Updated on 04.05.11

“Banking” Meals

Trent Hamm

One of the biggest challenges I’ve come across since changing my diet has been the struggle to always have ingredients on hand for meals I can eat. Regardless of how carefully I make a meal plan, I always felt like there were one or two meals a week that would throw a monkey wrench in my plans.

I want to make this dish that takes an hour, but I only have thirty minutes.

I’m ready to cook, but this pepper has an enormous soft spot in it.

This curry I’m making requires ginger, but Sarah just used the last of the ginger root in a smoothie.

The temptation in these situations is to just run to the grocery store, pick up the item in need, and rush back.

The problem with such impromptu runs, though, is that they’re expensive. I burn a gallon of gas getting to the nearest grocery store. When I’m there, I’m often tempted to buy something more than what I intended to buy, which just adds to the expense of the trip. There’s also the time factor.

The solution to this problem is simple: have some banked meals on hand.

What do I mean by “banked” meals? I simply mean meals that are already prepared or easy enough to prepare that you can pull them out in a pinch and have a finished homecooked meal relatively easily and quickly.

I generally separate these into two distinct groups: pre-made meals or extremely simple meals. Here are some examples of each.

Extremely Simple Meals
Pasta with sauce We constantly keep spaghetti and either bottled marinara sauce or the ingredients with which to quickly assemble such a sauce on hand. Often, I’ll just boil some water, add the uncooked pasta and some frozen vegetables to the water, boil the pasta until finished, then drain it and add some pasta sauce straight to the pot. Ten minutes makes a great, healthy supper.

Vegetable barley soup and bread

Soup The ingredients of a good vegetable barley soup can almost always be found in our pantry.

Sandwiches We’ll often just make sandwiches out of whatever we have on hand. It’s just two pieces of bread with whatever fillings are convenient. The sandwiches are then often grilled or baked in the oven.

Prepped-in-Advance Meals
Burritos Homemade burritos can be made in bulk and frozen, which makes them very easy to grab and microwave for a very quick meal.

Enchiladas served

Enchiladas A pan of homemade enchiladas, stowed away in the freezer, can be easily thawed and baked at a moment’s notice for a meal.

Casseroles Virtually any casserole recipe can be made in advance and stored in the freezer, ready to just be popped out and tossed into the oven when needed. Just do everything up to the point of cooking it in the oven, then cover it tightly with foil and store it in the freezer. I’ll often make two extra casseroles whenever I make a single one and store the other two for later use.

It’s important to remember that the reason for having such things on hand is to make it easier for you to eat at home in a pinch and to avoid unnecessary grocery store trips. Both of these steps are tremendous money savers and key parts of reducing your monthly food budget. Simply having simple spare meals on hand can make a tremendous difference.

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  1. Teresa says:

    Really great idea. I find the same thing happens to me when I make a quick trip to the grocery store. About two or three times a month, I will try to make what I call a pantry cleaning meal using only items that I have on hand in my pantry or in my freezer.

  2. Hunter says:

    Stand-by empty-pantry rule #1. Peanut butter goes with (almost anything.

    Stand-by emergency meal #1. Salsa Dogs. Take 1 slice of bread, liberally cover in cold salsa. Add one freshly microwaved hot dog. Eat promptly. Delicious. Prep time: under two minutes.

    Surprisingly, this little gem contains all 5 food groups.

  3. LeahGG says:

    This is where some prepared foods also come in handy. It’s a lot cheaper to throw some frozen veggie burgers into the microwave than to eat out, even if said veggie burgers are overpriced.

    I like how the burritos are shown next to some obviously pulled-out-of-the-freezer-and-microwaved veggies. Using frozen veggies as the side dish for a meal is a great way of keeping meals balanced without much effort in the prep.

  4. sjw says:

    Banking meals can also allow you to buy up on items when they are less pricey. I like to do a big soup marathon session in the fall when veggies are cheap, and freeze them in containers of an appropriate size for my household.

    Result – a variety of healthy meals are always in the freezer (at least one soup meal per week for 5 months), and I saved money by buying in season.

    When it gets really bad, there is cereal.

  5. Pat S. says:

    Good idea. Banking easily frozen things makes a lot of sense financially, since it can keep things from going bad. I know that my wife and I will often buy in bulk, cook in bulk, and save the remainder in the freezer. Results: Healthy, Cheap, Delicious.

