Posts filed under ‘Food Costs and Budgeting’

Frugal Friday: Bakery-Style Breakfast from the Freezer

Lemon Blueberry Muffins

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been obsessed with building menus that will help me stock my freezer with quick meals when I don’t have time to cook. And while I’ve been largely focused on main dishes for dinners, I’ve also been taking the time to fill the freezer with easy and healthy breakfasts. Breakfast is sometimes our Achilles heel because:

  • It can get lost in the weekday morning fray. I love (and I mean love with a passion) to sleep, so I tend to want to stay in bed as long as possible on any given day. During the week this means there isn’t a lot of wiggle room in our morning routine. One little thing like a too-long shower, a forgotten homework crisis, or a missing favorite shirt can mean I barely get everyone out the door on time.
  • We get tired of the same old options. Toast and cereal only go so far, and if those are our main choices for too many mornings running everyone gets tired of them. I try to mix it up a bit with bagels and English muffins, but in the end those can get old as well. Even when there is time for breakfast (but not enough for me to cook eggs, bacon, or pancakes) the options aren’t always appealing.

When we don’t eat breakfast at home, some or all of us sacrifice a healthy breakfast. From a kid perspective that means grabbing breakfast at school, which can be fun every now and again. For the adults, it means grabbing fast food or a muffin at the local bakery. The costs (and calories) can add up quickly. While there are plenty of frozen breakfast options at the grocery store, they aren’t inexpensive and the ingredient lists aren’t necessarily inspiring.

As part of my freezer filling fun, I’ve been stocking up on breakfast foods as well. Waffles are a family favorite. I make extras on the weekends and freeze them individually. A quick toss into the toaster and they are ready. It’s much less expensive than buying Eggo or even store brand waffles, and I know exactly what is in them.And while waffles are great, my favorite freezer-friendly breakfast is muffins.

I used to make muffins from a boxed mix, but I became concerned about the processed ingredients and the cost. Also, when I make muffins at home, I can use fresh fruit and even sneak in a bit of whole wheat flour or wheat germ to up the nutritional count. I’ve tried a variety of muffins and some freeze better than others. After much experimentation, a Lemon Blueberry Muffin recipe from My Recipes has proven to be the best option. The muffins are low in calories and fat, and the recipe is a great base for many variations on a theme. I’ve made the muffins with orange and blackberry and even lime and raspberry. When peaches are in season I’m going to try those as well. To make these freezer-friendly I:

  • Double or even triple the recipe.
  • Skip the glaze because it doesn’t freeze well.
  • Use my food processor to cut the butter into the flour to speed up the mixing process.
  • Make the muffins with whatever berries are in season so the price is lower and the fruit is sweeter.
  • Wrap them individually in sheets of aluminum foil (I buy the pre-cut boxes of foil at SAMs) and freeze them in a zip-top bag.

To warm a muffin, heat it still wrapped in foil in a 425 degree oven for 20 minutes. Sometimes I’ll toss a muffin into the oven right when I turn it on and then heat it for 25 minutes or so. Muffins are imminently portable, so I can set them to reheat in the midst of our morning routine and everyone can take them to go as they are on their way to work or school.

April 2, 2010 at 6:07 pm Leave a comment

Frugal Friday: Feeding a Crowd

I love to entertain, but the cost of a good party can add up quickly if I don’t plan carefully. I have a few tactics that I use to throw great parties on a budget that don’t feel like they are on a budget:

