Most of us don’t eat enough vegetables and fruits. And they can get expensive to buy, whether you shop at the grocery store or farmers market. But for many vegetables and fruits, you’ll get just as much nutrition — for a whole lot less money — by buying frozen foods instead of fresh.
The New York Times reports freezing can slightly alter the nutritional composition of fruits and vegetables. However, while fresh fruits and vegetables are often picked before they fully ripen, freezing typically happens at the peak of ripeness. And frozen vegetables and fruits tend to lose nutrients more slowly than fresh produce. Plus, as The Atlantic notes, it’s most important that you eat fruits and vegetables — not that you eat fresh produce exclusively.
According to a review published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, you might even get more nutritious components in frozen produce than in “fresh” produce that’s spent a lot of time in storage or in transit to your local grocery store. Want to know which foods you should buy frozen instead of fresh? Read on to check out our favorites.
Broccoli might cost a lot in the produce section. But you can usually find frozen broccoli for a lot less — and often get it on sale — without losing out on important nutrients. According to the review in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, broccoli frozen for an entire year loses less ascorbic acid (10%) than fresh broccoli that has been stored at room temperature for a week (56%).
Martha Stewart advises turning to frozen broccoli for quick meals. You can thaw it in hot water — or blanch in boiling water — if you’re in a rush to get your broccoli into a stir-fry or onto a pizza. (Because manufacturers briefly blanch veggies, such as broccoli, before freezing, it’s actually partially cooked already.) Or if you have more time, you can even roast frozen broccoli the same way you would fresh broccoli.
The Kitchn notes frozen broccoli makes a great addition to casseroles, stratas, frittatas, pasta dishes, soups, and rice bowls.
2. Green beans
Green beans frozen for a year lose only 20% of their original levels of ascorbic acid, as compared to the 55% lost if you store green beans at room temperature for a week. Plus, researchers found green beans that were cooked after being frozen had higher levels of total carotene than green beans that were fresh when cooked.
EatingWell advises frozen green beans make a great “quick-cooking item to have on hand.” They get frozen at the peak of ripeness, which helps them maintain not only their nutrients, but also their flavor.
Food52 notes frozen vegetables can add variety to your meals “without a huge carbon footprint or price tag.” Though you might want to stick with fresh when the vegetable in question is available year-round, you can successfully use frozen veggies (including green beans) by steaming or microwaving them. (Never boil them.) For most recipes, you can skip thawing altogether. And bite-sized green beans will just need a quick thaw or steam.
3. Green peas
Fresh peas can get expensive — and time-consuming — to prepare. But frozen peas are a lot easier. And they retain much of their vital nutrients. Green peas frozen for a year lose just 10% of their ascorbic acid, according to the review. That’s a lot less than the 60% they lose when stored at room temperature for a week.
As the review explains, “Cooked frozen peas … contained amounts of ascorbic acid greater than or equal to those in the cooked fresh products.” Researchers also determined cooked frozen peas contain higher levels of beta-carotene than cooked fresh or canned green peas.
Food52 explains peas are another frozen veggie that will only need to be thawed or steamed quickly before you add them to your dish or put them on the table. You can mix them with “cooked grains or sturdy greens for a not-sad desk lunch.” Bon Appétit reports you can also successfully use frozen peas in dishes, such as pesto, mutter paneer, pastas, pea salads, and pea soups.
You’ll probably want to stick with fresh spinach for your salads. But for other dishes, frozen spinach can make a great substitute. Spinach frozen for a year loses 30% of its ascorbic acid, significantly less than the 100% lost if you store spinach at room temperature for a week, according to the review. The caveat is you should look for frozen leaf spinach, versus frozen chopped spinach, if you want amounts of ascorbic acid greater than or equal to what you’d find in fresh spinach.
Also of interest is the fact that frozen spinach seems to increase its concentration of thiamin (about 25.4% after 40 days, according to the review). Plus, spinach cooked after being frozen contains higher levels of beta-carotene than fresh cooked spinach.
The Kitchn reports frozen spinach makes a great freezer staple. And though you can cook it by itself in the microwave or a skillet, you can also get more creative. After you thaw frozen spinach, you can press the water out with a potato ricer. Then, you can cook it into a casserole, soup, curry, or pasta. You can also use it as a pizza topping. Food52 also recommends using it in recipes, such as spinach dumplings, spinach dip, and saag paneer.
