Out With The Old, In With The New: Bank Some Meals

Throughout the month of December, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

9. Bank some meals.

A lot of times, after a long day of working and child care, I really don’t feel like I have the energy to cook a great meal from scratch. The temptation to just go out and eat is pretty strong, as is the temptation to make a quick and likely unhealthy and not all that delicious meal. Not only is neither of these choices all that healthy, they’re both relatively expensive.

The best bang for your buck at meal time comes from preparing your own meals from scratch, of course. You have complete control over the ingredients, you can use items that are on sale at the store, and you’re not paying someone else (or some food manufacturing company) to do the work for you with substandard ingredients.

It takes time, though, and that runs into conflict with the typical busy weeknight.

My solution – and one that’s saved my family a ton of money over the years – is to simply bank some meals on weekends. Some people refer to this as “once a month” cooking, in which they make four duplications of eight dinners and eight lunches and stock the freezer with them. I typically don’t do anything that organized, but we often make several meals on the weekend and freeze them with the intent of using them during the week.

Another financial advantage of this is that I can buy ingredients in bulk, reducing the cost per meal preparation.

The Game Plan
For my “banked” meals, I usually stick with stuff that has minimal requirements when I pull it out of the freezer. Ideally, it just has a sticker or a note on it that says how long to bake it in the oven and/or how long to microwave it.

Because of this requirement, meals like lasagna, casseroles, burritos, enchiladas, and so forth work quite well. You can make them once, wrap them, label them, store them in the freezer, and merely pull them out and put them practically straight into the oven. (Often, I’ll pull out the meal the night before, let it thaw in the fridge, then cook it that evening.)

The process is pretty straightforward.

On Friday evening, I’ll check out the current grocery flyers for big discounts. Things like tortillas and particular types of produce usually catch my eye. I try to look for ingredients that I’m confident that I can use in meals (or meal variations) that I know I like and that I know my family likes.

I plan some meals and make a grocery list. Let’s say I’ve decided to make several batches of lasagna and a big pile of three-bean burritos tomorrow. I dig out recipes (or devise my own), multiply out the ingredients, then make a shopping list that covers everything I’ll need.

I spend a large portion of Saturday cranking out a lot of meals. I’ll make a batch of 32 burritos and eight pans of lasagna, for example, that will be used in the next three months. I prepare the items to the point where all that has to be done to finish them is throw them in the oven. I also keep one of the items for my own family dinner – either a pan of lasagna or four burritos.

When I package the items for freezing, I put a tag on each one with directions. I usually just use large address labels. For large meals, I assume that the food is thawed and at refrigerator temperature but not frozen (usually adding 25% or so to the time listed in the recipe). For smaller items, I assume they’ll be frozen. The instructions mostly just tell me the temperature and the time that I need to use to finish cooking the food.

Then, when I know I’m going to have to use a “banked” meal, I just pull one out of the freezer the night before, in the case of the lasagna, or just pull them out of the freezer on the fly in the case of things like burritos.

There are two key reasons why I follow this plan.

It saves money. If I’m utilizing sales, I’m saving money on a key ingredient of these recipes. If I’m utilizing bulk buying, I’m saving money on a key ingredient of these recipes. If I’m preparing a meal at home out of my own ingredients instead of going out at a restaurant, I’m saving money. All of that saving really adds up.

It conserves time when I actually need it, and often saves a bit of time overall. Evening time is much more valuable to me than weekend time. In the evenings, I only have a few hours to spend with my family, so I want to do that with as little interference as possible. On the weekends, we can turn such meal-making into a family project or a rainy day project. Making meals in advance also saves you time overall because of the number of activities you can do simultaneously (like cooking lasagna noodles for eight lasagnas at once instead of in eight separate batches).

Spend a day this weekend making some batch meals. You’ll be surprised how much convenience it adds to your week nights and you’ll also be pleasantly surprised when you see your checking account balance at the end of the month.

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  1. Mike says:

    Trent,
    I’m curious, where do you get all of the pans to do this? Are the the metal disposable type & if so how much do they cost?

  2. Kate says:

    Mike, I’m not Trent but we do something similar. We just use glass Lock and Locks. 13.99 for six at our Costco right now.

    It’s great for us because they are good for both storage and “banking” meals- for the latter, we just don’t use the lid.

