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9 ways to get the most out of your freezer (+ reduce food waste)

My freezer has saved many a food item going into my compost bin. Overripe bananas, leftovers I’ve eaten for five days straight and really can’t bear to make it six, onion peels that I’ll use to make stock – the freezer is great for both reducing food waste, and treating future us to a ready-made meal in the form of something we prepared earlier.

Many of us are doing bigger and less frequent grocery shops than we might normally do, and cooking more than we might normally do – and this is putting extra pressure on the freezer.

Which let’s face it, for many of us is also a bit of a stick-it-in-there-and-forget-about-it zone.

My freezer is fairly small, which means that there’s always less room in there than I’d like. But it also means that I’ve got good at keeping my freezer organised, and making the most of the both space and the utility.

If you’d like to use your freezer more efficiently, here are my tips.

1. Ensure your freezer is a frost-free zone

If your freezer resembles a small iceberg, it’s not running as efficiently as it could be – and that ice is taking up valuable leftovers space. If this is the case, you need to defrost your freezer.

Defrosting it will melt the ice – then you just need to ensure the melted water is removed and it’s wiped dry, and turn it back on.

Whenever I defrost my freezer, I put my freezer contents in a neighbour’s freezer temporarily. You can also put frozen food in the fridge or use an esky/cool box to slow down defrosting. Any meat, fish or dairy products are better not refrozen, but vegetarian leftovers will probably be fine to go back in the freezer.

Make sure your freezer is set to (and running at) -18° C (0° F) before you fill it back up.

2. Audit your freezer

It’s really useful to go through your freezer every few months and see exactly what is in there – because there will be something you had forgotten about. Hopefully something tasty!

(With me, its usually extra jars of onion scraps for stock making. Sigh.)

It’s best if you can pull everything out and have a good look. That way you won’t miss anything, and you’ll spot half-empty containers and other things you might have missed.

Once you know what’s in the freezer, here’s some ideas to organise it better:

  • Make a plan to use anything old, or anything you have lots of, in the coming weeks;
  • Ensure anything you have lots of isn’t on your shopping list;
  • Put the oldest stuff at the front so you are more likely to notice (and therefore use) it;
  • Make sure everything is labelled (or at least the suspiciously ambiguous stuff);
  • Pop a reminder in the calendar for 3-6 months time, so you remember to do it again.

(I label my jars with a wax pencil – it’s easy to rub off. You can by them from art supply stores. You could also use a marker pen, or stick labels on.)

3. Prioritise what you keep in the freezer

If you’re like me, with a small freezer, you’re probably constantly juggling things to make space. When I need to make space for something else, there are a few things I think about.

What’s most valuable to be in my freezer?

Without a doubt, the most useful thing for me in my freezer is ready-cooked meals, ideally in 1-person or 2-person portions.

Generally speaking, the more prepared something is, the better. So frozen banana cake, or a frozen smoothie, is better than a frozen banana. A jar of stock is more useful than a jar of onion peels.

These are all things that save me time in the future (convenience) – which is what I value.

Value is also related to the cost of the item (what it would cost to replace), and the space it takes up.

Remove non-essentials.

I don’t keep ice in my freezer all the time (no space!) so if I have an ice cube tray in there during a sort, this is the first thing to go.

I also tend to have a bunch of ‘saved’ items in the freezer. I often have a jar of lemon zest, and maybe orange and lime zest too. That’s three jars. if I’m having a cull, these will go.

I don’t zest every citrus fruit I ever eat, so I don’t feel too bad about putting these in the compost if I’m short of space for something else. (Plus, it’s easy to make more down the track.)

Try to keep the contents balanced.

The more you rotate the food in your freezer, using up things and replacing them with new (different) things, the more you’ll get out of your freezer – literally.

I like to have a few slices of bread, a few portions of leftovers, maybe a jar of stock and a couple of jars of sauce, some frozen bananas – and then some snack items like falafels, fritters or hummus.

Rather than long-term storage, I use my freezer as a way to extend the life of leftovers, and make my meals more interesting – especially when the fridge is running low.

Prioritising doesn’t have to mean throw away.

If you do have to remove some things from the freezer, you don’t have to throw them in the bin. You can pop in the fridge where they will last a few days (they will defrost pretty slowly in there).

