My Accidental Side Hustle: Making Frozen Meals!

by Guest Writer - Published March 10, 2017

frozen meal hustle

*Featured Side Hustle*: Ride sharing companies like Uber have made it easier than ever for anyone to start a profitable side hustle. If you have a reasonable driving record, a smartphone, can pass a background check, and have access to a car that’s less than 10 years old, you could be making serious side income within minutes just by driving around your city!

Check out Side Hustle #52 to learn more about driving for ride sharing comanies like Uber and Lyft..

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[Got another one for our Side Hustle Series today! This one comes to you from Dan and his wife of PenniesAndDollars.com who stumbled across a great opportunity by putting themselves out there and really just being *nice*. Two magical ingredients that can take you pretty far in life :) Hope this inspires other food lovers and cooks out there!]

My wife and I make 5 frozen meals a week for $100.

We never set out to make this a side hustle. A friend of ours recently had a baby, so we made her a (free) frozen meal to help her out in the first couple days, and it turned out she really liked our cooking!

My wife was originally looking to do some baking on the side for money, but when she reached out to friends and family it didn’t seem like any of them were really that interested. However, the friend that had previously liked our frozen meal said right away that she’d be willing to buy more meals from us! Both her and her husband work full time and have 3 kids, and they just don’t have the time or energy to make dinners themselves.

My wife and I are such cheapskates that it just blows our minds that someone would be willing to pay to have meals made for us!

But after asking our friend several times if she was serious about the service, and receiving an absolute affirmative each time, we settled on $20 a meal.

How It Works

Each week, we offer 5 meal options. Almost every week, she’s chosen all 5 options. A few times one won’t sound good, so she’ll ask us to make a double batch of a different one instead.

We have all the meals ready by Sunday, and then she swings by and picks them up, or we drop them off at her place depending on what’s more convenient at the time.

This hustle really works out well for everyone. Our friend gets a home cooked meal every day of the (work) week, and we make some side money in the process. We also make the meals big enough for her family so that there’s always leftovers for lunch the next day, although apparently her husband likes to do a second supper at midnight :)

Our schedules are all over the place, but since we give ourselves a whole week to make the meals, we can whip one up whenever our schedule allows. And whenever we make her a meal, we usually just make a double batch so we that we have one for ourselves too with little additional effort!

The Types of Meals We Offer

We try and keep a good variety of meal options coming for her, which has actually been a good exercise in broadening our own cooking and eating horizons too! We’ve gotten out of the pasta and casserole rut now, and are currently trying out Chinese cooking (or Chinese ‘inspired’ cooking) for the first time with some sweet and sour chicken balls and orange chicken. I’m looking forward to giving chimichangas a shot next! The recipe looks easy, but we’ll see.

We’ve also asked her to give us a 1-5 rating each week so we know what to offer again. Maybe she’s being a little too kind with her reviews, but 26 of the meals so far have come back as a ‘5’, four came back as a ‘4’, two as a ‘3’, and two as a ‘1.’ Since so many of the meals come back as 5, we don’t re-offer anything less than a 5 now.

Keeping Everything Easy Prep

frozen meal prep

Before our friend started buying meals from us, she had gone through a company that offered a similar service. Her biggest complaint with them was that they still had her doing some of the prep at home.

From a culinary standpoint, I definitely understand why they had her do this. Some parts of meal prep almost have to be done right before it’s time to eat. But I also understand why she didn’t like this. If she’s paying $20 for a meal, it’s completely reasonable for her to expect 100% pre-prep, and no dishes!

With this in mind, we have turned every meal into a casserole or something that can be reheated in a casserole dish. This way we can package it in a disposable aluminum 9×13, and all she needs to do is throw it in the oven and thaw it out. Once she’s done, the 9×13 can go into the trash. The only exception is the soups, where we’ve frozen them in the bag and she does need to get one of her pots dirty.

How Much We Make

While we bring home $100 a week for these meals (5 x $20), of course it’s not pure profit as we have the expenses of the food. Our goal is to at least make $10/hr of profit though, so we try to stick with meals that cost less than $10 to make in under one hour or less.

