Fall Favorites

Fall has always been my favorite season. I love watching the leaves change color, being able to swap out my shorts for cozy knit sweaters and taking in all the fun fall activities. 

One of my family’s favorite activities is going to the orchard. Our two-year-old loves picking apples for us to bring home which means I need a variety of fall recipes to make sure the apples we pick don’t go to waste. Apple Cinnamon Bread, Hurry Up Baked Apples and Homemade Applesauce are some of our go-to recipes for apples. I love the aroma of cinnamon and cooked apples throughout our home during this time of year.

After visiting the orchard, I love coming home and warming up with a comforting meal. As the weather begins to shift and the air becomes crisper, I find myself reaching for more soup and slow cooker recipes. Below are a few of our favorite recipes to make after our visits to the orchard. Add some warm bread on the side for a nice, hearty meal.

After enjoying your favorite fall activity, try one of my family’s go-to fall recipes to bring you some extra comfort and warmth during this season.

Happy fall!

Katy Moscoso

Katy Moscoso is a Program Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. As a new mom she is always on the lookout for easy, healthy recipes to prepare for her family.

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What are Lentils?

Have you heard of lentils? Do you cook with them? I did not grow up eating lentils, so I did not know what they were until I started working for Iowa State. I learned that lentils are tiny, disc-shaped legumes. Legumes are plants that have seed pods, like beans and peas. In the kitchen, lentils are used as a quick-cooking and inexpensive plant protein that is tasty in main dishes or as a side dish.

If you are interested in learning more about lentils or cooking with them, we have you covered here at Spend Smart. Eat Smart. We have some great ways for you to use lentils in your kitchen:

Watch the video below to see my son, Kenny, and I make a batch of lentils for lunch. We served them wrapped in tortillas with shredded cheese, vegetables, and sour cream. They were a hit! Enjoy!

cooking with lentils

Justine Hoover

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

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Slow Cooker Mexican Chicken Soup

Our November recipe of the month is Slow Cooker Mexican Chicken Soup.  It is perfect for a busy day. All the ingredients go into the slow cooker in the morning, cook on low for 8-10 hours, and you have a delicious soup ready to eat in the evening.

There are some wonderful things I love about this recipe.

  • It is easy to put together. There is no cutting up or chopping needed to get this recipe into the slow cooker.  The chicken just needs to be shredded right before serving this soup.
  • It uses dried beans. Dried beans are tasty, inexpensive, and nutritious.  They take a little longer to cook, so they are perfect for the slow cooker.  Fair warning, the dark color of the black beans changes the outer color of the chicken.
  • It freezes well. This recipe is great to measure out into single serving containers and freeze for lunches.  Or, you can eat half of the soup one night and freeze the other half of the soup for another night.
  • It is great for a party. This soup tastes delicious with different toppings – avocado, crushed tortilla chips, sliced jalapenos, plain Greek yogurt, shredded cheese.  You can serve the soup out of the slow cooker and let your guests add any toppings they would like.


Justine Hoover

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

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Learn from our Mistakes

Most cooks have tried a recipe that did not turn out how they planned. Sometimes it’s a cake that collapses on the counter, other times it’s a roast that ended up raw in the middle. The best thing to do when this happens is to try to learn from the mistake, so it does not happen again. We have rounded up a few common mistakes people make with slow cookers to try to help you avoid them in your kitchen.

  1. Be sure your slow cooker is working properly. It is critical that your slow cooker get to the right temperature to avoid problems with food safety. If you’re like me, you may have your grandmother’s old slow cooker. The good news is – you can test it. Just fill your slow cooker halfway with water and turn it on. It needs to heat to at least 170 degrees within two hours. You can test it with a food thermometer. If after two hours, the water is cooler than 170 degrees, your slow cooker is likely not heating your food fast enough and should not be used.
  2. Prep ahead the smart way. It is helpful to prep ingredients ahead so you can drop them into your slow cooker in the morning. However, do not mix raw meat and other ingredients together in advance. The safest approach is to keep meat separate from other ingredients until you are ready to cook.
  3. Cook foods to their usual safe temperatures. This helpful guide shows safe temperatures for meat, poultry, casseroles and more. You can measure temperatures using a food thermometer. Once foods reach a safe temperature, you can hold them in the slow cooker at or above 140 degrees.

Follow these simple tips to make safe and tasty meals in your slow cooker. Happy slow cooking from the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. Team!