If it’s something that you know you won’t eat, but someone else might, you could try listing on the olioex app (it’s a free food sharing app).

4. Learn what you can freeze

In short, you can freeze almost everything (one important exception is meat and fish that has previously been frozen, and then defrosted).

When food is frozen, the water expands, which can change the texture. You’ll notice this with raw fruit and vegetables, which go mushy once frozen because the frozen water breaks the cell walls.

But this isn’t a problem if you intend to cook with them (using berries in baking, or veggies in soup) because cooking also breaks the cell walls.

Vegetables often freeze better if blanched (heated briefly in boiling water, then submerged in ice) first. But it’s not the end of the world to just freeze raw.

I always freeze my onion peels, leek ends and other bits I’ll be using to make stock raw, because they will be boiled later, so texture doesn’t matter.

You won’t notice much change in texture if you freeze cooked food. I often roast vegetables, and then freeze them this way. It also means that when I defrost, they are cooked and ready to go.

Milk and yoghurt can be frozen but freezing can change the texture of these – particularly of non-homogenised full-fat milk, which can go lumpy. It’s still edible, but may be better used in cooking rather than in coffee or tea.

5. Choose suitable containers

I prefer to freeze in a mix of glass jars, and Pyrex containers. I’ll occasionally freeze something in a stainless steel lunchbox, but they are less useful as you can’t see what’s inside (and frozen metal hurts my fingers when prising the lid open).

(Yes, you can freeze in glass. Instructions here.)

Bigger glass containers are more efficient in terms of space, but you’ll need to defrost the whole thing at once. Which is fine for traybakes or leftovers you made specifically for freezing, but less good for item you’d like to separate, like chunks or frozen berries.

Tip: if you want to freeze berries, or anything cut into chunks, you can freeze on a tray, and once frozen, add to a big container. That way they don’t all stick together, and you can scoop out just what you need.

Smaller containers are great if you just want individual portions, but the containers take up more space, particularly solid ones like glass or thick plastic.

For small containers, I love Bonne Maman jam jars. They are readily available and free, and to be delight, I discovered that there is enough space in my freezer to stack them, which makes the most of the space.

The tapered sides means it is easy to freeze in them (they are unlikely to crack, unlike narrow jars) and it is easy to slide still-frozen leftovers out to reheat in a saucepan.

I’m sure you all know that I’m not a fan of single-use plastic. If you simply don’t have room for solid containers, you could consider investing in some reusable silicone storage bags. And I do mean invest, because they are not cheap – but look after them and they will last a lifetime. Buy the best you can afford – if you have the budget, I recommend the Stasher bags (expensive, but you do get what you pay for), and can guarantee that they do not leak.

If reusable storage bags are out of your budget, and you’d prefer to use single-use plastic ziplock bags or similar, remember that you don’t have to use them once only. Wash and reuse them as many times as you can.

For freezing bread, I used a reusable cloth bag for years. After a million recommendations from readers I now have an Onya bread bag, purpose-made for freezing bread.

It’s not a necessity, but it will help keep your bread fresher for longer in the freezer.

6. Reduce freezer burn

Freezer burn happens when the fan that moves air around the freezer sucks out the moisture from the food, leaving pockets of air that discolour the food, and taste weird. Food that has freezer burn isn’t unsafe but it isn’t tasty, either.

The longer something is in the freezer, the more likely it is to develop freezer burn.

The more you can exclude air (and air circulation) from your food, the slower this will happen. Keeping food in containers helps, and packing containers tightly.

For really sensitive (or expensive) items, wrap with paper within in the container, which can help reduce the exposed surface area.

Make sure you’re rotating your food, eating the oldest things first, and don’t leave anything in the freezer too long. Whilst a few months will probably be fine, ultimately time is not on your side!

7. Label what you freeze

I am very bad at this, but it really is a good habit to get into. You might remember what the item is when you freeze it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll remember in six months time.

One label is better than no labels (it’s a start)…

And as the weeks/month pass, you’re less likely to remember the date – or even the year – you froze something.

So get into the habit of labelling what an item is (if it’s not obvious) and when you froze it.

8. Keep your freezer running smoothly

If you’ve gone to the trouble of defrosting your freezer, you don’t want it icing up again any time soon. There are a few things that speed up ice creation in freezers, so here’s a list of do’s and don’ts.