Most people don’t buy fresh legumes. But we couldn’t resist letting you know you might want to buy your kidney beans, chickpeas, lima beans, garden peas, and lentils frozen instead of dried or canned. The review reports according to multiple studies, “frozen legumes contained significantly higher levels of thiamin than their canned counterparts.”
Though many people hate lima beans — and The Huffington Post puts them on the list of the worst-tasting frozen vegetables — frozen legumes don’t have to taste terrible. It’s all in the preparation. As The Kitchn notes, the keys to making frozen vegetables “suck a little less” include steaming, not boiling; seasoning your vegetables well; and avoiding cooking before you add them to a recipe.
As for lima beans specifically, NPR reports you can easily roast them in the oven. And Epicurious sings their praises, reporting you can “simmer them with garlic and parsley, stir them into risotto, [or] cook them with clams.”
Freezing causes minimal destruction of phenolic compounds — nutrients that seem to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses — in fruit. That includes raspberries, which might actually contain significantly higher levels of some disease-fighting compounds after freezing than before, according to the review.
However, the changes in total phenolics seem to be dependent on the cultivar. And researchers who studied four different raspberry cultivars found different results for each, “ranging from no change to an increase of 12% and decreases of 21 and 28%, during 12 months of frozen storage.”
The Food Network notes as long as they’re not packed with syrup or sugar, frozen berries make a nutritious addition to your freezer — and an economical addition to a variety of different dishes. You can use them in sorbet and sherbet, blend them into smoothies, add them to punch, or bake them into a galette. But if you want some less-common ideas, you can also use them to prepare savory sauces, empanadas, barbecue sauce, marinades, and vinaigrettes.
Raspberries aren’t the only berry you should consider buying the next time you’re in the frozen foods aisle. Like raspberries, blackberries also retain much of their phenolic compounds when frozen. A study mentioned by the review found blackberries, once frozen, lose between just 8% and 15% of their phenolic compounds. And because berries are so pricey, it’s a no-brainer to shop for a bag of frozen berries instead of shelling out for fresh blackberries each time you crave the flavor.
We can’t mention blackberries without passing along the Serious Eats suggestion to use frozen berries for a mixed berry pie in the winter. It might even feel easier than using fresh berries because you won’t need to wash your berries or deal with stems. (You won’t even need to defrost them.)
The Kitchn notes in most cases, you shouldn’t thaw frozen berries before baking with them. If you thaw them, the moisture content of your baked goods might be off, so you could end up with a soggy pie.
While you’re looking at frozen berries, you might want to grab a bag of frozen peaches, too. A study mentioned in the review determined clingstone peaches don’t lose significant amounts of phenolic compounds by being frozen, and they actually see significant increases in their concentrations. In fact, researchers found a 30% increase in total phenolics after freezing clingstone peaches. And even when peaches are stored frozen for three months, they underwent no statistically significant change in total phenolics.
You can use frozen peaches in all kinds of recipes, from wholesome peach puree for a baby to frozen yogurt for yourself. (All you need for that latter recipe is a bag of frozen peaches, a little bit of honey, some plain yogurt, and a splash of lemon juice.) And if you want to freeze your own peaches — perhaps you ended up with a surplus after a grocery store sale — Better Homes & Gardens has the lowdown on the best strategy.
Cabbage is another kind of produce that seems to gain phenolic compounds after freezing. In fact, researchers observed a 26% increase in cabbage’s phenolic compounds. HGTV characterizes cabbage as “one of the unsung heroes of the vegetable garden.” It combines a high fiber content with low calories, disease-fighting compounds, high levels of vitamins C and K, plus vital minerals.
According to the Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Florida, you can add frozen cabbage directly to dishes without taking the time to thaw. You can find different types of frozen cabbage at the grocery store — or make your own. The farm notes, “Cabbage can be brined as sauerkraut or made into coleslaw or relishes and frozen. Whole leaves can be frozen unblanched for use as wrappers for baking or stuffing and used immediately after thawing. Cabbages should not be frozen whole.”
You can find fresh carrots in the produce section year-round. So why would you consider buying your carrots in the frozen foods section instead? One reason is frozen carrots can actually be more nutritious than fresh carrots. In the review, the authors noted carrots gained beta-carotene after being frozen. Plus, frozen carrots often cost less, per cup, than fresh carrots.
