Monday, October 31, 2011

Challenge Day 4 Report - Cooking

I mentioned yesterday that I would talk more about how to figure out what to cook and eat.

We didn't always eat like we do now. I used to cook in restaurants, I have always liked to cook, but it was a process to get to this point. I cook like this even when we have more money - I just buy more seafood, better meat, produce from local growers. I am frugal by nature and enjoy "the hunt" for food bargains and new recipes. You do not need to be on food stamps to cook better food for less money.

When my DD18 was younger, one of her favorite meals was chicken breasts cooked in canned Campbell's Cream of Chicken soup, over rice. As we started cooking as a family, she later learned to make better sauces from scratch, and is famous for her sage-flavored chicken gravy. We ate more processed food, more take-out, baked more sweets. I didn't know how to cook cabbage, and didn't think I liked onions or potatoes very much. We ate a lot more beef and chicken breast, fewer veggies. Comfort food from my childhood was Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Chef Boy-Ar-Dee canned ravioli.

When SO went back to college, and then grad school, it became my job to figure out how we could live on less money. I switched from flower gardening to vegetable gardening. I started cooking from scratch more, learning to grow some, learning to can, exploring new places to shop. I started reading about building a pantry, trying to eat more whole food, and looking for more local food. I joined the "prepper" movement. When we had to move in with my ailing mother, it become even more important.

When you need to cook frugally, you (and a lot of nutrition experts) wish that you could plan a cheap, nutritious, easy-to-prepare meal and have the whole family eat it. I laugh! At one point, I had a child with an OCD eating disorder, a teen that suddenly became vegetarian, a meat-and-potato man that wanted to eat later than everyone else, a dementia patient who forgot what she like to eat. And me - I have my own strong food likes and dislikes, too. That's what families are like.

If you are not already an experienced frugal cook, there is a process to becoming one.

Think about your needs. Who do you need to feed, when, and what are their special needs? What foods will everyone eat? What favorite foods does each person need in order to feel OK? We all drink tea, for instance. What foods and beverages do you eat now that you will not able to afford on food stamps? What can you substitute? We stopped buying tea in dairy jugs and brewed our own. If you have family members with serious fast food habits, or who are picky about brand names - they will need to make some changes. Try asking them to cut down to one fast food visit per week. See if the brand-eater will help you evaluate different store brand foods.

Keep a shopping and cooking diary for a week or two. Look for clues. What do you already eat that is cheap, filling, and at least somewhat healthy. Build on it. What consumes the most money? Work on replacing those things. If you eat a lot of snack food, find less expensive sources, learn to make some of your own, find new things that cost less. If you buy a lot of bottled beverages, start carrying a reusable water bottle. We only beverage we regularly buy in bottles is milk. If you are fond of name brands, shop the private-label discount stores and try their brands - they are often made by the brand-name manufacturers. If you normally prepare packaged food, choice a favorite and learn to make it from scratch. You never need to buy Hamburger Helper once you figure out a few things.

Assess your cooking skills. You need to get some basic scratch cooking skills to make this work. There is plenty of help online. Plenty of basic cookbooks at book sales and in libraries. Try Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Or find a friend to show you some basic techniques. Anyone can make oatmeal, fry potatoes, bake chicken. Involve all the family members. Maybe it becomes one person's job to bake, someone else makes soup on a regular basis. SO makes big batches of pasta sauce, and I can it. He also makes good meatloaf and brownies. DD15 is a competent baker and pizza maker. DD18 makes great curries, roast vegetable pasta dishes, pan gravy.

Gather resources. Start bookmarking websites with a focus on frugal cooking. Figure out how to get all the local grocery store ads online. Start a family recipe collection. I use the recipe website, where I have over 800 recipes, and I have more than a 1000 more bookmarks saved to review and add. Collect your cookbooks onto a shelf.

I have a binder in my kitchen, where I have printed out my most frequently used recipes and put them in plastic sheet protectors. If my power goes out, if I can't pay my internet bill - I can still get to my recipes. This is a great family project. Collect recipes from your parents and grandparents. Encourage your kids to find recipes on TV, in magazines - have them learn to politely ask for a recipe if they eat something they like at a friend's house.

Experiment with various food trends. You don't have to feel like Food Stamps control your eating all the time. You can learn to make bread or pizza dough because it's relaxing. Or feel good about mastering a new cooking technique from Food Network. Or enjoy the "hunt" for the best deals when you go shopping. If you add something new, especially as a family activity, there is less focus on what you can no longer afford to eat. Try Fondue Night. Try Family Cooking night where each person makes part of the meal. Bake you own Cheez-its. Learn to make jam.

I also can jam, pickles, chutney, and no-extra-sugar fruit sauces in the summer, to use on yogurt, oatmeal, and ice cream. I grow basil and make pesto to freeze into cubes, grow mint for tea. I grow and dry herbs: thyme, sage, rosemary. But that stuff is not required to make it on food stamps. Not everyone gardens or cans stuff. I just like it.