  • Don’t put hot food (such as leftovers) in the freezer. Let the food cool down, and ideally chill it first;
  • If you’re putting frozen items from the store in the freezer, wipe off any condensation or water that may have formed on the packaging;
  • Try to minimise how long you leave the freezer door open;
  • Check the freezer door seal, and if it’s not sticking properly, invest in a new one (it will also save you paying more than you need on electricity);
  • Don’t stuff your freezer so full that air can’t circulate;
  • Don’t block any fans or vents that say ‘do not cover’ on them.

9. Love your freezer and it will love you back.

Freezers are a pretty epic modern invention. By freezing, we can extend the life of our food, provide future us with tasty snacks and pre-prepared meals, and bypass the problem of ‘there’s nothing in the fridge’.

Keep your freezer frost-free, (relatively) organised and filled with things you like to eat, and you’ll be rewarded time and time again.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you good at making the most of your freezer, or could your freezer do with a bit of love and attention? Any tips you’d like to share, or questions about freezing? Any successes or fails when it comes to freezing food? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Zero waste gardening: turning lawn into food, starting with compost

This year, I’m turning my attention to transforming my garden from lawn into (a version of a) food forest. Think fruit trees, veggies, herbs and edible natives. If you’re new here, you might not know that I moved house last October: away from my previous place with its shared community garden, to a new space… and my very own backyard.

(And front yard. And verge. So much potential.)

Any old posts you’ve read will be about that previous place. Now, I’m starting again from scratch. Almost literally, as the new garden is about a blank a canvas as you can get.

Well, if that blank canvas was covered in lawn, perhaps.

There’s a few reasons why I want to spend more time in the garden this year. Yes, gardening is fun, and yes, there is nothing tastier than food you grow yourself. But it’s more than that.

You might have heard people talking about ‘resilience’ in the face of the growing climate crisis: growing food is something that we can do to be more resilient.

Even if it’s a few pot plants on a window sill.

Knowing how to grow food is a useful skill to have, and being able to share with your community is a great way to strengthen it. That’s resilience.

Then there’s the fact that the all of the screen time and the news can be overwhelming. I felt it more and more last year, and I need to find more space to truly switch off. Gardens can be that space.

As for writing about it… Well, I think there is always opportunity to talk about gardening from a zero waste perspective: avoiding plastic packaged products and synthetic chemicals, making do, re-using and repurposing, and the best one of all: sharing.

Plus there is rarely (never?) a single right way to do something. I want to share what I do and why, and generate discussion and no doubt more good ideas!

And as I have a blank canvas, I thought it would be a good opportunity to document my progress over the year. Maybe there will be some examples of ‘setting goals and smashing them’ or more likely it will be about troubleshooting and dealing with things when they don’t go to plan. Ahem. (Which option has your vote?)

Here are the ‘before’ pictures (back yard, and front yard):

And… here’s the plan. By December, I’m hoping going to have most of the lawn removed, some fruit trees in, a native verge and vegetables planted. That’s in twelve month’s time. I think that’s doable ;)

(Don’t worry, I’m not suddenly turning this into a gardening blog! I’m going to post an update once a month throughout the year, talking through the choices I’ve made and showing you – I hope! – some progress. There’s plenty of other things on waste, reducing plastic and sustainability that I still want to talk about. It won’t be all plants!)

Creating an edible garden from scratch:

Month 1: starting with the soil

Soil might sound incredibly boring, but that is where I’m beginning. Not with plants, not even with plans, but with soil.

Of course, what I really want to do is go to a garden centre and buy ALL the plants (because that is the fun part of gardening). But without knowing where they are going to go, and without good soil to plant them in, any plants I plant aren’t going to thrive.

I live in Perth, Western Australia. It’s basically a city built on a giant sandpit. The grey gutless sands of the Swan coastal plain (as they are less-than fondly called) are officially among the worst in the world. Possibly even the worst.

They are also extremely old, meaning they are nutrient poor.

This is what lurks just beneath the lawn:

I learnt to garden in the UK. There, you could pop anything in the ground at the right time of year and it would take off. Sadly, do the same in this soil, and your plants get smaller and smaller until they disappear altogether. (Well, except the local native plants of course – but I want to grow edible Western vegetables like broccoli for the mostpart.)

