Updated on 08.11.09

Eating What You Have On Hand

Trent Hamm

As I’ve discussed many times before, eating at home is a huge money saver. Even if you use expensive ingredients all the time (like saffron or morel mushrooms), it’s still cheaper to cook at home than it is to consistently eat out (assuming you’re eating better than the McDonalds Dollar Menu). Similarly, it’s cheaper to make a meal out of basic ingredients than it is to use prepared and processed ingredients – the closer to the raw ingredients you are, the cheaper the meal is (usually).

Along the same lines, I’ve come to realize that I tend to snack on and eat whatever’s convenient. For lunch, I’ll usually eat leftovers because it’s easy – it’s sitting in the fridge and usually only requires a bit of pepper and a trip to the microwave. At snack time, I’ll look at the fruit bowl and flip open the refrigerator door and grab whatever’s quick and at hand.

So why not combine the two and really crunch your food budget?

I was inspired to try some of these things by Mark Bittman’s interesting Food Matters. He suggests a similar phenomenon, that if you make good, healthy food as convenient as possible, you won’t be as tempted to eat processed, unhealthy foods.

By a lucky coincidence, many of the healthiest foods are also quite cheap in their raw form.

So what I decided to do is start cooking some healthy and very inexpensive staple foods once a week in bulk, store them in containers in the fridge, and utilize them all throughout the week in various dishes.

Here’s the game plan.

First, cook a big batch of beans/wild rice/whole grains once a week. You can get these ingredients at the store incredibly cheaply and they’re very easy to cook up in bulk. Just cook a whole bag of beans, a small bag of wild or brown rice, and some amount of a whole grain that you like.

When you’re done, just put the material you cooked into a large container in the fridge. A large Rubbermaid container or Gladware works really well because you can see what’s inside at a glance.

Throughout the week, just eat simple stuff that uses these for ingredients. Here are five examples.

Burritos Put some beans and some rice on a tortilla, heat it up, pour some salsa on it, enjoy.

Omelets Stir up two eggs, toss ’em in a pan with some beans, spice with lots of pepper, enjoy.

Stir fry Toss whatever vegetables and meats you have on hand in a pan with a bit of vegetable oil over medium heat until cooked, put them on the rice, enjoy.

Swiss breakfast Mix the cooked whole grains with some milk and whatever fruit you have on hand, enjoy.

Bean burgers If you have black beans, this works great. Just mash ’em together, add a bit of flour, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce to the beans, make some patties, and cook them with some oil, enjoy.

With the huge amount of variations in these recipes – and the many, many more simple things you can toss together – it’s easy to make tons of very simple snacks and meals from these cooked staples in your fridge.

You can take this idea even further by doing the same thing with whatever fruits and vegetables are on sale at the store. Just pick up that vegetable, chop it up, and cook it in some appropriate fashion (or just leave it raw). Just get it to the point where it’s really convenient for you to just grab it and eat it or add it to a simple dish.

The benefits here are tremendous. Suddenly, your snacks and many of your meals become really simple to prepare, really cheap, and pretty healthy, too (regardless of what you add, if most of the meal consists of beans and wild rice and vegetables, it’ll be good for you on the whole). Plus, since you can add whatever you want to those ingredients that are already on hand, it’s versatile and will be quite tasty to pretty much any palate.

Give it a shot and see how it works for you!

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  1. Denise says:

    Good article. I do this too, but I get tired of eating the same thing all the time, like rice and beans. I tend to leave a couple of servings in the fridge and freeze the rest in small containers. If I do this on a consistent basis, I have a variety of good things on hand to eat up.

  2. I liked this article as well. I’m the type of person who can eat the same thing a few times in a row. So I always end up bringing in leftovers for lunch. It beats paying $10/day going out like many of my coworkers do. My fiance however is the opposite she doesn’t like to eat the same thing twice and so she makes her lunches and brings them.

