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Frugal Living 101: One-Pot Meals
I love cold weather because it gives me an excuse to make a lot of soups and stews. I don't really need an excuse, though, because one-pot meals are a huge part of my frugal eating plan. A large vegetable soup can feed me for up to a week.
The bottom line is that if you want to eat frugally, you are going to have to cook. I'm a good cook, but for those who aren't, one-pot meals are easy and delicious.
Always Keep Basic Ingredients on Hand
There are several one-pot meal ingredients that I always keep on hand:
- canned tomatoes
- lima beans
Being from the South, I also like okra in my soup, but that is optional. In fact, any of these items is optional if you're at the end of the larder. I've been known to eat for three days on a soup made from nothing but carrots, potatoes and chicken broth, but that's survival food, which we will get to in another hub.
I buy all of these very frugally at a local bag-it-yourself store that regularly has cheap fresh and frozen vegetables. I can get a 10 lb. bag of potatoes on sale for $2.99 at times, but they are normally no more than $3.99. Bagged carrots are very cheap there too, but they hardly ever go on sale, and when they do, they are usually growing hairs and you have to use them up quickly. I don't really like using canned food much, and usually buy frozen simply because it's healthier, but canned tomatoes are a must-have in any frugal kitchen. Frozen vegetables are also a staple for the frugal cook, and I stock up when they are on sale for less than $1 a bag.
Cheap Meat for Your One-Pot Meals
My favorite cheap meat for one-pot meals is chicken, and the cheapest way I can find to buy chicken is 10-lb. bags of leg quarters. My favorite store has these frozen right now for $.79 a pound. The leg quarters provide not only the meat, but also an appreciable amount of chicken broth. You only need two large thighs for enough meat for a soup pot full of soup. Two whole quarters give you enough meat for a stock pot meal.
Find a store that marks down meat that hasn't sold, or use the trick I learned from a butcher to get meat markdowns. I wait to shop for meat until late afternoon or early evening the day before the new specials start. I look at the date on the packages and if I find something with that day's expiration date, I ask if they will mark it down for me, since it will have to be discarded anyway. I've never had anyone decline, but I have had some that wouldn't mark it down over 25%. Still, that's money saved, so you don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
Divide and Conquer High Meat Prices
Another way to get cheap meat is to buy roasts on sale and divide them up for different meals. My favorite thing to do is buy a large chuck beef roast on sale and cut it into three portions. One is for pot roast, one is for soup and one is for beef stew.
I also grind my own hamburger meat, and why not? Ground chuck is expensive, and grinding up a chuck roast on sale can save you up to $2 a lb. and gives you better meat. I use an old, hand-grinder like the one in the picture, that I bought at a thrift store on their half-price day for $2.50.
Stre-e-e-e-e-etching a One-Pot Meal for One More Day
When you get to the bottom of the pot, an easy way to stretch it for one more day is to add grains or pasta to it. I like brown rice and barley, but you can use any grain you desire. Pasta can stretch a meal considerably and is famous for being a staple depression era ingredient. If you have to add more water, you'll have to season to taste, but I find one cube of the appropriate bouillon with a little salt and pepper is usually enough.
Simple No Recipe One-Pot Meals
Once you get the hang of it, you don't really need recipes to make your one-pot meals. Vegetable soup is the simplest, of course. Just add your desired veggies, seasonings and meat if you have it and you are ready to go.
Beef stew is a little trickier, because you have to thicken it. Ideally, you would use corn starch for this, but for those who don't know how to thicken with corn starch, that can be a real mess. An alternative to corn starch is a cheap gravy mix or instant potatoes, but if you don't even have the pennies for those, using flour as a thickener or mashing up one or two potatoes thickens it very nicely.
Rice is a wonderful base for one-pot meals. Tomatoes and rice with a little bacon and onion can be cooked in a covered skillet. Succotash (corn and lima beans) mixed with brown rice makes a complete protein for those times you don't have money for meat. Even a simple rice and veggie stir-fry is a healthy way to stretch your food budget. You can add whatever you have on hand, or if you're really down to the last of your larder, rice by itself with a little butter and seasoning is a great survival meal. I like to eat plain white rice with coconut oil and cayenne pepper.
My Favorite Hearty Soup
I have to say that my favorite soup is one of the simplest and cheapest to make. Potato soup with pork, carrots and onions is the soup I turn to when I really want to fill up for next to nothing. I always buy bacon or pork on sale. Last month, I bought a ham and cubed and froze a lot of it for later use. I do the same with bacon. I cook a whole pound of bacon, then crumble some and throw it into small freezer bags so I always have some handy.
Potato soup is so easy. The ingredients are simply:
- Potatoes - as many as you want, but four large potatoes makes a good amount of soup
- Carrots - you shouldn't need over one or two depending on the size
- Onions - one small, chopped finely should do it
- Pork - bacon crumbles or ham cubes are best
- Milk - Not a lot, usually one cup or less is fine. Evaporated milk will do, and it's cheaper
- Season to taste
Boil the potatoes but don't pour off the water. Mash them with a fork, right in the pot, leaving some chunks
Add the milk and other ingredients and season to taste.
Cook on medium heat until the carrots are done (usually about 20 minutes)
This is definitely a soup that benefits in taste from sitting in the fridge overnight because the potatoes take awhile to soak up the flavors, but of course, you can eat it immediately.
Martha Stewart's Famous One-Pot Pasta
Of course, Martha always uses expensive ingredients, but feel free to substitute frugal ingredients as desired.
Experimentation and Creativity are the Key
As with any endeavor, experimentation and creativity will let you devise your own frugal one-pot meals with your favorite ingredients. Don't be afraid to go wild! Soups, stews and stir-fries are only the beginning of your frugal food journey.