It’s the time of year when normally we’d be buying a ton of food, getting together with family, and gorging ourselves on delicious meals we typically only get to enjoy a few times a year.
This year is different. This year our industry has been shut down for nine months and counting. Our unemployment benefits may not yet have run out, but that extra $600/week PUA is long since gone. The $1200 stimulus check went about as far as we could throw it. The pandemic has put a halt to large family gatherings. None of us know what might be coming next, or what will happen when the money runs out. For some of us, it already has. It’s a scary time, and not one in which normally we’d look at spending money.
But here’s the thing. There are a LOT of incredibly cheap deals on food right now. Doesn’t matter where you prefer to shop, they’ve all got stuff on sale at almost absurdly low prices. So the idea of this post is to show you how to buy now when everything is cheap and prep it for later when money is even tighter and you’re worried about feeding yourself and/or your family. Best part is it doesn’t matter if you’re an experienced cook or if your idea of cooking is to pop a frozen meal in the microwave. It’s not as hard as it seems! I promise.
The big thing on sale right now is turkey. And some of them are gigantic! What the heck is one person going to do with a 22 pound turkey? Roast it. Portion it. Freeze it. Eat it later. If you’re really into it, make stock with what’s left after you remove as much meat as you can. At less than 40 cents a pound, you pretty much can’t afford NOT to buy a turkey, which is why most stores have a limit on how many you can buy at one time. Doesn’t mean you can’t make multiple trips, though!
Turkeys come frozen. Not a big deal! If you have room, stick the whole thing in your freezer and make it later. They last darn near indefinitely as long as they stay frozen, although you should cook it within a year for best quality. When you get to defrosting, there are multiple options. Best one is to plan ahead, because that allows you to defrost in the refrigerator and greatly reduce your risk of foodborne illness. Figure 24 hours for each 5 pounds in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees (I always give myself an extra day just in case). Simply pull your turkey out of the freezer, stick it in the fridge breast side up in its sealed package, and walk away. It’s best to put it on a tray (rimmed baking sheets are great for that, but a serving tray will do just as well… you just want to make sure it’s something that will not allow any liquid to run out in case there’s a hole in the wrapper). Once it’s thawed, make sure you use it within 3-4 days, again to prevent foodborne illness.
If you are in a bigger hurry than that, Butterball has an entire page dedicated to ways to thaw your turkey. There’s even a video and a calculator so you can figure out how much time you need! Again… I always give myself an extra day just in case. Can’t hurt, could avoid discovering your turkey is still partially frozen when you’re ready to cook.
The most common way to cook a turkey is to roast it. It’s also the easiest. Added bonus: your oven runs for a long time, which warms up your house and makes it smell fantastic! There are a million different recipes for roasted turkey, of course, and depending on your skill level you might want to look into some of them. I’m just going to give you a basic method anyone can do.
Take your turkey out of the refrigerator about an hour before you want to start roasting to let it warm up a bit. Adjust your oven racks so there’s enough room (you may have to remove one entirely), then preheat the oven to 325F. You’ll need a roasting pan large enough to hold the bird that’s at least 4 inches deep. You can get disposable aluminum pans at the dollar store if you don’t have one, just make sure you keep an oven-safe tray underneath it to prevent it buckling and causing a disaster and possible serious burns. It’s best if you put a rack in the bottom of the pan (tip: many modern cooling racks for baked goods can go in the oven for this purpose), but you can also use some celery stalks, onion halves, potatoes, or carrots. The idea is to keep the bird from sitting on the bottom of the pan.
Next, open the turkey package. Inside the cavity will be a parcel of parts. Pull them all out. They may be wrapped in paper, they may not. Remove everything that isn’t attached. You can throw them away, you can boil them to feed your dog (remove any bones, and don’t add seasonings), or you can save them to add to your gravy later (refrigerate until needed). Dealer’s choice. Then pat your turkey dry with paper towels, inside and out. Easiest way to season it is to salt and pepper inside and out, then stuff a couple of chopped onions, maybe chopped lemon, and some fresh herbs like sage, rosemary, and/or thyme if you have them (I’ve got Simon & Garfunkel in my head now) inside the bird. Place it breast side up inside your pan and tuck the wings underneath.