    -Gen Y Investor

  3. anne says:

    i do this too- it really helps. i usually make way too much of whatever is for dinner and freeze the extras.

    even when i make salad i make too much. if i’m in a hurry later, i will often skip making a salad all together if i have to wash lettuce.

    it’s not hard to wash lettuce- it’s really not, but having a whole bunch already prepped in the fridge makes me a million times more likely to actually serve a salad to my family.

    or to even just put a little on a sandwich.

  4. Great tips! My kids like plain oatmeal, which is just oats, water, and a trip to the microwave.

    Also, we always have herb seasoned mashed potatoes in the fridge. They are about as cheap a snack as you can get.

  5. KC says:

    I do this every once and a while just to whittle down what we have on hand. At least once every 5 years I’d say a major power outage threatens whats in our fridge/freezer – so its good to not have too much on hand. It also helps to get most food eaten before they have a chance to spoil – both refrigerated foods and pantry foods can go bad if you ignore them.

  6. NMPatricia says:

    Gee, I just made up my list for next week and was hunting through the freezer and cupboards for what needs to be used up. I know that isn’t quite what you were writing about, but it is similar. We tend to have lots of “first order food” on hand such as fruit, vegetables, yogurt, rice, beans, and chicken (the last three precooked and frozen in containers in the freezer). There are two of us, but I usually cook for four and we have leftovers for the week. I really only cook three times a week, and we just eat out of our refrigerator the rest of the time. I would guess this might be harder with kids around. (As matter of fact, when I had two boys, I never had food in the refrigerator! Just wait, Trent!) Great column even though I usually do much of it. Your columns either give me food for thought, remind me of something I have forgotten, or provide me with a pat on the back knowing I am doing something that is helpful and healthful for us!

  7. anne says:

    oh- mark bittman! i just googled “vegan before six” to see if it was the same guy, and it is!

    i don’t think i’ve read anything of his, but i heard a great interview w/ him on npr.

    he was talking about his “vegan before 6” way of eating.

    i’ve consciously been trying to do this the last few days- what a neat coincidence you write about him today.

  8. Jules says:

    I like this idea, but I would add that you make sure the other person in your life knows that the stuff in the fridge is meant for eating and not old leftovers! We clean out the fridge of old food on Wednesdays (trash day is Thursday) and every now and then one of us will throw out something that the other had wanted to keep around.

  9. Jen says:

    I’ve been doing this a lot lately, too. Here’s some of the stuff that I batch process each week:

    – Raw chickpeas are cooked from scratch in the pressure cooker. The resulting yield can go into soups, hummus, salads, or can be eaten like candy with a little quick sauteing and a little salt.
    – Toasted almonds (a little oil and salt and a few minutes in a moderately hot oven; let cool, store in fridge)
    – Mirepoix: I cook a large batch of finely diced aromatics that I have on hand (onion, celery, leeks, etc.) plus other appropriate veggies (peppers, grated carrots, mushrooms, etc.) A couple of spoonfuls of this goes into my morning eggs (egg plus egg whites plus a little cheese, cooked frittata style) and into my evening meals (In a large nonstick skillet, sear some sliced meat but don’t cook it through, then remove it from the pan; add mirepoix and rice or bulgur or some other quick cooking grain, stir on moderate heat with a little more oil, then add some green veggie sliced to cook quickly and the previously seared meat; add broth, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, cook covered for 10 minutes).
    – Carrot sticks: handy for a quick snack, but this also makes the choice of another veg for the evening meal much simpler because you don’t have to get out the cutting board and knife every time.

    I don’t cook ahead grains because I’m trying to lose weight and find that cooked grains are too easy to snack on. Somehow I can control myself with chickpeas and almonds, as much as I love them, but not grains.

  10. Michele says:

    I liked this article. I cook at home every night- we go out to eat dinner maybe once a month since my husband is retired and we like to spend our discretionary income on other things- and I usually make a little more than needed for the two of us. I always pack up leftovers into two small microwave safe containers and then I take one to work for lunch and he eats one for lunch. We have a variety to chose from since I save something every night, so you don’t have the same thing for lunch as dinner the night before. We also make ‘creative’ burritos on a regular basis and often have ‘lunch’ for breakfast or ‘breakfast’ for dinner. It probably helps that we both love to cook!

