Eat Well, Spend Less: Five Frugal Must-Have Real Foods

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Making some foods from scratch saves a couple bucks. Making other foods from scratch saves a couple cents.

Your job, as a good kitchen steward, is to figure out the difference.


Unless you have the luxury, like I do as a Type A stay-at-home-mom, of working your behind off making literally everything from scratch, it’s vital to run a cost-benefit analysis to prioritize. (Did I really just say I have the luxury to work hard? Yes, friend, the real food lifestyle is countercultural in many, many ways…)

For example, Crystal of Money Saving Mom, a frugal guru who does make a number of things from scratch along with couponing, wrote about how she chooses not to make homemade tortillas, because her paycheck per hour ends up in the pennies for as much work as they take and as inexpensively as she can find them regularly at the store.

For reasons other than frugality, namely health benefits and the ability to soak the flour, I do choose to make my own homemade tortillas. But budget isn’t the driving factor there.

For many of my other foundational Kitchen Stewardship habits, the ones that are most important to stick to, you’ll find incredible cost savings:

1. Homemade Yogurt

homemade yogurt (24)

Now that my baby is almost three, I’m certain I’m saving at least $300 a year, maybe more, JUST on making homemade yogurt. We’ve been on vacation for a week, and (praise God) had a kitchen at our disposal, so store yogurt was one thing I purchased to have on hand.

We spent almost $20 on yogurt alone, I kid you not. In a normal week at home, I would have spent $3-5, end of story.

If you eat yogurt, friend, make it homemade. It takes 15-20 minutes active work time, and if you use my favorite method, zero dishes. Yogurt is by far my favorite from-scratch food.

If you don’t eat yogurt – you should! The healthy probiotics are second to none. If you do it right, a little frozen fruit and honey makes it taste like ice cream. Trust me. Get on this one.

2. Homemade Chicken Stock

stock update

Not only can you save $30 a batch if you have a pot big enough for 2-3 chickens, but making your own homemade chicken stock is the only way to get truly healthy, full-of-collagen, immunity-boosting stock, instead of imitation broth that usually has MSGs somewhere in there and lots of salt.

Anything that takes garbage like chicken bones and vegetable scraps and turns it into not only food, but power-packed, nutrient-dense healthy food, is a frugal trick you must learn.

3. Dry Beans

Mexican beans and rice (16) (500x375)

You know by now that I have a thing for beans, and I can’t stop singing the praises of cooking with dry beans especially. The cost savings are immense over canned, which are already frugal, and if you’re smart enough to make big batches and freeze them, you get your convenience food right back.

Soaking dry beans and cooking them slowly also knocks out some of the hard-to-digest parts of beans, increases their nutrition, and helps you avoid BPA-laden plastic linings in cans.

The Everything Beans Book will teach you truly all you need to know to become a beans master, and in honor of the Eat Well, Spend Less series, it’s on sale through tomorrow night for 40% off! Use the code SPENDLESS here at checkout. You can also scan my beans recipes, starting with the carnival of beans where you’ll find over 60 recipes from all over the blogosphere.

4. Oats


I love some scrambled eggs for breakfast, and I know they’re much more nutrient-dense than grains, but you know what? $1.50 or more for breakfast for my family can’t hold a budgetary candle to $1.50 for 6-7 breakfasts of soaked oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon, and coconut oil.

So there.

I buy my oats in a 25-pound bag for $11.25. If you can find a bulk purchasing option in your area, it’s WELL worth it. I recommend saving oatmeal canisters to store the bulk oats – mine are stacked 3 high and 3 deep in the basement!

5. Potatoes

This will be a controversial choice for sure, since some say the starch in white potatoes metabolizes just like sugar. Well, shucks. There’s also iron in the skins, some protein in there, a good opportunity to slather on the butter, and they’re one of my favorite foods.

Particularly if you’re grain-free, like we are right now, I don’t know how to do it without potatoes.

I like to find them on reduced produce for about 20 cents a pound. Definitely frugal, and I’m sticking to it. Smile

What About Grains?

sprouted whole wheat rolls smaller

Since we’re grain-free currently to explore a gluten issue, and grains certainly are harder to digest and take more time to prepare than other foods, I’m not sure where I stand on other grains.

However, if you eat grains no matter what, of course grinding your own and baking homemade bread will save tons of money. You’ll definitely want to learn some skills with flour…but run a cost-analysis to make sure your time is worthwhile.

