Save time with Freezer Meals

August 25th, 2014

freezing leftoversToday my 4-year-old son started preschool. That means summer has officially ended. While I’m a bit sad that summer has ended, I’m looking forward to our schedule getting into a more regular routine. However, I also know life will continue to be busy with activities. Therefore, I spent some time in my kitchen a couple of weeks ago preparing some meals to freeze. I enjoy freezing meals ahead of time because:

  • When I am busy I can have a meal on the table in just a few minutes.
  • I am less likely to run to the drive thru or buy convenience food that isn’t as healthy for my family.
  • My husband (not a fan of cooking) can make dinner on his own because all he needs to do is reheat.

 

When planning what dishes I would make, I browsed through the recipes on our Spend Smart Eat Smart website. I wanted to be sure to select recipes that used a variety of protein sources and flavors. The recipes I decided to make were Chicken Fajitas, Ham and Brown Rice, Sloppy Joes, and Mexican Chicken Soup. I also thought it would be nice to make a couple of recipes that would help us have a quick, healthy breakfast. For these dishes I chose Scrambled Egg Muffins and Crispy Granola.

frozen meals blog

After I had the list of recipes I wanted to make, I looked through my cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer to see what ingredients I already had on hand. Some of the items I already had were chicken broth, eggs, onion, frozen peas, carrots, a couple of peppers, different spices, and hamburger. I then made a grocery list and bought the other ingredients that I needed the day before I planned to do my cooking.

I started the morning of my cooking day by chopping vegetables that I needed. Three of the recipes called for onions and peppers so I chopped those so they were ready for each of the recipes. I also chopped some broccoli for the Scrambled Egg Muffins. My family doesn’t like cooked celery so I chopped carrots to use in the Sloppy Joes in place of celery.

I made the Scrambled Egg Muffins first so they could bake while I started on the other dishes. This recipe is easy to double so if you have a larger family or just want to freeze more muffins that can easily be done.  The Ham and Brown Rice makes 9 cups so it could be split and frozen separately to get two meals if your family is smaller.

The Sloppy Joes and Chicken Enchiladas were easy to make. I just cooked the meat and vegetables for each recipe to freeze. When we are ready to eat them, all I have to do is warm them up and have the other ingredients ready to go to assemble the sandwiches or fajitas.

The Mexican Chicken Soup and Granola simmered and baked while I made the other recipes. It only took me about 3 hours to make all of the dishes and get them packaged to freeze and I have 5 meals ready to go in my freezer (Yes, my children were out of the house. Otherwise it would have taken me double the time to get this doneJ) I froze the egg muffins individually until firm so they wouldn’t freeze together, then I put them in a plastic bag in the freezer. The other dishes, I let cool for about 20 minutes at room temperature before putting in plastic bags, labeling, and putting in the freezer.

For best quality when freezing food, use containers that seal well and keep air out. If using plastic freezer bags, be sure to press out the air before sealing. Air is what causes freezer burn. Check out our ‘How to Freeze Leftovers’ video for more information on freezing food. For best quality, use frozen food within 3-4 months.

I’m looking forward to the nights this fall when I can come home from work and will just have to heat up one of the meals for supper!

Jodi Signature

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Manage Food Spending with Online Calculator

August 18th, 2014

grocery storeYes, grocery prices have gone up.  Do you wonder if you could eat nutritiously and spend less on food for your family?

If so, our online calculator provides the weekly and monthly amount your family needs to spend for nutritious meals on USDA’s Low-cost Plan. To use the calculator you will need the age, gender, and number of meals eaten away from home for each member of your household. You can also get information about the other three USDA food plans: Thrifty, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal.

How does this amount compare with what you spend?  Sometimes it is hard to monitor how much you spend on food each month because we purchase food at numerous places and times throughout the month. Our page about tracking your food expenses can help. This includes some helpful suggestions and questions to ask yourself about your spending habits.

If you decide to you want to spend less on food our website SpendSmart EatSmart is devoted to eating nutritiously on a budget.

Peggy Signature

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What I have learned being part of the SSES Team

August 11th, 2014

I joined the Spend Smart Eat Smart Team as a junior here at Iowa State University, a little over a year after I no longer had an on-campus meal plan so I was buying my own groceries and preparing my own meals. I liked to cook but struggled when it came to knowing how to budget my spending on groceries as well as how to reduce food waste in my kitchen.

