Sunday, November 30, 2008

Copy Cat

If I had to guess, I think that eating out is probably the singlemost way to sabotage a food budget--any budget really. The reason is that most families don't factor this cost into their spending, so it's often a hidden cost. You're tired, you don't want to cook, and even though you weren't planning on it, you hit the drive-thru. Even when you do set aside a certain amount monthly for eating out (or ordering in), when you are at a point where you need to trim costs, this is one of the first--and sometimes the hardest--places to cut.

Thing is, who doesn't love the occasional Big Mac or BK Big Fish. There are ways to eat fast-food on the cheap. Of course, most chains have a $1 menu, and if you are smart, you can eat-out without breaking the bank. There are some other good tips in this article we featured on Lotsofkids a few years back.

Still, sometimes you really want a certain dish, but you can't justify the cost. Instead of breaking the bank, try copy-catting. Simply put, it's the art of making your favorite dishes at home for a fraction of the cost. Honestly, I have found that making my favorite take-out dishes at home has been a very important tool in helping my family weather this hard economic downturn. It allows my kids to still enjoy their favorites and not feel so deprived. Granted, even though we didn't eat out that often, we tried to get take-out at least once a week. It was both a little treat, as well as a way to support our local economy and restaurants. Unfortunately we can't do that now...but the desire chili-cheese dogs and greasy fries is still there.

I don't know if any of your remember the Eddie Murphy routine where he talked about growing up poor and being jealous of his friends who had McDonald's hamburgers. His grandmother told him he didn't need a Big Mac, but insisted she could make a homemade one just as good or even better that Micky Ds. Eddie ended up with a greasy patty with green peppers sticking out on a couple of pieces of square bread. Hardly an equivalent to the golden arches. All joking aside, looks can be just as important when copy-catting. You want to get close to the original both in taste and appearance.

There is another benefit to copy-catting aside from the initial cost savings. If you love Olive Garden's Fettucini Alfredo, but it costs you over $100 a pop for your large family to eat there, chances are you will only be going a couple times a year. If you can replicate that dish, you can enjoy it at home much more often. One of our favorite take-out dishes was from a local mexican restaurant. I managed to copy it, and now we have it 1-2 times a month rather than a few times a year.

Sometimes copycat recipes aren't for specific dishes, but rather generalities. My family loves submarine sandwiches. The toasted ones like Quiznos are even better. However, it was just too expensive to them very often. So, instead, we started doing them at home. We simply bought french rolls, deli-meat, and the fixings. We baked them in the oven, and viola! My family actually likes these better since we can make the sandwiches just the way we want, instead of having to pick the combinations offered at the shops.

If you are looking for copycat recipes, there are many good cookbooks available. Or, hit the internet. Google "copycat recipes" and dozens of sites come up. One I particularly like is Robbie's Recipes.

Most of my personal copy-cat recipes are for dishes that can be found at local joints, not really the big chains. I have to admit to really enjoying the challenge of replicating our favorites, and sometimes even making a version my family likes better! Below, I am sharing one of my first attempts to copycat a dish. It's done a bit different than the original--and is a healthier version (even though the dish is far from healthy). My family loves this.

Cheese Fries -- Just like the ones from that greasy little sub shop down the street from us.

This place has the best cheese fries. They come in one of those small paper bags, and they drip with cheese sauce. You can eat them with your fingers, but they are much better eaten with a fork. My family loved these so much, I had to replicate the recipe. You can make these with a homemade cheddar sauce, but quite honestly, we love the gooey jarred/canned cheese in this dish! Feeds 8-10 people.

2 pkgs (4 lb) of thin frozen french fries
1/2 cup of oil
1 jar of cheddar cheese sauce*
1 cups of milk

Place fries in casserole dish. Pour oil over fries and toss with hands until coated. Cook at recommended temperature until cooked through and starting to crisp. I suggest stirring them 2-3 times during the cooking. When done, pour cheese sauce over fries. Place milk in jar and swish to get the rest of the sauce out, and pour it over the fries as well. Mix well with a spoon. Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes longer, or until hot and bubbly.

* You can substitute 1 jar of cheese whiz mixed with 1/2 cup of milk until it is smooth.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holiday Season Begins!

From all of us here at the Large Family Cooking Blog, and from the Family...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Monkey Bread

Monkey Bread is one of those dishes that is just so appropriately named. It is sweet, filling, and a lot of fun. We make monkey bread periodically at our house. I recently did a follow-up article on Monkey Bread for Lotsofkids, and it got me thinking that it had been some time since we'd enjoyed the tasty breakfast.

