So, this post will be short - after all, you're busy, right? It's a meal-planning template I learned years ago that has saved me countless hours of planning and cooking, and saved many dollars of food from being wasted and, Lord knows, teachers need both!
Step 1: Begin by consciously saving every dab of leftovers that your family doesn't finish. Have a spoonful of corn left in the bowl? Don't encourage someone to "finish it so I don't have to save it" or eat it yourself. Designate a freezer container (or 2) in the refrigerator into which you always throw the leftovers. Meat and vegetables can all go into the same container once they're properly cooled. At the end of the week, this container can go straight into the freezer. Use a marker to date it - you'll feel more confident about using it later. Depending on the size of your family, one container of random leftovers may be enough for what comes next.
Step 2: When you need a delicious, hot meal, pull out the leftover container(s). For soup or stew, it can be frozen. For a casserole, remember to defrost the container earlier, or nuke it in the microwave.
Step 3: For soup (thinner) or stew (thicker), put the frozen leftovers into a large pot. Add any type of stock that you like, or water. If you want to add other vegetables, either canned or fresh, do that now. You're basically dumping your meal together and heating it up. I start mine on "high" because I don't like to wait for food. Seriously, I've taken two frozen lumps of leftovers, added stock, and been eating in 20 minutes.
For a casserole, thaw or nuke your leftovers, then combine with a binder. A condensed soup works great, but you can also use beaten egg, mayo, plain yogurt, or sour cream. You can be creative here, too, and additional vegetables and cheeses. I particularly like something crunchy, like water chestnuts. If it's too liquid-y, add bread crumbs. Heat in the oven until warmed through, generally 20-30 minutes.
The name "Refrigerator Stew" is unappetizing, even to me. Consider creating a different name for your family!
The original concept came from Amy Dacyczyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette, a frugal-living newsletter. I subscribed for years and learned so much about living responsibly, not just "cheaply", but according to your own goals and circumstances.
How do you cut down on cooking time? I'd love to hear - and use - your ideas!