Our theme for blogs this month is meal planning. Each of our primary bloggers will share how they approach meal planning at their own home. We hope that you will be able to take some ideas from each of us to make meal planning go a bit easier for you.
Meal planning is important to me because I want to make meal prep easy and I like to avoid food waste as much as I can. Most of the time I plan meals for just one person, so my strategies look different from someone who is planning for a whole family. Justine and Jody will have tips for families throughout the month.
Here are some of my favorite go-to strategies.
- I start with what I have. I begin my meal plan for each week with what I already have to reduce food waste. I often cook up a stir-fry or soup on Sunday with any vegetables from the previous week to get them used up before they spoil. One recipe that is great for this is our Easy Roasted Veggies.
- I do not cook for one. I generally cook a full batch of whatever I am making and I freeze leftovers in small containers. This way, I cook once and I know there are lots of yummy things in my freezer. The containers in the freezer make super-fast lunches and dinners.
- I pre-prep ingredients. When I get home from work at night I am usually very hungry and not in the mood to start cooking from scratch. I try to do myself a favor and be ready for this situation by having pre-prepped ingredients in my fridge or freezer. Here are some of my standbys:
- Chopped onions in an airtight container in the freezer. These are great for cooking. If you will use the onion within a few days, you can store it in the refrigerator. I will often chop up 4 or 5 onions and keep them in the freezer to use for many meals. This works with peppers as well!
- Cooked proteins. This time of year, I grill outside a lot. If I light my grill, I fill it. This means that I often have many frozen protein foods like grilled chicken and hamburgers. I can heat these up very quickly to get a meal started and cut my cooking time way down.
- Cut fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator. I know that I am much more likely to reach for fruits and vegetables for snacks when they are cut and ready to go. I tend to purchase fruits and vegetables that can be cleaned and/or prepped ahead, such as:
- Pea pods
I hope one of these ideas is helpful to you and stay tune all month for Justine and Jody’s meal planning routines!
It seems like food manufacturers are making just about everything out of cauliflower nowadays. I have seen cauliflower ‘rice’ and cauliflower ‘pizza crust’. I have also seen cauliflower flavored to taste like Buffalo wings and boxed macaroni and cheese with cauliflower added to the pasta. Cauliflower is certainly having a moment.
I think this is largely because cauliflower is a versatile vegetable that takes on the flavor of whatever you use to season it. If you would like to jump on the cauliflower train, skip buying the cauliflower that is already cleaned and chopped and prepare it yourself instead. We have a new cauliflower video that will walk you through how to break down an entire head of cauliflower. I find that when I start with a whole head of cauliflower, it often stays fresher longer and is less expensive. The pre-prepped cauliflower may have been chopped several days or even a couple of weeks before it arrives at your grocery store.
Once you have your cauliflower broken down, you’re ready to make a variety of recipes. My favorite way to cook cauliflower is roasting. Check out our Roasted Cauliflower recipe for the details. I also like it raw in salads like Summer Bounty Salad.
I hope these recipes and video help you enjoy this trendy vegetable!
How do you like the new Pantry Picks collection on our website? I have to admit, I’m pretty excited about my pick – brown rice. Brown rice is definitely a pantry pick in my house! I love it and I eat it pretty much every week. It tastes great, it’s hearty and it is a healthy choice for me. I try to make sure that at least half of the grain foods I eat are whole grains and brown rice helps me do that.
One of the things I like the best about brown rice is that it is so fast. I can cook a big pot of rice once and then split the rice up into freezer containers and freeze it for up to six months. Then I can have rice for many meals with just a quick zap in the microwave.
I use brown rice all year. In the winter, it goes into soups and casseroles and in the summer I make stir fry and salads. I put a little round-up of some of my favorite recipes that use brown rice below.
I hope you try one of these today and share your favorite ways to use brown rice with us in the comments or on our social media!
We are starting to get a few days of beautiful weather here in Iowa and for me that means firing up the grill! I love to cook food on my grill and one of my favorites is salmon. I have heard from several friends that they are unsure about cooking fish at home and sometimes they are concerned about food safety and seafood. Today I have rounded up some top safety tips related to seafood to help you feel confident cooking fish at home.
- Choose fish that has been kept at a safe temperature. In Iowa, that often means that fish is frozen when we buy it. Frozen fish is often very high quality and some fish in the fresh case at my store was previously frozen. Fish should smell mild. Flesh should be firm and eyes should be clear on whole fish. When buying frozen fish, choose packages that are free of frost.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling raw fish and keep raw fish separate from ready-to-eat foods. Clean surfaces and kitchen tools that touched raw fish with hot soapy water.
- If you plan to eat your fish within two days, you can store it in the refrigerator. If it will be longer before you eat it, store it in the freezer. You can defrost fish in the microwave, but for the best results, thaw fish in the refrigerator overnight.
- Cook fish to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Cooked fish is safe at room temperature for up to two hours unless the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. On very hot days, refrigerate fish within one hour.
