Five Frugal Food Tactics from Trent’s Kitchen

I love to cook. Along the way, I often discover excellent shortcuts and money-saving tactics for home food preparation. I get excited, and I immediately want to share the idea, but it’s simply not enough to warrant a full article on its own.

So, I usually save it. I jot the idea down somewhere in my notes and move on with things.

Today, I decided to dig through my notes and pull together several of those useful frugal cooking tactics. Hopefully, these tactics will find use in your own kitchen.

Make Your Own Cream of …. Soup!

One staple of many inexpensive recipes is canned soup, usually of the “cream” variety – cream of chicken soup, cream of mushroom soup, and so on. Some people, particularly those who are focused on eating healthy, try to avoid these ingredients, since such soups are usually laden with salt and preservatives.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to make this soup yourself – and it’s a perfect substitute for the canned soup in those recipes. Just mix together 2 tablespoons of butter (or margarine), two tablespoons of flour, half a cup of milk, and (optionally) a quarter of a teaspoon of salt over medium heat. The easiest way to do it is to put in the butter first, wait until it melts, then sprinkle in the flour while stirring, then slowly add the milk while stirring.

If you want to make cream of chicken soup, add in half a cup of chicken broth or chicken stock.
If you want to make cream of mushroom soup, add in half a cup of milk and quarter of a cup of finely diced mushrooms.
If you want to make cream of celery soup, add in half a cup of milk and a quarter of a cup of finely diced celery.

Once you have all of the ingredients in, let it simmer over low heat for three minutes while stirring. The amount in the pan is usually just a bit more than a can’s worth of cream soup and it substitutes perfectly (and often tastes quite delicious). It’s also quite a bit healthier and, from my calculations, cheaper, too.

Utilize Leftover Fruit Juices

Sometimes, especially during the winter here in Iowa, we’ll pick up no-sugar-added canned fruits, particularly pineapple, because the fresh fruit options are questionable at best and the frozen fruits are often laden with sugar.

Often, though, when the can is empty, we’re left with half a can full of juice that would normally go to waste. Instead, we’ve found it’s a great idea to put that juice to use as a marinade. We save the juice, then the following night, we mix some soy sauce, some pepper, some olive oil, and a bit of garlic with it. Then, we soak our main entree (often, chicken breasts or chops or fish fillets) in the marinade for an hour or so, then grill it.

Delicious, particularly when you consider that the backbone of the marinade would have been thrown away in most homes.

Leftover Meat As Pizza Topping

Quite often, when we eat something like a roast or a whole chicken, there’s quite a bit of meat left over. Sometimes, it makes sense to freeze the meat, but quite often, it simply seems like it’s going to go to waste – we can’t put it in the composter and there’s only so much of the same thing you can eat as a leftover.

One great (surprising) tactic is to simply take the leftover meat and chop it finely, then freeze that chopped meat. Then, the next time you prepare a pizza, thaw the contents of the bag and use that as a key pizza topping.

Almost any meat works here: roast, fish fillets, chicken breasts, and so on. Each one makes for a distinctly different pizza, plus the pizza is usually so different from the original dish that you rarely notice that it’s the same thing you had a few days ago.

Use the Freezer!

If you don’t have enough food to fill your deep freezer, start saving your milk jugs right now. As they empty, rinse them out, fill them up with water (up to about an inch below the top, then cap them and stick them in the freezer.

Why do this, you might ask? It’s simple. Once the new items have been cooled down to the temperature of the freezer, they will help maintain the cold temperature of your freezer. In short, your freezer will run less often, and it won’t lose nearly as much cold when you open the door.

Even more important, during a power outage, a full freezer will warm up much slower than a partially full one. The items you stored in there will act as cold sinks, keeping all of the frozen food colder for longer than if the freezer was empty.

Even better, those frozen gallon jugs make for great ice packs for coolers. Just pull one out, split it open, and use it for ice when you need it.

