Food Preparation, Frugality and Time

I love preparing food for myself and for my family. I cook most of the meals in our house simply because I enjoy the task, and I really like figuring out ways to make meals and food items that are simultaneously healthy, inexpensive, tasty and efficient to make.

That’s actually trickier to balance than you might think. Almost always, efficiency is counterbalanced with inexpensive — if a meal is more convenient, it’s usually also more expensive. There’s also a tension between healthiness and tastiness and, to a smaller extent, all of the others have tensions between them as well. If you really try to emphasize one or two factors, you’re often making compromises on the other.

It turns out that those priorities aren’t always constant. At times, I prioritize healthiness — I’ll make a really healthy stir fry dinner one night, for example. Another night, I’ll make a thick homemade pizza that really leans into being tasty. I aim to prepare things from a more “healthy” perspective than “tasty” most of the time (while still trying to be tasty with nice seasonings), but I definitely do make some meals that are all about the flavor.

Perhaps more of interest, however, is the balancing act between time and money. If I’ve learned anything about home food preparation, it’s this: the more time you put into a meal, the less expensive it will be and the tastier it will be. This is almost always true, but it’s incredibly hard to balance perfectly in the context of a busy family life.

Hummus is a perfect example of this balancing act.

Most of my family really like hummus. We like dipping crackers and vegetables in it and I particularly like spreading it on a piece of toast.

Because we eat hummus so often, it’s something that’s frequently a part of our grocery shopping routine. This leaves us with several options.

One option is to buy a container of hummus at the store for about $3. That’s about as time-efficient as can be — I just grab the container out of the cooler at the store, bring it home and open it when we’re hungry. Hummus!

Another option is to make my own hummus using canned beans. I’ll buy a can of chickpeas at the store. I dump the contents of the can of chickpeas in the blender, add a few other ingredients depending on what I have (two tablespoons of tahini, one tablespoon of olive oil or plain yogurt depending on what I have, half a teaspoon of cumin, and maybe a quarter teaspoon of garlic powder, and sometimes a bit of other ingredients, too, like some red pepper flakes). I hit the “blend” button, wait for a bit, then scoop the contents of the blender jar into a resealable container. The blender jar and lid goes into the dishwasher, the can goes into recycling, and we have hummus! This takes perhaps three to five minutes, makes for really good hummus, and costs about $1, saving me $2 over the store-bought hummus. I think it tastes better than the store hummus, too, though the store hummus is pretty tasty.

Now, I can get that cost even lower and make hummus that (I think) is even a little tastier, but then I add even more to the work. I can buy dried chickpeas at the store, boil them, and use two cups of cooked chickpeas with just a very tiny bit of the water as the base for the hummus. This, in my opinion, makes the best hummus I can make at home, even better than the canned chickpeas, and the cost is even lower. The cost of this hummus recipe, by my math, is about $0.65 for an equivalent amount to the $1 hummus using the other recipe and the $3 store-bought hummus.

If I’m trying to make literally the best hummus I possibly could, I’d boil the chickpeas in vegetable stock, which does raise the price somewhat depending on if I’m using vegetable stock I made at home or store stock, but if it’s homemade vegetable stock, I’m adding even more to the time.

The problem, of course, is time. I have to boil the dried chickpeas, which takes quite a while. As I noted, if I go even further and use the vegetable stock and I made the stock myself, I’m also looking at the time invested in making the vegetable stock. Neither process is particularly hard, of course.

Boiling the chickpeas isn’t hard — you soak them overnight, change out the water and cook them in the slow cooker for 8 hours on low or 4 hours on high.

Making the vegetable stock isn’t hard, either — just take a ton of vegetable scraps, put them in a slow cooker with some peppercorns, cover the vegetables with water, and boil for a long time, then strain off the vegetable scraps and save the liquid, which can easily be frozen.

The issue is time. If I go to all of that effort, I can make some incredibly good hummus and saved about $2.35 over the store-bought hummus, but I’ve probably invested 20 minutes of effort and a lot of waiting over the course of days. If I go the medium route, with a can of chickpeas, I’m investing probably 5 minutes of effort and $1 to make really good hummus, better than the store but not as good as the stuff made from my own boiled chickpeas.

What’s the right call?

Before I answer that, let’s look at another example.

Homemade pasta offers a similar array of choices.