  11. wally says:

    This is also a great way to save money on organic food as well!

  12. Kathy says:

    This is a very timely article for me because I spent this morning taking inventory of what’s in my cupboards, trying to plan meals based off of that, and making out my grocery list based on that, too. I always have the good intentions of trying to cook at home and not eat out so much, but I get busy and my good intentions remain nothing more than that. Not only do I work full time, but I’m also a part time student *and* trying to pursue my dream of writing a novel, so my plate is pretty full. So I juggle and drop things and pick them back up, and sometimes, it’s diet and exercise that ends up falling to the floor, so to speak.

    I need to get in the habit of batch cooking things so I’m not tempted to throw in the towel during the week and tempted to hit the vending machines at work for lunch because I don’t have leftovers to take to work.

  13. Anne KD says:

    My life is getting busier, I’ve added one day heading over to my bro-in-law’s house to help with the 8 kids. After a day there and the ride back home, I’m too exhausted to cook. This afternoon I’ve already started prepping veggies for the week and cooking the first of two lbs of beans to freeze. I didn’t do this the past couple of weeks and we ended up going out more than usual or eating whatever I could throw together that didn’t require thought. Funny you should post this article, and I’m glad to see I’m on the right track- my husband doesn’t like sandwiches so I usually pack leftovers and/or salads (chickpea salad is a fave with some feta).

  14. Brandi says:

    This way of eating really does save time and money. I like to cook large amounts of rice, pasta, lentils, quinoa, pancake batter, whatever, and get several meals out of the leftovers. Even using canned refried beans/bottled marinara sauce/vegetarian meatballs ( I try to buy these on sale and stock up)/real parmesan cheese for convenience and/or extra flavor, it’s still much cheaper than eating out. Another thing I do for snacks is to stock up on fruit and healthy bulk items like almonds, since if it’s there, I tend to eat it. I also find it easier/cheaper/healthier to make my own cookies since I can substitute whole wheat pastry flour/oats/etc. and add healthy bulk-purchased additions such as dried fruit, dark chocolate chips, or nuts, and control the type of fat used (ie. olive or canola oil rather than trans fats). Baking isn’t nearly as time-consuming as one might think once you get the routine down.

  15. Shabadeux says:

    This is brilliant. I am getting tested tomorrow for celiac disease and this little tip could be extremely helpful. I think if I have a good stockpile of healthy grains and beans and I buy plenty of fruits and veggies, I may be able to eat gluten-free without breaking the bank. I was just thinking today that it would be a great idea to make some rice for this week so I can have it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I was going to make mujahdarrah tomorrow, but maybe I should just make separate batches of rice and lentils so I have more options for how to use them.

  16. Matt says:

    Leftovers tend to turn me off, except for a few specific things. Leftover chili I could just keep eating for days. Leftover rice always gets used up, usually in fried rice. But other things don’t. Leftover tuna salad, or coleslaw, or pasta, just don’t get eaten. Leftover veggies only tend to get eaten if I’m making something they can go in, like fried rice.

  17. Steve says:

    This is fantastic — assuming you don’t have a violent hatred of beans like I do.

  18. Subra says:

    I have experimenting similar things for the two months. Cook and store in one serving size containers and add a main or side to the pre cooked item and take it office for lunch. Subra

  19. Jen says:

    Great advice! We get a CSA produce box every week, and the first thing I do is clean and prep everything. It takes a while, but it’s much more likely to get used if I take a few hours to do it. I spend the prep time thinking about how to either use it in the coming week, or preserve it for later.

    In addition to batches of rice and beans, I like to make a big pot of homemade soup on the weekend. I’ll freeze half in serving size containers for easy lunches, then we eat the rest throughout the week. This idea works well for a roast chicken, or roast beef as well. Cook one on the weekend and use the leftover meat in other dishes through the week. One of our favorite grab and go foods to have on hand is hard boiled eggs.