I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work, grow and learn both professionally and personally through this job experience. Because this is my final blog post as a part of the Spend Smart Eat Smart Team I thought it would be appropriate to share with you a few lessons I’ve learned through working on this team as well as my favorite Spend Smart recipes.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned through working with the Spend Smart Eat Smart team is how to use my freezer in a way that saves me time, money, and stress.
1. Buy frequently used items in bulk when they are on sale to save money.

frequent frozen items

Rather than buying frequently used frozen items at full price when I need them or occasionally getting lucky with a sale, I watch for the sale and then purchase multiple packages. This saves me money in both the price of the actual item as well as a trip to the grocery store because I already have it on hand.  See the table below for recommended freezer storage time.

freezer storage chart

“Freezing and Food Safety.” Food Safety and Inspection Service. USDA, 15 June 2013. Web. 30 July 2014.

2. Freeze leftovers or make a meal specifically for freezing with a future hectic day in mind.

As a college student I had a few hectic days (the group project meeting that was suppose to take an hour and ended up taking 3….) that left me staring into my refrigerator at 8 pm – starving, grumpy, tired and wondering what to eat. While it is hard to control things not going as planned, it is not hard to plan dinner for those days! I learned to simply freeze a portion or two of leftovers or I would anticipate a stressful week and prepare and freeze an entire meal. Nothing was better than coming home exhausted from a long day and knowing I was a few minutes away from having a delicious home cooked meal.

Soups, Enchiladas, and Ham and Brown Rice are my go-to freezer meals.

Finally, I thought I would highlight my top 7 all-time favorite Spend Smart recipes (my top 10 would spill the beans about upcoming recipes so stay tuned!!). If you are looking for a budget friendly, delicious, quick meal definitely check these out.

1. Quick Pad Thai
2. Pan Fried Tilapia with Orange Sauce
3. Whole Grain Cereal treat
4. No Knead Whole Wheat Bread
5. MmmmmGood Fruit Pizza
6. Ham and Brown Rice
7. Chocolate Surprise Cupcakes

I’m excited to take the lessons I have learned and recipes with me to Peoria, IL as I begin my dietetic internship. I look forward to keeping in touch with Spend Smart Eat Smart via the Facebook page.

-Liz

2014 ISU Dietetics Graduate

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Easy Quick Pad Thai

August 4th, 2014

PadThai_closeup smallIn August I eat salads, grill, or do quick stove-top meals. Quick Pad Thai is one of those stove-top all-in-one meals I usually serve in a bowl. We modeled it after the street food in Thailand but with ingredients you can easily find in the Midwest. Ours uses whole wheat spaghetti but you could use the more traditional rice noodles. When I make this in the summer I use whatever vegetables are ready in the garden and in the winter I use frozen vegetables. Bright colored veggies such as red pepper, broccoli, and snap peas look great.

I use either chunky or smooth peanut butter, whatever I have open and I make light soy sauce by mixing equal parts water and regular soy sauce.

One caution, after you cut up the chicken make sure you wash the cutting board knife and your hands with hot water and soap so you don’t transfer bacteria to the other ingredients.

Quick Pad Thai

Serving Size: 1 1/4 cups | Serves: 6 | Cost Per Serving: $1.06

Ingredients: Quick Pad Thai label

  • 6 ounces whole wheat thin spaghetti
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 24 ounces frozen vegetable mix or chopped fresh veggies
  • 3 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 pound boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup chopped peanuts

Instructions: 

  1. Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain in colander and toss with 1 tablespoon oil.
  2. Defrost vegetables in microwave for 5 minutes and drain well (as spaghetti cooks).
  3. Combine soy sauce, water, peanut butter, and sugar in a small bowl. Stir until smooth and set aside.
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add chicken pieces and cook and stir until no longer pink (heat chicken to at least 165°F).
  5. Crack eggs into a small bowl and beat. Add to pan with chicken and scramble until firm. Add the vegetables and spaghetti to the pan with the chicken mixture. Stir to heat through.
  6. Add the soy sauce mixture to the pan and stir to coat veggies and spaghetti.
  7. Place in serving bowl and sprinkle peanuts on top.

Peggy Signature

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Grilled Chicken Dinner: Take out or Homemade

July 28th, 2014

chicken sandwichFor our series comparing homemade to quick serve restaurant food I decided to compare a grilled chicken meal from Wendy’s with my own version at home. When I’m deciding on food I take time, money and nutrition into consideration. Check out the sections below to see my comparison.

