It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that a person can save a ton of money by preparing meals from scratch at home. Restaurant meals are incredibly expensive by comparison and even convenience meals at home can be costly compared to preparing them on your own.
If you can get into a routine of preparing meals at home and then consuming the leftovers as well, you’re going to save a ton of money on your monthly food bill compared to eating out or eating convenience foods. It’s just that simple.
My Moorish-style chickpea and spinach stew, which can easily work as a make-ahead recipe
What’s the catch? Time. Meal preparation can be a time-consuming process, but what makes it particularly rough is that the time comes right in the middle of busy days. The time needed to prepare a dinner from scratch is often eaten up by commutes and errands – and when we finally do arrive home, the last thing that sounds appealing is a bunch of time spent in the kitchen prepping food.
That’s the reason that many people fall into a routine of eating out or just coming home to toss convenience foods in the oven or microwave.
There are two main ways around this problem, both of which involve shifting that food preparation time around.
One is to use a slow cooker, which offloads the work of meal preparation to an earlier part of the day. Most slow cooker meals are pretty simple – they often amount to just putting a bunch of ingredients in the slow cooker before you go to work, turning it on low, and coming home to a finished one-pot meal.
Another approach is to prepare a bunch of meals in advance and store them in the freezer. This enables you to simply choose a meal the evening before from the freezer, put it in the fridge to defrost, then put it in the oven when you get home, since you’ve already done all of the prep work. Today, we’re going to focus on this approach.
How Does Making Meals in Advance Save Money?
Advance meal preparation offers several simultaneous angles for saving money. Here are three big ones.
First, you’re making meals at home from basic ingredients. This reduces your food cost substantially because you’ll hit the grocery store for basic ingredients which cost just a few dollars rather than a restaurant with an expensive bill or a convenience meal with a high price tag.
Second, when you make the meal, you control the ingredients and limit the preservatives, salt, and other unhealthy elements. Over the long haul, this leads to reduced health care costs. Our diet is one of the biggest things we can control in terms of our health and when we choose to prepare meals for ourselves, we’re taking control.
Third, you can make multiple batches of the same meal, making some bulk purchases make more sense. If you’re preparing four pans of lasagna at once, for example, buying a bulk box of noodles makes sense. Doing so immediately reduces your cost per pan of lasagna.
Do I Need Any Equipment?
You’ll need some freezer-safe dishes that can also be used in an oven. There are several options for this, including one-time-use aluminum pans, but it doesn’t take many uses of a reusable pan to make up for it.
My recommendation is to get a glass pan that’s designed for both freezer and oven use, like this one from Crate and Barrel. You just need to make sure that the pan you buy has a lid and is both freezer and oven-safe. If you find a bargain, pick up several of them.
What size? It depends on your family. If you just have two or three people at home, an 8″ by 8″ will work fine. If you have several people at home, a 9″ by 13″ will probably be better.
For things like soups, you can use any type of resealable freezer-safe container – have a few of those on hand as well.
Of course, having a large freezer helps, too. We have a deep freezer that we find invaluable.
What’s the Game Plan?
The best way to do this type of advance preparation is to just set aside a few hours on a weekend to make some meals. I find it works really well to plan for four batches of the same meal so that I can make three of them and store them while using the fourth for dinner that evening.
So, for example, if I were making lasagna, I’d find a lasagna recipe (like the one below) and quadruple it. I’d assemble a grocery list with the items I’d need to make four batches of that lasagna, then I’d go to the store.
That afternoon, I’d simply prepare four batches of the lasagna – cooking the noodles, preparing the sauce, layering the lasagna in the pan. Three of the batches would be covered with a lid and put into the freezer with a label – I usually use masking tape and a black marker with the contents and the date – and the fourth would be placed in the refrigerator for dinner.
If you do this each week for one of your weekend dinners, you’ll quickly start to build up meals in the freezer. This simple step puts four lasagnas in the freezer that we should eat within the next two months, so in two weeks, we’ll eat one of them on a weeknight, then again at about the five week mark, then again at the eight week mark.
On those lasagna nights, we’ll just pull the lasagna from the freezer the night before and put it in the refrigerator. That evening, one of us will just pull the lasagna from the fridge about forty five minutes before dinner and stick it in the oven. Boom – a great family dinner.
It’s worthwhile to make a variety of meals so that you have a choice when you open the freezer door. However, all of this is restricted by freezer space, so it may make sense to merely make double batches of meals depending on your freezer situation.
What Meals Can I Prepare?
Here are five simple recipes that I’ve used when preparing meals in advance. These meals are all vegetarian by default, though each of them have ways to add or substitute meat that I’ve noted at the bottom. The recipes designed for pan use (i.e. not the soups) were designed for a 9″ by 13″ pan, so if you’ve got a smaller family, halve the recipes for an 8″ by 8″ pan.
This is incredibly easy and the kitchen smells wonderful while you’re making it.
16 oz. lasagna noodles
1 15 oz container ricotta cheese or cottage cheese
1 large jar pasta sauce (22 to 28 oz.)