Many people like to make something special for the breakfast on a holiday. In our house, we love to make a variety of fresh muffins for Christmas morning. However, I have heard many people who make monkey bread for holiday mornings, including Thanksgiving. Since we are almost upon American Turkey Day, I thought it would be appropriate time our recent trip down monkey lane.

Traditionally, Monkey Bread is prepared in a bundt cake pan. I prefer to make it in a casserole dish. There are 2 reasons for this. First, the cooking time tends to be a bit quicker. Second, I like hot it allows each piece to brown and get a bit crisp on top.


2 cans of Jumbo biscuits
1/2 cup of sugar
1 tbsp cinnamon (more if you desire)
1 stick butter
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Step One: Cut each of the jumbo biscuits into 1/4ths.

Step Two: Mix sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Toss biscuits pieces in sugar mixture until well coated. Place piece in well greased casserole dish. Since this is "pull-apart" bread, you can pack the pieces in so they are touching.

Step Three: Melt butter (in microwave or on stovetop) and stir into the remaining sugar/cinnamon mixture. Spoon glaze over biscuit pieces. Top with nuts if you are using them. I put the nuts down after the glaze, since I have kids who don't like the nuts and it's easier for them to pick off that way. You can put the nuts down first and then the glaze so they "stick" better.

Step Four: Cook in 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes, or until done. When finished, the bread should be nicely brown on top.

Step Five: Serve! I highly recommend transferring the bread from the pan onto a serving platter. The sugar glaze will get hard when it cools and it can be difficult to get the bread out of the pan. I always remove the bread with a spatula and put it on a couple of platters.

This recipe feeds my family of 11 with a "few" leftover pieces.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Thanksgiving Cooking Roadmap

I’m a one-day cook. Meaning, on the holidays, I tend to do everything that day. I don’t do a lot of prep. Not because I don’t like to, but even with an additional refrigerator and deep freezer, I often don’t have the space to cook that much food in advance. Plus, I tend to forget things if I do them too far ahead of time.

A few years back, I was hosting a particularly large gathering for the holidays. Sick and tired of stressing over last minute flubs, I decided to make a schedule for the day. I plotted out my dinner, and then made a roadmap as to what needed to be done and when. I tried to be as nit-picky as possible, since it’s usually the little things that end up getting forgotten. I broke the schedule up into half hour increments, going to 15 minute increments closer to serving time. That ended up being the best holiday dinner, at least from a kitchen point of view. I knew what to do and when, and when someone came in and asked how they could help, all I had to do is point to the chart. My husband and family, who thrive on structure, loved it. Of course, they also loved the fact that I wasn’t nearly as cranky since things went much smoother.

I don’t know why I didn’t do the chart the following year...or every year since. Just too busy, I guess. When I think of all the mini-disasters I’ve had during the holidays since then, I realize that carving out the time to plan would have been well worth it. So, this year I decided I would make a schedule again. When I mentioned this idea on the Lotsofkids Household message board, the ladies were very excited at the prospect and asked me to share my schedule when it was done.

I purposely make quite a bit of food, since I always plan to send my guests home with a generous amount of leftovers. I also like having a fridge full of leftovers to coast us through the weekend (as well as having some food to tuck in the freezer for later meals). Thanksgiving is wonderful, but after all that cooking, I want to stay out of the kitchen for a few days.

When making a cooking schedule, it’s really is important to have your full menu in front of you. I find that one of my greatest time-savers is to pre-measure water for boiling pasta, potatoes, etc. earlier in the morning, and just leave the filled pots on the stovetop with a lid on (to keep anything from falling in). Then just turn the heat on at the appropriate time. Also, when figuring out what should occur at what time, take into account how much help you plan to have. On my chart you will see that at certain times there is a lot scheduled–almost too much. That’s because I know I will have helpers in the kitchen during that period, so 2-3 people will be able to handle various jobs. If you are flying solo, you should keep that in mind when pacing things out.

Like Denise noted in her post, this menu was created heavily utilizing what I had on hand and building around it. One of the ways I manage big holiday meals on a limited grocery budget is that I plan out the menu over a month in advance. Then, over the next few shopping trips, I pick up items for the dinner along with my regular shopping. This really helps, as I am not hit with the high cost of the holiday shopping all at once, but rather it is spread out.

