It's time to reckon with the out the potential avalanche building up in your freezer. 

Sarra Sedghi
Updated: January 29, 2019
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You know the story: You cook something and decide to freeze the leftovers, or you don’t have any immediate use for certain ingredients so you throw them into the back of the freezer. “I’ll keep this and use it later,” you say to yourself in an attempt to justify the ever-growing arsenal of cold clutter. And then you don’t. By the time you remember you had those chicken bones or leftover meat scraps or an extra portion of casserole, it’s somewhere in the back behind a half-eaten carton of ice cream, freeze-burned beyond all usefulness. Freezer purgatory is real. 

That’s not to say your freezer isn’t an incredible resource. Some freezers are fireproof, so you could use one as a safe. It all depends on how you use it. But if you use it to procrastinate or just have a bunch of frozen food you don’t need, cleaning out your freezer can be an ordeal. Some people have never cleaned a freezer in their lives—and maybe you’re one of them. 

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You probably aren’t cleaning your freezer as often as you should, especially if it’s been years. So dedicate a Saturday to sorting out the potential avalanche building up in your freezer. 

Take this opportunity to reflect on your shopping and eating habits—and possibly cut down on spending. Are you buying frozen meals to keep on hand, “just in case,” and then ignoring them? Maybe that’s a sign that you don’t need them, and a reason to save both money and freezer space. 

The first part of this process is painstaking. You’re going to have to unload your freezer and face everything you’ve accumulated at room temperature. Cleaning out a freezer is kind of like cleaning out a closet, except stuff melts. Keep a cooler nearby to temporarily store more perishable items, like meat, and cut down on dripping. Next, it’s time to categorize. 

What to Lose

A lot of this is going to depend on taste. Food that’s freezer burned, paled through discoloration, or covered in a thin layer of ice crystals is safe to eat. This chart breaks down how long particular foods can last before getting freezer burned. Ask yourself if you’re truly going to use each item. Instead of “does this bring me joy,” try “can I make this appetizing?” As long as you accept that tastes may be muted and textures will toughen (you can even cut the affected areas off of say, meat), it’s okay to eat. Maybe not enjoyable, but okay. 

What’s not okay is food that’s been frozen so long it’s indistinguishable or you can’t remember buying it. That needs to go in the trash. Eliminate anything you know you won’t eat and get that space (and Tupperware) back. 

Getting rid of food doesn’t necessarily mean you have to throw it away. Produce can be composted (for more information, read this), freezer burned or not. If you don’t have a personal compost stash, ask your friends and neighbors to see if you can contribute to theirs, or check out a local farmer’s market to see if they have a composting spot. If you’d rather have people eat your unwanted food, call your local food bank and ask if they take frozen food. If they don’t, ask if they know anyone who will. And hey, maybe a friend of yours could use some frozen beans. Ask and announce! 

What to Keep

Theoretically, you’ve wanted to keep all this food at some point—that’s what it’s doing in the freezer in the first place. If it hasn’t been in the freezer that long, keep it. Items that don’t take up much room are permissible, if you’re going to use them. If you can identify a specific reason you’ve kept it, and are able to execute that soon, keep it. Keep any herbs you froze because those things are expensive. Got any multitaskers like chicken or veggies or one of those bags of pasta from Trader Joe’s? Keep them. Remember to maintain a practical outlook rather than emotional. 

Once you’ve decided what you’re keeping, label it so you’ll know what you’ve got. Grab some masking tape and a sharpie and label anything that could be confused for something else. For future reference, you can also do a quick scan before grocery shopping and see if that new recipe involves anything you’ve got frozen. From there, work with what you have. Go ahead and schedule out dinner for the rest of the week, especially if you’re holding on to homemade food or key ingredients. 

What to Eat—Now

Take a look at your “keep” pile and see if there’s anything that can be used today. You can’t eat all this alone, so round up some help. Any friends or relatives without dinner plans will appreciate the hospitality. Got lots of frozen veggies? Dump them in some stock, add a frozen herb, and make a stew. Blend frozen fruit and veggies into a smoothie. If you have a big stock of sweets, gather the kids and throw an ice cream party.

Don’t Forget the Freezer

Now that you’ve cleared out the contents of your freezer, it’s time to clean the appliance. Remember that cooler? Put everything you’ve decided to keep in there. Next, unplug the fridge and open the freezer. Take out any shelves or detachables and wash them in a sink. Remove any ice sheets with a metal spatula. You’ve got a few options for cleaning solution: mix hot water with vinegar, baking soda, or even dish detergent. Using either a spray bottle or a wet dishcloth or sponge, generously cover the interior with the cleaning solution and dry it with a microfiber cloth or paper towels. For extra sanitation, you can wipe the freezer with a rag dipped in rubbing alcohol. Then, plug that thing back in and reload the items you’re going to keep.