“Eat more fruits and vegetables.”
These farm-to-table nutrition recommendations are the seeds to a healthy diet and can promote the wellbeing of both our population and our planet. But as we face harsh temperatures in the cold winter months ahead, finding fresh, locally grown produce can be a challenge, making it difficult to meet our daily fruit and vegetable quota.
The solution? Frozen produce! Here are five reasons why frozen produce is the unsung hero of healthy eating:
Year-Round Accessibility. Very few regions of the world have the type of climate that supports year-round farming. Freezing produce is an extremely clean preservation method that provides us with a consistent supply of our favorite produce items all year round. No matter where you live, you can find a variety of fruits and vegetables in the frozen department of your grocery store 365 days a year.
Nutrient Density. One of the most common nutrition misconceptions is that fresh is always best. The truth is, a pint of fresh berries grown and shipped from California all the way to the east coast spends an average of 10-14 days in transit, losing vital nutrients during its commute. Often times, this fresh produce is harvested prematurely and artificially ripened during transit, which prevents the produce from reaching its most flavorful and nourishing potential. Alternatively, frozen produce is grown to full maturity, harvested at its peak ripeness, and immediately flash frozen at the height of its nutrient density so that it can be safely shipped without the risk of nutrient loss. Studies have found that frozen produce tends to have comparable or higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than its fresh counterparts.
Wallet Friendly. For those concerned about the financial burden of healthy eating, frozen produce provides the best bang for your buck. Why? Freezing eliminates a lot of time and labor-intensive processes necessary to carry a produce item from farm to table. This reduction in labor and cost is shared among growers, packers, shippers, and retailers, and allows for frozen produce to be marked at a much more affordable, wallet-friendly price-point for consumers.
Time Saver. Most produce found in the freezer aisle has already been chopped or prepped in some way shape or form – think cut spinach, sliced bell peppers, shelled edamame, broccoli florets, and artichoke hearts. Even better, these items are blanched before freezing, meaning they are already cooked so the manufacturer has already done most of the prep work for us. This translates into shorter cooking time in the kitchen, allowing for healthy meals in a flash.
Convenient Inventory. Nothing is worst than stocking up with fresh produce at the beginning of the week, only to find all of your healthy intentions looking sad, wilted, and moldy just days later. Frozen produce gives you the ability to stock up on healthy fruits and vegetables without the risk of spoilage.
With all of these winning attributes, why aren’t we all making a hard B-line to the frozen department of our local grocery store?
The Problem: We don’t know how to cook with frozen produce without turning it into a watery, mushy, and flavorless mess.
The Solution: I’ve put together a simple, easy-to-follow guide on how to maximize the flavor, texture, and enjoyment of frozen produce!
A “How to” Guide for Frozen Produce
How to Select:
- When selecting frozen produce, be sure to read the ingredient list. Look for products that only contain “naked” fruits and vegetables. Avoid those with sauces, dressings, or marinades which can often be loaded with highly processed oils, refined sugars, excessive salt, and unwanted preservatives, artificial flavors, and additives.
- When possible, choose products labeled “U.S Fancy”, which is used to identify produce of the best size, shape, and color. Also, look for the label “IQF”, a process that quickly brings the temperature down to lock in the most nutrients and retain the most texture.
- Explore new items! Some very exciting and exotic products are making their debut in the frozen department, such as tri-color carrots, purple cauliflower, and rainbow chard.
How to Prep:
To avoid a watery, mushy mess, limit the thaw time, temperature, and use of water (read: do not boil!!). The goal is to preserve as much texture as possible. Here are a few strategies for thawing frozen produce:
- Run under water, strain, and remove as much residual liquid as possible.
- Steam on the stove top until warmed through, using as little water as possible.
- Zap in the microwave (at a low power) with a few tablespoons of water in 30 second intervals to avoid overcooking, tossing each time to promote even thawing.
How to Cook:
One of the biggest mistakes we make when cooking with frozen produce is that we forget that it has already been blanched (read: it’s already cooked). To avoid a twice-cooked pile of mush, frozen produce should be added to dishes at the very last minute. So, prepare your dish to full completion, then add the frozen produce last and simply warm through.
The minimal cooking time will also help retain water-soluble vitamins (such as vitamin C), which are vulnerable to longer cooking times and high temperatures. While cooking, bring your frozen produce to life by incorporating bold spices, tangy citrus, and bright herbs.
What to Cook:
Be strategic about the types of recipes you prepare using frozen produce. Since we know texture is our biggest obstacle, choose dishes that generally take on a softer texture as they will show a little bit of forgiveness to frozen veggies in that department. For example:
For frozen veggies: Think soups, chili, stews, casseroles, gratins, or fillings for dumplings or stuffed mushrooms. Mash them up with grains and beans for DIY veggie burgers, or blend them into hummus, pestos, sauces, spreads and dips as the softer texture of frozen produce will actually work to your advantage in these recipes.
For frozen fruit: Smoothies are a no-brainer. I also like to drop a handful of berries into a simmering pot of oatmeal in the morning – the juices will burst and naturally sweeten your morning oats without the need of added sugar. You can also add a handful of frozen berries to a yogurt parfait (the berries will act like ice cubes and keep your yogurt cold until lunchtime!) For dessert, puree frozen mango cubes in a food processor for an instant creamy mango sorbet, or puree a frozen banana for a healthy soft-serve dessert.
This article was originally published on Philly.com’s Goal Getter column.