If you have a standalone freezer, you know how important it is to keep its contents organized. No one likes having to dig to the bottom of a full chest freezer to find the particular package you were looking for. In addition to keeping your freezer physically organized, it’s very helpful to have a freezer inventory. A freezer inventory is a list of your freezer’s contents that allows you to quickly see what you have without needing to actually open the freezer. If you build it right and keep it up-to-date, it’s a powerful and dynamic tool.
Why you need a freezer inventory
The most obvious reason to use a freezer inventory is simply to keep track of what’s in your freezer. You won’t have to rely on your memory or a lengthy hunt in the freezer (letting in warm air and accelerating frost buildup) to know what’s on hand. If you buy meat by the whole animal, however, there are a number of other important benefits.
- Planning meals: Figuring out your weekly meal plan in advance is especially important when you buy meat in bulk, since it can take one to three days for packages to defrost in the fridge. A freezer inventory makes it easy to see all your meat options at one time. Once you’ve selected the cut you’d like to use, you can check your fridge and pantry for ingredients to help spark recipe ideas.
- Pacing yourself: if you’re planning to make your bulk meat purchase last for a certain amount of time (usually a year), it’s important to keep track of how many pounds or packages you started out with and how many you go through each month.
- Ensuring variety: When you buy meat by the whole animal, it’s only natural to eat your favorite cuts first and save the “weird stuff” for later. But when later finally comes, you’ll wish you’d done things differently. A freezer inventory makes it easier to keep track of what types of cuts you’re eating each month. Inventory shows you already had steak twice this month? Time to defrost some ground beef or stew meat instead.
- Knowing when it’s time to reorder: A freezer inventory makes it easy to know exactly when it’s time to reorder. Rather than simply eyeballing what’s left in the freezer, you can easily add up how many pounds or packages are left. Once you have that number, you can divide by how many pounds or packages your family eats each month to determine how many more months your freezer meat will last. Because animals are usually spoken for months before they’re slaughtered, waiting until your freezer is nearly or totally empty to reorder isn’t a great idea.
But to reap these benefits, you need to make sure you set up your inventory correctly.
How to set up an electronic freezer inventory
To set up an electronic freezer inventory, you’ll need to create a spreadsheet in a program like Excel or Google Sheets. At a minimum, the spreadsheet should have the following five columns:
- Cut/Contents of Package: For instance, “Italian sausage,” “whole chicken,” or “sirloin steak.” If it’s important to you, include the number of individual items in each package — “Italian sausage (4 links).” Be sure to arrange your inventory so that the list follows a logical order. For instance, in addition to grouping beef items together, list the different types of steak one after another before moving on to the different types of roasts. If you’re at the point where you’ve made a subsequent purchase of the same type of meat but still have a few packages from the previous order, it’s best to list these separately on your freezer inventory.
- Weight per Package: It’s fine to round to the nearest quarter- or half-pound. In most cases, all packages of the same item will be very close in weight, but if not, you can either list exactly how many packages are each weight or simply give a range. If the butcher’s inventory or the package labels do not include weights, you’ll need to use a food scale to weigh each package.
- Number of Packages: Knowing how many packages of each cut you started with is helpful for determining how quickly you’re eating a particular item and may be useful to refer back to when making future bulk meat purchases.
- Packages Used: By subtracting the number of packages already eaten from the total number of packages, you’ll know how many you still have. Some people may prefer to approach things from the other end and label this column “Packages Remaining” instead.
- Packages/Pounds Eaten This Month: To ensure that your meat lasts as long as you need it to last, it’s important to set a limit of a certain number of pounds or packages of meat per month. This column allows you to track your monthly consumption and is cleared at the end of each month. Whether you choose to track monthly pounds or packages is up to you — just make sure you’re consistent.
These are the columns you absolutely must have. You may, however, want to include others to capture additional information.
Because knowing how many total packages you began with can be a useful planning tool for making future bulk purchases, don’t just delete an item once all packages have been used. Instead, move it to a “No Longer in Freezer” section at the bottom of your inventory.
To make setting up your freezer inventory extra easy, I’ve created a free Google Sheets file you can use. There are two tabs: the first is a blank template and the second is a filled-in sample taken from my own freezer inventory. Save a copy of the file and add rows or any additional columns as needed.
Maintaining your freezer inventory
A freezer inventory is only useful if it’s accurate and faithfully kept up-to-date. To ensure this happens, follow these four simple steps:
- Inventory your bulk meat purchase immediately after getting it home, before it goes into your freezer.
- Every time you remove a package from the freezer, update the “Packages Used” and “Packages/Pounds Eaten This Month” columns for that item.
- At the end of each month, clear all the numbers in the “Packages/Pounds Eaten This Month” column. Did you eat the last package of a particular cut of meat? If so, move that item to the “No Longer in Freezer” section of the inventory, making sure to keep it grouped with other items from that same purchase.
- Every six months, re-inventory the contents of your freezer to make sure your inventory is accurate.
Tip: If you find yourself forgetting to update your electronic inventory when you remove items, put a reminder someplace you’re likely to see it, such as taped to the inside of the freezer door or in a highlighted, all-caps note at the top of the document you use for meal planning.
If you’re a pen-and-paper kind of person, there are plenty of tangible, hold-in-your-hand options for keeping track of what’s in your freezer. Whether it’s a little notebook that lives in your bag or a whiteboard hung over your freezer, the basic principles of layout and upkeep discussed above still apply. Physical inventories have certain advantages over electronic ones. It’s a lot easier, for instance, to remember to update your inventory when it’s taped to the lid of your chest freezer and you see it every time you take something out or put something in. But they also have their drawbacks and unique challenges. Ultimately, the best inventory option is the one that feels easy and natural to you.
For more information on freezer inventories—including the pros and cons of various electronic and physical options, as well as suggestions for additional information you may want to keep track of—check out Chapter 7 of There’s a Cow in My Freezer.