No one can argue that convenience foods are a huge time-saver. But some prepackaged foods can be expensive (frozen pizzas), available seasonally (Girl Scout cookies) or filled with artificial ingredients (fruit rolls and pop tarts).
If you take a little time to make these items in advance, you can enjoy the convenience of ready-to-eat foods with a cheaper price tag and, sometimes, a healthier result. Check out these recipes for homemade pop tarts and other DIY convenience foods to enjoy quick snacks and dinner prep without emptying your wallet and with ingredients you choose.
Homemade pop tarts
Recently, I wanted to make a fun breakfast for a sleepover my daughter was hosting. I’d been wanting to try homemade pop tarts and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. They were a big hit!
The internet is full of recipes for DIY pop tarts, with instructions for cutting, filling and baking the homemade toaster pastries. Feel free to use them as a springboard for your own ideas. For example, you could use store-bought pie dough (which, at least in my neck of the woods, is still cheaper than pop tarts), rather than preparing your own. You could also use your favorite pie dough recipe and cut in different shapes.
But, it’s the fillings where you can really have fun. We filled some with Nutella and others with homemade strawberry jam. The possibilities are endless. I can imagine pumpkin pie filling in the fall and lemon pie filling in the spring. Yum!
DIY Girl Scout cookies
In our house, we’re lucky to have a resident Girl Scout, but if you don’t, or if you prefer to have access to those cookies year round, consider making your own. If you like those little minty discs of chocolate, give these faux Thin Mints a try. Peanut butter fans can whip up their own TagAlongs. I love the Samoas (aka Caramel Delights). If you do too, check out this recipe for the cookies or this shortcut version in a bar form.
Just as with regular Girl Scout cookies, these options should freeze well. So make a double batch and freeze half, so you have a convenient and delicious snack whenever you get a cookie craving.
Homemade granola bars
Granola bars can be great on-the-go snacks, but where I live, they run about $3 to $4 for a box of 8. This chewy granola bar recipe is less expensive, plus you get more than double the number of bars.
In addition, you can get creative with your flavors. Sure, you can use the standard chocolate chips, but you can also add coconut and dried pineapple or papaya bits for a tropical flavor or dried cranberries and walnuts in the fall. Even better, make a s’mores version for a summer trip by swapping out about one third or so of the flour with crushed graham crackers and adding some marshmallow bits and milk chocolate chips.
If you want to keep the kitchen cool on a hot summer day, try this no-bake granola bar recipe.
DIY microwave popcorn is almost too easy. It’s probably also the biggest cost saver and has the greatest nutritional difference of the “make from home” alternatives. This recipe offers several flavoring options, too. I like to throw in about a teaspoonful of sugar and a dash of salt in the bag to create a kettle-corn like experience.
Fruit rolls or leathers should be a convenient way to get kids to eat fruit. Unfortunately, no. Most store-bought roll-ups are convenient ways to get your kids to consume a bunch of fruit-flavored sugar and artificial ingredients.
If you want a healthier fruit leather, go the DIY route. Fruit roll-ups are easy to make yourself. Try blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, peach or your kids’ favorite fruits. These yummy apple cinnamon fruit leathers are a perfect fall treat. For summer, give these easy strawberry fruit rolls a try. To make these snacks as inexpensively as possible, choose in-season fruit or use unsweetened frozen fruit (thawed first).
Frozen pizza is the ultimate convenience food. Remove from the freezer, pop in the oven and dinner is ready a few minutes later. But oh, the cost, and meh, the taste. Imagine being able to take a pizza from the freezer and bake it into a delicious homemade pizza.
You can use your own favorite homemade pizza dough and sauce, store-bought dough and sauce or a combination to make your own frozen pizza. Here’s my favorite pizza dough recipe. Simply shape the pizza dough as you normally would, partially bake the crust, then add toppings as usual and freeze. Here’s the DIY frozen pizza technique I used, and it worked great for a pizza party.
Homemade instant oatmeal packets
It doesn’t take that long to make to microwave a bowl of oatmeal, but if you’re a fan of flavored instant oatmeal, you can easily make your own quick breakfast mixes.
In a large bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups oats, 1/4 cup brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix well and divide evenly among eight snack-sized baggies — about 1/3 cup per baggie. In the morning, dump the packet in a bowl, add 2/3 cup milk and microwave on high for 1 minute. Stir, then continue cooking and stirring in 1 minute increments until the oatmeal reaches your desired consistency.
