Update from Christine – Herb Gardening in Small Spaces

Back in May, I wrote a blog related to how I like to grow herbs at my house. I do not have a good space in my yard to dig up a garden, so I use containers instead. Herbs are a great food to start out with if you are new to gardening. They grow very well in Iowa summers and take up a small amount of space. Not to mention, fresh herbs are quite expensive at the grocery store and can spoil quickly. Growing them at home gives you the pleasure of fresh herbs for far less money.

Here is a picture of how my herbs look about seven weeks after planting. They have all grown up quite a lot. I use the thyme and rosemary once or twice per week. I tend to use them to season chicken before I grill it or vegetables before I roast them. I use the basil almost every day because I love basil with cottage cheese and chopped tomatoes. I also like to clip a few stems of each and put them in a jar on my kitchen counter just because they smell so nice. Even with frequent use, the plants are still very large.

I had to make one change back in the spring. After a couple of weeks of growth, it was clear that my planter was too crowded, so I removed the parsley plant gently and put it in a flowerpot by itself. That gave all of the plants enough room to grow well.

How are your food plants doing? Have you tried anything that is new to you this year?

Happy gardening!
Christine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Herb Gardening in Small Spaces

Last week we heard about our friend Jill’s experience with gardening throughout her life. She shared some wonderful tips for planning a garden and using the information on seed packets to help you make decisions. I would like to share a slightly different perspective. I live in a small house and I do not have land to till up and plant a garden. I still love to grow some food though, so I do container gardening.

Container gardening is a very simple approach to gardening that allows you to use a patio or porch to grow food in pots or other containers. It is helpful when you do not have land to till up or when you just want to grow a few plants and not a whole garden.

Herbs are my favorite food to grow in the summer in Iowa. They thrive in the sun and warm weather. They are easy to maintain. I just water them whenever their soil becomes dry to the touch. Herbs will even grow inside if you have a very sunny window for them. It is so wonderful to be able to snip a few sprigs to add flavor to my cooking. Herbs are rather expensive at the grocery store and they spoil quickly, so being able to cut them from the back patio is a real treat.

  • Parsley is delightful in salads and as a final topper for things like roasted veggies or fish.
  • Basil tastes delicious with tomatoes and pasta. I also love sliced basil stirred into cottage cheese.
  • Rosemary, sage and thyme are tasty additions to roasted veggies. Toss them with the veggies before cooking and enjoy.

If you have a sunny spot and a sturdy container of soil, you’re ready to get started! For a bit more information, check out Growing Herbs in Containers from our friends in Iowa State University’s Horticulture department. Next week Jody will share about her experience growing vegetables in containers at her house.

Happy Gardening!

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Skip Disposable when Reusable will do

Disposable and single-use items bring a lot of convenience to our lives. We can skip washing something and throw it away instead. There is no doubt that these items make some things easier for a busy household but they also generate a lot of trash. Two years ago I set a resolution to reduce my use of single-use disposable items. I was particularly interested in reducing my use of zip-top plastic bags. I wanted to see if I could change these habits to save some money and reduce the amount of trash I generate.

I started by looking for an alternative to zip-top bags. I bought some small washable fabric bags that have velcro at the top to use for dry goods like crackers or nuts for my lunch. I also bought some extra glass and plastic storage containers that I can wash and reuse. When I have a piece of an onion or half a cucumber to store, I put them in a container now rather than putting them in a plastic bag.

My new bags were $3 apiece and I have five of them, so they cost me a total of $15. My container set with a variety of sizes cost about $20. So, I invested $35 in this resolution. When I did the math, I was spending about $4 per month, or $48 per year, on plastic zip top bags. So, in that first year, I saved enough money to offset my investment in reusable containers. The good news is that I am still using all of the same reusable items two years in to my resolution, so my savings are adding up now and I feel good about the fact that I throw less plastic into the trash.

I do find that I need to use disposable plastic bags sometimes. For example, when I need to store something like meat in the freezer I will use a plastic freezer bag. This resolution taught me that it was not really that difficult for me to give up some of the convenience items I have always used. Has your family switched from a single-use product to a reusable one? How did it go? Share with us in the comments or on our social media.

Take care,

Christine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Party Boards for Every Day

Have you seen those beautiful party boards that people post pictures of online? They usually have tasty cheeses, meats, crackers and fruit. Mine are not typically fancy, but I absolutely love these as an appetizer or party dish. I have not had the opportunity to throw holiday parties this year and I was really missing these foods. So, I decided to make a party board for a meal at home.

