One of our favorite frugal routines around here is the “make ahead meal.” It often fills our Saturday afternoons.
A make ahead meal is a simple concept, really – you just prepare most of a meal in advance, freeze it just prior to the point where you would put it in the oven, and then pull it out at a later point to thaw it and then finish cooking it.
There are a number of big advantages to doing things this way.
One, it reduces the meal prep time on busy evenings. A make ahead meal usually means that when you get home, you preheat the oven, pull something out of the refrigerator, put it straight into the oven, and wait for 45 minutes or so for a homecooked meal.
Two, it reduces the advance prep time as well by synergizing multiple meal preparation. If you prepare four casseroles at once, it takes less time than it does to prepare them one at a time as you can just do more tasks simultaneously, such as cooking noodles or steaming vegetables or even chopping and peeling vegetables.
Three, it allows you to buy in bulk. If you’re making, say, four meals at once, you can buy large bulk sizes of many of the ingredients of that meal. This saves you money overall because the cost per meal is lower.
Four, it’s far cheaper than takeout or eating out. Making meals at home is cheaper than eating out in almost every instance. It’s far cheaper than eating out at a good place.
Finally, it gives you a lot more freedom and control over the meals you eat. I fully understand what it’s like to be part of a really busy family that’s limited on what they can prepare in an evening. Having an array of home-cooked meals in the freezer that I can pull out, whether for breakfast or lunch or dinner, makes it a lot easier. I know what’s in these meals – I prepared them myself and I’m not relying on the medley of mystery ingredients that one might find in a store-bought meal.
Here are some of our family’s favorite make-ahead recipes.
Soups make for an amazing make-ahead meal. All you have to do is store some soup in a gallon Ziploc freezer bag, thaw it in the refrigerator, and then heat it up in about fifteen minutes on the stovetop or five minutes in the microwave. Here’s one of our favorite non-vegetarian soups.
4 cups dry white wine (we just buy the cheapest dry white wine at the store)
2 cups water
5 dozen clams
3 pounds potatoes, cut into small cubes
16 slices of bacon, cut into small squares
2 large onions, minced
10 large celery ribs, minced
3 bay leaves
3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 quarts whole milk
3 cups heavy cream
1. Combine the wine and water in a large pot. If the clams are still shelled, add them to the pot and raise to a boil for several minutes until the clams begin to open. Take out the clams, open them up, and remove the clam meat from each one. Strain the liquid and save that liquid for later. Chop the clam meat into small pieces. Meanwhile, boil the potatoes in plain water for about eight minutes, then drain and set the potatoes aside.
2. In the now-empty large pot, add the bacon to the pot and cook it over medium-high heat about seven minutes. Then, add the onions, celery, and bay leaves and cook for another seven minutes. Add the flour, stir like crazy, then slowly add the milk (while stirring) and then slowly add the cream (while stirring). Add the wine-water-clam juice to the mix very slowly, making sure not to add any of the sand and clamshell grit that’s at the bottom of that liquid. Cook for about fifteen minutes, then add the potatoes and clams and remove the bay leaves.
3. At this point, the soup is finished. Store it in gallon Ziploc freezer bags in the freezer. You’ll have several bags, depending on how full they are.
4. To finish cooking, pull a bag of soup out of the freezer and place it in the refrigerator for 24 hours, then heat it over medium heat on the stove top when you’re ready to eat it.
These are a very easy way to make a hot breakfast full of good stuff for the kids – and for myself.
4 cups potatoes, shredded in a box grater
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced green pepper
16 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup salsa or picante sauce
32 flour tortillas
wax paper, aluminum foil, and tape
1. Preheat a large skillet or small pot over medium-high heat with a few drops of vegetable oil, then add potatoes, onion, and green pepper. Cook these items for eight minutes, tossing regularly.
2. Add eggs and continue to stir them regularly until the eggs are just barely firm. You want them slightly on the “less done” side rather than overcooked.
3. Remove mixture from heat. Add a couple heaping tablespoons of the mix to the center of a tortilla. Add a pinch of shredded cheese and salsa to each one, then wrap it like a burrito. Cover it with wax paper, tape the paper closed, then cover that with aluminum foil. Store in the freezer.
4. To finish cooking, remove a burrito from the freezer. Take off the aluminum foil and wax paper and put the burrito on a microwave safe plate. Microwave for one minute on high, turn the burrito over, then microwave for another minute (for a high-energy microwave) or two (for a low-energy microwave).
