Updated on 09.16.11

The Meal Library

Trent Hamm

Sarah and I love to experiment when it comes to food. We’re constantly trying new things in the kitchen using new and different ingredients.

However, the reality of our lives dictates that we often don’t have time to look for ideas and experiment creatively with food.

Take our current Tuesday evenings. Our daughter has a dance class from 5 until 5:45 in the evening, immediately followed by our son’s soccer game from 5:45 to 6:30. Since we start our bedtime routine at 7:30, there really isn’t a lot of time to experiment and carefully consider a meal in that one hour gap in there.

For evenings like this, we end up relying on a rotation of reasonably healthy and inexpensive meals that we’re sure our family all likes and that we can prepare quite easily.

Examples of meals in our rotation include spaghetti with marinara sauce, stir fry (rice and whatever vegetables we can easily find), tuna and noodles, vegetable noodle soup, “breakfast for supper” (usually scrambled eggs, toast, and waffles), homemade pizza (with pre-made crusts from the freezer), and fajitas.

Sarah and I both know how to throw these meals together quite quickly so that we can have a fresh meal on the table very quickly. Best of all, we never work from a recipe on these meals because we know them so well – it’s all in our heads.

This “meal library” of ours comes with several advantages.

We’re not simply stuck with whatever’s frozen. Yes, we make and freeze meals in advance, but sometimes they’re just not convenient in a pinch and at other times we just don’t want one of those meals. Having a rotation of meals on hand makes it easy to always have something else.

Having a good meal at home that you know you can put together quickly reduces the desire to eat out. We could go to a family restuarant, eat there, spend $40, and burn an hour. Otherwise, we could just go home, toss together one of these meals, and be done in forty five minutes. Not only that, we’re only spending $5 instead of $40. This is a huge imperative when we’re out grocery shopping or doing something else out and about as a family.

We buy the ingredients for these meals in bulk, saving us money. Things like whole grain pasta, sauces, flour, tuna, egg noodles, and other such things are always purchased in bulk by us because they’re part of these meals that we eat so frequently. This reduces our food costs even further.

By having quite a few meals in rotation, we don’t get tired of having the same old thing over and over again. Often when people have busy lives and fall into a routine of making just a few meals at home, they get tired of those meals and this encourages them to eat out more. By having a wide variety of meals in our rotation, we don’t get tired of them very often.

If you’re considering having this kind of “meal library” in your own home, I offer a few suggestions.

Keep it to meals you can easily prep in less than thirty minutes and have on the table in less than an hour. You might have a meal that you know how to prepare easily that takes longer than that, but I find that meals with that kind of time commitment rarely get made.

Test the meals with your family multiple times. This is to make sure you fully know how to prepare it and that your family likes it. There are some meals that I know our family likes that I can prepare blindfolded at this point (I actually, seriously think I could make homemade pizza blindfolded).

Make sure all adults have at least a few meals they can prepare. This takes care of evenings when one adult is busy due to some task and the meal preparation is up to the other parent. This situation shouldn’t be an excuse for expensive take-out.

I highly recommend a “meal library” for a busy frugal family. It’s certainly saved us a lot of time and money over the last several years.

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  1. Marinda says:

    If you have not scoped out any of Rick Bayless’ sauces, please put it into the meal library rotation. Most take minutes and several go into the crock pot after prep. My son and husband love everyone I have made, especially the pork carnitas and the beef barbacoa. With a salad and tortillas, this makes a great meal.

    I am not employed nor can I profit from this recommendation.

  2. Katie says:

    My family had a variety of these growing up – chicken burritos, veggie chili, spaghetti with tomato sauce, tacos. The one I remember most though, and which serves a similar purpose for me now, is spaghetti carbonara, which we made by stirring a raw egg into still hot pasta (the heat of the pasta cooks the egg into a creamy sauce) and then adding crumbled bacon or sausage and Parmesan cheese. My mom always said it was an Italian miner dish – all they needed to take into the mountains with them was spaghetti, an egg, and cured meat and cheese that wouldn’t go bad.

  3. Becca says:

    In our home we have a go-to list of meals that can be prepared if 1) no meat got thawed that day, 2) we have little time or 3) both. Omelettes and scratch pizza fall into the last category.
    In our marriage, over a period of years, my husband and I got proficient at doing completely different foods. Only he knew, for example, that a certain recipe came from a certain cookbook, except with modifications only he knew. One winter (the time of the year when we have the most free time) we typed up all the recipes into a word file in the portion sizes out family uses. The recipes were formatted so they fit on a 3×5 card (or two sides of one), and put these in a cheapo plastic photo album with heavyweight plastic sleeves. It was a huge amount of work, but one of the smartest things we ever did. Now everyone in the household, including teenagers, can prepare any meal. Also by having recipes in a computer I can easily print out or email recipes when friends request them, and adult kids have been able to print out the recipes they wanted when they moved out. One caveat: triple check for typos, omissions and so on.
    When I’m trying new recipes I find online, I print out the page. If the recipe is a keeper, it goes right into a binder, separated by categories (I made dividers using old file folders). Any of these recipes that I find myself using over and over, gets typed up and put in my photo album.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    Marinda mentioned something you don’t seem to have in the library – slow cooker meals. You could set the table & throw something in the clow cooker around lunchtime & it would be ready for everyone when you walk in the door at 6:45.

  5. Steve says:

    Take every instance of the word “very” (and in your case, Trent, “simply”) and replace it with “damn”. Your editor will then remove all the “damn”s and your writing will be better off for it.

  6. krantcents says:

    My wife plans meals each week. She uses magazines to add variety, although I never thought of it as a menu library.

  7. deRuiter says:

    Becca #3. Great idea. Please store that wonderful album full of recipes by the back entrance door. In case of fire remove 1. people, 2. pets, and the 3. recipe book. I have known several people who had house fires, and what they missed most was some favorite family recipes which perished in the fire. If every recipe is on the computer, please make sure you have Carbonite or another off site back up for the same reason.

  8. cherie says:

    Becca great idea – that’s something I’d also back up in google docs or something.

    Trent I have a few ‘instameals’ I keep on hand too – it’s so helpful with our crazy schedule – most of them utilize my freezer in some way, though I’m working on including the crockpot in the party – I have less success getting my family to like crockpot meals – not sure why!

  9. Kate says:

    This might eventually be a repeat–all of the comments I am making these days seem to get stuck in moderation land.
    Love the spaghetti carbonara, Katie. I didn’t know that it was so easy to make. Thanks!
    I have many of my “most-used” recipes (most with just the ingredients, not the steps) and taped them to the inside of my cabinet doors. When I need a recipe, I just open the door and there it is–no dragging out a cookbook.

  10. joan says:

    #5 Steve What is the name of your blog? I would like to visit it.

  11. Tanya says:

    #deRuiter – I love your idea. The old handwritten recipes, especially, are precious and worth adding to the “grab in case of fire” list, for sure. There are a few recipes I’ll even copy and put in my emergency files.

  12. Kerrick Long says:

    Trent, would you care to share your meal library for those of us who don’t know that many meals?

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