Spend Smart and Eat Smart for the Holidays

young girl drinking mugI’ve just returned from vacation in North Carolina. One of the things I am grateful for is food prices here in Iowa. We don’t appreciate how good we have it until we shop on either coast for groceries. Since my cupboard was bare, I needed to make a trip to the grocery store. Big surprise, my store finished a renovation while I was gone which includes a much larger produce section, which is great. However, they have also devoted half of an aisle to holiday candy. Halloween candy is hardly gone when the Christmas candy moves in. Add in all the holiday baking and no wonder budgets and weights get out of control at this time of year

We can take different approaches to spending smart and eating smart this time of year. Some sticklers would say “I’m going to diet and make a strict list of how much to spend on every gift” while others pledge to “enjoy the season and eat and spend what I want”. I have used both approaches over the years with insignificant success.

Here’s my list of strategies to enjoy the holidays while keeping my budget and health in check.

1. Keep it simple. We eat and spend more when we have multiple entrees, side dishes and desserts. Let the flavor of the food shine instead of adding lots of ingredients, calories and cost.  Serve fresh green beans instead of green bean casserole, roasted sweet potatoes instead of mashed with marshmallows and butter, and fresh vegetable platters instead of rich appetizers.
2. Eat the dishes you want, but take half a portion. You get to enjoy festive holiday flavors with half the calories.
3. Limit eating out. Entertain with a theme such as game/card night; movie night, skating or sledding. Serve soup, crusty bread, and holiday cookies or another simple menu.
4. Make it from scratch. You can make lots of cookies, rolls or quick breads for the same price as a pound of purchased chocolates. Plus you can make your goodies healthier.

      • You can alter most recipes by cutting the fat, sugar and salt a little and no one will notice a difference in taste. You can reduce a cup of fat or sugar to 2/3 cup and you can cut the salt by half.
      • If you are interested in more ideas for substitutions check out this free publication from Texas A&M Extension, (Altering Recipes for Good Health).

5. Give gifts of food.  It’s not too late to make cocoa, tea, or soup mix. I like to give prepared meals that I put in freezer containers.

    • I put a whole meal (entrée and sides) in the container for friends and relatives who live alone.
    • corn chip chiliFor young families I make family size entrees and put them in larger containers.
    • You can buy inexpensive containers and add a kitchen towel or mixing spoon to complete the gift.  I remember years ago I kept this gift going for several months by taking the container home and refilling it for my grandpa.
    • Check our post Food Gifts: Give of your time and talent, save dollars for more ideas.

Peggy Signature


Save on your 4th of July Picnic

Liz Veggie tray

Whether it is a Superbowl party, a bridal shower, 4th of July, or Christmas, vegetable trays are always on the table. Recently my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and their party was  no different; a vegetable tray was on the menu. My original instinct was to go with the convenience of a pre-made vegetable tray because I thought it would be comparable in price. Then Spend Smart asked me to compare the prices and time between homemade and purchased veggie trays. BOY WAS I SURPRISED! Preparing my own tray compared to buying the already assembled tray cost a third the cost of the assembled tray. For that savings I am willing to spend the 23 minutes it took me to prepare the vegetables.

Through this exercise, I learned some things I am going to use for the relish tray I am preparing for my 4th of July picnic. I am going to check out prices of vegetables at other stores to see if I can get a better price. If I have time I will check out a farmers market.

  • I am going to substitute green or red peppers for the celery. I like them better, the cost is about the same and the time to prepare them is less than the celery…that way I only have the broccoli to cut up.  I might also substitute olives or pickles for one of the other vegetables.
  • If all the vegetables I buy do not fit on my tray, I will just bag them up to use as snacks (they are already washed, chopped and ready to eat), or used them later in the week as a side such as a broccoli cauliflower salad.
  • If there are kids that want to help, this would be a good way to get them involved with a party.

A little planning in advance can save you a bunch of money when it comes to vegetables trays. (I wonder how much money is to be saved with fruit trays?)