  3. EGD says:

    @#1, you can grease the pans well, freeze casseroles solid in the pans, and then pop them out of the pans. Put the frozen “block” in a big ziploc bag, store in the freezer, then put it back into a pan when you’re ready to cook (or thaw) it. That way all your pans don’t get tied up in the freezer indefinitely.

  4. Hannah says:

    I love this. At times when you are well rested and motivated, it’s a great idea to do your future self, who you know will be drained, a favor.

    Personally my worst habit when I come home from work isn’t giving in and going out to eat, but leaving clutter all over the place that I have to go back and pick up later. I’m in the midst of trying to reorganize things so that I stop creating unnecessary messes for my future self to clean up.

  5. Cheryl says:

    You can use “non-casserole” type pans, too. Think bread pans, pie pans, muffin tins (individual meatloaves). If it an “all mixed up” type casserole, just use a ziplock bag. Pour in the casserole, flatten it out for easy stacking.

  6. Toni S says:

    I’m single and I “bank” as I go. When I cook, I cook for four. I eat the same meal for two days then freeze the rest in individual servings. On the third day I cook another 4 serving meal eat it for a couple of days and freeze the rest. After a while I have individual servings of a variety of meals and when I don’t feel like cooking for a week I can easily retrieve something from the freezer to reheat.

  7. valleycat1 says:

    Freshly made meals that are quick & easy to prepare can be just as delicious or healthy as ones you spend a lot of time putting together.

  8. Leah says:

    What I’d really like to see are *exact* recipes and how you exactly freeze them. I’ve tried freezing stuff before. Some of it turns out alright (pasta sauce is great, ground beef is fine as long as I plan on mixing it into something, etc), but I don’t feel confident about freezing a lot of stuff.

  9. Kathryn says:

    I do something similar to what Toni S does. I’m a married SAHM, but DH travels a lot. I plan our menus so that, in the few days before one of his trips, I cook dinners that generate lots of leftovers. Then I eat the LOs while he’s gone. This keeps me eating healthy but frees me of the need to cook much while he’s gone, which is really helpful because I’m usually worn out from parenting solo.

  10. cynthia says:

    Hi Trent,
    This sounds like a really great way to “bank” meals, but I am wondering a little bit about the nuts and bolts of it. What do you store the food in? Do you have 8 lasagna pans that you store in your freezer?
    thanks,
    Cynthia

  11. Gretchen says:

    My freezer is not big enough for 8 pans of lasagna!

    The trick with cooking ahead is to use the frozen items before they get freezer burned and gross.

  12. Sandy E. says:

    For freezer recipes, I go to eatingwell.com and in their search box, type ‘freezer recipes’ and then if you scroll down to the left of the page toward the bottom, and click on ‘make ahead casseroles’, you’ll find recipes for low calorie casseroles, vegetarian casserole recipes, crock pot recipes and healthy freezer recipes, etc. (any of which can be made ahead and frozen). It’s an excellent all around cook site.

  13. rosa rugosa says:

    We do this with soups, stews, chowders, and spaghetti sauce. My husband generally cooks enough to feed us at least four times and we put the extras in plastic containers. We eat a batch, refrigerate one, and freeze two.

  14. valleycat1 says:

    Toni & Kathryn – Our household is currently just my spouse & I, so we also tend to cook at least a main dish 2-3 times a week & then make meals around the leftovers the rest of the time. We either just re-heat, or might reconfigure or add different side dishes. Our mainstay is a good-sized roasted chicken which evolves over the week from hot roasted chicken to cold, then possibly some chicken enchiladas or salad, then soup or stew.

    However, I know a surprising # of people who refuse to eat leftovers, & apparently freezing meals & then reheating doesn’t count as leftovers. (I prefer leftovers myself.)

  15. graytham says:

    When you freeze lasagne, or any pasta dish, do you cook the pasta first?

  16. aj says:

    I think I will plan on doing some food “banking” this weekend. It is suppose to be COLD and then it is suppose to snow 2-5 inches…what better time to stay in and spend the day in the kitchen! Will probably bake some cookies & such too for Christmas tins. It warms up the house, and we can all pitch in! What a great family activity that will really help out during the season rush of activities. I can’t wait!

  17. lu3 says:

    My daughter in the Peace Corps tells me that tortillas are incredibly easy to make. Peace Corps volunteers in South Africa make their own because they are ridiculously expensive in the stores. I never buy them here in Wisconsin except as taco dinner kits. Would you look into making tortillas from scratch and do a cost comparison for America?

