Posts filed under ‘Tips & Tricks’

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

Details

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

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

FAST

  • 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.

SLOW

  • 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: 4 Simple Ways to Save More at the Grocery Store (Plus a $5 Dinner Give Away)

Frugal Friday LogoI’m excited this week to be participating in my first Life as Mom Frugal Friday. I’ve enjoyed reading about frugal healthy breakfasts, homemade TV dinners, laundry tips, consignment sales, and more and really appreciate the time everyone takes to share their tips and tricks for making the most of their resources. For my first post, I’d like to share four strategies that have really helped me save at the grocery store. Every time I get away from these practices, I notice my weekly and monthly grocery bills rising, so I know that they really do help keep my spending down. And, to say thanks to everyone who is involved with Frugal Friday, I am giving away a copy of Erin Chase’s The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook to go along with my first post (give away details are at the end of the post).

Strategy #1: Make a Plan

The most powerful tool I have in my grocery store savings arsenal is a two-fold plan that includes:

  • My menus for the week, complete with plans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ve found that taking the time to figure out what my family is going to eat for the next 5-7 days helps me focus my grocery shopping and my cooking efforts. I’m not wandering the store trying to make menu decisions real time which keeps me from either over-buying or forgetting critical ingredients that send me back to the store later in the week. I’m also able to look ahead and see which leftovers can be used for lunches or another dinner so I can be sure to really stretch my dollars and reduce my cooking load. The steak I grill up one night is perfect for sandwiches the next day or later in the week. Chili becomes easy Frito Pies for a fun Friday night dinner.
  • A grocery list organized by store section. I’ve been shopping at the same couple of grocery stores for several years and I know them like the back of my hand. When I organize my grocery lists I group items in the order I’ll come across them in the store. This not only helps me spend less time in the store but I’m less likely to stray “off list” to pick up assorted odds and ends I don’t really need. If you can’t draw a map of your grocery store by memory (and I mean really, it’s odd that I can), make notes next time you go to the store about what’s on each aisle for the next time you put your grocery list together. Also, if you take your family grocery shopping with you, it’s easy to divide and conquer by sending responsible parties off to different parts of the store for items located near one another.

Strategy #2: Build Menus around Sale Items

This is a strategy I wish I’d discovered long before I did – I would have saved so much money. I used to create menus and then see which of my menu items were on sale at the store. Now, I start with what items are on sale and build my menus around those. There’s almost always some form of chicken, beef, and pork on sale, and then on certain weeks, special items like lamb or scallops will be on sale for an extra-special treat for the family. Honestly, starting with what’s on sale also makes planning faster because the main ingredients are chosen for me so I just have to match favorite recipes to go with them.

I used to do my menu planning in a spreadsheet. I’d take over the kitchen table with the sale circular on one side and my computer on the other. Building the plan and the grocery list usually took about an hour or 90 minutes. Recently, I’ve been using a new tool called Food on the Table that’s still in early development to help me with menu planning. It keeps track of the grocery store I go to most and what’s on sale each week. I’ve entered the ingredients for my family’s favorite recipes into the system and the tool helps me match what’s on sale with recipes. Don’t you just love technology?

Strategy #3: Compare Prices by the Ounce, Not By the Package

A few years ago my local grocery store started displaying the per-unit price for items. The unit is typically an ounce although for many meats it’s a pound. I’ve found that while a small package of food will of course be less expensive than a large one, per ounce it may be actually be more expensive. I often buy bigger packages of food that are cheaper by the ounce if they meet the following criteria:

  • I can use the ingredient in many different types of recipes. The more applications something has, the quicker I’ll use it up and justify the large quantity purchase. Dry goods like flour and sugar fall into this category.
  • My family can consume the food before it goes bad. Buying larger quantities doesn’t save me anything if I have to throw the food out before we can eat it all. Before I buy a larger package, I look at expiration dates to be sure that we’ll have time to finish off the package. I also regularly buy larger packages of proteins that freeze well when they are on sale. Beyond freezable foods, cheese, cereal, dried fruit, and salsa all fall into this category.
  • I have a place to store the large package. While I have a reasonably sized pantry, storing larger packages is still an issue. Before I take a bigger package of something home, I think about my storage options and make sure I have a plan for putting it away when I get home. I use the floor of my pantry to store flats of canned fruit, big boxes of cereal, and bags of flour.