    Since we’ve cut out all processed food, I use batch cooking a lot! Pancakes, waffles, baked goods and most dinners can be cooked in larger batches and frozen for later use. It’s a huge time and money saver.

  20. Joyful Abode says:

    This is a really good plan… sometimes I poach a bunch of boneless skinless chicken breasts and have them available for stuff.

    They’re great to throw in stir fries, to shred and make chicken salad, to use in soup, to slice and top a green salad, or any number of chicken-related recipes.

  21. Emily says:

    I’m a huge fan of Bittman – it’s great that you brought him into the discussion.

    I’d advocate for having a stash of these staples pre-cooked and frozen as well. I think of it as food insurance for those times cooking is just not going to happen for me.

    I really make a big effort to do this when I know I’ll be out of town the next weekend; it’s always a struggle for me to get back into domestic routines after being away. Having pre-made staples there, ready to eat in 10 minutes or to throw in my work bag for lunch in 10 seconds, keeps me eating cheaply even when I feel scattered.

  22. Kate says:

    You need to make sure your food handling is really good, especially with rice. Cooked rice is a big source of food poisoning, so it needs to be cooled very quickly.


  23. I would take this concept a step further–how about limiting the amount of food that is simply thrown away in your household?

    This drives me absolutely nuts–not only becuase of the “people starving in Africa” concept, but because of an even simpler one–because I paid for it.

    We don’t throw away much, but it still burns me up when we do.

    Especially when all it realy takes is about 8 seconds of planning to avoid it entirely.

    I can’t imagine the number of people out there trying to impact their finances who are haphazardly throwing food away on a weekly basis.

  24. Lilian says:

    Maybe you can better freeze the food. It stays fresh longer. There’s a rule for keeping leftovers in the fridge: Mondays in, no later than Wednesdays out, etc.

    I love cooking from scratch in large portions.
    The leftovers go in the freezer and are taken out to defrost on the day I need it.

  25. Matt says:

    Two words : Rice cooker. If you cook a large batch of rice then stick it in the fridge it will be nasty by the end of the week, get a $100 cooker with a timer and you can have rice ready either when you wake up to take to work for lunch, or ready when you get home to use for dinner…. worth its weight in gold.

  26. littlepitcher says:

    Been doin’ it for years…
    Also have homemade cornbread, pitas, and sandwich bread in the freezer. That keeps your options open. My way of combatting sameness was to have a special meal on payday and eat out of the pot for the rest of the week. Payday meal was not eaten out but was higher-priced ingredients made at home.

  27. Samira says:

    My Sisters call my eating plan the “ziploc diet” since I prepare the week’s menu over the weekend and package it all up into servings using ziploc bags. Easy Peasy. Grab & Go!

  28. Georgia S says:

    I like the idea of prepping vegetables for easy use, but is it possible this could make them go bad more quickly? (I’m imagining, say, dicing up carrots, leaving them in a bag in the fridge for a couple of days, and then finding them all dried out.)

  29. Leigh says:

    This is excellent advice. I find that I do much better both budget and health wise if I keep my pantry and fridge stocked with easy to prepare healthy ingredients. I always keep canned tomatoes and some beans and rice on hand. The possibilities with those simple ingredients are endless.

  30. Kim says:

    I do this all the time but I’ll also cook up some chicken breasts to add to the mix. If the veggies are already prepped and the chicken and rice is already cooked, dinner takes just a few minutes to throw together.

  31. Amy K. says:


    Carrots will do fine, but definitely put a little water in the baggie to keep them from drying out. I cut up carrot sticks on Sunday for the week and they’re fine through Thursday that way. Friday tends to be touch-and-go, and maybe a better candidate for the fried rice mentioned above :-)

    The fold over style sandwich bags will definitely let too much moisture out, make sure it’s a well sealed container.

    Hmm, I wonder if there’s a batch prep book with a chart showing best storage methods for 3 days, 7 days, 2 weeks, etc. That would be a good investment, avoid a lot of trial and error.