Top 5 Expensive Foods

Consider this: cutting some expensive foods may be just as frugal as buying cheaper foods or eating less. Here are five foods that jack up your budget, some which you may not even think about when you sprinkle them overtop a frugal casserole:

  1. Cheese: This is a sneaky one for us – it’s so easy to serve cheese and crackers as a snack and pile on the cheese to make any meal more delicious. But remember that most cheese, even cheap stuff, is still $3-4 per pound, more than most meat. Be aware.
  2. Meat: No kidding. Buying less expensive cuts of meat like stew meat and using a whole chicken for stock and stretcher meals like casseroles and soups is the best way to make sure you have meat, yet remain within your budget.
  3. Eggs: A middler. High-quality eggs can cost 3x more than store eggs, which are a pretty frugal option, but as you saw on my splurge list, they’re worth it to me.
  4. Sweeteners: honey, maple syrup: Rather than give in and buy white sugar all the time, just figure out how to use less. Even “good” sweeteners aren’t healthy for you in large amounts.
  5. Dried fruit and nuts: Worth the price, but definitely something on which you want to watch for deals. I try to teach my family that nuts and things like power bars (dried fruit and nuts) from my Healthy Snacks to Gobook will fill you up and last longer than a handful of potato chips, so eat them differently. Savor. Take smaller bites. Eat less.But we still go through a pound of crispy nuts awfully fast!

Last week Jessica of Life as MOM also dished on ways to spend less by avoiding expensive ingredients.

Fast, Frugal, Real Food Meals? (Or Even Just “Fast”)

When it comes to mealtime, it’s important to have a cost analysis of what each meal totals, too, so you can ensure you have some “frugal” meals in your menu plan each week. Along with the Monday Mission challenge yesterday, I shared my top five frugal meals, many of which can be put together in 30-60 minutes and/or made ahead and reheated.


I was thinking of which meals can be made “with pantry staples” and just tossed together quickly, like if you walk in the door from vacation at 6:00 and you need something NOW. No pre-planning, no soaking, no cooking dry beans.

If you want to stick with a true traditional foods lifestyle, that’s a tough one.

Chicken broth isn’t in the pantry in a can; it’s in the freezer.

Beans aren’t in a can, either – they take 24 hours of pre-planning (unless you have them in the freezer, which could possibly make a quick meal).

Any grains in the pantry ought to be soaked overnight to reduce phytic acid, so that’s out entirely. The old quick spaghetti trick from my processed foods days isn’t an option either for a true real foods diet, especially gluten free.

Scrambled eggs are quick – I’d serve with thinly sliced, fried potatoes and maybe grain-free banana Paleo pancakes – but that’s not exactly from the pantry.

Nachos are the best I came up with – Cook up some frozen meat, thawing each half-centimeter in the pan while you go, season, and eat with the best store tortilla chips you can find (usually no trans fats, at least, which is better than I can say for store tortillas). Maybe a can of beans with seasoning or refried beans without trans fat on the side.

IF I had milk around, I suppose I could make salmon patties and cream of potato soup in about 45 minutes. Would that count as a pantry meal?

Help! What “real food” meals can actually go from “no plan whatsoever” to the table in 30 minutes or less?

Be sure to come on back tomorrow for an awesome meal planning giveaway and the rest of the Eat Well, Spend Less ladies’ best frugal meal recommendations!

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84 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    Excellent post, Katie. I like how you broke it all down.

    Katie G had a post about pantry meals, did you catch that one?

    Some of our real food pantry meals include:
    Quick ‘breakfast burritos’ – scrambled eggs & salsa wrapped in a tortilla. If there are any l/o beans, we add those too.

    Pastas- with homemade sauce.

    Risotto. Rice pudding.

    I try and keep a bag of shrimp in the freezer for quick stir-fries, tacos, fried rice or pastas. That little big of protein adds a lot to a dish.

  2. ani says

    I had to do a super quick meal last week. We are usually home all day, or most of the day, but one day last week we were going to be in and out all day. I had some chorizo (pastured local pork), refried beans (made in a huge batch a couple of months ago) and homemade tortillas all in the freezer! I was so excited. I pulled them out of the freezer before we left the last time and they were thawed when it was time to make dinner. Yummy, yummy burritos in about 10 minutes.

  3. Esther says

    I made a big batch of pinto beans and rice and froze them as bean burritos. (Used the recipe from Tammy’s Recipes) It was so great to be able to pull one out of the freezer and warm it up. Topped with a little salsa, it was perfect–satisfying and quick. The best part is, if you’re pressed for time, you can microwave the burrito. If you have a little more time, then the burritos can be warmed in the oven. I always make sure to have components for meals ready to go in the freezer, which makes for relatively quick meals.
    On Aimee’s pantry staples post, a commenter mentioned compiling all of the posts into an e-book. I think it’s a great idea! Would that be something that might happen?

  4. says

    I think the trick is to have foods more or less ‘ready’ especially in the freezer. So when I make a batch of beans, I always make a TON, and freeze a big bag of cooked beans. They’re pretty easy to take out whatever you need, and they just need to be heated. Same for cooked spinach (in cubes in the freezer), broth (in a silicone muffin tin, way easier to pop a few out than to defrost a flat plastic bag), baked beef and chicken pieces, cooked rice, chopped ham, cubed squash…the prep is all ahead of time. Then when you’ve really got only 15-30 minutes, you can use what you’ve already prepped.

