Cheap food in quantity + convenience
November 4, 2018 3:09 PM   Subscribe

Hi! I'm trying to improve our family's food game by cooking big meals more often and using more vegetables. Thoughts? Advice? Recipes?

I think we spend too much money on food, mostly because every meal is 3/4 meat, and also because our meal planning is slapdash in a way that means we let some food go bad (or just use a few sprigs of the cilantro or parsley or whatever). Eating more vegetables would also help us be healthier. But we have limited time in the evenings.

My tentative plan is to cook (or at least prep) three big casseroles or stews over the weekend. If each gives us about 8-10 servings (2 nights of 3 people each + 1-2 lunches for 1-2 days), that should get us mostly through the week, no? I'll make freezer-friendly things in case we get sick of the meal prematurely.

Does that make sense? Do you have tips for making a plan like this work? What about recipe ideas? (I could really use some recipe ideas!)

Special requests and details: The meals do need to have a lot of protein (I'm pregnant, and we have a growing child). I don't have a slow cooker. Oh, and we don't tend to buy canned foods (due to the whole BPA thing) but can make things like beans from scratch.

posted by slidell to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
I've been using Budget Bytes quite a bit - would guess we average at least 1 meal a week from her recipes.
posted by COD at 3:33 PM on November 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is largely what we do, and I recommend you look up "meal prep" on youtube because it's a whole thing, including people who do a month of meals at a time (these folks often own 2-3 each refrigerators and freezers), and they generally link all the recipes in the show description or a linked blog post. "Freezer meal" is another term you might be interested in, though those are generally assembled and frozen uncooked and then cooked a la minute (well, a la heure anyway) in an Instant Pot or slow cooker, but there are oven/stovetop versions.

All my meals are keto so probably not specifically of interest to you, but I often wing a casserole for the week that has up to a couple pounds vegetables (2-3 of: zucchini, cauliflower, spaghetti squash, butternut squash or sweet potato (back before keto), spinach, green beans, mushrooms, eggplant (which turns into sauce), mixed with a "sauce" of ricotta or cottage cheese, a little liquid, a couple eggs, and maybe some cheese, with lots of garlic and onion and usually a hot pepper diced in. All this is assembled in the pan and topped with a meat-based tomato sauce (I make this in enormous vats and freeze in quarts) and cheese and baked at 350 for 40-50 minutes depending on contents. Usually something like that is half the week's lunches and the other half is a simply-prepared meat (grilled or roasted chicken, pulled pork, pot roast) with a green veg steamed plus a cauliflower or zucchini gratin or casserole or curry.

Our breakfasts for the week are egg muffins, which I assemble and bake weekly because I don't love the way they freeze, BUT I cook huge batches of bacon, breakfast sausage, and ground beef ideally only once or twice a month, and then I roast about a pan and a half of sliced mushrooms every week because I really like mushrooms in my egg muffins and they don't freeze well.

The trick to good meal planning, for me, has been to keep my momentum up so I'm never starting from zero (from a component standpoint) AND I'm cooking each composed thing in part for the freezer and eating in part from the freezer, so I'm not having to eat that exact casserole and chicken meal every day, I'm eating some of that plus a curry from a couple weeks ago and pulled pork with vegetables. I usually have enough in the freezer that I can punt or just do some components one weekend if I'm really busy or not feeling well, but I can't do that week after week (although sometimes I *have* to take a weekend off because I've filled the freezer).

My general philosophy is that I don't turn on an appliance unless I'm going to produce something that's going to get eaten at two separate meals, bare minimum. Every once in a while we do have a meal of odds and ends, but even then it's generally an omelette or Big Salad made of stuff I'd previously prepared.