We’re paying Midwest food prices and not New York food prices though, so sticking to the $10 food cost is fairly easy. We did make some chicken spinach artichoke lasagne the other day that did cost $15 with all cheese and special ingredients (and took over an hour), but that was averaged out by the Mexican soup that cost $6 (beans are a cheap filler) and barely any time at all. Each meal also costs an additional 50 cents for the disposable casserole pan. Leave a comment if you know where to get them cheaper – .50 a shot adds up!

(Editor’s note: I wonder if you could just invest in some nice solid containers that you can just have her return each week to not only save $$$ in the long run, but also the environment? I feel like that wouldn’t be too much trouble for anyone? Maybe give her a box to throw them all into too that’s completely sealable so she doesn’t have to smell or clean anything, haha…)

Also, some of the prep time doesn’t require our full attention. While we’re boiling pasta, for example, we can take 5 minutes to do a few dishes or start work on another meal. Furthermore, since we usually end up with a meal for ourselves as well, it is often time we’d spend on meal prep anyway. And if our hourly pay is low some weeks, the flexibility of the gig still makes it well worth it in the end.

All told, we typically spend $40-$50 of the $100 on buying her share of the groceries. We started this gig at the beginning of this year, and so far have just put all the profit back towards our own groceries allowing us to not have to tap our own grocery budget at all. We have been drawing down our pantry a little though, so we’ll see what happens there.

Is It Scalable?

We’ve discussed growing this side hustle by advertising for more customers, but for now we’ve decided to just stick with our one friendly customer. Scaling it into a ‘proper’ business requires pursuing licensing and needing a separate kitchen along with all other kinds of costs and requirements, and that’s not something we’re interested in at the moment.

Can Anyone Do This?

If you have some spare time anywhere in the week and know how to cook, you can probably do this gig too. You do need enough freezer space to store 5 casseroles though, and as an FYI you can’t stack them (or anything else on top of them) as you’ll then tear the aluminum cover.

When you’re just starting out, you’ll probably want to find customers among people you already know who won’t care that your kitchen isn’t licensed and inspected, though obviously you still need to use common sense and keep everything clean and all the food safe. Your friends might also be more open and tolerant as you figure out what works and what doesn’t when starting out. On the other hand, a stranger might be more honest in rating your meals. And if your meals don’t actually taste that good, you’ll avoid pissing off a friend by selling them subpar meals at $20 a piece!

For us, finding a customer just took a single Facebook post. It may be that easy for you, or you may need to turn to Craigslist or classifieds. Just keep your ears open, and next time you hear someone complaining about meal prep, jump in and make them an offer!

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Dan Palmer aims to take a wholistic approach to personal finance by blogging about everything from the underlying ‘why’ of personal finance, the every-day nitty-gritty hacks of frugal living, and the ‘how’ of investing and growing your wealth. You can find him at penniesanddollars.com.

Editor’s Note: For all those who do like cooking for themselves, a friend of mine recently launched a meal plan service that helps with planning cheap meals if anyone’s interested… It’s called “$5.00 Meal Plan” and they’ll email you a weekly meal plan that contains ten recipes to make each week. The plans are easy to prepare, don’t use exotic ingredients, and will cost you less than $5 a meal if you plan and use coupons. More info can be found here: 5DollarMealPlan.com.

***Enjoy reading about side hustles?*** Check out the 68 others we’ve featured over the years! :)

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

1 The Green Swan March 10, 2017 at 7:02 am

That’s a pretty awesome side business. Especially considering you get some benefit from it: being able to buy food in bulk, leveraging work you already do, and forcing yourself to try new and creative meals. Bravo! And dare I say, I think you are under-charging and can reasonable rationalize a higher charge. You are doing weekly grocery shopping, meal planning and meal prep. That’s a lot they are getting out of it. $10 an hour isn’t asking much. I think you can justify $5 / meal to them and see how they react. By the sounds of it, they love the service and wouldn’t scoff at the raise.

Anyway, great side hustle and thanks for sharing!

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2 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 9:10 am

Thanks, Green Swan! You’re right, we’ve decided that if we do take any more customers on, we’d charge $25 each.