    Scramble up a few eggs and shred some cabbage, add your meat, rice, and frozen fresh veggies, and…stir-fry! The wok is my best friend.

  5. says

    cheese is my grocery budget buster too-especially since I now buy it a Grassfields cheese farm, or organic at /Meijer-I pay around $10 a pound, and we eat a lot of it!

    I’d also love to know some easy/low prep meal ideas-I broke my hand last week and it’s really difficult for me to cook and bake right now. I’m working on my next menu plan right now, and need some ideas!

    • Katie says

      I’ve been relying on baked chicken (bone-in and freeze bones for stock) and baked potatoes a lot w/frozen peas! Easy, easy. Chicken soup is pretty easy, too, if someone can slice carrots for you – or just use a bag of frz vegs. Hope you heal soon! :) Katie

      PS – You might want to grab a few friends and make orders from Brunkow cheese in Wis – raw grassfed cheddar (I think it’s organic) in a 5-lb block for $22!

  6. says

    Real food dinners in under 30 minutes:
    bacon and eggs, split pea soup, colcannon, cabbage roll skillet, (any ground beef based askillet), shrimp and grits, polenta based meals.

    A meal we love that takes about 30 minutes is carne guisada. Chop up a bunch of potatoes and boil to make mashed potatoes. Then slice beef into tidbits, cook with onion, add salsa and make a “gravy”. Drain and smash the potatoes and serve the meat over them.

    You can make ‘meat and gravy’ out of ground meat, too, quick and easy, serve over whatever leftover starch you have around.

    Frozen brown rice, frozen beans, or canned beans and you’ll have an infinite variety.

    Instant brown rice is still “real food”, too. I often make egg fried rice- cook rice (or use frozen, leftovers, or minute), add fresh or frozen veggies, cook in hot oil and add a few beaten eggs, plus soy sauce.

  7. Angelia says

    I think you definitely need to think of your freezer as part of your pantry:) Beans & rice in a bowl with salsa is a favorite quick meal around here always as well as chocolate peanut butter banana smoothies. The beans, rice, and bananas are stocked in the freezer. You can grab omelet or frittata add-ins from the freezer also. Hamburger soup is fast if you have stock, frozen mixed vegetables, & tomatoes available. My kids go crazy over noodles with butter and parmesan cheese since it is not served very often.

  8. Lori says

    Salad is my go to fast meal. Topped with chicken or canned tuna or steak or taco meat and cheese. I know its not from the pantry though.
    we aren’t at a grain free point yet so pasta would have to be my fast pantry meal, with sauce I canned last summer or a quick alfredo with some frozen broccoli. Tomato Bisque is easy too. Just cook up some veggie and canned tomatoes (from last summer also); puree; season with salt, pepper, and basil and add a bit of milk.

  9. Sarah D says

    Having tilapia fillets in the freezer always helps us- quick thawed, topped with a little bit of butter and Tony Chachery, then popped in oven for 10 minutes. We usually serve with whatever fresh veggies we have bought that week in the fridge, roasted: one oven, and 2 dishes to stick in there.
    We don’t have kids who are eating our ‘grown=up’ food yet though! I’m sure fish is harder for them to agree to!

    • Samantha says

      Actually, I have three kids: 13, 11, and 5, and they all LOVE tilapia. We eat it all the time. It’s one of the meals that my husband knows how to throw together quickly. I think if you teach your kids to eat real food, they are likely to like things like this. They also think that oven roasted asparagus is a treat. :-)

  10. Wendy says

    I just made my first vat of chicken stock, and I’m so pleased with it. My grocery store regularly has sales on whole chickens, so I usually pick up one or two. I noticed we tended to eat most of the dark meat, and the white would either go to the cat, or get old in the fridge. So this week, we had a chicken, ate the dark meat, and then I tore apart what was left, made chicken salad (which my partner LOVED for lunches) and made a big vat of soup/stock. I skimmed out the veggies for half of it and stored it in the freezer for another day, and kept the rest in the fridge for a bean soup this week.

    Ability to make a two dollar roaster last the whole week and then some? Win.

    (also, I fry up the giblets for the cat, since I don’t like gravy and I love spoiling my cat!)

  11. says

    If you have access to a pressure canner you can open up a whole lot of real food options from the pantry. I got one for Christmas and I’ve canned lots of different soups that make very quick lunches. I’ve also taken dried beans, cooked them and canned them. When you use Tattler reusable lids you get no BPA and all the ease of canned beans. I also canned a tone of beef broth when we got our 1/4 of a grass fed steer. I asked for some extra bones and it has been great to have quarts of wonderful stock. I do the same when I make a huge batch of chicken stock.

