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Mitzi Parker: Now that it is getting colder …

It is time to start thinking about making a big batch of soup or one of your favorite casseroles. You can serve some tonight and freeze the rest to enjoy later. By making large batches of food ahead of time and storing them in your freezer you can make good use of your freezer and your time.
Advantages of freezing prepared foods:
• You prepare food at your convenience
• You avoid waste by freezing leftovers and using them as “planned overs”
• Special diet foods and baby foods can be prepared in quantity and frozen in single portions.
• You save time by doubling or tripling recipes and freezing the extra food.
•If you cook for one or two, individual portions of an ordinary recipe can be frozen for later use.
If you are not sure about how a prepared food freezes, try freezing just a small portion the first time and check to see if the quality is acceptable in one to two months or more. In order to prevent over cooking, foods to be frozen should be slightly undercooked if they are to be reheated after freezing. After cooking, foods should be cooled quickly to ensure quality and safety. Keeping foods at room temperature for several hours before freezing increases chances of spoilage and foodborne illness. Food flavor, color, texture and nutrient content deteriorates when left at room temperature. Another point to keep in mind is that spices may change flavor in freezer storage, so it is best to only season food lightly before freezing and add additional seasonings when reheating or serving.
While appropriate storage times and temperatures are important for good tasting foods, other factors must also be considered. For one, freezer-packaging materials are critical to the quality of your frozen food. Freezer packaging materials should be moisture and vapor resistant; durable and leak proof; resistant to oil, grease, water and the absorption of off-flavors and odors; and easy to seal and mark.
The two most common types of packaging are:
• Flexible wrapping materials. These include freezer paper, plastic freezer bags, plastic wrap designed for freezer use and extra heavy-duty freezer aluminum foil.
• Rigid containers. These include plastic, glass and ceramic containers labeled suitable for freezing. Some containers, such as milk and cottage cheese cartons, are not moisture-vapor-resistant enough for freezing. When using glass and ceramic containers use only those designated for freezing; otherwise, they may break in the freezer.
Besides considering the type of material to use you also need to consider the size of the freezer container. It is best to freeze foods in quantities that will be used for a single meal. Plan to use frozen prepared foods within a short time. It is best to keep using foods from the freezer and replenish with fresh stock. This makes greater use of freezer space, lowers the cost per pound of food storage, and keeps your store of food fresh. The temperature of the freezer should remain below 0 degrees F. at all times. Fluctuating temperatures and temperatures above 0 degrees F. decrease quality.
Food safety should always be step number one when you make anything in the kitchen. Remember to always follow these food safety tips:
• Wash your hands with warm running water and soap for 20 seconds before beginning any food preparation.
• Wash kitchen surfaces often with hot soapy water.
• Wash hands, cutting boards, dishes and utensils after preparing each food item and before going on to the next item.
Happy cooking!

Mitzi Parker is Sumter County Extension agent/Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.