Our Menu

Devilled Eggs
Cream Cheese Ball with crackers
Veggies & cheese cube tray with hummus dip

Turkey w/ Sausage-Apple Stuffing
Beef Roast
Mashed Potatoes and homemade gravy
Meatball Rotini Lasagna
Fried corn with bacon
Vegetable medley with homemade cheddar cream sauce
Homemade & canned cranberry sauce
Brown & serve rolls
Sweet Potatoes (being brought by a guest)

A couple of key notes. We do instant flavored mashed potatoes. I love fresh, but several of my kids with texture issues don’t. Also, I am utilizing boxed stuffing which will be dressed up; it will not be cooked in the turkey but rather baked in a casserole dish alongside. The mac&cheese will also be from a box. The bacon for the fried corn will be pre-cooked from the freezer.

Pecan pie
Banana split pie
Butter cookies
Other pies (to be brought by guests)

Again, I don’t do a lot of prep. The night before I will brine the turkey. I also plan to make the cookies a day or two before. Below is a picture of my schedule. You can click on the picture to view it in PDF format, or you can click HERE and a smaller, graphical version will open in a new window. I created the chart in Word. When I first did this years ago, I just made a straight typed list and every item was crossed-off as it was completed. I did the checkbox this year just to be fancy. If anyone has any questions, post in the comments.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fitting Thanksgiving into the budget

A few weeks ago, I worked up my menu for Thanksgiving, now I need to figure out how to do it all without breaking the budget. Like most families this year, my food budget has gotten much tighter. I've cut back a lot, but I'm trying not to be forced to drastically change our holiday menu. I've been trying to pick up a few things I will need each time I go shopping. Now that there are less than two weeks left before Thanksgiving, I need to get serious & make LISTS of what I've got & what things I still need. I also need to designate a few things that others can contribute to the meal. Anybody invited for Thanksgiving always offers to bring something. This year, I will be asking my daughter in law to bring a veggie tray and my Mom to make the pickle & olive tray. Anyone else who comes can bring an appetizer or extra pie of their choosing.

First, I "go shopping" in my pantry, refrigerator and spice cabinet. Next I check the sale papers & online specials for the three chain grocery stores in my area. I make it a rule not to drive more than 5 miles out of my way.

In the pantry I have:
canned cranberry sauce
canned sweet potatoes
miniature marshmallows
brown sugar
white sugar
flour for bread & pie crusts
shortening for pie crusts
vegetable oil
canned peaches for spiced peaches
french cut green beans
corn meal
canned pumpkin puree
canned evaporated milk

In the refrigerator I have:
4 lbs of butter (on sale last week for $2 per lb)
2 dozen eggs
10 lb spiral ham (on sale last week for $2 per lb)
can of whipped cream
bulk sausage
1lb of bacon
jar of yeast

In the spice cabinet I have:
cinnamon (lots & lots & lots of cinnamon)
poultry seasoning
whole cloves (for spiced peaches & the ham)
ground cloves
all spice

Grocery list:
Turkey (saw it on sale for .79 per lb)
4 loaves day old bread
2 gallons milk
2 lbs whole cranberries
2 lbs fresh sweet potatoes
10 lbs potatoes
2 lbs celery
3 lbs yellow onions
10 lbs apples
3 lbs frozen peaches (for pie)
2 cans cherry pie filling

Our tentative menu
Roasted turkey
Honey glazed ham
white bread stuffing
cornbread stuffing
mashed potatoes
giblet gravy
baked sweet potatoes
candied sweet potatoes w/marshmallows
sweet & sour green beans
canned cranberry sauce
homemade whole cranberry sauce
spiced peaches
veggie tray
pickle & olive tray
homemade bread rolls
2 homemade deep dish apple pies
2 homemade pumpkin pies
cherry pie
peach pie

The only thing I cut from the original menu was corn on the cob. I will be buying the turkey in the next few days. Frozen is always cheaper here, so I need to have enough time for it to defrost in the refrigerator. I will wait on everything else until about 2 days before. I'll also keep my list handy in case I think of anything that I've missed. I HATE being in the middle of preparing a big holiday meal & suddenly realizing that I'm missing an essential ingredient. By spreading out the purchase of the most expensive items and buying ingredients over the course of a month, I've been able to accumulate just about everything necessary. I've also come up with a plan to try to get everything on the table at the same time. I'm looking forward to having a GREAT holiday dinner with my family.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A bit of, kitchen cleaning.

At someone's request (thank, Kim), we've done a bit of tweaking on the blog. If you notice the sidebar, we've added a few new features. Noteably a feed and comments subscription, a way to search the blog by labels, and a link to our badges page where you can grab a button to show you're a fan of this blog.

