Work, school, household chores, and all of the other details of your busy daily life as a single mom can push cooking to the back burner. Many moms think that it’s quicker and easier to just buy pre-packaged meals at the supermarket and reheat them at home, instead of spending time shopping for ingredients and then cooking (and cleaning up). And it’s true that it can be quicker and easier to simply take a foil-wrapped pan out of a box and stick it in the oven, to open a few cans and dump them in a pan, or to poke a hole in a plastic-wrapped container and heat it in the microwave. Unfortunately, while you might be gaining time, you’re probably losing out in two other important areas: cost and nutrition.
Are Pre-Packaged Meals Cheaper?
Let’s take a look at a meal that’s been popular since the 1950s, when the Swanson company started selling the heat-and-serve TV dinner: Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and gravy. It’s still a best-selling item today, and usually includes a vegetable like corn or green beans. The average price per meal is $1.50, though you can often get them cheaper on sale. If you have two children, you’ll need to buy three meals, for an estimated total cost of $4.50 (including taxes). That will give you each one small 3-ounce patty, about a cup of mashed potatoes, a lot of gravy, and approximately half a cup of corn.
Here’s what you could buy for $4.50 if you were going to make this meal yourself:
- a pound of potatoes ($0.75)
- a pint of milk ($0.75)
- a can of corn ($1)
- half a pound of ground beef ($2)
With some pantry staples like oil, flour, salt, and pepper, you can turn these ingredients into the same meal for three people, at about the same price. But it’s not all about whether you’re getting more for your money. What’s equally important is what you’re getting less of.
Are Pre-Packaged Meals Better?
You might have wondered why we said the packaged meal contained a “patty” instead of a “meat patty.” That’s because when you read the ingredients on a packaged of processed food like this, you’ll see all of the other things they’re putting in – things you might not realize you’re paying for. For example, the typical Salisbury steak could really be called a “Salisbury ground meat mixed with soy flour, whey, and bread crumbs patty.” It’s not even all beef, because many companies mix in pork or meat by-products. You may only be getting half the amount of meat per weight, making your fresh ground beef a much better option for the price.
You might have also wondered why we mentioned that you’ll get a lot of gravy in this typical heat-and-serve meal. If you look at the package, you’ll probably see that “gravy” is the first thing listed in the ingredients. Because ingredients are listed in order from the highest percentage to the lowest, that means you could be paying more for gravy than you are for meat.
A typical pre-packaged meal is also usually very high in things that aren’t good for you or your children, like salt (sodium), saturated fat, and chemical preservatives. You could be getting 40-50% of your daily limit in salt from this one meal alone!
Do Pre-Packaged Meals Really Save You Time?
If you took the four ingredients we gave for your shopping list, you could have dinner on the table in half an hour or less. You can cut up and boil potatoes in 15 minutes, and mashing them with some milk, salt, and pepper only takes a few seconds. Heat a little oil in a skillet, form the ground beef into patties, and cook them in 15 minutes, too. You can do this while the potatoes are boiling. Take the patties out of the pan, stir in some flour into the juices and add salt, pepper, and milk, and you’ve got a quick gravy. The corn heats up in just a few minutes. If your kids help you with things like cutting up the potatoes or mashing them, the job is even easier.
If you look at the heating instructions on your pre-packaged meals, you’ll see that they take about half an hour to heat in the oven – and that’s after you’ve spent time pre-heating the oven. If you cook them in the microwave, you can only heat up one at a time, and since each meal will take you about 8 minutes, that’s also nearly half an hour.
Half an hour reheating vs. half an hour cooking – have you really saved any time?
Now that we’ve explained why it’s worth your time to think about cooking instead of simply reheating, we’ll give you some suggestions for making the most out of your grocery budget. Many people these days are vegetarians, and there are ways to get the protein you and your kids need from things like beans and rice, but most families like to have meat on the menu at least once a week. Here are some ideas for choosing and using inexpensive cuts of meat to make hearty meals your family will love. You can even cook them ahead and freeze them to make your own “pre-packaged” ready-to-heat family meals!
Think Stew Instead of Steak
Beef is a popular choice for many families, but the quick-cooking cuts like top sirloin and t-bone steaks are usually very expensive. Choose one of the tougher cuts, and then learn how to turn it into a savory stew or tender shreds by cooking it a long time on the stove or in the oven. You can buy chunks of stew meat to save a little time, or if you don’t want to buy too much at once. If you plan your schedule and your budget, you can also buy a larger piece of meat like a rump roast or brisket. While this might seem expensive, it’s generally cheaper than buying the smaller pieces, and one brisket can feed your family for a week or more.
Even though it takes between 3 and 6 hours to cook brisket, depending on whether you do it in the oven, on the stove, or in a slow cooker, you don’t have to do anything in the kitchen once you’ve started the meat cooking. You can even leave the house if you’re using a slow cooker, and take care of some of the other things on your to-do list. You can get information on how to prepare and cook brisket here.