If I lived somewhere else, soil might not be my priority. Here in Perth, it has to be.

(Thinking about my long term goal of creating an edible garden, it’s not that soil comes ahead of planning, but soil and compost take time to create. Starting to think about soil now means that there’s composting happening whilst the planning of where the compost – and the plants – will go begins.)

First task, set up the compost bins and fill them up.

The very first thing I did when I moved was dig in the compost bin. Before I’d unpacked much more than the kettle. There was no way any of my food scraps were going in the landfill bin!

(If you’d like tips on getting started, I’ve previously written about how to set up a successful compost bin).

The thing about creating good soil is that you need a lot of compost.

How to create better compost, quickly:

Just putting the food scraps of two people in this bin would take forever to fill. And so, I gathered other ‘waste’ from different places to fill my compost bin.

  • I collected some bags of spent coffee grounds from a local cafe (most cafes do this – either proactively by putting ‘free’ compost by the door, or if you ask);
  • I was connected (via a request that came to a local community garden) with a guy making homebrew who has a 20 litre bucket full of spent grain every few weeks;
  • I’ve been given bags of shredded paper from an office (shredded paper gums up the recycling and isn’t meant to go in our kerbside recycling bins);
  • A friend with chickens has filled up some buckets with chicken manure and straw;
  • I persuaded by next-door neighbour’s lawnmower man to leave the grass clippings on my lawn for me to compost;
  • I rescued some tree prunings awaiting the verge green waste collection and shredded them (I invested in a second-hand shredder, so much fun);
  • I spotted another neighbour raking leaves to throw in the bin and gave him a bucket to fill for my compost;
  • I’ve updated my address on sharewaste.com to receive food scraps from neighbours – no takers yet but I’m sure they will come.

One bin quickly filled up, and I’ve now set up four bins. Two at the back, and two at the front. The two at the front are accessible for the neighbours to pop in their excess waste.

(FYI – I got all my compost bins second-hand, and three of them were free. Two were gifts, one was a score from my local Buy Nothing group and one I purchased via Gumtree.)

What’s so great about compost?

Ah, I’m glad you asked!

Good soil is a mix of organic matter, water, minerals, sand, clay, insects and microorganisms all supporting one another and helping plants to grow. Too much clay and the soil gets waterlogged; too much sand and the water drains away too quickly.

My soil is almost entirely sand. There’s next-to-no clay, and very little organic matter. Adding compost increases the organic matter, improves the soil structure and holds water in the soil, allowing nutrients to dissolve. It creates an environment for insects and microorganisms to thrive, and plants to grow.

If you think about nature, trees and bushes and plants are dropping leaves and small branches all the time. These leaves sit above the roots and break down (compost) in situ. They protect the soil from the sun, and trap moisture when rain falls. Animals come to eat berries and add manure to the tree roots. That’s composting, the way nature does it.

And if you think of most urban gardens, there are very few trees. If any leaves drop, they are usually raked up and not allowed to return to the soil. Lawn might look green – although it takes a lot of water and nutrients to keep it that way – but underneath, there’s not much going on.

Compost bins are replicating and speeding up what happens in nature, and providing that same resource to be added to the soil. With compost that we create ourselves, we get to choose where it goes and how we use it.

Compost does add nutrients to the soil, but it tends not to be nutrient-rich (most bags of compost will have slow-release fertilizer added for this reason). You only get out what you put in – so if your compost is made up of shredded paper, dry leaves and grass clippings, it will be teaming with life (microbes and insects) but won’t be high in nutrients.

This is fine when you’re growing flowers, or plants that don’t need a lot of nutrients, but isn’t so great for ‘hungry’ plants like vegetables – especially if you’d like a good crop.

If you’re composting food scraps, coffee grounds and adding seaweed and manure, it’s going to be better – but with the hungriest crops there may still be a need to add more nutrients (especially in nutrient-poor soils like mine).

For now, I’m not worried about the specifics of the soil. I haven’t planned exactly what I’m planting where, so my compost is for the basics: adding carbon, retaining water, and supporting life.

Up next: planning out the garden (and designing for the climate).

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have compost bins, and how do you use your compost? Do you utilize any interesting ‘waste’ when filling up your bins? Do you live in Perth and struggle with overcoming the sandpit? Anything you’d like to know more about? Please share in the comments below!