Updated on 10.01.09

Modular Meals

Trent Hamm

Now that my wife has returned to full time work, we’ve been focusing a lot on careful meal planning for the coming week. We’ll sit down on Sunday mornings, plot out what we’ll eat over the coming week, and prepare a grocery list.

One very helpful technique for a busy family like ours is making “modular” meals – ones with elements that can be easily reused in meals later in the week. Quite often, the meal preparation on Monday evening is helping to prepare some element of a meal that we’ll have on Wednesday or Thursday evening, for example. Even better, those “modular” meals can sometimes provide source materials for a quick hot breakfast or an easy lunch that goes far beyond leftovers.

Using and reusing meal components in this fashion is an incredible money and time saver. Here are some examples to get you started.

Roasted Chicken
When you get home one evening, put a whole chicken in the oven to roast. It’s easy – a whole chicken at the store is pretty inexpensive. Just rub the skin down with salt and pepper, put a few things in the chest cavity for flavor (like garlic cloves, quartered onions, celery, and the like), and put it in the oven at 350 F for about 75 minutes or so. I like to pull it out about halfway through and use a baster to get the juice out of the pan and squirt it all over the chicken itself.

In the end, you’ll have a golden-colored chicken with crinkly, tasty skin and deliciously moist chicken meat, somewhere between two and three pounds of it. Enjoy the chicken as the main entree for the meal, but then save the bones and the leftover meat.

The bones? Just put them in a crockpot with a few vegetables before you go to bed. Put in some onions, carrots, celery, and things along those lines – I also like to put in whole peppercorn. Then turn the crockpot on low and go to bed. When you get up in the morning, strain off the bones and large vegetable pieces and save the liquid in the fridge. That liquid, my friend, is an incredibly delicious chicken stock. It can be the basis of a great chicken soup a few days later, white chili, and countless other dishes. Stock is also easily frozen and saved for later. Be aware, though, that at cold temperatures, stock sometimes becomes gelatin-like – that’s completely normal.

The leftover meat can be used in countless ways. Save it for chicken chili, chicken soup, chicken stew (all three of which can also utilize the stock), chicken pizza, or a pasta with a chicken-oriented sauce. You can even dice the chicken and cook them with eggs for an interesting omelet.

Chili can easily be assembled in the morning, with ingredients tossed in a crock pot and left to cook all day long, resulting in a very quick and simple (and tasty) home-cooked meal in the evening.

Chili is a spectacular leftover dish, as it often has a completely different flavor when reheated as the ingredients tend to meld together more, meaning that a large pot of chili can directly be the source of a second meal.

Beyond that, thickened chili (with a bit of added corn starch) can also serve as a burger topping or as an ingredient in a breakfast omelet or alongside eggs. It’s a utilitarian food that can be used many different ways.

Do-it-yourself tacos are a regular early-in-the-week meal here because the individual elements can be used in many other ways.

We generally only lightly spice the primary protein content of the taco – the meat or the beans – so that it can be reused in many ways, from soups to casseroles.

The remaining lettuce can form the foundation of a light starter salad for a later meal.

The remaining cheese can be used in any number of dishes, from casseroles to sandwiches.

The remaining tomatoes always find a home in soups, stews, or sauces. They can also find a home with a roast that’s left to slow cook all day long.

Speaking of roasts left to cook all day long, we’ll often put a roast in the crock pot with some beef stock and some pepper and allow it to slowly cook all day until it’s nearly falling apart at dinner time. With some simply-prepared vegetables on the side (or even directly in the pot), it can be an incredibly delicious and savory meal.

The best part? The roast leftovers can be used in a wide variety of ways. A well cooked roast pulls apart easily to make hot beef sandwiches. The remaining roast can be chunked to make a beef stew or beef noodle soup.

The leftover broth is also a functional beef stock, which you can save to use as the basis for things like French onion soup and other hearty soups. It can be frozen easily until you need it.

