Lots of Leftovers?

The notion of abundance seems to permeate the holiday season. In preparation for guests or as a contribution to a potluck gathering, you might prepare enough food to feed 12 or more people…and sometimes only 6 people show up, or there are so many other dishes to choose from that only small portions are taken from each dish. So then, what do you do with the leftovers?

First of all, perishable foods that have sat at room temperature (higher than 40°F) for over two hours need to be discarded. It’s also handy to note a few particular foods don’t generally freeze well: celery, cucumbers, parsley, radishes, and lettuce are vegetables that don’t freeze well due to water logging; mayonnaise, sour cream, milk sauces, and cream and custard fillings are likely to separate; fried foods, meringue and icings with egg whites will lose their desired consistencies.

If you plan to eat a food within three to four days, then cover that food with plastic wrap or seal it in a reusable container and refrigerate. Check that your refrigerator is set to 40°F or below.

If you don’t think that you’ll get to it in the next few days, then freeze the food at 0°F or below. For best quality, get it in the freezer sooner rather than later. Also consider portion sizes when you package food for freezing. Avoid creating such large portions that you repeatedly thaw and refreeze- thawing and refreezing leads to water loss, and therefore a drier final product.

Package foods in freezer bags or tightly sealed glass or plastic containers. You may also use butcher paper, heavy-duty aluminum foil, or plastic wrap. Regular plastic wrap will allow air to reach the food and cause it to deteriorate overtime, so wrap with multiple layers of plastic wrap and consider placing it in a rigid container as well. The material of freezer bags, glass, thick plastic, and butcher paper is impermeable to air.

If using a bag or rigid container, remember to leave enough head space for the food to expand while freezing. Adequate headspace is important so that the package doesn’t break. The actual amount of headspace required depends on the food you are freezing, but leaving one inch is most likely enough unless you are freezing a liquid, in which case leave 1½ inches.

Be sure to label packages with the name of the food and date, as color and appearance may change in the freezing process, or you might just not be able to see through the packaging.

For quickest freezing, spread the items out against the surfaces of the freezer, then rearrange packages closer together once frozen. This more rapid freezing prevents ice crystals from forming, which are likely to damage food cells. Also, freeze only about two to three pounds of food per cubic foot of freezer space. That’s the amount that can freeze within 24 hours.

Information in this entry comes from the Freezing and Food Safety Factsheet by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service, Preserving Food: Freezing Prepared Foods by The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and So Easy to Preserve.