Now that my wife has returned to full time work, we’ve been focusing a lot on careful meal planning for the coming week. We’ll sit down on Sunday mornings, plot out what we’ll eat over the coming week, and prepare a grocery list.
One very helpful technique for a busy family like ours is making “modular” meals – ones with elements that can be easily reused in meals later in the week. Quite often, the meal preparation on Monday evening is helping to prepare some element of a meal that we’ll have on Wednesday or Thursday evening, for example. Even better, those “modular” meals can sometimes provide source materials for a quick hot breakfast or an easy lunch that goes far beyond leftovers.
Using and reusing meal components in this fashion is an incredible money and time saver. Here are some examples to get you started.
When you get home one evening, put a whole chicken in the oven to roast. It’s easy – a whole chicken at the store is pretty inexpensive. Just rub the skin down with salt and pepper, put a few things in the chest cavity for flavor (like garlic cloves, quartered onions, celery, and the like), and put it in the oven at 350 F for about 75 minutes or so. I like to pull it out about halfway through and use a baster to get the juice out of the pan and squirt it all over the chicken itself.
In the end, you’ll have a golden-colored chicken with crinkly, tasty skin and deliciously moist chicken meat, somewhere between two and three pounds of it. Enjoy the chicken as the main entree for the meal, but then save the bones and the leftover meat.
The bones? Just put them in a crockpot with a few vegetables before you go to bed. Put in some onions, carrots, celery, and things along those lines – I also like to put in whole peppercorn. Then turn the crockpot on low and go to bed. When you get up in the morning, strain off the bones and large vegetable pieces and save the liquid in the fridge. That liquid, my friend, is an incredibly delicious chicken stock. It can be the basis of a great chicken soup a few days later, white chili, and countless other dishes. Stock is also easily frozen and saved for later. Be aware, though, that at cold temperatures, stock sometimes becomes gelatin-like – that’s completely normal.
The leftover meat can be used in countless ways. Save it for chicken chili, chicken soup, chicken stew (all three of which can also utilize the stock), chicken pizza, or a pasta with a chicken-oriented sauce. You can even dice the chicken and cook them with eggs for an interesting omelet.
Chili can easily be assembled in the morning, with ingredients tossed in a crock pot and left to cook all day long, resulting in a very quick and simple (and tasty) home-cooked meal in the evening.
Chili is a spectacular leftover dish, as it often has a completely different flavor when reheated as the ingredients tend to meld together more, meaning that a large pot of chili can directly be the source of a second meal.
Beyond that, thickened chili (with a bit of added corn starch) can also serve as a burger topping or as an ingredient in a breakfast omelet or alongside eggs. It’s a utilitarian food that can be used many different ways.
Do-it-yourself tacos are a regular early-in-the-week meal here because the individual elements can be used in many other ways.
We generally only lightly spice the primary protein content of the taco – the meat or the beans – so that it can be reused in many ways, from soups to casseroles.
The remaining lettuce can form the foundation of a light starter salad for a later meal.
The remaining cheese can be used in any number of dishes, from casseroles to sandwiches.
The remaining tomatoes always find a home in soups, stews, or sauces. They can also find a home with a roast that’s left to slow cook all day long.
Speaking of roasts left to cook all day long, we’ll often put a roast in the crock pot with some beef stock and some pepper and allow it to slowly cook all day until it’s nearly falling apart at dinner time. With some simply-prepared vegetables on the side (or even directly in the pot), it can be an incredibly delicious and savory meal.
The best part? The roast leftovers can be used in a wide variety of ways. A well cooked roast pulls apart easily to make hot beef sandwiches. The remaining roast can be chunked to make a beef stew or beef noodle soup.
The leftover broth is also a functional beef stock, which you can save to use as the basis for things like French onion soup and other hearty soups. It can be frozen easily until you need it.
“How can hamburgers possibly be modular?” it’s actually incredibly simple. Make extra hamburgers and grill them all at once, then take the extra hamburgers and tear them into tiny chunks.
The cooked hamburger meat is then perfect for making a chili (yes, we might have hamburgers on Monday, chili on Wednesday, and chili and eggs for breakfast on Saturday) or inserted into a pasta sauce or a casserole of some fashion.
… the general idea is simple. If you prepare plenty of a staple, modular meal early in the week – which usually contains low-cost ingredients to begin with – you’ve already done much of the preparation for completely different meals later in the week. Your main course on Monday might turn into a stew on Wednesday or a pasta dish on Thursday. Your main course on Thursday might be part of a Saturday potluck dinner or a Sunday brunch.
And since the staple ingredients you start with are so inexpensive (I’m still convinced that a whole chicken is one of the best bargains out there), it ends up making several of your meals inexpensive, drastically cutting down your costs.
Chaining meals together in this fashion cuts down on your prep work (making it possible to prepare more meals at home much quicker) while also reducing your overall cost (by increasing your use of low-cost central utilitarian ingredients). Sounds like a big win in the kitchen to me!