NUTRITION

My grilled chicken meal has 200 fewer calories, less fat and less sodium than the Wendy’s meals. I added milk to my meal which we would drink at home, but probably wouldn’t get at the drive through.

Both of the Wendy’s sandwiches and meals have similar calories but the source of the calories is different.  The Crispy (code word for fried) sandwich has about half the protein (less meat) but 100 more calories from fat than the grilled sandwich.  The larger portion of chicken and bigger bun in the Grilled Chicken meal is reflected in the price. The Crispy Chicken Sandwich costs $1.49 while the Ultimate Chicken Grilled Costs $4.59.

COST

My homemade meal included:

  • Grilled Chicken on a whole grain bun with lettuce and onion
  • A romaine lettuce salad with added green pepper,  radishes and Italian dressing
  • non-fat milk
  • a chocolate ice cream bar

It costs $2.56 per person or $10.24 for 4 people. I used frozen chicken breasts because they cost $6.99 for a 3 pound bag and the butcher case breasts were $3.69 per pound. I could have saved a dollar by buying ‘wheat’ buns instead of whole wheat but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the nutrition. By cleaning and cutting the romaine I got two meals of lettuce for the same price as the 12 ounce bag of pre-washed and chopped lettuce.

The grilled chicken meal with a side salad and junior frosty would cost $6.59 each or $25.96 for 4.

The crispy chicken sandwich with a side salad and junior frosty would be $3.50 for 1 for $14 for 4.

TIME

The time to drive to Wendy’s from my house during 5:30 traffic, wait in the drive up and drive home is 31 minutes.

I figure it took about 35 minutes at home. The day before our meal, I put the frozen chicken breasts a in a plastic bag to thaw in the refrigerator. (2 minutes)

grilled chicken chart

When I got home I started the grill to heat, then pounded the chicken breasts so they were about the same thickness and added bottled Italian dressing for a marinade. While the grill finished heating I set the table and prepared the salad. (10 minutes)

Cooking the chicken took about 8 minutes, cooking on both sides to get it to 160 degrees (my digital thermometer is one of my best purchases). Cooking time will vary by the grill temperature and breast thickness. I took the chicken breast off the grill and covered it while I got people to the table and poured the milk. The temperature rose to 165 and the meat was still juicy. Ice Cream bars for dessert took no time at all. (10 minutes)

Clean-up was simple, five minutes and I was done!

Peggy Signature

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Take-out vs. Homemade Lunch: Time, Cost and Nutrition

July 21st, 2014

Fast food is expensive and most options are not as healthy as homemade meals. As a recent college graduate entering the workforce I’m learning there is a “life” aspect that can’t be ignored. I, like you, value my time, health and money so I wondered – is take-out lunch really more expensive, less nutritious and quicker than a homemade version? The Spend Smart Eat Smart Team sent me on a mission and here is what I found:

lunch blog chart 2

It was really easy to locate nutrition and serving size information on my favorite burrito shop’s website. I was able to easily recreate a burrito with the exact same flavors at home.

There are two different ways I’m excited to customize my homemade burritos in the future.

The first is the ingredients. When getting take-out there is only one kind of rice, flavor of chicken and limited vegetables to choose from. When I make the burritos at home I’m able to add more or less lettuce and tomato or season my rice with chili powder and cumin rather than eat it plain. When I made my homemade burritos I used brown rice and added chili powder, onion, green chilies and tomato sauce to make a Spanish rice. I am also looking forward to customizing the size of my homemade burritos. I’m not sure what your experience is, but I can never finish an entire take-out burrito in one sitting. The leftovers either end up in the trash or I save it for a second meal (but by then the lettuce is slimy – boo). When making burritos at home, I’m able to make a burrito of an appropriate size for my appetite.

Although it took me longer to prepare the homemade burrito compared to take-out, I ended up with six burritos with rice, beans, cheese and chicken in them. I wrapped each burrito in plastic wrap, put them in a freezer bag and stored them in the freezer. In the future for an easy (and cheap) lunch from the freezer, I’ll just thaw, reheat, throw some lettuce, sour cream and tomato on it and enjoy a burrito in less than 10 minutes.

If I were to get take-out once a week for the next month I would have to commit to:

$27.44 | 1 hour and 15 minutes of time | Four DAYS worth of sodium in only four MEALS.