  18. Amy says:

    This is a great idea!

    I would mention that consuming casseroles and lasagna on a regular basis may not be in your health’s best interest… as many times they are full of creams, cheeses, and unneeded fats.

    Try loading up on fresh veggies. Washing, slicing and freezing these on Saturday for the week to come is a big time saver. Consider Turkey burgers which freeze well. Also homemade chili with lots of tomatoes, celery, onions, beans, and even ground turkey is delicious in chili…chili freezes great. The burritos I make consist of one can of black beans, 2 garlic cloves, 1 dollop of all natural sour cream. Heat in saucepan on med-low. Once heated through puree with immersion mixer. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of beans into a heated tortilla shell. Roll and freeze. In addition, I will sometimes add a can of rotel to the bean mixture before puree or sliced cooked onions. These freeze well and are healthy and nutritious. My families daily diet always includes beans preferably black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, or kidney beans (without high fructose corn syrup added).

    My family tries to focus 90%+ of our diet on “from the groud” foods while minimizing processed meats, breads, pasta, rice, cereals, chips, store bought baked goods, sodas, juices and red meat.

  19. Jamie says:

    I love cooking, but I was cooking meals at home from scratch every morning (for lunch) and every evening (for dinner). I was inspired by a previous post on “once a month cooking,” which is way too intense for me but got me motivated to do “once a WEEK” cooking. Every week, I make one casserole that is veggie-based and one crockpot recipe that is protein based (the carbs and fat find their way in there, I promise!).

    This has been an amazing way to save money! I used to spend over $600/month on food, and now it’s closer to $200. Wow! Plus, there’s always something healthy and yummy in the house.

  20. Sonja says:

    About once every other month I roast a turkey during the day while my husband is at work. I carve it and take all the meat off the bone. We have turkey for dinner that night and I freeze some slices. The rest I cut into little pieces and freeze separately. I use that in salads, enchiladas, casseroles, etc. I make broth with the carcass and freeze that, too. Easy and cheap. November, December and pre-Easter are great times to buy turkey for less than $1 a pound.

  21. done that says:

    I occasionally double a recipe to freeze extra but I agree with ValleyCat. It’s usually easier to have fresh ingredients on hand and just do a fresh stir fry or quick soup. I have a list we look at on “those days” and we just pick one of our quickie meals. Once you start cooking with fresh ingredients it’s often quicker than, well, just about everything else. And tastier and healthier.

  22. J.O. says:

    @ graytham #15
    Yes, you cook the pasta before incorporating it into the casserole, whether you plan to eat it right away or freeze it for the future.

    There are two ways to prepare a meal for freezing. The first is to prepare it right up to the point at which you are supposed to put it in the oven – and then freeze it instead. The second is to prepare and cook the meal as if you were going to eat it right then, but cool it and then freeze it instead.

    In the first case, to use the meal, thaw overnight and then use the cooking instructions from the recipe to cook the meal. If cooking from frozen, add 1/4 to 1/2 again as much time.

    If the second case, you are basically just reheating the finished meal. A microwave does an excellent job of this, whether the frozen meal is thawed or not.

  23. Aerin says:

    Google “once a month cooking” and you’ll find lots of resources online. There’s also a line of cookbooks called “Frozen Assets” that really break the process down – including sample menu plans with a shopping list for a day of cooking and freezing.

    I do this often myself, and it’s really a great way to eat healthy, home-made food. It doesn’t have to be all pasta and cheese. My freezer currently has the following:

    – chicken with rice and veggies
    – baked ziti
    – marinated steak cubes
    – sloppy joes
    – breakfast burritos

    The chicken, sloppy joes & the ziti just need a nice salad to go with them. The steak cubes are great for stir fries. The breakfast burritos are rarely eaten for breakfast – they make a good, quick heavy snack / light meal when we are rushing around.

    We don’t eat freezer meals every day, but they are a real help when life gets busy. And they are made from scratch, with organic veggies and meat.

  24. Mary says:

    I just made a ginormous batch of chicken tortellini soup, and thanks to my mom sending me home with lots of food over Thanksgiving, I saved the containers and used those to put the soup in. Half my freezer has this stuff, and it’s healthy with tons of veggies. After a long day, it’s great to just pop it in the microwave to defrost and you’ve got a warm hearty meal in the dead of winter. =)

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