Strategy #4: Shop at Off Hours

I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to get in and out of the store quickly. The less time I spend in the store, the less chance there is I’ll spend more than I need to. However, the more people there are in the store, the longer it takes me to get in and out. If at all possible, I try to shop when everyone else doesn’t – early Saturday or Sunday morning works best for me, although I have been known to go to the store on weeknights after little people go to sleep.

I also shop alone because I’m more efficient that way, and I don’t have to have the ongoing discussions about what treat we aren’t getting which invariably come with children in a store. When I’m alone and the store is quiet, I can stay focused on getting just what I need. I can also more easily compare prices and look for unexpected deals. And of course, I never shop hungry. A starving shopper is an over-spending shopper.

Even More Savings with The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook (Give Away Details)

I have to admit I was excited to see that Erin Chase recommends some of the same strategies I do (and of course many more) in her fantastic book dedicated to helping us all save money on our family meals. I love that the first third of her book is devoted to money saving practices that anyone can use to create their own collection of $5 recipes. You can get started with Erin’s wonderful recipes and then adapt your own to the methodology. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of her recipes with their main ingredients come on sale at my local grocery store.

In the mean time, I have an extra copy of her cookbook to give away. It’s my first give away and I’m really excited. Here’s how the giveaway will work:

  • The giveaway lasts from the time of this posting through midnight, CST on Wednesday, February 3, 2010.
  • To enter, share one of your favorite tips for saving money in the comments. Limit one comment per person.
  • For an extra entry each day, tweet about this post and then come back here and include a link to your tweet in a comment. For this entry to count, you must link back to your tweet from the comments. Limit one tweet per person per day.
  • On Thursday, February 4, 2010 I will use Random.org to select a winning comment number.
  • I will notify the winner by e-mail to confirm their shipping address, so please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you comment. I will never share your e-mail address with anyone for any reason.
  • The winner has 48 hours from when I sent the e-mail to respond and claim the prize. If I don’t receive a response, I’ll go back to Random.org to select another winner.

Thank you so much for sharing your ideas in the comments – I can’t wait to learn more great ways to save money at the grocery store.

January 29, 2010 at 8:00 am 11 comments

Getting Started with Coupon Organizing

Coupons with scissorsWhen it comes to saving money at the grocery store, I’ve traditionally focused most of my energy on menu planning based on what’s on sale each week. I also tend to shop at warehouse stores and buy in bulk to save on items we use frequently. I’ve begun investigating Alice.com and Amazon.com as ways to purchase food in bulk and with free shipping, and I’m always looking for ways to use inexpensive cuts of meat in my weekly cooking. One thing I haven’t regularly done to save money is clip coupons, and I’ve been increasingly interested in how coupons might help me stretch my grocery budget even further.

While I know I have a lot to learn about the best way to find and use coupons, I do know for coupons to work for me I’ll need a way to keep track of them that doesn’t take a lot of time. This week, I spent some time researching keeping track of coupons and learned quite a lot:

  • Find a system that works for you. Over the years, I’ve learned that an organizing scheme doesn’t work if it doesn’t work if you aren’t comfortable using it, so you may need to experiment with a couple of different approaches to managing your coupons before you find one that really works for you. Coupon Geek has a great post that outlines three different organizing approaches to give you some options to consider. Common Sense with Money also has a similar overview for more information on each approach, and Coupon Savvy Mom provides a run-down of your options with pros and cons for each.
  • Plan for the inserts and the loose coupons. I hadn’t really considered this, but coupons come in varying flavors, including groups of coupons that take the form of inserts or books, and loose coupons you gather over time. HomesteadBlogger took a class on couponing and put together a very detailed overview of what she learned about how to manage all forms of coupons. Worth the read if you are looking for some great detail.
  • Consider what kind of couponer you are. Casual couponers have different storage and organizing needs than more dedicated couponers. The Donna Reed Syndrome blog has a fantastic overview of the difference between types of couponers and systems that might work for each.
  • Think about how you’ll want to categorize your coupons. Almost all of the coupon organizing approaches include some method for sorting coupons into categories. But, what categories will you use? Will you sort by product type? Alphabetically? By the way the store is organized? Stay a Stay at Home Mom offers some insight into your options, and The Frugal Homeschooling Mom offers up her collection of categories as a guide. Coupon Loving Mom also shares her more detailed categories so you can see how your categories might evolve over time.
  • Pay attention to how you clip. Sometimes the devil is in the details, and organizing neat coupons is easier than organizing ones that are ripped and folded. A Thrifty Mom details her approach to clipping coupons with step-by-step photos.