Eat From Head to Tail
Depending on where you grew up and what your family traditions are, you might be used to cooking with pig’s ears, calf’s liver, or chicken feet – but many people aren’t familiar with “variety meats” these days. However, these cuts are often much cheaper, and they can be used to make soups, stews, and other family-friendly dishes. If you don’t see these cuts in your local supermarket, look for an Asian or Hispanic grocery. The prices might be cheaper in those stores, as well.
- Smoked ham hocks are a great way to add flavor to cooked beans, split pea soup, or even vegetable broth. There’s a surprising amount of meat on them, so don’t forget to shred that meat back into the dish before you throw away the bones. Ham hocks cooked with collards is a Southern tradition, so if you want a way to get your kids to eat their greens, try this recipe.
- Country pork ribs are a good choice for slow-cooked barbecue in the oven, and here’s a video recipe that’s quick and easy to prepare. Your kids will love the sticky root beer glaze, especially when they can lick it off their fingers!
- Ever since Buffalo wings became the country’s most popular bar snack, the price of chicken wings has continued to rise. However, frozen turkey wings are still very cheap, and they’re even better for family cooking because there’s more meat on them. You can make a quick soup without even thawing them out! Just cook some onions, carrots, and celery in a little bit of oil, add two quarts of water or broth, and then add half a dozen frozen wings. Cover and simmer for a few hours, then take out the wings and remove the bones. Put the meat back in the pot with half a package of macaroni or other pasta shapes, taste to see if you need to add salt, and serve your rich and tasty noodle soup as soon as the pasta has cooked.
- Chicken livers are high in iron, B vitamins, and vitamin A, all of which are essential to keep your children healthy. If liver isn’t already a familiar dish, you’ll need to find a way to prepare it so that your kids will like it. Try mixing chicken livers into spaghetti sauce or making a spread for crackers or toast.
Mix It Up to Make More
At the beginning of this article, we pointed out that your Salisbury steak might contain a lot of things that aren’t meat, like soy protein, wheat flour, or corn starch. When you’re looking at the price of a pre-packaged dinner, those “filler” ingredients aren’t worth spending money on, but there are a lot of ways to make a little bit of meat stretch into a larger filling dish, using healthy ingredients.
One of the easiest ways to turn a small amount of ground meat into a meal that will feed your family is by making meatloaf or meatballs. Usually, people mix milk-soaked bread into the meat, something that makes the dish lighter and more tender – and it’s a good way to use up your stale bread, too! But there are other things you can mix in that also add nutrition, like cooked lentils, leftover mashed potatoes, pureed cooked vegetables like carrots or squash, or even refried beans. Adding beans or lentils adds healthy protein and fiber, and since they already have a meaty, savory taste on their own, your kids won’t notice that you’ve mixed them in. What’s more, you can actually make a “meat” loaf using only vegetables! Check out this recipe for some more mix-it-up ideas.
Make Your Own
We’ve already proven that cooking from scratch can be just as quick, easy, and inexpensive as buying “time-saving” pre-packaged meals and processed food. With a little bit of time and creativity, you can cook healthy, nutritious, meaty meals for your family, using grocery-store staples and budget-conscious cuts of meat. When you make your own dishes, you can save time by cooking up a double batch, and then freezing the extra in portions to heat up later. Here are three more ways you can save money on meat by cooking at home:
- Instead of buying frozen sausage patties, buy some ground meat and a few spices and other ingredients and make them fresh. Use whatever ground meat is on sale; you can use all pork, all veal, all chicken or turkey, or a mixture of each. Use a cheese grater to shred some apples and mix the shreds into the meat along with salt and pepper, and a spice mix like poultry seasoning or Mediterranean herbs. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight to let the flavors blend, and then form the sausage into patties and fry them in a little oil. You can freeze the uncooked patties and thaw them before cooking later, or you can freeze the cooked patties to reheat in the microwave or oven.
- Instead of buying a bag of frozen skillet pasta, make a quick chicken pasta from pasta, boneless chicken thighs, and a bag of mixed frozen vegetables (or chopped fresh vegetables). Boil the pasta until tender, and while the pasta is cooking, cut the chicken into thin strips and cook it in butter or oil for 5 minutes. Add the vegetables and a splash of water and cover the pan, and cook for another 5 minutes over medium heat. You can turn this into an Asian stir-fry by adding soy sauce and a little sugar, or spice things up with Mexican seasonings like red pepper flakes or hot sauce. When the pasta is done, stir it in and heat everything through before serving.
- Instead of buying cans of heat-and-serve beef ravioli, try this recipe for stuffed baked pasta shells. This is a great dish for kids because they can help you fill the pasta shells with the meat mixture, and then each child gets their own individual pasta shells to eat at dinner. Plus they’ll be able to say “I made this myself!” – and so will you!