What’s for dinner? Making more with less

What’s for dinner? Making more with less

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When Roger and I got married, we made the decision that I would pursue writing and speaking while being based out of our house so that our kids would have someone to come home to.  This decision did not come without a price.

No one goes into writing for the money (OK it has worked out well for J.K. Rowling, but she is the exception, not the rule.) Before, Roger had been the sole support of three people – now that number was jumping to six.

At first, while still in the honeymoon phase, we did a lot of eating out. It is easy to fall into bad habits when you are busy, but there is a price for all that convenience. Not only did our food budget expand– so did our waistlines.

About a year ago Roger and I put ourselves on an eat-at-home challenge where – except for business meetings and my weekly Starbucks date with my son, Justen – we only ate at home or packed food to eat out for a month.  Suddenly, we realized how much money we had been wasting on fast food and restaurant food. We have learned to eat at home on a more regular basis, but we are still fans of flavor and need to keep it interesting for ourselves and our kids.

So here is a short list of ways that we are working to keep our menus fun, but on budget as well:

Clean Out the Cupboards Cooking – This is when I take an inventory of what is lurking in our freezer, fridge and pantry and see what magic I can concoct out of it. There is a great site called SuperCook where you can punch in the ingredients you have on hand and it will give you suggested recipes for you to try at home. Make sure you take their tour so that you can use the website to its full capacity.

Cooking our own Chicken – It may seem obvious, but we were spending way too much on pre-cooked and shredded chicken for our salads, burritos, curries, etc. Now I just throw four frozen, boneless chicken breast halves into a glass baking dish, cover it with foil and bake for 45 minutes on 350. Once the breasts have cooled, I use my Pampered Chef Food Chopper to chop up the meat and we throw that chopped up chicken into everything.

This also applies to other large chunks of meat. As much as I love turkey on Thanksgiving, what I really love are the leftovers. After we have our requisite turkey and stuffing sandwiches for lunch on Friday, I lovingly package up the rest of the turkey for future use in stir-frys, casseroles, curries, etc.  We actually prepare two turkeys at Thanksgiving – one smoked and one brined – to have a little variety and a lot of leftovers for us and our extended family.

Ham is another meat that I plan on using after we get it. We will have our “big meal” with that spiral cut ham, and then package up the leftovers for sandwiches, breakfast casseroles, etc.

LeftOvers On Purpose – Whether it is making a double batch of turkey meatballs for spaghetti on Monday and Italian Wedding Soup on Wednesday, or making a huge batch of Roger’s spaghetti sauce for dinner two nights in a row, planning for leftovers makes sense both time and money wise. (More on creating LeftOvers On Purpose later.)

Shop Once a Week – Oh, it is so hard to force myself to plan the meals, see what ingredients we already have and then shop for them, but when I do, oh the money and time that I save! If I don’t think ahead, I end up “stopping by” the store every other day and buying frozen food that is more expensive and a waste of time, energy and calories. (And we end up eating at 7:45 at night…) Even if I am determined on shopping once a week, I usually have to make at least one extra trip for something I forgot, but it does prove that we can live without oranges for an extra two days if push comes to shove.

Bulk Purchases – Yep – at first it is going to cost more. But in the not-so-long-run you are going to save time, money and gas by having your everyday items there and ready to use. Here is just a partial list of things that we have bought in bulk over the past year:

  • Oatmeal
  • Apricots (we buy them from a local farmer and freeze them)
  • Grass-Fed Beef
  • Flour
  • Spices
  • Pasta
  • Beans
  • Cereal
  • Rice
  • Vanilla
  • Coffee
  • Canned goods (tomato paste, tomato sauce, etc.)
  • Tuna
  • Hard Cheese (Parmesan, Romano)

We store the bulk purchase in air tight containers so they don’t go bad. When our freezer gets low we store some of the grains in the deep-freeze so that they take up space. (It is more expensive to run an empty freezer than one that is packed with food.)

Eat with the Seasons – If you are buying strawberries in December you are paying way more than your should. There really is a time for everything, and food is at the top of that seasonal list. Check out the farmer’s market section to see what is the best time of year to buy in your region, but here is a general guideline of some popular fruits and vegetables:

WINTER: Bell Peppers, Cabbage, Celery, Oranges, Radishes, Honeydew

FALL: Beets, Squash, Grapefruit, Mushrooms, Turnips

SUMMER: Apples, Greens, Onions, Nectarines, Pears, Watermelon

SPRING: Broccoli, Carrots, Spinach, Strawberries, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes

Eat less Meat – I have been gradually reducing the amount of meat that go into our dishes, while trying to bulk up the veggies and alternate sources of protein (beans, meat-substitutes.)  Our goal for each meal is that ¾ of the plate be plants. We are not always successful (we won’t even talk about the taquitos I had last night,) but we are learning new cooking skills as we scale back on all things carnivore.

