Often times, preparing a family meal seems too much to take on after a busy day of activities. A way to remove the hurdle to sitting down together and eating with your family can be accomplished by planning and preparing part of those meals ahead of time. Keeping a list of already made, or half-made meals can make you feel in control as you start your day.
The following convenience tips can save money, not just time, as you take advantage of basic “starter” meal ingredients that you can purchase while they are on sale and eat when it’s convenient for your family.
When will you be able to spend a morning or afternoon getting a head start on multiple meals? Think about your family’s favorite meals and the ingredients they have in common. Now you know what you can prepare ahead and store in the freezer to get some ready-to-cook meals.
An online search or trip to your library’s section of cookbooks can be an inspiration and generate motivation for planning, shopping, preparing, and freezing meals your family can share together. With recipes, grocery store flyers, and paper and pen in hand you are well on your way to easier dinner routines. Searching “make ahead meals” on the internet will bring up a list of many sites to look at and determine which recipes you want to print out or copy down to try.
The number of meals you are able to freeze will depend on the space available in your freezer. You might first need to use up items to make room for your meals. Check what ingredients you already have and list what you need to purchase. Fresh ingredients for things like green salads can be purchased the week you plan to include them with your main meal.
Meals can be frozen then put in the refrigerator to thaw first thing in the morning and heated throughout when you return home in the evening. When you prepare chili or spaghetti sauce, make double batches. That’s called “cooking once and eating twice.” Divide the meal in two, date, label, and freeze.
Common Starting Points
Buying ground beef or whole chickens on sale can be a starting point for making meals you know your family will enjoy. Ground beef and chicken are a common ingredient in many dishes—pasta sauces, tacos, skillet stroganoff, chili, soups, stews, and casseroles. The additional ingredients for these meals can typically come from canned items that can be waiting in the cupboard for you to use the day of the week you’ll complete the specific meals.
Purchase several pounds of ground beef on sale and brown with onions and garlic. Drain the fat from the pan and divide in amounts for different meals. If browning 5 pounds of ground meat. and your family uses 1 pound for each separate dish, divide the cooked meat into five freezer containers or bags. If your family would need 2 pounds of ground meat, purchase a number of pounds you can divide by 2. Date and label the containers before placing in the freezer. Because you started with basic onions and garlic, you are able to add the spices for the specific meal you want, such as taco seasoning or an Italian blend. Start a “convenience” list of what you put in the freezer and tape on the inside of a cabinet door. Now you can easily keep track of what meals you are able to quickly serve. As you use a container, cross it off your list.
Start a 4-pound chicken in a roasting pan at 450 F oven for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, turn oven down to 350 F and roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes. When the internal temperature is 165 F, remove chicken and let it rest for 15 minutes. Cool long enough to easily handle removing the meat from the bones. Shred or cut cooked chicken into the amount needed for different family favorites. Again, store in dated and labeled freezer containers. Remember you can plan to use what you just prepared for that evening’s meal and freeze the rest. Record the packages of cooked chicken on your “convenience” list.
When planning what meals you expect to make with this head start, purchase the other ingredients you will need for the meal that can be stored long term. Any additional fresh ingredients can be purchased close to the time you plan to serve the meal.
There are a wealth of ideas and information on the internet to make meals with your family more enjoyable. The USDA has a site called What’s Cooking, where you can find healthy, low-cost recipes. You can save the ones your family likes into your own “cookbook.” That makes it easy to find again. If there’s an evening when you can’t think of anything to make with what you have on hand, you can type in the ingredients you do have, and it pulls up recipes that use those ingredients.
The Family Dinner Project is a great site to find a week’s worth of meals and a shopping list is included. Along with the recipes, you’ll also get daily conversation starters to keep everyone engaged during your meals. They include a section on budget-friendly meals that cost an average of $1.40 per person. Links to these opportunities are listed below.
Ray, Rachel (2013). Week in a day: Five dishes one day. New York, NY: Atria Paperback of Simon Shuster, Inc.
USDA, Choose My Plate, ChooseMyPlate.gov
What's Cooking: USDA Mixing Bowl.
The Family Dinner Project, thefamilydinnerproject.org
The Family Dinner Project—The Family Breakfast Project, thefamilydinnerproject.org/the-family-breakfast-project/