The freezer is a busy budget cook’s best friend. Probably the most common freezer strategy is the “cook once, eat twice” approach: Make a double batch of dinner and freeze the second half to save money and time on a future night. And, you can also make freezer-ready meals like lasagna, soup, and chili for new neighbors, new parents, or sick friends. But there are many ways your freezer–which I look at as part of my pantry–offers great money-saving tips.
Here are some useful tips and recipes to go with each one of them:
1. Never buy full-price meat again! Meat is often the most expensive item in your shopping cart. Imagine a world in which all of your meat was 50 percent cheaper. It’s possible, if you shop the “loss leaders.” Every week in major grocery store chains, there is usually one beef, one chicken, and one pork cut on sale for 50 percent (or more!) off its normal price. The objective of these loss leaders is to get shoppers in the door of a supermarket, and though the store may take a hit on this one item, they know that you will also likely buy the rest of your groceries while you’re in the store (and make up the cost). Take the opportunity to stock up since meat freezes so well. Then, you always have a stock of various meats at the ready for diverse and cost-effective family dinners. The best place to find out which meats are loss leaders is to check the front page of the advertising flyer. (Note: Do not confuse loss leader meat with “manager special” meat, which is the 50 percent markdown on meat that is nearing its expiration date.)
Bonus meat tip: Buy large value packs of meats on sale and take a few minutes to prep it out and divide it into manageable bundles. It’s a small investment to make that can pay off big-time later because when you’re stuck on busy weeknight and don’t know what to cook, you want to open the freezer and see a recipe waiting to happen – not a giant block of frozen meat. I like to divide up five-pound packages of ground meat into six one-pound portions to put in my freezer. I don’t notice that each pound is slightly shy, and I get an extra meal out of each five-pound package I buy.
Recipes to try: North African Meatballs, Game Day Chili, and Shepherd’s Pie.
2. Freeze easy breakfast treats: Instead of grabbing something on the go that’s likely not as healthy or as affordable as you’d like, make up a few batches of satisfying breakfast treats to always have at the ready. Since they’re so small, mini muffins can be frozen (for 3-4 months in re-sealable bags) and then thawed in minutes, making them an excellent on-the-go, healthy breakfast (or snack, for that matter). Try my Magic Fruit-and-Veggie Cupcakes; they’re a tasty way to pack fiber into a kid-friendly package.
Unbaked scones also freeze beautifully, making them a great impromptu fresh-from-the-freezer treat to start to a lazy weekend morning, or for last-minute houseguests. Here’s my recipe for simple Buttermilk Scones. Semifreeze them, uncooked, on a baking sheet, and then transfer to gallon-sized resealable freezer bags (label the scone flavor!). When you bake frozen scones, add 4-5 minutes to the baking time, so about 16-17 minutes total at 425 degrees. (Frozen unbaked scones also make a fantasic gift for neighbors or new moms!)
3. Prolong the life of your ingredients in the freezer: Remember that the most expensive ingredient in your house is the one you throw away. So, use your freezer to save money by prolonging the life of your ingredients especially when it comes to flavor enhancers like bacon and fresh herbs.
I love using bacon in my recipes because it gives food that salty, smoky, fantastic flavor. The downside is that once the package is open, bacon can spoil quickly. My solution is to keep it in the freezer. Whenever I want to include bacon in a recipe, I just pull the package out of the freezer and cut off about 1/2 inch of bacon lengthwise, and I have the perfect recipe-ready lardons. Fry them up to give pasta, stuffing, burgers, or salad dressing a bacony boost–try my Fennel and Cabbage Slaw and Kale Slaw. And, since bacon seems to go on sale 2 for 1, I load up then and keep it in the freezer. The trick is to buy two or four when they are on sale so that you will never pay full price for bacon again.
I also love cooking with fresh herbs, and the flavor they add to a dish is often worth the money. That said, fresh herbs don’t have a long shelf life so it’s good to know how to make them last especially when you can stock up if they go on sale. To freeze fresh herbs place the washed fresh herbs in a blender and purée with just enough oil to make a paste. Fill the cups of an ice cube tray one third full with the herb paste, freeze, and then pop the herb cubes out and store them in a re-sealable freezer bag or container.