Here is how I figured the cost:

1) First, went to the produce department and talked with an extremely helpful young woman about their prices for already made trays and the weight of each of the vegetables on the tray

2) I purchased each of the vegetables that were on the pre-made vegetables tray.

3) Twenty-three minutes later I finished washing, chopping, and weighing the vegetables.

Food safety is extremely important, especially when you are feeding others. Here’s one of our new video that shows how easy it is to wash vegetables.

Liz Breuer

Healthy Snacks for Kids Don’t Have to Cost More

I am not against my children having cupcakes for a friend’s birthday or candy here and there…it’s all about teaching balance. However, I do feel that I have to be stricter about the snacks that I provide for them at home, just due to the fact of all the kinds of snacks they are exposed to when they are away from home. In addition, I have discovered the snacks that I have at home really have an impact on what they eat at mealtime. If they know that there are chips in the cupboard waiting for them after dinner, why would they want to eat their dinner? When it’s your family’s turn to bring snacks to school or activities opt for healthier options. You, along with the other adults, might be surprised at the children’s reaction.

But does healthier mean more money? Not necessarily! It’s all about being a smart and creative shopper. Here are some examples for classroom snacks:

Classroom Snacks – 24 children

Option A
(recently brought by a parent at my daughter’s preschool):

  • Fruit snacks (24 count): $3.98
  • Mini powdered donuts (10.5 oz): $2.19 x 2 = $4.38
  • Juice boxes $4.77

Total: $13.13

Option B: Mix Your Own Trail Mix

  • Raisins or Craisins: $2.50
  • Pretzel sticks: $1.99
  • Whole grain fish crackers (11 oz): $3.49
  • Chocolate whole grain cereal: $2.50
  • Resealable Sandwich Bags: $1.00
  • Cups for Water: $1.50

Total: $12.98

Your Child’s Birthday Classroom Party – 24 children

Option A

  • Store made cupcakes: $18.99
  • Hi-C juice boxes: $5.00

Total: $23.99

Option B
(I have tried this with my daughter’s class, it was a hit!):

  • Low-fat vanilla yogurt (32 ounce container): $3.26 x 3: $ 9.78
  • Fruity Cheerios for bottom of cup and topping (1 box): $2.50
  • Bananas (1/2 per child): $2.65 ($0.59/lb)
  • Party cups (your child’s choice!): $4.99
  • Spoons: $1.00

Total: $20.92

Other ideas to get the most nutritional “bang for your buck:”

Yogurt tubes: $7.03

16 pack: $4.54 + 8 pack: $2.54

vs. Pudding cups: $8.72

6 pack: $2.18

Baby carrots: $5.00

2 lb bag: $2.50 x 2

vs. Small bags of chips: $7.99
String cheese: $7.18

12 pack: $3.59 x 2

vs. Crackers and cheese spread packs: $8.78

15 pack: $5.49

Clementines: $5.97

(5 lb bag)

vs. Capri Sun Coolers: $6.00

10 pack: $2.50

Boxes of raisins $5.28
6 pack: $1.32 x 4
vs. Fruit Roll-Ups: $6.45

10 pack: $2.68

What do you bring when it’s your turn? Please pass along your ideas…

Additional Resources

Guest Blogger, Carrie Scheidel

The Basics of Kitchen Organization

In the last few days, I’ve been reading a lot about organizing kitchens and how kitchen organization relates to saving money.  The three common themes I found are listed below:

1. Create “centers” in your kitchen around common activities. Common activities include: food storage, cooking and serving, cleanup, planning/messages, and eating. The idea of centers is that you group all the items that will be used on a task close to each other. For instance silverware, plates, and glasses,  are stored close to the dishwasher or drying area so you can just stand and put them away rather than carrying them across the room. Baking ingredients including flour, sugar,  leavening, and baking tools are grouped together in another location for a baking center.

I thought I was doing pretty well creating “centers” but I made a couple of changes that I think will help my organization. I moved my rolls of foil, plastic wrap, and plastic bags directly across from the refrigerator so I can easily prepare foods for the refrigerator or freezer. I included marking pens to write what is in them plus the date (so as not to have more UFO-unidentified food objects).

