Thanksgiving is approaching (at least for my American readers – sorry this is late for you, Canada!), and that means it’s time to talk about how to make the best gravy. I know gravy scares a lot of people, but it’s really not so bad – I promise! And once you know how to make amazing gravy, nothing can stop you. Muhahaha. Not to mention it gives you lots of cold-weather dinner options.
Gravy is also budget-friendly, because it lets you stretch pan drippings and stock – both things that are otherwise thrown away (or not made at all). If you read my post about rotisserie chickens, you’ll know that I love making stock from those – and it’s so simple and so flavorful. You won’t need to buy canned or boxed broth again! But if you haven’t gotten around to making your own stock yet, there’s nothing wrong with broth from the store. I also use and recommend Better than Bouillon (it’s cheaper at Costco); it’s less expensive and takes less space to store than fully liquid broth or stock. Speaking of which:
Heyo! It’s Thursday again, and time for another thrifty tip. If you have even a passing interest in being frugal, I’m sure you’ve read hundreds of times about buying rotisserie chickens from the grocery store. They’re an amazing bargain, and frequently cost less than buying a raw chicken to roast yourself! Here are some tips that I hope will help you save even more by making the most of your rotisserie chicken. Also, if you’re a busy mom, they save time – I always, always pick one up when I’m doing a big grocery shop so I don’t have to cook dinner that night!
Happy Thursday! Welcome to a new series of articles intended to help you budget and save money. While most will be about food and cooking, I know from personal experience that making a budget work means figuring out how to save in every area, so we’ll take adventures into other territories, too. Today is one of those adventures: I’m going to talk about Amazon Warehouse Deals, which can be a great way to save money without much work!
Those of us with young children know all too well the need for easy, kid-friendly recipes. Easy because nobody wants to be rolling out from-scratch puff pastry while the three-year-old is screaming about his dire need for a snack; kid-friendly because picky eaters happen. I’ve put together a list of recipes that are both. When I asked my own preschooler which he would like the most today, he said mini pizza bites. That said, he usually scarfs the sausage and egg breakfast rolls down so fast that I just make a double batch. So, as is typical of life with small children, nothing ever stays the same from one day to another. That’s why this list is a pretty wide cross-section of flavors and meals. I know how it is. Without further ado:
Note from Jennie: I’m thrilled to have a guest post from my friend Katie McGinley this week! Katie does amazing things with bulk cooking — I know, having been the recipient of her cooking kindness via meal trains and just sitting at her table for lunch. Check out her tips and then come talk about them in our MPWD Facebook group! This post may contain affiliate links.
At some point in your life, it’s likely you’ll need to cook large quantities of food at one time.
Perhaps you’re hosting a large get-together and need to feed multitudes. Perhaps you want to take meals to friends who tend to have babies and/or surgeries with some frequency. Perhaps you enjoy being able to pull a delicious home-cooked meal out of the freezer on days when your family is particularly busy. Perhaps you’re becoming a doomsday prepper! Whatever your motivations, I’m glad you’ve joined me today to discuss the all-important topic of bulk cooking.
First, let’s talk about what “bulk cooking” is. It can mean doubling a recipe to serve a few more people, or making an extra casserole to share with a friend, or prepping eight or twelve or twenty gallon bags of frozen crock-pot meals to save yourself time in the coming weeks or months – really, anything that calls for making more food than you can use at one time.
Bulk cooking can be a delightfully useful skill, but it also has the potential to make you insane if you do it in a haphazard way and don’t plan wisely. Let’s take a look at some tips to make the process go smoothly.
There are times in life when keeping up with the dishes just isn’t going to happen – even with a dishwasher. (We just got one and, to my disappointment, it doesn’t load itself.) Maybe you just had a baby. Maybe you way overbooked your calendar. Maybe it’s so hot your sweat has sweat and you just cannot possibly stand there and wash another plate. And maybe you just don’t feel like it. This is why God invented paper plates and plastic forks. I know they’re not environmentally friendly and that we’d all rather eat from our perfectly good Fiestaware or what have you, but sometimes something has to give. Better the place settings than your sanity, right?