  6. JS says:

    Frozen banked meals make really good lunches to take to work, if you have access to a microwave. It’s easy to just grab one out of the freezer when rushing around in the morning, and you don’t have to worry about it spilling on your commute. My personal favorite is chili- a double batch provides at least 8 healthy and tasty meals for less than $10 and 10-15 minutes of hands-on time.

  7. Natalie says:

    Do you have any good vegan / vegetarian casserole recipes? I have found since going vegetarian that casseroles have disappeared from my diet.

  8. Jane says:

    We buy the massive can of crushed tomatoes at Sam’s and make a large batch of plain spaghetti sauce. Then we freeze portions in ziploc bags. Then when we need a quick meal I can defrost the sauce and glam it up with some olives or ground beef or whatever we have on hand. It is super cheap and we love it.

  9. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    I prefer to bank ingredients for easy to make meals instead. A few pieces of chicken and some salad greens require almost no preparation and make for a great meal.

    My problem with banking meals is that I usually end up eating everything I cooked, even if I’m not that hungry. :)

  10. Sara A. says:

    Banked meals in our freezer right now:

    – Sweet potato chili
    – Vegan mac and cheeze
    – BBQ seitan
    – Misc cooked but unseasoned beans
    – Tamale pie (use tamales ingredients, but bake in casserole dish instead of steam in husks)
    – Curried chickpeas
    – Several containers of hummus
    – Several containers of pesto
    – Felafel patties
    – Tofu broccoli stir fry

    We also keep a variety of frozen veggies so we can throw together stuff without a lot of planning.

    Usually we will make enough of a dish to have 1 meal today + 1 meal tomorrow + 1 meal in freezer. It works out very well.

  11. Angela says:

    Love this idea. One thing we have in our freezer bank that can transform almost any basic pantry & fridge items is sofrito, Latin/Caribbean condiment that is vegan (!) and so so flavorful. We use the recipe from Daisy Cooks (http://www.daisycooks.com/pages/recipes_detail.cfm?ID=1) and freeze it in 1/2 cup portions. You won’t believe what it can do for an omelet, potatoes, soup, beans, rice, etc, and it smells *amazing* when cooking.

  12. Sara A. says:

    @ #7, here is my go to casserole recipe:

    Saute 1 lb of mushrooms with 2-3 diced medium yellow onions and 3-4 cloves garlic in a large stockpot. Add 5 cups water or veg stock to deglaze. then add 1 teaspoon salt, 1 bay leaf and 1 cup wild rice or brown rice and 2 cup lentils.

    When this mixture is cooked, you can add either sour cream, vegan “Better than Sour Cream” or whipped soft tofu to use as casserole “glue.”
    Add cheese for vegetarian topping or breadcrumbs for vegan topping. Put in casserole dish and bake at 375 for 20-30 min for crispy top.

    My meat loving relatives devour this when I make it each year for thanksgiving. Variant: add 1 tablespoon paprika and 1 tablespoon dill to the onion/mushroom stage to give it a hungarian style flavor.

  13. The original Moosewood cookbook has great veg casseroles. Plus: baked pastas/lasagna, all manner of mexican casseroles (tamale pie, etc.) can be made veg.

  14. bogart says:

    Great points and suggestions. I’d add the following as banked meals or items:

    Both ground beef and boneless chicken breasts or thighs can be taken straight out of the freezer and plunked into a skillet on medium heat (after slicing, in the case of the, yes, still-frozen, chicken) and cooked without thawing (i.e. the thawing happens as part of the cooking). So can shrimp, with or without shells. Ground beef, sausage (italian, bratwurst) and chicken also freeze well, cooked, and can then be pulled out and dumped (still frozen) into a skillet and thawed. Dump some rice (brown rice takes a long time to cook but can be frozen cooked), curry sauce (bottled), and frozen spinach in with the chicken and you’ve got a complete meal, or use the beef or sausage in pasta sauce, or slice up some apples and throw in some raisins together with the brown rice and sausage.

    Frozen veggies thawed in the microwave + some butter & pepper work well, or frozen spinach + a couple tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

    I also consider bread + fruit or veggie + cheese to be a complete meal, though my hubby disagrees.

    Baking potatoes last a long time in the fridge, and are easy to microwave and top with sour cream, butter, and/or yogurt.