If I were to make my burritos at home and eat them once a week I would commit to:

$8.04 | 35 minutes of time | 4,900 fewer milligrams of sodium.

burrito blog

I was really surprised by how easy it was to make my own tasty burritos at home. Although it took more time and planning on the front end, homemade burritos on average took 6 minutes of time per burrito compared to the 19 minutes take-out took. My perception of how “fast” fast food really is has changed.

I wonder what results I would get if I compared a take-out sub sandwich to a homemade one. I’m definitely rethinking and re-planning the time and money I have spent on fast food that is actually easy to make at home, what about you?

-Liz

2014 ISU Dietetics Graduate

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Drive Thru vs. Homemade Breakfast: Time, Cost and Nutrition

July 14th, 2014

It’s 7:00 on Tuesday and I have about ten minutes to make breakfast, eat and get out the door. I’m tired and rushed, but I know I feel much better when I eat breakfast. Cooking in the morning when I’m in a hurry can be a real pain. It is tempting to just head out the door and swing past the drive thru for a breakfast sandwich on my way to work, but I wonder if that would really save me time. It is certainly convenient to have someone else make my breakfast, but I decided to do a little experiment. I wanted to learn if I could make something that was inexpensive, fast and healthy that also tasted just as good as the drive thru breakfast (or maybe even better!).

Here is what I found…

drivethruchart

homemadechart

The Verdict

  • I learned that I can make a comparable breakfast in the same amount of time as the drive thru for less money. If I had this sandwich once per week for a year, I would save over $75 by making my sandwiches at home. This makes the drive thru seem a little less attractive.
  • I enjoyed my breakfast much more eating at home and I was able to customize my sandwich to my tastes. For example, I chose a whole wheat English muffin and cheddar cheese instead of American cheese. In the future, I will try this sandwich with sliced tomatoes and peppers. I think that would be really good and add very few calories and no fat. I could also make the egg part of my sandwich ahead by using our recipe for Scrambled Egg Muffins. All I would need to do in the morning is reheat the Scrambled Egg Muffin and pop it on toast or an English muffin.
  • This experiment really shows how difficult it can be to limit sodium in your diet. My homemade sandwich had more sodium than I would like and I did not add any salt. This is not something I can eat every day and perhaps in the future I will choose either Canadian bacon or cheese, but not both because they are high in sodium.

Our blogs for the next few weeks will be about fast food make-overs. Share your ideas for restaurant remakes in the comments or on Spend Smart. Eat Smart’s. Facebook page!

s Signature-1

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Chicken Fajitas

July 7th, 2014

chicken fajitasWhen it is hot outside heating the oven to cook seems counterproductive and sometimes I’m just too lazy to start the grill. A dish that will cook quickly on the stove top seems to work the best. This recipe does require some chopping, but it goes together very fast. Plus, when you make it yourself you control the amount of fat used, which can be an issue with restaurant meals.

As the first step indicates, partially freezing any meat or poultry will make these slices possible.  Likewise, a sharp knife for cutting the onion, peppers and tomatoes will make your life much easier. Just make sure to wash your knife and cutting board after you work with the chicken.

As with all of our recipes, you need to adjust this one to your family’s tastes and what is available. Use the color of peppers and onions you like or have on hand. Use corn or wheat tortillas and substitute beef or pork for the chicken. You could also go meatless and use 1 can (15 ounces) of drained and rinsed black beans.

Chicken Fajitas

Serving Size: 1 tortilla with 2/3 cup filling

Serves: 6 (makes 4 cups of filling)

Ingredients: chicken fajitas label

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 6 whole wheat tortillas, 8-inch
  • Optional Toppings:6 ounces shredded low fat cheddar cheese; 1 cup chopped tomato;, chopped cilantro; sliced jalapeno

Instructions: 

  1. Freeze chicken 30 minutes until firm and easier to cut. Cut chicken into 1/4-inch strips. Place in a single layer on a plate. Wash hands, knife, and cutting board. Sprinkle both sides of strips with chili and garlic powder.
  2. Add oil to a 12-inch skillet. Heat to medium high. Add chicken strips. Cook about 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. Add bell peppers and onion. Stir and cook until vegetables are tender and chicken is no longer pink. (Heat chicken to at least 165°F).
  4. Scoop chicken mixture ( 2/3 cup each) onto tortillas. Top with your favorite toppings.
  5. Serve flat or rolled

Tips:

  • Heat cold tortillas to make them easier to fold. Cover tortillas with a moist paper towel and heat 30 seconds in microwave.
  • Wear plastic gloves to handle hot peppers. No gloves? Wash hands with soap and water before touching your face, your cooking utensils, or another person.
  • 3 cups of pepper = 2 medium peppers

Peggy Signature

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Will Eating More Vegetables Cause you to Gain Weight?