Here's a list of 101 Keto/Low-Carb casseroles that I often return to for new ideas.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:50 PM on November 4, 2018 [12 favorites]

Cooked chicken breast is really versatile and goes into things I like way better than casseroles. Put it in salads, put it in tacos or burritos, make sandwiches, reheat with a sauce ported over it for variety, etc.
posted by Candleman at 3:53 PM on November 4, 2018

I’ve had good luck with recipes from the Forks Over Knives website. They’re all vegan without processed vegan foods, so they’re very cheap. Emphasis is on health, so lots of vegetables. Focus on bean recipes if you’re concerned about protein. Not saying you should go vegan, but one vegan casserole or stew a week will save you money.
posted by FencingGal at 4:10 PM on November 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

Agree with Candleman about cooked chicken breast, it's very versatile. I cook some every weekend. I use it in sandwiches, salads, etc.

I used to make up my own marinade with olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, dried herbs, and garlic...and then I realized I was basically making salad dressing. Now I just dump in a couple glugs of salad dressing (I like Annie's Oil and Vinegar, but any "Italian" dressing will work). Marinate the chicken for at least 30 mins in (I use a gallon zip-top bag), then bake for 30 mins on 400. I used to cook for 20 mins and check with a probe thermometer (165 degrees) but I got lazy and just do 30 minutes.
posted by radioamy at 4:12 PM on November 4, 2018

As someone who kinda hates chicken breasts but cannot be bothered with bone-in chicken, I've been delighted to find more and more stores carrying boneless skinless leg quarters - not just the thigh, the entire thigh-leg assembly - which are so much more tolerant of reheating. That is mostly what I use when I make chicken, either cooked on its own or in curries/soups/etc.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:27 PM on November 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

Lasagna are also good for this, and honestly if you have access to Costco, the Kirkland brand lasagnas are pretty good. I swear my mom fed us lasagna at least 2-4x a month growing up. The lasagna+ broccoli(or other veg) made a pretty solid low effort meal, and usually fed the 4 of us for 2 dinners.
posted by larthegreat at 4:56 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

We eat a very unimaginative rotation of foods in this style, so you probably don't want to take your food inspiration from my kitchen: chili, spaghetti with meat sauce, curries, stir fry, and roasted chicken that becomes chicken stew (you can freeze an entire chicken carcass; that is handy.)

Anyway what is useful is frozen stuff. We cook for two so to reduce waste we use frozen chopped onions, frozen chopped garlic, frozen cilantro, frozen parsley. The onions and garlic come pre-chopped from our supermarket, and the cilantro, parsley etc we freeze ourselves.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:32 PM on November 4, 2018

Big pans of burritos. Buy the big tortillas, fill them up, set them in an 11x17 baking dish, top with some salsa and cheese and bake. Then you can wrap them up, freeze and reheat. You can experiment with the fillings. I like black bean, sweet potato and chicken or ground beef, red pepper, and corn.

You can brown a big batch of ground beef and use half for the burritos and half for something else like a shepherds pie or chili or soup.

We’ve been making 15 bean soup pretty regularly since I found out everyone in my house likes it. And the beans are so full of good protein and fiber. My version is made in an instant pot but you can google for different recipes. I like shredded carrots in mine and either ham or ground beef. Not a lot of meat, but enough to add some flavor.
posted by MadMadam at 5:32 PM on November 4, 2018

It depends on what kind of cuisines and spices work for you, but I tend to cook a couple of large meals like this in a Dutch oven each week during colder weather. Some regulars on my menu are: beef stew with root vegetables (I like this recipe but I put diced potatoes directly in the stew rather than mashing them on the side); channa masala, sometimes with peas or squash added (Madhur Jaffery's recipe is a good one, here's a slightly simplified version) with rice or paratha; West African peanut, chicken, and sweet potato stew (here's a similar recipe) with okra and maybe some chopped collard greens mixed in, over rice or on its own; various kinds of Turkish tomato-based stews with beef or chicken and eggplant, peppers, garlic, onion, and sometimes potato or carrot (here's an example of something along those lines) which are good over rice or with bread; and a meat sauce for pasta with a lot of diced carrot and celery added for extra vegetables (sort of a simplified and more tomato-y bolognese). Another good Turkish one is etli kuru fasulye, a white bean and lamb or beef stew, sort of like cassoulet. It's much better with dried beans, so it's a good option if you're avoiding the canned stuff.
posted by karayel at 5:42 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another here for the Budget Bytes suggestion. She also has a great Meal Prepping 101 guide!

