Meal Prep & Convenience Foods

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One thing I’ve been trying to think really practically about is what our fall schedule will look like with me working, in school and completing my internship. Each of those things requires about 20-24 hours of my time each week. Which frankly makes me feel a little panicked when I think of it that way! I’m really talking to myself about the reality re: the grocery budget, cooking and convenience foods. I decided to just go ahead and update the grocery budget to $300, with room to grow if necessary. We’re eating a ton of fresh foods and I find that when we do that our volume consumption goes up, requiring that we buy more. I’m also trying out now a few different convenience foods that we both like, that are reasonably healthy and reasonably affordable (so…not ready-made stuff from Whole Foods! 😉 ). So far we’ve determined that we really enjoy:

  • Wellsley Farms Spanakopita (BJs)
  • Morning Star Farms Spicy Black Bean Burgers
  • Morning Star Farms Chik Patties (this is more Michael than me, but that works too)
  • Morning Star Farms Veggie Corn Dogs (the health factor here is somewhat questionable, but they are tasty and satisfy a hot dog craving for me)
  • Tyson pre-cooked chicken breast–both fillets and strips (I feel somewhat guilty about these, but they really do save me a lot of time. Also we’ve been steady eating down the chicken from Zaycon. Basically we eat a lot of chicken.)
  • California Pizza Kitchen BBQ Chicken Pizza (we like other frozen pizza too, calories-wise, though, this one was pretty friendly)
  • Refrigerated or frozen ravioli (seem more substantial than just pasta w/sauce; so easy to make)

This month we’re also trying out some frozen lean turkey breakfast sausage from BJs. If we like it I’ll add it to the regular list. And I have been intentional about keeping a variety of frozen fruit and veggies on hand.

I also have been thinking about food prep/meal prep — I am not super into having a months worth of freezer meals on hand, partly because I don’t really love a lot of them. And I also don’t want to spend a ton of time each weekend working on food prep, when I know that time will be at a premium. But there are a few things that don’t take a ton of time but yield good results:

  • hard boiled eggs
  • egg muffins/quiche
  • salad base (romaine, red & green cabbage, carrots, scallions)
  • granola
  • yogurt cups (somehow portioning the yogurt into single serve containers makes it easier to eat — why is that?)

And probably a soup or a grain/bean salad, too.

Are there convenience foods that you really like to have on hand? Or easy to prep foods that I should know about?

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8 thoughts on “Meal Prep & Convenience Foods

  1. These are not any items that you ought to know about because you’re a foodie and you won’t be eating this crap, but “convenience foods” that I use:

    Baby carrots! I love peeling carrots but when I don’t feel like cooking in the first place and I’m rushing to get veggies into the crockpot on my way to the grocery stores, I love being able to just throw in a bunch of baby carrots instead of having to peel and cut up carrots.

    Otherwise, the bakery items that I find on the 50% off table at Save A Lot, tortillas from any store, already baked bread. I could probably make those cheaper at home but I actually don’t enjoy making tortillas as I have still to perfect my cooking technique so it doesn’t smoke up my kitchen, homemade bread doesn’t hold up well in sandwiches, and if I smell cookies and other desserts baking in my home, I’m more likely to crave them.

    Oh and frozen Italian meatballs. I made some once or twice but it’s work and they fall apart too easily. We love the Armour Italian meatballs and they’re on BOGO sale at Publix quite often. Right now I have some of the Aldi brand in the freezer and the family doesn’t seem to mind them.

    For the kids, I stock up on frozen chicken nuggets and corn dogs. Not healthy but then neither is PBJs and at least they’ll get some protein.

    For pizza, I get the XL cheese pizza from the cheese/dairy case at Aldi. At $4.99, it almost impossible to beat. We had our own toppings at home. It’s just a pain to store in the fridge so I usually bake it the same night.

    I also like to occasionally get some rice mixes. Again, I could make those at home but they’re so easy to just pop in the microwave. I really liked the Minute Rice Whole Grain and Quinoa mixes that I was able to get some Publix for free after coupons for a couple of weeks when it first came out because there were several packages in there so it was easy to only cook what I needed whether there were 2 of us or 4 of us for dinner. We also love Zatarain’s Caribbean Rice Mix, although it’s really high in sodium.

    Oh and Save A Lot’s cheap mac and cheese for the kids. They grew up on it and it’s the only kind they like.