2 cups vegetables (some options: zucchini, yellow squash, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach)
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 large egg
1/2 tablespoon oregano
1/2 tablespoon basil
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
Chop the vegetables and place them in one bowl. Cook the lasagna noodles according to package directions. Mix 1 1/2 cups mozzarella cheese, the ricotta (or cottage) cheese, the parmesan cheese, the egg, and the spices in another bowl.
Take the pan and layer the ingredients. Start with 1/4 of the pasta sauce, then 1/3 of the noodles, then 1/3 of the cheese mixture, then 1/3 of the vegetables, then repeat through this cycle so that your final layer is the last 1/4 of the pasta sauce. Top with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella. Cover and freeze.
When thawed but refrigerated, this bakes very well at 350 F for 45 minutes.
I want meat! Fry a pound of ground beef or Italian sausage and mix it in with the vegetables.
Chili is a dish with tremendous personal and regional differences. This is a very bare-bones chili, so add to it what you wish.
1 large white onion, diced
1/2 cup water
2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons chili powder
3 15-ounce cans whatever beans you like (I use navy beans by default), rinsed and drained
Mix all ingredients together and cook over medium-low heat for 15 minutes. You can freeze it at that point. To reheat it, just allow it to thaw and cook over medium heat for another ten minutes until warm.
This is too simple! If you find this recipe too simple, here are some potential things to add – your choice: two cloves garlic powder, one bottle dark beer (replacing the water), one cup dark coffee (replacing the water), 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup beef broth (replacing the water), 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 tablespoon cocoa powder (or dark chocolate chips), 1 teaspoon oregano, 1 teaspoon cayenne, 1 teaspoon coriander. You can mix and match these to taste – it’s fun to try new things and taste the chili to see how it turns out!
I want meat! My personal preference is to dice one pound of steak into small cubes and cook the steak separately in a pan, then add it to the chili. You can also use ground beef.
This makes for a wonderful spicy meal!
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 chopped onion
1 chopped bell pepper
1 chopped celery rib
2 cups water
14 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
8 oz. can tomato sauce
3/4 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 tablespoon oregano
1/4 tablespoon basil
1/4 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/8 tablespoon crushed fennel seeds
1 cup uncooked long grain rice
15 ounce can butter beans, rinsed and drained
15 ounce can red beans, rinsed and drained
Heat oil in a small pot over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook for four minutes, stirring constantly. Then, add all ingredients but beans and rice. Bring the mix to a boil, then add the rice. Reduce heat to low and let simmer for 20 minutes until the rice is tender, stirring frequently. Then, add beans and simmer for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
You can then freeze the mixture in freezer bags or a small container. To reheat, just allow it to thaw then heat it in a pot over medium-low heat until it’s nice and warm, stirring it as it warms up.
I want meat! You can cook 1 lb. diced chicken or 1 lb. andouille sausage right into this recipe (or both).
This is a soup that really doesn’t have a good way to add additional protein. It’s amazing as-is.
6 cups vegetable broth
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (15 ounce) can kidney beans, drained
1 large red onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
1 cup green beans
1 small zucchini
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup elbow macaroni
1 (10 ounce) package frozen spinach, thawed
Mix everything but the macaroni and spinach together in a pot and cook over medium heat for an hour until the vegetables are tender (check the carrot pieces). At the same time, cook the macaroni in a separate pot according to directions. Mix the macaroni and spinach into the soup. If you’re going to freeze it, do so immediately – otherwise, let it cook for another 10-15 minutes to serve. After freezing the soup, to serve it, merely let it thaw, then cook it over medium heat for ten minutes to warm it up.
Simple Braised Beef
Since I included a strictly vegetarian soup above, I thought I’d include one of my favorite recipes from my pre-vegetarian days.
1 1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1/2″ slices
2 sweet potatoes (about 1 pound), cut into 1/2″ thick half-moons
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 large red onion, cut into wedges
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/4 cup chopped roasted almonds
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed
2 cups baby spinach (1 1/2 ounces), chopped
Put beef chuck into a pot over medium heat with a small amount of cooking oil. Stir frequently. Cook the chuck for two minutes, then add potatoes and onions and continue to stir frequently. Cook for another five minutes, then add other ingredients except chickpeas and baby spinach and continue to stir. Check the beef and make sure that it’s done to your desired taste (I used to like it gently pink in the middle, but some may want it fully cooked and others might like more redness – use your own judgment). Add the chickpeas and spinach and cook for another minute or so. Remove from heat and place the meal in a covered pan to freeze (cook it for another five minutes or so if you’re going to serve it immediately).
When you’re ready to eat it (after thawing in the refrigerator overnight), you can either put it in a pot over medium-low heat for 20 minutes or bake it in the oven (covered with foil) for about 12 minutes.
I Want More Recipes!
Most casserole and soup recipes work really well for advance preparation. You can easily save fully-cooked soup and you simply store casseroles just before you would put them in the oven.
Many other recipes can be adapted for make-ahead cooking, too. I highly recommend Cooks Illustrated’s The Best Make-Ahead Recipes if you want additional ideas. Some of their recipes take a fair amount of time in preparation, but they almost all turn out delicious.