What I mean by “build a meal” is cooking and preparing things ahead of time that will help you to build a meal later. In my last post on “How I Cook to Fit Our Budget – The Basics,” I discussed how I meal plan and make things from scratch. I’m going to break it down for you a little more in this article. However, I don’t make my own tortillas anymore. The last time I did, I made a double batch and wore myself out. I was pregnant at the time. I will however pick this up again when Camden gets a little older. I love the way fresh tortillas hot off the griddle taste with a little honey on them. Mmmm…it’s tempting me now to head for the kitchen to make some while everyone’s sleeping.
First thing I think about when something is on mega sale is, “Can I freeze or use this item in a make ahead recipe?” For example: Trader Joe’s (my favorite grocery store) has recently been having “WOW!” sales on red peppers for 69 cents each. I don’t know about you, but in the DC Metro area that is crazy cheap. Whenever they do this, I will buy 6 at a time. Why 6? I’m not sure. It just feels right. I immediately take them home, wash, slice and freeze them for future use. I usually leave one out for using immediately in a recipe. My method for freezing is called flash freezing. I learned this last year and it has changed the way I cook. Basically you lay out whatever you are freezing on a cookie sheet and freeze for 30 minutes to an hour. A lot of times, I forget and find it the next day. You can still use it, they are just a little more dry. After they flash freeze, you can then store in freezer bags or containers in your freezer. This enables you to grab just a few at a time for making an egg scrambler, pasta or even potato salad.
Other things I like to buy for building meals are beans. Beans are a way to really get your budget down. They are versatile, extremely good for you, and they are a great source of protein and substitution for meat. I like to cook dried beans in my slow cooker in bulk and freeze them. They are much cheaper than buying a can, and they don’t have all the extra additives you don’t want. Have I sold you yet?
I cook them in my slow cooker, divide them into freezer bags and freeze. I do this with black beans all the time. Pinto beans can be mashed right in the slow cooker after removing and setting aside some the liquid. From the freezer, you can make all kinds of quick meals or just have beans on hand for when you need them in a recipe. To cook beans in the slow cooker, add 6 cups of water to 1 pound of beans (after rinsing and picking through for debris) and cook on high for 6 hours. Check to see if you need to add more water occasionally. You don’t want to burn them.
For example, I keep black beans stocked in my freezer all the time. I will pull a bag out to defrost and make black bean nachos when I need a quick meal. We like them better than taco meat on our nachos. I do add salsa and cumin and salt to them for this application. Other recipes I use black beans for are Southwestern Eggrolls from Short Stop Blog, black bean burgers and burritos. I made these Roasted Vegetable Burritos from Budget Bytes and froze them for John’s lunches and dinner when I don’t want to cook. They are amazing! Like ordering out from Chipotle without the cost.
Another trick I use to stretch our budget, is to use less meat and more veggies. You can do this with stir fries, curries, tacos, pasta dishes, soups, etc. I do this a lot. I bought ground beef when it was on sale and cooked 3 pounds at once to freeze. I added onion, green pepper and shredded carrots for filler. Then I could redistribute the beef into smaller portion bags to freeze. You could season it for taco meat ahead of time, or leave it unseasoned for using both for tacos or spaghetti. The flavors work both ways. My favorite thing to buy in bulk is chicken leg quarters. When they are 49 to 69 cents per pound, I like to buy several packages and let the hubby grill them. When they are done, pull all the meat off them and separate into freezer bags to be used in all kinds of dishes. I really like using it for fried rice because it lends a nice smoky flavor. I have also started buying chicken breasts on sale and roasting enough to fit in a 9×13 baking dish – maybe even more. Divide into freezer bags and freeze after shredding or dicing. I used grilled chicken from the freezer to make this Thai curry dish that my friend from Thailand taught me how to make. It’s so good, we don’t eat Thai food out anymore. Budget Win!