Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Quick Eats

This post might be a no-brainer, but bear with me here. I am reading more and more in the news about how eating out hits your pocketbook. I have to laugh, because anyone with a large family (and a good deal of small families too) know this. However, the bottom line is that the drive-thru is still a convenience many people turn to and it can truly derail a budget. There are ways to eat-out cheaply, but when money is particularly tight, avoiding McDonald's is an absolute must.

One of the ways to quell the temptation to order pizza is to keep a few quick meals on hand for those times when you are just too busy or tired to make a full meal. You will hear a lot of moms talk about the virtue of cooking from scratch, and I'm all for that. But there is something to be said about convenience foods as an alternative to eating out. If you are tempted to go pick up burgers, a better alternative is to have a few cans of chili on hand and a box of instant rice. In 10 minutes you can have a meal, and even paying the higher cost of the convenience fare, it will still be far less money than hot dogs and fries at the greasy spoon down the street.

When I make my menu plan, I always work in 2 quick meals that are not in the actual plan, but are stand-bys for the nights when I am just too tired to do what's on the chart. The quick meals can vary depending on what I have on hand and what's on sale, but here are a few of our staples:

Nachos -- This one is a family favorite and super easy. A couple of bags of tortilla chips, a jar of cheddar cheese sauce (or shredded cheddar from the fridge), 2 cans of refried beans, sour cream, and a jar of salsa--you're good to go. You can add frozen taco meat from the freezer, or even canned chicken. I love to make a quick batch of guacamole and add some sliced black olives.

Baked Potatoes -- We do meatless a few times a week, and a "baked potato bar" is an inexpensive and relatively quick meal. Granted, the pots need to cook for about an hour, but prep is simply washing the spuds and wrapping them in foil before popping in the oven. As for toppings, be creative. This is a great way to use leftovers. Aside from the traditional toppings, consider using alfredo sauce and some diced chicken, steak or Worchestershire sauce, cooked veggies, or beef stew. When my kids want a little more than just baked pots, I open a few cans of soup to have on the side. A good tip is to make a few extra pots and freeze them for future lunches, or to use in other dishes like the burritos I talk about here.

DIY Noodles -- This idea actually came from a great Italian restaurant near our home. They had a build-your-own-pasta night, where they would have platters of different type of pasta, a myriad of sauces, cheeses and toppings, and a chef would cook it all up for you right on the spot. While we don't get that extravagant, noodle night is a huge hit in our house. Simply make a big pot of egg noodles, spaghetti, or even ramen noodles. Open a few jars of sauce, pull out some toppings of choice (again a good way to use leftovers), and have everyone create their own dish. Some of my kids go the traditional spaghetti sauce route. My husband loves a big bowl with butter and a healthy topping of garlic powder. I'll often make a white sauce and throw in some veggies. Either way, it's also a way to allow everyone to have what they want, without making 10 separate meals.

Frozen Pizza -- Take out pizza for our household of 11 can cost anywhere from $40 to $70! Even in times of plenty, that was only an occasional treat. Homemade pizza is oftentimes far superior, but on those nights you need to eat quick, that can just be too much. Frozen pizza is a great alternative. You can usually pick up Jack's pizza or equivalent for very reasonable. If you keep your eye open for sales, you can even grab Tombstone and other "deluxe" brands for cheap. I oftentimes buy just cheese and then dress them up myself. Some shredded chicken from the freezer mixed with alfredo sauce (you can used canned chicken) spread on the top. Or bacon and chopped onion. BBQ chicken. Taco meat and black olives. Pick up a few packages of shredded cheese to sprinkle over the toppings. Cook until bubbly and enjoy! A quick eat that is delicious, and even with the cost of the extras, still far less expensive than take-out.

Whatever you decide as the quick-eats for your home, the key is to make sure you have the ingredients on hand so you can make these dishes when you need them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Potato Soup

This is a great winter comfort food. It is quick and easy whether you are making it to feed just a few people or a crowd. The basic recipe feeds about 4.

  • Ingredients
    6 medium peeled potatoes cut into cubes
    1/2 yellow onion diced
    1 stalk celery diced
    4 strips bacon diced
    1 can yellow corn (drained)
    2 cups milk
Put the potatoes in a small stock pot and cover with water, cook until fork tender. While the potatoes are cooking, fry the diced bacon, then set aside to drain. Fry the onion and celery in the bacon grease. When the potatoes are done, do NOT drain, add milk, onion, celery, bacon and corn to potatoes. Cook an additional 10 minutes to incorporate all flavors, then serve with fresh baked biscuits.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Shopping on a budget for a Large Family

I am no expert shopper, but I do have a few tricks that I thought I would share. Using a weekly menu plan has made getting dinner on the table every night much easier, but unlike many people, I do not shop from my menu. I do my shopping FIRST and then write a menu based on what I have in the house. I also give myself permission to juggle the nights on my menu to fit our day to day needs.

