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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why your freezer could be a secret goldmine *or* April Grocery Money Journal

(This is long. I apologize for that.)
April 5. Went to Fred Meyer for light bulbs, found milk both on sale and on clearance. The on sale milk was whole - $2.50/gal. and the clearance was skim - $1.99/gal (only 1). I bought 3 gallons whole milk and the 1 skim. Spent $9.49, and have enough milk for at least 3 weeks.

April 20. Milk on sale for $2.49/gal at Walgreen's. Bought 2 gallons. Spent $4.98, for a month-to-date total of $14.47.

April 21. About out of decaf coffee. I was given a $5 Starbucks gift card last month, so I could go have a "nice cup of coffee" sometime. I chose, instead, to take that gift card and buy ground decaf Sumatra. I'll make several "nice cups of coffee" for the price of just one. Total spent -- nothing!

April 25. I keep wondering if I'll need to stop at a store to actually buy anything. I have managed to find substitutions for just about everything. And my freezers are looking much more manageable. Ideally, I'll get my large freezer down to just meat, and one shelf of assorted other items. And my kitchen freezer will close properly, without fail.

April 26. Used my $10 birthday coupon to World Market to buy vanilla beans. I got 6 good-sized vanilla beans for making extract this next week -- for free! Just need the vodka. Still, total spent for the month to date -- $14.47.

April 28. Stopped by QFC, found two 1/2 gals. of milk priced at 99 cents ea. Also, cream cheese was on sale for $1 for 8 oz. brick, and found several bunches of red band bananas at 39 cents/lb. (markdowns, sold as baking bananas, but most still too yellow for baking, we'll be eating these fresh).
Total spent at QFC -- $8.07, and total for month-to-date -- $22.54

So, you're probably wondering where the rest of April's Grocery Money Journal is. The truth is, this was it. Yep! $22.54, for a family of five, was all we spent for the entire month of April. That's roughly 15 cents per person, per day, for the month! Now let me explain why.

Middle of the night in early April -- I couldn't sleep. I got up to walk around, thought a snack might help me get back to sleep, so went to the kitchen. Once I was there, I decided that I really wasn't hungry after all. But I did noticed a strange sizzling sound coming from either the freezer or the dishwasher next to it. 

I leaned against the freezer door handle, so that I could listen to both appliances. It seemed like the door moved just a tad, but I couldn't be sure. I opened the freezer door to find water dripping from the ceiling of the freezer onto the food. Ugh! Just what I need. 

I checked the thermometer read-out and the freezer was at 16 degrees F (it's supposed to be 0 F). I waited a few minutes, then checked the read-out again. Still 16 F. I decided to unload the freezer into one of the garage freezers, just in case the whole thing was about to give up the ghost.

I went online, and discovered that it could just have been a door not shut all the way, or the fan could have been blocked (the freezer was really packed full), or, and I was dreading this as a possibility, it could be something major, requiring about $200 in labor and a $500 part. Double Ugh!

The advice I got online was to check to make sure the door was totally shut and nothing was blocking a fan. Done! And wait 1 hour. Then check the temperature read-out again. 

So, middle of the night, online for an hour, reading horror stories of others' misfortunes with their appliances, and really exhausted. After an hour I checked the temp, and whew! The freezer was back to 0 F. Crisis averted.

Back to bed, but with an internal warning light going off in my mind!
--What if this had been the freezer with all the meat, and no one caught the problem until too late? $200 down the drain. 
--What if this had been the garage freezer where I keep all the veggies, fruits and baked goods, and it had thawed, dripped, gotten smelly, before I found it? What a mess that would have been! 

So, I considered this a wake-up call (and yes, it did keep me awake for several hours). It was time to use up a lot of the freezer stash, especially the odd bits here and there, and any fruits and vegetables from last season.

What I didn't realize, until now, is that my freezer was a secret goldmine, waiting to be exploited

For the entire month of April, my cooking style took a new direction. Every day I checked the freezers and pulled out at least one item to use in that night's dinner. I made a vow to myself to only buy especially fantastic deals at the stores, plus milk, and get creative with what I had here.

As luck would have it, there were relatively few deals in the month of April. Fantastic deals usually precede major holidays, not follow them, in our area. I had already bought some tremendous deals in March, just before Easter.