I generally will roast quite a bit of meat on my cooking day (whole chicken/beef/pork loin) and usually will chuck in a huuuge pan of vegetables at the same time to roast. This will usually last me (singleton) around 4-5 days for about 8-10 meals.

If I run out of vegetables first, that's a pretty easy quick fix. Salads are great for this. Sauteed vegetables are pretty quick as is steamed broccoli or cauliflower.

If I run out of protein first, I'll usually get some fish and/or chicken thighs to tide me over until when my next cooking day rolls around. I like fish because super lean and fillets are quick to cook. I can also cook about 4-5 deboned chicken thighs in 20 minutes or so (which includes the time it takes me to debone them. I love leaving the skin on for some extra crunch.) Every once in a while I'll treat myself to steak since that's also fast. Eggs are also a great quick protein source.

If for some reason I run out of everything, I'll throw together a quick stir fry. Using relatively thinly sliced meats (or tofu) helps it cook really quickly. It's usually one of those supermarket packs of pre-sliced stir fry meat and 2 bags of frozen vegetables. I can usually get about 3 or 4 meals out of this. I make my own stir fry sauce, which is about 1/4 cup soy sauce, a dash of sesame oil, and lots of garlic.
Generally, I tend to run out of veggies first because I build my plate as 1/2 veggies, 1/4 protein, and 1/4 carbs. It works out better this way for me because cooking veggies generally takes less time than cooking meat (mostly because I get impatient sometimes and eating undercooked vegetables won't get you sick).
posted by astapasta24 at 6:49 PM on November 4, 2018

Frozen veggies are also a super easy/quick way to add veggies to anything & bulk out your meal. Like if you make soup ahead of time, you can add a bag of frozen peas or cauliflower when heating it up. Cauliflower in particular is nice for soups because it takes on the flavor of what you cooked it in....

I'm a huge fan of modular cooking, where you pre-cook things ahead of time and combine them together for tasty meals. That way you can change up flavors to keep from getting tired. For this reason, I've been into prepping quinoa salad bowls on the weekend, which involves cooking a pot of quinoa or your grain of choice (can be done in 30 minutes on a pressure cooker or stovetop) and then whatever additions you want:
- Shredded/cubed cooked meat or sausage
- beans
- oven roasted vegetables (like eggplant, zucchini, squash, carrots, etc)
- salsa (mango salsa is particularly fun & freezes well!)
- frozen veggies
- cheese (feta, goat cheese)
- hummus
- avocado or guac
- ricotta cheese
- canned pumpkin
- red onions
- bell peppers
- fresh herbs like scallions or cilantro

15 minutes before you want to eat, take the ingredients out of fridge and assemble to taste. You can enjoy it cold or warm (I'm lazy and microwave in the same serving bowl).
posted by devrim at 6:57 PM on November 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

You didn’t mention breakfasts, but I bulk prep a week’s worth of steel cut oats on Sunday. I use a ratio of 4X1 liquid/oats. The liquid could be dairy, water, or a non-dairy alternative. I like raisins and coconut flakes, so I add those to the pot with the oats and liquid. Heat the pot to boiling, then turn it off and remove from heat. An hour later, I pour into individual mason jars so I can take them work easily. Microwave or stovetop reheat whenever you want, and add berries, nuts, hemp seeds, flax, chia, maple syrup, spices, or whatever the heck will make it healthy and yummy for you!
It honestly takes me longer to wash up when I’m done than active cooking time. This is super quick and easy, and if you don’t do a lot of expensive add-ins, very cheap.
posted by greermahoney at 10:28 PM on November 4, 2018

Below is my favorite way to prepare for the week's meals since I read An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler (and in fact in my house we refer to this as 'Tamar Adler-ing' as in "Let's just Tamar Adler all the veg and pick a couple of proteins for the week.")