  32. This is excellent advice. A while back we abandoned instant rice in favor of large, economical bags of regular. The one disadvantage is that it does take 20-25 minutes to cook, and if it’s part of the base of a meal, like fried rice, it makes the whole process take a good bit longer.

    Can anyone offer any advice for cooking rice in large batches and refrigerating it for later use?

    I’m guessing it will get mushy and clump.

  33. Lenore says:

    I think I’d rather subsist on ketchup sandwiches.

  34. Erin says:

    Hi, Mr. Trent! We do this, for the reasons that you indicated – but in no way are we as organized as this. I will adopt this plan, it is much better than my own! I wanted to add a few other items that we keep on hand (ok, we TRY to keep on hand) – hard boiled eggs (about $3 for 2 dozen at Costco) and bananas. Because they are simple to grab when we are starving :). Thank you so much for writing about this, I can’t wait set a specific day to do this.
    Please consider purchasing an inexpensive rice cooker. We purchase huge quantities of basmati or jasmin rice, I make a large, large batch and freeze about 1/2 the batch or more in freezer bags. Now I have to say that we like “sticky rice” – you can adjust the amount of water used or the type of rice, but we’ve found that these two types of rice freeze really well. When we are ready to use the rice we pop it into a microsafe bowl and into the microwave (add a little water and seal w/saran wrap or lid) and heat. It comes out perfect almost every time. I hope it works well for you :)

  35. Lou says:

    This is an excellent idea. I plan to combine it with the idea (I think from Unclutterer) to take EVERYTHING out of the pantry & put it in boxes. At the end of 2 weeks, whatever you have taken out of the box is a true staple, deserving a prime spot in the cupboards & automatic replenishment. Now focus on eating up the other stuff b/c it is stuff that needs attention in order to get used.

  36. Bill in Houston says:

    I take an hour or so every week to prep all the vegetables we buy. I wash them, dry them, and bag them. I keep a head of lettuce (red leaf or romaine) in a gallon ziplock. I wash, spin, and dry the watercress, the scallions, the radishes, and the spinach. I wash the (bell and jalapeno) peppers, onions, eggplant, and zucchini and dry them (returning them to their original plastic bags. Since I started doing this it has been rare that something goes bad before we eat it all. The worst culprit is watercress, because our local Korean market (Super H Mart) keeps them on ice.

    While we keep staples in the freezer, I’ve been making crockpot meals for the past few weeks. My bouef bourginon lasted two meals and one lunch for my wife and me. (1 pound of beef stew meat). My two and a half pounds of pork butt shoulder in beer made five meals and two lunches for us (carnitas, pulled pork, kebabs, et cetera). I did pot roast last week (four meals from 1.5 pounds of cheap beef top round on sale and one lunch). My beef stew (made last night from another third of our beef top round) should last three or four meals. What was left of that top round became four steaks that I’ll grill this week. Kroger has had excellent sales on meat the past few weeks.

  37. Bill in Houston says:

    Oops, forgot to mention that one way to keep the same thing from being boring is to change the carbohydrate you serve it with. Rice one night, mashed potato another, couscous a third, black beans another.

  38. Mary W says:

    Kevin #20 – I freeze cooked rice in bags – whatever amount your family uses. It will reheat in the microwave in just a couple of minutes. It just a good as when you made it. I find that rice goes bad in the frig more quickly than I use it up.

    I started doing this when we switched to brown rice. If 20-25 minutes is too long for you, try the 55 + minutes for brown rice.

  39. Tuimeltje says:

    I love this idea. I’ve been meaning to get into the habit of this ever since I first read about it on a now-locked blog by a woman who cooked a large pot of lentils and rice each week and used that as a base to feed a family of four.
    For me, however, it would probably only work long-term if I’d combine it with a bit of meal-planning, which I hope to get into now that I’m likely to spend some more time at my own flat rather than be all over.

    Re#20: In my experience, rice, when properly drained or cooked keeping in mind a fairly precise water-to-rice ratio, doesn’t get soggy. It can get a little clumpy, but that’s easily broken up using a fork.
    I’ve also had no problem freezing rice for later use.
    Mind you, I do mostly use brown rice rather than white, that might make a difference.

