Cook in Advance and Freeze Complete Meals (200/365)

One Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, Sarah and I made four pans of lasagna, four pans of tuna noodle casserole, and about a hundred bean burgers (okay, maybe not a hundred, but it sure seemed like it).

We invested several hours in this project, cooking and preparing while music filled the kitchen and the children played an elaborate game of “London Bridge” meets tag in the living room.

Because of that effort, right now we have about fifteen largely complete meals sitting in the freezer. All we have to do is pull one of them out the night before, put it in the refrigerator, then toss it in the oven late the next afternoon or on the grill the next evening.

The price of each of these meals was about as low as we could make it. Now that they’re made and in the freezer, they’re incredibly convenient to pull out whenever we need a meal.

Cook in Advance and Freeze Complete Meals (200/365)

Cooking meals in advance like this is one of those “culmination” tactics that saves you a lot of money because it rests on top of other money-saving tactics.

First, we were able to buy most of the ingredients in bulk. Rather than buying small packages and paying a high rate per pound, we could buy the largest packages at a low cost per pound. Since we’re making several meals at once, we were actually able to use all of these bulk purchases.

Second, we were able to immediately use a harvest from our garden. Every fresh tomato available to us could be used. Every fresh onion, too, as well as all of the fresh herbs and spices. None of the bounty from our garden would go to waste during that time frame because it was all included in these meals.

Third, we were able to control the healthiness of the meals. By making the meals ourselves, we avoided a lot of the unhealthy choices that might come from prepackaged versions of the meals. There were no preservatives. There was little salt added. The cheese was made from skim milk. The pasta was fresh and made from whole wheat flour. The result was healthier meals. However, the real value was that we were able to control this and make choices according to our own desires, not according to whatever was in the package. Because of the healthy choices, we’re slowly building toward a healthier future with lower health care costs.

Fourth, these meals rested on a foundation of planning. You can’t execute this without some careful planning. We had to plan out the ingredients we needed for all of this, create grocery lists, consider the items on sale in the store flyers, and shop in a timeframe so that any fresh ingredients we purchased were still good (we shopped the day before). That kind of careful planning helps with any grocery store visit.

There are a few caveats, though. For starters, you do need adequate freezer space to pull this off. According to our math, techniques like this more than pay for our deep freezer (it paid for itself in about a year and saves far more than it uses in energy). If you’re not doing things like this, however, a deep freezer might not be cost-effective.

You’re also going to need a solid block of time to prepare meals like this. However, there’s nothing wrong with having a “meal making party,” where you invite over several friends and all of you work together on making a bunch of meals for all of you. This turns the entire thing into a social occasion that also saves money for everyone involved.

Taken as a whole, preparing meals to freeze for the future is an incredibly powerful money-saving technique.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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