One of the ways we are tiptoeing into less meat eating is by gathering tried and true recipes from our favorite vegetarians. Here are a couple from my friend and fellow author Cheri Gregory that you can try:

Walnut “Meat” Balls; Cheri Gregory

1 c. finely chopped walnuts 1 c. Ritz crackers, crushed fine 1 c. shredded cheddar cheese 3 eggs beaten 4-5 c. of brown gravy

Mix all ingredients (except gravy) together and form into small balls, (about the size of a large gumball.) Roll the balls in seasoned bread crumbs.  Fry in a small amount of oil, turning 3 or 4 times until each side is golden brown Place meatballs in a casserole dish and pour the gravy over the meatballs. Bake at 350 degrees 45 – 60 minutes

Lentil Loaf ; Cheri Gregory

1 c. mashed cooked lentils. 1.5 c. Pepperidge Farms seasoned stuffing 2 beaten eggs 1 large can evaporated milk 1/2 c. finely chopped walnuts 2 packages G. Washington broth, golden 1/2 c. oil 1 large onion, minced

Combine all ingredients and pour into greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees until browned and set, 45-60 minutes

Note:  This is fabulous on sandwiches…just slice and slather on some catsup, cheese, avocado, lettuce, etc.

You are probably already eating meatless meals several times a week: cheese quesadillas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, veggie salads, vegetable soup, cheese and broccoli baked potatoes, oatmeal or other cereals for breakfast, bean burritos.

 Waste not: Co-op with other friends – When my kids were younger, I had an informal network of friends where we would inform each other of sales at different supermarkets, and, in some cases, would pick up food that was on sale for each other.  I’ll never forget when whole chickens were reduced to .29 a pound at our grocery store, but I was having a hard time getting there since I was babysitting a friend’s kids as a favor. Her thank you? Mary brought me six whole chickens from the store. Best babysitting tip I’ve ever received.

This is also a good strategy for bulk purchases – maybe you don’t want a 25 pound bag of flour sitting in your pantry, but dividing that flour with two friends suddenly makes the flour – and the price – that much more attractive.

If you are tight on space, co-oping with friends suddenly makes bulk purchases both affordable and manageable.

Learn to cook from scratch. OK – I want to be careful with this recommendation – I think cheating with prepared foods every once in a while is a fine idea – I don’t want to give the impression that eating on the cheap is so difficult that the Value Meal at your favorite fast food place starts to look like an easier solution. However, some things that are SO expensive at the grocery store are surprisingly easy to prepare at home. Just some examples:

  • Baked Lasagna
  • Mini Pizzas (made at home with pita bread – so much better for you as well.)
  • Muffins
  • Bread (especially if you have that bread maker from your wedding sitting around gathering dust)
  • Salad Dressings
  • Marinades

And be wary of that deli counter at your supermarket – occasionally picking up a roasted chicken can be a life saver – but if you pick up four meals in a row and do your regular grocery shopping on top of that, you are wasting a lot of money.

Cut your own veggies – Those packages of cut veggies are great if you are in a rush, but it is so much less expensive to cut your own. Don’t get me wrong – I love a quick easy bagged salad once in a while, but those tiny little containers of chopped onions? You could buy a whole bag of onions for the same price.

Save Your Sanity

 Ecclesiastes 7:30 JB “God made man simple; man’s complex problems are of his own devising.”

Bulk Cooking: Some people are overwhelmed by the thought of bulk cooking, but to me, it is the simplest way to cook. We will be talking more about bulk cooking in the freezer cooking chapter.

Having a Pantry: Yes, having a pantry does save you time, money and your sanity. There is nothing that makes me crazier than having all the ingredients for a recipe except for that one, essential item. Having a pantry means I am more likely to have what I need on hand – or at least some way to substitute for it.

Create Your Own Cookbook: Having all your recipes in a centralized place keeps you from hunting down that recipe for Chicken Cacciatore you downloaded off your friend’s blog last week. I keep all the recipes I use on a regular basis in a binder with clear sheet protectors. The recipes are organized by types of recipes, (marinades, casseroles, BBQs, etc.) for easy retrieval and planning.

Grocery Unpack: One of the biggest ways to keep my head above water in the kitchen is to put away my groceries “well”. My usual temptation is to just to shove everything into place as soon as I walk through the door.

However, if I take the time to prep the food that I can before it goes into the fridge, I am going to have a whole lot less hassle when it comes to prepping dinner later on.

This has become even more critical now that our family is part of a farmer’s co-op. Every Thursday I drive to my pick-up spot and tote back a bushel full of veggies and fruits for us to eat over the next week. If I don’t prep those veggies right away, I will probably have that same giant bag of greens staring me in the face the next Thursday as well.

Here are some of the things I do to prep the food from the store and the farmer’s co-op as soon as I get home:

  • Pull out my salad spinner and start washing up all those greens.
  • Wash all fruits and veggies that can be washed (have to leave those strawberries alone until they are ready to be eaten, and then wash.)
  • Put all fresh clean fruits and fresh veggies in Debbie Meyer’s Green Bags (bags that make you produce last longer.)
  • Shred cheese in the food processor.
  • Divide up meat to be frozen. Bag and marinade.

If you have food on hand and have no idea what to do with it use Supercook. It is a new recipe search engine that finds recipes you can make with only the ingredients you have at home. The more ingredients you add, the better the results will be.

What do you need to change, start or stop doing so you have more time, money and sanity?