June 30th, 2014

vegetables variety

There is a new report out by the Economic Research Service called ‘Healthy Vegetables Undermined by the Company They Keep’ that really surprised me. It makes me question my mantra to always “eat more fruits and vegetables”.

In a nutshell, the report said that eating more fruit is associated with healthier weight but that Americans who eat more vegetables may actually increase their calorie and sodium intake. How can that be? Vegetables are naturally low in calories and sodium.

The report found that when many Americans eat vegetables they prepare them in ways that add calories and sodium while reducing fiber. So, if you eat more vegetables you will also get more fat, sodium, and calories.

I think the disconnect is that when I recommend eating more vegetables I am thinking roasted sweet potatoes or Brussels sprouts, raw baby carrots, spinach salads, steamed green beans, raw broccoli and cauliflower florets, etc. But some people hear this recommendation and automatically think about the vegetables they are used to eating such as French fries, cheesy potatoes, green bean casserole, 7 layer salad, zucchini bread, hash browns, pizza with mushrooms, spinach dip, etc.

In the future I’m going to modify my message about vegetables.  Here are a few of my modifications:

1. Most of us need to eat twice as many vegetables as we do.  But all vegetables are not created equal. Different colored vegetables provide different nutrients. Try to eat more of the dark green and orange vegetables.  Most of us don’t need to eat more white potatoes which we often fry or eat with butter or cheese.  Tomatoes are another tricky one. Fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes with no salt added are healthier choices than tomatoes cooked into pizza and spaghetti sauce which are typically high in sodium.

Dark Green Vegetables
raw baby spinach
broccoli
romaine lettuce
Orange Vegetables
baby carrots
baked sweet potato
Dry Beans*
and Peas

cooked black beans
cooked kidney beans
cooked pinto beans
Starchy Vegetables
cooked corn
baked potato
Other Vegetables
raw cauliflower
cooked green beans
iceberg lettuce
raw mushrooms
red onion
raw tomato
tomato juice
raw zucchini

2. Try to eat your vegetables without added calories and sodium.

Eat more of these…
Eat less of these…
Relish Trays or individual snack bags with raw vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms Creamed or au gratin vegetables
Spinach salad with reduced fat dressing Spinach dip
Roasted or grilled sweet potatoes or  Easy Roasted Vegetables White potatoes topped with generous amounts of butter and sour cream
Raw vegetable salads with a small amounts of reduced-fat dressing such as Creamy Cauliflower Salad or Summer Bounty Salad Raw broccoli/cauliflower salads with almost as much sour cream and mayo as vegetables
Roasted Tomato and Spinach Pasta or Cheesy Pasta with Summer Vegetables Pastas with lots of cream, cheese, or  canned sauces with lots of sodium

3.  Pay attention to labels. The sodium varies greatly on canned vegetables and tomato-based sauces and soups. Compare the labels so you can choose one with less sodium. Calorie labeling will soon be available in restaurant chains with 20 or more establishments and you can ask managers to provide the information in local restaurants.

Peggy Signature

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How many fruits and vegetables do you need?

June 23rd, 2014

Here are the facts.fruit salad in bowl

  • Most of us know that we need to eat fruits and vegetables.
  • Few of us eat what we need.
  • Many of us don’t know how much we (or our children) need when it comes to fruits and veggies.
  • Most of us need to eat a bigger variety of fruits and especially vegetables and prepare them without lots of added salt, fat and sugar (more on that next week).

I am fortunate that I grew up eating lots of fruits and vegetables and now that my kids are adults they enjoy a wide variety as well. My grandson, age 14 months will eat most fruits but he is not as fond of vegetables. Right now adding vegetables to his favorites seems to work best. I added shredded carrots to sloppy joes, small chunks of vegetables to macaroni and cheese, etc. With time and lots of exposure I bet he will learn to enjoy the different colors and flavors.

Jody Gatewood, from our SpendSmart team, discusses  the amounts of fruits and vegetables you need every day and some easy ways to get them into your meals and snacks. We also have a handout you can print on this topic.

Peggy Signature

 

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