Tip of the Day Tuesday: Frugal Freezer Meals ~ Planning for Success!

Today’s “Tip of the Day Tuesday” is brought to you by my friend DeAna, who runs Balancing Act Basics.  In addition to working full time, somehow she manages to do a Once a Month freezer cooking day, too!  Here are her “planning for success” tips.  Make sure you check out her blog, too.  It’s great and she’s got lots of frugal recipes (plus pictures) and tips for finding balance in the busyness of life!

Frugal Freezer Meals–Planning For Success
Freezer meals, also known as Once a Month Cooking (OAMC) or batch cooking, can be a life-saver for the busy parent.  In one day, you can cook up a freezer full of healthy meals that will save you time in the kitchen, and if planned well, can save some green in your pocket.
Here’s what you should know to get started:
  • The key to a successful freezer meal cooking day is planning & preparing.  There’s no need to jump off the couch and head to the store tonight to buy 30 days of food that you plan on cooking tomorrow.  Although you can do this if you really, really want to, doing so is ill-advised as you’ll wind up spending more money than if you planned and prepared ahead of time.
  • Cooking partners are a great tool.  If you’re able to find a “freezer friend,” then I highly recommend partnering up with someone else who is also interested in OAMC.  A team of two is a much more powerful means to chopping vegetables, stirring pots, and keeping kids entertained.  I don’t have anyone that I can partner with, but I’ve learned to make adjustments in my cooking by doubling a recipe or cooking up certain meats together (like browning 2-3 lbs of ground beef at once), then splitting into respective meals.
  • Set a date–not too close, but not too far off.  When I plan my OAMC day, I take a careful look at the calendar to see what we’ve got coming up.  I usually schedule for the 3rd or 4th Saturday of the upcoming month.  This gives me plenty of time to buy my ingredients and plan my menu.  For example, about the middle of February, I took a look at March on the calendar, and saw that the dates were already starting to get full.  I scheduled my March cooking day for the 4th Saturday.  Putting it on the calendar gave me a date to look forward to, time enough to stock the freezer and pantry, and no excuse for not getting it done.  It was on the calendar, and I knew that I had dedicated that day to cooking.
  • Decide what type of meals you’re going to make–dinner only?  breakfast, lunch & dinner? I first started making freezer meals a year ago.  I was so gung-ho and optimistic.  For a couple months, I tried making both breakfast & dinner meals, but wound up spending two days in the kitchen.  I don’t work with a partner, and although my husband tries, he’s not so good at distracting the kids.  After a couple months, I just decided my time was better spent on sticking to dinner meals on feezer cooking day.  And to compensate, I usually make a homemade breakfast at least one day on the weekend.
  • Ask yourself if you want to make a month’s worth of meals or just a couple weeks.  The first month I made freezer meals, I just did a week and a half’s supply.  Cooking up multiple meals in one day was a foreign concept, and I didn’t want to get overwhelmed.  But I had to find out if freezer meals were right for me and my family, so I started off small, found out how awesome freezer meals were, then built up from there.  And lately, I’ve been cooking up some of my meat purchases in the slow cooker, then freezing the cooked meat in meal-size portions (one, they fit in the freezer better and two, I don’t have to spend as much time in the kitchen on freezer day).  The point is to aim for something realistic that will work for you.
  • Your grocer’s sales ads are your best friend.  Before heading to the grocery store, look through the sales ads, and circle the items that you need or you’re getting low on.  Take another glance through the ad, and mark the ones that are really marked down.  Usually, the items on the front page are your loss leaders and are at drastically-reduced prices.  Meat and produce sales are typically found on the front & back pages of the ads.  And while planning your regular shopping, take into consideration something that you can add to your cart specifically for your freezer meal cooking day.  Buying a couple onions that are $0.69/lb?  Why not buy that 3lb bag of onions that’s marked down to $0.99 instead?  You’ll have a couple onions for your regular meal planning, and a bagful of onions that you can use on freezer cooking day.  This leads me to my next tip…
  • Stock up on rock-bottom priced meats.  What do you spend on a pound of ground beef?  Chicken, pork loin/roast or ground turkey?  I used to shop exclusively at Walmart, but I had no idea what I spent per pound on my meat purchases.  I had a round-about dollar amount that I thought was acceptable, but we never get sales ads for Walmart.  When I started comparing the meat prices on local grocery store sales ads with what I saw in Walmart, I realized quickly that some things were simply too expensive. 

So now, shopping at grocery stores instead of Walmart (who, in my area, does not match meat sales ads if they are not a brand Walmart sells) I can buy a family pack of ground beef for $1.38/lb, chicken leg quarters for $.48/lb, b/s chicken breasts for $1.50/lb, pork loin for $1.49-$1.59/lb, pork roast for $0.99/lb, and ground turkey for $1/lb.  The key is stocking up on the meats that are reduced to as low as they come.  Try shopping late in the evening, after the 5pm shoppers have come & gone, but before the store closes.  At the end of the day, managers will often reduce the price of meat that is close to its “sell by” date, even if the meat is already on sale.  Also, don’t be afraid to buy family paks (you’re stocking up for a month of freezer cooking anyway, so why not?).  They’re usually cheaper per pound.  If your bulk meat item is too big for your freezer, take a glance here to see an alternative freezer meal method that will help you get around your dilemma.

