Land of Leftovers

Recently, my freezer has become my best friend. When my husband found out that he'd be working on a project that would take him away from home for several days a week, he begged me to find a way to feed him from afar. Even though any meals out would be paid for, he dreaded the thought of having to part with good home-cooked meals.

Knowing full well the possibilities offered by my chest freezer, I smiled and told him that he wouldn't have to endure eating out all of the time. With a little advanced planning, some appropriate containers and some careful labeling, all he'd need to have a home-cooked meal in minutes is a microwave.

Freezing leftovers can really save time -- whether you are eating those leftovers at the office, on a camping trip or on a busy day in the kitchen where they were first prepared. The key to helping yourself save time is in the planning. If you aren't careful, you'll end up with wrong portion sizes, containers filled with unrecognizable contents or -- worse yet -- a meal that was never intended to be frozen at all. However, if you take a bit of time up front to think about what you'll be using your leftovers for and what you will have at your disposal for reheating them, you're in for a treat during those times when you don't have the time or tools to make a meal from scratch.

First, let's go over some basic tools you'll need for freezing leftovers properly. Here's a good list to get you started:

  • Freezer Bags: Get sizes to fit your needs. If you are cooking for a family dinner during the week, you'll probably want gallon bags. Pint bags work beautifully for single servings and snacks. For instance, I often send a half a dozen cookies in pint freezer bags to satisfy my husband's sweet tooth while he's away.
  • Plastic Containers: Again, think about your needs when buying and using plastic containers. Also, make sure that lids fit snuggly and liquids don't leak out when stored sideways or upside-down. If you'll be microwaving your meals, make sure you have a lid with a steam escape or make certain that you reheat your meals without the lids in place. Otherwise, you'll be replacing your plastic containers more often than you'd like!
  • Freezer-Safe Labels: These could be as simple as a strip of freezer tape. You'll need something to write on to carefully label your leftovers so you'll know what it is you're reheating. Take note when you're buying your freezer bags if they include a strip for labeling. Many brands do include these handy white strips.
  • Marking Pen: Buy a pen that will not bleed once exposed to moisture! Otherwise, your carefully labeled packages will become unintelligible messes in short order.

Once you have your tools ready, you need to think about what kinds of foods freeze and reheat well. In general, most soups, stews, roasts and casseroles are excellent candidates for freezing and reheating. Also, vegetable dishes that are crisp-tender usually work well. Grilled meats and poultry can also be a welcomed treat from the freezer. In fact, I almost always grill more chicken than I need and freeze the leftovers for quick meals and additions to salads.

Some foods don't freeze and reheat well. Mayonnaise, lettuce and cream do not freeze well and should be avoided. Potatoes often suffer when frozen for long periods of time and may end up tasting slightly chalky if not prepared and stored carefully. Some seafood dishes may end up overcooked when reheated, so be especially careful when preparing these dishes for freezing. For more information about which foods do or don't freeze well, visit

Once you're ready to freeze your leftovers, there are a few things you need to make sure you do. They are:

  • Fill the containers no more than 3/4 full so that there will be room for the food to expand during the freezing process. If you fill your containers to the brim, you are likely to find lids forced off of your containers.
  • Carefully label each container or freezer bag with the following information:
    • Contents
    • Date Frozen
    • Reheating Instructions
    • Suggestions for Accompaniments (optional)
  • To avoid large amounts of ice forming at the top of your containers, cool your leftovers in the refrigerator before transferring them to the freezer.
  • If you use leftovers often, prepare a space in your freezer for storing them neatly. That way, you won't need to waste precious time digging through mounds of containers to find what you want when you want it.
  • Try freezing various parts of the meal separately to speed reheating times. For instance, freeze the spaghetti and meat sauce apart from the garlic bread and reheat one in the microwave while you toast the other in the oven.

By following these steps and taking care to plan a little ahead, you can be enjoying home-cooked meals no matter how busy you are or how far you are from your kitchen.