There was a time in my life when I would never even have considered using disposable tableware. It probably also coincided with my firmly-held belief that I was going to become a United States Senator and change the world by being really, really good at arguing with people. So when I was like 17. I held on to some pretty obnoxious personal standards until my mid-twenties, when a chain of personal crises ended with a broken foot and me in a cast, on crutches, alone in a three-story apartment. In the hospital, a very wise nurse told me it would probably be a good idea to use paper plates for a while. “Ha,” I thought. “Not me. I am not a paper plate kind of person.”
Since you’re reading this post you’ve probably gathered that, actually, I am very much a paper plate kind of person.
(I did, actually, descend to the point of trying to eat food directly out of the packaging. That ended poorly when I tried to carry a can of tuna from kitchen to living room with a hungry cat circling my crutches. I faceplanted; tuna went everywhere; the cat refused to eat any, because it was now sullied. I’m not altogether sure how a plate would have helped in this situation, but I theorize that it could have.)
I will admit that I feel residual guilt about this sometimes. I do. I know we live in a nation of profligate waste. I try to use reusable produce bags at the grocery store, and reusable bag-bags at checkout. I have microfiber cloths for cleaning, and I prefer eco-conscious soaps and shampoos and all-purpose cleaners (although I am not into Dr. Bronner’s for everything – I did try). So I try not to use paper plates and plastic forks very often, but when I do choose to do so, I take a break from the work of dishes and from the guilt of disposable stuff. Or I try to. I was always destined to become Catholic. I’m really good at hanging on to guilt.
Anyway, there are lots of reasons you might need to ditch a chore, whether it’s washing the dishes or something else entirely. And truly, you don’t actually need a reason to take a pass occasionally. We all need a break sometimes, and alas, a trip to Fiji sans kids isn’t often possible. It’s OK to take shortcuts like using paper plates. This is your permission slip.
The modern world being what it is, you can even find very trendy versions of disposable tableware. I mean, Target. So do that. If this week is just really really hard and you cannot figure out any way to make it easier, go buy a pack of paper plates. Serve dinner on them, whether it’s something you just cooked, leftovers, or delivery Chinese food. Throw them away. Use the time you saved to take half a shower, after the kids are in bed and before one of them wakes up. Call it a picnic. Enjoy it.
We all have days where any effort is too much effort when it comes to dinner (or breakfast, or lunch). If you’re dealing with chronic illness, sometimes those days happen several times a week. Here are 8 zero-cooking-involved meal ideas that don’t even require reheating. I’m not sure about you, but for me, even coordinating the microwave can be a little much on the very worst days.
These ideas are for those days. They don’t rely on previous prep much, unless you happen to have things around. This list will focus more on things you can buy and have ready to go when you need them. The specific items are suggestions – pick things you like and use what you have on hand!
You may or may not know that October is national Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. I didn’t, until a few years ago, when I realized how many moms have gone through a miscarriage, stillbirth, or loss of an infant. I think in face to face conversation, it’s still something that doesn’t get talked about very much. But the internet, it turns out, has done a lot to make this type of loss less isolating. I hope it can continue to do that, and to that end I wanted to share my story, even though it’s only tangentially related to food and cooking.
It took us a really long time to have our first child, my now-3-year-old son. Five years of waiting around on message boards meant I saw all the things that could happen – the long wait to conceive in the first place, the early losses, the later ones. Before I ever got pregnant I understood that nothing was guaranteed to go the way we had hoped. I spent that whole pregnancy so anxious about the baby, and, once he was born, struggled with anxiety pretty badly. Several friends and acquaintances went through stillbirths and neonatal loss during the months surrounding his birth and I was acutely aware of how fragile life can be. I felt fortunate but also a bit guilty. I still think of those babies and of their parents pretty regularly, although, failing to heed my own most-given advice, I rarely contact them to say so.
I was surprised when my second pregnancy happened quickly and easily, and had a feeling it might be twins. Weird, I know, but many Facebook PMs will attest. I had an early ultrasound and, it turns out, I was right – two babies! Several weeks and several ultrasounds passed, with both babies growing right on target, until one day one baby wasn’t. Our baby B, whom we named Francis, had passed sometime between scans.
