It's that time of the year when moms start talking about freezer cooking. Once-a-month cooking is another thing that sounds appealing to some busy moms. I read a book about that once and was discouraged and felt physically sick after. The foods were not stuff my family eats. They were unhealthy and go against all the research in the last 30 years about what people should avoid eating for a healthy heart and low cholesterol and other such things.
The once-a-month freezer cooking books I read included menu plans such as cold breakfast cereal once a week or pancakes for dinner on another night. I don't even count those two things as real dinner meals (sorry). I will confess to eating some of that when my husband was on business trips and the kids and I were busy but I refuse to call that a real dinner and it doesn't involve cooking in bulk. One book also included deli meat cold sandwiches for dinner on some nights. Again, not a real dinner in our home, that's lunch.
Here is what we do to try to eat meals mostly from scratch and to do cooking in bulk and try to save money with some frugal living practices.
My ideal situation is a dinner which will be cooked that night without leftovers. I don't like leftovers, so I'm not into making a big batch of something and eating it for a full week. That's not what this post is about.
We try to eat frugally as even when we can afford it we feel foolish wasting money on meals that are too expensive for no good reason. When on a tight budget we have no choice but to eat frugally.
First, we own a separate freezer which was a 'scratch and dent' discounted sale price.
Vegetables and fruits flash frozen have more nutrients than fresh produce sometimes does (especially that which traveled long distances, was picked before ripe, or has been sitting on shelves for weeks or months). In the northeast we do not have a steady supply of local produce year-round and many common foods eaten by Americans are not even grown in this region. We also do not have as much access to organic fresh foods as some other places in America have.
We buy organic frozen vegetables and fruits from Costco, BJs, or Trader Joe's. We take out one portion to eat at that meal and cook it for that meal as a side dish or whatever it is that we're eating such as a stir-fry meal or a snack of a fruit smoothie.
If organic fresh or frozen produce is not available we settle for non-organic frozen sold in bulk. We only buy high quality fresh produce. In other words if given the choice between fresh and old and in bad shape or frozen, we buy frozen.
We also buy fresh fruits and vegetables from Costco when the items are available. Sometimes the price for fresh produce is 66% less than at the local grocery store. Some people complain the sizes are too large when buying at Costco. What we do for example is buy the box of kiwis and eat them until they are gone (such as for one week). Then next time we shop, we buy mangoes. This is different than if I bought a couple of kiwis and a couple of mangoes at the grocery store. It's no big deal, trust me. The apples, oranges and grapefruit last longer and are easy to buy by the large box or even a case and eat on a nearly daily basis, and are gone before they rot.
We buy giant packs of fresh mesclun greens or romaine lettuce for salads at the warehouse store. The giant packs are less expensive than the smaller packs, so even if some (less than half) goes bad, we still save money.
I also check the day old produce section at the grocery store when I'm there. Sometimes the prices are great and the produce is decent, while other times the produce is too rotten for any human to actually eat.
Fresh potatoes and fresh onions stay fresh a long time if stored properly, which is in a chilly place such as in our unfinished unheated basement. Buying 20-40 pounds at one time at the warehouse store helps save money instead of buying 1-4 of a thing at one time at the grocery store.
We use some canned beans and canned imported Italian tomatoes which we buy in bulk at the warehouse store. We keep these on hand so we can make meals at a moment's notice.
We buy meat at the warehouse stores or if we see it on sale at the grocery store. We buy it in bulk, cut it ourselves at home sometimes. Steak can be quite expensive when bought pre-cut, so we buy it as a roast and trim and cut it ourselves. A cookbook can teach you this, cooking shows on FoodTV can teach it and so can YouTube tutorials, I am sure.
We then pack the meat in a vaccuum seal device in family meal serving sizes then freeze it. For example if we always eat four chicken breasts at dinner we pack it 4 breasts to one pack.
We defrost meat inside the packaging in a bowl of cold water in the sink while the faucer drips one drop at a time into it. This method is safe and individual items such as chicken parts and steaks and hamburgers defrost anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. Hot dogs defrost in just minutes. Due to this I can pull the meat out of the freezer a couple of hours before dinner, or at lunchtime. You could also pull this out a day in advance and defrost it in the refrigerator.
Recently our vacuum sealer machine, the standard model FoodSaver broke and the manufacturer said we should be using the FoodSaver hunter version (Game Saver) which is meant to have the motor run more often at one time in order to do a quantity of packing then not be used much for a while. The regular model, we were told by the manufacturer, is apparently meant to used a couple of times at once only. So we purchased the GameSaver model when the standard model died.