While I haven’t quite decided what method I want to use, once I do, there’s a wealth of good advice on how to make each approach work best:

I’m just dipping my toe into the world of coupons, and I’m not wholly sure how deep I’ll go, but I’m looking forward to learning more.

January 12, 2010 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Five Easy Strategies for Organizing Your Pantry

I’ll admit – I’m a little bit type A about keeping my house organized, particularly my kitchen. Somehow, if my home is organized, I can manage the natural disorganization that comes with being a mom, wife, and business woman. Over the years I’ve experimented with different ways to keep what can be one of the most unruly part of my kitchen (well really house): the pantry. As I thought about it, there are five key things that I do to keep my pantry in some sort of reasonable shape.

Strategy #1: Use tiered shelf organizers to make pantry items easy to see

I can’t tell you how many cans, jars, and bottles I’ve lost in the back of a pantry because they were hidden behind another taller or wider item. Tiered shelf organizers let you make the most of the depth of your pantry items while raising them up so you can really see what’s on each shelf. I like the expanding variety because I can adjust them to fit different spaces. If you keep a lot of the same kinds of canned goods, you may find that a shelf made specifically for cans may work better for you.

Strategy #2: Make a corner work for you with a lazy Susan

Corners can be the land of the lost in a pantry. Jars and bags get shoved into them and don’t emerge for months, or sometimes years. I’ve discovered that a lazy Susan, or small turntable, turns corners into a useful and usable space. You can place a collection of jars or bottles on the tray and give it spin when you need one from the collection. They even make double-tiered models to accommodate small jars and bottles.

Strategy #3: Keep baking ingredients fresh and neat with square canisters

I can personally attest to the fact that when left to their own devices, bags of flour and sugar will leave a powdery mess all over your pantry, no matter how well you try to reseal them after opening. Bags are also really difficult to corral neatly in a pantry (see Strategy 4), and bugs just love to crawl into the tiny openings in the seams of bags. For many years I used round glass canisters that I had bought at a garage sale to hold my baking ingredients, but they were heavy and didn’t make the best use of space. I recently switched to the OXO square and rectangle container system and I couldn’t be happier. These bad boys are designed to stack neatly and the variety of sizes works well with just about any shelf configuration. I will admit that they are a little pricy, so I replaced my glass containers one or two at a time as I found the OXO containers on sale. I use labels from my hand-dandy label maker to keep track of what is in the containers, but you could just as easily use hand-written labels with the same results.

Strategy #4: Corral bags with baskets and larger containers

So many pantry items come in bags, like pasta and rice for example. Others like oatmeal packets and snack bars come in bulky boxes that get smashed and generally run amok on pantry shelves. Add in items from the bulk department like nuts and trail mix, and a pantry can quickly become unmanageable. My favorite tool for keeping bags of things organized and contained is a large bin. Bins are available in every size and made from every possible material. You can pick them up at the dollar store, the Container Store, Wal-Mart, and just about anywhere else you shop. I tend to use several bins in my pantry to hold like items. I have a pasta bin, a snack bin, and a cookie decorations going right now. Before you go shopping for bins, be sure to measure your pantry shelves and select ones that are only about ¾ as tall as your shelves. This makes it easier to see what’s in them and to get bags in and out.

Strategy #5: Turn empty wall space into storage

My pantry has a big blank wall that was crying out to be put to use. The problem is that my pantry is narrow to begin with, so adding additional shelves even 9 inches deep would make it almost impossible to move around in it. My solution instead was to purchase some inexpensive shallow baskets from IKEA and hang them in sets on the wall. They are only a few inches deep but are tall enough to hold boxes of wrap, bars of chocolate, bags of nuts and fruit, and even my label maker. They installed quickly and have proven to be very durable. Because they are a part of a system, you can completely customize the number and size of baskets to fit any empty wall space you might want to make use of. If you don’t have an IKEA near you, look for similar products at Target, Wal-Mart, or even a home improvement center.

