9 cheap (and non-toxic!) “convenience” foods.Posted by Donna Freedman on Aug 11, 2013 | 27 comments
Picking up milk and bread at the 7-Eleven to dodge the supermarket hordes. Ordering takeout because they’re too tired to cook. Buying a one-ounce “toddler pack” of Cheerios to carry in the diaper bag.
Really? That grab-and-go pack of cereal works out to as much as $27.50 a pound! Fill up your own container, already.
Convenience food does have its place, especially if a $5.99 rotisserie chicken keeps you from ordering $40 worth of Thai food. (Or if ordering a strategic pizza allows you to spend time with family and/or taking better care of yourself.)
But if you keep certain frugal convenience foods on hand, you won’t have to resort to takeout as often (if ever).
Number-one on my personal hit parade is grated cheese. Growing up, my daughter ate a lot of quesadillas for breakfast (easy, palatable). A sprinkle of Monterey jack adds a little interest to a luncheon salad. Cheese + leftover spaghetti sauce + pita or French bread = pizza bread for supper.
If you want a snack, a few bits of cheese on crackers could do it. Friends dropping by? Melt the cheese on tortillas and open a jar of salsa.
Speaking of tortillas – they’re second on the list. Those quesadillas become lunch when served with tomato soup. Add bits of leftover rotisserie chicken and a little barbecue sauce and you have a decent light supper, especially when paired with a salad and/or fruit. (Additional frugal tip: Tortillas are much cheaper at the bakery outlet.)
“Fast food” options
3. Hard-boiled eggs. Overslept? Put a slice of whole-wheat or an English muffin in the toaster while you dress, then peel a hard-boiled egg while the butter melts on the breadstuffs. Slice an egg into your luncheon salad along with the grated cheese; if you’re feeling really hungry, add some drained tuna. Out of peanut butter? Make egg salad for the kids’ lunches. Hungry between meals, or in the hour it takes for your supper to cook? A hard-cooked huevo will tide you over.
4. Broth. A can in the pantry or a homemade batch in the freezer can become a very fast soup or stew with the addition of seasonings, vegetables, potatoes or pasta. This can be as simple as chicken noodle or as elaborate and rib-sticking (but still fast) as minestrone.
5. Canned tomatoes. You need these for that minestrone, or for a fast batch of spaghetti sauce or chili (I relied on Marion Burros’ 20-minute version). Cookbook author Tamar Adler suggests draining a can of whole tomatoes, coating them with olive oil, tucking in a few garlic cloves and roasting the whole mess at 400 degrees, “until they’re glossy and jamlike and completely collapsed.” The result can be eaten on rice or garlic toasts, tossed with pasta or just enjoyed as a side dish.
6. Beans. A can of black or pinto beans belongs in every pantry. But canned is your fall-back position. Dried beans are much cheaper, so cook a couple of cups and freeze in meal-sized containers. Use them for that chili or minestrone, or add a cup to homemade or canned soup for heft. Mash with a fork and then fry in a skillet in which onions and peppers have already been caramelized, then turn them into burritos with those tortillas and some of that grated cheese. Or make whole-bean burritos or tostadas, or beans and rice. Note: Adler’s book also has recipes that make canned chickpeas into the food of the gods.
7. Lentils. I’ve never tried cooking and freezing these because they cook so quickly. In as little as 20 to 25 minutes you’ll have a dish of one of the most malleable proteins around. Turn them into curry, or make patties and fry them, or flash-chill them (the Alaska outdoors is good for that) and then add diced vegetables, seasonings and a bit of olive oil and vinegar. Or do an online search for “easy lentil recipes” while they’re cooking. Hint: Save the cooking water in the freezer for your next batch of homemade broth or garbage soup.
8. Pre-cooked meat. A container of browned ground beef, chicken or turkey in the freezer can add oomph to a jar of spaghetti sauce or a fast homemade sauce or chili. Thawing a container in the microwave while you open cans of tomatoes and beans seems a lot less onerous than having to start browning meat when you’re workday-whipped. Add whatever you like to the browning: chopped onion, pepper, garlic, spices.
9. Rice. You can buy pre-cooked cups that you microwave until they’re hot. The cost? Nearly $5 per pound. You can also buy frozen pre-cooked rice – but why would you? Just as with beans, cook a big batch and freeze in you-sized amounts. I don’t freeze it myself, because the Super Lucky Elephant Rice that DF buys in bulk cooks in about 15 minutes in a pan on the stove.
While it’s cooking I can figure out what I want to eat with it. As Adler puts it, “A lot of rice turns any amount of anything else into a meal…not just because rice is filling, but because rice has a knack for making any small thing you top it with seem like what you’re tasting the whole time.” That could be beans, eggs, leftover roasted vegetables, shreds of cold meat or whatever you have handy.
Or do what my grandparents did when they didn’t feel like making big meals: Have a bowl of hot rice with milk and a little sugar. Frugal zealot Amy Dacyczyn touted rice and milk as one of the cheapest breakfasts out there, too.
Who has time?
You may think there’s no room in your schedule for this kind of prep work, and you may be right. But you probably aren’t. The rice cooker and the slow cooker are friends to the busy frugalist: Just set them and forget them until the contents are done.
Or try what I call “commando prep” times. No, it doesn’t mean cooking when you’re not wearing underwear: It’s a supremely focused, race-the-clock session that will stock you up with meal makings. Although it’s similar to batch cooking, the idea is to get everything taken care of in an hour or so vs. spending the whole day chopping and sautéing.
Here’s one possible scenario, which begins when you return from the supermarket:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Turn on the heat under the teakettle. Set eggs to boil. Fill the rice cooker or start a couple of cups in a big saucepan. Rinse and pick over dried beans and throw them in the slow cooker.
Start a few chicken breasts (or whatever part you like) to baking. Or heat the oven to 425 degrees and roast a lot of cut-up vegetables that you’ve tossed with olive oil. (That’s another Adler trick; she’s gotten me hooked on roasted veggies for lunches and snacks. Can you tell that I really love her book?)
Carnivores: Crumble a couple of pounds of your meat of choice (for me that’s ground beef) into a skillet; while waiting for it to start hissing, chop up onions and whatever else you want in there.
Use the now-boiling kettle to make enough iced tea elixir to last your family for a few days. (I can go through two quarts in a day and a half just by myself.) Keep an eye on the browning meat while you turn another few pounds of the raw stuff into meat loaf and/or meatballs.
Drain the cooked meat and, if you like, run hot water over it to remove some of the remaining fat. Portion it out as needed (small amounts for spaghetti sauce, large ones for sloppy joes) and freeze it, along with half the meat loaf mixture.
Put the rest of the meat loaf in the oven; while it’s open, turn the chicken parts over if it’s time. Put the meatball mixture on a cookie sheet, making the balls somewhat small – they’ll cook faster and be easier to manage if turned into meatball sandwiches. When they’ve cooled, freeze them.
If the eggs are done, put them in the fridge. If you bought fruit, deal with it: Wash grapes, cut up oranges and whatever else you like for a fruit salad to last the next few days. Grate a pound of Monterey jack or some other all-purpose cheese.
Wash and drain a head or two of your favorite lettuce and let it dry on a bath towel spread on the counter (no need to use and toss paper towels). You’ll save more than $3 a pound and you’ll have a week’s worth of salad greens that haven’t been dipped in preservative solution.
Readers: What are your favorite “convenience” foods?