When it comes to stocking up on basics (and for last-minute, hanger-fuelled cravings), the freezer can be your best friend. It extends the lifespan of food by putting the brakes on bacterial growth, making our busy lives that much more convenient.
But we're all guilty of throwing unlabelled, butcher-wrapped food into that icy abyss without a plan as to when we'll use it (beyond "someday soon").
To stay safe and prevent food-borne illness (and unnecessary food waste), it's important to use proper freezing and thawing techniques and to make sure your freezer is at the proper temperature of -18 °C or lower.
But even if you do everything right, how long are frozen foods really good for?
We reviewed Health Canada's safe food-storage guidelines and found that the rules vary significantly depending on how food is processed. We put together a freezer timeline of commonly kept items (and which foods you should never freeze, period) so you can make sure the contents of your freezer remain ready to eat.
And one essential tip before we start — make it a habit to keep blank sticky labels and a Sharpie in a kitchen drawer so you can write the date on everything you're about to park in the freezer.
Whole roasts, birds and steaks can last up to 12 months in the freezer before they need to be thrown out, so go ahead and buy your Thanksgiving turkey early. Ground meat and smaller pieces last for significantly less time in the freezer than their whole counterparts (a larger surface area means more opportunity for contamination). If that ground beef has been kicking around for more than 2-3 months, toss it, and if you have chicken breasts or thighs that have been in there for more than 6 months, it’s time to say sayonara.
Lean fish (cod, tilapia, haddock) can last up to 6 months in the freezer, while fattier varieties (salmon, swordfish, tuna) have a shorter lifespan of up to 2 months. Frozen shrimp, scallops, lobster and crab can last a bit longer, anywhere from 2 to 4 months.
For vegetables with a higher water content (like lettuce and tomatoes) it’s best to store them in the fridge. Hardier vegetables, like carrots, sweet potatoes, squash and beans, freeze well and will last anywhere from 8 months to 1 year. For crisp vegetables that maintain their colour (like asparagus), blanch your fresh vegetables before freezing.
Leftover butter from a weekend baking project or from the occasional dinner recipe can be safely stored in the freezer and defrosted for the next time you need it. But be aware of what kind of butter it is — salted butter will last for up to 1 year, while unsalted is only good for 3 months. Why? Salt acts as a preservative to slow bacterial growth.
So you’re a meal-prep overachiever and have stacked your freezer with ready-to-defrost meals for busy weeks ahead, but how long are they good for? Cooked meat, stews, and vegetable dishes will keep for 2-3 months, while cooked poultry and fish is good for 4-6 months. Puréed and broth-based soups and stocks will last for up to 4 months.
Store-bought pastry is great to have on hand as a time-saving substitute for homemade. Puff and phyllo pastry will last up to 3 months when stored unopened in the freezer. Once it has been defrosted it should be used quickly, and not re-frozen.
Contrary to what you may think, that pint of mint-chip is not indestructible. Opened, ice cream will keep for up to 2 months, while unopened it will be good for up to 3 months (for those of you who have above-average self control).
A frozen pizza or shepherd's pie can be a real saviour when you're in a dinner jam. Just be sure to make use of that 'za within 2 months and bust out that pre-made dinner within 3-4 months.
Store-bought hors d'oeuvres are a great entertaining shortcut, but don't run the risk of giving your guests food poisoning at your next soirée. Before digging out and defrosting those pigs-in-blankets at the back of your freezer, make sure they haven't been hanging around in there for more than 3 months.
Forgot about that bag of mixed berries you bought for making morning smoothies? If it's been less than 6 months, you're in the clear. If not, it's best to toss it and save yourself from sub-par smoothies.
Opened dairy products, such as milk and yogurt, as well as fresh eggs and egg substitutes, should not be frozen. And avoid freezing soft cheeses, such as brie, cottage cheese or ricotta.
Thinking of stashing that deli potato or macaroni salad for later? You shouldn't freeze salad that contains mayonnaise — freezing causes the emulsion of eggs and oil to break when it thaws, leaving you with an oily mess.
Originally published September 2017; Updated August 2018.
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