    I’m all for using the freezer (we just got a 25 cubic foot one!) but sometimes pulling it off the shelf with no wait time is best when the babies are screaming and we all just need to eat NOW.


  12. Paige says

    You are forgetting about the legumes that don’t need to be soaked, like lentils and split peas. For me, my pressure cooker is an invaluable resource for throwing together quick soups and making brown rice, beans, and other traditionally long-cooking foods.

    • Katie says

      I’m kind of in the camp that thinks all legumes should be soaked, not for cooking ability, but for nutrition, and the pressure cooker has some questions about nutrient-destroying and such…it’s just not something I find myself using anymore. On the other hand, I have one, and I might be wise to consider it in a pinch, rather than another sort of compromise that would be even wore/more expensive/less nutritious. Thanks! :) Katie

  13. says

    We aren’t grain free, so pasta (usually whole wheat) definitely figures in my quick meal repertoire. Pasta carbonara has lots of good fats and protein; I make it with sausage I get on sale, and free-range eggs I can buy for $1.79 a dozen. Of course spaghetti or penne with homemade marinara sauce is always great. Stir-fry is delicious and quick, either over brown rice or buckwheat noodles; I usually use leftover chicken from roasting it earlier in the week. Omelets with toast and a fruit salad is another really fast option.

    I often make dinner in the morning if I know that I’ll be out all afternoon, though. Today I made a meatless spinach lasagna that’s sitting in the fridge, ready for dinner– no last-minute scurrying. Casseroles and soup are great for this, I think.

    By the way, dairy kefir actually gives you MORE probiotic bang for your buck. 😉 And it is a lot easier! But of course, kefir is not always as popular as yogurt… haha. I put it in fruit smoothies with a splash of vanilla and some flax seed. Yum.

  14. michelle says

    Quick & Colorful Bean Salad
    3 T olive oil
    3 T red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
    ½ t garlic powder
    ½ t cumin
    1 can (16 oz) kidney beans, rinsed & drained
    1 can (16 oz) black beans, rinsed & drained
    1 can (11 oz) Mexicorn, drained
    ¼ c thinly sliced green onions
    In a bowl, combine the oil, vinegar and spices, mix well. Add the beans, corn and onions; stir to coat. Cover and refrigerate until serving. Yield 6 Servings
    From The Best of Country Cooking 2004

  15. says

    Omelets! I can make omelets for my ten kids using left-overs from the fridge in just ten minutes. If you have a healthy amount of sourdough, you can make pancakes and waffles. But omelets are my go-to-recipe when my back is to the wall and the wolves are circling (wolves being my brood).

    But, let me make a small point from the perspective of we Catholic foodie moms, the number of kids you have makes things change. Sometimes we need to choose different whole foods just because labor intensive foods don’t work when talking about economies of scales while others are even easier.

    I have ten and let me tell you, I have seen the change. I don’t make cookies or muffins but coffee cakes. I don’t make meatballs very often because I don’t have the time. I don’t make tortillas so much anymore (using my grandmother’s recipe and real lard). But, stock is easier because we eat two chickens at a time. Oats are no different and soups are just the same. But I don’t do the same things as when there were fewer. For instance, I may totally give up on heat cultured yogurt and go to just room-temp cultured viili. Less hands-on time and baby sitting.

    When cooking Thanksgiving size dinners three times a day, you have to be choosy.

    • says

      An excellent point!! I often think of the simple meals my two tiny children and I can get away with, having just a bit of leftovers and a half jar of yogurt available, and I think, “Wouldn’t work with two more kids here…” So definitely, things have to change. Thank you for adding such an important perspective!
      :) Katie

  16. Sandy says

    You lost me on this one – nachos with taco chips for supper?
    Pasta is a wonderful “real food” if you get whole-grain pasta (the whole -wheat ones can be delicious, and brown rice pasta =whole-grain AND gluten-free. You speak of frozen beans – don’t you have homemade pasta sauce in the freezer? Set it out to start thawing while you unload the car. It can be thawed & heated in a double-boiler in about the same time it takes to cook the pasta.
    And tuna or salmon cakes are one of my favorite quick meals. Per 6-oz. can of fish, add one egg and about 2/3 to 3/4 cup leftover (frozen & thawed works fine – spread it on a plate; it will thaw very quickly!) cooked rice. Mix well, season with a little basil and/or onion powder if you like it, form into 4 patties and fry. With a vegetable (frozen organic green beans? Canned stewed tomatoees? I have to keep some kind of dinner-emergency things like that around!) this serves 2 adults, can be doubled or tripled very easily, and takes maybe 20 minutes. It also works well substituting minced, leftover cooked chicken for the fish, but that needs a little longer thawing time.
    Your freezer is also part of your pantry.

    • Bethany W says


      There are some tricksy nutrients in wheat (and rice) that make pasta from the box a not-so-great choice — and this is coming from an Italian! Check out Katie’s blog for info on phytase.

