Food Gifts: Give of your time and talent, save dollars

This holiday season there are many reasons to make gifts of food. The gift is more personal, you can save money and control nutrition for those on specialized dietsand, you really do give a bit of your heart.

Food gifts can be given individually, or developed around a theme. Just group like items together in a basket and wrap them with cellophane paper and ribbons—like muffins or quick breads and packets of tea. Consider things like dried foods, jerky, condiments, low-moisture breads and cakes, cookies, candies, flavored coffees, teas, cereals and nuts. All are candidates for edible gifts that also can be shipped.

I remember the year I got a new mixer and made a dozen large braided Christmas wreaths made from yeast dough. Other years I have given soup mix , salsa and cherry and peach jam.

When my grandfather was alive and living on his own,  I remember buying a set of plastic containers and making him homemade dinners that I would freeze after meals with my family. When we visited, I would gather the clean containers and take them home to fill again. He seemed to enjoy the dinners and it was something I could give all year long.

If you are giving gifts of food this year, please share what you are doing. I am always looking for new ideas.

Corn Chip Chili Mix

Ingredients for each gift jar

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley or cilantro (optional)
  • 1/4 cup dehydrated minced onion
  • 1 1/2 cups dry beans (such as black, pinto, garbanzo, or kidney)
  • 1- to 2-ounce package of corn chips, unopened


  1. Wash hands.
  2. Layer the ingredients in the order listed in a 1-quart glass jar or food-grade plastic container.
  3. Place the corn chip package on top of the beans. Cover with lid. Attach gift tag.

-pointers by Peggy

Yes, You CAN Freeze Sandwiches

Last week after a program, I offered to leave some of the sandwich samples for the staff. One of them commented that they had a bunch of other snacks and that the sandwiches might not get eaten. I said, “Well, you can take these home and freeze them for another day.” The look I received was that of total shock. “You can freeze sandwiches?” was the reply. The individual was just sure the bread would be all soggy and the overall quality so bad that you would never want to consider it. But, the quality isn’t diminished. It’s time to use the freezer and save a few dollars…

Sandwiches you make ahead and freeze can save money and time. Just about any sandwich—other than those with a mayonnaise base (such as chopped meat or egg salad)—can be frozen. It’s best to apply condiments such as mayonnaise when ready to use. Some great filling choices include: peanut butter and jelly; deli meat; plain canned tuna; cheese; or cheese along with a meat. Or, you might consider buying a whole roast or chicken, cook it in the slow cooker or oven the day before, and use the meat from that for sandwiches. It will be cheaper than the deli meat and definitely lower in sodium. Dicing these larger meat cuts will make them stretch further. Make the sandwiches and wrap them in plastic wrap or a sandwich bag, put them in a larger freezer-weight plastic bag (being sure to mark the bag with the contents), then pop in the freezer. For more on freezing sandwiches, Nebraska Extension has a great tip sheet.

When you are ready to pack your lunch, just grab one of the sandwiches from the freezer and place in an insulated bag with an ice block. It should be thawed in time for lunch. You could add to this lunch a bag of vegetable sticks (prep several bags and have ready for grabbing from the fridge), fruit, string cheese, and cookie. Fast! Easy! And easily less than $2.00 for lunch.

-Jottings from Jan

Needs versus wants applies to food

Recently, I did an educational program on Spend Smart. Eat Smart. for employees at a local public health department. A dietitian in the group shared a way her family could save money on milk:  “Get my family to drink more water and not always drink milk.” Some in the group seemed surprised that a dietitian would make that suggestion. What did she actually mean? Her point was that she wants her family members to drink the amount of milk they need nutritionally, but not necessarily more than that.

This brings out a good point when it comes to saving money on food…how much are we actually eating/drinking and is it more than we need? In the case of milk, MyPlate recommends that children ages 2 – 8 need the equivalent of 2 cups (16 ounces) per day and everyone age 9 and over needs the equivalent of 3 cups (24 ounces) of milk per day. At my house, the glasses we usually use hold 12 ounces. If I have two of those each day, I have met the recommended amount. For more information, see dairy – milk, cheese and yogurt.

This concept makes an even bigger money-saving impact when you are talking about meats. The daily recommended meat equivalent is 4 to 5 ounces for children aged 2 to 13, and 5 to 6.5 ounces for teens and adults. When you plan meat for a meal, plan for 2 – 3 ounces per person. This will encourage healthy eating and save you money. For additional information on saving money on meat or other protein foods, see meat and beans.

-contributed by Renee Sweers

Fred’s Community Sandwich saves money for the whole gang

My husband started a ‘community sandwich’ option at his worksite. He takes a week’s worth of ingredients for sandwiches (deli meats, sometimes cheese) on Mondays. It’s stored in the frig in the break room and anyone can use the ingredients to make a sandwich. They pay $1.00 per sandwich. Every week he buys a couple of different deli meats (pepper turkey is the most popular). Someone else brings the bread and other fixings. They take the money out of the sandwich ‘kitty’ to fund the ingredients each week. This started as a ‘trial’ run that has helped my husband save money and is so much easier then packing a lunch. Many of his co-workers are appreciating the cost savings and healthier eating as well.