  • Mix inexpensive bulk foods with a few special treats. A couple of loaves of bread served with butter, chips and interesting styles of salsa, flavored popcorn, and homemade party mix made with store-brand ingredients will fill out a table without breaking the bank. When I put together a party menu, I always include two or three of these filler foods and I find it really helps keep me within my budget.
  • Shop in season. A veggie platter can get expensive quickly if the ingredients are coming from all over the world. When I choose vegetables that are in season, they aren’t just less expensive, they taste better too. Epicurious has a great interactive map for finding out what is in season in your area of the country.
  • Buy in bulk. While I don’t regularly buy a lot of food items in bulk because I worry about both storage and using them up in a reasonable amount of time, my local warehouse club is my first stop when I’m shopping for a party. In particular, I’ve found that cheese, bread, meats, and wine are all much less expensive. My local SAMs Club has a great selection of cheeses that go beyond the typical cheddar, including creamy brie and a mellow manchego. They also carry a nicely priced prosciutto which I wrap around breadsticks for a fun appetizer, and their six-packs of bread are great with olive oil as a bulk menu item. Before I started shopping at SAMs for parties, I made a special scouting trip to see what they had to offer and to jot down the prices so I would be able to compare them to prices at my local grocery store.
  • Plan the menu in advance and shop the sales. Unless I’m throwing a small dinner party or impromptu get-together, I try to plan the menus for my parties at least 3 weeks in advance. This not only helps me spread my prep work out over several days, but I can create a master grocery list and shop for ingredients on sale in the couple of weeks before the party. This works particularly well for more expensive ingredients that hold well like meats and even specialty crackers. By shopping over a few weeks, I can also spread out the impact of the party on my budget.
  • Ask for contributions. Without fail, every time I throw a party, most if not all of the guests ask me if they can bring something. I used to say no because I really love putting all of the food together myself, but I realized that it also meant I was carrying the full burden of the party’s cost myself. Now I decide which menu items I really want to make myself and which I can assign to those who volunteer. I’ve found that people like a bit of direction because they want their contribution to fit with the rest of the party. I’m not afraid to ask someone to bring a specific type of dish, like a green vegetable or a chocolate dessert, and I’ve even asked friends who don’t like to cook to pick up bread and oil or a bottle of wine. When I know I’m going to ask for help, I try to create a food theme so it’s easy for guests to find a dish. One of my favorite themes is the Italian-Style Big Night party. I make a couple or three pans of lasagna and ask friends to bring salad, dessert, wine, and bread. If I’m making several pans I buy all of the ingredients in bulk. I particularly like my lasagna recipe because it freezes beautifully so I can make it in advance. It also cooks wonderfully in a crockpot and pepperoni is a real surprise for guests.

What are your favorite tips for entertaining on a budget? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Recipe: Fast or Slow Pizza Lasagna


  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Serves: 8
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 30 minutes or all day


  • 1 box no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 2 jars of your favorite red pasta sauce
  • 1 8 oz. bag mozzarella or Italian blended shredded cheese
  • 1 package pepperoni slices
  • 1 8 oz. tub ricotta cheese



  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Pour ½ cup of the pasta sauce into a 9 x 13 baking dish and spread evenly.
  • Evenly layer ¼ of the pepperoni slices on top of the sauce, leaving some space between each one.
  • Lay out lasagna noodles so that they are completely covering the bottom of the dish in a slightly overlapping single layer, breaking the noodles to make them fit if necessary.
  • Pour another ¼ to ½ cup of pasta sauce over the noodles and spread evenly with a spatula.
  • Smear in a 1/3 of the ricotta in an even layer on top of the sauce.
  • Spread another ¼ of the bag of pepperoni evenly atop the cheese and top with a 1/3 of the bag of shredded mozzarella.
  • Pour another ¼ to ½ cup of pasta sauce and spread with a spatula.
  • Top the sauce with the noodles, the noodles with the ricotta, the ricotta with the pepperoni, and the pepperoni with the mozzarella. Repeat until you are out of your ingredients, or out of room in the pan, finishing with a final layer of red pasta sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese.
  • Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the noodles are soft and the cheese is golden brown.
  • Let rest 2-5 minutes before cutting to let the sauce stop boiling and soak back into the noodles. You can also cool the lasagna completely, cut into portions, wrap tightly in foil, and freeze.


  • Follow the same directions as above, but instead of stacking everything into a 9 x 13 pan, layer the entire dish into your crock pot.
  • Cook on low with the lid on for 3-4 hours and enjoy.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • You can reduce calories in this dish by using the low-fat versions of the cheese and pepperoni ingredients, and even add more fiber with whole wheat pasta. I use the turkey pepperoni and a chunky garden style pasta sauce to slip some veggies in there.
  • You can mix some cooked Italian sausage (sliced or crumbled) in with the pepperoni for another take on pizza lasagna.
  • If you are planning on freezing the dish to reheat later, make the lasagna a little wetter by upping the amount of sauce you put into the layers. Most reheating methods rob the food of its moisture, so if you make it saucier when you start, it will be perfect when you reheat it!

March 19, 2010 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment

Frugal Friday: The Magical Roast Chicken

Whole chickens are about the least expensive meat per pound that you can buy, particularly when they are on sale. When whole chicken shows up on sale my store circular, I stock up! Not only does my family enjoy a roast chicken on a Sunday, roasted chicken meat has so many applications throughout the week:

  • Tossed with cooked pasta, steamed veggies, and a little parmesan cheese for a quick lunch or dinner.
  • In homemade chicken salad. My favorite light recipe includes Greek yogurt, grapes, and walnuts.
  • With some cheese in a tortilla for a tasty quesadilla.
  • In a pita or wrap with blue cheese, a chopped apple, and some greens.