One of my family’s favorite meals is lasagna. The layering of flat noodles, cheeses, pasta sauce, and vegetables and/or meat, placed into a nice pan and baked in the oven.

Again, with this, there are a ton of options based on time, money, and quality.

I can buy a pre-made lasagna at the store — a take-and-bake that costs $10 or so. It’s all right, but not particularly great.

I can make it myself using oven-ready noodles, and I can assemble a pretty good pan for about $7 or so in ingredients by my math. This takes more work, perhaps 15 minutes of assembly and 5 minutes of cleanup, but it’s tastier.

If I boil the ordinary store-bought lasagna noodles (not oven-ready ones, but normal ones), I can make a pan for just a bit cheaper and I think it tastes better, but I’m adding the time it takes to boil noodles.

If I make the lasagna noodles from scratch, though… that’s a different story. The best lasagna I’ve ever made in my life involved me making from-scratch noodles, from-scratch sauce and freshly grated cheeses. The cost for a pan of it was actually really low, somewhere in the $4 range, the taste was amazing and the relative healthiness was pretty good too, but the time investment was tremendous.

I have a pasta machine, but even with that, the time to make a batch of fresh pasta approaches an hour. The noodles are sublime and less expensive than the store noodles (it’s just a couple cups of flour and an egg, basically), but the time investment is real.

How does a busy frugal family solve this problem?

For us, this challenge is solved by applying a few key principles to every meal.

First of all, I recognize that sometimes convenience is simply paramount, and I do my best to work around it. I try to plan out the meals for the week in advance and do my best to know which evenings are going to have very little meal prep time. For us, for example, Tuesdays and Thursdays are typically pretty challenging, and I usually know that in advance.

Since I know that Thursday is going to have a very small window for getting a meal on the table, I’ll plan around that in advance. I’ll pencil in a “dump” slow cooker meal, where I just put in all of the ingredients in the morning, turn the slow cooker on low, and let it sit all day. I’ll set the table in the morning. Basically, I will do every single thing I can to minimize the time I actually need to prepare the meal during the evening crunch time, which brings us to the next tactic.

I try to always move as much food preparation as possible to less busy times. Let’s look at that hummus example. If I know I’m going to want some hummus later in the week, I can always boil the beans on Monday and stick them in the fridge, putting the slow cooker in the dishwasher. I can make the hummus on Tuesday and put it in a container and stick that in the fridge.

During the week, you’ll often see the slow cooker or the rice cooker active or a pot simmering on the stove with things in it that have nothing to do with the meals for that day. Rather, I do those tasks because they’re convenient at that moment. Cooking beans on Tuesday because I have time means that I have better, cheaper beans for Thursday’s meal, and because I’m choosing to do it when I have ample time to do it, it’s not stressful.

I have made homemade pasta sauce on a Monday, made homemade noodles and done lasagna assembly on Tuesday evening, and actually had the lasagna for supper on Wednesday. Basically, on Wednesday, I pulled the lasagna out of the fridge at lunchtime, tossed it in the oven, went to soccer practice and came home to amazing lasagna.

I have some meals I know by heart that are really easy and fairly healthy, and we use those as fallbacks. I can make one-pot spaghetti in literally 14 minutes. I put a pot on the stove, add four cups of water and a jar of sauce, bring it to a boil while I find a box of spaghetti and a few other things to throw in there (black olives, mushrooms, and so on), toss in the spaghetti, and cook it down while stirring until the liquid is gone and it’s just a sauce on the cooked noodles. I can usually toss a salad while the pasta is cooking and there’s a simple, inexpensive, reasonably healthy supper. It takes exactly 14 minutes and I always have stuff on hand for it. To keep costs low, I’ll buy those ingredients in bulk when I get a chance to do so.

If time is really going to be tight, I can actually just cook the spaghetti in the morning, leave it in a covered pan in the fridge, then just heat it on the stovetop in the evening, pouring sauce on it and tossing it as it heats, taking five minutes or so.

Other similarly fast suppers I can assemble automatically include soup and sandwiches (I have some fast soup starter kits that turn into soup in 15 minutes), grilled hamburgers (I keep a bunch of pre-made patties in the freezer and they can go straight on the grill or onto a griddle), flash frozen vegetables that can easily be microwaved as a side, and so on. I keep ingredients for most of those on hand all the time, just so I know I can always tap them if needed.