      And for some people, like our family, avoiding gluten isn’t enough. We also have to avoid the starches in rice.

      But when it comes to noodles, I have hope. My family (Italian/German) have long made their own noodles. I’m hoping to work something up with almond flour or coconut flour. Egg noodles, here we come! :)

    • says

      We have a pretty good brand of tortilla chips here, El Matador, that actually uses the traditional process of nixtimalization to make the nutrients in the corn more accessible. They’re still a compromise food, but I can’t make everything myself! 😉

      I don’t actually make my own spaghetti sauce, as the one time I tried was a disaster and didn’t save any money.

      True that the freezer is part of the pantry, but I was trying to think of total no-planning meals. Usually I’d have plenty of time to thaw something! :) Katie

  17. Brittany says

    My favorite quick, real food meal is fritatta. I throw some sliced potatoes and leftover veggies into a skillet with some butter. (You could throw in some meat if you wanted as well.) Then I whip some (usually 6) eggs with some herbs and salt. Pour the eggs over the cooked veggies, cover and cook for 8 minutes or so. Top with a bit of cheese, let it melt, and it’s ready to serve!

  18. says

    Soup is my go-to fast food since I usually have at least a quart of broth in the fridge. I can then grab and toss in a handful of cooked/frozen rice (or break up some noodles) another handful of cooked/frozen hamburger (or any leftover meat) another handful of either leftover veggies or some dehydrated veggie (last time I accidentally put pumpkin in our soup thinking it was spaghetti squash, lol).

    As I type dd is making ‘lumpias’ for tonight’s dinner (I very loosely use that term because she is basically putting leftover chicken pieces and cheese in an eggroll wrap and frying it).

  19. Lenizucchini says

    Rice and lentils with yogurt:
    Pasta and bean soup
    Potato soup
    Broccoli and cheese soup
    Pasta with broccoli, ham, and cheese
    And one you might enjoy but that isn’t a pantry meal… Indonesian gado gado. I got my recipe from the Moosewood cookbook, which uses easily found ingredients.
    I agree with the other posters about using your freezer as a pantry! I freeze little bits of leftover onions, celery, green peppers, ham, cooked ground beef, crumbled bacon, mushrooms, cheese, fresh herbs, and also use commercial frozen corn, broccoli, spinach, and peas–these can combine into all kinds of omelets, fried rice, and breakfast skillets besides being ingredients to help your traditional pantry items along.
    Thank you for this post! I’m excited to see more comments come in!

  20. Kris says

    Here courtesy of Carrie and “Eat More, Spend Less”!

    Loving you so far! I’m now a junkie…

    Fast foods after a vacation? I try to make sure that BEFORE we leave, I have some sort of *something* made as much ahead as I can and in the freezer.

    We have pets, so I politely ask our house-sitter if they would mind terribly removing it from the freezer and putting it in the fridge the last day of our trip. That way, when I get home, I can come in, get the oven going (or even the microwave sometimes if the meal is right), and as we’re unloading the car, and getting our kids (5, 3, and 1) settled back into the house, the oven is heating. As the meal is cooking, we can begin to unpack any of the travel essentials (carry-ons if we flew, activity bags if we drove), and I can actually toss in a first load of laundry. If there’s time, I’ll actually send my husband to the store to pick up fresh dairy and produce items to get us through our first 3 meals at home (usually dinner, and breakfast, sometimes a lunch as well), and I shop the next days.

    Other 30 minutes meals for me include an enchilada casserole using precooked chicken, or beef, but can also use a can of beans (black or refried, your choice), tortillas, a quick sauce made from some canned soups (no allergy issues here, so those staples are life-savers sometimes), and some cheese.

    Another favorite? toaster pizza’s. I keep sauce on hand, but you can certainly use a pesto or creamy garlic sauce – top your favorite English Muffins or flatbread with sauce and other toppings for a tasty treat! Pop them under the broiler (or the toaster oven if you’ve got one) until their crisp and bubbly (and cheese is melted).

    Microwave those potatoes and have a potato bar with any other toppings you can keep on hand – chili, veggies, bacon, whatever sour cream or cheese you might have…

    My mom used to ALWAYS keep a batch of chicken soup and a loaf of homemade bread at the ready in the freezer. When we’d get home from a long trip, she’d put the bread into the oven to defrost and get toasty, and the soup would get dumped into the biggest pot we had (later into the microwave in her Pyrex mixing bowl), and while it was heating up, we kids would be in charge of whatever unloading settling in chores she could find for us.

    • Katie says


      Ah, hindsight…planning for a get-home dinner would have been brilliant before we left, but I guess I wasn’t quite seeing that far in advance. :) Katie

    • says

      These are great suggestions! I haven’t ever been prepared enough to have a casserole waiting for us after a trip, but I always put some new eggs in the fridge right before we leave, and put any un-used milk in the freezer. That way, at the very least, we have eggs and milk for breakfast the next morning when we return.