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3 Tonya May 3, 2017 at 8:18 am

I totally agree with the price increase. If shes paying $20 for a family of 5,s meal, she is saving money on her end. Im sure the prices would increase for a regular customer.This is a great idea for a circle of friends who have a mix of working and ” stay at home moms ” in it. I myself would love having such a service!! ☺

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4 J. Money May 17, 2017 at 11:30 am

Same here! :)

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5 Joe March 10, 2017 at 7:10 am

Nice side hustle.The food industry has so many rules and regulations. If you can do it for friends and families, that’s the way to go. Can you scale this up to make a bit more money?

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6 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 9:11 am

Thanks Joe! You’re right, sticking to friends and family is a great way to go.

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7 Band of Savers March 10, 2017 at 7:30 am

Great opportunity that you were able to cash in on. My wife is often signing up to help out with the frozen meal trains when friends have babies but we’ve never thought of trying to monetize it. On regards to the cost of the cost of the dishes adding up, I’m with J. in suggesting that you look for a reusable option. Also, try going to the kitchens that cater events and ask them where they get their disposable containers, they have to have found the cheapest places to get them at wholesale and might be able to give you some suggestions – or maybe even let you tag onto their orders.

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8 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 9:14 am

Good point on asking professional kitchens. Ha, I wonder how they’d feel about supplying their ‘competition.’

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9 Max Your Freedom March 10, 2017 at 7:54 am

Hey Dan, not only have you guys come up with a great side hustle, but you effectively hacked your grocery bill in the process. I’m sure it’s also less wasteful, since you can use any extra ingredients for your own meals. Pretty cool set-up!

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10 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 9:17 am

You’re right about the waste- we’ve generally been pretty good about not wasting, but we’ve definitely been able to buy more in bulk.

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11 FullTimeFinance March 10, 2017 at 8:01 am

Great example that side hustle opportunities are everywhere. You just have to be paying attention and have the drive to go do it. Also not a bad way to maximize ones grocery bill. I do wonder though if its scallabale. Outside the license thing food preparation has all sorts of special regulations and hurdles to cross. Still it seems like what your doing now works well for the time you have available.

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12 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 9:18 am

Yup, you could scale it, but you’d definitely have to go all in at that point!

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13 AMW March 10, 2017 at 8:08 am

Um…I am a culinary instructor at a public college…don’t want to be a downer here but this is an illegal side hustle unless this is being done out of a commercial kitchen and those preparing the food are ServSafe certified. The health department would be very unhappy. They issue big fines when they are unhappy. There are many states that have cottage industry laws for shelf stable baked goods but none that I know of have them for meat/dairy. Better check your local laws before attempting.

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14 Erin March 10, 2017 at 9:41 am

Would it be illegal to do the shopping, bring cooking tools and equipment to someone else’s home, and prepare the food there? You wouldn’t be selling food, you would be selling a service.

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15 AMW March 10, 2017 at 4:12 pm

That would be considered being a personal chef and it is perfectly legal…just check local laws so you are in compliance.

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16 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 2:26 pm

AMW, thanks for bringing this up. I definitely get that setting up a full fledged business would be illegal without a commercial kitchen and all that. But would an informal arrangement such as this be frowned upon? I’ll definitely look into this further!

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17 AMW March 10, 2017 at 4:14 pm

You would most likely get away with it unless someone gets sick or reports you to the health department. Then it will cost you money in fines and possible litigation.

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18 Jay P. March 12, 2017 at 1:26 am

AMW is correct on all counts. I don’t think you have anything to fear with just one friend or family member, but if you want to scale out beyond that, I suggest you research renting a commercial kitchen. In larger towns, there is usually some sort of commercial kitchen that you can rent, usually small-time caterers will rent time at them.

As for the overall idea of this type of side hustle, it’s definitely workable. I used to do something similar. I spent about 4-5 hours cooking on Saturday making large batches of 5 different meals. I would then package a single serving of each into disposible plastic bento boxes, freeze then in a large chest freezer overnight, then distribute them to my customers on Sunday….college students living in dorms looking for a few home-cooked meals to eat each week that they can pop in a microwave and enjoy. I had about 2 dozen customers at my peak, and after expenses I would net about $125 each week, roughly $20-25/hour, so not bad for my time.

