Frozen foods have been given a bad rap by the processed food industry. All of those “just like homemade” dinners-in-a-box are things we reach for when we’re in a big hurry. The pictures make the food look appetizing but the cold reality is much less appealing. Frozen dinners satisfy the need for speed and simplicity but leave a lot to be desired in terms of nutrition and satiety.
Some frozen foods, however, are a better option than their fresh counterparts, particularly when that food is out of season. Fruits, vegetables, grass-fed beef and seafood come to mind. For fruits and vegetables, those to be frozen are typically picked at their ripest, flash-frozen and packaged close to where they are grown. As long as they stay frozen until you defrost them for eating, the nutrients stay pretty much intact. Most vegetables are blanched (quickly cooked in boiling water) before being frozen, so consider this before you cook them again. Frozen vegetables such as corn, peas, green beans and other delicate varieties really just need to be reheated.
Before buying frozen fruits and vegetables, read the list of ingredients. You don’t need anything in your bag of frozen peas other than peas. No ‘butter flavor’, no seasonings, no preservatives. Control your food destiny – add the flavorings you like when you get home.
As for grass-fed beef and seafood, it’s easy to forget that these are seasonal products just like produce. In many parts of the world cattle don’t have fresh grass to eat throughout the winter. They fatten up all summer by grazing and those that reach the minimum weight are processed in the fall. Many grass-fed cattle ranchers will offer a small amount of fresh meat for sale during the processing season, but all other meat is flash-frozen and sold throughout the winter and summer months.
Most seafood is also seasonal. Due to restrictions on salmon and halibut fishing, for example, these wild-caught fishes come to us fresh in fits and starts. Because of the highly perishable nature of the product, most fish are cleaned and flash-frozen right on the fishing boat. If you buy from a reputable fish monger, she will know what’s in season when and will have fresh seafood when it’s available and high quality frozen seafood when it’s not.
As long as beef and seafood are well taken care of and kept properly frozen, they taste great. It’s the freezing, thawing, re-freezing process that really deteriorates the quality. This is especially true of seafood. Avoid buying seafood that has that tiny little asterisked disclosure “previously frozen” on its label. That means the store received it frozen, took the liberty of thawing it for you and put it on display in their seafood cabinet to make it look fresh and more desirable. It’s not. It’s actually less desirable because quality is being lost every day that it sits on ice under the lights of the display case.
As with most food purchases, options abound. On the spectrum of best to worst we’ve got locally grown organic goods on one end and highly processed packaged stuff that includes unpronounceable ingredients on the other. You can’t always buy the best option, but you can always avoid the worst. Good frozen whole foods are closer to the good end than the bad, so when you want a seasonal product that’s not in season, think frozen.