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.


Mom to Many said...

I just asked my 7 year old if can remember ever eating in a restaurant and he says he can't remember. He has eaten at places with dollar menus, but not much.

It's interesting to see what has happened to our habits as our family has grown in numbers. Early in the game our kids ate at sit down places and remember it well. But, as our numbers have attitudes have changed.

Now 5.00 Little Caesars pizza is a rare occasion.

Needs have become much better defined and many wants are put off.

I am thinking I'll make and freeze pizza crust for that next urge.