I doubt I’ll ever forget finding out. I had an OB appointment and I had to take my son, who wasn’t quite 2 at the time. He hated doctors’ offices and was really upset the whole time – and they were almost an hour late. I was holding him, lying down, and the OB said “Well, I can’t find a heartbeat for baby B. I mean, it could just be the probe. So you should go for a more detailed ultrasound.” She didn’t even help me sit up, and I wrestled a screaming toddler back to the car and started bawling.
I had to wait until the next day to get the ultrasound with better equipment, sitting in the waiting room with excited parents-to-be, trying not to cry. After over an hour of waiting there, I finally went back, and of course the tech confirmed what I already knew; I had to wait for ages for her to finish the full scan and then for a doctor to officially sign off on the ruling. The doctor said I seemed “very upset.” I should think so. I had to go upstairs and see my OB (a different one from the day before), who said that these things happen and the other baby might or might not be fine.
It was hard to get through the rest of the pregnancy without being scared constantly that I’d lose baby A, too. Ultimately she was born safely and she turns one year old this month. I wonder what her twin would have been like all the time. I got tired of looking at “demise of one fetus” on my paperwork visit after visit. And since the pregnancy continued, I didn’t have what most women experience with a miscarriage, the physical loss. It’s like Francis was wholly theoretical – seen on a screen and then vanished slowly to nothing. (They had to continue scanning both twins until there was no longer any evidence that Francis had existed at all.)
I had hyperemesis with the pregnancy, which was physically debilitating. Combined with the grief of losing one of the babies, I really wasn’t able to do much at all. So you see I know what I’m talking about when I talk about days when you cannot get up the will to even decide what kind of pizza to order to feed the family. With B’s first birthday approaching, I feel it more strongly again; I feel like I should be more present for her, but I also just want to be sad in bed for a few days. With two young kids at home, that will happen approximately never, so I go through the motions and feel bad that I’m not more engaged this month. That I wasn’t last year when we lost Francis in the first place.
I’m sharing this story in the hopes that it might help another mom feel less alone sometime, and as a reminder for those of us who have had losses to be gentle with ourselves.
Having a great toolbox of basic recipes you can use for more than one dish is one of the best things you can do to maximize your time in the kitchen. I absolutely believe that mastering a few techniques and flexible recipes or recipe guidelines — think pan sauces, vinaigrettes, omelets — will build your confidence in the kitchen big-time. When you think about “cooking dinner” it can be overwhelming. Multiply that by seven days a week and I think we all feel a little intimidated. But the basics of cooking can be very simple, and once you have them you can treat them as building blocks to scale even the tallest mountain of meal planning. I’ll have both Recipe and Technique 101 series to help you get comfortable with making meals on the fly as well as building an understanding of how one recipe can serve two or three different roles through the week. (Links may be affiliate links.)
Our First Tool: Easy Creamy Dressing
I know. You’re probably thinking I’m off my rocker, but a basic creamy salad dressing will see you through entertaining season easily. Mayonnaise-based dressings have been popular for a very long time (look at any early-mid 20th century cookbook), and I think they secretly continue to be so, but we just don’t talk about them as much because they’re not kale. You can put them on kale, though, so win-win.
This base works for coleslaw, broccoli salad, carrot and raisin salad, and layered salads (and more), and can be transformed into poppyseed or blue cheese dressing. I think it’s perfect for so many occasions, and the salads tend to be both crowd- and family-pleasers. I like making things I know will be a hit. I think we all do, right? Today I’ll share the dressing and a recipe for broccoli salad, but you’ll see it come up in future recipes too!
This recipe also provides an excellent and easy introduction to ratios in cooking. More on that at the end of the recipe.
Here’s the basic recipe:
Easy Creamy Dressing
1-1/2 cups mayonnaise
1/2 cup granulated sugar, or Swerve for our low-carb friends – I use less Swerve than sugar, despite what the bag says; about 1/4 cup here
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk (a fork works if you can’t find your wire whisk) to combine. Taste for salt and sugar. Store until needed, up to a week in the refrigerator.
That was easy, right? So now what do you do with it?
A note on the mayonnaise here: I vastly prefer Hellmann’s for this application. I love homemade mayonnaise, but for some reason the name brand holds up better here.