- If you enjoy fishing, put fish you plan to eat in a cooler of ice immediately.
The Food and Drug Administration has a helpful website related to keeping seafood safe. I hope these tips help you feel confident cooking seafood at home. Next week Justine will share some information related to serving seafood to children. Please share your favorite seafood dishes on our social media!
Thank you for all of your comments and ‘shares’ of our new Unit Price Calculator video. We are thrilled that you are enjoying it and we hope that the calculator proves to be a handy tool for you. Last week Jody shared how unit pricing can help you decide which form of a food is the best value. The example she used was cheese – shredded, sliced and string cheese.
||Large Package Unit Price
||Individually Packaged Unit Price
||Convenience cost and Other Factors
||40 ounces for $6.69
$0.17 per ounce
|12 ounces (8 1.5-ounce cups) for $2.99
$0.25 per ounce
|The small cups cost nearly 50% more. The individual cups also contain more than a standard serving, which may lead to waste or more calories than I expected.
||16 ounces for $0.99
$.06 per ounce
|12 ounces (4 3-ounce bags) for $1.69
$0.14 per ounce
|The small bags of baby carrots are more than twice the price of big carrots. I like the flavor of big carrots better and cutting a big bag down into carrot sticks takes me about 10 minutes. Most weeks, I am willing to take the time to do that.
||6.6 ounces for $2.38
|9 ounces (9 1-ounce bags) for $5.49
$0.61 per ounce
|This price difference is big at $0.25 per ounce more for the individually packaged crackers. I might buy one package of the little bags to keep around for snack emergencies, but buy the larger package routinely.
This week, I am sharing how unit pricing can help you know the cost of convenience packaging. From carrots to nuts to crackers, many of the things I buy at the grocery store come in large packages or in individual packages. When I am planning my meals for the week and putting together my grocery list, I often think about how much I am going to be home and how much time I will have to prepare food. Sometimes, when time is really tight, I am OK with paying a bit more for convenience if it will help me eat healthy during a busy week. However, I like to know how much I am actually paying for that convenience and unit pricing is how I do that. Here are some examples:
Convenience is rarely free and unit pricing allows me to know exactly how much more I am paying to have something individually packaged for me. If you are looking to cut back on your grocery costs, think about where you may be paying for convenience and whether it is worth the price.
Last week Jody gave us some helpful tips on using spices in cooking to give food lots of flavor without using too much salt. She also shared which spices we use most in our recipes and how to store them for maximum shelf life. You have probably guessed that we on the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. team really like to cook so experimenting with different flavors and spices is fun for us.
Even though I like to cook and cook at home most of the time, I can still get ahead of myself when it comes to spices. Ground spices (cumin, chili powder, curry powder, etc.) have their maximum flavor for 2-4 years after you open them. Dried herbs (basil, thyme, parsley, etc.) are best used within 1-3 years. Given how quickly some foods perish, this seems like a really long shelf life. Nevertheless, it is easy to have a spice in your cabinet for many years if you only use it on rare occasion. Here are some tips I use to keep my spices in check and avoid wasting money on spices I have to throw out.
- I buy spices in the smallest container I can. This saves space in my cabinet, reduces the risk of waste and allows me to try new spices without committing to buying a large container.
- I mark each container with the date that I open it, so I do not have to guess how long it has been sitting in my cabinet.
- Once a year I go through my spice cabinet and make my own all-purpose seasoning blends with the bits of spices I have left in my cabinet. I like to do this around New Year’s Day when I tend to have a lot of time around the house. I find that I go through the blends faster than individual spices. You can adjust the ratios of these blends based on what you have and what flavors you enjoy most. Some of my favorites include:
- Taco Seasoning: This works well for any Tex Mex dish I am making. It is delicious in taco meat, beans or even soups with a similar flavor profile.
- Dried Onion Soup Mix: I have several recipes I make that call for dried onion soup mix and I would rather use up the seasonings I already have than buy a packet at the store.
- Italian Seasoning Blend: rosemary, thyme, parsley, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, oregano and onion powder. I use this on chicken, steak, vegetables, roasted potatoes and in pasta dishes. It is all of the same ingredients as store-bought Italian seasoning, but it allows me to use what I already have rather than buy another jar.
- Grill Seasoning: garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, red pepper flakes and paprika. This is tasty on meats and veggies that I grill or roast.
- If I find a recipe that calls for a spice I do not already have, I look for one or two other recipes that use it before I buy it. This way I know that I have multiple ideas for using that spice and I will make good use of it.
These are some tips that work for me…how do you keep your spice cabinet from getting out of control? Share with us in the comments or on our social media this week. You’ll hear more about the Taco Seasoning and Dried Onion Soup Mix from Justine next month.
If you have a child in school, chances are you hear a lot of concern about food allergies and protecting children from exposure to their allergen. People can develop allergies to many types of food. However, eight foods are the most common allergens. They include:
- Tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, brazil nuts and pecans)
- Wheat and other grains with gluten (barley, rye, oats)
Allergies can be scary, particularly for children who are less likely to know what is in their food. Learning how to read a food label for allergens can help you feel more in control. Here are some steps to follow to check a food label for a common allergen.