I moved my colander and cutting boards under the sink. To make room for them, I moved the vases and plant care items that I won’t use until spring to a box in the garage.

2. Get rid of items you are not using. The old rule about getting rid of clothes you haven’t worn also applies to serving dishes, utensils, and small appliances: If you haven’t used it in a year you probably don’t need it. I was ashamed of my cooking utensil drawer so I decided to do what all the experts say: lay everything out, clean, remove duplicates, remove items you do not use, and remove items that belong somewhere else. I like the results of my work and I think I can keep it in order now that the drawer isn’t so full.

Utensil Drawer Before

Utensil Drawer After

Removed From Drawer

3. Store the items you use the most between your shoulders and knees and in the front where they will be visible.  This way, it is easy to find what you are looking for and quick to put items away.  I moved my flour and sugar canisters to the bottom cupboard instead of using prime space in my top cupboard because I don’t bake every day.  In their place, I put the coffee filters, tea bags, and travel cups that I use often.

I am happy with the changes I made. I think it will make food preparation and clean up faster and less stressful. The key, of course, will be if I can follow through and put things back where they belong.

If you would like to read more on this subject, here are 2 great resources:

Essential Kitchen Tool kit This kit from the Canned Food Alliance has great tips on kitchen organization.

Dealing with Clutter in the Kitchen This page is part of a website that includes ideas for clutter reduction all over the house

Next week: How to organize your pantry and how to tell if food is still good.

How Being Organized Saves Money

Does an organized kitchen save money?  I say yes because:

  • If you are organized, you won’t buy duplicates of things you already have. Can you see in your cupboards? How many jars of cumin and cans of cream of celery soup do you really need?
  • If you are organized, you will throw away less food like leftovers hidden at the back of the refrigerator or frozen meat left so long it has freezer burn.
  • If you are organized, your kitchen will be more enjoyable to work in and it will take less time to make a meal and clean up.
  • If you are organized and know what you will make for dinner, you will be less inclined to buy fast food or rush through the deli section of the grocery store.
  • If you are organized, you will know where the coupons are that you cut out and you will use them before they expire.

During January, our SpendSmart.EatSmart blog will feature tips for getting organized in the kitchen.

Please start us out by sharing some of your tips or thoughts about organization. (Just go to our blog site and in the upper right corner by tittle and date click on the comment section and add your ideas)

I’ll start.  When I was a kid my mom used to tell us “There is a place for everything and everything in its place.”  When we lost something she would say “If you pick up everything and put it away you will find it.”   (she was usually right)

Sweet and Sour Rice Dinner

My daughter shared with me that she spent the afternoon helping her friend make meals to put in the freezer. Her friend has young children, a new job, and a husband who has to be out of town a night or two each week. It sounded like the girls had a great time working together plus they came up with several meals that will be ready to go on hectic nights.

Our featured recipe this month, Sweet and Sour Rice Dinner, could be doubled or tripled for make ahead meals. The recipe includes ingredients for a tasty sweet and sour sauce but you could also use a bottled version if you prefer. The dish goes together smoothly if you measure and prepare all ingredients ahead of time.

If you have already cooked chicken to use just cook the sauce ingredients (step 6) and stir in the chicken and veggies. Cook for about 5 minutes to heat and serve over rice.

All you need to make this a full meal is some fruit and a glass of milk.

Sweet and Sour Rice Dinner

Serving Size:  2/3 cup rice, 1¼ cup topping

Servings:  5


  • 16 ounces chicken (skinless, boneless)
  • 1 bag (16-ounce) frozen stir-fry veggies
  • ¼ cup prepared sweet and sour sauce
  • OR make your own mixture
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1½ tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon ketchup
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 2 cups instant uncooked brown rice
  • 1 can (8-ounce) pineapple chunks with juice


  1. Cut chicken into ¾ inch pieces. Wash your hands thoroughly.
  2. Remove stir-fry veggies from freezer to thaw.
  3. Optional: Make sweet and sour sauce. Mix the sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Stir in water, soy sauce, vinegar, and ketchup. Set aside.
  4. Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot, add chicken and cook until done. Remove chicken to a bowl and set aside. Set frying pan aside.
  5. Heat water for rice to boiling. Add rice. Let rice cook according to the package directions.
  6. Return skillet (used to cook chicken) to the stove. Add sauce ingredients from above. Cook over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly OR add the prepared sweet and sour sauce.
  7. Stir in the pineapple (undrained), vegetables, and chicken. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook about 5 minutes.
  8. Serve chicken and veggie mixture on top of the rice.