Basically, you gather up your glorious produce (mine comes in a farm share so I don't even have to pick it out, but Adler gives suggestions on what to get) and spend an afternoon cooking it all. She has suggestions on how to time things: roasting beets, squash, root vegetables go in first because they take longest; leafy greens are last and cooked altogether with a hearty glug of olive oil and maybe some smashed garlic cloves. At the end of a few hours you have a beautiful pile of cooked vegetables to select from throughout the week.

Adler also suggests making a pot of beans, too, and I usually have some legume or other (French lentils this week--I mixed them with roasted honeynut squash, sage, goat cheese, and roasted garlic) to help round out meals and stretch meat further. I'll pick out one or two cuts of meat and/or fish for the week. Depending on whether it's a roast or a filet, I'll cook some beast up then, too.

So for example, this Sunday, I Tamar Adler'd:
by roasting:
sweet potatoes
honeynut squash
two heads of garlic
squash seeds
goat stew
two tilapia filets (dinner Sunday night)

a giant vat of Swiss chard with two sliced onions

pressure cooker:
French lentils

Lunch today is lentils and chard. Dinner is goat stew (full of root veggies) and chard (or maybe that bok choi I didn't get to on Sunday if I've got time).
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:34 AM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Falafel wraps can be really tasty and adaptable. My standard model these days is to buy fresh lettuce, cucumber, and pitas or tortillas or other wrapping breadstuffs. Then the more shelf-stable or fridge-stable ingredients are the same sort of pickled banana peppers I use on sandwiches, hummus, tahini, and labneh, though for the last one you could probably substitute any sort of plain unflavored yoghurt.

Then you can throw in just about any sort of vegetable or fruit you have handy too. Last week I had some mangoes and added strips of mango. Perhaps family members would enjoy customizing their own wraps.

I used to make my own falafel and hummus from scratch but now that hummus is common in mainstream super markets near me and I found Middle Eastern specialty markets to buy pre-made frozen falafel at, it just isn't really worth all the work and the cleanup.

Once you've got pitas or tortillas or something and you're making the sorts of stews you're talking about in the OP, some leftover stew plus some rice or quinoa or something like that can make a good wrap too.
posted by XMLicious at 6:45 AM on November 5, 2018

The most and most varied my veggie eating ever became was the two year period during which I was part of a farmshare/food coop with a local farmer. Every week it was bags and bags of greens. I had pre-paid so I had to eat them. Forced me to figure out ways to deal with greens I would never buy on my own. I'm not sure it cheaper than buying the stuff in the store on a per/lb basis, but it effectively changed my buying habits through the volume of greens I was suddenly dealing with.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 8:16 AM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Backstory: I've switch back to low carb again after a hiatus. One of the challenges that had me falling off the low-carb bandwagon was the challenge of having to cook low-carb friendly meals all the time because so few heat-and-eat options fit the diet. So my current solution to the challenge is to cook a few easy prep casseroles once or twice a week.

Most recipes designed for 9x13 rectangle or a 3 qt oval dish will both hold about 10-12 cups of food, which is more like 6-8 servings. So I think your estimates about how much meal mileage you will get out of 3 full-size casseroles is a bit optimistic (like, you'll get two dinners, or dinner and some lunches, but definitely not 2 dinners *and* lunches). That said, if you get your oven preheated as you're setting up your cooking session, you can toss in a whole chicken, some baking potatoes, and some oiled and seasoned cabbage or cauliflower "steaks" on a baking sheet and get that all roasted up while you're prepping casseroles for Round 2 and that should get you pretty close to having a week's worth of low-cost, well rounded, low effort lunches/dinners.

