This is a guest blog post from reader Renee MacLaughlan Bozarth, who says she is a big coupon and bargain shopper. “My 16 year old asked me once why I needed a coupon to shop everywhere,” Renee said, “and I taught her about double coupons!”
When meal preparation businesses opened, I jumped on the bandwagon. I enjoyed the convenience and variety, as well as being able to bring my family members to help me. I’d pay $225 for 10 to 12 meals; each served 4 to 6 people. I would use 3 meals every week; leftovers, sandwiches and other items made up the rest of my menus.
When I got word that my favorite meal preparation location was going out of business, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Comparable locations didn’t have family friendly recipes and cost a lot more than what I had been paying. My husband suggested that I make the meals at home, using our kids and himself as labor. This was going to require a lot of planning! I’d have to find recipes that my family would like, make a grocery list, and find containers that would hold the prepared meals and hope that they would freeze well. I didn’t think that I could accomplish all of that on my own.
My first challenge was to find containers. I bought them online at www.webstaurantstore.com. A set of 100 full size aluminum pans and lids were $70 with shipping. I also stocked up on 1 gallon freezer bags from the grocery store for meals that could be stored that way.
I have a few places I visit for recipes. Kraft has a great site at www.foodandfamily.com. My newest find is a Campbell’s Soup site called www.campbellkitchen.com. Both have easy searches for just about any recipe you might want. Pick the recipes you like, print them and then start your grocery list. I make my meals once a month, so I shop once a month for the ingredients. My store of choice is Win Co Foods, because I can buy items in bulk, such as pasta, rice, potatoes and spices. They also have a great store brand product for most name brand items, such as stuffing mix, soups and frozen vegetables. These items are usually $.30 to $.50 less expensive than the name brand item.
Once I have my shopping done, I set aside 2 to 3 hours on a Saturday to put the meals together. Some recipes may require that you cook the ground beef, for example, so I will do that before making the meal. If a recipe requires cooked chicken cubed or sliced, you can purchase cooked chicken in the deli aisle that will work just as well. I try to keep my meal preparation as simple as possible! Each family member helps. Dishes and utensils are washed and re-used right away. For example, one of my family’s favorite meals is Meatball Sandwiches. I buy prepared meatballs, put them in a gallon bag (put the gallon bag in a pitcher for less spilling), along with spaghetti sauce, and freeze the mixture, along with sandwich rolls. When the meal is ready to be prepared, it requires defrosting, re-heating and some Mozzarella cheese on top of the meatball/sauce mixture. Add your chosen sides, and you are ready to eat.
Once the meal is done and in its’ container, I use scotch tape to secure the recipe to the lid of the aluminum pan. If the recipe is stored in a gallon freezer bag, I fold the recipe in a zipped sandwich bag and place it inside of the freezer bag before I close it. All of my meals are in the freezer until they are brought out for that week’s meals. There are some things that don’t freeze well, such as potatoes and green peppers. If I happen to pick a recipe with those items, I use that meal during the first week so it doesn’t have to be frozen. Also, some recipes don’t pass my family’s taste test. We’ll vote on favorites and also on those we don’t like. I keep the names of both categories in a binder, along with the recipes of the ones I want to repeat.
On Sundays, I take out 3 meals to defrost. My family has a system we use that works well for us. Each night, one of our children will make dinner. Another child will clean up and do dishes – in our house, whoever makes dinner does not clean up that night. I assign meals to each evening, filling in nights with no prepared meals with spaghetti (I always have extra pasta and sauce), grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, leftover night or on-your-own night. The prepared meal will sometimes require the meal maker to prepare sides, such as rice, potatoes or vegetables. I will put serving suggestions on the recipe and allow the preparer to decide what to make. My 7-year-old daughter just entered the meal-making rotation. Last week, she made individual pizzas using English muffins as the “dough,” a bottle of squeezable pizza sauce, pepperoni and mozzarella cheese on top. Add a bag of salad mix and you have dinner made by a very proud 7-year-old.
My cost for the items to prepare my meals ranges from $100 to $140, depending on the ingredients. I do additional shopping during the month for staples such as milk, bread, eggs and personal items. I also buy canned goods and side items, such as rice, potatoes and rolls at a low price warehouse store that stocks cosmetically dented and damaged items. For my family of 5, I spend no more than $300 for groceries. I’ve been preparing my own meals for over a year. Considering that I was spending $225 or more for 12 meals, I am very happy with my meal preparation decision.