  15. Sara says:

    I used to keep a list on my refrigerator of “instant meals” made from ingredients we always had on hand. Grilled cheese sandwiches, scrambled eggs, pasta and sauce. It would really help on those nights we got home late and everybody was cross and tired and Hungry. Dinner in 15 minutes. I also always keep frozen vegetables for those kind of nights….

  16. Drake says:

    There is another option: walk to the shop. If you’re only getting one or two things, carrying them won’t be a problem, and you’ll get some fresh air and exercise on the way.
    Of course, this isn’t possible if time, not ingredients, if your constraint.

  17. Jen says:

    We have a little “staple” list written on a notecard next to the shopping list, so I can check our supply of our “never go out” items like milk, ham, sliced muenster, bread, cereal, eggs, etc. I recently started using ziplist.com for meal planning and generating my shopping list, and now have these items on my weekly list automatically.

    I meal plan, which has saved me a ton of time and money in the last year since I’ve been doing it. I have health issues, so I always plan for some flexibility if I’m not feeling well. Every week, we have at least one crockpot recipe, one leftover night, and one breakfast for dinner night.

    We’re a family of 2.5 (2 adults, 1 toddler), but I always make a full recipe (6-8 servings). Leftovers never go in the frig. Instead, they are packaged in serving size containers, labeled, and put in the freezer. My hubby then has a full variety of lunch options.

  18. Kate says:

    On nights when I don’t feel like cooking, I pick up a roasted “all natural” chicken at our local supermarket. My husband and I have it one night with frozen veggies on the side–it is on the table in about 10 minutes. The next day I might make chicken salad with the rest of the breast meat or have chicken on a salad with eggs, bacon, and cheese to stretch it out. Then I dump the rest of the chicken into a pot, cook it and pick out and freeze the rest of the meat for soups/stews/casseroles and use the broth and all the skin/extra everything except for bones to make a big old pot of rice for our dogs. The chicken starts out more expensive but ends up pretty cheap and makes the basis for two other quick meals.

  19. Shirley says:

    A favorite of mine to have on hand is Progresso Ministrone soup which I buy when it’s on sale(sometimes as low as $1) I boil up some cheese tortellini and add to the soup. Sprinkle with grated Italian cheese and serve with bread and salad. It’s nutritious, easy and frugal!

  20. VickiB says:

    I make chili from scratch – eat half, freeze the other half. I also freeze excess salsa, so it is a quick fix to liven up any boring eggs or chicken.

  21. Monica says:

    @#7 – Don’t know if this qualifies as a casserole, per se, but it’s quick, easy and really good!

    Black Bean Tortilla Bake

    Place a flour tortilla on the bottom of a springform pan. Trim to fit if needed. Top w/ tomatoes, black beans, corn, scallions, a bit of jalapeno (optional) and some mild cheddar cheese.

    Repeat 2-3 times, depending on size of pan. End with a tortilla on top.

    Bake at 350 for approx. 20 minutes. Enjoy with sour cream.

    If you want vegan — either use fake cheese/sour cream or omit entirely.

  22. Anne says:

    I buy onions in bulk, dice them, add some butter and cook overnight in the crockpot. I then package them up in smaller containers and freeze for later use. I do the same basic thing with mushrooms, spinach, peppers and celery to take advantage of sale prices and preserve things when they are fresh. It’s easy to get creative and whip up soup or stir-fry or casseroles when many of the key ingredients are ready to go.

  23. Shannon says:

    Our go to easy to prepare meal: breakfast for dinner. Kids love it (it feels like a big treat to them), it’s easy to throw something together that’s relatively healthy(scrambled eggs and whole wheat toast with fruit), and it’s EASY.

  24. *pol says:

    A big batch of homemade spaghetti can be made into an assortment of meals keeping it interesting with the same stuff for a while.
    Spaghetti (obviously), then a rotini bake (with a fresh green pepper added into the sauce and topped with Mozza). Then add some more tomatoe sauce and layer with noodles and a cottage cheeese-spinach mix to turn it into a lasagna. We call it “Italian week” and it’s super cheap and the kids love it.

  25. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    One of our favorite Veg Casseroles is Cabbage Rolls. I can make up a double batch and freeze one for later, or freeze 2 or 3 COOKED rolls together for a lunch size portion.

    Making these is not an exact art because the number of leaves you get from a head of cabbage varies. If there are leftover cabbage leaves, I just chop them up and put them in the casserole too.