We'd like to thank all of our readers. This blog has turned out to be much more popular than we hoped, and we're so happy to have you cooking with us!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

High expectations

I've seen it time and time again during my 10years online. Mothers bashing other moms because of what they create or not create in their kitchens. After all if it's not fresh, healthy, made from scratch and with tons of variety...You must not love your family very much. I know for myself I can even cause myself to fall into this trap. The media doesn't help either. How many commercials or shows feature that perfect meal made by the loving mom? Her love just pouring right out of everything on the table. But the kids don't care about any of that! They just want something they enjoy eating and filling.

Yesterday was one of those days that proved the last statement. According to my menu we were to have homemade bean and bacon soup with store bought french bread. (Maybe eventually I'll try to make it at home). Between running and putting away groceries the day just got away from me. So I was left with that dreaded question at 5pm...What's for dinner? I decided to go with quick. I defrosted a package of cocktail wieners that was in the freezer, put on a pan of water to make boxed mac and cheese and opened a few cans of corn. The reaction would've left you thinking I never feed these kids at all!!! They were clamoring for everything but especially the boxed mac and cheese and corn. I had to remind them that there were a lot of us and they couldn't take as much as they wanted. They must have used a fair amount of restraint since there was enough for them to come back for 2nds and 3rds...and they did! I heard...THANK YOU MOM!...a lot. Every dish was almost licked clean.

Some of my kids favorite meals are one dish wonders or convenience foods.....spanish rice, chicken and gravy over boxed mashed potatoes, cowboy beans, and spaghetti with canned sauce. The fact that it's not a masterpiece in presentation, isn't totally nutritionally rounded or I didn't spend hours preparing it doesn't lessen the taste of these. And it certainly doesn't mean I love my children less or that I'm less of a mother because I whole heartily serve these dishes...sometimes often! Give yourself and your fellow moms a break.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

October 2008 Kitchen Challenge Results!

The current Kitchen Challenge dared participants to create a full day of meals on $10 (for an average family) or $15 (for a 6+ people family). Full details on the challenge can be found here.

We had some great submissions, and were delighted to have a few international entries! Here is the rundown of submissions:

• Denise from *F*O*O*D*

• Jodie from HomeSweetHome

• Ranae at Cornbread and Cookies

• Lisa at The Joy of Six

• Sally/mini-mug's entry can be found here

• The Official LOK entry can be found on here

• Michelle at Coffee and Chaos

• Kim from Growlies for the Gang. -- Kim was a bit late, but she put a great twist on her entry. For anyone really struggling to see if they can feed a large family on less, this is a must-read.

And the winner is...

LISA at The Joy of Six. It was a hot competition. However, Lisa made an effort to do a balanced, 5-a-day, type menu. I think there is a perception that you cannot be frugal grocery-wise and still eat healthy. I this Lisa's entry shows that eating on a tight budget does not necessarily mean you'll be eating non-nutritious food.

I do want to state that it was a close race, and Jodie's entry was a close runner-up. We loved the cultural lesson with the entry!

I wanted to also give a special nod to the official LOK entry. This was an entry I came up with, but I got so much feedback about people wanting to try the taquitos, so apparently it was a hit with our readers.

Congratulations to all that played! Lisa will be getting a cute badge to put on her blog. Our next Challenge will be in December, though because of the holiday, we are considering a mid-month start (mid-November, to mid-December). Stay tuned for more details.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Getting READY for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays in my family. I cook a ton of foods that most everybody likes, we eat way too much & we watch football all day on TV. This is the one meal of the year where I go out of my way to make sure that everyone gets several of their personal favorites, even when it means making more than one version of the same dish. This year I will plan to feed 25 people. Our immediate family is 11, then whomever Hubby & the older boys invite and any extended family that is able to get here. I have an open door policy on Thanksgiving, anyone we know is welcome to come. Last year we had a 15 lb turkey and a 5 lb ham & there were very few leftovers, so this year I plan to buy a 20 lb turkey. We always get a spiral ham, so I'll see if I can find one of those that is a bit bigger this year as well.

Our tentative menu

Baked turkey

Honey glazed ham

white bread stuffing

cornbread stuffing

mashed potatoes

giblet gravy

baked sweet potatoes

candied sweet potatoes w/marshmallows

sweet & sour green beans

canned cranberry jell

homemade whole cranberry sauce

spiced peaches

corn on the cob

veggie tray

pickle & olive tray

homemade bread rolls

2 homemade deep dish apple pies

2 homemade pumpkin pies

cherry pie

peach pie

Over the next couple weeks leading up to Thanksgiving I will be posting recipes for many of these things on my food blog. Leave a comment here if there is something in particular you are interested in & I will try to bump it to the top of my list. I'll update with links as I get the recipes posted.