Updated on 12.11.06

Battling The Convenience and Costs of Fast Food

Trent Hamm

The biggest advantage that fast food has is that it is so easy and it saves time by allowing us to multi-task. On busy days, I can stop by a fast food restaurant and pick up a quick meal and eat it on the road as I hurry off to a meeting; it’s very difficult for a typical homemade meal to compete with that.

That is, until you discover the kitchen assembly line method.

The kitchen assembly line is basically the mass production of foods that can be easily grabbed and eaten at any time – in other words, food products similar to items sold at some fast food restaurants. These are stored in the freezer and can easily be microwaved and taken out the door with you as you rush off – or taken to work with you for lunch if you don’t have time to pack leftovers.

All you need to do to get started is to devote an afternoon to assembling these foods and some freezer space to store them. You don’t need any cooking skill beyond that of a typical fast food employee. The best part? These are always more healthy than the items you might buy at your typical fast food establishment.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

Breakfast Burritos: Buy a bunch of tortillas, some breakfast sausage, a jar of salsa, a dozen eggs, and some grated cheese. Cook the sausage up loosely and scramble the eggs. Put a bit of sausage and eggs on the tortilla, dump some cheese and eggs on top, wrap it up, and put it in Saran Wrap. Drop them right in the freezer.

Breakfast Sandwiches: Buy a bunch of English muffins or bagels (these freeze pretty well), some sliced cheese, and some eggs. Fry the eggs, breaking the yolk really early on, then put a fried egg and a slice of cheese on each English muffin or bagel. If you want, add a slice of Canadian bacon or something similar to each one. Wrap them in Saran wrap individually and drop them in the freezer.

Yogurt Pops These are great in the morning before a hot day. Mix together plain yogurt (two cups or so), some fruit (about half a cup of whatever you like), and eight ounces of your favorite fruit juice. Pour this into Dixie cups and stick ’em in the freezer. Freeze them for 45 minutes or so, then insert a popsicle stick into the center of each one, then pop them back in the freezer until they’re solid. I really like these on summer mornings.

Regular Burritos: Buy a bunch of tortillas, some meat of choice (chicken, pork, whatever), and some lettuce and tomatoes and salsa and refried beans and whatever else you’d like on a burrito. Cook the meat, then just assemble the burritos individually, wrap them in Saran wrap, and freeze away.

Quick Sandwiches: Buy some English muffins or bagels (these freeze well, but you can also use buns or bread), some cold cuts, and some matching cheeses. I like ham + swiss and roast beef + sharp cheddar; a friend of mine swears by muenster + cappicola. Make sandwiches as thick as you’d like, toss on any condiments you want, wrap them in Saran wrap, and freeze them. You can make hamburgers this way, too, of course.

Homemade Chicken Nuggets: These are so much better than fast food ones, it’s crazy. Cut up a few chicken breasts into one-inch pieces, then put some non-sweet cornflakes in a Ziploc bag and smash the cornflakes into oblivion with a rolling pin or your hands. Put the crumbs in a bowl and add a tablespoon of flour, a teaspoon of salt and pepper, and (optionally) some grated cheese (I like Parmesan). In another bowl, beat a couple eggs with a tablespoon of water until it’s all the same consistency. Dip the nuggets in the eggs, roll them on the crumbs, then put them on a pan and stick them in the oven at 375 F for thirteen minutes. Take ’em out, let them cool, put several into a number of Ziploc baggies, and pop ’em in the freezer.

Ready to eat?
With any of these, just grab them out of the freezer and microwave them for a minute or two and you’ll be ready to go. I often do this in the last moments before I leave so my final steps are hitting the microwave and then walking out the door.

The best part? If you make a bunch, you’ll have instant meals for a long time. They’re cheap and they’re way better for you than fast food.

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  1. Nice post! I never thought of cooking these sorts of things ahead of time and freezing them.

  2. FrugalTrader says:

    Great post! I’m a big eater, but i’m not a big fan of eating out (i’m frugal). So what I normally do is cook all my lunches for the week on Sunday, place them in tupper ware, freeze them, and take them out as I need them. This works great with big batches of goulash, spaghetti, chicken and rice etc.


  3. Matt says:

    This is an absolutely awesome idea! I’ve been thinking about preparing some food ahead of time to take for lunches etc but I was thinking cooking bigger meals and then taking left overs but this is brilliant.

  4. Stephen says:

    I was 100% with you except freezing the lettuce. After working in restaurants for part of my life, I know that doesn’t work well. Everything else is wonderful!

    I absolutely love bacon (my wife does, too), but a full package of bacon is a little too much for two people to eat without eating too much. I open the package, roll each slice, then freeze them on a piece of parchment or wax paper. Place your bacon rolls into a ziploc bag, then pull out a few the night before you have bacon, or microwave some rolls for a few seconds before you fry. Now you don’t have to worry about eating a whole pound of bacon before it goes bad!

