Eat great for less: Bank some meals

In December and January, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

Joanne Ciccarello / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Quick vegetarian lasagna made with Ragu, no boil noodles, and spinach (l.) and traditional lasagna with meatball gravy (r.). Either can be prepared up to the point of baking, then frozen. Homemade frozen dinners are cheaper than the kind that come boxed in the grocery store's freezer case, and offer just as much weeknight ease.

9. Bank some meals.

A lot of times, after a long day of working and child care, I really don’t feel like I have the energy to cook a great meal from scratch. The temptation to just go out and eat is pretty strong, as is the temptation to make a quick and likely unhealthy and not all that delicious meal. Not only is neither of these choices all that healthy, they’re both relatively expensive.

The best bang for your buck at meal time comes from preparing your own meals from scratch, of course. You have complete control over the ingredients, you can use items that are on sale at the store, and you’re not paying someone else (or some food manufacturing company) to do the work for you with substandard ingredients.

It takes time, though, and that runs into conflict with the typical busy weeknight.

My solution – and one that’s saved my family a ton of money over the years – is to simply bank some meals on weekends. Some people refer to this as “once a month” cooking, in which they make four duplications of eight dinners and eight lunches and stock the freezer with them. I typically don’t do anything that organized, but we often make several meals on the weekend and freeze them with the intent of using them during the week.

Another financial advantage of this is that I can buy ingredients in bulk, reducing the cost per meal preparation.

The Game Plan
For my “banked” meals, I usually stick with stuff that has minimal requirements when I pull it out of the freezer. Ideally, it just has a sticker or a note on it that says how long to bake it in the oven and/or how long to microwave it.

Because of this requirement, meals like lasagna, casseroles, burritos, enchiladas, and so forth work quite well. You can make them once, wrap them, label them, store them in the freezer, and merely pull them out and put them practically straight into the oven. (Often, I’ll pull out the meal the night before, let it thaw in the fridge, then cook it that evening.)

The process is pretty straightforward.

On Friday evening, I’ll check out the current grocery flyers for big discounts. Things like tortillas and particular types of produce usually catch my eye. I try to look for ingredients that I’m confident that I can use in meals (or meal variations) that I know I like and that I know my family likes.

I plan some meals and make a grocery list. Let’s say I’ve decided to make several batches of lasagna and a big pile of three-bean burritos tomorrow. I dig out recipes (or devise my own), multiply out the ingredients, then make a shopping list that covers everything I’ll need.

I spend a large portion of Saturday cranking out a lot of meals. I’ll make a batch of 32 burritos and eight pans of lasagna, for example, that will be used in the next three months. I prepare the items to the point where all that has to be done to finish them is throw them in the oven. I also keep one of the items for my own family dinner – either a pan of lasagna or four burritos.

When I package the items for freezing, I put a tag on each one with directions. I usually just use large address labels. For large meals, I assume that the food is thawed and at refrigerator temperature but not frozen (usually adding 25% or so to the time listed in the recipe). For smaller items, I assume they’ll be frozen. The instructions mostly just tell me the temperature and the time that I need to use to finish cooking the food.

Then, when I know I’m going to have to use a “banked” meal, I just pull one out of the freezer the night before, in the case of the lasagna, or just pull them out of the freezer on the fly in the case of things like burritos.

There are two key reasons why I follow this plan.

It saves money. If I’m utilizing sales, I’m saving money on a key ingredient of these recipes. If I’m utilizing bulk buying, I’m saving money on a key ingredient of these recipes. If I’m preparing a meal at home out of my own ingredients instead of going out at a restaurant, I’m saving money. All of that saving really adds up.

It conserves time when I actually need it, and often saves a bit of time overall. Evening time is much more valuable to me than weekend time. In the evenings, I only have a few hours to spend with my family, so I want to do that with as little interference as possible. On the weekends, we can turn such meal-making into a family project or a rainy day project. Making meals in advance also saves you time overall because of the number of activities you can do simultaneously (like cooking lasagna noodles for eight lasagnas at once instead of in eight separate batches).

Spend a day this weekend making some batch meals. You’ll be surprised how much convenience it adds to your week nights and you’ll also be pleasantly surprised when you see your checking account balance at the end of the month.

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