  • Plan your menu based on your purchases.  After spending 2-3 weeks stocking up your freezer and pantry with the rock-bottom purchases you made during your regular shopping trips, evaluate what you have and plan your freezer menu.  I take inventory of how much I have of each meat, and I go from there.  For example, on a sheet of paper, I write:

                    Chicken ||||| ||||| (these are tic marks)
                    Pork ||||| |||||
                    Gr. Beef ||||| |||
                    Shrimp ||

When I see how much I have for each meat category, I plan out my menu, also taking into consideration the items I’ve stocked up in my pantry and freezer, such as pasta, beans, and veggies.  Click here to view my March freezer menu.  Note that the breakfast items are simply a list that I’ll select from each weekend so I can make a homemade breakfast for my family, like the Chocolate Buttermilk Muffins I recently made.  If there’s anything on my menu that I don’t have in the house, I’ll hold out until just before freezer cooking day to see if it will go on sale, and if I don’t buy it, I’ll try to substitute something else or do without.

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.  What I know about freezer meals has been learned through trial and error.  I read up on a few things that got me started, and I simply do what works for me.  Some OAMC cooks swear by aluminum baking dishes, but I rarely use them because they cost money.  Instead, I pretty much stick to quart- and gallon-size freezer bags, or in some instances, freezer bags.  They take up less room in the freezer and are cheaper.  I also don’t let it bother me if my kids are in need of mommy’s attention.  Instead of getting frustrated (and I’ve been there before, I’m no saint) I try to let them help me out by measuring & adding ingredients to the pot or mixing bowl.  Most of all, relax and simply enjoy the moment!  Your kitchen is your domain.  Have fun with it!

DeAna is a full-time professional and wanna-be supermom who blogs at Balancing Act Basics where she shares her adventures in finding balance.  From recipes to menu planning and freezer cooking, gardening and canning to date night with her hubbie, she strives to enjoy the busyness of life. 

Tip of the Day Tuesday: Menu Planning Tips

I used to menu plan sporadically. When I did this, I found that by the time I got home from work, I didn’t even what to think about what to make for dinner, so we usually ended up going out or picking up something from a drive thru. Not only was this incredibly healthy (which I’m sure inevitably played a role in my weight gain), but I also don’t even like to think about how much money we wasted.

Menu planning takes some time to get used to, but once you get it down, it is definitely worth it!

Here are some tips if you’re just getting started:

1. Make a list of your favorite family meals ~ Sit down as a family and let everyone share their favorite meals. Make a list to refer to so you don’t have to brainstorm ideas when you first start meal planning. This “list” will be a great resource and will make your meal planning much easier.

2. Browse cookbooks, recipe blogs, and other online resources ~ I like to try at least one recipe a week so I don’t get in a cooking “rut.” We have discovered some new family favorites this way!

Here are some of my favorite cookbooks right now:

Fix It and Forget It Big Cookbook: 1400 Best Slow Cooker Recipes

Girlfriends on The Go – A Busy Mom’s Guide to Make Ahead Meals

Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl

Here are some of my favorite online resources:

$5 Dinners – I have been reading her blog for about a year now and I got her book for Christmas and LOVE it. She’s got lots of great, practical, kid-friendly (and affordable!) recipes.

A Year of Slow Cooking – I would be lost without my crockpot and this blog has some great recipes! She spent an entire year cooking every day in her crockpot! If you’re looking for gluten free recipes, so has tons! I got her cookbook for Christmas and love it!

Balancing Act Basics – DeAna and I went to college together and started swapping recipes long before either of us had a blog. She’s got lots of great recipes and pictures, too!

On My Menu – When I get in a “rut” and am looking for new ideas, Marci’s blog is always an inspiration for me. Plus, there are great pictures and our kids are similar ages, so I figure if her kids like a recipe, mine will probably like it too!

Our Best Bites – Our two favorites so far from this site are the Cashew Sweet and Sour Pork and the Spicy Honey Chicken. I’ve heard lots of the dessert items are great, but we haven’t tried any of those yet.

The Menu Planning Monday posts at orgjunkie.com are also a great resource because you can browse hundreds of meal plans each week!

3. Consider what you have “on hand” and browse your weekly grocery store ad circulars for ideas – I meal plan one week at a time to keep down my grocery expenses. As I’m sitting down to plan for the week (I usually do this on Friday nights or Saturday mornings), I think about what I have on hand and look through the grocery ads to see what is on sale so I can plan around those two things. This helps me to rotate my stockpile and also helps me with my grocery expenses.

4. Plan a variety – I usually try to plan a variety of meals each week rotating through beef, chicken, pork, and pasta dishes. Some people like to plan “theme” nights when they are meal planning (taco bar, potato bar, etc.).

Your menu is just a “guide.” It doesn’t have to be an “absolute.” I do all my meal prep work in the mornings before I go to work and sometimes, I will find that what I had planned for Thursday sounds really good on Tuesday, so I end up making it that day instead. By having a menu for the week, I at least have a plan, and I’m not scrambling to make decisions about what’s for dinner at a time when I’m not really in the mood to make dinner and it has also cut out last minute grocery trips (where I always end up spending way more than planned) and we have been able to cut our eating out budget to a third of what it was over the past year (we’re currently at $50/month!). Plus, we get to spend “quality” time together as a family.

Did you plan a menu for the week or do you have other menu planning tips? Please feel free to link up and share below!