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19 J. Money March 12, 2017 at 4:39 pm

I remember people offering late-night snacks at college and all my drunk friends willing to pay almost anything for them, haha… The college market is ripe for hustles like these :)

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20 Paul March 10, 2017 at 8:43 am

There is definitely a market. Busy people no time to shop or cook, they don’t want to eat out all the time… We tried the free offer from Blue Apron mainly because it was mostly free to try not out of need, but honestly there was too prep work involved. If I’m going to pay thet kind of money they want at full price then I want is a good meal that requires less than 2 minutes of prep maximum. I dont want to chop my own onions, I feel like that should be built into the price already…. anyway, you are on to something, heat and serve is the way to go

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21 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 9:22 am

Thanks for sharing your experience, Paul. I always wonder how we compare to the meal by mail options.

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22 Alex March 10, 2017 at 9:14 am

I would pay $100 for this in a heartbeat. The last thing I wanna do after work is cook. Get home at 530 and cook a meal while hanging w my kid is such a hassle.

I try to cook in bulk 1-2x a month and make things that are freezable but that still takes an entire afternoon. . Occasionally I will make an extra lasagna for a friend and sometimes they reciprocate. We’ve tried blue apron but they’re not really good for families.

If you (or anyone in north jersey) wants to make a little extra cash let me know I would gladly pay for this.

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23 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 1:20 pm

You might be surprised at who would be willing to do this for you, Alex!

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24 J. Money March 12, 2017 at 4:42 pm

That’s what I’m thinking too!!! So let’s add DC/MARYLAND to this list please :) My wife would LOVE me if I told her she no longer needs to worry about cooking during the week, haha… I try to help out, but apparently mac and cheese and peanut butter jelly sandwiches only goes so far… Def. need to up my game in that department – hah.

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25 Ms. Liz March 10, 2017 at 9:24 am

I worked with someone who would sell her leftovers from her previous night’s dinner to a colleague for his lunch. Her family didn’t like leftovers and this colleague loved having a home cooked meal. She said the money paid for most of her grocery bill. The meals looked amazing (I was always a bit jealous!) and each thought they were getting the better deal.

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26 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 1:25 pm

That’s a perfect solution to two different people’s problems! The glories of capitalism :).

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27 Mrs. Picky Pincher March 10, 2017 at 9:36 am

Whaaaaat! This is awesome, Dan!!! Mr. Picky Pincher and I were joking about doing something similar. All of his coworkers go out to eat for lunch and spend a minimum of $10 on heavy restaurant food. They always fawn over hubby’s cheap and delicious homemade food. We jokingly said we should cater at $5 a pop. Ahhhh.

So right now do you have just one customer? It would be awesome to scale this and make larger batches of food for multiple clients. :)

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28 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 1:27 pm

It’s definitely worked out well for us!

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29 Erin March 10, 2017 at 9:39 am

I buy a stack of 25 foil pans for about $6.00. Sam’s them too, along with foil lids. If these stores are not options for you, look for restaurant supply stores in your area. Restaurant supply stores often require customers to prove they are business owners or authorized representatives to shop on behalf of a business or non-profit, but many stores are open to the public. A simple phone call before you go will save you the hassle. Additionally, try online restaurant supply stores like webrestaurant.com or even Amazon. Also, visit your area’s party supply stores. You might be surprised at their prices on bulk disposables. Party City focuses on balloons and decorations, but Fulton Paper usually has a large section of low-cost disposables. I would shop there for cake/bakery supplies, big parties or picnics, or even general household needs.

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30 Erin March 10, 2017 at 11:16 am

Please read that first line as…
“I buy a stack of 25 foil pans for about $6.00 at Costco. Sam’s has them too, along with foil lids.”

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31 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Thanks for the tips, Erin! I’ll check them out!

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32 Go Finance Yourself! March 10, 2017 at 9:39 am

Based on the other comments it sounds like this may be difficult to scale. But it’s an awesome side hustle. So many people are willing to pay a premium for convince. Especially when it’s for a good home cooked meal. I know I have tossed around the idea in my head lately. Working a demanding job and side hustles in my free time, it can get exhausting when you through in cooking as well.

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33 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 1:30 pm

You’re right, cooking can be demanding, especially in addition to an already busy life!