“How can hamburgers possibly be modular?” it’s actually incredibly simple. Make extra hamburgers and grill them all at once, then take the extra hamburgers and tear them into tiny chunks.

The cooked hamburger meat is then perfect for making a chili (yes, we might have hamburgers on Monday, chili on Wednesday, and chili and eggs for breakfast on Saturday) or inserted into a pasta sauce or a casserole of some fashion.

In Conclusion…
… the general idea is simple. If you prepare plenty of a staple, modular meal early in the week – which usually contains low-cost ingredients to begin with – you’ve already done much of the preparation for completely different meals later in the week. Your main course on Monday might turn into a stew on Wednesday or a pasta dish on Thursday. Your main course on Thursday might be part of a Saturday potluck dinner or a Sunday brunch.

And since the staple ingredients you start with are so inexpensive (I’m still convinced that a whole chicken is one of the best bargains out there), it ends up making several of your meals inexpensive, drastically cutting down your costs.

Chaining meals together in this fashion cuts down on your prep work (making it possible to prepare more meals at home much quicker) while also reducing your overall cost (by increasing your use of low-cost central utilitarian ingredients). Sounds like a big win in the kitchen to me!

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  1. jc says:

    Real chicken stock is glorious! Do this often enough and you’ll never go back to the boxed/canned stuff. Some other things it can be used for: steaming rice, and as the base for a variety of sauces limited only by your imagination. For those of you looking to cut down on meat, whether for health or frugality, the gelatin in stock is “protein sparing,” letting your body do more with less.

    Trent, I love how your weekly plans both produce and then later use both beef & chicken stock and leftovers. Just keep an eye on food safe temperatures — getting these dishes hot enough to kill stuff and cooled quickly enough to keep ’em from coming back. Food poisoning is not frugal!

  2. Michele says:

    When I roast a chicken, I follow the same basic recipe as you, but I also toss on some veggies: carrots, potato chunks, onion slices, and yams. They all roast together in the chicken juices and turn out great. And there’s usually enough for leftovers of that too.

  3. Seattle Rez says:

    Another idea regarding chicken stock – save all the “odds and ends” of veggies you use during the week and toss them in the freezer in a bag.

    Examples of this could be celery tops, carrot ends, zucchini ends, stems of chard or kale etc. Use these when you’re making your stock and save the “good veggies” for meals.

    Don’t use the papery parts of onions, though – these are bitter and will ruin your stock.

  4. NMPatricia says:

    Would love to know/have the recipe for “white chili”. Don’t know what that is. Thanks.

  5. Karen M. says:

    This is how we cook. I never go to the grocery without a list and a menu. All the lists and menus are in the same notebook so I can see what I’ve made for the last few weeks. That way we don’t get too bored with our food. We almost never have the same thing twice in a month, with the exception being Friday night is pizza night (although we vary the toppings).

    My first thought here is that this is very meat-centric. I generally only cook meat once a week, with planned leftovers (meaning we eat it twice a week.) You mentioned beans in the the taco portion, but never really said what you did with them after that. Dried beans are a core of my menu plan because one has to “plan” to use them. (Not so if you use canned, which I have for emergencies.) After one batch is soaked and cooked, I can use it with eggs, in soups, on salads, with rice, in a casserole, just as easily as a roast chicken or extra hamburgers.

    Leftover vegetables can be used in many ways, too. A quick saute and a drizzle of sesame oil makes a great stir fry. Reheat them in the homemade stock and you have a good soup. Top off some lettuce with last night’s veggies, drizzle with a vinaigrette, add some of those beans I was talking about, and you have a hearty salad. One can plan leftovers for much more than just meat.

  6. Sheila says:

    Regarding beans (since I don’t eat meat), I also use dry beans, soaking them during the day, cooking them in the crockpot overnight, then freezing them in two cup containers (about the size of a can of beans, which most recipes call for). I try to keep a variety of beans in the freezer, using garbanzos for homemade hummus, pintos for refried beans, kidney beans for minestrone, and a lot of black beans for various dishes. They take just a few minutes to thaw and if you make soup in the crockpot during the day, you don’t need to thaw them at all.