Food52 explains you can use many frozen vegetables — including carrots — to make dishes where the vegetable’s texture doesn’t take center stage. You can choose meatballs, falafel, gnocchi, dumplings, or even veggie burgers. “Give thawed or steamed ingredients, like spinach, sturdy greens, and florets, a fine chop by hand,” the publication advises. And “for tougher items, like carrots and green beans, a quick whirl in the food processor is recommended.”
11. Jalapeño peppers
Jalapeño peppers might not be an obvious candidate for buying in the frozen foods aisle. After all, you typically don’t need a lot of jalapeños, as with any other hot pepper you use in your kitchen. But keeping some in the freezer can help you ensure you have them on hand to provide a little bit of heat — and some extra nutrition — to your favorite dishes. The review notes these peppers are another kind of vegetable that sees gains in beta-carotene after being frozen.
You can buy your jalapeño peppers frozen, which will likely save you a significant amount. Or you can freeze your own peppers if you either buy a large bag of them or grow them in your garden. LEAFtv notes frozen jalapeño peppers will likely have a softer texture once thawed. So frozen jalapeños aren’t a good substitute in recipes where you need raw peppers, but they’ll work in cooked dishes.
12. Fiddlehead greens
Though they aren’t the most common vegetable, fiddlehead ferns might earn a place on your grocery list when you want to try something new. The review notes fiddlehead greens — a vegetable that consists of the furled heads of young ferns — see significant gains in alpha-carotene after being frozen for 10 months.
According to Saveur, the ostrich fern is the species that’s most widely harvested as fiddleheads in Canada and the U.S. They can be harvested only for two weeks in the spring before they unfurl. That extreme seasonality makes them a great candidate for buying frozen instead of fresh.
You can probably find them at the farmers market or an upscale supermarket. (If you have trouble, ask vendors at your favorite farmers market to help you track them down.) Once you have a stash, you might be tempted to freeze some to enjoy the bright, earthy flavor more often during the year. That’s a great strategy, and Livestrong has some advice on how you can blanch fiddleheads prior to freezing.
Properly frozen, they’ll keep for up to a year. Fresh or frozen, you can use them in recipes, such as Saveur’s fiddlehead and salmon salad.
13. Sweet potatoes
If you’re used to stocking up on sweet potatoes in the produce section, it might be counterintuitive to buy them in the frozen section instead. But according to the review, researchers found sweet potatoes that were frozen and then cooked had higher levels of beta-carotene than fresh cooked sweet potatoes. That sounds like a good reason to give frozen sweet potatoes a try. And it also doesn’t hurt that the frozen version might be easier on your wallet, too.
You can use frozen sweet potatoes in many of the same ways The Kitchn recommends for regular frozen potatoes. (Think casseroles, soups, and frittatas.) But you can also find some less conventional uses to try. Epicurious, for instance, characterizes sweet potatoes as “the secret ingredient your smoothies are missing.” Unlike regular potatoes, sweet potatoes can actually be consumed raw. So you can just toss a handful of frozen sweet potatoes into your blender to add another superfood to your smoothie.
Corn can be expensive to buy fresh, especially when it’s not in season. But you don’t need to feel guilty about buying frozen instead. One study in the review found frozen corn has a significantly higher concentration of potassium than fresh corn. Frozen corn contains more calcium than fresh corn does, as well. So if you’re craving corn once the summer bounty has come and gone from the supermarket just head to the frozen foods aisle.
The Kitchn points out corn tends to show up most often in simple dishes. And even frozen corn does well in most of those. You can sauté your frozen corn as a side. Or you can add it to a soup or chili. You can add it to risotto. Or you can cook it with potatoes or even with cheese. Saveur notes you can even use frozen corn to make creamed corn, a perennial favorite around the American dinner table.
15. White asparagus
Fiber is another nutrient of which most of us don’t consume enough. But you can get it just as easily from frozen vegetables as from fresh ones. Researchers in the review found white asparagus frozen for 10 months showed no significant changes in fiber content. That makes it a great veggie to try the next time you’re looking at frozen foods at the grocery store.
Saveur reports white asparagus is grown under mounds of earth, hidden from sunlight. (That explains why it doesn’t produce the chlorophyll that gives green asparagus its color and distinct flavor.) White asparagus has a milder flavor than green.
And as the Los Angeles Times reports, white asparagus is sturdier than other varieties and more forgiving in terms of cooking time. You can follow Livestrong’s instructions for cooking frozen asparagus, or look for recommendations on the package.