Once you’ve made it, you can see if you’d like it to be more or less sweet and so adjust the sugar, etc. There are so few ingredients, you’ll soon have mastered your own perfect version.
Here’s another thing to notice and start picking up: Some things are made by basic ratios, especially baked goods and dressings. Here, the ratio is 1 part vinegar to 2 parts sugar to 6 parts mayonnaise. This makes it easy to scale. If you’d like a smaller amount, say, you only have 3/4 of a cup of mayonnaise, all you have to do is adjust the other ingredients according to the ratio. So, the mayonnaise makes up 6 parts; 3/4 cup divided by 6 is 0.125 cups which is (and I’ll elaborate on this soon) 1/8 cup or 2 tablespoons. That means your vinegar is 1 part, or 2 tablespoons; sugar is 2 parts = 4 tablespoons = 1/4 cup; and mayonnaise is 3/4 cup. You can do this for any amount, and if you can’t remember the quantities you can always think 1:2:6 vinegar:sugar:mayo. Learning to think this way will eventually transform how you look at recipes.
Something to Try: Broccoli Salad
I happened to have all the ingredients on hand for this, so it’s what I made with my last batch of mayo dressing. I love broccoli salad. Many people do, and it usually only turns up on holiday tables and at potlucks; it’s a nice surprise to serve it at home from time to time. It’s much better if you give the flavors a few hours to meld. That lets the broccoli soften and absorb some of the dressing, and the dressing picks up the nuance of the bacon and onion (which itself becomes less sharp and more pickled). I find it’s fine for a couple days, though by the end of day two it’s starting to get a little soggy, and on day three it’s definitely not what I’d call crunchy.
1 head broccoli, cut into florets (about 3-4 cups)
1/4 cup onion, finely diced
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, hulls off
1/4 cup dried sweetened cranberries
4oz shredded or cubed Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup crumbled cooked bacon, or 6-8 strips (Costco sells great real bacon bits you can use, too)
1 recipe Easy Creamy Salad Dressing as given (i.e. with 1-1/2 cups mayonnaise), but you can adjust this based on whether you like more or less dressing
Place all ingredients in a large bowl (preferably one with a seal; I use my Tupperware Thatsa Bowls, obviously). Toss or fold with a spatula.
Let rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes; several hours to overnight is preferable. This does really well when made ahead.
I hope you’ll try the dressing and salad in your next meal plan! Let me know if you do – I’d love to hear about it. Join my Facebook group or comment here!
This past week, I started a keto (ketogenic) diet. I spent ages reading about it on Facebook groups and on Reddit, and finally decided it couldn’t be worse than other options, and it might help with my chronic fatigue and mood issues. I try to be body positive and don’t suggest that weight loss in and of itself is a good thing necessarily, but I also wouldn’t mind the side effect of losing some weight for myself. So here we are. This is kind of a long, rambling diary with some ideas; future posts will be more focused on helpful tips, but I thought it might be encouraging to see an exhausted mom’s experience just diving in. (Amazon links are affiliate links.)
I arbitrarily picked the day after Labor Day to get started with keto and, in spite of completely mismanaging the grocery shopping due to the holiday, I actually did it. I was pretty impressed with myself. Maybe you do the “but it’s not perfect” thing too – I get so hung up on details and making sure everything is just so that I never actually take action. It’s something I’m working on. (As a small aside, that’s true for this blog, too; it’s not laid out or set up exactly the way I’d like it, but I wanted to get it off the ground and THEN worry about the fiddly bits.)
So. So! I forgot that day one was also my son’s first day of preschool. Instead of the delicious cream cheese pancakes I’d anticipated, I ended up drinking Bulletproof Coffee instead. That’s black coffee thrown in a blender with butter and coconut oil. I think you’re supposed to use MCT oil, but I don’t have that, so. I added some Ez-Sweetz since I already had it on hand – I really like it for sweetening beverages; it doesn’t have a weird aftertaste, at least to me – and you know, it was pretty good. I was not at all convinced that it would be. I mean, really? Emulsified coffee? I think I liked the coconut flavor, though, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about the MCT oil version. (This, apparently, is better because it’s all medium-chain triglycerides. I don’t know. Again, I’m going with the “sort the details later” approach!) I also wasn’t hungry until lunch time, in spite of running around doing errands. Wild.