This part can get a little tricky. Carefully loosen the skin on the breast so it pulls away without tearing. Spread some butter on the meat, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and some seasonings, then lay the skin back down. Then melt some more butter and pour (or use a pastry brush) over the entire bird. Pop it in the oven, and you’re off! Figure on roasting for about 15 minutes per pound, or until a meat thermometer tested in the breast and thigh reads 160F. About halfway through the cooking time, check to see if the skin is browned. If it is, then get a large piece of aluminum foil and tent it loosely over the top so it doesn’t get burned. Once it’s at 160F, remove it from the oven, leave the foil on it, and let it rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.
That’s it! You’ve successfully roasted a turkey! As for carving, do it however works for you. Does anybody really care if the slices are perfect? I surely don’t. Remove the turkey from the pan and put it on a tray or baking sheet before carving, letting as much of the pan drippings run back into the roasting pan as you can. Be careful you don’t burn yourself! Two people with forks in each hand works if you don’t have a pair of turkey lifters.
You’re going to want gravy, especially if you’re making mashed potatoes. But even if you’re not, you’ll want gravy. Easiest way is to pour the liquid left in the roasting pan into a large pan on the stove (here’s where you’d add the parts you pulled out earlier if you want, and if you used vegetables for a rack you can toss them in as well). You’ll want about 3 cups of liquid, so if you don’t have enough just add some water or chicken broth if you’ve got it to make up the difference. Then mix 1/4 cup cornstarch into 1/4 cup water until it’s completely dissolved. If you don’t have cornstarch you can use flour, it’ll just take longer to mix. Pour into the pan. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it’s slightly thinner than you want to eat it. Remove any large solid pieces, remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper if necessary.
Voila, gravy! Enjoy your dinner.
Moving on to leftovers. Odds are good you’ll have a lot. Obviously you can eat it later, and I highly recommend it, but at some point you’re sick of turkey. Or you’re one person and you can’t eat an entire turkey, nor should you try. Easy! Slice it. Put it in freezer bags, remove as much air as possible, write the date on it with a Sharpie, and stick it in the freezer. Put however much in each bag you think you’ll want to eat at any given time, so you can just pull out a bag and defrost it in the right portion size. I always end up with a few bags of basically shredded meat because I’m picking it off the bones and only the breast really slices nicely. Whatever… it still works for sandwiches and it’s great for casseroles or soups.
Gravy and mashed potatoes can also be easily separately frozen. I use freezer bags, because squishy/liquid things will freeze flat and easily stack once they’re frozen. Sweet potatoes also freeze nicely, although most cooked vegetables tend to get mushy afterward. If you’ve got leftover pie (a thing I don’t get, but apparently it happens) wrap it in plastic wrap then a freezer bag and you’ll have dessert later, too.
Then there are all the other meats that are on sale. Obviously things that already come in individual portions like steaks can be frozen easily (make sure you put them in a freezer bag instead of just putting the package in the freezer), but the biggest saving even when they’re not on sale is family sized packages. They’re typically at least 15 cents a pound cheaper than buying smaller packages, and are easily broken down into portions in freezer bags. I’m only one person, but it’s been ages since I bought anything smaller than a family pack of chicken parts, ground beef, pork chops, etc. Whether you need one serving or several at a time, buy the family packs. Trust me.
Produce is also on sale right now, and a lot of it! Obviously it only stays fresh for so long, but if you’ve got freezer space you can buy a bunch of it now and eat it later. Most vegetables won’t retain their crispness after freezing, of course, so you’ll want to cook them instead of making a salad but that’s OK.
As a rule, all you need to do is blanch vegetables in boiling water (1 pound of vegetables to 1 gallon of water), then remove and immediately plunge into ice-cold water to stop the cooking. Then drain and pat dry. Then you can freeze them right away in zip-top bags or plastic containers, or you can spread them out on baking sheets to freeze before packaging (I always mean to spread them out, but I just don’t have that much room in the freezer). Cut into florets, 1-inch pieces, or separate leaves before blanching for best results. Below are the blanching times for some of the most common vegetables:
- Asparagus: thin stalks 2-4 minutes, depending on thickness.
- Green beans: 3 minutes.
- Broccoli: 3 minutes.
- Brussels sprouts: 3-5 minutes, depending on size.
- Cabbage: 1 1/2 minutes.
- Carrots: 2 minutes (baby carrots 5 minutes).
