Every week, it’s possible to compete in a money-saving marathon. That heated race against the kitchen clock can save time, money and energy. Here’s the race course in my home: On Sunday—or any single day of the week—I can shop, plan and prepare dinner meals for the rest of the week. A well-paced cooking marathon has several ingredients and challenges.
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Plan a menu around the featured products in the weekly store flyers. Create a shopping strategy that will maximize savings, while minimizing travel time. Combine errands and shop at stores conveniently located near your home or office. Take advantage of low-price guarantees and price-matching strategies in which stores promise to match discounts and special promotions offered by competing chains or outlets.
Stock up on basics
Fill your kitchen with the ingredients that frequently appear in your recipes. My list includes olive oil, beans, assorted spices, tomato sauce, onions and potatoes. One week, for example, I used those ingredients—all purchased on sale—to prepare a soup, baked ziti, casserole and pasta marinara. This strategy yielded dinner meals for less than 50 cents per serving. (See also Bulk Buying 101).
A successful cooking marathon requires the right equipment. Kitchen tools include a good knife, a food processor, blender and a crock pot. An ample supply of food storage containers, clean surfaces, cutting boards and refrigerator space can improve performance time.
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My recent six-hour cooking marathon used less time, water and energy than the usual drill of daily cooking and cleaning duties. That’s because I found multiple uses for the same appliances and ingredients. For example, after I prepared and put away the soup, I used the soup pot to boil the ziti and spaghetti noodles. Using a time-saving recipe, I added pasta, water and olive oil to a small remainder of soup broth. The pasta noodles were well-seasoned, and there was one less pot for cleanup. I’ve saved energy and time by cooking baked ziti and a bean casserole in the same oven.
Divide and conquer kitchen duties. Whether you’re working as a team or solo effort, organization will translate into an efficient use of time and resources. For instance, a large supply of onions or potatoes can be chopped during one session and used for several dishes. Commonly used spices can be sprinkled over several pots in a short dash. Check out our beginner’s guide to assembly cooking for more details.
Cooking marathons can be a family weekend event with competing teams. Family members—as individuals and teams—can be given different tasks, ranging from food prep to cleanup. Kitchen teams can be created around meal courses, (a dessert squad or a pasta team), days of the week (meals for Monday) or functions, such as pot-scrubbing. Children should be supervised and given age-appropriate assignments. For instance, pre-school kids can wash vegetables and sprinkle spices.
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“Cook twice as much chicken as your family will eat at one meal,” recommend the editors of Shameless Shortcuts, a book filled with 1,027 time and money-saving tips. Super-sized portions provide instant leftovers for subsequent meals, snacks or lunches. Consider this example: It takes just as much effort to prepare one batch of brownies as it does to bake two trays. And you’ll spend the same amount of time cleaning up the mixing bowl and spoon.
Marathon cooking sessions can clear calendar space for daily fitness exercises or extended family time. Liberated from daily kitchen duties, I have more time for the treadmill, the weight room or the pool. The long-term health benefits of daily exercise include dividends for my wallet and waist line. Kitchen marathons also reduce the temptation to splurge on expensive take-out meals during the workweek. More importantly, I am able to spend more time with my kids.
Sharon Harvey-Rosenberg is a special financial news contributor for Wise Bread. She is the author of "Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money” and a contributing author to 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.