Putting the Strategies to Work

Before any of these strategies will work, you need to know what you’re trying to organize. I know it may be painful, but the best approach I know of is to empty your pantry entirely, group your items by type (baking goods, canned goods, pasta, rice, sauces, spices, etc) and see what you have to work with. Ask yourself:

  • Which of these can be stored in their current containers? Will a lazy Susan or tiered shelf make them easier to work with or are they fine as they are?
  • Which of these might do better if they were moved to a different container? Would a larger bin work or possibly a canister?
  • Which do I use most frequently? These should be closer to the front and middle of the pantry.
  • Which ones do my children regularly access? Be sure to put these on shelves that are low enough for little hands to reach?

When you can see everything laid out in groups, you’ll find I think that it’s easier to imagine how you might organize them together in the pantry. Once you’ve identified a set of items that need a solution it will also be easier to find a container for those items.

Advice and Tips from the Blogosphere

My approach to organizing my pantry works well for me, but I know that my approach is just one of millions, so I spent some time searching for other ideas and approaches that might be useful. Along the way I picked up some new tips and tricks, including:

  • Approach your pantry re-organization with a plan. This 10-step guide from A Child Grows in Brooklyn is a great one to follow.
  • Corner cabinets can be a big waste of space, but with the right approach you can make them work for you. This post from I’m An Organizing Junkie has some great ideas for making the most of these odd spaces.
  • Organizing a pantry when you regularly buy extra on-sale items presents its own specific set of needs. You’ll need ways to keep track of many of the same pantry items, like packages of oatmeal or canned vegetables. Jen, from Balancing Beauty and Bedlam illustrates in graphic detail how she whipped her pantry in to shape to help her stockpiling approach to shopping.
  • If your pantry is small or you have a lot of things to store, consider creating an overflow space in another room like your garage. Haggard Mom details how she took this approach to support her new canning projects.
  • Sometimes help from a professional is just what you need to make your pantry a better place. The good news is you don’t have to pay for a professional organizer, instead, watch this video from The Insightful Nana to see how a professional organizer tackled her pantry.
  • The Perfect Pantry blog features a different pantry every week, making it a great place to get regular new and interesting tips for keeping your pantry organized.

Maintenance Matters

I tend to pull everything out of my pantry at least once a year and revisit my organization scheme based on new foods I’m cooking with, new culinary hobbies (baking, canning, cookie decorating, etc), and to fix whatever organizing approaches might not be working just right for my family. While the whole process takes about half of a day, it’s really worth it and helps me avoid losing things in the pantry during the rest of the year. I also do a big pantry clean out before major holidays and before school starts to help streamline these busy times. Each clean out takes a couple of hours. For a total of 8 hours a year I can keep my pantry usable and my sanity just a little more intact.

January 5, 2010 at 8:00 am 1 comment

Crock Pot Recipes: Give Yourself a Break in the Kitchen

It’s the week after Christmas and I feel like I’ve been cooking non-stop. It was fun, and I know my family and friends appreciated the effort, but I’m ready to spend a bit less time in the kitchen and bit more enjoying the family while I recover from the holiday rush. However, I don’t really want to rely on take out for the next several days. Ordering in can get expensive fast, and most restaurant food has more calories than my family needs just now, particularly after we’ve (over) enjoyed more than our fare share of holiday treats. Instead, I’m going to break out my trusty crock pot for a couple of nights and let it do the heavy lifting for me. Besides the fact that almost all crock pot recipes are of the “start it and leave it” variety, many use inexpensive cuts of meat that do best when cooked long and slow. Given the expense of the holidays, our grocery budget can use a break as well.

While I was doing my menu planning this week with crock pot cookery in mind, I thought I’d put together a collection of my family’s favorites to share with everyone. Hopefully you’ll find one or two here that will help you get a break in the kitchen too.