      I am usually far too willing to bend the “healthy” rules when it comes to quick meals and hungry kids, so this post is wonderful! So many great suggestions!

  21. coleen says

    I’ll come back with a few meals, but for now I just wanted to say that you found my “guilty pleasure” budget breaker: cheese. My husband says that “all you need is cheese and Jesus” and I freely admit I’d have a meatless meal to buy Manchego cheese anyday. (Sigh.)

  22. Gayle says

    My super-quick busy night meal is homemade pizza. I usually have sprouted flour already ground and ready to go in the freezer, and I have a recipe for pizza dough that’s very quick and easy to make in my mixer. I don’t bother with letting it rise, so it takes about ten minutes to get it all ready plus another seven or eight minutes in a really hot oven. It ends up being almost as quick as frozen pizza!

    • Katie says

      Smart girl! I didn’t think about the speed of sprouted flour! (Duh for me, I have some, too.) Thank you!! :) Katie

  23. Susan Alexander says

    For quick meals, I just try to double (or triple) whenever possible a regular meal. I always have spaghetti sauce in my freezer (for gluten free, buy gluten free pasta!) in ziplocs – they defrost enough to get out of the bag in about 10 minutes, then 10-20 minutes in the pan and it’s ready to eat.

    Also…. Beef stew in a bag, rolls in a bag, london broil marinating in a bag, pork chops marinating in bags, soups in bags, any saucy recipe in a bag. I freeze casseroles in tossable aluminum (haven’t come up with a healthier solution for that yet – all ears!). I’m discovering more and more things that can be frozen as time goes on and am now really wishing for an extra freezer! Freezer meals save me when I need a quick meal with no prep!

    • Rachel Wisdom says

      About freezing casseroles that can’t go in a bag, I line the dish in which I plan to bake the casserole with foil, then assemble the casserole directly in the pan and freeze. When frozen, lift it out of the pan, peel off the foil, wrap the casserole and put in in a gallon bag. When you’re ready to bake it, unwrap it and place it in the original pan to thaw and then bake. I have this nice little pyrex 6×8 casserole that makes a perfect size for my family of two adults and two small children. I can often make a casserole and divide it in half. Half goes in that dish to freeze and the other half goes in the oven for that night’s dinner. I wish I had some more of that size pan so I could do an assembly line for my freezer!

  24. says

    Well, they’re not ready to eat for an hour or more, but Honey Baked Lentils take only 5 minutes of actual preparation time–the rest of the time is just baking, while you unpack from your trip, etc.–and they’re made entirely from frugal, shelf-stable ingredients (if you don’t use the optional orange juice). They taste great with sweet potatoes or winter squash, both of which can be stored for a long time and baked along with the lentils. I know I’ve linked to it in comments here many times before, but I just can’t rave enough about this convenient and delicious recipe!!!

    Red lentils cook even faster than green ones because they’re so small. We love them in this soup which is ready in 30 minutes and can be made with frozen or canned vegetables.

    • Rachel Wisdom says

      That is my absolute favorite way to eat lentils! I use chicken stock instead of water, but it’s the same recipe. :-)

  25. says

    40-minute dinner rolls are a life saver (for sandwiches, grilling, sloppy joes (with real ingredients) or even as a bread side dish) for us!

    Lately, we’ve been making green beans and cheesy brown rice in the rice cooker as a fast dinner.

    One go-to meal we enjoy is rice cooker mac and cheese . We often use whole wheat pasta (or homemade from our freezer), cheese, and homemade chicken broth. We pair it with frozen veggies that we have on hand.

    And, if we have the ingredients (either fresh or frozen), we love making carrot, zucchini and blackbean quesadillas .

    Otherwise, there’s always a veggie stir fry with brown rice. We are currently loving a honey mustard variety .

  26. says

    I like making meatballs, baking them and then freezing them. Easy with jar of spaghetti sauce and pasta. Also, I made a skillet dinner last night with my sourdough. Had my husband cook up frozen ground beef, sauteed onions, garlic, added some cheese and poured a mix of sourdough starter with eggs, salt,pepper and baking soda on it and baked. Yum!

    • Katie says

      What an awesome off-the-cuff dinner! I should get better at the “throw it all in the pot” kind of thing. That is probably where menu planning makes me a slave to the “plan”. :) Katie

  27. Suzy says

    My favorite quick meal is brown rice w/ swiss chard and feta. While the brown rice (left over in fridge) is reheating, I saute swiss chard in butter (and sometimes a little coconut oil) w/ celtic sea salt for seasoning. We top the warm rice with the chard and feta cheese and add shoyu sauce. It is wonderful!!