If you think about it, this is a fun and easy way to make a meal. Party boards usually involve multiple food groups and require little to no cooking. In the chart below, I shared some of my favorite things to include on party boards. How fun would it be to make a meal this week picking one item from each category?

BreadsCheesesFruitsMeatsVeggiesExtras
Crackers
Crusty
bread
Pretzels
Breadsticks
Cheddar
Pepper jack
String cheese
Cream cheese  
Apple slices
Grapes
Pear
slices
Dried fruit
Sausage
Pepperoni
Salami
Sliced
turkey
Carrot
sticks
Radishes
Pea pods
Mini
peppers  
Mustard
Pickles
Nuts
Veggie dip  

The picture above is a party board I made for dinner recently. It was delicious and allowed me to pretend that I was at a festive holiday party. If you try this out, snap a picture and share it with us on social media.

Enjoy!
Christine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Preventing Food Waste at Christine’s House

I live on my own and I LOVE to cook! People often ask me if I make homemade food for just myself and if I end up with a lot of leftovers going to waste. I do cook for myself all the time and I very rarely throw out leftovers. I am excited to share some of the strategies I use and I hope some will work for you too.

Meal Planning: The most important strategy that I use is meal planning. I sit down each week and decide what I would most like to cook. I decide based on the weather, the season and how much time I will have that week. The plan helps me choose what perishable foods I need to buy and helps me feel confident that they will get used without going to waste. The plan also lays out which days I am going to cook. I do not cook dinner every night; I often cook 3 times per week.

My Friend the Freezer: I rarely cook a meal that I will only eat once. When I cook, I normally plan to eat one or two servings within four days of making the dish and I freeze the rest in small containers. I often hear people say that this strategy would not work for them because their freezer is too full. My approach to that problem is that I add prepared dishes to my freezer every week, but I also eat dishes from it every week. I view it like a pantry with a constant stream of food in and out. I use about half of my freezer this way and the other half has frozen meat and vegetables that I keep on hand for longer term storage. As I plan my meals for the week, I always plan at least a few meals that are going to involve taking a prepared dish out of the freezer. That way, I know there will be space freed up for the things I cook fresh that week. The big bonus is that my freezer almost always has a wide variety of tasty things in it that just involve a quick zap in the microwave.

Flexible Recipes: I build a meal into my plan every week or two that is a good ‘use-up’ meal. By that, I mean that the recipe is a good way to use up whatever fresh vegetables that are left in the bottom of the produce drawer before they spoil. Many soups, stews, pastas and stir-fry dishes work well for this. Vegetable Frittata and Sausage Vegetable Skillet from the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. recipe collection are flexible to work with whatever vegetables you have.

I hope these strategies help you see how you can enjoy cooking whatever dishes you like even if you live on your own. Watch our blog for the next few weeks to hear from Jody, Justine and Katy on how they reduce food waste in their own homes. Happy cooking!

Christine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Green Beans Three Ways

This week our blog is in video form. We have amazing produce right now in Iowa and I am making the most of it at my house. Green beans are one of my favorite summer vegetables. My dad grows them in his garden and I love to pick them up at the farmers market and grocery store. You do not need a recipe to prepare green beans. If you get familiar with a few different methods for cooking them, then you can get creative with the seasonings you like best. Check out the video below to see three different methods for preparing fresh green beans by steaming in the microwave, roasting in the oven and boiling on the stove.

All of the methods start with green beans that have been rinsed and trimmed.

Microwave on high power for 4 minutes in a microwave safe dish with a lid and some water (2 tablespoons of water per cup of beans). Check for doneness. Stir and cook for 1-2 more minutes if needed.

Roast beans with some olive oil and seasoning in a 400 degree preheated oven for 15-20 minutes on a foil-lined baking sheet. Beans will be crisp tender at 15 minutes. For darker more blistered beans, leave them in the oven for 5 more minutes.

Boil on the stove top for 4-6 minutes. Simply bring a pot of water to a rapid boil, add beans and stir occasionally until they reach the doneness that you prefer. Season with your favorite spices.

Enjoy!
Christine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Sloppy Joes or Janes or Jimmys

The name of this blog may be silly, but it is meant to show that this recipe is super flexible. It can be used to make traditional Sloppy Joes or something a little different based on what you have and what you like. We chose to feature this recipe this week because it is a wonderful fit for our current circumstance. Some grocery stores have shorter supplies of meat or a smaller variety due to supply chain challenges. As a result, you may find yourself choosing a product that is not as familiar to you. 