What does a creative cook find to eat for her family, without going to the grocery store? Plenty! We ate very well. I found all sorts of "treasure", from cornbread and pie pastry scraps, to frozen fruit and vegetables, to Italian hot links and some gravy. The more bits I found in the freezer, the more my creativity muscles got a workout.

Interesting items (and how I used them) I found in the freezer included: 

  • scraps of pie dough (made homemade pop-tarts) 
  • some corn bread (made sage and corn bread stuffing)
  • half a carton of ice cream (no explanation necessary for how that was used up!)
  • a small amount of Parmesan cheese (topped a lasagna)
  • an assortment of single slices of cake and pie
  • some Italian hot links (added to lentil soup, and sliced thin to use as pepperoni on a pizza)
  • juice from a can of black olives (I added some of this to a large batch of pasta/pizza sauce, and some to a pot of Mexican bean soup -- I was low on salt and figured this would be a good stand-in)
  • some chopped, mixed herbs (parsley, oregano, basil, thyme, all in one container -- I added to the large pot of pasta and pizza sauce)
  • a single hamburger bun (I made myself a single serving of pizza on the bun split in half for lunch one day)
  • a 1-cup container of strawberries, cherries and blueberries (made a smoothie)
  • a snack-sized baggie with nuts, plus another small bag with dried apricots (combined the two to add flavor and texture to a batch of otherwise plain muffins)
  • several single-servings of leftover meals (these became weekend lunches when only a couple of us were home)
  • frozen red currant and crab apple juice (made 2 batches of jelly)
All of these items could have easily fallen through the freezer cracks -- they could have remained there so long that I tossed them out. Instead, I was able to rescue them, and we ate every last item we unearthed.

Cleaning out the pantry and fridge, as well

And it wasn't just the freezer. I also found myself cleaning out the fridge and pantry. I had a stash of condiment packets in the fridge, including a garlic dipping sauce packet from a pizza place (I added this to the filling for the lasagna), and a quarter jar of green salsa (I added this to the pot of Mexican bean soup). I finally made the large pot of pizza and pasta sauce, using the #10 can of tomato paste. I froze enough sauce for about 5 nights of either pizza or pasta. Plus I had enough tomato paste leftover to make a couple of batches of homemade tomato soup.

The biggest challenge was we ran low on salt. I had to cut back on salt in cooking. But I found in soups, that extra garlic, onions and fresh chives really bumped up the flavor. I was adding handfuls of chives to lots of dishes. Two-thirds the way through the month I found a small canister of salt. But still, I was using it sparingly.

Also, I had practically no mayo in the house. Not a huge problem, but it would have been nice for egg salad sandwiches.

I must admit, though, that there were times when I just wanted to buy something new in groceries for the kitchen, just for the newness. But I remembered my resolve to get that freezer cleaned out.

What kind of meals was I able to create, using only what I had on hand?

Meals just from the fridge, freezer, pantry and the garden (and the milk that I bought).


Maple and brown sugar oatmeal (homemade, not packets)

Homemade yogurt* and granola

Scrambled eggs and toast

Pancakes topped with berries from the freezer


Bread and butter, hard boiled eggs, oranges

Homemade yogurt*, plum sauce*, pumpkin muffins*

PBJ sandwiches, raisins, pumpkin muffins*

Sunflower seed butter sandwiches, raisins, rhubarb gelatin, cranberry-orange muffins*

Pizza sandwiches, rhubarb sauce, pumpkin muffins* (we tend to use muffins like cookies in our lunches -- lower in sugar and fat)

Leftover lentil and vegetable soup, bread and cream cheese, bananas


BBQ chicken sandwiches* on homemade sourdough bread (BBQ sauce homemade from ketchup, oil, onions, garlic, soy sauce, chili powder), served with sauteed cabbage (from pre-St. Patrick's Day sale) mixed with kale (from garden), and Blackberry cobbler*

Bean burger patties with BBQ sauce, sourdough bread, sweet potato fries and regular potato fries, tossed salad of lettuce, avocado, olives, carrots and pickled green beans, Blackberry cobbler*

