Updated on 07.17.12

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

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Johanna says:

    Two words: Power outage.

  2. Izabelle says:

    Johanna, a deep freezer will actually keeps its temperature better when it is full.

  3. Johanna says:

    Will it keep its temperature for seven days? That’s how long many of my friends were without power after the derecho.

  4. Johanna says:

    (My full, non-deep freezer was completely thawed after just two days.)

  5. Ashley says:

    Power outages aren’t every day occurrences. Sure, they happened, as we experienced a few weeks ago, but that’s the exception. Even when they do happen, they generally don’t last as long as they did in some areas around DC. Having lived both inside the Beltway and in Iowa, I’ve noticed that while storms tend to be worse and more frequent in Iowa, Iowans experience fewer and shorter power outages overall–my guess is because much of Iowa has underground electric lines, which isn’t the norm in much of the DC area.

  6. Johanna says:

    Not everyone can or wants to live in Iowa. And if you do live in DC, or another outage-prone place, that’s worth considering in deciding whether you want to use this technique.

  7. lurker carl says:

    Extended outages are nothing new, it’s easy to be prepared for them. We have a generator specifically for emergency power to run refrigeration, sump pumps and a few lights. And we keep the fuel tank in the old Suburban topped off, that puts 40 gallons of fresh gasoline at our disposal.

  8. Johanna says:

    So in order to save a few dollars on food, you now need to invest in a deep freezer, a generator, and an SUV. Got it.

  9. Nick says:

    Do you buy tin pans to make the meals in or do you have just enough pans laying around for this?

  10. Kevin says:

    “Power outages?” Seriously? Where do you live, Haiti? Our power might go out for an hour or two, but extended outages are extremely rare in first world countries like ours. Certainly not frequent enough to outweight the convenience and saving of bulk-prepared frozen meals.

  11. Katie says:

    Kevin, they’re not rare in the DC area. Google “Pepco.” That said, I agree that for most of us in other places, it’s worth the risk most of the time.

  12. Johanna says:

    LOL Kevin…never let facts intrude on your fantasy world!

  13. Jackson says:

    We regularly have power outages in the Chicago area that knock some people out for a week. Felt horrible for those who were without power for a week in 100-degree heat beginning of July. COUPON

  14. Jackson says:

    I think the U.S. will be seeing more power outages as systems age and are overly taxed. Plus, with the recent extreme weather events, more chances power to go out. COUPON

  15. DannyD says:

    Funny, I’ve lived in Chicago for 25 years in 1/2 dozen different apartments/houses and can think of only once when my power was out for more than 2 hours and that was after a confirmed tornado hit the area. Most outages are <10 minutes. There is NO WAY that power is "regularly out for a week" due to CommEd trouble. And I am no CommEd apologist, I do need to keep track of outages of all types as part of my work so I see the factual data on power outages, their frequency & duration.

    Also, CommEd allows one to file for compensation for loss of food should your fridge/freezer be out for too long due to their outage. Probably not an easy process but an option should one need it.

    Coupon homemade soap board games

  16. Joan says:

    I save time and money on having meals already prepared in my freezer. We have had one 36 hour electric outage in eight years. Thank you for this update on bulk cooking.

  17. Jackson says:

    Considering my son was born in a storm that knocked out power in the NW suburbs — and the hospital lost power while I was in an emergancy C-section, I beg to differ, #15. Western suburbs have been hard hit this month, and many without power for days. ComEd won’t reimburse for weather-related outages.


  18. lurker carl says:

    Saving a few dollars on food isn’t a priority when we lose electricity for days on end. Having food, that’s a priority. So is keeping a safe and secure home for my family.

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