We do notice the meats stay fresh longer when vacuum packed. Sometimes we have frozen meat in platic wrap or in a freezer zip top bag so we see side-by-side comparisions. The vacuum packed items don't get freezer burn while the ones with air in the packaging or with thin plastic wrapping do get freezer burned.
We buy ground meats in bulk and form our own hamburger patties. The difference in price between pre-formed patties and raw meat is ridiculous.
We make our own meatballs. Frozen factory made meatballs have ingredients we don't care to eat and we feel ours taste better too. We can make them as garlicy as we like or as tender as we like. We make them in large batches then freeze them on a cookie sheet, then transfer to large zip top bags the next day to keep frozen until we need them. We take out the number we wish to eat at the meal and heat them in the sauce (put them in frozen and slowly heat up to defrost and warm them).
We make our own pasta sauces from scratch (except when we indulge our older son in Ragu from Costco). Using ingredients purchased in bulk we make giant batches of sauce then freeze them in one-meal sized containers. One pint of sauce is what we use for one pound of pasta. We make our own pesto sauce too and freeze it. The only difference is if the sauce uses a fair amount of parmesan or romano cheese or is a cream sauce we leave that out and finish making the sauce in the reaheating process. For example we use a standard basil pesto recipe but at the part where you add the cheese, just don't do that, and freeze it then. When reheating, add the cheese at that point. This is because the cheese doesn't freeze well. A vodka cream sauce takes about ten minutes to make from start to finish so we make that fresh from scratch and avoid the freezing part altogether.
We buy Barilla pasta from Costco, BJs, or on sale at the grocery store (whichever is less expensive). We try not to pay more than $1 a pound/box. Although we have made pastas from scratch it is a timely project so our slowfood eating journey has the exception of using dried pastas.
Almost all the salad dressings we use on salad are homemade. This is less expensive and easy. Once you get used to making your favorite blends, using a store-bought brand seems like 'settling' for someting inferior in taste. Also, have you read the ingredients on a bottle of store bought salad dressing? If you can't pronounce it maybe you shouldn't be eating it.
We make huge batches of soup from scratch and freeze them in pint containers. We leave the pasta out of the soup (if applicable) and add that in the heating process when we serve it. Pasta does not freeze well in soups.
When we have meat bones, beef, ham or poultry, we either freeze it until we have time to make stocks from scratch or we immediately make the stock then freeze the stocks. Our grocery stores do not always have a supply of beef bones for sale so we buy them when we can.
I save scraps of onion, carrot and celery and freeze those in zip top bags in the freezer and then use that for flavoring stocks instead of using premium parts of fresh produce. You can use onion skins, the ends of carrots, leafy tops of the celery et cetera. Just do not use anything moldy or rotted. We freeze homemade stock in pint sized containers.
If we don't have enough homemade stocks on hand we buy organic when available, in bulk at the warehouse stores. If not available we buy at Trader Joe's. The last place to buy them is the grocery store which has the most expensive prices. We keep these on hand so we can make nearly any soup or sauce at a moment's notice. We buy high quality and low sodium. If you use a bad meat broth or stock it can ruin a recipe, trust me.
Sandwiches (They are Lunch not Dinner)
Sometimes we buy a large piece of meat such as a ham, on sale, and then slice it to eat on sandwiches. Recently we paid 99 cents a pound for a spiral cut glazed ham. The one thing we do splurge on is deli meat from the grocery store (Boar's Head usually) which is sliced to order. However it kills us to pay $11 a pound for deli meat. Don't laugh but we're trying to figure out if there is a home meat slicer like the deli uses so we can roast our own chickens and turkeys and beef roasts and get thin enough meats to substitute for fresh deli meat.
The bulk of breads we eat are from the warehouse store. We freeze them and pull them out as needed. We don't keep them too long, two months is probably the longest. We don't want them to get freezer burned. We don't bother to wrap those specially for freezer storage.
An advantage of store bought bread is we can buy organic or whole grain. I don't have a cheap supply of organic flour nor do I keep a wide variety of grains on hand for making whole grain bread from scratch.
I do make bread from scratch when I have time and when it's enjoyable for me. The problem with homemade bread here is my family will eat two loaves a day when one loaf of storebought bread will last us a week. So the savings to make it from scratch go down the drain if they eat two loaves a day instead of one loaf a week!
Then again, the homemade bread isn't filled with chemicals or certain ingredients (such as avoiding soy for a soy allergy) that some people may seek to avoid.