- Cauliflower: 3 minutes.
- Celery: 3 minutes (2 minutes if diced).
- Corn on the cob: small ears (1 1/4 inches in diameter or less) for 7 minutes, medium ears (1 1/2 inch diameter) for 9, and large ears (more than 1 1/2 inches in diameter) for 11 minutes.
- Peas: 1 1/2 minutes.
- Summer Squash: 3 minutes.
Things like green pepper and onions can be chopped and frozen raw.
Things like winter squash, sweet potatoes and tomatoes must be completely cooked before freezing.
Mushrooms can be sauteed and frozen.
A lot of fruits are also freezer-friendly! If you’re going to make smoothies, simply puree the fruit as you normally would without the added milk or whatever you do, then pour into freezer bags. Lay flat on a baking sheet until frozen, and they’ll stack nicely. The general rule is to prep it how you intend to use it. First wash, then let completely dry. Core, peel, slice, wedge, whatever you want to do. Berries can be frozen whole, except strawberries which should be hulled and at least halved. Remove rinds from any melons, but other fruits can have peel or not depending on what you prefer. Bananas can be frozen whole in their peels, but it’s better to peel them and cut into chunks (great way to save overripe bananas for making bread later!). Cherries should have their pits and stems removed.
However you prep your fruit, when you freeze it make sure you do it on a tray covered with parchment or waxed paper to prevent sticking in a single layer until completely frozen. Once they’re solid, dump them in a freezer bag (use a spatula or spoon, as touching them will start to thaw them quickly) and you’re good to go! The texture may change depending on the fruit, but it’s still good. And unlike some of the cheaper frozen fruits you can buy, there are no preservatives or added sugar!
Did you know you can make “ice cream” out of frozen bananas? I’ve read you can also do it with other fruits, but I’ve only made it with bananas. Put your frozen banana chunks in a food processor or blender and pulse until creamy. If you want to add something for flavour, go ahead! I’ve added peanut butter, Nutella, and different jellies/jams depending on my mood. Once pureed, you can either eat immediately for a frozen custard sort of texture, or pop back in the freezer for more solidity. It’s healthy, and your kids can help. Win-win!
A lot of dairy is also on sale. Did you know you can freeze some of it for later? Not all of it does well, of course, but every little bit helps. Butter freezes amazingly well. I stock up when sticks are on sale, pop them in the freezer, and after putting them in the refrigerator overnight they’re ready to go in my butter dish one stick at a time. It’s recommended you put it in a freezer bag, first, but I use a lot of butter so I just toss the box in there. Margarine does not freeze well since it’s usually oil based and also has a lot of water content.
Cheese is easy to freeze! Break it down to half-pound or smaller portions and stick it in a freezer bag, either chunk or shredded. Hard cheeses freeze better than soft ones, and it might be a little crumbly after you defrost, but the flavour is just fine. You should, however, use it within about four months.
Milk is the big one, especially for those with kids. You can freeze it in whatever container you bought, but you should open it and pour out a bit before you do so it has room to expand. Then reseal and cover with plastic wrap (in case it spills) and stick in the freezer. You should use it within a month for best quality.
Technically you can also freeze cream cheese, sour cream, and yogurt, but the texture changes when it thaws and I’m not a fan. The flavours are still good, though, so give it a shot if you want! I’ve also read you can freeze eggs if you scramble them first and add salt (1 tablespoon per cup) either whole or separated, but I’ve never tried.
Don’t forget about coupons! If you get a newspaper, they’re typically in the Sunday edition in paper form. But most stores have a loyalty program linked to an account that’s free to create, where you can link virtual coupons directly to your account. Simply enter your information when you check out and any coupons that apply to your purchases are automatically applied. I tend to “clip” every coupon for anything I could possibly buy, just in case. When they expire they fall off your account, and there’s no “I forgot my coupons!” moment while you’re at the store.
Concerns about where your next meal is coming from cause a great deal of stress, but if you plan ahead and shop smart, you can ease a lot of that worry. It just takes changing your mindset a little. Sure, most of us would prefer fresh food to frozen, but frozen food you bought on the cheap and prepped for the future is better than the highly processed, typically less than healthy foods that are the most affordable when you’re broke.
You know how this ends, it’s what I do… Be safe. Be well. STAY HOME OR MASK UP. And as always… WASH YOUR HANDS!