Tailor packets to your taste by adding your favorite spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg before mixing; you can also add a dash of vanilla or maple syrup, dried fruit such as raisins or fresh diced fruit like apples or bananas before cooking.
Do you enjoy flavored rice mixes from the store, but can’t be bothered to add seasoning when you’re making rice with dinner. Registered dietitian Wendy Jo Peterson shared this yummy tip for making delicious flavored rice.
Freeze the zest of citrus fruit in ice cubes with fresh herbs. Plop 4-6 cubes into your rice maker or pot with the proper amounts of rice and water for instant flavored rice. Some of my favorite combos include:
- Lemon zest and lemon thyme, rosemary or parsley
- Orange zest and tarragon or sage
- Lime zest with cilantro, cumin and coriander
Homemade ranch dressing
In many households, ranch dressing is a staple ingredient — and often the only way to convince kids to eat their veggies. But at $2 or more a bottle, it can add up. You can easily make your own ranch dressing that costs just a fraction of that. Make a bulk batch of the dry seasoning mix, and then when you’re ready, combine the correct amount of mix with mayonnaise, buttermilk, sour cream and lemon juice. Use reduced-fat mayo and sour cream to cut the fat and calories but not the flavor. Store your DIY ranch dressing in the fridge in an air-tight bottle, so you can grab it whenever you need it.
You can also save money with these other popular salad dressing recipes.
Cans of creamy soups are great to have on hand for whipping up all kinds of casseroles. I prefer the healthy varieties (which rarely go on sale), but even those are chock full of ingredients you wouldn’t find in your own kitchen. To save money and your health, try this recipe for cream-of-anything soup the next time you have a recipe calling for a can of creamy soup.
When it’s Taco Tuesday, I never want to spend money on the premade seasoning mix when I have a collection of spices at the ready. Skip the little individual packets in favor of making up a batch of taco seasoning yourself. You’ll certainly save some cash and eliminate a high sodium source from your family’s diet at the same time.
Taco seasoning makes your Mexican food yummy, but the flavor-packed seasoning can jazz up meatloaf and burgers, as well as coat chicken breasts, pork chops and more.
These are just a sampling of the great number of convenience foods you can make yourself to let mealtime run smoothly, save yourself some cash and help your family eat healthier. Know of more? Leave them in the comments.
Editor’s Meal Planning Tip
The best cooking tactic I ever learned was freezer cooking – cooking in advance, then freezing the extra portions so you can bring them out to cook quickly (or heat up) when you need them. Having a healthy meal ready to go in the freezer is the best way to avoid the takeout blues (and the cost of not planning).
I thought I was a master of freezer cooking until I met Erin Chase, who runs My FreezEasy. Erin takes freezer cooking and meal planning to a whole new level, and as the mother of four boys, she knows the challenges of pleasing a hungry family.
Erin has developed a system in which she can prepare 10 delicious meals and load them into the freezer in less than an hour. That’s TWO WEEKS’ worth of weeknight meals!! And the kids can help.
And her system makes it all so easy. Every month, you get eight new freezer meal plans (you can tailor them to your taste), plus recipes, shopping lists and step-by-step instructions, including videos. Her system works whether you’re an experienced cook or you’re just starting out.
Don’t worry if your family is picky or has special dietary needs: You have a choice of a traditional plan, gluten-free, slow cooker, clean eats, 20 meals, all chicken, all ground beef or all pork chops – with gluten-free and dairy-free modifications for all recipes. Or, you can create your own customized plan using her recipe collection.
Here’s what one happy customer said about MyFreezEasy:
“So, I finally got round to giving this meal plan a try and I freaking loved it! I love that I have prepared meals sitting in the freezer that I can pull out (or – shock..horror, my hubby can!) and we will have good food cooking so easily. I really loved this concept and now I can let go of the “what’s for dinner” stumper every night!”
If you’re been wanting to try freezer cooking but aren’t sure where to start, this is a great way to learn. MyFreezEasy program start at just $8.25 per month when you sign up for a year. You will more than earn back the cost in the money you’ll save because you won’t waste food or turn to takeout. And that doesn’t even account for the time you’ll save once you’re not wracking your brain about what to make for dinner.
If you liked this article, you might also like:
- Make your own 100 calorie snack packs to save cash — and your diet
- Preserve food at home with cheap canning equipment and free recipes
- Make your own chocolate syrup and hot cocoa mix
- Give homemade soups as a gift to warm the heart
- How to make homemade vanilla extract