If we have Italian bread or any bread that goes stale (but not moldy) we let it harden then process it in our food processor to make homemade bread crumbs. To keep fresh, since they don't have preservatives, we store these in a plastic container in the freezer. We use those to add to homemade meatballs or to bread meats. That saves a little money.
For breakfast, we mix our own pancake dry mix from recipes found on the FoodTV website. It is a lot cheaper and there are no chemicals. My kids can make their own pancakes.
We make french toast from scratch using the store bought bread, it's simple. My kids can make their own too.
We buy organic cereals from Trader Joe's which cost a lot less than equivalent non-organic or organic cereals from the grocery store.
We buy oatmeal in bulk, the basic one with more fiber, and make it on the stovetop. Did you know the really fast oatmeal has most of the beneficial fiber processed out of it? That's how it can cook up so fast. My husband loves steel cut oats. He makes a week's worth at one time and refrigerates the leftovers to eat each day.
We used to make waffles from scratch before our waffle iron broke. I will admit those frozen waffles are pretty decent tasting and so easy though, but really they have ingredients I'd rather avoid.
We do not eat dessert daily. The desserts we eat are usually made from scratch at home. We find we can eat two or three chocolate chip cookies and feel satisfied where we'd want to eat a whole sleeve of Oreo's or Chips Ahoy. There is some research I've read that says that corn syrup does not turn on the body's hormones that signal the body feel satiated (feels full). Thus we try to avoid store bought cookies and baked items.
Sometimes the from scratch desserts are cheaper and sometimes they wind up more expensive. However at least we're avoiding trans fats and many chemicals by making them from scratch at home.
We don't keep ice cream on hand as we'd eat it daily and are trying to avoid doing that for health reasons. Homemade ice cream is delicious but it's more expensive than buying prepared and it's a big project. When we make it we do small batches and eat it all immediately.
Other Staple Items
We buy butter at the warehouse store. This is about $1.50-$2 a pound less than if we buy it in the grocery store. We wrap each pound box in aluminum foil then freeze it. That combined with wrapping other foods well keeps the butter from absorbing freezer odors, as there are no freezer odors. It also doesn't get freezer burned that way.
We buy organic milk and half and half and almost all dairy products in bulk at the warehouse store. (The unavailability of fresh local raw milk has thwarted my attempt to drink that recently.) The long shelf life of the pasturized dairy products allows us to buy it in bulk at the warehouse store.
Paper goods are from the warehouse store as are cleaning chemicals, except for the cleaning stuff I make from scratch such as laundry detergent, glass cleaners and bathroom cleaners. We save money in that way too, although that's getting off-topic from slowfood and freezer cooking.
Warehouse Shopping Comments
We go to Costo once a week and Trader Joe's about once a month. We spent $75-150 a month at the grocery store. We try to never buy anything at the grocery store, honestly as it is all too expensive in our eyes.
To be honest my husband does the warehouse shopping. He likes it and he feels that when I go I find impulse buys that increase our spending. He goes with a list in hand and sticks to the list except for keeping an eye for whatever the new in-season produce is. He also times the visit right after church on Sunday when the place is deserted so it's a fast trip with little stress.
A few of my friends quit the warehouse store as they said their bills for a couple of visits a month were over $100 which they felt was "spending a lot of money". However they are paying 30-70% more at the grocery store for the same exact food items, but are making 4-7 trips weekly instead of their former two trips a month. This is simple math people, so do the math. Spending $30 six times a week at the grocery store is spending more money than $150 twice a month at Costco. Or, check the math on the unit price, that works out less expensive too.
What We Eat for Dinner
When it comes time to make a meal we go to the freezer to pull out frozen meat and vegetables. We serve a fresh garden salad and sometimes a side dish of vegetables from fresh veggies in the fridge.
Other nights we have Barilla pasta with a frozen sauce we made previously with a side salad.
Sometimes we eat soup for lunch or for dinner with a side salad, a side veggie or even a small portion of meat in addition. (My husband claims soup and salad is not enough for his dinner, it's not "filling" enough.)
We do not eat bread at every dinner as we try to not over-eat carbs and we try to keep the white starch consumption down. We'd rather have our bread as part of a sandwich at lunch.
We also don't always eat a side grain of white rice or white potato as we are trying to avoid white starches. So we may eat two veggies with a meat or even two veggies and a green salad with a meat dish. We try to avoid white potatoes as a daily side dish due to the carbs and the fact that they have a high glycemic index. My husband likes brown rice as a side dish, but I'm not a fan; when we eat rice it's brown rice but that's not even once a week.
