4 Rules for Home Cooking Done Quick

A lot has happened in the past couple of months.  We decided to move out of state to live near family and enjoy a lower cost of living and better weather.  Since we’ve moved down here I have taken it upon myself to be the best wife and parent that I can be while I look for a new job.  One of the most important things that I’m maintaining with this big life transition is how we prepare meals, eat dinner as a family and do so in a healthy and time efficient way.  I prepare all of our meals from scratch but I like to imagine sometimes that I run a prepared food test kitchen.  Here are a few of my rules for doing dinner in a  healthy and efficient way.

Rule #1:  Use your freezer as a money saving tool and not just a place to keep frozen novelties.  I hear it a lot “why would I buy in bulk if we can’t eat it all before it goes bad?”  Your freezer stops the clock on food spoilage and allows you to take advantage of lower prices.  My two favorite times to use my freeze is when I’m buying in bulk to get a lower price per pound and when meat is on ‘manager special’ and at 20% of the normal price.  I once found chicken quarters for $0.29 per lb!  That’s insane and you know I filled my cart.

When you buy a lot of food that can be frozen make a plan to freeze it.  Do not wait until the expiration date to save the old meat from the trashcan.  You need to portion and bag the food within a day of buying it.

If you freezer is already full go through and evaluate each item that is in there. How old is it?  Can you eat it within the next month?  Is it junk food that we shouldn’t be eating anyway?  Your freezer space is valuable real estate that is there to save you time and money, make sure you are using it that way!

Rule #2:  Dinner will only take 30 minutes from prep to table.  I did this while we were both working full time and wanted to eat dinner as a family before our baby needed to go to bed.

To accomplish this 30 minute rule you need to have a game plan for dinner before you open the fridge.  This is where meal planning comes in handy.

Some of my favorite meats to cook start to finish are:

  • Porkchops – use dry seasoning or a marinade on the meat when you pull it out of the freezer.  Let it thaw in your fridge for at least 24 hours.  I always let it thaw in the dish that I plan to back it in.  1/2 inch chops will bake for 20-25 min at 350ºF.
  • Tacos – use ground turkey or beef and you can brown the meat in about 10 minutes.  Add black beans to bulk up the meal and stretch your dollar even further.  Use it twice in the week for tacos the first night and nachos a few nights later.  Very popular in our house.
  • Salmon (or any fish) – Baking or grilling can be done in under 20 minutes.  We love this marinade for salmon on the grill:  1 part soy sauce, 2 parts oil, 3 minced garlic cloves all mixed together add 1 lb raw salmon and marinade for 20 minutes.  Grill over high heat for 8 minutes turning halfway through.
  • Steak on the grill – We eat steak usually once a week.  Use your favorite dry rub, and grill for 8-10 minutes over high heat flipping once halfway through.

My favorite prepare-ahead-of-time-and-freeze meals are:

  • Meatballs with pasta – the prep kills me but I love having meatballs and pasta.  If you are not a plan-ahead type of person you can always make meat sauce instead.  Meatballs freeze really well and I’ll usually cook a large batch and we will eat it once a week for about 3 months.
  • Chicken – I rarely cook chicken during the week since it is one of those meats that cannot be rushed (or served rare).  I will usually buy whole chicks and roast them in the oven for about 2 hours, sometimes 6 birds at once.  Once the meat is cooled my husband and I will spend a little time pulling the meat off of the bones, portioning meat into freezer bags and freezing.  If I’m low on chicken stock I will take the bones from one of the birds and throw it in the crock pot and make some overnight stock (which also gets frozen).
  • Chicken Taquitos – another labor intensive meal that is completely worth making a giant batch of.  I can take these puppies from frozen and bake them for about 20 minutes and we have a tasty dinner.  We have also used these as quick appetizers when entertaining or if we have unexpected dinner guests.  Serve with sourcream and hotsauce!
  • Pulled pork – Pork shoulder is a cheap cut of meat that becomes a tasty easy meal. Use either a dry rub or a bottle of your favorite bbq sauce and cook the pork shoulder in a crock pot for 8+ hours.  Once it is done, remove the meat and shred with a fork, using a strainer add the juices from the crockpot and mix together with the meat.  Refrigerate overnight and then portion into bags to freeze.

These are just a few ideas but what is most important is to cook what you like and make sure it freezes well.  So if you find a recipe you like and want to try to make a big batch next time – take a little bit from dinner and freeze it.  After a week let it thaw out and check the quality.  Make sure you do this before you cook 10 lbs of meatballs because you wont know how it freezes until you try it.

Rule #3: Use your day off to make a big batch of side dishes, prep fresh veggies and make lunches for the week.

This can be done whether you work or stay at home.  Make something that you love eating so that you are more likely to stick with the plan instead of ditching it for fast food.  If you are not big on leftovers – do not pack them for your lunch at work.  Every Sunday I will make 4 sandwiches for my husbands lunch.  He will take a sandwich and a yogurt to work 4 of 5 days.  He will eat out with co-workers at a restaurant once a week.  Taking your lunch to work compared to eating out every day saves one person about $2000.

Lunch meals that can be prepped at the beginning of the week:

Sandwiches – Deli meat and cheese will hold up nicely for about 5 or 6 days.  Make sure to skip the tomato, pickles and other veggies as it tends to not keep as well.  If you love lettuce on your sandwich, throw it on the morning that you plan to eat the sandwich.

Leftovers – I’m a leftover lover.  If dinner was great (and it usually is!) I have no problem packing a container with the extras and eating it for lunch.

Salads – Every once in a while, usually a couple months before our summer vacation, my husband and I will start eating a little bit less bread and a little bit more veggies.  We will make salads for each of us for the whole week with fresh veggies, hard boiled eggs, and cooked chicken (from the freezer).  Make sure to either add salad dressing the morning that you are going to eat it or put it in a separate container.

For more ideas check out reddit’s meal prep sunday section.

Rule #4:  Make this plan your own.  Everyone has a plan that works but usually it works because they created that plan for their own situation.  My recipes and meal plan will not work for everyone because of taste preferences or food allergies.  What is important is you take things once step, one recipe, one batch of food at a time.  See what works and doesn’t work for your family.  No one goes from spending an hour in the kitchen every day to half of that without some planning, experimenting, and practice.

  • First find one meal that makes it to your table on a weekly basis.
  • Next think of ways to simplify the preparation of that meal.  What can be prepped and then frozen, what can be cooked ahead of time, etc.
  • Then make a batch and see how much time you save with the ahead of time prep.

Start by having 2 meals a week that are quick to prepare, then make it 3 and then 4.  At the moment we plan for 6 nights of at home meals and allow one to be either a night out or a cooking experiment (sometimes I need to switch things up with something fancy).  Figure out with works for you and keep at it!  Soon you will be saving money and finding more time on your hands.

Getting Closer to Grocery Shopping Once a Month

Grocery Shop Once a Month

 

 

If you had to explain grocery shopping to someone who never has done it, how would you describe it?  Would you talk about how you work hard all week only to spend a fortune on prepared food that is only slightly less expensive than the take out place down the road?  Would you say that it is a big time commitment that leaves you with sacks full of food and no real plan to use it?  If I were to describe grocery shopping I would say that its an opportunity to be creative, save money, and a challenge to see how well you can organize your food storage space.

I’ll admit that I used to stress about getting to the grocery store every week.  It would take me about an hour to get everything that I need and I would still occasionally forget something and need to make a last minute trip on my way home from work which would inevitably leave me with 10 extra things that I didn’t need.  I would cut weekend trips short if I knew our fridge was bare.  And grocery shopping on a Monday night was just such a pain and it that meant that we didn’t make lunch for Monday and both my husband and I would end up eating out that day.  When I buy my lunch at work I want it to be my choice and not a default answer to poor planning.  It took me a while to realize that instead of trying to shop for the week I could buy enough for the month.

Every day I’m amazed at both how much money we are saving on groceries and how much time I’m saving by not going grocery shopping as often.  The start of a new month gets me excited.  I’ve started doing one big shopping trip during the first week of the month.  I pick up all of my staples and replenish my pantry and fridge.  I buy all of the potatoes, onions, beans, olives, eggs, cheese and tubs of sour cream for the month.  One of my favorite parts about shopping this way is that I don’t need to remember what is getting low in the fridge or pantry since I’m not making a big grocery list every week.  If we run out of sour cream before the end of the month, we will do without.  Same thing goes for potatoes, onions and eggs.  The world isn’t going to end if you have to eat rice with your steak instead of the usual mashed potatoes.

There are a lot of ways that you can achieve a shrinking grocery bill.  You can copy someone else’s grocery list item by item and cook exactly what they cook.  But what if your family doesn’t like some of the meals on that list?  What do you do then?  That is why I think a better long term solution is to create your own list.  Of course could just copy my grocery list but unless you cook exactly what I cook – it just won’t work.  

Here are the steps that I take to maximize my grocery shopping efficiency.

  1.       Make a list of all of the groceries that you buy during the month
  2.       List how much of each item you will need to last you the entire month
  3.       Remove the items that expire quickly that cannot be frozen – like milk, salad fixings, fresh berries.  You can still buy these but only buy enough that can be used prior to expiration.
  4.       Save this list in a place that can be easily accessed.  I keep my grocery list in good docs and print it out when I do my big monthly shopping trip.
  5.       Print out this list (or keep it digital and edit the document) and take a quick inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer
  6.       Grocery shop with the intention of only buying those items on your list during your once a month trip.
  7.       Keep track of when in the month that you run out of the items on your list.  For example:  I thought that we could get through the month with 6 cans of olives since we use them in our   salads for lunch, I forgot that we also use olives on tacos and nachos (and those are on the meal plan almost weekly).  After one month of running out 3 weeks into the month I upped our monthly amount to 8 jars.
  8.       Repeat next month.

 

Of course this method isn’t a one size fits all, but it is designed to be tailored to your own eating habits.  When you consolidate your shopping into one trip instead of spending extra time at the grocery store, you can spend your time doing the things that you want to do.  Always think of your list as a work in progress.  You should be forever tweaking the amount of what you buy or even the types of food that you eat but always make a decision for that month and stick with it.  Also, make it your mission to eat through all of your pantry and freezer fossils so that nothing goes to waste and it makes room for all of the tasty new foods that you want to try.  If you truly don’t like a food that you tried, there is no sense in allowing it to take up space – just get rid of it.  Either give it to someone who will use it or just throw it away.  Of course you should keep a good variety of fresh vegetables in your diet and use frozen when fresh is not available or too expensive.

More and more savings on groceries (July)

In July we spent a whopping $153.53 on groceries for 2 adults and our 8 month old. Our grocery budget is $400 per month which I’m sticking with for the rest of the year since this level of savings is new to me. We were spending on average $500 per month for 2 adults. Its crazy how much we are saving and we don’t feel deprived at all, we even eat steak once a week.  What made the biggest impact on our grocery bill was we stopped buying drinks (like soda, bottled juice or milk), we started cooking everything from scratch and that means that we don’t even have a frozen pizza in our freezer, we started aggressively tracking the price of meat and make our choice of grocery store for the week based on the sales.  I dabbled in couponing this month and I’m still tweaking my method to maximize my dollar saved and minimizing my time spent messing with coupons.  One thing I definitely need to address this month is a better filing system for the coupons.  They are kind of all over the place right now since I don’t like keeping extra stuff in my purse.

monthly grocery totals

It’s the start of a new month and I’m excited to do my monthly stock up shop. My freezer is getting a little bit low, so I’ll be buying a few things that I can cook in bulk and freeze for later. The goal is to have enough pre-made food in the freezer so that we only need to cook 3 nights each week and those nights will be quick food on the grill or tacos so a max of 30 minutes from prep to table.

I assume that for each adult in our household I need ¼ lb of meat for dinner so that’s 15 lbs of meat for the month. For lunch we do chicken salads so I need ¼ of chicken breast for each salad which is 2.5 lbs of chicken breast per week for the both of us, which is about 12 lbs of chicken breast or 10 chicken breasts. This meat could come from packages of boneless skinless breasts or from 5 chickens.

I have the following in the freezer:
– 9 dinners of chicken taquitos
– 10 dinners of meatballs

I plan to add this month to the freezer:
– 15 dinners of pulled pork

Monday 8/1 shopping list

Geissler’s
5lbs potatoes – $2.00
48 oz Turkey Hill Icecream – $1.00 (with coupon)
3lbs green beans – $2.07
2lbs zucchini – $1.98
2lbs yellow squash – $1.98
2 pts grape tomatoes – $3.00
2 loaves day-old bread – $3.50

Total: $20.40

Pricerite
8 cans of olives – $7.92
1 celery stalk – $1.49
6 dozen eggs – $5.94
1 lb bacon – $3.00
1 lb sweet potato – $0.99
4 sour cream 8oz – $6.00
1 tortillas 10 ct – $2.99
5 bags frozen veggies – $4.95
2 yogurt chobani 4 packs – $5.98
2x 6 oz pepperoni – $5.98
8 chicken breast – $15.25
12 lbs pork loin – $22.00
3 lbs sweet italian sausage – $6.00
5 lbs shredded cheddar – $10.99
2 cucumbers – $1.18
1 lbs tomatoes – $0.99
hershey syrup – $1.99 (gotta have it to go with the icecream)
4 bell peppers – $4.39

Total: $108.03

Super Stock up total: $128.43

This leaves me $271.57 to use on our weekly trips for salad fixings, fresh produce and super deals on meat.  We only have 2 ribeyes left in the freezer (oh the horror) so I’m hoping to find another great deal on those.  I got about 8 ribeye steaks at $5.99 per lb where normal price for ribeyes can be between $12-$16 per lb.  If I see them that cheap again I’ll be buying a lot more than 8 steaks!  So this is a pricey week for me, what are you buying at the grocery store?

The Best Baked Dairy Free Meatballs

Meatball recipe

Do you love the ideas of freezer meals but get tired of eating out of your crockpot? Lucky for you there are so many different main dishes that you can freeze for those nights when you would rather spend the time you normally spend cooking, doing something else – like spending time with your family, reading a book or taking a hot bath ***catching Pokemon XD.

Every 3 weeks I make a big batch of one of our go-to meal to stick in the freezer. Normally that batch will last us about 3 months with us eating it once a week. I normally keep a stock of chicken taquitos, pulled pork, and meat balls in our freezer for some minimal effort meals. What would you do if you had 3 nights during the week where you could have a homemade meal on the table in 5 minutes? I know that if I’m cooking from scratch it normally takes me about 45 minutes to put a meal together. So this saves me a few hours per week by having something ready to go.

I want to accomplish 3 things when I make a big batch of food. First I want these meals to save me money so that means that it needs to be from reasonably priced ingredients. Second these meals has to save me time and this is accomplished by making things that will last a while in the freezer. Third, this meal needs to be relatively healthy and taste good. I make almost everything from scratch and that includes my chicken stock and sauces.

We all see the crazy deals that you can get on ground beef when it comes in the plastic sleeve. It’s normally a very high fat ratio and around $2.50 per lb or less. I’m going to show you an easy way to use that 5 lb meat log and stock your freezer at the same time.  If you have ever tried the store bought frozen meatballs you know that they’re not as good as the homemade version.  This recipe is super easy and doesn’t require skillet cooking.  Just roll the meatballs out and bake!  Don’t be afraid of the 27% fat ratio – repeat this mantra: Fat = flavor.

Here is the log of ground beef. Don't be afraid - it's here to save you money!
Here is the log of ground beef. Don’t be afraid – it’s here to save you money!

Prep and cook time: About 2 hours depending on how fast you roll balls.
Yields: 160 meatballs or about 32 servings

Ingredients:
5lbs ground beef – for ultimate value buy the tube or meat log, sometimes found in the freezer section
2 large onions
3 eggs
1 cup bread crumbs
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon basil
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons steak or bbq sauce (optional)

Instructions:
Dice the onions finely and place in a large bowl – probably the biggest bowl in your kitchen. In a pinch, you can use a stock pot for mixing if you don’t have a big bowl.
Add all of the ingredients to the bowl except for the meat. Mix so that the spices are evenly distributed
Add your ground beef and mix with your hand until the mixtures is even and uniform. This should take you about 3 to 4 minutes of mixing. If you mix your meat too much it could make your meatballs tough.
In a small skillet over medium heat cook about 1 teaspoon of the meat mixture for about 5 minutes. Allow to cool and taste for seasoning. Add additional seasonings if needed. This step is super important when making big batches of food. You want to make sure that the food is up to snuff so that it doesn’t turn into a freezer fossil.
Using a spoon, create meatballs a little bit bigger than 1 inch in diameter, they will shrink by about 20%. To create the balls, take about 2 tablespoons of meat mix and roll it gently between around in the palms of your hands. Place on a baking sheet leaving about an inch between each meatball
Bake at 350 for 15-17 minutes.

Meatball ingredients

Add all of the ingredients to the bowl except for the meat.
Add all of the ingredients to the bowl except for the meat.
Mix so that the spices are evenly distributed
Mix so that the spices are evenly distributed
Mix your ingredients for about 3 to 4 minutes
Add the meat and mix your ingredients for about 3 to 4 minutes.
Roll your meatball just a little bit bigger than 1 inch across. They will shrink when cooked
Roll your meatball just a little bit bigger than 1 inch across. They will shrink when cooked
To create the balls, take about 2 tablespoons of meat mix and roll it gently between around in the palms of your hands
To create the balls, take about 2 tablespoons of meat mix and roll it gently between around in the palms of your hands
These guys are ready to bake! Who has time to pan fry meatballs?
These guys are ready to bake! Who has time to pan fry meatballs?
All done! These meatballs are ready to add to your favorite ball friendly meal.
All done! These meatballs are ready to add to your favorite ball friendly meal.

For Storage: allow to cool to room temperature and then put in plastic storage bags. Refrigerate overnight and then lay flat in the freezer. The meat balls should be in 1 row and not stacked on top of each other. This allows you to pull only what you need out of the freezer instead of needing to thaw out the whole bag. These keep in the freezer for 3+ months.

Once your meatballs are cooled put them in storage bags in a single layer
Once your meatballs are cooled put them in storage bags in a single layer

This is the best part about having frozen meat balls. To use them in a meal, place the frozen meatballs on a plate in a circle. Use the defrost setting on your microwave for about 7 minutes for 8 oz of meat. Your mileage may vary depending on your microwave. At this point they are hot and ready to eat and can be added to your dish.

Some of my favorite ways to eat meatballs:
Spaghetti and red sauce
Spaghetti and mushroom cream sauce
Meatball subs or sandwiches
Meatballs with veggies and mashed potatoes

So how much does my 32 servings of meatballs cost?

These are the prices that I got when I picked everything up at Aldi
5lbs ground beef log – $9.99
2 Onions – $0.50 (at $.99 per lb)
3 Eggs – $0.25
1 cup bread crumbs – $0.25
Pepper – $1.20
Salt – $0.06
Cumin – $0.80
Oregano – $0.60
Basil – $0.60
Worcestershire Sauce – $1.40
Steak Sauce – $.10

Total = $15.75
This works out to $0.49 per serving of meatballs. It might be a little bit less expensive than this since I used Amazon prices for the spices. I buy the store brand for spices and almost always get the bulk containers.

So that’s my meatball story, what are some of your favorite foods to batch cook and freeze?

Monthly Meal Plan for June 2016

It is the beginning of summer and the time for losing weight!  We are changing our eating habits a bit when it comes to how we are getting our calories.  In general we eat well balanced meals.  All of our dinners have a protein, vegetable and starch.  The ratio of those three foods could use some tweaking but that’s an easy fix.  The plan is to reduce the portion of meat and add some legumes to the plate so that we are getting more plant based protein.

The protein part of our dinners are planned out on the calendar ahead of time and the sides are composed of what ever veggies are on sale that week.  We have been eating a lot of corn thanks to the $0.20 ears from last week’s grocery trip.  I’ve also picked up some summer squash, asparagus, and zucchini this week.

For breakfasts we’ll be eating the following:
– Hummus and veggies
– Eggs and potatoes

Lunch for the both of us:
– Salads with chicken, chickpeas, a hardboiled egg and lots of veggies
– Leftovers from dinner
– Soup from the freezer

Baby food for this month we are going to introduce:
– Avacado
– Lentils
– Chicken
– White Potatoes
– Barley
– Oatmeal

Thanks to another sale on whole roaster chickens at $0.59 per lb, I have a super stock of chicken that I’ll be adding to the freezer. This helps a ton with the switch to salads for lunch since we use about half of a chicken breast per salad.

I learned a few things from May that I’m going to be incorporating into the June plan.  The one pound portions of meat will almost always yield left overs.  For some meals I’ll only be using half of the pound of meat in the recipe.  A couple of my go to meal items can use up left overs!  We have a new favorite pizza recipe and it involves pulled pork and BBQ sauce!  So that means we can have pulled pork for dinner and then a couple nights later we will make pizza with the leftovers.  We do the same with left over taco meat when we make nachos.  Have I told you how much I love nachos?  It’s definitely in my top five.  With these tweaks to the meal plan this should leave us less leftovers and allow me to eat the soup that’s in the freezer and possibly make more soup throughout the month.

I’m really excited to try some new recipes.  It really helped to establish a food schedule with our go to meals in order to get in a good routine.  But now I want to flex those culinary muscles and make a few new and exciting dishes.

Freezer:
70 taquitos
9 corndogs
3 potato and chicken soup
7 Rib eyes
2 ham
5 lbs shredded cheddar
8 kaiser rolls
4 lbs chopped chicken
1 lb ground beef
1 pulled pork
1 lb shredded mozzarella
1 cup peaches
4 cups chicken stock
1 black bean
1 rice
1 cup peppers
6 bags of frozen veggies

Pantry:
2 lbs black beans
2 lbs chickpeas
1 lbs split peas
1 lbs barley
5 lbs brown rice
4 boxes of pasta
3 containers of breadcrumbs
15 lbs potatoes

I didn’t list everything in my pantry, just the items that I want to work on using.  I have some super old pasta and we eat it so rarely.  I’m thinking of making some cold pasta salads with tuna, olives, and capers to use some of it up.  Here is my meal plan for June:

june

I need to think of some creative ways to serve chicken that incorporates the beans that we have.

You Need a Meal Plan – Getting Started

img_059111

If there was one habit that I picked up that has saved me the most it is using a Meal Plan. Every week I write out what we are going to cook at home and post it.  Use a piece of paper, a calendar or a white board to post your plan.  I use this magnetic whiteboard from amazon that I got for around $10.

Here is a picture of my current meal plan.  All of the meat for the next 2 weeks is in the freezer so that only leaves sides and snacks for my grocery list.  You can be as brief or as detailed as you want with your meal plan.  I list the proteins of the dish and then come home and throw together some sides which usually consist of a vegetable and a starch.  If you benefit from more organization, write out all components of your meal plan.  Do what works for you.

img_05911The area of our budget (which I keep on the other door of my fridge) that saw the most savings since we started meal planning has been in our restaurant/take out food.  We cut our spending in this area by 80%!

Freezer Inventory – I use my freezer a lot, so the first thing I do at the beginning of the month is I take inventory and write down everything that I have in the freezer.  I make special note of anything that is on the older side and make an effort to use it up.  Every day I look at my meal plan and pull anything out of the freezer and put it in the fridge to thaw.  This was probably the biggest change to my cooking routine.  Prior to meal planning, I would get home, look in the freezer for meat to cook and then microwave it on defrost and inevitably end up partially cooking the meat and messing up my recipe.

Creating your plan – Everyone has their favorite recipes to cook.  Start with planning to make meals that you know.  Save the new adventures of a intricate recipe for a day that you don’t have a lot planned.  I try to make at least 3-4 of my meals during the week low maintenance.  This week it was; Nachos – used up the taco meat and beans from the previous week, Chili – which I prepared the night before to pop in the slow cooker, Pork – frozen pulled pork from last week, Pasta and Meatballs – frozen cooked meatballs from a couple weeks ago.

Prep what you can the night before – Every day take a look at you meal plan and think about what can do to save some time.  Move any meat from the freezer to fridge to thaw.  Are there any veggies that you can wash/peel/chop so that they are good to go for tomorrow?  Any crock pot meals that can be completely put together the night before and stuck in the fridge?

Finding Accountability – I post my meal plan on a forum that I’m active on in order to hold myself accountable.  You are more likely to stick with something when you already told others what you plan to do.

Cut yourself some slack – It takes time to form a new habit.  You may on occasion ditch the meal plan and order a pizza.  That’s OK!  Don’t be discouraged.  If you find yourself wanting a low fuss day try to make that a day where you eat leftovers or use your slow cooker.  It’s less tempting to cheat when dinner is ready to go.

Share with me your meal plan, tips, tricks or success stories in the comments!