Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Making inexpensive meals at home using the meal block concept

I thought I would share some tips on how I get dinner on the table during the crazy work weeks, even when I have late calls & work too much. Luckily, that never happens. ;-) I've been doing this type of meal prep for 5 or so years. We went through a stretch right after the boys were born where we were eating out a ton. Our plan evolved over time, but the concept of having a variety of meal items ready to go at any time that can be mixed & matched into other meals has been with us for a while. I've never thought of it as a meal "building block", but once I read Mortgage Free in Three's post, I realized -that's what I do as well. Although, I'm not nearly as organized as she is. Love her blog! :-)

As a general rule, I do most of my prep during the weekends, and here are the kind of things we prepare. Obviously, we don't do all of these things each weekend. Or else, we're eating A TON of chicken. ;-)

  • Grilled chicken. M marinates (in spices - no barbecue sauce) 20+ lbs of chicken & then grills it. We freeze in individual dinner-sized bags. 
  • Hamburgers. While best fresh off the grill, we also freeze grilled burgers.
  • Homemade meatballs (and, Costco style as a backup for desperate times). 
  • Taco meat. Seasoned & browned, then frozen.
  • Pesto. Made from homemade basil & frozen in very small serving sizes.
  • Pizza dough - made in the breadmaker & frozen. Can quickly be defrosted.
  • Bolognese sauce
  • Homemade chicken taquitos
Using these building blocks, I can always put together a reasonably healthy & quick dinner. We also always have certain things on hand to mix with the other dinner "blocks":
  • Pasta
  • Tortellini
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Feta cheese
  • Lots of fresh veggies & tomatoes
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Homemade hummus
  • Rice
  • Tortilla shells
With these ingredients, we mix & match each week. On weekends, I make more elaborate dinner recipes, and double them. Some favorites are: chicken risotto, wild rice with sausage, homemade pizza, soups, etc.

For the nights where we don't have leftovers of the weekend dinners, I review the pantry & freezer & tend to make the following:

  • Tacos (beef or chicken)
  • Pasta with either bolognese sauce or pesto + chicken. 
  • A big chicken salad
  • Quesadillas with chicken
  • Chicken pasta casserole
  • Taquitos with salsa & salad
A few other convenience foods that we keep on hand, to avoid eating out:
  • Breaded chicken from Trader Joes. It's more expensive than making your own, but awesome for throwing together something fast.
  • Breaded tilapia from Costco.
By keeping the freezer stocked with a few easy meal blocks, my sanity is saved. We typically spend around $500 on groceries, and another $150 on eating out ($100 devoted to date night :-). While not incredibly frugal, the majority of our budget is spent on produce & lean meat, so I'm fine with the cost. We do have quite a bit of repetition in our menu, but I have one reasonably picky eater, and this also meets all of the demands of the eaters at my table. ;-) 

Next up, I have to figure out what to do with 18 green peppers. My plant is currently about to collapse due to having too many peppers on the vine, so it's time to harvest.

How do you ensure you always have something to serve? What are your meal blocks, or easy meals you prep in advance? Do you use a similar concept? 

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