Many weeks I’ll roast a couple of chickens at the same time so that I have plenty of leftover meat.

Of course a dry, flavorless chicken isn’t useful in any application, so I think it’s worthwhile to spend a little bit of time prepping the chicken so it’s juice and full of flavor when it comes out of the oven. I also make a tasty gravy to serve with the whole roast chicken. For a really tasty and frugal leftover lunch, top a piece of toast with some warm chicken and gravy.

Recipe: Whole Roast Chicken


  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Serves: 4
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 40-50 minutes


  • 1 whole roasting chicken
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, chopped
  • 1 rib celery, chopped
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Butcher’s twine (optional)


  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Season the chicken evenly outside and in the cavity with salt and pepper then spread the garlic evenly over the chicken.
  3. Put the bay leaf, onion, carrot and celery into the bottom of a roasting pan.
  4. Put a rack in a roasting pan on top of the vegetables to keep the chicken out of its own drippings.
  5. Place the bird breast-side down and place the pan in the oven.
  6. Roast for 20 minutes and then flip the chicken over for the rest of the cooking time. The chicken is done with an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees.
  7. Remove the rack with the bird still on it from the roasting pan and set it over a cutting board or shallow dish to catch any stray drippings. Let the chicken rest while you make the natural gravy.
  8. Drain excess fat from the roasting pan and pour the white wine over the vegetables. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up all of the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
  9. Turn two of your stove burners on medium-high and place the roasting pan so it covers both burners. Bring the liquid in the pan to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, reduce the liquids until they are thickened, about 5 minutes.
  10. Add the chicken stock and thyme sprigs to the pan and reduce for a few more minutes until thickened. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
  11. Pour the liquid and vegetables from the pan into a strainer set over a medium mixing bowl to remove the solids from the gravy.
  12. Serve the chicken with the strained gravy.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • If you want, you can truss the bird to so it cooks more evenly. To truss the chicken:
    • Cut about a 3-foot length of heatproof butcher’s twine.
    • Lay the chicken on a clean surface with the breast facing up.
    • Hold one end of the string in each hand, and loop the center of the string underneath the chicken’s tail.
    • Catch the ends of the legs inside the string, then cross the string over the chicken’s breast, making an X. Loop the string under and around the wings, and then tie the string snugly in a knot across the middle of the breast.
    • Make sure that the ends of the wings are tucked in.
    • This video outlines the trussing process nicely.
  • Invest in a meat thermometer to be sure that you are cooking your poultry thoroughly. Cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, tested by inserting the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh.
  • Even if you don’t make the gravy, be sure to let the chicken rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting into it. This break between oven and plate lets the juices in the chicken redistribute throughout the chicken.

February 26, 2010 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Frugal Friday: Making My Own Bread

Home Made Whole Wheat Bread

This year I took on a new personal challenge: baking the majority of the bread my family eats in a given week. It’s been an interesting learning experience thus far and I’m glad that I decided to do it. I decided to embark on this adventure for a variety of reasons. When I make my own bread I can:

  • Save money The total price tag for the ingredients that go into a loaf of bread is lower than the actual price of a loaf of bread, particularly when it comes to buying interesting breads like artisan loaves and brioche rolls. To reduce my costs even further, I keep an eye out for flours and other bread ingredients and buy them in bulk when they go on sale. I have a collection of inexpensive storage bins that I bought at an office supply store that keep the ingredients fresh for many months and a bay leaf or two in my flour keeps the bugs away.
  • Reduce waste. We don’t always need 20 dinner rolls or even 8 hamburger or hot dog buns, but when I buy pre-made bread we’re stuck with what’s in the package. I try to be smart about using leftover bread for bread crumbs, croutons, French toast, and other applications, but sometimes I really just want 4 buns. When I make the bread, I can easily control the quantity I make.
  • Know what’s in my family’s food. I carefully read the label of every pre-made and packaged food that I buy, and you’d be amazed at how many bread products include corn syrup, dyes, and preservatives in their ingredient lists. The best way I know to be sure my family eats whole and natural foods is to combine whole and natural ingredients myself. When I make the bread, I know exactly what’s in it.