Quick and Easy Meatballs for Pasta

One simple regular dish we like to make is the standard meatloaf. It’s often the center of our meal, with vegetables and other items as side dishes. Most of the time, we make a very basic meatloaf…

2 pounds lean ground beef
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup uncooked rice
1/4 cup chopped onion
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon rosemary

Just mix all this up, put it in a loaf pan, and bake it for an hour – easy as pie.

However, we often don’t eat the whole meatloaf, even after leftovers. We could, of course, grate it up for pizza, but there’s a much better use for that meatloaf.

Just take the leftover meatloaf, cut it into 3/4 inch cubes, and add it to spaghetti sauce. These make for wonderful meatballs and, when they’re coated with the sauce, you don’t even remember that it was originally meatloaf. This is a great way to make homemade meatballs for your pasta dinner.

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  1. Johanna says:

    Love the freezer idea. I’m going to start doing that one right away. (Well, with my regular freezer rather than a deep freezer, and with quart-size apple cider jugs rather than gallon-size milk jugs.)

    For your pineapple juice marinade, try adding some ground ginger (or fresh ginger, if you have any, which I usually don’t).

  2. i love the juice tip. i’ll have to start doing that. thanks.

  3. Steve says:

    Is there anyone out there besides me that doesn’t mind leftovers? I don’t have to disguise it as something else, because 19 times out of 20 I don’t mind eating it the second day. I mean, I enjoy the taste enough to have made it the first time around, why would I mind eating more of it? For those few things that don’t store well, I just make enough for one meal.

    On the other hand… Every now and then my mother would hold “smorgasbord night” with all the leftovers from the previous few nights, and I never really enjoyed those. So maybe I am subconciously selecting meals that lend themselves to leftovers?

  4. Awesome post, Trent! I love all of these ideas (Especially the pizza topping one! My kids hate leftovers!) and it never would have occured to me to save the juice from a can of fruit! Actually, juice from canned fruit is way more frugal generally than the same amount of “real” fruit juice, particularly in marinades.

  5. mes says:

    I never thought about using the fruit juice for marinades. We use a lot of canned pineapple, and the juice either gets saved up for use (instead of water) in jello, or it gets combined with orange juice or sprite to make a tasty beverage.

  6. Mary W says:

    A few more ideas:

    freeze the juice in an ice cube tray and use in smoothies.

    freeze stale bread and rolls. When a gallon freezer bag is full make bread pudding (sweet or savory)

  7. Tahlia42 says:

    Does the cream of soup replace condensed or reconstituted canned soup? So many recipes I have call for the cream soups and then don’t reconstitute them. I’m wondering if this will work for those.

  8. Sandy E. says:

    I like the marinade that you make from left-over pineapple juice from a can. That pineapple juice can also be frozen in an ice cube tray and used to make a smoothie, along w/some orange juice, which doesn’t have to be frozen, and which you’ll probably already have in your refrigerator. Along that same vein, whenever I have bananas that are starting to go bad, or fully ripen, I peel them, cut them in half and put them in little freezer bags to use later in smoothies. They give a nice texture, like ice cubes do, another w/flavor to smoothies.

  9. ChrisD says:

    Some nice ideas. The cream soup replacement here is a B├ęchamel sauce. This is also what you use for lasagna between the pasta and sauce. Quantity wise, the main thing is not to add more flour than can be soaked up by the melted butter/marge.

  10. Jane says:

    Why cut up the milk carton when you use the ice in a cooler? I prefer to use plastic water or juice bottles with screw top lids….freeze them -with water, and then pop them in the cooler as an ice pack. After they melt, they can go right back in the freezer. Mine is full of them right now – and you’re right, we had a power outage last week – and I was able to pull some of those ice bottles and put them in the fridge to help keep that food cold also.

  11. aura says:

    Hey Trent,
    Thanks for the great ideas, i use way too much cream soups in my crockpot recipes—I have been cringing at the increase of sodium in my diet since I started using them so much…such a great healthy reminder to make it yourself.
    I still have not gotten a freezer, working on that.

  12. DebtGoal says:

    For a healthier version of soup, try substituting chicken, vegetable, or beef stock for the cream.