What is Cheaper: Turkey or Ham?

Thanksgiving is about 10 days away. Have you started to plan your dinner? The biggest expense of the meal will probably be the ham or turkey (or both) that you buy. The grocery ads are full of deals, like buy a ham and get a turkey free. Or buy $50 in groceries and get a $5 off coupon for your turkey. I was curious, so I stopped by 5 different stores to check out prices. I went to Hy-Vee, Fareway, Aldi, Dahls, and Wal-Mart.

Here are the costs I found. Whole turkey prices range from $.88 to $1.19 a pound. Boneless, spiral cut hams are about $3.50 a pound. Bone-in ham varies from $1.48 to 1.98 a pound. Both ham and turkey are priced to lure you to the store.

Number of 3 ounce servings per pound Cost per pound Cost per serving
Turkey 2 $ 0.99 $ 0.50
Ham, boneless 4 $ 3.50 $ 0.88
Ham, bone-in 3.5 $ 1.80 $ 0.51

The simple answer is turkey and the bone-in ham cost about the same with boneless ham costing significantly more. But, as usual, every situation is different. Below are some comments/questions with some of my thoughts.

Doesn’t matter what it costs. I want to serve both ham and turkey and make sure we have enough. Ok, but when you are buying, remember you can cut back on the amount you buy because people will eat some, but not a whole serving of each.

Is the buy a ham, get a free turkey a good deal? That deal was to buy about 7 pounds of boneless ham at $3.50 ($24.50 total) and get a 12 pound turkey free. You would get about 28 3 oz. servings of ham and 24 3 ounce servings of turkey. So you would get 40 servings for $24.50 at .61/serving. If you want a boneless ham it is a good deal. But it would be cheaper to by the bone-in ham and turkey separately.

We are saving for Christmas gifts so I don’t want to spend a lot. I would get either a boneless ham or the turkey. If you have time, go for the turkey and make soup from the turkey bone (that way you can stretch the cost over several meals). A couple of years ago we developed a Healthy Holiday Dinner Menu with Recipes.

I am exhausted after our Thanksgiving meal. Maybe we should just go out to eat. Last year in the blogI shared my Top 5 tips to save time, money, stress and calories for Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe you will find an idea that works for you.

My turkey is always dry so I think I’ll have ham this year. Are you cooking the turkey too long? Try using a meat thermometer (sometimes the pop-up timers fail). Put the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh because the dark meat of the turkey thigh takes longer to cook than any other part. When the thermometer is at 165 degrees, it is done.

My grandpa says he can’t eat ham so we will have turkey. From a health standpoint both ham and turkey are great sources of protein, but turkey provides significant less fat if you skip the skin. Ham also has more than 10 times the sodium and may contain nitrates.

Have a Great Holiday.

What’s for Lunch? It’s in the Bag.

A few weeks ago I invited myself to lunch at three different middle schools in Central Iowa.  My “hosts” were  two of my nieces and a friend’s son.  I learned a lot about the changes to school lunches during those visits. I also had a chance to observe some of what I call ‘sack lunches’, although hardly anybody uses paper bags anymore.

The majority of the sack lunches were not very healthy.  Most of them included some sort of bread (rarely whole grain), some protein food, crackers, chips, cookies, and fruit drink or fruit.  Vegetables were rarely included.  I wish I would have taken more pictures, but I was so busy taking pictures of the school lunch trays that I didn’t get any of the sack lunches.  I did find a couple of images on the internet that are very close to what I observed.

Photo courtesy of

I think some suggestions on lunches to take to school plus packing lunches the night before might improve the quality.

