9 cheap (and non-toxic!) “convenience” foods.

groceriesNobody ever went broke underestimating consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for convenience. Spending extra to get on the plane before everyone else.

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.

Malleable proteins

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?

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  1. It’s important to cook clothed so you don’t burn yourself if there’s a splash or splatter. Though perhaps you can go commando so long as you’re still covered up with something.

  2. Ro in San Diego

    For normal families I’m sure this will work but my husband is an extremely picky eater for whom I have about 20 dinner meals that I rotate as time/my energy/in home temperature will allow. As a side effect of a recent illness my husband keeps the house really warm.

    San Diego summers are hot and humid and the kitchen is definitely not the place to be so I have found some inexpensive takeout meals that he will eat and I also enjoy so I get a break when it’s too hot to cook. For example a local fast food has a special on Tuesdays. I buy the special supplementing with canned veg side dishes. I also keep a lot of pasta on hand for meatless meal nights I’ve slipped into the routine.

    I have recently gone back to experimenting with the crock pot to make a great pot of beans and one of the best tomato sauces (using tomatoes from my garden) I’ve recently tasted. Since we’re a family of two I’ve found a small crock pot works best if there’s a meal I don’t want leftovers from.

    • Donna Freedman

      I love my slow cooker, for everything from a simple baked-potato-and-side-veg supper to major productions. And beans, of course. Definitely beans.
      Stay cool.

  3. Maybe this is not a convenience food. I have trouble bending to look in the crisper that is on the very bottom of the refrigerator. It is hard to stand to chop anything.

    I buy large amounts of onion, bell peppers, and celery when they are on sale. Then, I spread a sheet over the ottoman in the den, take whatever I am working on and sit. After I dice the vegetable, I dehydrate it. I am much more likely to cook if I don’t face the chopping involved. When it is time to cook, I can pour out a bit of each of the above.

    Three to six boneless skinless chicken breasts bought when they go on sale will feed me for about five days after I give some to my friend to take home after he helps me. I use the jars of dehydrated vegetables to put in the cooking bag with the chicken.

    I also cook a pot of beans and freeze in small portions, also rice.

    With all the above, I can cook a meal when I am tired or just cannot stand for another minute. I use bagged salad or commercially canned green beans to complete the meal. One day, I just stuck a cut up cabbage, washed, roughly cut carrots and carrots to a pot of water and steamed it all.

    Basically, day to day, I manage to cook one dish. All the frozen or dehydrated items make cooking quick and easy.

    • Thanks for these tips guys ! For the dehydrated vegetables (onion, bell peppers, celery)kept in a jar, how do I/for how long do I dehydrate those vegetables ? I bought a home-use-dehydrator years ago but I never got an instruction booklet with it. So I don’t know how, or for how long I should dehydrate things. Thanks much.

      • Donna Freedman

        Contact the manufacturer and see if you could be sent a booklet; just emphasize that you always meant to use the machine and can’t wait to get started, but, um, you don’t know how it works. Or look online for a PDF of that particular machine’s instructions.
        The National Center for Home Food Preservation has info on drying foods:
        Good luck! We’re working our way through jars and jars of dehydrated kale, spinach and Asian greens; they get added to stews, soups, chili and stroganoff.

      • Google the name of your dehydrator and look for a manual you can download. Or, go to Dehydrate2Store.com. She has videos, but I do believe she has written material to download.

        Does your dehydrator have a timer and thermostat? Both are necessary, but some dehydrators do not have one.

  4. Holly S

    I ALWAYS have all your fast/frugal items on hand; sometimes pre-cooked (rice, beans, ground meat).

    I generally batch cook something (chicken, lasagna, soup, chili, lentils) a couple times a month so I ALWAYS have stuff I can (and do frequently) pull from the freezer. However, I did buy the rotiss chicken on sale this weekend because I also had a $3 coupon. I could NOT have bought a raw chicken for $2.

    • Donna Freedman

      That was a deal, especially since you didn’t have to cook it.

  5. Great tips! Thank you.

  6. I know it is bad, but I tend to buy pre-shredded cheese. When it is on sale for the same price as the non shredded cheese, I stock up. This happens quite often.