  13. katy says:

    …2 tablespoons of butter (or margarine), two tablespoons of flour, half a cup of milk, and (optionally) a quarter of a teaspoon of salt over medium heat…

    sounds like a bechemal sauce.

    Delicious post.

  14. Steve says:

    I never have leftover fruit juices. The first thing that I do when I open a can of no-sugar-added fruit is pour the juice into a cup and see who wants it. With 3 young kids who love juice, it disappears. Of course, if it’s pineapple juice, I drink it myself right away: dad’s prerogative. If the kids get it, I’ll usually cut it with water. This keeps the sugar intake lower for each kid, and lets all 3 share it.

    I do like the cream of X soup recipe: must print it for the kitchen.

  15. Kate says:

    if you make the cream sauce with 3T butter/3T milk/broth you can substitute it for condensed soup. I do it all the time and have for years.

  16. Dave G. says:

    Having a freezer is big saver, you can buy meat in bulk from the butcher (if you can find one) or the big box stores, freeze it and then thaw as you need. It’s a longer term investment, but ti does pay off in savings. Also in “these tough times” (drink) having a freezer full of food gives you a good feeling

  17. Hahaha says:

    Umm, sir, you just made a bechamel. Flour, butter, milk = bechamel. Also it’s probably 500 calories, over 200 just from fat in the butter.

  18. cmdqueue says:

    I make my cream of “…” in the blender with only milk and that ingredient with maybe some veggies left over from making stocks. Even chicken can be “blended” for cream of chicken soup. And then heat and stir of course.

    As for the marinades – that works well with the juices, but I usually have fresh leftover juices from fruit (whatever is seasonal). Also, try mashing up whatever fruit you have excess from a fruit tree or anywhere, and use it for meat marinade. You can pulverize the fruit right onto the meat and then let it sit.

    Try also making ice cubes with anything leftover – stocks, fruit juice, coca-cola that is flat, leftover coffee, milk/OJ when it’s almost sour…

    Nearly old milk is also good for waffle/pancake batter too.

    Could go on for hours about this, yikes!

  19. cmdqueue says:

    I make my cream of “…” in the blender with only milk and that ingredient with maybe some veggies left over from making stocks. Even chicken can be “blended” for cream of chicken soup. And then heat and stir of course.

    As for the marinades – that works well with the juices, but I usually have fresh leftover juices from fruit (whatever is seasonal). Also, try mashing up whatever fruit you have excess from a fruit tree or anywhere, and use it for meat marinade. You can pulverize the fruit right onto the meat and then let it sit.

    Try also making ice cubes with anything leftover liquid – stocks, fruit juice, coca-cola that is flat, leftover coffee, milk/OJ when it’s almost sour…

    Nearly old milk is also good for waffle/pancake batter too.

    Could go on for hours about this, yikes!

  20. Shannon says:

    Your ideas are great, I really like your freezer tip. The thing that saves me the most money, is actually planning out my meals.

  21. @Steve: I frequently eat the same thing two or three times in a row and it never bothers me. In fact, if it’s particularly nice, I really look forward to it! It’s almost a habit to eat something for dinner and the exact same thing’s leftovers, unadulterated, for lunch the next day.

  22. Denise says:

    Whenever I make meatloaf, I bake them in muffin tins. They bake in half the time and the individual “muffins” freeze perfectly, with no leftovers. One serving is one muffin. The kid loves them with ketchup on the top as “icing”.

  23. Great tips– but leftover fruit juices! Trent, you are a funny guy! When all four kids are in residence I am lucky to get the backwash!

    My wife once asked me why I was pouring some orange juice as I unpacked the groceries . . . I turned and stared at her and asked if she was kidding . . .

  24. michael bash says:

    Sliced leftover meatloaf in a sandwich is one of the best; with a slice of cheese, mayo, and lettuce it is super.

  25. tammy says:

    Trent LOVE THE Cream of Soup recipe! I was wondering just the other day how to make cream of mushroom soup, since I use it frequently in my Clean the Frige casseroles.
    Last night on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives, one of the restaurants featured used roast beef on pizza!
    Wonderful ideas!

