One of the most important things I do to save money is consistently get dinner on the table, 7 nights a week. In this post I share a few tricks I use to cook dinner faster and easier.
Eating out with a large family is expensive. We can easily drop a Benjamin any time we step into a restaurant. Even when “kids eat free” (because they don’t know my kids – I usually end up eating a kid meal so a child can eat the adult-sized portion), we spend $50.
7 ways to cook dinner faster and easier
Getting dinner on the table every night is much easier if you have a few tricks up your sleeve. Here are a few of mine.
I started meal planning in earnest after my third baby was born and suddenly all the homekeeping stuff got difficult.
Meal planning gets a bum rap among frugal folks because they claim that flexibility is key to saving money. However, meal planning can accommodate flexibility. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Having a basic plan so that you reduce decision-making allows your brain to relax and say, “we got this“.
Having a few dinners written out before I shop accomplishes a few things: I stick to the list, I buy ingredients, and my stress level goes way down. (One way I save time meal planning is asking the kids to do it. They enjoy choosing what we eat for dinner, and then helping out when they’ve planned the menu.)
Buy pre-cut, frozen veggies in large bags
I know, I know. I try to make convenience my enemy, but hear me out. I’ve found that when I keep pre-cut veggies in my freezer, I Eat More Vegetables. My health is worth a few extra shekels.
As an example, yesterday I had onions, celery and bell pepper (seasoning blend) with my egg for second breakfast. And I ate squash, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots (Normandy blend) on top of my sweet potato and chicken breast for lunch. That means I’d eaten 9 different vegetables before noon. (And I had several more with dinner!)
Without pre-cut frozen veggies, ain’t no way that’s gonna happen.
A pot of Broccoli-Cheese soup (which I ate 3 days last week for lunch) takes seconds to throw together if you have frozen, cut broccoli and diced onion on hand.
At the grocery store, I buy Seasoning Blend (celery/onion/bell pepper), Mirepoix (carrot/onion/celery), Normandy Blend (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, squash, zucchini), Cali mix (carrots/cauli/broccoli) and Fajita Blend (sliced tri-color bell pepper and onion) in huge bags as well as diced onion.
Frozen diced onion changed my life. Seriously. After my 3rd baby was born, my sister gifted me with a copy of The One Armed Cook, a cookbook with recipes that can be made with a baby on the hip, and one I still use to this day. Frozen diced onions appear regularly in its recipes. Because dicing an onion is nigh on impossible while holding a baby.
ALDI, so I make a trip to WalMart occasionally for the big bags and stock up.
Once you have these cut veggies in your freezer, making many things is easy.
Vegetable Soup – broth, mirepoix, Normandy Blend, white beans, tomato sauce
Beef Stew – stew meat, beef broth, tomato paste, onions, Normandy Blend
Omelet or frittata – eggs, any meat and cheese you have on hand, Fajita Blend
Chili – ground beef or turkey, seasoning blend, fajita blend, tomato sauce, beans
Buy frozen chicken breasts in large bags
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be expensive – around $6 a pound or more, but when you buy them in large quantities frozen, the price drops to around $3 a pound. Totally worth it to me.
I use these as the basic for many easy meals: Burrito Bowls, White Chicken Chili, Spinach Alfredo Chicken, etc.
Salsa Chicken is also super quick and easy. I simply place chicken breasts and salsa along with spices (chili powder, garlic, onion, cumin) into the slow cooker and cook until soft, then shred. This can go on top of rice or lettuce or in tortillas or soups.
Keep cooked beans in the freezer
I have two huge bulk containers of black and pinto beans. I cook up a large quantity of these then separate them into family-size portions and freeze.
This makes it easy to make: Black Bean Soup, Burrito Bowls or Tacos, Tortilla Soup, Chili, or just beans as a cheap side to help fill up hungry children.
Similarly, I keep brown rice in the fridge almost all of the time. I make it a habit to cook more than I need for any one meal so I can easily reheat the leftovers.
Here’s a little secret to cooking brown rice in half the time: measure it out into a saucepan and add the appropriate amount of water, place a lid on it and refrigerate it for several hours or overnight.
When ready to cook, add salt and bring to boil, then simmer on low. It will cook in 20 minutes.
Must-have pantry staples: chicken broth and canned tomatoes
It’s a good day if I have chicken broth and/or canned tomatoes. (In a perfect world, I would always have homemade chicken broth, but I use it so much I run out of homemade, so store-bought is fine in a pinch.)
