FILL UP THE FREEZER
Fall is here, which means it's slow cooker season! By allowing frugal home cooks to buy ingredients in bulk and choose cheaper cuts of meat, a slow cooker can slash food costs. To get the most out of a slow cooker this fall and winter, use these money-saving tips to stock the freezer with ready-made meals.
CONSIDER THE CONTAINER
Buying anything in bulk is likely to be cheaper, and that includes freezer containers such as zip-close bags and foil baking pans. Find storage containers for less at Costco, Sam's Club, or another warehouse store. Reusable plastic or glass containers cost a little more up front but can be a savvy long-term investment. For these, try the dollar store, where prices are typically cheaper than Walmart, Target, or the grocery store.
BUY KITCHEN SUPPLIES FOR LESS
Prepping multiple freezer meals in one day can be tough without enough supplies. Having at least two sets of measuring cups and measuring spoons, as well as several large mixing bowls, makes everything easier. These items can also be found in the aisles of the local dollar store for less. Of course, a slow cooker is a must-have. Cheapism.com's top pick is the Hamilton Beach 33155 (starting at less than $18).
BUY INGREDIENTS IN BULK
When setting aside an afternoon to put together freezer meals, it's worth it to buy ingredients in bulk. Stock up during sales and look for common ingredients, such as salt, pepper, oregano, and basil, at warehouse stores.
CONSIDER RECIPES THAT FREEZE AND REHEAT WELL
When deciding what to cook, choose recipes that will survive a stay in the freezer without coming out mushy or freezer-burned. Recipes such as soups, stews, and lasagna freeze well, while recipes with cooked eggs, potatoes, rice, and vegetables with high water content (such as lettuce or cucumber) do not. Fried foods and dairy items (except for cheese) are also poor choices.
MAKE THREE TO FIVE DINNERS AT A TIME
To strike a balance between stocking the freezer and making the family groan when they see beef stroganoff hitting the table again, it's best to prep three to five freezer meals at a time. Any more than that and you'll easily get overwhelmed, your kitchen will be chaos, and you won't be leaving it for hours. Less than that is fine, but you won't get as much bang for your buck (or your time).
MAKE MORE OF A FAVORITE RECIPE
Another shortcut is to pick a recipe you really like and prep enough to freeze two or three dinners' worth instead of one. You know you won't get sick of it, and you can use all those bulk ingredients you bought.
FOCUS ON RECIPES WITH CHEAPER MEATS
One great thing about slow cooker meals is you can get away with using cheap cuts of meat. Why? Because when meat cooks all day, fatty, tough (and cheap) cuts have plenty of time to become tender and delicious. So, when buying ingredients for slow cooker meals slated for the freezer, save some money by buying less desirable cuts of meat such as pork shoulders, lamb shanks, dark meat chicken thighs and drumsticks, chuck roast, and the like. Even a cheap ham hock can be used to add flavor to a dish, although it shouldn't be the main ingredient. Buy meats in bulk from warehouse stores to further cut costs.
USE OTHER CHEAP INGREDIENTS
Slow cookers also work wonders on inexpensive choices such as beans, lentils, and quinoa, which add a healthy dose of protein to dinner. Save even more on beans by buying them dry instead of canned, but be sure to soak them the appropriate amount of time before putting them in the freezer or slow cooker.
JOIN OR START A FREEZER MEAL GROUP
Making freezer meals is more fun with friends. Start a once-a-month slow cooker group or host a freezer meal planning party. If you invite four people, ask each guest to pick one recipe (or, if they are ambitious, two recipes) and bring enough ingredients to make four meals. This way, each person gets to take one home and everyone ends up with a variety of dinners for the freezer.
You don't want to wonder what something is and wind up tossing it out or, worse, cooking it the wrong way. Use a permanent marker on zip-close bags and disposable storage containers, and write information on tape to label reusable containers. Remember to include the name of the dish and the date the meal was put together, plus thawing and cooking instructions.
KEEP A RUNNING LIST OF FREEZER MEALS
Another way to cut down on food waste is to keep a running list of every item in your deep freezer. Put a magnet-backed clipboard on the freezer and jot down the name of the meal, the date it was prepped, and the date by which it needs to be eaten. This eliminates mystery meals in the bottom of the freezer that may or may not be safe to eat.