-contributed by Renee

Skillet lasagna highly recommended!

If you haven’t tried the skillet lasagna recipe from the Spend Smart. Eat Smart website,  I highly recommend it.  Here’s why I like it:

  • It’s a nutritious tasty recipe that only costs $.75 per serving.
  • You can make it on top of the stove or in an electric skillet.  I don’t like to use the oven in the summer so this is a perfect ‘no oven’ hot dish.
  • It’s easy.  There are not very many ingredients and you don’t have to cook the noodles first…saves on dirty dishes and time. 
  • It tastes good, I recently made it when my 20 year old son and 3 of his friends were at the house.  They all loved it.
  • It’s a very versatile recipe.  My youngest son loves meat and likes it with a bit more meat in it.  The original recipe calls for 1/2 pound of ground beef.  Since it makes 8  1-cup servings, that provides 1 ounce meat per serving.  If you double the meat you really aren’t overdoing  the protein, it will provide 2 ounces per 1 cup serving.  This will increase the cost to about $.90 – $.95 per serving — still a really good buy.  You can also make this recipe without any meat at all. 

My personal cooking tips:

  • My family has a favorite spaghetti sauce brand that comes in a jar, but for this recipe I use a store or generic brand canned sauce (28 ounce can).  It costs less and still tastes great.
  • I stir in 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning and 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder to the cottage cheese before spooning it on.
  • You want to make sure you thoroughly heat it after you put the cheese on top.  The recipe says to cover and heat it for 5 – 10 minutes after putting the cheeses on.  During that cooking time, I occasionally remove the lid and insert a spoon in a few places throughout the skillet.  I’m not stirring it, just allowing some of the juices on the bottom to sort of rise up and mix with the cheeses a bit. 

Skillet Lasagna


  • 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or 1/4 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 3 cups spaghetti or pasta sauce (26 to 28 ounces)
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 ounces wide noodles
  • 1 (10-ounce) package chopped spinach, thawed
  • 1 (12-ounce) container lowfat cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Optional: fresh or canned, drained sliced mushrooms


  1. Wash hands.
  2. Cook ground beef, onions, and garlic together in a large skillet or electric fry pan; stir to prevent sticking. When ground beef has turned brown transfer mixture to a colander set over a bowl and rinse with hot water to remove grease. Return mixture to skillet.
  3. Add spaghetti sauce and water to skillet and bring to a boil.
  4. Add uncooked noodles, stir, cover with lid, turn down the heat, and cook 5 minutes.
  5. Squeeze the thawed spinach with your clean hands to remove the juice and then stir into the pan. Add mushrooms if you like. Cover and simmer 5 minutes.
  6. Spoon cottage cheese over the top. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, put the lid on and let it heat another 5 to 10 minutes until heated through and noodles are tender.

– comments from Renee Sweers

Make time for family meals…and save money, too!

I love to talk about family mealtime – it reminds me of happy memories of my childhood and all the conversations we shared around meals! I didn’t realize then how important our time together was, nor how much money we saved by eating at home. It’s true, though, families can save money by eating at home. When you eat out or use processed foods, you buy labor as well as the food.

So, how do you save money by eating together at home? Spend Smart Eat Smart website has lots of great ideas for saving money as you prepare meals. Prepare double or triple batches of favorite recipes to have on hand when you are in a hurry. Save money when you buy ingredients in quantity to make several batches. Make a list of foods that cook quickly and save time, such as scrambled eggs, fruit and toast; stir fry meat and veggies.

Keep meals simple and easy – a family meal together doesn’t have to be elaborate or include expensive ingredients. A simple meal, eaten with others while sharing conversation, is worth more than the most elaborately prepared dish. What I remember is how good it felt to gather around the table and share. Don’t let this simple concept become lost in the busy-ness of everyday life.

We’d love to hear from you about ways you’ve found to carve out time for meals with your family and saved money at the same time!

-contributed by Patty Steiner

How to tell when food has gone bad

One way to save money is to not throw food in the garbage. Adjusted to our 2008 economy, an average family of four tosses out $1,039 annually, regardless of income, ethnicity, education, and other socio-economic factors.

On the other hand, we are all concerned about food safety. No one wants to get sick. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation has created a series of videos to help you determine when food has gone bad and is no longer safe to eat. The short videos (less than 5 minutes each) feature Christine Bruhn, PhD, Director of the Center for Food Safety Research at the University of California, Davis, CA. 

How to tell if your food has gone bad
Food safety basics
How to tell if your bread has gone bad
How to tell if your lunch meats have gone bad
How to tell if your dairy products have gone bad
How to tell if your leftovers have gone bad
How to tell if your fruits and vegetables have gone bad
How to tell if your frozen foods have gone bad
How to tell if your pantry foods have gone bad
How to properly wash your produce
How to properly store your food in the fridge

-pointers by Peggy

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