5. Optional If you want a sausage burrito, fry a pound of sausage first and mix it into the egg mixture while cooking. If you want a bacon burrito, fry a pound of bacon until crispy, crumble it, and add it into the egg mixture near the end of cooking.
Three Bean Chili
This soup is flat-out better after freezing and re-heating. The ingredients and flavors undergo a subtle transformation that just makes it amazing.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 large orange bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 large green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
10 cloves garlic, minced
2 bottles pale beer (or 3 cups vegetable stock)
2 large cans crushed tomatoes, not drained
1 pound dry black beans (or 2 14 ounce cans cooked black beans)
1 pound dry kidney beans (or 2 14 ounce cans cooked kidney beans)
1 pound dry garbanzo beans (or 2 14 ounce cans cooked garbanzo beans)
2 tablespoon ground cumin
6 tablespoons chili powder
salt and hot pepper sauce to taste
0. If you’re using dry beans, let them soak overnight. The next morning, pour off the water, add new water, then bring the water to a boil. When it’s boiling, remove it from heat and let it sit for an hour or two in the naturally cooling water.
1. Put the vegetable oil in a large skillet or small pot over medium-high heat and coat the surface with it. Add the onions, bell peppers, and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent, then remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside. Put half of the liquid into the hot skillet and then remove from heat.
2. Put all beans, all liquid, the tomatoes, the cooked beans, and the chili powder and cumin in a large pot over medium-high heat. Stir regularly until simmering, then lower heat until it’s just barely simmering. Let it simmer for 20-30 minutes. Add salt and hot pepper to taste at this point, stirring it in.
3. At this point, the chili is finished. Store it in gallon Ziploc freezer bags in the freezer. You’ll have several bags, depending on how full they are.
4. To finish cooking, pull a bag of chili out of the freezer and place it in the refrigerator for 24 hours, then heat it over medium heat on the stove top when you’re ready to eat it.
If you like a meaty lasagna, this one’s for you.
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
2 1/2 pounds ground sausage (hot Italian works well)
2 15 ounce jars pizza sauce (or make your own)
2 15 ounce jars marinara sauce (or make your own)
32 ounces ricotta cheese or cottage cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
24 no-cook lasagna noodles
8 cups shredded Mozzarella cheese
2 9″ by 13″ freezer-safe baking dishes with lids (we use Pyrex)
Note If you don’t have a lid for your baking dish, you can just thoroughly cover it with a layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of aluminum foil. It will keep well in the freezer for up to three months.
1. In a large skillet, cook the ground beef and sausage together until well-cooked, drain, then separate it into two equal amounts.
2. To each batch of meat, add a jar of pizza sauce and a jar of marinara sauce.
3. In another bowl, mix 16 ounces of ricotta or cottage cheese, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese, two eggs, and a dash or two of ground black pepper to taste.
4. In a greased 9″ by 13″ pan, you’re going to make several layers. Do them in this order: one cup of the meat sauce, four noodles, half of the cheese mixture, one cup of meat sauce, two cups of mozzarella, one cup of meat sauce, four noodles, the other half of the cheese mixture, another cup of meat sauce, and then two cups of mozzarella.
5. To make a second pan, repeat steps 1 through 4 with the remaining ingredients. Put a lid on both baking dishes and store them in the freezer.
6. To finish cooking remove from the freezer 24 hours before cooking and leave in the refrigerator. As soon as you get home, pull the lasagna from the refrigerator and set it on the countertop and preheat the oven to 375 F. Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes, then remove the cover and bake for 15 more minutes. Let stand for ten minutes on the table before serving so that the layers firm up – without that period, it will be very “runny.”
Shrimp and Rice Casserole
My children go absolutely ga-ga for shrimp, so this really makes them happy!
4 cups uncooked long-grain rice
1 cup butter
8 pounds medium-size raw shrimp, peeled and deveined (this is a great one to make if you can find shrimp on sale)
2 medium onions, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced and de-seeded
1 orange bell pepper, finely diced and de-seeded
1 green bell pepper, finely diced and de-seeded
12 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup flour
1 cup dry white wine or chicken broth
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated
1. Bring two cups of water to a boil, add the rice, cover, and let it simmer for twenty minutes until water is absorbed.
2. Melt butter over medium-high heat in a small pot, then add shrimp and vegetables. Stir regularly for five minutes until the shrimp begins to turn pink, then add remaining ingredients and stir everything together.
