The past few weeks have been incredibly busy for our family. Not only has Sarah returned to teaching from her summer break, our children have also returned to school and several fall activities have begun. On top of that, a particularly nasty virus of some kind flashed through our family, bringing a consistent set of symptoms and knocking each family member (except me, somehow) out of commission for a few days. The lazy days of summer are long gone.
Because of that rapid change in daily routine, it has become more and more difficult to consistently get a family meal to the table for dinner each night. We often fall back to relying on very simple staples that Sarah and I can prepare almost on automatic – things like spaghetti with marinara sauce and steamed vegetables or slow cooker lasagna.
Perhaps the most efficient solution to this problem of all, however, are frozen soups.
In our deep freezer, we have a bunch of soup containers, each containing about a quart of soup. By simply reheating two of those containers, we provide a nice bowl of soup to each family member, which can be complemented with a sandwich or a breadstick or some other similarly simple accompaniment, something that we can prepare during the few minutes while the soup is reheating.
This is a fantastic solution on a lot of levels.
First, homemade soup is pretty inexpensive. You can prepare homemade soup at a very low price, as most of the ingredients are things like beans, rice, and raw vegetables. Even in soups that use meat as an ingredient, you’re actually using a relatively small amount. The ingredients just don’t add up to a big expense.
Second, most homemade soups reheat extremely well. The main problem with most reheated food is that it gives off moisture and that some of the solid elements break down a little bit. Neither of those issues are really a problem for most soups. Furthermore, frozen meals that are later thawed and heated often meld their flavors together, which usually helps soups. There’s a reason people often prefer chili reheated, after all.
Third, reheating a soup is about as simple as you can get for family meal preparation. Seriously. If you remembered to pull a container out of the freezer that morning, you literally put the ingredients of that container into a small pot or saucepan, put it over medium heat, and let it warm up, stirring it every once in a while. Meanwhile, you can set the table and take care of other tasks. Even if you forgot to thaw it during the day, you can quickly thaw it in a microwave. There’s almost no effort in bringing a container of soup to the dinner table.
Fourth, the original preparation (and storage) of the soup is pretty easy, too. It’s not very hard to make a big batch of homemade soup, from which you can not only feed your family dinner but also package up a container or two of soup for the freezer in the future.
So, how do you pull all of this off? It’s actually pretty easy.
Make Soup in a Slow Cooker (or Otherwise)
The first step, obviously, is to make some soup. You can use pretty much any recipe that you like, as almost any soup is freeze-able. The key is to make sure that you make plenty of the soup. Make a double batch, if possible.
But how do you make a big pot of soup and cook it if you’re busy? It’s easy. Just put all of the heavier ingredients in a slow cooker in the morning – things like potatoes and carrots and meat – and season it appropriately and add the liquid. Turn it on low and leave it cooking all day. Then, when you get home, immediately add softer ingredients – you can leave them out so that it’s easy to do when you get home. Add things like pasta or tofu or kale at this point. Then, turn it on high and then just serve it half an hour or an hour later – you don’t have to do anything else.
That basic structure works well for almost every soup known to man. We use it for everything from chili and stews to curry soups and bean soups. As long as you just put all of the dense ingredient and the liquids in the slow cooker in the morning, leave it on low all day, then add the softer stuff as soon as you get home, it’s ready to serve an hour later or so. It’s easy.
Save Your Leftovers in Freezer-Safe Containers
When you’re done with eating soup from the slow cooker for dinner, you should have a lot of leftovers. Hopefully, you filled that slow cooker high, so there’s plenty remaining!
All you do at this point is fill up a freezer container or two with the remaining soup. Personally, we use these reusable containers that can go from the freezer to the microwave to the dishwasher without any problems. We bought them as a bulk purchase (24 of them) a while back and they work like a champ.
So, grab one (or two) of those containers and fill it up with soup, leaving about an inch or so of air at the top of the container. Put a lid on it and stick it in the fridge.
The next morning or evening, when the soup is nice and cold, burp the container by just opening it enough to let air in or out, then put a piece of masking tape on the container. Write what kind of soup it is and what day you made it on the label, then pop it in the freezer. You’re done. That’s it.
When You Need an Easy Meal…
Whenever you need an easy meal in the evening, something that can be prepped in just a few minutes, just grab one (or two) of those soup containers from the freezer the night before or even two nights before and put it in the refrigerator. (If you forget, don’t sweat it.) Having the soup thawed when you get home makes it even easier to get it to the table.
So, you come home, you have a container of thawed soup in the fridge. Just pull out a saucepan or a small pot, pour the soup in there, and heat it on your stovetop over medium heat, stirring it whenever you happen to walk by. When it’s bubbling, it’s ready. That’s it – homemade supper is on the table.
What if it’s frozen? That’s easy, too – just thaw it on the low setting in the microwave until it’s mostly liquid (you’ll want to stop the microwave and stir it regularly when doing this), then put it in a saucepan or a small pot on the stovetop over medium heat. Stir it whenever you walk by, then when it’s bubbling, serve it. That’s it – homemade supper is on the table.
If you used the recommended containers above, cleanup is easy, too – you just put the saucepan or pot along with the soup containers in the dishwasher and then they’re ready to be used again.
Some Soup Ideas
Honestly, almost every soup or stew or chili variant you can think of works well with this strategy. I’ve tried it with slow cooker chili, creamy potato chowder, minestrone, white bean stew, and others; my wife’s made chicken curry soup and beef stew this way, too.
You don’t just have to use slow cooker recipes, either. Most soup recipes work fine in the slow cooker provided that you just save the softer ingredients for the last hour or so.
You can, of course, also prepare a big pot of soup without the slow cooker if you’d like, on a lazy afternoon, and just save the leftovers, too.
Other Things to Serve
We have soup with a lot of meals this time of the year because it’s so convenient and so inexpensive. Having things on hand to serve with it, though, can require a bit of creativity and preparedness.
Our default pairing is to have soup, salad, and sandwiches. While the soup is heating, we make a few sandwiches and prepare a salad for everyone to share. The salad and sandwich are served on a plate alongside the soup bowl.
Sometimes, I’ll make breadsticks to go along with it, baking them in the oven or even cooking them in advance and storing them. You can find premade breadsticks at the store, but it’s not hard making them – you just need a simple bread dough recipe and then, when the bread is done, you form the bread into breadstick shapes and bake them on a baking sheet. They turn out wonderfully.
A final trick we use is to turn it into a bit of a “soup bar,” where we put out a lot of things one might want to add to their soup – things like diced green onions, crackers, cheese, bits of diced ham, and so on. This lets everyone “personalize” their soup a little and also bulk it up so it feels more like a hearty meal.
I’ll be perfectly honest – without soups in the freezer, we would likely fall back on prepackaged meals some nights, which are quite a bit more expensive, or else we’d order delivery or takeout, which is a lot more expensive.
This simple soup routine saves us a lot of money during the busy times, because it means that we’re having a very cheap dinner – soup – instead of a far more expensive dinner. It works because it almost completely eliminates prep time in the evenings, making it very manageable even on the busiest nights.
If you find yourself with crazy evenings on a regular basis, consider this “soup stockpile” strategy. It’ll save you a ton on food spending while still giving you a delicious home cooked meal when you want it.