuce will not remain crispy and creams/ milk may become lumpy in the defrosted state." 

Some foods do very well in the freezer, these items may include items such as meat proteins, carbs such as cooked rice, cooked pasta and soups, and most fruits and vegetables. 

"Foods that are a bit of a surprise on this front, but deliver equally well post freezing. include nuts, herbs and even eggs that have been removed from their shells," she adds. 

How long can foods be stored in the freezer?

Freezing is amongst the oldest forms of food preservation, similar to canning (cooking at high temp treatments) and curing. 

Freezing foods preserves them by way of stopping microbial growth or activity, Makhura explains, adding that it is important to note though that freezing does not kill microorganisms, but merely stops the growth curve.

"It is also important that while foods are kept frozen they are stored in good packaging, as this will otherwise result in other undesirable properties such as dehydration and freezer burn - although safe for consumption, the quality of the food may deteriorate," she says. 

The life of products in the freezer differs from one item to the other, so it's important to know that some foods can last for a few months, while others may be good even after a few years. 

Safe freezer tips

  • Always separate your meats from the other items in the freezer – create compartments in the freezer to facilitate this.
  • Freeze items individually and not bulked – this allows for ease of pulling measured serving sizes from the freezer as opposed to defrosting the bulk item, and re-freezing the rest. (Avoid repeating freeze-thaw cycles).
  • Label your food items in the pantry or in the freezer. This makes for a more convenient search when preparing and cooking meals.
  • Do not overload your freezer.
  • Try to keep the freezer door closed at all times, and avoid opening and closing repetitively.

Freeze and shake

Make your smoothie premixes and keep in the freezer (think mixed fruit, veg and nut mixes) ready to throw in the blender, for a healthy drink.

Freeze and fry

Use the ice cube tray to freeze herbs in an oil base , which create little pellets of herb-infused oils, that you can easily use to not only fry, but also flavour your sauté mixes. 

For whole meals you can make ahead and freeze, see here.


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