3. Put the mixture into 8″ by 8″ or 9″ by 13″ baking pans. Cover them with a lid or with a layer of plastic wrap and then aluminum foil.
4. To finish cooking, allow the casserole to thaw in the refrigerator for 24 hours prior to cooking. Heat the oven to 400 F, then bake for 30 minutes until the cheese is melted.
This is our family’s favorite kind of lasagna. We eat a mostly vegetarian diet these days, so this lasagna is a real home run. We rely on frozen vegetables a lot in this recipe.
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 minced garlic cloves
3 quarts whole milk
4 10 oz. packages frozen spinach, thawed and with the liquid squeezed out
2 10 oz. packages frozen peas
8 carrots, thinly sliced
4 cups ricotta or cottage cheese
2 large eggs
24 no-bake lasagna noodles
2 pounds shredded mozzarella cheese
2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
2 9″ by 13″ freezer-safe baking dishes with lids (we use Pyrex)
Note As above, if you don’t have a lid for your baking dish, you can just thoroughly cover it with a layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of aluminum foil. It will keep well in the freezer for up to three months.
1. In a small pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat; after a minute or so, ad the flour and garlic and stir vigorously for two minutes. Add the milk and whisk thoroughly until the garlic and flour are distributed. This will slightly thicken the milk.
2. Keep the heat going until it’s boiling, then lower the heat to a very low simmer. Keep whisking for five minutes until the milk gets significantly thicker, then add all of the vegetables and cook for a minute more, then set this all aside. This will be your “veggie mix.”
3. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta or cottage cheese, eggs, and a healthy dash of salt and pepper. This will be your “cheese mix.”
4. Simultaneously grease two 9″ by 13″ baking dishes. In each one, spread a thin layer of the “veggie mix,” then a layer of noodles, then another thin layer of the veggie mix, then another layer of noodles, then a quarter of the cheese mix (in each), then a quarter of the mozzarella (in each), then a quarter of the Parmesan (in each). Repeat all of the layers (in each). You’ll end up with two pans full of lasagna!
To finish cooking, remove the dish from the freezer 24 hours early and store in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, remove the plastic wrap, and cover the top with aluminum foil. Bake for an hour, then remove the plastic wrap and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes until the cheese has just begun to brown. When you pull it out of the oven, let it rest for ten minutes or so.
Vegetable Barley Soup
I’ve actually mentioned this recipe before on The Simple Dollar, but it works really well as a make-ahead soup!
2 onions, diced
1 head of celery (including leaves), chopped
3 tablespoons oil
6 quarts vegetable stock (water can be a substitute, but the soup will be thinner)
3 cups uncooked barley
2 bay leaves
4 medium potatoes, diced into 1/2″ cubes
3 carrots, cut into thin slices
2 large cans diced tomatoes
3 cups greens (kale, collard, spinach – whatever’s on sale), chopped
2 teaspoon dried basil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Before you do anything, note the cooking time on the barley that you have. That’s how long you’re going to want to cook the soup, except you’re going to want to subtract 25% of that cooking time – fifteen minutes from every hour. Note that time.
2. Add the oil to a skillet and coat it thoroughly, then put it over medium high heat and add the onions and celery. Cook until the celery is translucent, then set aside the vegetables. Put some of the stock into the hot skillet to remove some of that flavorful cooking residue.
3. In a large pot, add the vegetables, the stock (both the stock in the skillet and the remainder), and the barley. Raise it to a simmer, then cook it for an amount of time calculated in step one.
4. When you have 45 minutes left on your cook time, add the potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and greens.
5. When you’ve reached the stopping point on your barley cooking time, the soup is finished – or at least as finished as it should be before you freeze it. If you cook this soup for the full time before freezing it, it will thaw in a mushy form. Store it in gallon Ziploc freezer bags in the freezer. You’ll have several bags, depending on how full they are.
6. To finish cooking, pull a bag of chili out of the freezer and place it in the refrigerator for 24 hours, then heat it over medium heat on the stove top when you’re ready to eat it.
We are constantly raiding our freezer for meals that we’ve prepared in the past. Because we’ve put in weekend time in advance to make sure that we have great meals on hand that we’re sure that we’ll like, we’re pretty confident that we’ll pull out something great that our family will like.
Plus, it’s inexpensive and it makes family dinners possible even on the busiest of weeknights. That’s a big win for us.