  28. says

    my lunch today would fall in that category! i often do a ‘quick chile’… saute chopped onion and garlic (which i always have in my pantry) toss in some frozen corn for a few minutes till carmelized..add a can of diced tomato and a can of tomato sauce … a can of kidney beans and a can of black beans.. cumin and chile powder.. simmer till heated through. yummo!! of course if you could move out of the pantry and into the fridge cheese, sour cream, crushed blue chips, green onion are all very good on top. :)
    ps… i loved this article– thanks for the info!

  29. says

    I try to keep quinoa on hand…I like the Ancient Harvest brand, it’s organic and prerinsed so all you have to do is cook it. Throw in some real butter and herbs and serve with a nice fresh salad and fruit if you have it on hand. Quinoa is full of protein and gluten free too and so versatile. Or you could make a quinoa skillet or casserole by tossing in some frozen veggies and precooked meat if you have some leftovers in the fridge or freezer. I’ve also found that freezing broth in meal-sized portions is just as easy to use as canned – just plop it in a saucepan to thaw while you’re preparing veggies or other parts of your meal and in a few minutes it’s good to go.

    But you’re right…real food isn’t always real fast! I try to remember that old adage about anything worth doing is worth doing well…and my family is worth doing the best I can even if it means it’s hard work. I also balance that out with reality – sometimes you just can’t do what you want to do, so you do the best you can with what you have and trust God to make up what is lacking (:

  30. says

    One of our favorite quick meals is popcorn. I pop it on top of the stove using coconut oil, sprinkle with a little season-all and we are good to go. Sometimes I add fresh veggies or fruit if I have it one hand on we might just serve it with milk. sometimes we have cookies or ice cream with it as our dessert.

    Another thing I do is save the occasional leftovers from a meal in lunch size portions and freeze them. Then when my husband says, what can I take for lunch and I don’t have anything handy, he can take one of those.

  31. says

    Salmon casserole: brown rice, canned salmon, onions, and any vegetable, with sour cream and (maybe) cheese.

    Clam chowder from canned clams.

    Anything with stock … I thaw it by putting the whole jar inside a pot of warm water and putting it on low. It only takes 5-10 minutes to defrost enough to dump out of my (wide-mouth) jars. (Or, don’t tell — I sometimes put (cooled) stock inside plastic yogurt tubs to freeze. Those dump out easily without defrosting.)

  32. says

    We eat LOTS of the stuff on your “frugal” list, but we also eat lots of the first 4 on your “expensive” list too (not nuts or dried fruit). And yet I’m managing to keep the budget to around $300/month for a family of 4. It’s just HOW you use it! I make a batch of ice cream but use less than 1/4 c. maple syrup. Plenty sweet but much more frugal! (And we go through a LOT of ice cream…) I posted on this on Saturday if anyone’s curious. :)

  33. Cinda says

    Looking at your more expensive items list, I figured that AFTER the expense of housing, equipment and raising babies, with a family of 5 and 11 laying hens, our eggs cost us about $1/dozen and we get about 240 dozen eggs a year if we manage the chickens well. The eggs can scrambled & frozen in meal-size portions when you have abundant eggs, or dehydrated (I believe they should also be refrigerated after dehydrating, but take up less room). Using mineral oil or a product like Kepeg on the eggs will make them last longer, and with Kepeg you can camp with eggs and not refrigerate them. As for the variety of chickens, I would recommend Black Austerlorps as they are egg-selent layers. Usually, 1-3 hens per household member is an ideal flock, depending on your egg-eating habits and preferences. In many cities, you can keep 1 hen per family member and have fresh eggs! : )

    • says

      What is kepeg? That sounds great for camping! And can you believe that in the rural, agricultural area I live in, there is an ordinance that says “no farm animals within city limits”! I called the town manager to see if I could have a few laying hens…no rooster of course…but nope. I couldn’t believe it! Hoping to move somewhere that I can have chickens some day though.

      • Cinda says

        Ke-Peg is an Australia-produced egg preparation with purified water, paraffin, beeswas, citric acid, magnesium silicate, and boric acid. I believe that we have purchased it from Cutler’s Gamebird Supply, and a home-grown egg that has NOT been treated with oil (commercially bought eggs are) will be treatable with the Ke-Peg. We have personally eaten eggs that had not been refrigerated that were 18 months old! Again, great for camping, great for times that you have too many eggs if you do have your own chickens. One jar of Ke-Peg will treat 40 dozen eggs! Hope that is helpful to you.

  34. Liz says

    Creamed eggs on toast (or mashed potatoes) with a side of fresh spinach or a salad. Start by putting the eggs on to cook. While that’s happening you make a white sauce with butter flour and milk. You could put potatoes on to boil at the same time as you started the eggs. When the eggs are done peel and slice them into the white sauce. Add a handful of parsley if you like. Main dish done. If you did potatoes mash them, if you didn’t you need to make toast (in the oven is quicker than the toaster if you’ve got a crowd). Steam the spinach quickly or toss together a salad while the eggs are cooking. Seriously, I actually do this meal and make cornbread to go with the creamed eggs and still have it done in under 30 minutes (I start the cornbread before I stick the eggs in the water). It’s a great Lenten or Friday meal.

