It may be mid-October right now, but November and December, full of potlucks, special gatherings and nights when there’s no time to cook, are right around the corner. The best insurance against a last-minute scramble for those occasions is to start putting a few prepared items in the freezer for the busy days ahead.

Being able to pull a homemade pie out of the freezer for a holiday potluck or warm up a satisfying casserole in less time than it takes to pick up fast food is easy to do with a little advance preparation and a basic freezer strategy.

Bayou Vista resident Kim Shelton has developed a number of freezer techniques. “Making a big batch and freezing individual portions is how I eat healthy,” she said.

Shelton reserves a shelf in her freezer specifically for the dinners she has prepared. “If I know exactly where the meals are, it’s easy to find them, and they don’t get hidden behind other things,” she explained.

Labeling the contents of frozen dishes is critical, since it’s hard to be enthused about heating up a mysterious frozen lump. Shelton has an ingenious solution for marking the food she prepares. “Dry-erase markers are great for writing on glass or ceramic containers,” she said. “The writing stays on in the freezer, and then it completely washes off in the dishwasher.”

Not everything is a candidate for stashing in the freezer. Food with a high moisture content typically loses its appeal; this includes most fresh vegetables that are served raw, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelon. Hard-boiled eggs turn rubbery, and cream fillings fall apart.

Instead, a pie with a more substantial filling is a better candidate for freezing. Chocolate chip pie freezes well, and can be served thawed to room temperature or warmed, from its thawed state, in the oven. It also transports well, important for pulling from the freezer for a potluck dinner or holiday gathering.

While glass or ceramic containers are great for freezer-to-oven-to-table use, freezer bags can be a space-maximizing way to store soups, stews and pasta sauces. After filling the bag, lay the bag or bags flat on a baking sheet in the freezer until thoroughly frozen. Once frozen solid, the bags can be stacked in the freezer or slipped sideways into an available gap.

For the best quality, it’s important to fill containers so that as little air as possible is in contact with the food. With freezer bags, all the air can be pushed out before zipping the bag shut, and food in containers can be wrapped tightly with plastic wrap, or have a layer of plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the food.

Most frozen foods can go straight into the microwave, but most dishes will have better texture, and cook much faster, if they are thawed first. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, frozen food should always be thawed in the refrigerator, never at room temperature. A full 24 hours is recommended for thawing 1-2 pounds of food.

Bernice Torregrossa:

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