Americans typically don't eat enough vegetables. Could frozen vegetables help us meet our needs?

Most adults should be eating 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables per day (it's recommended that men get a little more veg). Only 9% of adults are getting the recommended amount of vegetables and only 12% get enough fruit. Yikes.

A vegetable in any form is better than no vegetable at all. Vegetables are packed with nutrients—vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Freezing is a safe way to increase the shelf life of nutritious foods. However, many people incorrectly believe that frozen vegetables are much less nutritious than fresh vegetables. There still seems to be some controversy about if frozen vegetables are healthy, and how they stack up to fresh produce. We have the answers on what to choose and when.

Fresh versus frozen title card with broccoli and carrots

When to Choose Frozen

As winter approaches, fresh produce is limited—or expensive—in much of the country, which forces many of us to turn to canned or frozen options. While canned vegetables can lose some nutrients during the preservation process (notable exceptions include tomatoes and pumpkin), frozen vegetables may be even more healthful than some of the fresh produce sold in supermarkets, says Gene Lester, Ph.D., national program leader for nutrition, food safety and quality at the USDA. Why is this? Fruits and vegetables chosen for freezing tend to be processed at their peak ripeness, a time when they usually are most nutrient-packed.

While the first step of freezing vegetables—blanching them in hot water or steam to kill bacteria and stop food-degrading enzymes—causes some water-soluble nutrients like vitamin C and the B vitamins to break down or leach out, the subsequent flash-freeze locks the vegetables in a relatively nutrient-rich state. A 2017 study found that there were no significant differences in vitamin content between frozen and fresh vegetables. Furthermore, when there was a slight difference, it was more likely that the frozen vegetables had a higher concentration of nutrients than their fresh counterparts.

There is also a notable price difference between fresh and frozen produce. For those shopping on a budget, frozen (and canned) vegetables may be more cost-effective. The average price for frozen cauliflower is $1.68 per pound, whereas fresh cauliflower florets are closer to $3.13 per pound. The American Frozen Food Institute published a white paper showing that a grocery list comprised of 95% frozen food could be in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for an adult woman for only $8.52 a day, or $59.66 per week.

Additionally, fresh vegetables have a much shorter shelf life than their frozen alternatives. If you are going to use the produce promptly, fresh is a good choice. However, to reduce the risk of spoilage and waste, frozen is a safe bet.

Choose frozen produce without any added salt (you can add a little of your own as you cook) and aim to buy plain as often as possible. Saucy vegetables will be higher in sodium, but may be a good option for picky eaters from time to time.

Frozen vegetables work well in cooked dishes like casseroles, stir-fries, pastas and soups (learn more about our favorite cooking techniques below). Favorite options are broccoli, peas, corn, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and squash.

Apple-Cranberry Spinach Salad with Goat Cheese recipe on a plate

When to Choose Fresh

It's hard to argue with the flavor and nutrition of fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables. Especially when in season, fresh produce can be grown and purchased locally, ensuring the tastiest, healthiest product. However, in many areas of the county, this is not realistic year-round.

On the other hand, in the colder months, fruits and vegetables destined to be shipped to the fresh-produce aisles around the country typically are picked before they are ripe, which gives them less time to develop a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Outward signs of ripening may still occur, but these vegetables won't have the same nutritive value as if they had been allowed to fully ripen on the vine. In addition, during the long haul from farm to fork, fresh fruits and vegetables are exposed to lots of heat and light, which degrade some nutrients, especially delicate vitamins like C and the B vitamin thiamin.

If you are looking for a vegetable to eat raw with an Avocado-Yogurt Dip or Classic Hummus, the only option is fresh produce. Salads and slaws also need the crunch and crispy bite you get from fresh vegetables. If stored correctly, fresh produce can last longer than you think. Check out the Best Way to Store Fruits and Veggies for more.


How to Cook Frozen Vegetables

If you are going to be cooking, there are several ways to use frozen vegetables.

Sautéing Frozen Vegetables

Regardless of what technique you are using, not all frozen vegetables cook the same way. For this reason, it is important to read the directions on the bag or box to give you an idea of how long to cook the vegetable you are using. That being said, most frozen vegetables can be sautéed in 5 to 7 minutes. No need to defrost—just add oil to a hot pan and sauté your frozen vegetable of choice to the desired doneness. For a flavor boost, try adding herbs and spices to the vegetables while they're cooking.

Steaming Frozen Vegetables

Since frozen vegetables are initially blanched before freezing, steaming is a tried-and-true way to cook them. Steaming helps frozen vegetables play to their strengths, and is also the fastest cooking method of the bunch. See the package instructions, but most frozen vegetables cook for between 2 and 10 minutes. However, be careful not to over-steam them, as this can lead to that mushy texture that gives frozen veggies a bad reputation.

Roasting Frozen Vegetables

Yes, you can roast frozen vegetables. Due to their processing, they cook slightly faster than the fresh alternatives. Most frozen vegetables roast nicely in 20 to 25 minutes, flipping halfway through. Again, this gives you a great opportunity to use herbs and spices to make the flavor of your vegetables pop.

Grilling Frozen Vegetables

For some adventurous cooks, grilling vegetables can be an option in a pinch. Frozen vegetables may be softer and more fragile than fresh, so use a grill basket to save them from falling through the grill grate. Grilling times will vary depending on the vegetable, but most take between 5 and 10 minutes, flipping at the halfway point.

Bottom Line

When vegetables are in season, buy them fresh and ripe. Out of season, frozen vegetables will give you a high concentration of nutrients. Choose packages marked with a USDA U.S. Grade A shield, which designates produce of the best size, shape and color; vegetables of this standard also tend to be more nutrient-rich than the lower grades, B and C. Eat them soon after purchase: over many months, nutrients in frozen vegetables do inevitably degrade. Finally, steam or microwave rather than boil your produce to minimize the loss of water-soluble vitamins.