Leftover bean burger patties topped with cheese*, lettuce, sour cream & salsa, cornbread stuffing*, cole slaw, plum pie*

Chicken noodle soup* with carrots, onions, Swiss chard, barley and noodles, sourdough bread, orange wedges, chocolate cupcakes

Kale and onion quiche*, sweet potato fries, plum and blackberry sauce*

Pot roast*, mashed potatoes, sauteed kale, chard and cabbage, pumpkin souffle*, dinner rolls

Garden lasagna*, garlic toast, cole slaw with kale and chives, cherry pie

Mexican bean soup* with sour cream, homemade tortillas with cheese*

"Pepperoni" pizza* (Italian hot link sliced thin for pepperoni), leftover pasta salad*, lemon meringue pie

Chicken and cheese quesadillas* (on homemade tortillas), tomato soup (made from frozen, canned tomato paste)*, rhubarb sauce

Chicken, tofu* and vegetable stir-fry* (with carrots, Swiss chard, cabbage, onions), brown rice, stewed plums and blackberries*

Curried lentils* (using frozen, canned tomatoes, frozen plums, raisins, onions, lentils, veg stock, and assorted greens from the garden), rice, roasted carrots

Spaghetti with meat sauce*, cole slaw, garlic toast *(hamburger buns from freezer, split and garlic added), orange wedges

Rice and beans, topped with cheddar and salsa, sauteed kale and garlic

*denotes foods from the freezer used in this dish

Not just daily meals, but some special dinners as well, and still made from what we had on hand

During this month, in addition to regular meals, we also had two birthdays, for which I put together pretty good birthday dinners, here at home, without making a run to the store.

For my birthday, I made chicken Cordon Bleu, sauteed frozen asparagus (in olive oil and garlic), mashed potatoes (my daughters made these without even asking me what to do -- I am so glad they can cook!), and birthday cake.

For my husband's birthday we had cheeseburgers (homemade buns), creamy rhubarb jello (made with cream cheese bought on sale before Christmas), pasta salad (with frozen, drained, diced canned tomatoes, slice olives, kale florets and herbs from the garden) and lemon meringue pie (made with bottled lemon juice, no lemon zest).

So, what did I, personally, learn from this?

I think that it's a good idea to do a major clean-out of the freezer a couple of times per year. You never know what has migrated to the back. There could be something delicious lurking in amongst the frozen veggies and meat. And clean out the fridge and pantry, while I'm at it.

Small tidbits of foods can inspire a lot of creativity in meal preparation. I don't need to follow recipes strictly.

April is a good month for me, to do a major clean out of the freezer, as the garden is coming back and I have an abundance of kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard from a fall planting. Although, it would always be wise to take advantage of pre-Easter sales, even if I was doing a major freezer clean-out.

I had over $200 in food sitting in the freezers. It's probably more like $400, as I still have a lot of meat in there. But I've planned for that meat to last through June. If I lived somewhere that power outages were common and long-lasting, keeping that much food in the freezer might not be the wisest thing. Instead, I would can a lot more.

And this answers one of those questions I often have, "just how long could we go, with just the food we have in stock right now?" It's a question that I think we've all asked our kitchens at least once. We want to insure our survival, under any circumstance.

