One-Dish Dinners Time- and Money-Saving Strategies
If the pioneers had only a few ingredients to work with and just a pot and a fire to make the simple one-pot meals they needed to survive, then we can too. Using simple ingredients and simple cooking methods, we can make meals that taste great and will give us the nutrition and fuel we need after a long day of work and play. The ease and convenience of cooking one-dish dinners will take you back to the days of old while bringing simplicity back to your next family meal, your next neighborhood block party, or church potluck.
In this first chapter, we will review the basic concepts of $5 Dinners and how they apply to my One-Dish Dinners. We will discuss the time- and money-saving strategies of today that will help you put a delicious and inexpensive one-dish dinner on the table that your family is sure to love.
When it comes to making One-Dish Dinners for as little as possible, the same $5 Dinners rules, concepts, and principles apply. These recipes use common ingredients that can be found on sale every couple of weeks, and many of the ingredients can be purchased with a coupon during the sale for maximum savings. They also call for inexpensive cuts of meat and chicken. And, if there is an expensive ingredient, such as shrimp, the rest of the ingredients in the recipe are simple and inexpensive so that the overall cost of the meal stays under $5.
Let’s review the strategies for shopping, couponing, and meal planning from The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook, and how they can bring down the costs for your One-Dish Dinners.
STRATEGIC GROCERY SHOPPING
• Writing Your Grocery List Using the Store Circulars: Look at the store circulars before you go into the store and make your grocery list based on all the products listed on sale. Pay close attention to the sale prices for meats, chicken, and other expensive protein ingredients. Buy these products only when they are on sale and avoid paying double, or triple, in between sale cycles.
• Cash, Cash, Cash: Ditch the “plastic” and use cold hard cash at the checkout. This is crucial for staying within your budget. After all, you can’t show up at the checkout with $100 worth of products and $75 in your hand. The store isn’t going to trust you to come back in the next week with $25 you owe them.
• Defining Your Grocery Budget: Track your grocery spending for three months and come up with that magical dollar amount that works for your family. The number should be a challenge to reach each week, but still be a reasonable amount to get the ingredients you need each week.
• Avoiding Temptations and Spending Pits in the Grocery Store: Do not succumb to the marketing strategies that the stores and manufacturers use to get you to buy their products for top dollar or full retail. Remember: “I’ll never pay full price again!”
• Never-Pay-More-Than Prices for Fresh Meats and Produce: In the Frugal Fact associated with each recipe, I’ll share with you some examples of my “never-pay-more-than” prices for common ingredients used to make One-Dish Dinners.
• Stockpiling and Rock-Bottom Prices: If you make it a habit to use coupons only when the product is on sale, then you’ll be able to build a nice stockpile of foods for your pantry and freezer while spending as little money as possible. You can then make One-Dish Dinner after One-Dish Dinner using the ingredients from your pantry and freezer that you purchased at the lowest price possible.
• Coupon Organization: Remember that coupons are “free money” and that keeping them organized is essential to spending as little as possible on your favorite products each week. The 10 to 15 minutes per week time investment to keep your coupons in order is well worth the hundreds of dollars in potential savings each month.
STRATEGIC MEAL PLANNING
• Phases of Meal Planning: Take baby steps through the phases of meal planning. As a beginner, follow a “days-of-the-week” meal plan where you have pasta on Monday, slow cooker meal on Tuesday, pizza on Friday, etc. Once you get more comfortable trying new recipes with the ingredients you find on sale, start planning meals on a monthly basis with the food that you have in your stockpile and the meat that you have in your freezer. Eventually, you will decide whether to plan your meals and then shop, or shop from the store’s circular and then plan your meals around what you have on hand.
• Stay Out of the Drive-Through Line: A meal plan each week will keep you out of the drive-through line and keep you from spending way too much money on an unplanned dinner out on the town.
• Leftovers: Having a plan for those dinner leftovers is essential, especially since many times lunch is when leftovers are eaten. With just one ingredient mix-in and some reheating, leftovers can easily be repurposed and enjoyed a second time.
• New Recipes—Make a goal of trying three new recipes each month. This will help keep your family from being bored with “the same old meal.” These One-Dish Dinners recipes won’t require any extra preparation time and will become like second nature after the first time making them.
