Published on 12/11/03

Freeze holiday dinner leftovers, 'planned-overs'

By April Reese
University of Georgia

When you think of holiday food and your freezer, don't think just of leftovers. Think of "planned-overs," too.

Planning ahead can make good use of your freezer and your time, says Elizabeth Andress, director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation hosted by the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"There are many advantages of freezing prepared foods," Andress said.

Cooking ahead and freezing the prepared foods enables you to:

  • Prepare food at your convenience.
  • Use the oven more efficiently by baking more than one dish at a time.
  • Save time by doubling or tripling recipes and freezing the extra planned-overs.
  • Save small portions, if you cook for one or two.

Be safe

If you cook ahead and freeze the prepared foods, though, remember that even fully cooked foods can grow bacteria if you don't care for them properly after you cook them.

"Cool cooked foods quickly for safety and freshness," Andress said. "Keeping foods at room temperature for several hours before freezing increases chances of spoilage and foodborne illness."

To cool hot food faster, put it in a pan or sink of ice water. This is especially important, she said, when preparing large amounts of food. Change the ice water often or run cold water around the pan. When the food is cool, package and freeze it immediately.

What's your bag?

A recent NCHFP survey found that nearly everyone (94.4 percent) prefers to freeze foods in plastic freezer bags. You don't have to use plastic bags, though. There are many choices.

"Packaging materials must be moisture-vapor-resistant, durable and leakproof," Andress said. "Bags shouldn't become brittle and crack at low temperatures. They should be resistant to oils, grease or water. Packaging should protect foods from absorption of off-flavors or odors. They should be easy to seal, too, and easy to write on."

Good freezing materials include rigid containers made of aluminum, glass, plastic or stainless steel. Bags and sheets of moisture-vapor-resistant wraps and laminated papers made specifically for freezing are good choices, too.

"Package foods in the amounts you want to use at one time," Andress said. "Once food is thawed, it spoils more quickly than fresh foods. Be sure to label each package with contents and date."

Troublesome foods

Some foods don't freeze well.

"Milk sauces sometimes curdle and separate when frozen," Andress said. "Stirring while reheating helps keep the product smooth. Using waxy rice flour or waxy corn flour as the thickener also helps to fix the problem."

Gravy also tends to separate and curdle when thawed, she said.

"It's better to freeze broth and make gravy just before serving," she said. "Or use waxy rice flour or waxy corn flour as the thickener."

Cooked, creamed vegetables tend to lose flavor fast when frozen. Don't put them in the freezer unless you'll use them within three weeks. Vegetables packed in sauce tend to retain their flavor longer.

Cook your vegetables, cool them quickly and then add sauce. Package them in freezer containers, leaving space to allow for expansion.

Lettuce, other greens, cucumbers, radishes and celery lose crispness and become soggy when you thaw them. Raw potatoes don't freeze well, either.

Slice the turkey

Freezing whole, cooked turkeys isn't considered safe.

"As with any food, the time needed for freezing to take place in the center of the item is the critical factor," Andress said. "Trying to freeze a large mass like a whole cooked and stuffed turkey can keep the center warm enough for the hours it takes some bacteria to multiply to harmful levels."

Slice the turkey off the bone and package it in usable amounts, she said. Freeze stuffing separately, so it freezes quickly, too.

One last disappointment: don't save your holiday chocolate covered cherries in the freezer. Expansion during freezing causes them to break open.

(April Reese is a writer for the National Center for Home Food Preservation with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.)