With broth I can make all manner of soups or perk up leftover rice. Canned tomatoes go in dozens of my family’s favorite dishes.
Lastly, I never, ever run out of eggs
My family loves frittatas and omelets, so as long as I have eggs, I have a respectable dinner. Knowing how to make frittatas and omelets is a wonderful tool for a frugal chef because you can put nearly any leftover meat, cheese or veggie in them and they’re nearly impossible to mess up.
What are your time-saving secrets for getting dinner on the table every night?
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My mom got me an Instant Pot for Christmas and I LOVE it. While the actual prep time is the same (20-30 minutes) for most meals, hands on time is less than 10 minutes. Before I had the Instant Pot, I pressure canned beans and meat/broth in order to have those ingredients on hand at all times. Now, though, I can used dried beans in the IP and skip the canning. I can also make broth with leftover bones fast and easy. The rice never boils over, baked potatoes are always fully cooked by lunch, and pasta never needs to be strained. I’ve heard you can also make boiled eggs, yogurt, and cheesecake in the IP, but those are still on my “to try” list. The IP cuts down on time, but also on washing dishes, which I hate doing and takes almost as much time as cooking (we don’t have a dishwasher). My mom has seven kids still at home and she loves her Instant Pot so much, she took it on vacation.
The other tool that makes meal prep a snap is a Vitamix blender. I’m sure you could get a Ninja or food processor to do the same things though. I use the Vitamix to shred potatoes, cabbage and carrots, as well as dice onions. I can literally prep a whole weeks’ worth of veggies this way in 10 minutes. The blender is easy to clean, so I’ve used it to save on dishes by blending waffle batters, pumpkin pie filling, etc instead of doing it in a mixing bowl. I also use it to make sauces and pestos, fruit “ice creams” and anything else you’d make with a blender.
Lately I’ve been doing whole chickens in my crockpot at least once per week…if you don’t overcook it like I did last night, it’s delicious. I can season it with whatever spices I want, and it lasts my family of 3 a couple of meals.
I’m with you on the frozen veggies. I was just thinking the other day that fresh veggies would be cheaper, but sometimes it’s worth it to pay for the convenience of dump and cook veggies.
Soaking brown rice is something I’ve never thought of. I’m going to try it though, as I have NEVER been able to make good brown rice. I’ve switched to eating quinoa instead, which is generally more expensive, simply because I can actually cook a decent batch of qinuoa 🙂
Kristen | The Frugal Girl says
Totally agree on the meal planning! It’s my number one tool to keep food costs down.
And it totally irritates me when I see frugal bloggers diss meal planning! These are usually people with one or no kids, whose spouse does all the cooking. Just sayin’ 😉
Yes, I used to do whole chickens all the time, once a week even. I’ve gotten away from it a little because I find that after supper, I’m just too tired to deal with stripping the carcass and all that… sigh. I suppose I could just throw it in the fridge and tackle it in the morning though. LOL!
Wow Bethany, thanks for that explanation. I haven’t been able to get why the Instant Pot is so great until you said all that. I’m definitely a kitchen tools minimalist, but you nearly have me convinced. 🙂 Maybe I’ll put it on my wish list, but first I’ll go to your site and find an Amazon affiliate link!
I’m a crock pot fanatic. Enjoying lots of great recipes in the crock pot lately.
@Nell – yes I’ve seen those on Instagram! I use mine a lot too, once or twice a week.
Great tips! Buying frozen vegetables is a better money-saving deal, regarding food waste, as opposed to buying fresh vegetables that go bad if not used within a certain time.
Yes to frozen veggies too! If there is a great deal on a fresh veggie that I’ll use RIGHT AWAY, I’ll buy fresh. Or veggies like eggplant or yellow squash, I’ll buy fresh. I typically stock up on Aldi’s chicken breast when it goes on sale for $1.49/lb….as it does regularly!! Large, family packs – woohoo! I’m definitely going to try the salsa chicken in the crockpot…great idea! Thanks for sharing that.
These are great tips! I try to meal plan every week, and it definitely helps save money! Crockpot meals are my favorite since I like to just set and then come back to a cooked meal!
Sometimes spending a little for convince makes all the difference in the world. I know we eat a lot more vegetables when we buy frozen pre-cut vegetables!
We have a bad tendency to eat out if the meal we planned to eat takes to much time. There are just three of us, so depending on where we go it might not be too bad. However, when we eat out it is usually not nearly as healthy!