My colleagues, Ruth Litchfield and Cathy Strohbehn, collaborated on two new publications about lunches to go.  Whether you are packing lunches for yourself to take to work or for your children, these are free and worth a look.  Both can be ordered or downloaded from the ISU Extension and Outreach Online store.

The one page abbreviated version is called MyPlate Lunch Bag Ideas. In this publication, you will find great menu ideas to pack your child’s lunch bag with MyPlate healthy foods. You’ll find kid-friendly foods for fruits, veggies, protein, grains, and dairy.  You will also find preparation and packing tips to keep foods at a safe temperature.

The longer, more detailed version is What’s for Lunch? It’s in the Bag.  It will give you ideas and know how for packing healthy lunches your child will want to eat. It contains tips for preparing and packing food safely as well as menu tips for lunch bag meals. It also includes research data on best methods to keep foods at safe temperatures.


How much money do you spend on food each day?

This is a question I have been asking myself since I saw this blog, $4 A Day Challenge.  Stephanie Moore, a channel 13 (WHOTV, Des Moines, IA) reporter decided to take on the challenge of eating for $4 each day for a week.  Why $4?  That is the average amount a person receives for Food Assistance.

For some people, Food Assistance is the only money they have to spend on food each month.  That means that they have to budget to spend only $4 each day on the food they need to stay healthy.  Last June, this became an immediate need for many Iowa families when the Missouri river flooded, destroying their homes and their source of income (farms, job sites).  Over the past several years, many job sites have closed in Iowa, leaving people without income and needing Food Assistance to feed their families.  It is not surprising that the number of people receiving Food Assistance in Iowa has increased.

So, was the news reporter able to make it on $4 each day?  Yes, she was, and you can see more of the story here.  And, how much do I spend on food each day?  For my three person family, we spend about $5-6 per person each day.

Justine Hoover, MS, RD, LD

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Super Bowl party on a budget

Super Bowl 2012 is set … the Giants and Patriots on February 5th. When it comes to the party, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a dedicated fan, or just socialize and watch the fun commercials. Check out our ideas for party planning on a budget!

Set the mood with a little decorating …

  • Use a Super Bowl XLVI theme or use team colors.
  • Decorate the table with a green vinyl or felt cover with white tape or ribbon yard markers.
  • Accessorize with other inexpensive items you could gather, make, or buy: team banners, mylar football balloons, pom poms, megaphones, and yellow penalty flags. Top Party’s blog has some great football party ideas.

    Football fruit pizza

    Fruit Pizza — Super Bowl style

What’s it all about … the FOOD! Make the food for the party simple so you don’t have to spend the whole day in the kitchen. I’ve put together some menu ideas that are easy, inexpensive and healthy. Plus, they can all be made ahead.

A little healthy competition never hurt anyone! You probably won’t need many games, but it would be fun to have everyone guess the final score when they arrive and then give a prize for the winner. Or, how about some kind of rating for the commercials.

What are you planning for your Bowl party? Share your decorating, game, and food ideas for entertaining on a budget.

MMMM Good Fruit Pizza


For the cookie crust:

  • 1 large egg white
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup uncooked quick-cooking oatmeal
  • Cooking spray

For the topping:

  • 3 ounces fat-free cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 (6-ounce) container nonfat vanilla yogurt
  • Fruit for topping the pizza


  1. Preheat the oven to 375° F.
  2. Use a medium mixing bowl to beat egg white until foamy. Add oil and sugar. Beat until smooth.
  3. Use a small bowl to stir together the flour, cinnamon, and baking soda. Add to sugar mixture. Stir in oatmeal.
  4. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray. Spread the dough in a 9-inch circle.
  5. Bake about 12 minutes. Crust will begin to puff but does not look done. Remove from oven and let cool about 20 minutes. The crust continues to cook while cooling.
  6. Use a small bowl to stir together the cream cheese and yogurt until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cool.
  7. Transfer the crust to a serving plate. Spread the cream cheese mixture over the crust. Arrange fruit on top.
  8. Cut into wedges and serve, or refrigerate up to 2 hours, covered and uncut.