Being that my husband is Italian-American we eat a fair amount of pasta. My kids eat more than my husband does actually as that is sometimes their lunch.
We do not eat casseroles (a common dish in once a month cooking cookbooks).
Perhaps six times a year we eat homemade macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie and Shepherd's Pie. Perhaps six times a year we eat a store bought frozen quiche or chicken pot pie (from Costco).
We eat hot dogs and hamburgers mostly in the summer, cooked on a grill, and mostly when attending a party held by someone else and have no choice but to eat those foods. Those are not a once a week dinner meal in our home, not even in the summer.
We do not keep chips or crackers as snacks. On rare occasions we'll have crackers on hand to eat with cheese as an appetizer when guests visit. We are trying to avoid either the bad ingredients in those items or to reduce sugar intake or to reduce general carb intake.
We have dried fruits (organic when possible) for snacks.
We have a variety of nuts for snacks.
Fresh fruits and raw veggies are also good snacks (a banana, a grapefruit, grapes, raw celery sticks).
Trader Joe's is our best resource for dried fruits and nuts. Costco has certain kinds of nuts, especially shelled nuts. We also sometimes buy nuts direct from small family nut farmers via the Internet.
My kids don't fill up on snacks in between meals. I want them hungry for the real meals. If they are hungry, such as my teenage son now seems to be all the time, he often eats a typical meal food as a snack, such as scrambled eggs, an egg sandwich, or a ham sandwich, or even a fresh cooked pasta dish.
I'm including this category as this post is also concerned with frugal living. I feel some families can either spend quite a bit on prepared drinks or are taking in more calories from drinks than we do.
We drink spring water purchased in bulk and use a water cooler, as we don't like the taste of our well water.
We do not buy sodas, soft drinks, energy drinks, or juices as a general rule.
I know diet soda has no calories but I'd rather not have anyone in our family consume the artificial ingredients in diet sodas, so we don't.
I buy coffee beans at Costco (Starbucks brand) and grind the beans myself and brew coffee at home. I do not buy coffee prepared at stores or coffee shops unless it's a special treat or I'm meeting a friend for a social engagement.
My husband drinks black tea, prepared at home. He used to take tea bags or loose tea to work and make his own hot tea (rather than buy it at a coffee shop at a premium price).
I drink some herbal teas and infusions for health and wellness reasons, prepared myself from herbs bought in bulk via the Internet from herb suppliers. I do put organic and reliable sources above price. Sometimes the cheapest foods are not the best quality (or even may be unsafe).
My kids drink some organic milk from Costco, but not much.
Our food pantry and spice shelves are fully stocked. We are ready at a moment's notice to turn frozen raw meat into something good. I can bake just about anything I want on a whim, with what is in my pantry.
My husband loves to cook. He finds it fun and loves to cook on weekends. Thinking about trying a new recipe and shopping for a special ingredient is enjoyable for him. I do cook too. I love to bake. I have a sweet tooth so I enjoy making high quality baked goods from scratch.
Over the years we have learned a lot about general cooking techniques from shows on FoodTV and in cookbooks and from reading Cook's Illustrated. The more we learn and the more we experience high quality food the less we want to eat inferior tasting processed or prepared foods made by someone else (even at local restaurants and chain restaurants). We'd rather make it ourself, know what's in it, and have it our way (it's legal to make a medium-rare hamburger inside our home).
Perhaps more importantly, the more we learn about nutrition and wellness (staying healthy and trying to avoid disease) the more we want to avoid much of the bad stuff in prepared and processed foods. The more convenient a food is and the longer its shelf life the more likely it will contain something that someone should probably avoid or at least not eat on a regular basis let alone once or multiple times a day.
We find our method of keeping a large selection of items frozen or in the refrigerator works for us. By purchasing in bulk we can save money on the the base whole food ingredients. The foods we make by doing the prep work ourselves cost a fraction of what something like a pre-breaded prepared and frozen chicken cordon blue costs when purchased in small quantities at the grocery store. Foods cooked and baked at home from whole food ingredients are healthier for our bodies also.
The lure of the idea of cooking once-a-month and having ready to reheat meals in the freezer sounds tempting but it is too good to be true. The once a month or freezer cooking cookbooks I’ve seen are not in alignment with basic eating recommendations such as outlined in the Food Pyramid or other, more strict doctor-advised healthy eating diets (i.e. healthy heart eating). Once a month freezer cooking's general plans often lack the minimum recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake. They are often too heavy on white bread or white starches and some are too heavy on cheese intake too. I've given up on once-a-month cooking as advised in cookbooks.