Lunch ended up just being eggs cooked like a crepe, since there was much fussing and screaming. We had nice horseradish dill chevre from our CSA. Both kids were happy to eat “egg pancake,” though honestly B will eat anything. I had some arugula or spinach with mine, I can’t remember which now. The baby eats spinach. The preschooler does not.
For dinner, instead of delicious wings (because Aldi was sold out), we had cheeseburgers. I ate a big salad with mine, and everyone else got a bun. Snacks were cheese and turkey sausage sticks, also from Aldi. (You’ll notice a theme around here, which is: I love Aldi.) I felt pretty good all day and thought, hey, this won’t be so bad! I wasn’t even tempted to buy the Jaffa cakes. Well, for like ten seconds. Keto had me feeling pretty boss, I have to say.
When I woke up on the second day, I felt hungover and generally awful. Keto flu, apparently, is a thing. I thought some caffeine might help, but it didn’t, really. So for lunch I ate tomatoes, spinach, chicken, and put lite salt on everything. Lite salt has potassium to spare, and is an important tool in the keto arsenal, it seems. I didn’t believe this could actually help but it did. I felt human again. Lesson learned: Keep up on the electrolytes. Apparently they’re really important if you are burning fat instead of carbs, as in a keto diet.
I totally had another cheeseburger for dinner, because they were around. So I need to work on meal diversity a little; this is another point where I could have thrown in the towel but decided instead to make do with good enough and use what was in the house. I can’t get over that I actually did. This is not typical for me.
After dinner, I found I was still pretty hungry, and I needed some serious fat grams and basically no carbs. I ended up making cream cheese frosting with Kerrygold butter, cream cheese, and Swerve confectioners-style sugar substitute. I bought a bundle on Amazon with granulated and powdered, basically hoping they’d taste OK, and they absolutely do. I couldn’t pick up any aftertaste. So, I love Ez-Sweetz for beverages and Swerve for baking/cooking, so far. Anyway, then I ate a quarter cup of frosting. I felt completely ridiculous, but hey, just following the macros, right?
So day three, I started the day with a 40oz Hydroflask filled with ice water. I added orange-tangerine Mio (that squeeze flavoring stuff you can buy at the grocery store) and like 2tsp of lite salt. It tastes like saltier Gatorade, but I put extra salt in margaritas and drink pickle juice, so that’s all good by me. I drank lots of this all day long and didn’t end up feeling gross. G likes it too but I don’t want to give him too much because I don’t know about salt load and young kidneys. Keeping it away from him constitutes exercise, I think. At this point my weight had actually gone up 2 pounds, but whatever.
I grabbed breakfast at Taco Bell since I didn’t have time to eat before taking G to preschool. It turns out you can order anything on their menu as a side, so I got eggs, steak, and cheese in a bowl. The mild sauce packets are free, too. It was tasty as heck.
Lunch and dinner were just simple; pastrami and cheese, and rotisserie chicken with lotsa zucchini and mushrooms.
Lunch was great. I used my Tupperware Smart Steamer (on which more anon, but it’s on sale right now; here’s my Tupperware site) to make cod and spinach. I put unsalted butter on it and pretended it was lobster (cod is good for that). It was actually quite tasty and both cod and spinach have lots of potassium. I actually missed breakfast – I definitely have to do some make-ahead stuff like egg bakes.
So here I am on day five. I haven’t given in and eaten a strawberry Pop-Tart yet, which means I just might make it. I weighed myself this morning and, from the highest point during the week, was down 9 pounds. Now, I am significantly obese and have a lot to lose, and a lot of that is water weight. But still. I should’ve signed up for a Dietbet, eh? I wouldn’t say I’m feeling a lot of energy, but I feel… okay. My face has started to break out like crazy, and I don’t know if it’s detoxing or what. Hopefully that goes away. I’ve read that going carb or gluten-free can result in clearer skin in the long term. I don’t see any difference in my face or anything but I’m sure I will eventually.
Today I plan to try a low-carb cheesecake. I’ll be sure to share it with you!
Have you tried a keto or low-carb diet? How did it work for you in terms of energy and mood, especially?