    I’ve been “batch cooking” lately and last night had dinner on the table in less than 15 minutes. A personal record. Frozen pre-cooked hamburger added to a jar of spaghetti sauce. All I had to to was to cook the elbow macaroni and stir it all together. Dinner for me last night and three lunches (at least) for this week!

    • Donna Freedman

      If it’s the same price you’re not losing anything on the deal. Besides, it’s not a mortal sin to want to buy it even if it costs more. A relative of mine felt guilty about it and I simply said, “That’s why they call it ‘convenience’ food: It makes your life easier.” But if you’re on a tight budget, I’d say go with the best price you can get — and often the pre-shredded stuff isn’t the same price.
      Myself, I don’t like it because of the anti-dessicant with which it’s been tossed. Seems a little dry to me (although I doubt I’d notice it in a big cheesy pan of lasagna).
      Congrats on the fast meal — you sure couldn’t get food delivered that quickly. 🙂

      • I only buy pre-shredded Kraft Italian 5-Cheese blend and ONLY when it is on sale. It does go on sale for $2/8 oz pkg just like the chunk of medium cheddar. My ads always include the shredded and chunk of Kraft at the same sale price. Any kind of bread or pasta with jarred spaghetti sauce with shredded cheese on top can be popped into the oven for a quick pizza lunch. Oh, with pasta it is not pizza and can go in the microwave.

  7. Donna, I’m so glad you referenced Adler and her work. I recently read “An Everlasting Meal” and while I was already a frugal cook, I feel as though she inspired me to think even harder about using every potential ingredient. Creativity to some extent is using what you have in the most effective manner, to the best effect, and both you (and Adler) have reminded us of this. Thanks!

  8. Fruit and raw veggies. Nothing could be easier than laying a few slices of peach and avocado over some pre-packaged (washed!) lettuce and sprinkling a little lemon juice and olive oil over it. Add a few walnuts or pecans.

    Use caution with packaged foods and cheeses: They’re full of salt. Canned tomatoes — just about anything in cans, as a matter of fact — are loaded with salt. Undue amounts of sugar are added to many processed foods, too…check the labels on that spaghetti sauce and barbecue sauce. These are reasons Americans suffer from high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, and full-blown diabetes: our food is spiked with large amounts of salt and sugar that we’re not even aware of.

  9. SherryH

    Donna, have you been peeking in my kitchen? The only item on your list that I don’t keep on hand is the broth, because I don’t care for the flavor of canned and never remember to thaw from frozen in advance. I keep a jar of soup base in the fridge and mix some up as needed. Much lower in sodium & higher in flavor than boullion. (Drat it, spelled that wrong and don’t have access to a dictionary at the moment. Sorry.) Usually, I’ve just cooked chicken and use the broth from that for chicken soup or chicken & rice.

    Let me suggest another convenience food: potatoes. So easy to zap one in the microwave and top with a little of that grated cheese. For our family of four, I’ll boil them on the stovetop. Takes longer, but doesn’t need much tending. They’re also good cut up and fried, maybe with a little onion. Throw in some leftover shredded beef, or stir in some beaten eggs, cook ’til they’re nearly done, top with cheese and cover to finish cooking.

    Another very convenient, though less versatile suggestion: oatmeal and quick-cooking grits. We’ve had more than one meal of grits and cheese or grits and poached eggs.

    Love your tips for commando food prep, too. I’ve recently been very sick and I’m not quite up to that level of energy yet, but I do a lot of the same things – just not all at once. Even if my husband ends up having to cook dinner when he gets home from work, it’s so much easier on him if things are prepped and staged.

    (On a personal note, let me say that it’s good to be back reading you and commenting again. You have no idea. And let me compliment you further: Your site is very easy to access and navigate with the screen reader I’m now using. So, kudos to you or whoever set that up. And thank you. Can’t guarantee how often I’ll be able to read or comment, because I’m so pokey and slow now, but I’ll definitely be around.)