  7. butterandjelly213 says:

    Trent, I am loving the food-related posts on Fridays. Please keep them coming!

    I have done several of the things you’ve described here (particularly the ones related to the roast chicken) but am reenergized to start up again. I only wish I had more freezer space (and maybe someone to cook for – I often find myself drowning in leftovers when I try to follow these sorts of tips!).

  8. Kevin M says:

    Great ideas Trent.

    @NMPatricia – white chili is basically chicken chili, at least it is around here. We use white beans, chicken stock rather than tomato sauce and chicken instead of beef.

  9. Stephan F- says:

    With the cooler weather we’ve restarted pot roast night and we then do tacos/enchiladas and BBQ sandwiches. Salt, pepper, and fresh ground cumin; sear on both sides, add chicken stock (homemade of course) and vegetables. bake for 3.5hrs @ 200F. Blend some of the veggies and liquid and strain into a wonderful gravy

    Something else is to fry up a big batch of crumbled Italian sausage, and put it over pasta or in lasagna, freeze the rest and add it to anything that needs a little spicy help like tacos.

    “White chili” is just chicken chili.

  10. Craig says:

    I’m a big chicken fan. Eat it probably 2-3 times per week with different spices or throw it on a salad to switch it up. I don’t like making long meals that have big cleanups so chicken is perfect.

  11. Ari says:

    I love your food posts, Trent. I would like it if you could include more meatless options, as well.

  12. Tyler says:

    I think modular might be the wrong word to describe what you’re doing, but I definitely appreciate the post. I have always had a hard time preparing my own meals on a consistent basis and eat take out a lot because I’ve never valued spending time in the kitchen.

    I doubt that will change, but if I could find ways to cook only once or twice a week and string the leftovers into new, easy and interesting meals, that could be a real win for me.

  13. George@Moneylounge says:

    One thing I like to do is to stick a chicken in the crock pot for the day, when you get home it should be falling apart. You then shred it up(pretty much does this itself when you pick it up), and you’re ready for chicken salad, chicken tacos, etc.

    My favorite way to use it is to throw that in a skillet with some veggies, pepper, pasta, sesame oil, and a little bit of soy sauce. It’s delicious.

  14. Gwen says:

    This article is very very helpful. I am going to go to the store and get a chicken today and try out making my own stock!

  15. Amy K. says:

    For the chicken roasting newbies: whole chickens generally come with a baggie of giblets inside.

    Take that out before you roast the chicken.

    When you make the stock, you can take the heart, neck, and I think everything other than the liver and put it into the stock. I’m not sure what to do with the liver but I’ve heard it make the stock bitter so it usually goes in my garbage disposal. I think my grandmother usually chopped it up and put it in the stuffing (box of Stovetop, fwiw).

  16. Bavaria says:

    I’m with Sheila on the bean prep. Cook a bunch and freeze portions. If you don’t feel like soaking the beans, put 1 part dry beans and 3 parts water in the crockpot on low overnight, or during the day when you’re working. They cook up just fine.
    When I’m cooking things like lasagna, spaghetti sauce, chili, etc., I make a double batch and freeze one half for another meal later. Since I’ve already got the ingredients out, I might as well get ‘double productivity’ from the project.
    Chicken and pork roast are my reasonably priced protein meals and leftovers from these are great in sandwiches, burritos, wraps, salads, and fritatas.

  17. All good meals with the possibly of enough leftovers for another few meals!

  18. Jessica says:

    Regarding crockpot beans:

    You can do every bean in the slow cooker except red kidney beans, sometimes just called red beans. They have a toxic compound which is killed only by a continuous boil above the boiling point. All other beans are fine.

    Love the ideas in the article!

  19. Wasn’t it Seinfeld that said “you don’t take the egg from the chicken and then put the chicken into the eggs!” regarding chicken in an omlet? :>)

    Count me among those who enjoy the food posts and I’m looking forward to the launch of your food blog!