One-Dish Dinners are both cost-efficient and time-efficient. After making just two or three of these recipes, you will quickly find that you are spending far less time in the kitchen preparing dinner than other non–One-Dish Dinner recipes.
For the most part, One-Dish Dinners recipes are “dump and go,” if you will. You dump it all into the pot, skillet, baking dish, or slow cooker and let it cook with an occasional stir. The cooking times do vary from 10 minutes to 1 hour plus, but the prep time is generally between 5 and 10 minutes for each recipe.
In the sections that follow, we will take some concepts from The $5 Dinner Mom Breakfast and Lunch Cookbook and twist them a bit to help you spend less time on the One-Dish Dinner prep. By putting the batch-cooking and precooked-ingredient concepts into practice, you could shave 20 to 30 minutes off of the preparation of some of the recipes in this cookbook.
An essential to being prepared when it comes to One-Dish Dinners is the concept of batch cooking.
Batch cooking can be an hour that you set aside and devote only to preparing ingredients that you can freeze and use in One-Dish Dinners later in the month. It can be 10 minutes here and there when you prepare the food or chop vegetables while you are already making other meals in the kitchen. It can be when you plan to double the recipe for a favorite meal and stash the uneaten portion in the freezer for lunch the following week. It can be set up so you double every dinner that week so that you have several meals in the freezer to eat for the rest of the month. Or that you brown extra ground beef, or start a whole chicken in the slow cooker while you are already in the kitchen working on another meal.
The purpose of batch cooking is to maximize your time and efficiency in the kitchen, preparing and cooking your favorite foods from scratch, and without the burden of cooking for an entire day.
Another benefit of batch cooking is having precooked ingredients available from your batch-cooking efforts. Your batch-cooking efforts will cut down on meal prep time on a busy weeknight. If you already have ground beef browned, then you can have the Cheeseburger Potpie ready to go into the oven before the oven has had time to preheat. Or you could have the Chicken, Tomato, and Herb Pasta Salad chilling in the refrigerator before the kids ask for seconds of their afternoon snack, if you have some extra grilled chicken breasts in the freezer from last week’s grill night.
• Batch Grilling Chicken Breasts: If you are grilling chicken breasts for dinner one night, why not grill a few extras to slice or dice and throw in the freezer. Then you’ll have diced chicken ready for a quick pasta salad, or some sliced chicken to put on a salad or in a wrap. To thaw, set out the night before, or defrost in the microwave.
• Slow Cooker Whole Chickens: To cook a whole chicken in the slow cooker, simply add about 1 cup of water to the insert of the slow cooker, remove the giblets and neck from the cavity, and place the chicken in the slow cooker. If you wish to flavor the broth, add a few carrots and celery sticks. Season with garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper. Set the slow cooker on low and cook for 8 to 10 hours. Once the chicken has cooked, carefully remove it from the slow cooker and place it on a serving platter or large tray. Let it cool for about 30 minutes before you pull the meat from the chicken and shred it. Let the meat cool and then place it into 2-cup portions in plastic freezer bags. Freeze the shredded chicken for up to 6 months. I suggest cooking the chicken overnight, letting it cool, and then pulling apart the chicken meat the next morning after breakfast or before you get lunch together. You can strain the stock from the slow cooker, let it cool, skim off the fat, and then freeze the stock to use in soups or stews. See Homemade Chicken Stock. Precooked and shredded chicken will allow you to prepare Chicken Succotash or One-Dish Chicken Spaghetti in a matter of minutes.
• Batch Cooking Dried Beans: Cooking with dried beans costs at least half as much as using canned beans. Generally I will plan a “batch-cooking morning” and include in the plan cooking a few different varieties of beans, then freezing them in 2-cup portions. This saves both time and energy, especially when it comes to cleanup. To cook the dried beans, soak them overnight in cold water, or for at least 2 hours in hot water. Then rinse the beans and place them into a large saucepan. Add water to the beans to cover them with about 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and cook for about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Drain the beans in a colander and rinse with cool water. Let cool completely in the colander before placing them into the plastic bags to freeze. To thaw, place the sealed bags with the cooked and frozen beans in a bowl with hot water, or defrost them in the microwave.