    • Donna Freedman

      I’m sorry you’ve been ill. Hope your family is dancing attendance on you.
      I sometimes have oatmeal for supper when I don’t feel like cooking. Potatoes — and sweet potatoes — are another standby because a baked potato lunch or supper always sounds good to me. Fried potatoes….mmmmmm…… Oh, and when I make my chicken stock from the bones and pan juices of roasted chicken, I skim off the fat once it’s been chilled and use it to fry those spuds.
      Feel better! And thanks for commenting.

      • SherryH

        Yeah, my guys are the best. They did so much for me when I was first home from the hospital, but now that I’m convalescing, they do something even better: help me do things for myself – and for them. Nothing says love more than standing by, watching me fumble and bumble with something, until I either get it, or ask for help. And they’ve been wonderful about organizing and marking things and figuring out creative ways for me to “see” what I’m doing.

        All in all, I am one lucky woman.

        Thanks for the good wishes – they mean a lot.

  10. Go-to convenience foods for me are greek yogurt & cottage cheese. Otherwise much of this looks familiar. 🙂

    One plea re: rinsing your ground meat to remove fat: if you do this, please do not wash the fat down the drain. For ideas of what can result, Google “fatberg.”

  11. i like the idea of cooking stuff all at once and freezing it for convenience’s sake. why didn’t i ever think of this before? sheesh. and here i have a 7 cu ft chest freezer just sitting there begging to be loaded up with store-bought stuff ready to go.

    • Donna Freedman

      Recently I cooked a big batch of black beans and froze them flat in a Ziploc bag. You can break off as many as you need for a particular recipe. Am thinking of doing a batch of pinto beans as well, for an almost-instant chili — having the meat browned and frozen too means all you have to do is open a couple of cans of tomatoes and throw in some spices. A recipe in a Marian Burros cookbook said you can have decent chili by simmering for as little as 20 minutes — and while you’re waiting for it to come to a boil you can put on a pot of rice.

      • more great ideas. i recently had a conversation with my husband about why it is that it’s so easy for us to get caught in the fast food downward spiral (which leads to spending money we don’t realyl have, and so forth). the answer we came up with was, because the idea of being hungry RIGHT NOW and having to go home and cook a meal before we can eat just sucks. and yes, we were both immediately aware of how ridiculous that sounds and we got a good laugh at ourselves. honestly, are we that totally controlled by instant gratification? i guess so. ah well. at least now that we see it we can both work on it, and make better plans about having easy stuff at home to cook. i’m going to try your idea of freezing bags of beans. thank you so much for that.

        • Donna Freedman

          You’re welcome. Also: I’ve found it helps to have something to eat with you at all times, in a pocket or handbag or backpack. When I’d be shopping and feel tempted to buy something out of my budget/bad for me, I’d get a peppermint out of my coat pocket and let it dissolve in my mouth while I finished shopping. The instant gratification (i.e., blood-sugar spike) made those chips or whatever seem less necessary.
          Doesn’t have to be candy. Try having a granola bar or a little plastic container of nuts. These also come in handy when you’re stuck somewhere (traffic jam, appointment that was late getting started) and keep you from feeling too grumpy. They also keep you from buying a package of nuts from the vending machine at 3X the cost.

  12. Steam Fry Recipe: Go to grocery and bargain with the veggie department for tomatoes that are getting overripe because they are over priced. Choose some slightly wilted spinach and get a mark down on the price. Buy fresh parsley, it’s not expensive, onions are horrid with even a bit of mold so buy one, fresh, string beans if you can get them cheap. Remove strings. Broccoli. See if you can get a price mark down on the smallest heads. Never buy turnips. Ditto rutabagas. They taste awful combined with anything. In my opinion. Green peppers, marked down because slightly wilted. Smell first before buying. Chop, dump in large skillet. Add a little tomato juice, bring to a boil. Put the lid on and simmer for about 10 minutes. No stirring needed. You have a lovely steam fry. No grease. Less calories, and the veggies are just as good if they are a little imperfect but a whole lot less expensive and can be purchased in small quantities for people who are single.I usually put in cubed tofu but that’s a taste that has to be cultivated. Serve with two day old French Bread Loaf cut into thick slices. Yum.


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