  40. Melinda (Aussie-Girl) says:

    This is where 2 slow-cookers(crockpots) are invaluable. Soup can be extended and extended again – remember the story of Stone Soup?

    I’ve got one soup ready to eat & heat (turned it on high at breakfast)& one meal in the first stages of preparation (turned on low for 24hrs).

    At the moment we’re enjoying Spicy Clam Chowder (dinner last night/lunch today & tomorrow) and Chicken Carcasse just gone on to simmer for Spicy Thai Soup later on in the week.

    Remembering it’s Winter here so obviously menu’s change due to the season.

  41. Matt says:

    Try supercook.com. It’s perfect for this.

  42. Brittany says:

    Frozen veggies are made for this! I never ate much spinach until I discovered the joys of frozen spinach. I like don’t like it plain or in large amounts, only raw in a salad or mixed in things, so I could never justify buying it because it would go bad or I would get sick of it before I used it fresh (and canned is gross). But $1 for a pound of frozen spinach jazzed up all kinds of soups, stirfrys, and pasta sauces with flavor and a super healthy addition. I also tend to keep frozen peas and green beans on hand, for the same reason. So easy to just toss a handful into what I’m making and add some healthiness and tastiness without buying a lot of fresh veggies that might go bad unless I get the urge to eat a big pile of them.

  43. Mary W (24)–Thanks for the advice on the rice. Yeah, I don’t see it keeping in the fridge at all and that’s why we’ve avoided it so far.

    We’ll go with your freezing idea. That sounds like it has to potential to turn rice into a “fast food”, which will be a winner in our house on a number of fronts.

  44. ~megan says:

    Somewhat off topic, but since you list saffron as an expensive ingredient, look for it at an Amish grocer–if there is one nearby. I can get 3x as much for $4 there than I can get for $18 at the local grocery store.

  45. mfan says:

    I have a calendar on which every meal is written in daily. On the back is an inventory of everything in the freezer. As it is used it gets scratched through. This allows me to see at a glance what is available and not to duplicate the same meals too often. This way I can see what I may need to prepare a meal. I don’t ever need to run to the store because I’ve run out of something- I know what is there.

  46. Lynne says:

    Since I’ve been widowed, it is hard to use everything I cook. I bag up leftover rice & freeze so it doesn’t get wasted, just as I do with my pasta. I buy (& grow) veggies, which I steam lightly. I toss these in with rice, or ramen & have a nice main dish. I use them in omelets with a little cheese. They are great to mix in with potatoes when making stuffed twice baked potatoes. For a great appetizer, lightly toast bread, rub with garlic, spoon on some veggies,season, add a little cheese & heat in the oven til chees melts. I “try” not always successfully, to use all I buy.

  47. Louise says:

    I really hate to cook up hamburger or ground sausage meat in the fry pan (to be used in chili, with brown rice and veggies, etc.). I finally realized I can just do a “big cooking” of the meat (2 lbs. or more) all at one time, then spread it out on a couple of cookie sheets, cover with foil and put it in the freezer. Later, I just break up the chunks and store the meat in 2 big ziplock bags (1 for beef, the other for sausage). Whenever I need some, I can just go to the proper bag and pull out what I need. Since the meat is going into soup or some kind of casserole dish, it’s perfect. Quick, easy, and I only have to clean up the stove and pan about once a month!

  48. Yes, it’s true that you will save a lot of money that way, you will probably eat more healthy things, and a lot less FAT, because when you’re making your own food, you See the ingredients. Also a lot of time is saved by eating at home. Thanks for the good article!

    John DeFlumeri Jr Clearwater, Fla.

    visit me too.

  49. Nice post– it is amazing what you can whip up with some very basic ingredients . . .

  50. Caroline says:

    This is great. I do this with rice pasta (only b/c I avoid wheat) and chicken – my b/f and I just add various seasonings and veggies to appease our appetites that day…sometimes buffalo chicken, Italian chicken, some sort of Asian chicken etc. Your ideas are cheaper though. Nice work.

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