Another key factor is that our family often has “leftovers” for dinner. We’ll take leftover portions of meals from the last two or three nights, set them out on the table, and let people make plates of what they like and heat them up. This works really well for nights when we don’t have a whole lot of time, and it works well if the meals are home-cooked because those tend to re-heat well.

Finally, I don’t begrudge occasional meals or food items done purely for convenience, as long as that doesn’t devolve into a pattern. Sometimes evenings go haywire. Someone’s practice runs late or something else happens and the meal prep time that I thought I had vanishes. It happens.

In those situations, we have a few convenience meals in the freezer (sometimes, they’re things I made earlier, like pre-made burritos, but those run out sometimes) or I’ll get takeout. It’s my last option because, frankly, it’s expensive.

I know my family likes hummus, and if they’re clamoring for some and I don’t think I’ll have the time to make a batch, I’ll spend the extra $2 and buy some hummus. Much of the time, though, I’ll just buy a can of chickpeas instead and make some in the blender — it tastes better.

For me, the true key here is to avoid turning convenience meals and takeout into normal routines. Why do I avoid that as a routine? It’s because convenience meals almost always sacrifice cost, flavor, and health for convenience. They tend to be expensive, don’t taste all that good (particularly when you’re used to making your own foods), and usually aren’t particularly healthy, either.

It’s not as much work as it seems.

The real magic of balancing food preparation, frugality and time is planning ahead. That’s really the only trick at work here. I make a meal plan for the week and consider how busy that day is going to be and how much of the meal I can make in advance to minimize my actual prep time at that moment.

So, how exactly do I do this meal planning?

The process is pretty simple. We have a giant whiteboard that we hang in our entryway that includes the weekly schedule for everyone in the family. From that, I come up with an estimate of what my time window is for putting together dinner that night. Most nights, I have an hour or so; some nights, only 30 minutes; others, 15 or less.

I then take a peek at the grocery store flyer and see what items are on sale that week. What can I make with those ingredients if I have an hour or two? What if I have less time? What if I can offload some of the prep to other evenings? Is there a night when “leftovers” makes sense?

From there, it’s pretty easy to slot in meals. Here’s what my thought process might look like. Turnips and potatoes are both on sale, maybe I can make that slow cooker root vegetable soup again on Monday. Everyone liked that. They have a sale on canned chickpeas, so I’ll make some hummus and cut up some vegetables as a side for dinner on Tuesday — I have time for that. Lasagna fits in on Wednesday, but I don’t have a ton of time — oven-ready noodles and sliced mozzarella are probably good choices here, but I can make a sauce on Tuesday evening, so I’ll get some stuff for that. Thursday… ugh. No time. Looks like leftovers. That lasagna will reheat well and I’ll make plenty of hummus because I know my daughter will eat a ton of it every time it’s available. Friday, we won’t be home until 8 p.m. We can get takeout that night. Make sure there are leftovers for lunches on the lasagna and the soup we’re having on Monday and get a few simple breakfast items and we’re good to go.

I make up a grocery list from that meal plan, go to the store with that list, and then just follow the meal plan throughout the week. That’s pretty much it.

Another strategy I often use is making very large batches of some meals. If I’m making slow cooker root vegetable soup, I know it will reheat well if I put some aside just barely undercooked, so I’ll fill up a container and put it aside to freeze. That way, in a few weeks, one of my meals for the week can just be to pull out that container of soup. I do the same thing for lots of meals. If I’m making lasagna, I’ll often make two, three or even four pans of it and freeze the extras so that I can just pull them out in a few weeks, let them thaw in the fridge, and heat them up for supper.

The real secret to being able to pull this off within the constraints of a busy life is moving tasks from when I’m really busy to when I’m less busy and keep convenience foods for emergencies. If I do things like cook rice on Monday for Wednesday’s meal, make two batches of lasagna at once and freeze one, use the slow cooker, and have leftovers sometimes and convenience meals when everything else fails, I can actually make a lot of pretty high-quality homemade foods.

A final note: it helps that I enjoy doing this. If I didn’t enjoy cooking, I would rely more on the quick meals that I can make almost automatically. I think that, if you don’t enjoy cooking at all, that is a far more frugal approach to meal preparation than getting takeout or delivery all the time.

Sometimes you’ll find the $3 hummus in my cart. At other times, you’ll see a can of chickpeas. Sometimes you’ll see dry ones. It’s all about working around the realities of life and sticking with the core truth that eating at home is incredibly cheaper than having people make the food for you.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.