    Dang, the list is longer than I thought… basically, I need to be able to have dinner prepped and cooked in 30 minutes max because I really don’t enjoy cooking all that much. But I’m also cheap so I don’t buy the salad mixes or pre-cut veggies (save for the baby carrots)!

    You were smart in recognizing that you guys should try tasty and healthy-ish shortcuts while you have more relaxation time this summer in preparation for another hectic semester this fall!

    1. No shame in convenience foods! I think we all should find the right balance for our lives. 🙂

      I like the Aldi pizza, too! I do buy premade tortillas, although mostly for my husband — lately I’ve found flour tortillas are not to my taste. I also sometimes get premade mac and cheese, although the last time I did that neither of us really enjoyed it, so I probably won’t do that again. I used to love it, but tastes change I guess! Oh, and I just picked up some yellow rice mixes. Like you mentioned they can be really salty. But I think especially the minute rice mixes might be helpful for when time is really at a premium.

      While I like the flavor of the pre-made meatballs, sometimes the texture really gets to me…so I’m not sure if I’ll do those or not.

      And…I’m trying to be smart about this — I know that getting overwhelmed is a quick way for me to slide into depression and I can tell that next year is going to be a real test of staying balanced enough so that doesn’t happen!

  2. Can’t really help you here Laura. I don’t buy a lot of processed food except for boxed cereals. (Because who hasn’t had a bowl of cereal at the end of a long and tiring day?). But I do spend some extra time on the weekends to wash and cut veggies and fruit. I do precook a bunch of meat for the freezer because that cuts down a lot of time when making a casserole or something for the crockpot, if your meat is already browned and cooked. And my biggest timesaver is to cook BIG. If I make one lasagna on the weekend, I might as well make 2 and freeze one. Stir fries (over instant rice or ramen noodles) are my go-to meal for when I have no time at all, using frozen oriental veggies mixes and stir fry sauce. And yes, I will buy frozen pre-cooked meatballs when they go on sale for half price as it is worth the money and convenience.

    1. So funny Susan! You have a lot of good ideas! I’m aiming for the lower end of processed foods (except all of those vegetarian burgers are definitely processed), because that is my preference as well. But I know, too, that if I don’t have a handle on things before the fall semester starts, I will start to really feel out of control.

      Of all things, I’m not a big cereal eater. I’ll occasionally buy Cheerios or Great Grains, but we mostly don’t keep them on hand. Hmmm, as I type that I realize that I DO have several on hand, but I use them in recipes not to eat as cereal.

      Stir-fries are a really good idea. I need to keep that in mind and try out some different veggie blends.

  3. I never buy meatballs, but when turkey or very lean ground sirloin is on sale I buy it, make my own meatballs, bake them nearly cooked through, then freeze on a cookie sheet to transfer to a large freezer bag. That way I can take out as many or as few as I want, add to whatever needs meatballs and let if finish cooking in the sauce or soup.
    I have found the chili lime chicken patties at TJ’s are a life saver for me. It only takes a few minutes to cook them and they are ready for a bun, or to plate and serve as an entree with veggies.
    I also precook chicken breasts, cube them and freeze on a cookie sheet like I do for the meatballs. Then I will have chicken ready to toss into whatever I am making.
    My all time favorite convenience food is minute brown rice. I think it is the best time saving purchase out there, and it is relatively inexpensive at Aldi.

    1. I like to do the same for meatballs! They’re pretty easy to make, but take long enough that I feel like making and freezing a big batch is pretty much the only way to go.

      Trader Joe’s is supposed to open in my neighborhood sometime later this year. I am excited for a number of reasons, but the frozen stuff might be at the top of the list. 😉

      I think maybe the minute rice will be in my next shopping cart. It would really make things come together quickly. I hate when most of my dinner is ready and the brown rice still has 20 minutes to cook!

  4. Sounds like you are going to be really busy come Fall! I like to precook chicken breasts and freeze them individually – then, I take out one (or more) at a time, as needed and it can be sliced for sandwiches or salads, or served with some cooked vegetables. I have been buying the frozen meatballs, too, and while I didn’t much care for them in spaghetti sauce, my meatball curry is good served with rice and a vegetable. I like frozen meals, too, although I don’t buy many of them because of the high salt content.

    1. Maybe I’ll have to try precooking chicken breasts again. The last couple times I did that I wasn’t thrilled with the quality of the chicken, but both you and Anne have suggested this option.

      I like some frozen meals, too, but like you said they are high in sodium and I usually want something more after eating one, so I tend to overeat. ;-/

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