This Sloppy Joes recipe will work with ground beef, turkey, pork, chicken, or venison. You can even use cooked lentils in this recipe. It uses ketchup and mustard in the sauce, and the flavor reminds me of a cookout! Check out the video below and cook along with me using whatever protein you have on hand!

sloppy joes

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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What’s Cooking at Christine’s House

On Monday, I shared my approach to planning meals. The strategy I use allows me to make good use of what I have and minimize trips out for groceries. I maintain a list of what I have on hand and I arrange it by food group so that I can make improvised meals and recipes by pulling from each part of the list. I also create some detail within the lists like separating out fresh vegetables from frozen or canned ones. This allows me to spot which items I should eat first to prevent waste.

Here are some examples of improvised meals I can create from my current list. 

  • I have spinach, various veggies and canned beans to make chopped salads for lunch.
  • I can make a Mediterranean-inspired chicken and rice bowl with grilled chicken, spinach, brown rice and feta cheese. 
  • I have tuna, celery, onions and whole wheat bread. Sounds like tuna salad to me!
  • I have fresh veggies, frozen peas and whole wheat pasta to make a tasty pasta primavera. 

My list also helps me think about what recipes I can prepare. I can see that I have all of the ingredients for Scrambled Egg Muffins. I like having these in my refrigerator right now so I can have a healthy breakfast instead of just snacking through the morning. I also have everything for Quick Pad Thai. This tasty meal comes together quickly and uses mostly staple ingredients. Cook Quick Pad Thai along with me!

Happy Cooking!
Christine

Quick Pad Thai

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Meal Planning at Christine’s House

Like many others, my routine is a bit upside down right now. I am working from home rather than making the trip to Iowa State’s campus each day. I am sticking close to home and avoiding unnecessary trips out of the house. My days look different, but I still want to make healthy choices and enjoy tasty food. I enjoy cooking and I am using this opportunity to do it a lot. For me, planning has helped me eat well and minimize trips out for groceries.

Because I am only cooking for myself, my planning is a bit different from Jody’s, Justine’s and Katy’s. I try to keep it flexible and focus on making good use of what I have. The strategy that works best for me is to keep a running list of what I have on hand from various food groups. From that list, I can spot what recipes I have ingredients to prepare. I can also compose meals by pulling items from different food groups and improvising a bit. The list also serves as a guide for me when it is time to shop. As I use the last of any food, I cross it off and I know I need to add it to my online grocery order. 

Take a look at the picture below for my current list. 

In addition to keeping this ‘foods on hand’ list, I am also trying to maintain some of the habits I had when I was leaving the house every day for work. For example, I keep a container of cut up vegetables in the refrigerator, so that they are easy to grab and throw into recipes or eat as a snack. I also use my water bottle that I used to take to work to keep up with drinking enough each day. 

What strategies work best for you with meal planning right now? Do you keep it flexible or prefer to have more details pinned down in advance? We would love to hear from you, so please share in the comments or on our social media. 


Take care!
Christine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Make Veggies the Star

Adults should eat an average of two to three cups of vegetables per day depending on age and sex. Does this sound like a lot to you? If you are balancing a busy schedule, a tight grocery budget and often eating meals on the go, this may seem like a high bar to reach. I have found that making vegetables my main dish once per day helps me reach 2 ½ cups per day, which is the recommendation for me. 

At lunch, I do this by packing salads to take to work. Some of my favorites from our recipe collection are Zesty Whole Grain Salad, Summer Bounty Salad and Chicken Club Salad. Each of these packs up well and gets me at least half-way to my 2 ½ cups of vegetables per day. Generally, I eat the rest of my veggies as snacks and as a side dish at dinner. 

Soup can also be a very vegetable-rich main dish. I make soup nearly every week and keep a variety of soups in single-serve containers in my freezer. I will admit that I improvise soup a lot. I make soup out of the veggies that I have left in my fridge at the end of the week. Sometimes I use other leftovers such as herbs, potatoes, meat, beans and grains as well. This not only leads to a tasty meal, but also helps me prevent food waste and make good use of the food I have before I buy more. When I feel like using a recipe, one of my favorites is Vegetable Soup with Kale and Lentils

How do you make veggies the star of your meals? Please share your ideas in the comments or on our social media.

Take care!

Chicken Club Salad

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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