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Creating a 'meal library'

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Eric Risberg/AP/File

(Read caption) Having a stable of easy meals, and buying ingredients for them in bulk, will save both time and money.

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Sarah and I love to experiment when it comes to food. We’re constantly trying new things in the kitchen using new and different ingredients.

However, the reality of our lives dictates that we often don’t have time to look for ideas and experiment creatively with food.

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Take our current Tuesday evenings. Our daughter has a dance class from 5 until 5:45 in the evening, immediately followed by our son’s soccer game from 5:45 to 6:30. Since we start our bedtime routine at 7:30, there really isn’t a lot of time to experiment and carefully consider a meal in that one hour gap in there.

For evenings like this, we end up relying on a rotation of reasonably healthy and inexpensive meals that we’re sure our family all likes and that we can prepare quite easily.

Examples of meals in our rotation include spaghetti with marinara sauce, stir fry (rice and whatever vegetables we can easily find), tuna and noodles, vegetable noodle soup, “breakfast for supper” (usually scrambled eggs, toast, and waffles), homemade pizza (with pre-made crusts from the freezer), and fajitas.

Sarah and I both know how to throw these meals together quite quickly so that we can have a fresh meal on the table very quickly. Best of all, we never work from a recipe on these meals because we know them so well – it’s all in our heads.

This “meal library” of ours comes with several advantages.

We’re not simply stuck with whatever’s frozen. Yes, we make and freeze meals in advance, but sometimes they’re just not convenient in a pinch and at other times we just don’t want one of those meals. Having a rotation of meals on hand makes it easy to always have something else.

Having a good meal at home that you know you can put together quickly reduces the desire to eat out. We could go to a family restuarant, eat there, spend $40, and burn an hour. Otherwise, we could just go home, toss together one of these meals, and be done in forty five minutes. Not only that, we’re only spending $5 instead of $40. This is a huge imperative when we’re out grocery shopping or doing something else out and about as a family.

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We buy the ingredients for these meals in bulk, saving us money. Things like whole grain pasta, sauces, flour, tuna, egg noodles, and other such things are always purchased in bulk by us because they’re part of these meals that we eat so frequently. This reduces our food costs even further.

By having quite a few meals in rotation, we don’t get tired of having the same old thing over and over again. Often when people have busy lives and fall into a routine of making just a few meals at home, they get tired of those meals and this encourages them to eat out more. By having a wide variety of meals in our rotation, we don’t get tired of them very often.

If you’re considering having this kind of “meal library” in your own home, I offer a few suggestions.

Keep it to meals you can easily prep in less than thirty minutes and have on the table in less than an hour. You might have a meal that you know how to prepare easily that takes longer than that, but I find that meals with that kind of time commitment rarely get made.

Test the meals with your family multiple times. This is to make sure you fully know how to prepare it and that your family likes it. There are some meals that I know our family likes that I can prepare blindfolded at this point (I actually, seriously think I could make homemade pizza blindfolded).

Make sure all adults have at least a few meals they can prepare. This takes care of evenings when one adult is busy due to some task and the meal preparation is up to the other parent. This situation shouldn’t be an excuse for expensive take-out.

I highly recommend a “meal library” for a busy frugal family. It’s certainly saved us a lot of time and money over the last several years.


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