    My recipe:
    2 cups TVP (textured vegetable protein) hydrated with 2 cups of hot water, let that sit for 20 minutes or so.
    1 head of cabbage – steam the whole head so that the leaves soften and you can remove them from the head (pain in the butt, but worth it).
    Mix the TVP with:
    1/2 cup uncooked instant rice (have used regular rice and it has come out okay most of the time – sometimes a little crunchy, but I add about 10 min to the cooking time for raw reg rice) Or you can use leftover rice (a cup or so I would think)
    1 medium chopped onion
    1 can of mushroom stems/pieces – 4 oz can. Or if you have fresh, use those, but you’ll need to add about 1/4 cup of water.
    1 tsp salt
    1/8 tsp pepper
    1/8 tsp garlic salt (or a clove or two of fresh garlic – or garlic powder)
    1 can of tomato sauce – 15 oz (you’ll need 1/2 of this for the filling and half for the topping).

    Mix everything but the leaves and the 1/2 can of tomato sauce you reserved – this is your filling. Into the reserved tomato sauce add 1 tsp sugar, 1/2 tsp lemon juice, 1 TB water.

    For each roll place about 1/3 cup of the mixture into a cabbage leaf and roll it up. I use a 9×13 pan so the rolls aren’t squished together too much during cooking.

    Pour the remaining tomato sauce mixture on the top of the rolls, cover the pan with foil. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 50-60 minutes

  26. Joan says:

    I go to the store Friday mornings to pick up the marked down meat. I immediately cook all the meat and make casseroles or just package it in serving sizes. I eat very little meat, however; I do make casseroles for five relatives working at the same company. I can have them made ahead and just add cheese after they are thawed out in the frig. I buy the cheese in large quanities from Sam’s. The family heats what they want to eat in the company microwave, so it is okay to send the casseroles to them cold. Doing it this way, my casseroles are never more than $7.00, and many times are less than $5.00. I have made meals for them that are normally considered brunch; as my daughter gives me her extra range free eggs. I got several of my recipes from AllRecipes.com (thank you Trent for information on them). I keep dried pasta, hash brown potatoes, and rice on hand, usually bought on sale. I also watch for sales on meat, especially chicken. I have started making my own cream soups in order to keep the cost down.
    I personally eat very little meat, so I fix myself a pan of soup with whatever veggies I have on hand, add beans for protein; and can change it up each day with different ingredients. I have made several of Trent’s recipes. I love this type of post for the orginal recipes of Trent’s and all the comments. Thanks to all of you.

  27. Brittany says:

    @#7 Natalie–

    I highly, highly recommend The Moosewood Cookbook. It is full of delicious, delicious, healthy casseroles–most very unique, combination I wouldn’t think of or (cheap, but uncommon) ingredients I wouldn’t think to buy (like millet). All are vegetarian, and most are vegan/have vegan alternative listed. It’s the best $7 I’ve ever spent.

  28. Nancy says:

    I am on the Adkins diet- high protein, no or very low carbohydrate. I used to bank meals all of the time, but can’t think of any now. I’m looking for meal ideas to bank. Can you help me?

  29. Priswell says:

    This is an excellent idea, and like many here, I follow a version. I make a big pot of refried beans and divide it into ziploc containers after a beans and chips meal (with salsa, cilantro, chopped onions and shredded cheese). That’s enough for at least 3 more meals.

    Then another night, I’ll make a huge pot of spaghetti sauce, well eat out of it one night and then ziploc container the rest and keep pasta and/or frozen ravioli on hand.

    On still another night, I’ll make a big pot of chili beans, and we’ll do the same thing, eat out of the first night and package and freeze the rest.

    Another wonderful invention is the bread maker. I can and have made bread by hand many times, but since I work at home, I can toss a quick pail of ingredients into the bread maker and go back to work and still have hot bread for dinner to make a simple soup special.

    Then I’ll pull one of these out of the freezer on days when speed and ease is wanted, and dinner is served with minimal trouble. “Banked” meals and things that can be pulled out and put together fast is a first line of defense against running out for Taco Bell or pizza.

  30. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    In response to Brittany (post #21), if the price to buy the book is too high at the bookstore, half.com is another alternative – or the local library – or thrift stores. I stopped buying new books YEARS ago (before the internet was a household word) when I realized that most of the books became dust collectors in my house.

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