  5. Tracy says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! What a great way to pull the family together for an afternoon, too! From now on, if my kids want fast food, they can pitch in and help make them. I’m literally hearing the cash registers slam shut and and our bodies rejoicing over this less expensive and healthier option. I imagine many people are like me – gotten so busy and so used to just going to the fast food shops that we don’t even take time to think of alternatives. Have I said this yet – thank you!

  6. jcar says:

    Love it! Keep ’em coming, I’m sick of eating out all the time but too lazy to make real meals, these are perfect.

  7. Henry Bemis says:

    That breakfast burrito sounds “god awful.” Goodness gracious, someone put the breaks on that culinary disaster.

  8. Um….I make breakfast burritos all the time. They’re good! Henry B: try thawing them first. Makes a world of difference! ;)

  9. Louise says:

    Another idea for the homemade chicken nuggets is to use chicken thigh fillets instead of breasts, even cheaper. Individual crustless quiches can be made in muffin tins and frozen for use as a breakfast or other meal item. Just sautee your choice of vegetables (or use leftover steamed veggies), allow to cool slightly and then add eggs beaten with milk and a small amount of flour. Spoon into muffin tins sprayed with a non stick spray and cook 15-20 mins in a moderate oven. Optional extras can include different cheeses or meats. have fun experimenting with different flavours.

  10. Bill says:

    I like your web site; it provides great information and ideas. However, I have to ask: For a frugal person such as yourself, and for those of us who read your material for its emphasis on living within your means, why do you buy grated cheese (as you say you do in this article)?

    Buy a block of cheese, grate it yourself, and save at least 30%. Frozen grated cheese stores well and saves you a ton of dough and time (it takes more time to grate cheese several times rather than all at once).

  11. Chris says:

    Great entry, thanks for re-linking it. I’ve been making batches of the breakfast burritos for quite some time now, but I completely forgot about the chicken nuggets.

    By the way, I can’t wait for your cooking blog (and cookbook :) I enjoy your personal finance writing but, IMO, your blog really shines when you write about cooking.

  12. Sm4k says:

    One of the things I’ve taken a liking to is going to the grocery store about once every two weeks and buying fresh stuff to make my own lunch at work. You can buy supllies to make two weeks worth of simple (or elaborate) sandwiches and snacks for right around $20, $30 if you buy snack stuff as well. Keeping this stuff at work makes it a no brainer to not go out for lunch, and keeps it on a need to or celebratory basis. The stuff that needs to be refrigerated can either be kept in a grocery bag with your name on it in the office fridge, or you could buy a little fridge to keep at your desk–At $2 a day for work lunch vs $6-10, it won’t take long to pay for itself.

    It takes about 15 minutes for me to put together my sandwich, but this way I get to pick what I eat so I always like it. While it may not be the healthiest meal (some of the ingredients like deli meat are pretty high in sodium), I save a fortune vs places like Chipotle or Panera.

    An excellent simple breakfast I keep at work is real oatmeal (aka not instant), unsweetened applesauce, and frozen blueberries. By the time the oatmeal is cooked, it’s hot enough to thaw the blueberries. Mix in the applesauce and it’s an easy and healthy way to start the day.

  13. Shilo says:

    Bill…I think the cost difference in grated or block cheese differs where you live. In my area, it’s the exact same price for grated or block.

    You can also make muffins & freeze them individually. Heat for about 30 seconds.

  14. Jerry says:

    Good ideas- thanks.
    Some more tips:
    Roll your chicken in flour before you dip them in the beaten eggs. It makes them crispier.

    If you usually use about half of a package of bacon (like we do), then cut your 1 lb package of bacon in half- you can even do this while it is still wrapped and or frozen. Put the cut half in a freezer bag, into the freezer right away.

    If you see deli meat that you love on sale, buy extra. I regularly freeze salami with no ills effects upon thawing (to me or to the salami). In fact, I often buy extra fresh food (chicken, fish, etc.) that’s on sale if I can freeze it.

    You can get more use out of food you would normally throw away. How? On a weekend, if I’ve just cooked a chicken, I simmer the carcass for a few hours. My wife was …shall we say ‘uncertain’ at first, but then she tasted my rice cooked in home made chicken stock. Now she suggests that I make the chicken stock so we can have more. :)

  15. Macinac says:

    My wife is a lousy cook, perhaps because she is from a country where eating out costs no more than eating at home. Thus, I have to indulge her frequently on this. Our kids eat from McDonalds far too often, and the town has few other options. Tonight we had deli food from a co-op organic store. I need to work on a solution, but my taking over the cooking is not in the cards.

  16. HoneyBee says:

    Thanks for the great ideas! I have two teenage sons and a husband that love to eat. Something I do on the weekend is “Cook Big”. Both crockpots (and sometimes the tabletop roaster) we own are filled and set to cook on low in the morning. When they are finished I fill/freeze a number of small containers and then serve the rest for the lunch or dinner meal. Believe me, there is plenty to eat now and later. Also, during the week, I purposefully cook 2-3 more servings and fill/freeze the containers BEFORE we eat. Again, plenty of food and good hot lunch for later in the week.
    When they get hungry, the boys take out what they need for the meal, eat at home or bring it with them. I take two to work (I have the luxury of seeing my husband at lunch), heat them through and then go to meet him at the local park. We eat very well this way – we know what is in the food we are eating along with saving a tremendous amount of money.