  26. Jonni21 says:

    Can you freeze this bechamel/cream of stuff…? I have made it before but I was never sure if it would freeze okay or not so I haven’t ever made the “big batch” I do with other stews and things I know will keep a couple of weeks in the freezer without ill effects.

  27. RYM says:

    Something that my mom used to was,

    Take 2-3 different leftovers, put them on a grill, and mix it up with some nice spices like cajun, crushed pepper e.t.c.

    It was always a good and tasty surprise.

  28. Make your own cream of soup. Brilliant!

    One of my best kitchen tips is to buy ground beef when it’s on sale in large amounts. I cook it all up, measure it into freezer bags and put it in the freezer. When I need crumbled ground beef for a recipe, I take it our of the freezer and microwave it. It saves me a lot of time on those busy weeknights where I may have just ordered pizza instead.

  29. Grace says:

    Great suggestions! I plan to try the meatball recipe very soon.

    To make a “cream” soup, I use tofu; it has much less fat and refined carbohydrate, but makes a nice creamy carrier for whatever vegetable I use for it.

    q block of silken tofu
    a bunch of vegetables: spinach, brocolli, cauliflower, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, etc.
    one onion chopped
    1-2 cell ribs
    2-3 cloves of garlic chopped
    Salt to taste
    Pepper to taste
    Other herbs to taste

    Vegetable stock (which I make by using peelings, onion ends, and those tiny garlic cloves that aren’t worth peeling. Put them all in a pan with water to cover , bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes)

    Saute the onion, celery and garlic along with any herbs used until they are soft. Meanwhile, steam the vegetables and make the stock. When everything is ready, blend it all in a food processor. I add stock until I get the texture I want. I often use basil, tarragon, marjoram, or oregano, depending on what vegetable is used.

  30. Grace says:

    PS Of course, I use my soup as “soup” – not for casseroles. My mom made casseroles made of canned “cream” soups, but I never liked them. Way too much sodium and other weird ingredients!

  31. Kandace says:

    Another way to cut costs while making your own Cream of … Soup is to use 1/4 cup dry or powdered milk and one cup of water or liquid to make one cup of soup base. It’s a good subsitution, especially in cooking and uses up some of those pantry ingredients that get overlooked.

  32. The freezer idea is great! I never thought about it before. When I was a kid, we always had bottles of frozen water in the freezer in case of a storm or power outage, so we knew we’d have water, but I never realized how versatile an idea it was.

    We usually use our leftover meats for sandwiches or casseroles. But the pizza idea is great too. If you like to buy frozen pizzas (there are organic varieties out there), you can easily put the frozen pieces on the pizza and bake it in the oven like you normally would.

  33. Sandy says:

    I love these kinds of posts…quick, easy ways to save $$

  34. Wayward says:

    I wish I’d read this post an hour ago… before I started the crockpot recipe using cream of mushroom and cream of celery condensed soups. *sigh*

    Next time though! Thanks for the tips, Trent!

  35. Ruth says:

    I love the “cream of” idea. You can also make your own veggie, chicken or meat stocks by saving bones, vegetable scraps, etc in the freezer, then simmering them when you have a potful. No need to be specific with quantities; just aim for a mix of base veggies like onion, carrot and celery, then toss in the trimmings of greens, asparagus, mushrooms, you name it…works every time!

  36. Amy says:

    Trent-

    Tried your meatloaf recipe this evening. What kind of rice do you use? Our meatloaf ended up being crunchy. Also, what temperature do you cook it at? I didn’t see that in the recipe. Thank you!

  37. Leah says:

    I love this post and would really love to see more like it!

    also, can you give more details on how you freeze food? In a different post, you mentioned freezing casseroles. What all does your family freeze? How do you freeze it? I want to do more freezing (I’m single and prefer to cook for myself but don’t as often as I should), but my repertoire of what I know I can freeze is quite limited.