• Browned Ground Beef: Purchase several extra packages of ground beef when you see it on sale for less than $1.49 per pound, or ground chuck for $1.79 per pound or less. In a large pot or Dutch oven, add 1 cup of water and then brown up to 5 pounds of ground beef at a time. Once browned, drain and let it cool before freezing it in 2- to 3-cup portions to use in different One-Dish Dinners, such as Beef and Zucchini Quesadilla Bake.
• Premade Meatballs: Another way to take advantage of the savings from a ground beef sale is to make meatballs, then freeze them before cooking. Then when you want to make Slow Cooker Spaghetti and Meatballs Florentine, you can just drop them in with the sauce and move on with your day. If you purchase 10 pounds of ground beef on sale, brown 5 pounds and turn the other 5 pounds into several meals’ worth of meatballs or 2 or 3 meat loaves. You already did the legwork perhaps while you were browning the rest of the ground beef you got on sale that day.
• Bacon and Sausage: Both of these ingredients can be batch cooked and the cooked slices or crumbles can be frozen to use for future meals. To quickly batch cook the bacon, place a piece of aluminum foil on a rimmed baking sheet and lay the bacon slices on the foil, with no overlapping. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes; the cooking time may vary depending on the thickness of the bacon pieces. Place the cooked bacon on paper towels to drain excess grease. Crumble or place whole slices into a plastic freezer bag or freezer container. Another “no-mess” way to cook bacon is to place 4 to 6 slices in between double layers of paper towels on a plate, and then microwave it for 3 to 5 minutes until it reaches the desired crispiness. Also, an entire roll of sausage can be crumbled and browned, or sausage links can be sliced, cooked, and then frozen. You can use the precooked bacon to quickly prepare the Loaded Potato Frittata, or the precooked sausage crumbles to make the Sweet-and-Spicy Sausage Cornbread Bake in just minutes.
If you want to be able to have dinner prepared in 5 minutes or less, I suggest that you keep a steady supply of the following precooked ingredients in your freezer:
• Browned ground beef
• Meatballs, uncooked
• Cooked and shredded chicken
• Grilled chicken slices
• Diced grilled chicken
• Cooked beans of all varieties
• Cooked bacon
• Cooked sausage crumbles, slices, or links
Practical Look at Batch Cooking One-Dish Dinners
Okay, so how does batch cooking really work? What does it really look like? It’s really a question of how well you can multitask and have several things cooking at once in the kitchen. It’s about slow cooking dinner while baking a double batch of muffins and grilling chicken breasts to slice and dice, before freezing. Let’s look at an example of how to batch cook ingredients for about nine meals in 1 hour (not including the slow cooker time).
• In the morning, place a whole chicken in the slow cooker with some vegetables to make shredded chicken and Homemade Chicken Stock.
• In the afternoon, brown 5 pounds of ground beef in a Dutch oven, drain, and let cool before freezing in 1-pound portions.
• Make 2 batches of meatballs and freeze them raw.
• Brown 1 pound of ground sausage in a skillet to use for breakfast tacos, muffins, or breakfast scramble.
• Pull off the chicken meat from the slow-cooked whole chicken.
In an hour’s time, you’ll have pre-prepared the meat for nine different meals to enjoy that month.
During another hour of batch cooking, you could begin cooking 1 pound of three different varieties of dried beans, get several casseroles assembled for the freezer, and get a few packages of bacon cooked and into the freezer.
In the 5 minutes that it takes your kids to set the table, you can start a whole chicken in the slow cooker and cook it overnight. In the morning, you can pull off the shredded chicken, and strain the broth.
In the 20 minutes that it takes you to get spaghetti on the table, you can cook bacon in the oven. Then let it cool while you eat dinner and then drop the cooked bacon into plastic freezer bags while you clean up from dinner.
And in no extra grilling time at all, you could grill up 4 extra packages of chicken breasts or chicken thighs the week that you get them on sale. It will take you about 10 minutes to get the grilled and cooled chicken sliced or diced and packaged for the freezer.
To summarize these strategies, you have to be smart before you go into the grocery store by making your list using the store circular. You have to be smart while inside the grocery store by sticking to your list and paying with cash. You have to be smart with the time that you spend in the kitchen by batch cooking and precooking basic ingredients like ground beef and shredded chicken.
So you have both the time- and money-saving strategies all figured out, now let’s move on to the mechanics, tips, and tricks of actually making the different kinds of One-Dish Dinners.
Copyright © 2012 by Erin Chase