  17. Scott Speer says:

    Thank you for writing this blog. This is the expense that kills me the most. I am a college student working a lame job and going to school full time and when I’m hungry I just want something fast so I can get back to what I’m doing. I hate taking the time to make food, so I wind up going to some burger joint and spending $8+ on some ‘value’ meal. That adds up really fast. I’ve been told by people to prepare things in advance but they always keep the advice really vague, never telling me how easy and cheap it is to prepare really tasty stuff that’s freezable. My next grocery list is coming straight from this blog.

  18. robert says:

    Crock pots RULE! soups, chili, beef stew… then freeze it.

    My favorite chicken pot pie casserole. Take croissant rolls and lay them flat in a casserole dish and bake till brown. Take cooked chicken and two cans of cream of whatever soup and cover with more croissant rolls. Cook until brown. Cut in cubes and freeze.

    Also, works well with hamburger meat and tater tots.

    My favorite lunch… quessadilla. Take a tortilla, cooked chicken, cheese, and veggies and bake in oven until tortilla is brown. Slice and bag and go!

    Cooler in car with meal and drinks with those frozen blue blocks keeping things cool.

  19. lisa c says:

    Hey I was always worried about freezer burn, saran wrap does just fine though eh?

  20. steve says:

    lisa c:

    there’s no reason to worry about freezer burn if you learn what to do to prevent it.

    freezer burn will NOT be prevented by saran wrap–Saran Wrap, and all wraps that are intended only for fridge use, are air-permeable. Freezer “burn” is caused by water (ice) being dried off the surface of frozen food. the water escapes through the wrap itself or through places where the wrap wasn’t sealed properly. the longer the food is frozen, the longer there is for freezer burn to develop, which is why you need to learn how to wrap the food correctly for freezing in freezer wrap, which is formulated to prevent air/water vapor from transpiring through it.

    If anyone needs to know more, just Google “how to freezer wrap” or “how to freeze food”.

  21. Bobbi says:

    I searched on google for breakfast freezing tips and you popped up! Awesome tips, I will be doing this tomorrow. Thanks!

  22. Kristen says:

    My bf loves frozen waffles, they are his snack of choice, so if I make waffles for breakfast one weekend I’ll double the batter and slightly undercook what we won’t eat at the sitting. Toss them in freezer bags and they are ready to toast! I do the same with pancakes.

    I’m not into making prepacked ‘nuke and eat meals (I don’t like microwaved food… it’s my weird thing), but make hamburger patties ahead and freeze them. I paid $30 for a vacuum sealer and it was the best purchase I ever made!

  23. Jihan says:

    The only fast food I know that is cheap is a McDonald’s snack wrap. It resembles a burrito in a few ways and it’s about $1. Sounds cheap but the calories in it will make you cry. It doesn’t really make you full either, so if I was to eat a whole meal, I’d have to eat half a day’s calorie with in snack wraps for one full meal. That’s too much for me.

  24. bluebonnet says:

    i enjoy your website very much; thank you.

    may i please ask two questions:

    so the scrambled eggs freeze and reheat o.k., with no big changes in texture? seems i’ve read the advice not to freeze them, but if freezing works, that would be a huge bonus.

    do the chicken nuggets get soggy on the bottom while they are baking, i.e., if you coat them all over with cornflakes then do you need to bake them on a rack to get them crispy all over? (i’ve had soggy experiences before; maybe just me.)

    to the commenter questioning purchase of grated cheese: depends on where you buy it. at a warehouse club or large supermarket, bulk packages of grated cheese are often less expensive than the plain block. go figure.

    to the mcdonald’s snack wrap commenter: if you add a side salad for $1.49, you can use the contents to seriously pad out three snack wraps, which are woefully short on greenery otherwise. still under $5 for what has just become a big meal. and drink water … it’s free.

  25. Jenny says:

    Stephen, what I do for bacon is cook 2-3 packages at once (I use a foreman grill), drain the grease on paper towels, cool it, then put it in a ziploc bag in the freezer. Then just take a few peices out at a time and microwave them until hot. They taste just as good as fresh, and I don’t have to cook it very often.

  26. James Lamb says:

    Breakfast Burritos: Cook the sausage up loosely and scramble the eggs. Put a bit of sausage and eggs on the tortilla, dump some cheese and eggs on top…

    I guess that one mention of eggs is supposed to be salsa – sausage and salsa, or cheese and salsa?

  27. Mary says:

    I never thought about cooking breakfast burritos in bulk. I love eating them, perhaps I’ll buy a dozen eggs and cook them all up. I LOVE those breakfast sandwiches at the gas stations and know I could make them at a fraction of the fat.

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