  38. Matt Cullen says:

    Freezing jugs of water isn’t going to save any energy (or money).

    The freezer compressor runs when the temperature rises above a certain point. The thermal capacity of air is much lower than that of any solid or liquid. So if there is a lot of air in the freezer the compressor is going to run more frequently but for shorter periods of time. If the freezer is full of liquids or solids, the compressor is going to run less frequently, but for longer periods of time. The same amount of energy is being used either way because heat is entering at the same rate through the freezer’s insulation.

    Let’s say you open the door to your freezer and leave it open long enough for all the air to be replaced by room temperature air. We’ll also assume the freezer was set at 25 degrees and the room temperature is 65 degrees, a 40 degree difference. If the freezer is filled with nothing but air, the thermal capacity of the contents of the freezer has increased by about 36700 joules. If it is filled completely with water bottles and no air, the energy increase is 0 joules. Sounds like a pretty easy way to save some money and energy, however, you have to include the energy required to freeze all that water in the first place. Not counting the energy needed to change states, the thermal capacity of water is roughly 3300 times higher than that of air. So you would have to open the freezer door and let all of that air out 3300 times to equal the amount of energy required to freeze all that water. No savings there.

    What about if the power goes out, it will save some money then, right? That’s going to depend on what you keep in there. I have about five dollars worth of stuff, not counting vodka, so nothing for me to lose, really. I also know that over the last five years living here, the power has never been out for more than an hour at a time. If you keep a lot more stuff in there, and the power goes out more often and for longer periods of time, it could be worthwhile.

  39. Ruth says:

    Aargh! In my excitement over the “cream of soup” recipe, I forgot to post the link to our piece on free homemade veggie stock — check it out if you’re interested. Thanks!

    http://eatwelleatcheap.blogspot.com/2009/04/never-waste-flavor-homemade-stock_16.html

  40. Here’s one of my tricks for marinading. Put the meat into a plastic bag or glass jar and then use just a little marinade to cover it. Seal up the container and rotate it periodically while in the refrigerator. You’ll use a lot less marinade than if you lay the meat in a shallow pan.

    Clair

  41. Jennifer says:

    Great idea about fruit juice from canned fruit (for items like pineapple that you can find canned in only juice).

    We also use the pizza idea. In addition to pizza we also make quesadillas with leftover meat. This is especially useful if there’s a few bites of a steak or grilled chicken breast left. Normally these would just go into the trash but I now save them and then next night I warm them in a frying pan with cumin & chili powder and use it as the filling for quesadillas. We always have cheese and tortillas in the house. My husband almost prefers this to the original meal.

  42. Lisa says:

    Thank you for the ‘cream of “…” recipe! It’s been the #1 preventer of our trying a variety of crockpot recipes.

    (and thanks also to the commenter who adjusted the recipe for ‘condensed’!)

  43. constantlearning says:

    I really appreciate the cream of … soup recipes. I am lactose intolerant. Using this recipe, I can use lactose free milk and still enjoy some of my favorite recipes. Thanks!

  44. Helix says:

    I have another marinating suggestion. If you’re going to freeze chicken, put it with some marinade in a ziploc bag before it goes in the freezer (try to get as much air out as you can). It will marinate as it thaws and you can throw it right into the oven/toaster oven/broiler/frying pan/etc.

  45. Perry says:

    I’ve used that Cream of recipe for a while. We were using a lot of condensed soups and I wasn’t happy about the sodium and preservatives. I looked high and low till I found that. It works great. I keep a copy taped to the inside of a cabinet door over my kitchen work area. That way it is always quickly available whenever I need it.

  46. DaddyD says:

    Great, immediately useful tips, thank you for pulling together your “scraps” to make such a delicious article.

    I noticed several comments to the effect of “I love leftovers,” which entirely missed the point of your tip on using leftovers as pizza toppings.

    1. You indicated this was a great way to use up any leftovers, after you’d already eaten the dish at least twice.

    2. Be that as it may, there are some people who don’t like leftovers, period.

    Keep slinging that good hash, son.