  • Easy Beef Burritos: Who doesn’t love burritos? My family’s favorite thing about them is everyone can make their burrito their way. I like mine fully loaded, but my daughter just likes cheese – with extra cheese on the side. If you still have holiday visitors these will be a hit, and if you don’t, make a bunch up anyway and use the leftovers for lunches and even on top of a salad.
  • Slow Cooker Chile: Chile is always a hit and freezes beautifully, so you can make a big batch and put some of it away for another night after school starts. This recipe is fun because it uses pizza sauce to give the chile a different flavor. You can substitute your favorite beans or leave them out entirely if your family prefers chile without. For a fun lunch, open a bag of Fritos, spoon in some chile, and top with shredded cheese for a homemade Frito Pie.
  • Simply Braised Chicken: If you braise chicken in a crock pot with minimal seasoning, it can become so many different dishes, including chicken salad, tacos, and BBQ chicken. This recipe from Carolyn Wright is really four recipes in one. From one pot of braised chicken thighs, you can make three different meals. This is a particularly great way to make use of chicken thighs on sale when they are on sale as the market, and the braised chicken freezes well too.
  • BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches: Sometimes a hearty sandwich is just what the family needs for a casual and relaxing dinner. This recipe is very simple, and don’t worry about finding the specific spice blend mentioned. Any pork or rotisserie spice blend from the spice aisle will do. This is yet another recipe that freezes well, so make extra and put it away for a busy evening later in the month.
  • Orange Chicken with Potatoes: This recipe just feels like winter to me. Chicken thighs, potatoes, and butternut squash cook together for just a few hours and are perfect with rice or buttered noodles. I also like this recipe because it doesn’t take all day – just 3 hours or so. You can start it at lunch time and know it will be ready that evening.
  • Beer and Cheddar Fondue: I love fondue night because it gets everyone around the table and involved in an active meal. This recipe has sausage mixed into the cheese, so it can serve as a hearty main course along with a salad.

While this list is mostly focused on main dishes, you can make dessert in the slow cooker too for a special treat when you run out of holiday cookies. The My Recipes site has a lovely collection of Desserts from the Slow Cooker to get you started. Finally, if you really love your crock pot and are looking for new ideas, or if you’re just getting started with your crock pot and need some inspiration, I highly recommend looking at the crock pot section at CDKitchen. You’ll find recipes from everything from appetizers to dessert, as well as every kind of protein you might imagine.

Do you have a favorite crock pot recipe? If so, please share it in the comments.

Happy crock pot cooking!

Slow Cooker on Foodista Learn more about crock pots

December 28, 2009 at 8:00 am 4 comments

Your Freezer: A Great Partner in Saving Money and Time

When I was growing up, my family had four freezers: small ones attached to our big and small refrigerators, a big one the size of a fridge, and a deep freeze in the garage. My mother and grandmother were freezer fanatics. When chickens were on sale and there was a limit on how many you could buy, the whole family would trek to the store with cash in hand to stand in different lines with our load of chickens so we could take maximum advantage of the sale. We froze the ends of bread that no one really wanted to eat to make bread crumbs and stuffing. We’d even freeze the bread itself if we could get a good deal on it.

For many years after I moved out and started my own home I only had the one freezer attached to my refrigerator, so I got away from using the freezer as a way to take advantage of great prices on freezable food and as tool for making nightly dinners easier to make. While I don’t think I’ll ever be as freezer-happy as my mother and grandmother were, there is something to be said for making better use of the freezer. Certainly when I find a great deal on a protein my family really enjoys, there’s no harm in buying an extra 1 or 2 pounds to use in the next month. And, next time I make meatballs or a lasagna, I can double the batch and put half in the freezer. Yep, there are definite possibilities.

I’m not alone in this – the blogosphere is full of freezer proponents who have all sorts of handy tips on how to help it help you. Here are a few of the posts that I found to be helpful – I hope you will as well.

  • Use your freezer to help you stay within time and budget constraints. If you catch a really great sale or have a coupon that’s expiring but won’t use all of what you’re buying that week, you can take advantage of the savings and freeze the extra. You can also keep week-night cooking times to a minimum if you do some of the work for several meals ahead of time and freeze the beginnings of a meal. The Life as a Mom team has three really great articles that help you figure out how to make the most of your budget, your time, and your freezer:
  • Keep an inventory. A freezer can quickly turn from your partner in savings to a bottomless pit of food you never eat. Tricia at Once a Month Mom relates a really funny story about what happened when she let her freezer get ahead of her. She also has a fantastic freezer inventory template that makes it easy to keep track of what’s in your freezer so you can include your hoard in your weekly meal planning. I use this approach personally and find that it’s very helpful. Be sure to store the inventory somewhere easy to see, like right on the front of the fridge.
  • Package and store carefully. It’s important to store food properly in the freezer so it will still be good (and safe) when you’re ready to use it. Keep a collection of freezer supplies on hand (bags, labels, ice cube trays for soup, etc.) so you’re ready to put food up. The Cents to Get Debt Free blog has a wonderful overview of how to store your food in the freezer, along with some more information on keeping an inventory.
  • Put ice cube trays to work. You’d be surprised at what you can freeze in small batches in an ice cube tray. While soups and stocks come immediately to mind, fresh herbs and coffee are candidates as well. The Prudent Pantry has a nice overview of ways to make the most of ice cube trays for freezing food that I think will surprise you.
  • Test the waters. If you aren’t sure how you feel about the idea of making meals ahead and freezing them, try it out a few times and see if it works well for your family and your routine. Moms in a Blog has some great freezer-friendly recipes to get you started.