The take-away for you

You likely don't have a garden that begins producing in March each year. And your freezer, pantry and fridge may not have the abundance of "treasures" that mine did. I did begin the month well-stocked from March's shopping. (March grocery journal is here, if you want to see how stocked our kitchen was.) But there is probably something in your kitchen that needs using up. And this food represents money spent or energy expended to procure it.
  • those condiment packets from take-out, such as salad dressing, ketchup, BBQ sauce, Parmesan cheese, red pepper flakes -- all could be added to an ordinary dish like soup, baked beans, casserole or braised meat, to make something extraordinary
  • seasonings, both the foil pouches and the canisters of herbs and spices -- again, these can take a humdrum meal of ground beef with rice and make it special and different
  • small amounts of dairy products, that smidgen of sour cream, tablespoon of yogurt, half bar of cream cheese -- these can be added to jello salads for a creamy texture
  • scraps of bread products, from a lone pancake or square of cornbread, to a stale bagel -- turn these into bread crumbs for a batch of savory stuffing, or for meatloaf, or to bread a chicken cutlet, or to make bread crumb cookies
  • the berries (and other fruits) you bought or picked last summer and froze -- this should be a no-brainer, but the berry harvest is just around the corner, once again. Don't let these gems that you froze last summer go to waste. Make jam, top pancakes, add to oatmeal, make a coffee cake, crisp or cobbler, eat semi-thawed with your breakfast
  • the assortment of leftovers, probably in single-size amounts -- have a smorgasbord dinner. Get all the containers out, heat them and let everyone choose what they want.
  • scraps of pie pastry, left over from rolling out and trimming the dough -- thaw, roll out, cut into squares, top with jam, fold over, pinch, prick and bake -- homemade pop tarts, even yummier than store-bought!
  • small amounts of frozen vegetables -- make a large pot of vegetable soup, add to quiche, if green and leafy, add to scrambled eggs, make a frittata, add to a casserole, add to pasta sauce
  • frozen squash, pumpkin or sweet potatoes -- make muffins, make granola (Pumpkin Praline granola is delicious!), make a cream, sage and pumpkin pasta sauce, make a pumpkin pie smoothie/shake, make a batch of pumpkin butter for your morning toast
For you, I hope that my experience has given you some ideas on how to tap the goldmine of your freezer. And for me, I'll be glad to return to regular stock-up shopping, now that my freezers are manageable once again!


  1. $22.54!! That's amazing, good for you!

    1. Hi Sharon,
      Thanks! I was continually amazed by how much we had in store. I would think, "surely we'll need to go shopping this week". Then I'd find several more items that needed using up. I think I'm a food hoarder! I pop everything into the freezer when dinner is over.

  2. It looks like you ate very well out of the freezer and pantry :) I really need to eat what I have in May, as my freezer is so full I can barely close it and my pantry is nearly as full!

    Thanks for the ideas for using up the bits and pieces - they do tend to get lost in my freezer.

    1. Hi Economies,
      Your freezer probably has as many goodies in it as mine did! And I know that your pantry does, with your recent trip to the Asian supermarket, surely you have lots of leftover tins and bags of interesting tidbits.
      Have fun using it all up!

  3. I live in Maine and we frequently have power outages. My husband is sent immediately for the generator to "save the freezer!" It's the kitchen freezer but I too save bits of this and that for future meals and it really is a gold mine.

    1. Hi Judy,
      Oh yes! A generator would be a must where you are! "Save the freezer" -- that would be me calling out.

      When we do have our mini power outages (the longest I think we've ever had was about 8 hours), I'm issuing orders not to open the fridge or freezer. I think my biggest concern is that someone will kick the plug out on one of the garage freezers, and I wouldn't find out for a couple of days.

      I'm glad that you do have a generator. I'm sure it gets plenty of use!

    2. Only 8 hours? During the Hanukkah Eve storm of ’06 I was without power for 10 days. I've been in the dark for a day or two several other times.

    3. frugal spinster, If that's the storm that I'm thinking about, my husband and son were down at UW that day and got stranded, as no buses were coming into or going out of the U district. They slept over at a friend's house the first night. But I don't recall us losing power on the west side of Lake Washington with that storm. There was another December storm I think in '08, when we did lose power for a few hours, but I remember the news saying some people on the eastside were without power for days. We live in a fairly population dense area and I think tend to become higher priority when power does go out. Plus we're close to the Sound, and near sea level, so we don't get as much snow in general, to knock down power lines.

      I can't imagine going 10 days without power! I hope you have a good fireplace or wood stove.

  4. Wow, Lili! That's amazing!

    We haven't had very good deals on fresh fruit at the grocery store lately, so I've been motivated to use our stock of frozen fruit (we have a lot)--after all, hopefully we can replace it in the next few months. And you are right, I DO need to go through my pantry. It is so easy, as you say, for items to migrate to the back and get lost. My hubby defrosts our big freezer twice a year and he always finds something that we had forgotten about (I know, I know, we should have a master list--but he's really not good at writing that sort of thing down so I think I would be more frustrated).