However, adding bread baking to a busy family schedule isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do. After all, it takes time to make, knead, form, and rest bread, and the dough typically doesn’t last for long. It was the time commitment that really kept me from taking up bread baking. Last year I started to hear about a book called Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes at Day. I paid attention to what bloggers were saying about the book and added the authors’ site to my feed reader because, honestly, I felt like great bread in 5 minutes a day seemed too good to be true. It seemed that many folks were enjoying this method and found success with it. I still didn’t run out and buy the book because my family has been focused for a while on eating more whole grains and moving away from white flour, and many of the recipes were for white bread. I was excited when I found out that the authors were publishing a second book, Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, and I pre-ordered a copy. I’m happy to report that I’ve made several batches of dough, and while I need to practice my dough shaping skills, I’ve been very pleased with the results.

The general premise of the authors’ approach to bread baking is that you make a no-knead dough that will hold for 5-10 days in the refrigerator. On the days you want to make bread, you spend 5 minutes shaping it, let it rest, and then bake it off. All of the dough I’ve made thus far really did take less than 5 minutes to put together, largely due to not having to knead them, and I’ve been able to shape basic loaves together in 5-7 minutes. With more practice I expect to be even quicker. Stuffed breads and cinnamon rolls have taken longer, but not much. I’ve experimented with whole wheat flour and white whole wheat flour, and found that my family really likes the results. The favorite breads thus far have been the homemade hamburger buns, the cinnamon rolls, and the cranberry challa. Here are a few pictures of the bread I’ve been particularly happy with.

Homemade whole wheat bunsHomemade sandwich breadHomemade cranberry challa

If you’re curious about this method, try a couple of these recipes from authors’ site before you decide if the book is worth the investment:

You can also watch videos on the site to see how the method works. And, if you decide to give this approach a whirl, you can ask the author’s a question on their blog and they’ll get back to you quickly – they really want to make us all successful bread bakers!

Do you make your own bread? If so, I’d love to know what method you use (traditional or a new method like this one) and how you think it helps you save money.

February 19, 2010 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Menu Plan Monday ~ Week of February 15

Menu Plan Monday LogoMy family has been really open minded over the last six weeks as I’ve focused on menu planning and trying out new recipes. As I was putting this week’s menu together I asked them what meals they’ve enjoyed most since the New Year and I matched those with what’s on sale this week to come up with our menu. I’m happy to report that they’ve enjoyed more than half of the new recipes we’ve tired, and they’ve also really enjoyed the ways I’ve used the leftovers from one night in another dish later in the week. If these first few weeks of the year are any indication, this approach to meal planning has been a success. With family favorites as the theme, our menu plan for the week looks like this:

  • Monday: Honey-Ginger Grilled Salmon with roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts
    We’re still working on having fish at least once a week, and more if different types of fish are on sale. Roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts are easy because the oven does most of the work – just what I need on a Monday night.
  • Tuesday: White Chili with Ground Turkey with cornbread (Freezer Stash)
    I’m using up the rest of my freezer stash of this chili next week to make room for a new batch of freezer-friendly recipes I plan to make next week. My family really likes this chile and leftovers become another favorite on Sunday: Frio pies.
  • Wednesday: Pan-Seared Chicken Breasts with Shallots with steamed rice and sautéed green beans
    If you ask my family about this dish they can’t tell you the name but will say “that chicken that we had in the cheese steak sandwiches”, but that’s good enough for me. While white wine and shallots may seem a little fancy, they really are family friendly. We’ll of course be having the leftovers in cheese steaks on Sunday.
  • Thursday: Lamb Chops with Balsamic Reduction with asparagus and long grain and wild rice
    It seems like lamb has been on sale almost every week so we’re having
  • Friday: Frito pies made with leftover chili
    Frito pies are perfect for a Friday night when we’re all tired and ready for a simple and fun dinner. These were another family favorite and they couldn’t be simpler: reheat the left over chili in a sauce pan, open an individual bag of Fritos or other corn chips, put a cup or so of the chili in the bag on top of the chips, and sprinkle on some grated cheese. While you can dump the chips into a bowl first, it’s much more fun to eat this dish right out of the bag.
  • Saturday: Chipotle Shrimp Tacos with Uncle Ben’s Mexican rice and black beans
    My family loves these as an alternative to the same ol’ tacos.
  • Sunday: Chicken cheese steaks with french fries
    One of my favorite local restaurants makes the most amazing cheese steaks, but the cost and calorie counts are through the roof. I can turn the chicken from earlier in the week into “mom’s chicken cheese steak” with some fresh rolls, grilled peppers and onions, and provolone cheese. Oven-baked fries are healthier alternative to the ones we’d have at the restaurant.

February 15, 2010 at 11:02 am 1 comment

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