I do not get the newspaper, but I keep the coupons that I get at the checkout and I use shortcuts.com and P & G esavers.com to get online coupons downloaded directly to my Kroger Plus card. The advantage to this for me is that I don't buy things just because I've got a coupon and it comes off my total automatically when I check out without having to remember to actually bring any coupons to the store and give them to the checker.

There are certain products I will only buy if they are on sale, things like boxed mac & cheese, boxed rice mixes & other convenience foods that I can do without if we run out between sales. Once a month, I also stock up on whatever dessert things are on sale, sometimes it is cake mixes, other times it is pudding. I like to keep things like that on hand in the pantry, it has helped me to avoid going out & splurging on sweets when a sweet tooth hits the house. I also keep white rice, flour, yeast, baking soda and baking powder well stocked, buying more whenever it is on sale whether I'm running low or not.

I check unit prices on all packaged foods I buy. Sometimes the bulk packages are the best deal, but I often find it is cheaper to buy several small packages than it is to buy the biggest size. The grocery store I shop at has unit prices on the shelves, they sometimes try to be tricky by using cost per ounce on some packages versus cost per serving on others. You have to be alert to those types of tricks. I also avoid picking things up from the end caps, if it is something I need, I go to the section it is in to compare it to the other package sizes available.

I generally buy meat twice a month, concentrating on what is on sale. Usually, if beef is on sale at the beginning of the month, chicken will be on sale in the middle of the month, so I buy a LOT of whatever is on sale. Recently, I've also bought meat that is on clearance, I cook it right away & have gotten some pretty expensive cuts of beef for less than half the original price. Once the meat is cooked, you can freeze it for longer than uncooked meat. I'm hoping to buy an upright freezer in the next few months to be able to really take advantage of good sales. I'm looking on craig's list for one and I've also been pricing new ones at Home Depot and Lowes.

Other than apples, bananas and potatoes, I don't buy a lot of fresh produce in the winter, it is too expensive and really doesn't seem worth the money. Instead, I stock up on canned veggies and fruits along with whatever frozen fruits and veggies are on sale. I don't buy any veggies that come in a sauce or fruits in syrup.

I am not good at budgeting, so I try to pay all my bills first and buy groceries with whatever I have left. This way if we are having a good month I have extra money to stock up and if we are having a tight month I can rely on my pantry, just buying the absolute essentials.

I have three personal rules that I have been trying to stick to when it comes to grocery shopping:

  1. Don't shop hungry
  2. Don't shop tired or distracted
  3. Don't go to the grocery store more than once per week (trying for every other week, but not there yet).

I know this method won't work for everyone, but I hope you take something from this that will be helpful, it has taken me 20 years to figure out what works for me.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cooking with a bug in mind

It's a sure menu buster...a stomach bug running through the house. And this time of the year is prime time for it. I don't know about anyone else but around here as soon as someone starts vomiting...the menu goes out the window. There are SO many things that I don't trust in tummies that may not continue to hold it's contents. You can't selectively feed the meals you'd planned. Someone who seems perfectly fine this minute may be the one with a bucket in hand the next.

So what to do? One of the first things is to cut the three C's...Crunchy, chewy and chunky. Out goes the popcorn, hot dogs and spaghetti. In goes the light soups, mashed potatoes, sandwiches and cereal. Dairy heavy dishes are out too, although cereal is the exception here. I also try to stay away from family favorites, even if they don't fall into the three C's and are deemed "safe". This is based solely on my personal experience of banning canned raviolis from my presence for over 25yrs after my first case of carsickness when I was tween. I'd hate to have one of our loved meals suddenly become something they loathe. One of the best things to serve is breakfast for dinner...pancakes, french toast, waffles (breaking the dairy rule and served toped with ice cream) oatmeal, homefries, scrambled eggs. Just steer clear from the greasy stuff like sausage and bacon. :o(

We can't forget the kids who are sick. Our main food of choice once someone's become a vicitm of the bug is...soda!!! Mostly it's lemon-lime and ginger ale. I know some people swear by cola and as a kid I was given cola syrup as a tummy calmer (used to be bought over the counter but had to get it from the pharmacist) but I prefer the clear non staining varieties. I don't do juices like some doctor's suggest because my kids are sensitive to them. It tends to give my younger kids diarrhea and a rash. It's also good to make sure the freezer has popsicles and the fridge has jello (which means mom has to have her act together and remembers to make it).

Once the bug starts to let up we start trying to add solids...bananas, applesauce, toast of the BRAT diet doctors recommend. I don't include rice in there as I consider it something chunky. We also add back in the good bacteria with yogurt.

I probably should've listened to my own advice and not served the BBQ cocktail weenies for dinner last night. And now I'll have to go to the store and stock up on some of the above mentioned things. Hopefully the deviation from OUR menu plan is short and painless.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Cooking into the New Year

With food prices still risings and the economy limping along, it's with a hesitant hope that we go into the new year. All of the bloggers and staff of Large Family Cooking and Lotsofkids.com wish you and your family a healthy and happy New Year. Here's to hoping the 2009 brings better things for our country, our world, and each other. In the meantime, we'll continue to be here, sharing our cooking inspiration and ways to feed your family on a budget. We hope you'll continue to visit!