  20. Rosa says:

    That’s a LOT of meat on the menu, there.

    We do a lot of pressure cooker cooking, so when I’m being efficient I chop tomorrow’s veggies & soak tomorrow’s beans while I’m watching the pressure cooker for tonight – usually 30 minutes, tops, including cooling time.

    I tried for years to find vegetarian crockpot recipes that didnt’ suck or weren’t more work than just cooking them without the crockpot, and only collected 2 or 3. The pressure cooker is *way* better for the way we cook (not vegetarian, but meat once or twice a week).

  21. kev says:

    Another thing we do is plan for largish casseroles or similar things on Sunday and Monday. When we serve dinner, we serve the rest directly into lunch containers. Voila, lunches are packed for the rest of the week.

    I’m sure this will change once we have school-age kids.

  22. KAD says:

    Does anyone know a tasty home version of store-bought taco seasoning? I failed at this last week when I had already started cooking the ground beef for tacos salad and discovered that, whoops, I had forgotten to buy the little envelope. I tried to make one up on the fly, but the proportions seemed way out of whack.

  23. valletta says:

    We cook more Mediterranean style (ever been to Europe and see those itty-bitty fridges?!:)
    I keep a well stocked pantry and then buy seasonal produce at farmer’s market and grocery store and meat/fish/poultry frequently, usually on sale. (I hate frozen things, even when I do the freezing! I’ve tried, just don’t like it.)
    I also do “mise en place”, basically prep things like onions, carrots, celery, garlic, etc….so I can make quick dishes on the fly, which works for us.
    My family is from Spain and my husband’s family is from Italy so this is easier for me, YMMV.
    I also makes lots of tapas, sometimes a complete dinner with a salad.
    Basic cooking skills are the most effective way to be a frugal cook, IMO :)

  24. Marsha says:

    Good tips overall, but I would never attempt to make a dinner after work that required 75 minutes of cooking! (here, the roast chicken) I would, however, “roast” the chicken in a crock pot – or roast a chicken conventionally on the weekend to use during the week.

  25. Patty says:

    Great meal tips – for roasting a chicken – you may wish to stuff the cavity as I do with olive oil, S&P(in and out) and sliced oranges. It’s a nice citrus flavor.

    What I found for a smaller household, buy in bulk, cook a meal for say six, have your portion and pack the balance in appropriate portions and freeze. All you need to to is pull it out, defrost for 2 minutes and heat for a 1 minute and you have a well preapred healty meal you know you will just love. When I do this, I make the veggies fresh and do not include in the frozen portion. It also works when I want a “hot lunch”.

    bon appetit

  26. Eli says:

    I’m a big fan of the roasted chicken / chicken stock combo as well.

    As a firefighter I’d really stress that you should only cook up your chicken stock during a time when you’ll be both awake and around though. A large marjority of house fires originate in the kitchen and the risk of leaving a burner on while you sleep is just too high.

    The freezing idea somebody posted is a great way to keep the chicken good until the weekend.

    Other than that great post, I’m trying to be better about getting a weekly meal plan together as well.

  27. Kelly says:

    I love to making chicken stock.

    I prefer to have it go a full day on low in my crockpot, and use a dash of apple cider vinegar b/c it helps draw the nutrients from the bones.

    I took my chicken stock and turned it into butternut squash/apple soup this week. Yum.

  28. Lenore says:

    Now THAT’S my kind of cooking: inexpensive, not too labor-intensive and full of variety and flavor. I mentioned some time ago that you ought to write a cookbook that covers ALL the bases: affordable, easy, healthy and delicious. I’ll even let you call it, “Trent’s Cheap Eats that Taste Great, Keep Off the Weight and are Easy to Make” for free. A snappier title will cost a buck or two. LOL

  29. dsz says:

    @#3 Seattle Rez I’ve never had a stock turn bitter because of using onion skins, nor have I seen any reference to that point. Every source I’ve ever seen both in print and online suggest including the skins unless you want a lighter colored stock as they add a deeper color. I always save the skins and trimmings in a freezer bag for use in chicken and beef stock.
    I add a cut up apple to the cavity of a chicken and use it in the stock pot as well. It adds a dimension of sweetness both to the bird and the stock.
    The only veg family I don’t include are the cruciferous (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage…) as they can add an unwanted flavor to plain chicken stock. I save the tough broccoli stems and use them separately to make stock for cream of broccoli soup. I do make soup with cabbage and it’s very good but it’s not a flavor I want in an all-purpose stock.
    A last few tips-If you haven’t the time to make the stock right away freeze the carcass and all the fat/drippings and make a huge batch of several birds at once. Let cool a bit and strain though a colander to remove the larger bits. Overnight in the fridge will allow for quick removal of fat and the solids will have settled. The stock at the top is fairly clear and makes for an attractive soup, the stuff at the bottom is better for a chili or stew. At this point it’s gelatinous so it’s even easier to separate into clear and cloudy. I take a portion of the ‘top stock’ and reduce it by half and freeze in ice cube trays and half- and one-cup plastic containers. Pop out when frozen and store in a giant freezer bag. Now you’ve got usable amounts of good stock for making sauces and gravies. Really handy for a quick saute of chicken breasts-add some onion and garlic, a splash of wine and herbs along with a few stock cubes and you’ve got a nice sauce to dress up plain chicken.
    This is a great way to use the turkey carcass when you just can’t bear the thought of that much turkey soup.
    Apologies to the firefighter (thank you and bless you for what you do, btw) but I do sometimes roast my stock (or beef roasts) in the oven overnight at 200F once it’s reached a boil on the rangetop. I use an oven-safe lidded pot, plenty of liquid but not too much to spill over. We’ve plenty of smoke alarms, no children and I spend the night on the sofa in the next room (TMI- sorry) just to be on the safe side. It keeps me from having to fire up the furnace on fall/early winter nights and results in lovely stocks and fall-apart roasts. But, the firefighter is right- don’t leave any flame unattended, especially on top of the stove.

  30. Barbara says:

    Its probably already been mentioned, but please keep in mind that most cooked meats are only safe to eat for 3 or 4 days, even when refrigerated. And they MUST be reheated thoroughly as a leftover to be sure they are safe.

    The modular cooking idea is great, just remember to stay safe about it.

  31. Georgia says:

    With everyone talking about chicken stock, I will tell you how to get the riches stock you can from a chicken. It might be hard to do, but my mother used this 60 years ago and we loved it for noodles, soups, etc.

    If you can find a good buthcher shop, ask if you can have the chicken feet. Yes, those scrawny, ugly feet. You clean, peel off the dried outer skin, and boil what’s left. It doesn’t seem like there would be anything to come out of them. But – there comes the richest broth. Try it.

  32. Kolleen says:

    I would like some information about a sturdy crockpot. I have had at least a dozen in the past 20 years. How long should they last? Whats the best brand and how much should I spend? I chucked my last one when it burned everything even on low. (after only 6 months of use) I did keep the large crock that came with it abd now use it in the oven genererly for beans, but not much else.

  33. Megan says:

    Lots of good advice here. One thing I do that I didn’t see mentioned here is cook up a double or triple (or even quadruple!) portion of ground turkey w/ sliced, diced, and minced mushrooms, bell pepper, onion, and garlic. I then separate all the extra into a large container with a lid and put it in the fridge. The remaining becomes spaghetti sauce, served with noodles. The next night I make “chow-chow”, out of another portion of the mixture stirfried with cabbage, rice on the side. The night after that I make sloppy joes (organic ketchup, touch of mustard, pepper) on whole wheat toast with broccoli and cheese on the side. The final evening we use the last bit of the mixture to make chili (add appropriate seasonings, canned petite diced tomatoes, black beans, corn). I don’t do this every week, but when I do, it sure is nice. I think I could use a similar approach with chicken or another kind of meat–haven’t tried it, but I’m getting some ideas as I type.

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