TWO GIRLS, ONE... MONTH OF MEALS
July 28, 2015Follow Networthy on Twitter
I’m sorry, world, I just couldn’t resist that title.
Here’s a frugal project that’s not for the faint of heart! A friend and I pooled our resources and together we spent a day shopping, prepping and cooking an entire month of dinners. Let that sink in for a moment: in one day, we prepared thirty days worth of dinners. We don’t have to cook or shop for dinner groceries for a month! And thanks to the power of bulk buying, we did it for just over $100 a person.
You heard me right, dear reader. For the next month, I get to luxuriate in eating delicious, pre-arranged meals, for about $3.50 a day.
How did we pull it off? Well, first of all, all kudos go to my friend Brittany who is the one who arranged this whole thing. Brit is actually a chef, and a fantastic one at that. She’d seen articles online about people who spend a day or a weekend prepping freezer meals and was interested in trying it for herself. She also had a brilliant thought: it would be more cost effective to double everything and split it with another family.
Why It Works Financially
The reason that batch cooking is almost always cheaper than making small meals is that when you buy food at the grocery store, you’re also paying for packaging. And thanks to what little I remember from 10th grade geometry, I know that it takes significantly more surface area (more packaging material) to sell 28 ounces of beans as two 14 ounce cans than it does to sell them in one 28 ounce can. So the company can charge less per ounce of beans for the big can and still make a profit. But as I’ve written before, it’s not a good deal to buy the big can unless you are actually going to use it all.
When you batch cook multiple recipes, you’re in less danger of that because you benefit from shared ingredients. If you’re making a recipe that calls for half an onion, well you still need to buy a whole onion at the store. It’s easy to waste that unused half. But if you plan to make a second recipe that day that also needs half an onion, you’ll use the whole purchase, maximizing its value.
And then when you split the ingredients with another person, you get even more benefit. There are ingredients like oil, flour or spices that you will likely never use up on your own, but which can be made more cost effective by splitting the price. You then also share any start up costs like buying storage containers and aluminum foil. You also have even less risk of wasted bulk ingredients.
Choose the Recipes
So having done this math, Brit did the hard work of picking out recipes and making a master grocery list. Here’s what she picked:
- Bœuf bourguignon (We actually ended up turning this into coq au vin. See below.)
Grocery Shop — Carefully!
Brit and I met up at about 10:00 a.m. on Sunday and went straight to the grocery store. As we went down the list, we stopped and thought often about the most frugal choices we could make. For example, we found bulk chicken thighs on sale for 97 cents a pound. But we couldn’t find any beef selling for less than $4.00 a pound. So we changed the recipe that called for whole beef (bœuf bourguignon) and used chicken for the protein, essentially making coq au vin instead. We found andouille sausage for the gumbo, but it was selling at $4.50 for a tiny package. So instead we found a huge kielbasa selling at half the price and just added some more spice to the recipe later. With recipes that called for ground pork, we found that the cheapest option at the store was to buy sausage patties a pound at a time. And for everything we could we bought generic, bought the biggest bulk version available, and were flexible with the exactness of the ingredients.
We split the items between our two carts, counting as we went. At checkout, Brit spent $113 and I spent $112.
Crack Open a Bottle of Wine and Start Chopping
We got back to Brit’s house around lunchtime, had a quick bite to eat and cracked open a bottle of my favorite Trader Joes $4.99 vinho verde. And then we got to choppin’!
We prepped a whole bag of onions, two cauliflowers, four heads of broccoli, eight bell peppers, two pounds of carrots, three bunches of celery, and two huge boxes of white mushrooms. Not seen is a bulk bag of potatoes we washed and 2 huge bulbs of garlic we minced in a food processor. This took a little over an hour.
Decide What to Cook and What to Par-Cook
Now this is something I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Brit’s experience in restaurants has made her an expert in par-cooking. This basically means that you assemble a meal so that it can be made very quickly, but while still tasting like it was freshly made, which is how restaurants manage to serve an ordered meal in just a few minutes. We did this for most of the chicken dishes. We browned the chicken in a pan of oil (we had bought about 20 pounds of chicken, so we just kept this going the whole time while we worked on other recipes as well) so that the skin was crispy but the meat in the center wasn’t quite done. In a freezer bag, we’d mix the rest of the ingredients for the recipe. For example, for the chicken marsala we mixed raw mushrooms, spices, marsala wine, milk and water into a bag, and then added the chicken breasts. Then, when we’re ready to eat the meal, you empty the bag of frozen ingredients into a pot, mix in a little chicken stock or roux and turn up the heat. First everything will thaw and then it will start simmering, cooking the mushrooms and finishing the cooking of the chicken. When you serve the dish, it tastes like you made it freshly, instead of tasting like warmed-up leftovers.
Here’s a picture of the bag of gumbo: browned chicken, chopped sausage, fresh vegetables, sauce ingredients. Ready to go!
Other dishes like the spinach pie, braised pork shoulder and vegetable burritos make more sense to completely cook and finish. They toast or microwave well and would be awkward or unsafe to store half-done.
Cook, Drink Wine, Rinse and Repeat
Here are a couple pictures from the day.
By 7:00 p.m. we had accomplished our goal. We ran out of space in the kitchen to hold all of the completed meals so we thanked our lucky stars for the chilly Maine summers and left everything on the deck to cool. It was a ton of work and I was exhausted but so so proud of what we had done.
My lovely husband cleaned the dishes I had brought with me to Brit’s house (thank you hun!) and we packed up and left for home with an amazing amount of food. Here’s our full freezer!
That night we ate spinach pie and pork shoulder. Last night we ate chicken marsala. And while I know that Brit and I put a ton of work into this, it felt like the easiest thing on earth to grab a meal out of the freezer last night and throw it on the stove. Wow! A delicious, healthy meal and I don’t have to do anything!
Brit and I are already talking about splitting a membership to Sam’s Club and getting even better bulk deals next time. Stay tuned for further adventures in frugal friendship!