Save time and money with simple, plan-ahead cooking strategies.
Chicken Enchilada Casserole
Credit: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Lindsey Lower

Sharon Gray needed to change the way she prepared family meals. Unwilling to pay extra for the new generation of convenience products, such as marinated or seasoned frozen meats, Sharon created her own method of "investment cooking." She takes advantage of grocery meat specials and invests time cooking in large quantities and freezing food in various stages of preparation. With her freezer stocked, Sharon and her family can quickly and easily prepare their nightly meals.


Buy large quantities of meat on special. Most of Sharon's favorite family recipes are built around ground beef, chicken, and sometimes sausage. Her first step is to buy those items on sale. Her husband, Ricky, works in the supermarket industry, so Sharon knows when to look for items on special. To determine what cycle of weekly specials your favorite supermarket follows, talk to the meat manager. He or she will usually be more than willing to share how specials are planned and give tips on shopping. You can also check the newspapers to find the best bargains.

After determining what's on special, make your grocery list for all the recipes you'll be preparing. In addition to meat, purchase any other ingredients needed, such as spices for rubs or marinades. Be sure to check the pantry and spice rack to avoid duplicating items you already have.

Shop one day; then prepare food for the freezer the next. This will make your to-do list for each day manageable. Chop any vegetables you'll need for your recipes, such as onions, mushrooms, and peppers, and line them up on your counter for easy assembly. Then move on to the meat preparation.

We're pleased to share some of Sharon's specific investment cooking tips and recipes for chicken here.

1. Baked, grilled, or stir-fried chicken recipes: Buy several pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Make four or five different recipes of marinades and rubs. Prick chicken several times with a fork to allow marinades and rubs to penetrate the meat. Combine marinade and breast halves in labeled freezer bags. Seal bags, and knead the pieces of meat to circulate the marinade. Lay bags flat with pieces of meat side by side in a flat pan with sides. Marinate meat for desired time in refrigerator. Place pan in freezer; freeze bags flat. Remove frozen bags from pan, and stack in freezer. For kabobs or stir-fry, cut breast halves into cubes or strips, and follow the same instructions.

2. Cooked chicken for casseroles, wraps, chicken salad, etc.: Bring 2 whole chickens and enough water to cover to a boil in a large stockpot. Add 2 celery ribs, 2 carrots, 1 onion, and 4 garlic cloves. Reduce heat; cover and simmer about 40 minutes. Remove chicken, and discard vegetables, reserving broth. Remove chicken from bones, and shred. Place 2 cups shredded chicken in labeled quart-size freezer bags. Seal and freeze. Strain broth, cool, and refrigerate. Freeze broth in airtight containers or freezer bags for soups and other recipes.

3. Ground beef recipes: Economical and versatile, ground beef is excellent for investment cooking. Prepare meat loaves, hamburgers, and meatballs, and freeze them uncooked. Or cook the meat with onions and garlic, and freeze it to use as a base for other dishes. On cooking day, just heat the base and add other needed ingredients to create quick tacos, sloppy joes, or beef stroganoff.