- Check the ingredients list on the package. Scan the list for the allergen. Sometimes the manufacturer will even highlight it with larger bold text.
- Sometimes an ingredient will be listed with an uncommon name. For example, a label may say ‘albumin’. This is part of an egg and will often include the word ‘egg’ in parentheses since egg is a common allergen.
- At the bottom of the ingredients list, there may be a statement that calls out the common allergens in that product. For example – ‘Contains: Milk, Eggs and Soy’
- Lastly, a product may not include an allergen in its ingredients list, but is processed on equipment that also processes a common allergen. In this case, the manufacturer may include a statement like this. ‘Processed in a facility that also processes peanuts and tree nuts.’ This allows the consumer to know that there is a risk of tiny residual particles of that allergen being in the product unintentionally.
If you have tips for managing a food allergy, please share them with us on our social media this week!
This month I challenged myself to investigate the pros and cons of individually packaged products. I see everything from pet food to cut veggies to medicine in individually-sized packages these days. Here is what I found as I looked at price, convenience, waste and some other factors related to individually-packaged foods.
- Price: My hunch was that the individual packages would cost more than buying larger containers. Interestingly, this is not always true. For example, I found animal crackers and graham crackers that had the same unit price whether I bought one large box or individual snack packs. Other items like salad dressing and baby carrots were up to 50% more expensive in the individual packages. If you would like to compare prices easily, try out the Unit Price Calculator in our Spend Smart. Eat Smart. App
- Convenience: The little packages are certainly handy. You can grab them for your lunch or a snack on the run with no trouble at all. It is also nice that individually packaged foods stay sealed in their package until you are ready to eat them, which reduces the likelihood of the food losing quality or going stale. Additionally, if you need to bring snacks to a children’s event, you can’t beat them for easy serving to many little hands.
- Waste: Individual packages often mean extra packaging and increased waste. I found this to be true and much of the additional packaging was not the type of plastic that my city will accept for recycling. This bothers me since one of my new year’s resolutions was to reduce the amount of single-use plastic I throw out.
- Some additional considerations: Small packages can help with portion control, which is a nice advantage. However, it is worth noting that some individual packages are larger than a single serving from the larger package. For example, the salad dressing I mentioned above came in little cups that were equivalent to 1 ½ servings from the full-size bottle. In that case, they may contribute to you eating more than you would have otherwise.
Overall, I think I will stick with buying most products in full-size packages. I will try to steal some of the convenience and portion control of the little packages by putting items for snacks and lunches in small reusable containers to start the week. Do you have any foods that you prefer in single-serve packages? Share with us on Facebook or Twitter!
You may have noticed TV commercials and food packages that label a food as high in fiber or an excellent source of fiber. Have you ever wondered why fiber matters for our health? Over the next three weeks, we will focus on fiber including health benefits, how to get fiber and how to spot it on a food label. Women need about 25g of fiber per day and men need about 38g.
Fiber performs multiple functions in our bodies and it is an important part of healthy eating habits. Fiber can prevent constipation and keep your digestion moving. Think of fiber as the custodian of your colon – it sweeps everything along and keeps it moving. If someone in your house struggles with constipation try eating more high fiber foods. Fiber-rich foods also tend to be more filling than foods that are low in fiber and they are often lower in calories. This means that eating foods high in fiber can help you maintain a healthy weight. Additionally, eating more fiber may lower your LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Here are some foods to try to boosts your fiber consumption:
- Vegetables (especially peas, broccoli, corn and potatoes)
- Fruits (especially raspberries, bananas, oranges and apples and pears with their skin)
- Beans and lentils
- Whole wheat products like bread, pasta or crackers
- Whole grain cereal
Next week Justine will share a sample weekly meal plan that includes meals and snacks with high fiber ingredients.
Talk to you next week!
What are the go-to drinks around your house? I am wrapping up our series on the 5210 campaign this week with a look at sugary drinks.
Our friends at the 5210 campaign encourage 0 sugary drinks and drinking more water instead. We at Spend Smart. Eat Smart. are big fans of enjoying food and it is rare for us to encourage readers to eat or drink ‘zero’ of something. However, sugary drinks do contribute a lot of calories and no feeling of fullness. They cost you money and really give nothing that your body needs in return.
Drinking sugary drinks like fruit punch, soda, lemonade and sports drinks in childhood is associated with overweight and obesity, less milk consumption and dental cavities. If you or your kiddos are big fans of sugary drinks, try looking at them as treats. Consider setting a goal of replacing one per day with water or milk. Having a sugary drink on occasion as a special treat is a way to enjoy them without the health problems associated with drinking them as a daily habit.
Have you been successful with reducing sugary drink consumption at your house? Share what worked for you on our Facebook or Twitter this week!