    1. Hi Kris,
      I think the best fruit prices I have seen in the last month were bagged oranges for about 40 cents/lb and the baking bananas for 39 cents/lb. But the oranges are really end of season, and the quality is not great, and the bananas are hit or miss, not always available. So, this is the perfect time to use up frozen fruit. I have always thought of our frozen fruit supply as a winter supply, but I think early spring is perhaps a better time to use it, economy-wise.

      I don't have a master list either. I know, that would be the "organized" thing to do. But I am not always so organized. Amy D from the Tightwad Gazette had a super organized system. Not only did she write down what was in the freezer, but she also listed how many of each item should be used each month. I don't think I'll ever achieve that level of organization. It's just not in my head. So, going through the freezer a couple of times per year might be a better way for me to stay on top of it all.

  5. I cleaned out my freezer last year and haven't stocked up much since. I want to get as much local produce as I can this summer, and freeze for next winter. This year I had local strawberries, pumpkin, and tomatoes, and really appreciated the better flavour in the depths of winter. It will be great for you to load up your freezer with new stuff and know for sure it is all 2013 crop!

    1. Hi anexacting,
      Yes! Knowing that whatever we eat from the freezer is this year's will definitely be great. I'm really looking forward to the local and garden produce. I'm never tempted by the shipped-in-from-California strawberries, as they have so little flavor.
      You will certainly have a lot of space in your freezer for this summer's bounty!

  6. Holy Moly! OK... I think you've inspired me again. May is officially gonna be freezer and pantry clean out month!

    1. Hi Cat,
      And hopefully you'll find some fun surprises in the freezer and pantry like I did!
      One of the things I really liked about this past month was I wasn't grocery shopping all the time. It was a nice break from the routine.

      Good luck with cleaning out your freeze/pantry!

  7. A couple of years ago our freezer went bad and we lost everything in it. The fan was still running but the compressor had stopped, so even though it wasn't cooling, it sounded like it was working. We figured out the freezer was broken when we saw the lid slightly ajar. However, it wasn't the open lid that caused things to go bad. It was a warm freezer because of the broken compressor. A bag of chicken had spoiled and the gases it generated in the sealed bag had pushed the lid up. Boy was it a mess. We don't keep our freezer as full as you do, but we had just purchased a lot of meat from our local farmer. :(

    1. Hi live and learn,
      Ugh! That must have been unbelievably yucky! Not to mention the amount of money you had just spent to buy all that meat, and to have it spoil. I feel bad for you.

      And that was a similar fear I had in the middle of the night early in the month. One of our freezers could go out, or the plug could get kicked out of the socket, and I wouldn't discover it until too late. I'm glad to have more manageable freezer space once again.

  8. Lili-
    You have such a great perspective and ability to take that view point and make things happen! So many times the thought is there-but the motivation, is lacking! I am so impressed and so embrace your talent and ability to do what you do!
    I will try to take some of my goodies in the freezer and turn them around!
    Happy Tuesday!

    1. Hi Jemma,
      Thank you! I like a challenge, even when it's just a challenge that I pose to myself. But I did have fun, being creative in the kitchen. And every time I looked into the freezer it seemed there was a fun new surprise for me. It's been a fun month!
      I hope you find some yummy surprises in your freezer!
      Glad you stopped by!

  9. I have to keep a freezer inventory (I "check" food in and out) Before I started this routine food always got lost in my freezer and sometimes frrezer burnt because I forgot about it.

    1. Hi frugal spinster,
      I may have to start an inventory. I've always relied on a fairly good memory. But the memory has slipped a bit in recent years!

    2. I really, REALLY need to start doing this! What method do you use? Is it just a notebook, or do you have something fancier?

    3. My mother keeps an inventory and she just uses a piece of paper taped to the side of the freezer.

  10. Dear Lili,
    thanks for the inspiration.You are my Frugal Queen. My freezer is full with veggies,fruits,meat and leftovers.I cook every day a meal with the items from the freezer,but is not empty.I think I will clean out my feezer in this month.I need space for the coming fruits.
    Have a nice week my friend,
    I wish my english was better.

    1. Hi Regina,
      Thank you. Really good idea to get your freezer cleaned out this month. There will be so many delicious fruits and vegetables to fill it with soon!
      I hope you are having pleasant spring weather!


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