Here's a few of my favorites:
eggs florentine dump casserole (sized for 8 servings) involves a layer of uncooked bacon on the bottom, defrosted 16 oz frozen spinach/12 eggs/1 lb shredded cheese well mixed, salt/pepper (thyme and nutmeg go well for additional seasoning), topped with another layer of bacon strips. For a non- low carb version replace the bottom layer of bacon with English muffin halves.

tortilla casserole: brown ground beef in a skillet. If you don't do cans, for 8 servings in a big dish I'd chop 1 lb fresh tomatoes, a couple japalenos, a big onion, a green pepper, and a couple tablespoons of chili powder + 2 tsp salt in the food processor and add that to the beef as it finishes browning. Then mix in a bag of frozen corn and a couple of cups of cooked beans. Then layer it all with corn tortillas and top with shredded cheese.

main dish green bean casserole: 1 lb frozen green beans, 1 lb chopped mushrooms, 8 oz swiss cheese, 1.5 lbs cubed ham, a big diced onion, and either a jar of alfredo sauce or a batch of microwave white sauce. Top with a can of French's fried onions if you are traditional like me.

Italian chicken casserole: coat your casserole dish generously with olive oil, layer halved tomatoes and sliced zucchini in the bottom, a couple pounds of butterflied chicken breasts on top of that (assuming you're using today's ridiculously large breasts), drizzle more olive oil and Italian seasoning and top with shredded mozzarella and Parmesan. You can replace the chicken with frozen meatballs, sliced Italian sausage, or even frozen fish.

One term to search for if you want to economize both time and costs is "dump casserole" as these tend to be low-prep and fairly pedestrian ingredients.
posted by drlith at 8:43 AM on November 5, 2018

Get a slow cooker/crock pot! They are crazy cheap. My wife brought home a new one from some place the other day because they were doing 2-1 deals! Seriously, they are like $20. Now we have 3 I think. Maybe more.

Then some recipes:
slow cooker pork - get pork. throw a cup of water or vinegar. Cook on low for 8 hours - now you have pulled pork.
slow cooker chicken - get chicken. throw in a cup of water or vinegar. cook on low for 8 hours. now you have pulled chicken.

Also: pico de gallo for vegetables. Throw 3 tomatoes, .5 onions, cilantro, and 1 garlic clove together and blend to almost but not quite where it turns into a liquid. Add salt and pepper. It's great on everything or by itself. You can add other stuff like pineapple, jicama, peppers, or other spices. Make a big jar - enough for a couple of days.

Learn to blender up vegetables. that's a lazy but easy cooking lesson for veggies.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:23 AM on November 5, 2018

Chili is great for this purpose, made even better by how much you can change up what you put in it and still call it chili. The Dark and Spicy Chili recipe from Leann Brown's Good and Cheap cookbook is the one I've been using recently. It makes a huge pot, is freezeable, contains lots of protein and veggies, etc. Full recipe: Dark and Spicy Chili

If you're reluctant to use the canned tomatoes, you can probably substitute fresh tomatoes.
posted by bananana at 11:04 AM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you get those pre-chopped salads in the bag, the cabbage or spinach or kale based ones hold up really well to being sauteed and added to whatever casserole or stew or soup you're already making.

They're much better as stirfry (add cooked rice and egg) than the frozen mixes marketed as stirfry veggies, because the chopped salad bits are actually close to the same size and cook at the same rate.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 3:44 PM on November 5, 2018

Rick Bayless' recipe for beans is perfect.
posted by talldean at 5:33 PM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm belatedly writing to say thanks so much for all of these answers! I marked as "best answer" a few that really resonated with me, but I learned a lot from every comment and am definitely going to check out some of the sites that people recommended I look at for recipes. It was neat to hear everyone's different approaches to this question of how to efficiently and cost-effectively prepare a week's worth of meals. Thanks to all of you!
posted by slidell at 5:49 PM on November 10, 2018

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