You need to start identifying go-to meals that you can afford, cook easily, and that most people will eat all or some of the food. Some of our go-to meals:

hot cereal with fruit and yogurt
eggs, fried potatoes, toast, piece of fruit omelets with ham chunks, thyme, and cheese
homemade waffles, pancakes, or french toast bread pudding from day-old bread
cereal and milk with a banana a bagel with cream cheese and a piece of fruit
a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread
on weekends we make bacon or sausage, if we have it
dinner leftovers
homemade soup grilled cheese
sandwiches out of leftover meat homemade pizza canned chicken noodle soup for DD15 PB and homemade jam on raisin bread toast for Grandma DD15 makes pizza from dough we buy, homemade sauce
Dinner - the meal your family is most likely to eat together.

Master the protein, veggie, starch combo with go-to recipes
protein - eggs, roast chicken/turkey, pulled pork, seared shrimp, sausage, pork chops
veggies - steamed broccoli, sauteed cabbage/onions, cauliflower, brussels
starch - mashed or fried potatoes, sauced pasta, beans, stuffing, potato
chicken, shrimp, or pork on a bed of ceasar salad with potato or pasta side
Pasta hash of leftover meat, red sauce, vegetables, pesto, cheese
Asian thing with leftover meat, vegetables, rice and favorite Asian sauces
Texmex with refried beans, meat, cheese, toppings in burritos or over tortilla chips Country pork ribs in crockpot with spicy BBQ bean sauce over mashed
curried meat and veg over rice
Spanish potato tortilla
Quesadillas, Burritos, Enchiladas - you can put anything in there
pasta with sauce and sausage or chicken
potato soup with kielbasi
pasta bake full of chicken bits, spinach or broccoli, pesto Alfredo sauce
meat with tortellini and pesto sauce
summer melon and sweet corn with anything grilled
chili, sometimes over fried potatoes or rice, with corn bread
SO's meatloaf with baked mac-n-cheese
I often make batches of staple foods we can have on hand and combine in a lot of ways. If I make rice or pasta, I cook extra and out it in the fridge for another meal. I make my own hummus, pizza sauce, pasta sauce, alfredo sauce, chicken or pork stock, taco seasoning mix, baking mix, house seasoning. In the crockpot, I make refried beans, bean soup, pea soup, pulled pork, whole chickens.

I often look for a good deal on a large piece of meat: a whole chicken or turkey, bulk chicken thighs, a pork roast, a ham. Then I cook it, and we eat part for the first meal. I turn the rest into smaller bits and make 2-3 more meals from it. Combine it with veggies, some sort of starch (rice, pasta, beans, potatoes, grits) and some kind of sauce (asian, italian, texmex, etc). Or put it in pan sauce and ladle it over mashed taters. Add salad if there is not enough green in it. Divide a whole cantalope between four of us, if it is in season. The leftover meat can also become sandwiches, quesadillas, or burrito filling.

After I am done with the busy blogging of the Food Challenge I will assemble a list of links to my go-to recipes.


Sunday was another day where people ate separately. I woke up late, made a pan of gingerbread to take to lunch at a friend's house, and spent most of the afternoon grocery shopping. My mother had her usual late morning oatmeal, and then my brother took her to his house until after dinner. DD15 ate cereal and went to work. SO was the only one home all day, and he made his own breakfast and lunch.

I will try to find time to talk about the grocery shopping, and some of the shopping decisions I made. But it's hard to find time to blog your cooking and eating in such detail!

I made us dinner. It only took about 15 minutes, and would not have taken much more time to make it for more people. Took apart one of those leftover chicken legs and heated the pulled meat in a pan with a bit of onion gravy, some taco seasoning, a little salsa. I made quesadillas (photo at the top) by putting fajita-size flour tortillas in a dry pan, sprinkling with grated cheddar, putting some of that saucy meat on one side, and heating until the cheese melts - then you fold over the tortilla. Each one takes only a few minutes, and there is soon a little pile of them. I served them with sour cream. Made a Caesar salad. Refrigerated Caesar dressing is one of the things I splurge on. I get Marie's or Marzetti on sale, or Walmart's version. I buy croutons at the liquidator for .50-.75 a bag. I usually add a little extra Parmesan and cracked black pepper. Makes a great bed for grilled meat or shrimp, or an appetizer/side.

I used the last of the taco seasoning, so I mixed up a new batch. I used this recipe, x4, to make two jars that will last a few months. I also frequently mix house seasoning: 4 parts kosher salt, one part ground black pepper, one part granulated garlic. I sprinkle that on potatoes and veggies when I saute, on meat before I roast or bake. I also regularly mix sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on hot cereal and toast.

SO $2.50 = cream of wheat (.22), fried rice with egg (.08), greek yogurt (.75), chicken quesadillas with sour cream (.80), ceasar salad (.55)

DD15 $3.97 = cereal and milk (.33), fast food at work (3.14), pretzels (.50)

Grandma $0.62 = oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and banana (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), tea x3 (.12)

Me $1.20 = hot cocoa (.25), pan of gingerbread (.30), quesadilla (.20), frozen yogurt cup (.45)

Total for the Day: $6.29

Notice, half of that was DD15's fast food. And two of us had meals that other people cooked. You aren't supposed to do that during challenge week, but it's artificial. Everyone sees other people, and entertains other people.

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