How do you use the freezer, or do you at all? If so, what are some of your favorite tricks for making it work for you? If not, what’s holiday you back? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Freezer on Foodista Browse freezer-friendly recipes

December 9, 2009 at 5:48 pm Leave a comment

Healthy Eating: Practical Tips and Tricks for Helping Your Family Eat Better

Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle against food that’s just plain not good for my family. Fast food restaurants line the roads as far as the eye can see, and that burger and fries seems like they are calling my name, and that of every person in my family. And while we all know that artificial cheese food isn’t even in the same nutrition universe as fresh vegetables or fiber-rich multi-grains, that doesn’t stop us from wanting what’s not good for us. My family will dive right into and demolish a pizza, but somehow they won’t attack a plate of veggies with the same gusto. I know that we need to make changes to our habits, but knowing and doing are two very different things.

As I contemplated the ways I could start to move the needle on healthy eating in my household, I once again turned to the blogosphere to see what kind of useful advice I could uncover. I did find some really great and highly practical tidbits that I’m pretty sure I can start to work with almost immediately.

  • Choose healthy snacks. Sometimes healthy options are already family favorites, or they are close enough to favorites that they are easy to work into the routine. Nuts, granola bars, and raisins are just a few of the suggestions MonaDarling.com has for helping kids snack better. My big take away from this post is to look for healthy options in and among what my family already likes.
  • Get a little help from peanut butter. This story provides details on a study that looked at what impact dipping fresh vegetables in peanut butter had on the chances of a child actually consuming said vegetables. It turns out that kids who said they didn’t even like veggies would eat them more readily when dipped in peanut butter. I’ve used things like ranch-style dip in the past as a way to make vegetables more appealing, but hadn’t thought of peanut butter. This just goes to show that condiments can help get nutrients into the family and sometimes that’s just good enough.
  • Make a few healthy substitutions. It’s unrealistic to expect my family to give up their favorite foods all together. There would be mutiny if I banned pizza or mac and cheese from our regular rotation. However, it is possible to make those favorites healthier with just a few substitutions. This Café Mom post has some easy and healthy recommendations for keeping the family favorites while making them a better source of nutrition. With a few changes here and there, you can keep them on the menu without feeling guilty.
  • Take one step at a time. Sometimes I think I try to run before my family is ready to walk. I remember when I banned all white flour products from the house – it wasn’t pretty. Instead, I should have started with one or two ingredients first, to get the family used to a new version of their favorite breads and pastas. The Super Healthy Kids blog not only made me feel better about my picky eaters, but pointed out that you have to start somewhere, and starting small is okay. Incremental changes are still changes, and a year’s worth of them can make a big difference in a family’s overall attitude toward healthier foods.
  • Start by eating together. As a child, I remember how important it was that we all ate together at the dinner table several nights a week. As a parent, even with our hectic schedules, I try to get us all around the table as much as possible so we have a bit of quality family time at least once a day. It turns out that this doesn’t only strengthen our family ties, it is a key element of helping my family eat better. The Raise Healthy Eaters blog interviewed Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, an internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding. Dr. Satter’s first piece of advice to parents is to eat together as a family because this sets the foundation for building healthy eating habits. I was so excited to hear that this technique is so powerful, because it makes the extra effort I go through to gather the family around the table all the more worth it.

In the end, it’s not about making big changes all at once – upsetting the apple cart as it were. Instead, I can look for the low-hanging fruit (to exhaust that metaphor) and start there to help my family be more helpful. Many small changes will add up over time, and that’s something I can work with.

December 1, 2009 at 9:52 pm Leave a comment

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