  47. DaddyD says:

    Oh, forgot to ask something: Is there a way for you to add a printer-friendly button or equivalent to posts such as these on your site?

    I know I can just highlight and print/selection, but a “print article” button would be better.
    thanks

  48. CJ says:

    We too freeze gallon jugs with ice to keep the freezer full and running efficiently. But when we need ice, we just pop them into the cooler without splitting them open. That keeps all the melty water inside the jug, which can be poured off at your conveneience or when you open the cooler for food.

  49. princess_peas says:

    What a brilliant post! Thanks so much! Please do some more like this!

    We save leftover veggies in a food bag in the freezer and then use them to make soup. The veggies make delicious veggie soup, but we found homemade meat soups (like chicken and veg) weren’t very nice.

    Also, if you are serious about using your freezer for meals or leftovers etc…
    get a number of lidded rectangular containers for putting food in, that are all the same. Often we use the ones saved from the chinese takeaways – with four of us, even going once or twice a year means we are not that short on them.
    fill these up with whatever you are freezing and then stack them.
    Wait for them to have frozen (a day or two, perhaps, maybe less) THEN, and this is the good part, take the frozen food out of the box (maybe need to stand in hot water for a few minutes)… put the frozen food inside a food bag of the appropriate size and voila, then it is frozen in a shape that will stack easily and can be easily labelled, without keeping all your containers tied up in the freezer or ruined with various labels on top of each other, and your containers are free to use again!
    [Do not put the food bag in the box when you freeze it. Before the food freezes it will squelch into the corners and fold over itself and make pockets and all sorts of other joys, and then even when you cut the bag off, you still end up with little bits of plastic you have to fish out of your pan when it all defrosts again.]

  50. Jerry says:

    Trent,

    These are all great ideas; particularly the soup idea. People don’t realize how filling, healthy and cheap soup can be. You can also throw a cup of pasta and some sauteed veggies in there to make a creamy pasta minestrone dish. I actually just wrote a cookbook & free guide to cheap healthy eating which you can check out at http://www.threedollardinner.com. Jerry

  51. Jenna says:

    Soups are another great way to use up leftovers. Stir frys, and anything involving wraps (such as burritos, enchiladas, egg rolls, etc).

  52. ~M says:

    What frozen fruits have sugar added? I’ve only seen plain frozen fruits, which are considered healthier than canned. From what I understand, fresh > frozen > canned.

  53. michael bash says:

    What is this American mania/fixation with chicken breasts? They are the most boring part of the bird. Experienced cooks know thighs (skinned and boned are preferable (& cheaper). Since many inexperienced cooks look to you for advice, do a service and help save us from the breast meat. Thanks from a guy who’s been in the kitchen for 35+ years.

    My meat of choice BTW is skinned boned turkey thighs. I have them ground for burger, grill them whole, cut them up for stir frys. Right up there with pork noix (eye of round). Perfect for Chinese. The problem is to educate a/your butcher on what/where they are in the leg. Usually right at one pound and half the price of tenderloin which falls in the same category as chicken breasts. So back to the beginning and stop.

  54. deRuiter says:

    “The easiest way to do it is to put in the butter first, wait until it melts, then sprinkle in the flour while stirring,” This is a roux, which is the basis for cream soups, gravies and sauces. You want to thoroughly incorporate the flour into the butter, before adding liquid. The reason is to avoid the “raw dough” taste of the flour which the soup / gravy will have if you haven’t cooked the roux sufficiently. The roux doesn’t get brown, you don’t want that! You do want all the flour be completely incorporated into the butter before whisking in the liquids. Add the liquid a little bit at a time, whisk thoroughly as you pour in liquid, and you will have no lumps. If you DO have a few pesky lumps, dump the contents of the pan into the blender, whirl, and pour back into pot an continue with your recipe.

  55. Jackie says:

    I love your ideas. I save bread ends and left over bread. I put it all in a paper bag and let it get hard. Tear it into small pieces as you put it in the blender and make your own breadcrumbs.

    I then reuse the plastic bread bags.

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