Your freezer is a valuable tool—if organized correctly. By harnessing its power, you can prolong the life of peak-season produce, stock up on meat and fish, and delegate big-batch cooking to the days when you have time, reaping the benefits on busy weeknights. But when you’re not on your game, a freezer can quickly become a disorganized wasteland of icy mystery meals, a way station for leftovers before they head to the trash. Once you lose control of whatever's going on inside your cold storage, it transitions from a blessing to a burden in a flash.
Your best bet is to keep a handle on your freezer all the time—to, as they say, stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. It’s much less work than you might think: A little planning and a few choice products are all you need to institute an easy-to-maintain organizational system. Below are some tips and tools that will get your freezer shipshape and keep it that way so you’ll never have to set aside an hour to deep-clean again.
No one can tell you how to properly prioritize the contents of your freezer—what matters most to you is part of a very personal hierarchy. For some, bags of frozen vegetables are the most reached-for item, while others rely on the accessibility of leftovers for busy weeknights. I’m not ashamed to say that the three to five pints of ice cream I have at any given time are my freezer MVPs, and if they somehow get shoved to the back behind a container of meatballs, then we’d have a real problem. Listen to your own wants and needs and arrange your freezer accordingly: Have most commonly used or need-to-be-used ASAP short-timers in front and long-term tenants in back.
If you’re one to forget what’s going on inside your freezer (or fridge!), slap a dry erase board or notepad to the front to keep track of the contents. You’ll curb food waste, grocery shop less often, and always have a place to jot down a to-do list.
It may seem like a small switch, but storing products upright in your freezer makes a huge difference, both in terms of immediate organization and sustained tidiness. You’ve probably heard about sticking leftover soups or stews in large zip-top bags and freezing them on their sides, so they take up less room. But the trick is that once they’re solid, you need to keep your bags upright in a row (in a bin, see below) like albums in a crate. That way you can easily flip through them to see what you’ve got and pull out what you need without disrupting the stack. The same bagging method can be used for nonliquid freezables as well, like individual protein portions or ready-to-blend smoothie packs.
For boxed frozen foods, like veggie patties and toaster waffles, vertical storage is again the answer. Lining your boxes (or boxed leftovers; choose narrow rectangles like the set below) up on their sides means removing one doesn’t cause a frozen food avalanche, and you’ll always have a place for the next item you bring home from the grocery store. If you do have to stack, use deli containers, which are easy to tower up and label.
$20.00, Bed Bath & Beyond
$30.00, Bed Bath & Beyond
Bins and zones
In all likelihood, you’re researching how to organize your freezer because your doesn't have a system—or it did for a moment but quickly reverted to free-for-all storage the second you had something new to add. The best way to maintain freezer order for the long haul is to separate your space into specific zones for different types of food and use bins to corral like items. The same baskets and bins that help keep your fridge from falling into disarray can be deployed for the freezer, designated for desserts, vegetables, protein, and more.
For reach-in freezers, make use of the space inside the door by adding skinny bins, which are better equipped to hold a bags of frozen bits and bobs than the shelf by itself. Also, opt for under-shelf storage, which makes use of any extra room that might be hiding above your loaded bins. The best can be pulled out from under each shelf like a drawer for easy access to smaller items.
For a chest freezer, use bins to separate the space into sections, but don’t forget to optimize on depth. Keeping a wide, flat bin about half the width of your freezer over the top of everything else creates an additional layer of storage, which you can easily move to one side or the other to reach the items below. A pull-out freezer probably has some leveling built in, but a few containers will help divide up the space more practically and keep things from different zones from spilling into a neighboring area.
$12.00, The Container Store
Notes to future you
There is nothing worse than turning to your freezer to make use of stuff you’ve saved and not being able to tell the lasagna from the enchiladas. Do future you a favor when packing up leftovers or moving ingredients into smaller containers and throw a label on there. Write clearly and include the date, so you can use or toss things out in a timely fashion without guessing a dish’s age. And be sure to stick the labels where you’ll be able to see them best at a glance, i.e., on the side if you’ve got a reach-in model or the top if you have a pull-out or chest freezer.
You don’t have to get fancy here: A few rolls of masking tape (color-coding types of food helps—all ready-to-heat leftovers get blue, vegetables green, etc.) and a permanent marker are really all you need. But if you want to take your freezer organization to the next level, invest in a simple label maker to formalize the process.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious