How to cook fast and frugal family meals
Interested in stretching that dollar as far as it will go while still producing fast and delicious meals? With a little research, planning and imagination, feeding the family can be quick, easy and inexpensive.
Members of a local military community Facebook group, Foodies of the KMC, responded to questions about how they minimize grocery expenses and save time in the kitchen. Their top responses are compiled below. Before your next family dinner or trip to the store, consider these tips from other military moms and savvy shoppers to help you put together timely, terrific meals on a budget.
Creating meal plans and shopping lists was the number one suggestion for saving time and money by Foodies of the KMC members. By planning their meals in advance, they were able to buy bulk ingredients more often, and less likely to impulse buy or select convenience foods. They also used food more wisely, creating less spoilage. And, they conserved time and fuel by making less trips to the store. Start by inventorying the freezer, fridge and pantry. Then, create meal plans that span at least a week, if not a month, allowing for bulk purchases. There are dozens of free, downloadable, fill-in-and-print templates online. Or, utilize smart devices with organizational apps such as Anylist, Bring!, Cozi or Grocery IQ. For more complex organization that includes online recipe clipping, personal recipe storage, meal planning and lists, try Pepperplate, AllRecipes, Evernote, Paprika and ChefTap. Several companies also provide meal-planning services; check out www.eMeals.com, www.realsimple.com/food-recipes and the small, family-operated www.plantoeat.com, which offers a 30-day free trial, no ads and only costs a few dollars a month.
According to Foodies members, shop both on the economy and at the commissary for the best deals. Autumn Ochsner, creator of the Foodies group, agrees. “I shop at discount stores like Lidl, Penny Markt and Aldi for seasonal produce, poultry and local specialties like cheese and wine. The meats and produce are usually local, fresh and since many items are usually seasonal, cheaper than the commissary,” adds Ochsner. Other members also note that while these smaller stores provide less stock in general, they offer low prices on toiletries and the random selection of electronics, small appliances, housewares, bedding, apparel and more. The smaller stores also mean you can quickly shop, pay and leave. Larger hypermarkets are also beneficial, as they provide bigger selections in local or seasonal specialties, meats, fish, dairy and dry good items, and rival on-base prices for appliances and housewares.
Flyers, bulk & coupons
Scan in-store flyers for weekly sales and lowest prices on items from your food plan and lists. It’s worth visiting a single store for a great deal on an item your family eats often. Buy it in bulk, use it in upcoming meal plans, or freeze for later. If you have the funds and proper storage, buy enough until it goes on sale again, then repeat.
Coupons up to six months past their expiration date are accepted at the commissary. Several military-friendly organizations clip and send coupons for commissary customers to use. See the bin near each store entrance and take what you can use. You can also sign up for coupons to be sent to you via email from your favorite retailers. For a list of DeCA retailers, visit www.commissaries.com and click on the coupon link under shopping.
Prepping & freezing
The second best response by the Foodies group members was for prepping and freezing foods. Spend one day a week prepping ingredients for the next week’s meals and snacks. You save by not buying pre-packaged items, and make healthier, whole-food choices. Wash, dry and chop fruits and veggies, portion dry snacks into baggies, shred cheese, pre-cook meats for tacos, stews, soups or salads, and create freezer meals that can be thawed, baked or simmered in a crockpot. A vacuum sealer system is a great investment for freezer foods.
Freezer meals & swap groups – Numerous books, blogs and Pinterest boards are dedicated to this seemingly faddish yet fun and economical food prep technique. The process involves organizing and prepping a list of meals in just a few hours. Either do the prep alone, or join a freezer meal swap or coop, where each member prepares multiple meals of one recipe – one for each member of the group. Then, they meet and swap meals. Some even prep another round of meals together that they’ll take home that day. The best groups are highly organized, with recipes agreed upon beforehand that serve 6-8 and cost about the same to prepare. Members also should have similar cooking skills and taste in food. Freezer meal groups not only save time, but allow for bulk shopping to save money. Google for more ideas. Or, visit www.sixsistersstuff.com for their great freezer meal starter list of eight easy, well-loved slow-cooker freezer meals that can be prepped in an hour. For time-saving casseroles, buy a few rotisserie chickens, remove meat and prep several casseroles at once, such as chicken and rice, chicken a la king or enchiladas. Ready-to-bake, frozen casseroles are great for a pinch.
Dairy & eggs – Yogurt, milk, cheese, butter, whipping cream and buttermilk can all be frozen and easily thawed. Crack eggs and freeze in ice cube trays for individual use, or store multiple in one container. You can also freeze cooked eggs in breakfast burritos or sandwiches for a quick breakfast on the go.
Fruit & veggies – Buy produce in season — or pick it yourself at local farms — and freeze for future cooking, baking and smoothies. Most fruits can be washed, patted dry, then then sliced, cubed, quartered, and flash-frozen on cookie sheets for easy storage and portion removal. Leave the peel on quartered citrus, or zest and freeze separately. Shred zucchini, freeze, and drain after thawing. Chop or process onion, bell pepper and celery in bulk and flash freeze. Tomatoes can be frozen chopped and frozen for cooking, or made into stews, soups, sauces or salsa and frozen. Buy nutrient-rich leafy greens during peak season, freeze, and add while frozen to your favorite smoothie recipe. Or, prep several individual smoothies at once by freezing their ingredients, minus the base liquid, in a bag. When you’re ready for a smoothie, just blend frozen ingredients with a base liquid. For more ideas on delicious, healthy smoothies, visit http://simplegreensmoothies.com or www.momables.com.
Breads, pasta & sandwiches – Large batches of waffles, pancakes, French toast, biscuits, pasta, quick rise or yeast breads or pie crust dough balls can be frozen in airtight bags. For pizza or yeast roll dough, just let dough rise once, form into loaves or dough balls and freeze in airtight bags. Freeze prepared PB&J or deli meat and cheese sandwiches, wrap separately and freeze. Pop into the lunch box and they thaw by lunchtime.
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