    • Katie says

      I’ve never had (or heard of) creamed eggs, but it sounds AWESOME for the half dz. hard-boiled Easter creations I still have left!!! Thank you! :) Katie

  35. Evie says

    Potatoes are one of the most heavily sprayed crops in conventional farming so for the earth’s sake, grow your own, or buy organic if you can.

  36. says

    I totally agree with the comments about potatoes, in particular. We grow our own – very easy to do – and the great thing about them is you can just leave them in the ground over winter and dig them out as you need them.
    Home-made yoghurt…another great idea and again so easy and cheap to do! (Thanks for the other ideas too!)

  37. says

    I’ve been making “Eggs in Purgatory” when I’m running low on ingredients or in a hurry. Saute a bit of garlic in some olive oil, add a pinch of red pepper flakes, maybe a sprinkle of real bacon bits and a (glass) bottle of tomato sauce. Simmer for 20 minutes or so and then GENTLY crack a few eggs over the top of the sauce, cover and simmer until done to your liking. Ooo, and sprinkle some (real) parmesan cheese over the top. I serve it over brown rice.
    There are a number of compromise things in this meal – the bacon bits may be a bit questionable but at least they’re real, and obviously the brown rice doesn’t get the soaking time it normally would. But it works for me and these are things I have in the house! I guess it’s not really a 20 minute meal since the rice has to cook for a good 35 minutes, but it’s close enough :)

  38. Jessica says

    I often forget about the easiest meals when I’m in a pinch… some grilled or sauteed chicken and a side of veggies is super quick and easy and nutritious! I try to keep frozen chicken tenderloins because they can go straight into a pan and cook up quickly. It’s pretty easy to top with guacamole and salsa or some other fun toppings and make it seem a bit more “special” with minimal effort and fridge/pantry ingredients.

  39. Vicky says

    Potatoes are ok I think if you’re grain-free—the skins are full of copper which keeps your skin and joints healthy and young!

  40. Wendy says

    I am not a meal planner, so I cook a lot on the fly! I need to get better about it, as I am spending too much every week! So thank you for the tips! I buy ground beef in bulk, so my quick meals usually use it. I always cook it from frozen, since I rarely remember to take it out to thaw.
    Stir fry with ground beef, frozen veggies and quinoa, with soy sauce/tamari, ground ginger and sesame oil.
    Spaghetti with meat sauce – we use quinoa pasta, as my dh hates whole wheat, and it tastes the most like “real” pasta.
    Italian sausage and cabbage: slice up the sausage and cook in a pan, then add some chopped cabbage and tomatoes – I usually freeze them whole, then just toss one still frozen in with the cabbage and throw a lid on. It thaws, then breaks down, so you can mix it right in. Oh, I run it under hot water first and the skin slips right off.
    Breakfast for dinner: whole wheat pancakes or waffles and scrambled eggs.

  41. Susan Nye Ferrell says

    Now grant it, I like the following with white rice, but I’m pretty sure it could be done with brown as well. It’s from the italian side of the family.

    Pea’s and Rice.
    Start Rice in Cooker or per usual method.

    In a saucepan, saute in oil of choice, I use olive, spring onions or regular onions until translucent. Then pour overtop of those one bag frozen peas. Pour water in the pot just until the top peas are touched. Simmer, stirring occasionally until the water is nearly gone, I’d say about 20-30 mins. Salt to taste. If you are using this with brown rice, you might want to punch it up a bit with the addition of some fire roasted tomatoes, or peppers or, tabasco or red pepper etc.

    When rice is done, fluff it up, pour peas and onions overtop of it, and toss. Taste for seasoning, I find I almost always need more salt than I’ve added, but better to add now than earlier or even at table. Add fresh pepper and eat. Husband likes parmesan on his, I do not. This amount above makes about6- 8 meal size servings, depending on how much rice you make. If you must make more rice, make more peas part too.

    I like this dish cause everything is essentially non-perishable, ie I can have on hand in freezer. Even people who say they don’t like peas, usually like this. Your milage may vary with brown rice, and of course it takes longer.

  42. Anto Marton says

    Hi Katie. Wow, I never thought about seeing it the way you do – in terms of how much you get “paid” per hour by counting how much money you save cooking at home. I’m not the type to count that detailed, but I think I’ll give it a try soon.

    One food that I am making at home is green smoothies. If I buy them from a seller, it can cost almost 5 times than making it by myself. I still haven’t got it to taste as good as smoothies from restaurants, but I’m getting closer!

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