If you eat a frozen meal from the grocery store for dinner, you’ll consume fewer calories and fat, on average, than if you stop at a fast food establishment, according to data analysis supported in part by Nestlé USA.

Using your freezer can also help you save on expenses and time.

“A freezer is a very valuable tool to help get the most out of your food dollar, but it can also help make cooking easier and more convenient,” noted Ken Immer, president and chief culinary officer at Culinary Health Solutions.

Whether you regularly purchase premade dinners or are a seasoned chef, follow these guidelines to make finding what you want – when you want it – a breeze.

Hand in glove opening refrigerator.

1. Know What You Have.

If you haven’t sorted through your freezer’s contents in a year or more, now is the time to take inventory.

“The best way to get started is to pull everything out of the freezer and put it on a counter or table,” said Sarah Krivel, owner of Simpler Surroundings, a professional organizing company.

Then discard anything that has an unsavory substance on it or you can’t identify. Also get rid of any food you know will not get eaten, such as leftovers from a meal that the family didn’t care for.

Keep items that are in good condition and that the family would enjoy eating again, added Krivel.

2. Be Smart With Labels.

If you purchase meats and fish in bulk, you’ll want to freeze them as soon as you get home from the store.

“Wrap portion-sized pieces in plastic wrap individually, then store them in a reclosable freezer bag,” advised Immer.

Each piece should be labeled and marked with the date that you wrap it.

Use a permanent marker when labeling foods. In addition to mentioning what the food is and when it went into the freezer, make note of any special reheating instructions.

frozen mixed fruits

3. Organize the Layout.

“Freezers have notoriously large shelves,” noted Danielle Levenfus, founder of Organize Wizely.

Try stacking shelves, cabinet shelves or crates to help break up open space inside the freezer.

Then categorize things by shelf, advised Levenfus. Keep beef in one area, fruits in another, and frozen jam in a separate section.

Within the categories, “store things in chronological order, either going from left to right, top to bottom, or bottom to top,” suggested Levenfus. When you want to take out a package of meat, select the one with the oldest date on it.

4. Bring In Another Set of Eyes.

If you’re not sure what else you could be freezing, or how to best use the space, have a family member, friend or professional look over the freezer with you.

“An objective third party is always helpful when sorting through things because they’re not attached to them,” explained Krivel. Together brainstorm ways to incorporate the freezer into your regular meal planning.

5. Store Right.

“Package leftovers up into single servings and freeze them in glass or plastic freezer-safe containers,” advised Krivel. This way, if you’re short on time, you can grab a meal option and defrost it in a matter of minutes.

For something like a pan of lasagna, a good choice for freezer storage is a disposable aluminum pan, with lids included, said Immer.

Before freezing fresh vegetables, gently steam or blanch them. Then let them cool completely and get rid of any excess water.

“Most firm vegetables freeze well if they are cut into bite-sized pieces, and then frozen by spreading them out on a cookie sheet first, allowed to freeze firm and then put into a reclosable bag,” noted Immer.

If you have stock or broth, put it in ice cube trays first. Once the liquid has frozen, you can take out the cubes and store them in a freezer bag.

For frozen corn, peas, carrots, or blueberries, try square stackable containers.

Iced Food

6. Know Your Limits.

Some vegetables, such as lettuce, raw spinach, kale and other salad greens generally don’t hold up well in the freezer, stated Toby Amidor, a registered dietitian and food safety expert.

The same is true for shelled eggs and milk.

“Freezing makes perishable items last longer, but it’s still only for storing foods for a certain period of time,” added Amidor. “Whole cuts of meats and turkey or chicken can last up to one year.”

Plan on six to nine months for chops and steaks. Hot dogs will only keep one to two months, and cheese and butter can be stored for up to six months.

“In terms of going through your freezer, I suggest once every two months,” said Levenfus. “Freezers are meant to keep things for long periods of time, but nothing is infallible, even Ziplocs.”

Final Note

And remember, whatever you do, never ever store foods in a self-storage unit. Even if there is electricity, don’t plan on running a freezer inside. The vast majority of storage facilities prohibit this practice.

Rachel Hartman