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34 Financial Panther March 10, 2017 at 10:41 am

This is awesome. It’s like you’re making your own Blue Apron service. There’s definitely money to be made in the food space! And it’s a pretty easy side hustle to just test out at least (i.e. you won’t go bankrupt just trying this out to see if this works for you).

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35 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 1:31 pm

You’re right, Financial Panther, it’s worth trying!

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36 Mrs. BITA March 10, 2017 at 10:49 am

What a neat way to wipe out your grocery bill! I especially like the fact that you make money doing something you were going to do anyway for yourself. I’m not a fan of all those disposables though. I have a friend who started a food delivery business about 18 months ago. She uses a commercial kitchen though, and has about 180 subscribers. Part of their mission statement is to be environmentally friendly. They tried out various things, including sending out their meals in glass dishes that you rinsed and put back into the delivery bag. They surveyed their customers and found that most people really didn’t like the reusable dish idea. In the end they found these disposable but compostable containers and that is what they use now.

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37 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Your friend has definitely figured out how to scale the business! Using compostable disposables is an interesting idea to get around all the aluminum.

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38 Primal Prosperity March 10, 2017 at 11:04 am

I’m so glad you threw in the editor’s note about the option to reuse the containers. That was all I could think about while reading the first half, but didn’t want to be the one to point it out. :)

This is a great side hustle though for someone who loves to cook! I personally enjoy cooking from scratch to a certain extent. Mostly because I want to know what exactly is in my food instead of having to read a label on a box of pre-prepared food. But, I don’t enjoy it enough to make it a business. In fact, I’d be the customer, if anything. :)

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39 Daniel Palmer March 10, 2017 at 1:55 pm

We definitely thought about re-usable containers. From a money (and environmental) standpoint, it would definitely be worth investing $50-$100 for a bunch of 9x13s with lids, but we worried that it would detract from the convenience. Perhaps we’ll float the idea tho…

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40 Smart Provisions March 10, 2017 at 4:40 pm

Awesome side hustle! I’ve been trying to get into meal prep myself as I don’t like spending time on making food when I could be working to meet those darn timelines at work. Glad you could make money out of it!

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41 Liz March 11, 2017 at 4:53 am

I wish I could find some people who need a service like this in my town! Netting $50 a week or so for cooking, especially when you have to cook for yourself anyway, sounds like an awesome side hustle. I can’t imagine spending that much for prepared food every week, but I guess it’s all about what works for you!

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42 Steven Goodwin March 11, 2017 at 11:38 am

Man, I love doing the meal plans that we make. We do crockpot freezer meals though. It’s really easy since we use gallon sized freezer bags and prepare about 20 of them at a time. I will say that it does take a while to make, but it’s only like one day a month for us. The best thing is that the cost is only around about $150-$200 for all of it and there is a nice variety between chicken, beef, pork and other meats. We get them all from http://www.laurengreutman.com/category/blog/aldi-meal-plans/. We’ve got three different ones and just cycle through them or make a double batch and mix and match! Good for you guys to be able to do this!

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43 J. Money March 12, 2017 at 4:45 pm

I’ve heard her plans were pretty good!!

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44 Paula March 19, 2017 at 8:26 am

Be careful. What you are doing is illegal in my state of Florida. You cannot sell meals made in a home kitchen. Your state nay be different. It is scalable in the personal chef business model. I am a personal chef and make my living cooking in my clients’ homes.

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45 ZJ Thorne May 7, 2017 at 10:37 am

It is great that you were able to shift from what you wanted to do (bake) into something your market wanted with little alteration. Neat idea.

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46 Jerri Lyn May 17, 2017 at 10:14 am

What a nice small side hustle!

In regards to disposable pans, what about going to your local thrift stores and stocking up on casserole pans there? You would need about 10 overall, five at your friend’s house and five to fill. Just swap them out when you’re handing out the next week’s food. Even if you start with only one each week, eventually you’ll have enough to cover. And should your side hustle come to an end, just re-donate back to the thrift store!

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47 J. Money May 17, 2017 at 11:32 am

LOVE THAT IDEA!!! And then you don’t have to worry about whether they lose them or accidentally throw away or anything either as they only cost a few bucks!

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