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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Slow Cooker – Converting Recipes

I love using my slow cooker for many reasons.  Right now, the main reason I love my slow cooker is the timing. There are usually two or three nights each week when someone in our family needs to be somewhere by 6 or 6:30. It is really hard for me to make a meal, feed everyone, and then get three children out the door on time.  These are the nights when I rely on my slow cooker.  I can do the prep for a meal the night before, load the slow cooker in the morning, and then have a great meal ready in the evening.

Over the years, I have gradually converted some of my family’s favorite stove top recipes into slow cooker recipes.  It can take some trial and error, especially with the cooking time, but it is worth it in the end.  Here are some pointers for converting your own recipes into slow cooker recipes:

  • Choose recipes that simmer on the stove top or roast in the oven.
  • Reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by 1/3 to 1/2. You need to do this because the slow cooker creates its own liquid.
  • Adjust the cooking time. This website has a convenient conversion chart.

If you have questions or concerns about your slow cooker, contact AnswerLine.  They are a great resource for your home and family questions.

Good luck converting some of your favorites into slow cooker recipes!

Justine Hoover

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

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Slow Cooker Recipe Roundup

We love our slow cookers at Spend Smart. Eat Smart. It is such a delight to come home from a busy day to a home-cooked meal that is ready to eat. At our holiday potluck, three of us made slow cooker dishes!

Here are some of our favorite slow cooker recipes:

  • Chicken and Broth: This simple dish will leave you with delicious homemade chicken broth as well as cooked chicken to use in other dishes.
  • Slow Cooker Black Eyed Pea Soup: It’s our recipe of the month and it’s perfect for this time of year. It is a tasty option for a meatless meal.
  • Slow Cooker Pork Chili: This rich, flavorful chili will warm you up on the chilliest winter day. Best of all, the leftover pork from this recipe can be transformed into Shredded Pork Sandwiches. Nothing beats cooking once and eating twice!

I hope you give these recipes a try this winter. Next week Justine will share how you can get creative by converting recipes to work in a slow cooker.

Have a great week!

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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Keeping Food Safe in a Slow Cooker

Slow cooker vegetarian chiliWe often get request for recipes that can be made in a slow cooker. It’s not surprising since you can add the ingredients to the slow cooker, turn it on, and then go about your day while the food cooks. No need to spend a lot of time in the kitchen when you have other things you need to do! Here are some tips to keep food safe when using a slow cooker.

  1. Cook foods using the low or high heat setting. If possible, turn the cooker on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking time and then to low or the setting called for in your recipe. However, it’s safe to cook foods on low the entire time. Do not use the warm setting to cook food. It is designed to keep cooked food hot.
  2. Always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. If frozen pieces are used, they will not reach 140°F quick enough and could possibly result in a foodborne illness. If possible, cut the meat into small chunks. The temperature danger zone is between 40°F and 140°. If food is in this temperature zone for more than 2 hours, harmful bacteria may grow to unsafe levels.
  3. Place vegetables on the bottom and near the sides of the slow cooker. Vegetables cook the slowest, so you want them near the heat.
  4. Keep the lid in place. Each time the lid is raised, the internal temperature drops 10 to 15 degrees and the cooking process is slowed by 30 minutes.
  5. Place leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate. Do not leave cooked food to cool down in the slow cooker.
  6. Reheat food on the stove top or microwave and transfer to a slow cooker to keep warm (140°F or above). Do not reheat food or leftovers in a slow cooker.

For additional information on slow cookers and food safety, visit:



Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Slow Cooker Black Eyed Pea Soup

Slow cooker black eyed pea soupMy family has never had any New Year food traditions. I have been reading up on some New Year food traditions from around the world and everything I read sounded so good that I am thinking I need to start one of these traditions with my family.

If I am going to start a New Year food tradition with my family this year, it is going to have to be simple. So, I think black eyed peas are going to be the new tradition for us. January’s recipe – Slow Cooker Black Eyed Pea Soup – is one of the easiest and tastiest recipes I have ever made. All you need to do is cut up the vegetables, dump all the ingredients in the slow cooker, set it on low, and wait patiently.

Black eyed peas served with greens and cornbread is a New Year food tradition from Southeastern America. Many eat this meal in hopes of good luck and prosperity in the new year. This soup pairs well with cornbread and a side of greens can easily be added for those who want to stick closely with this tradition. Try out this black eyed pea recipe for your New Year meal. Enjoy!

Justine Hoover

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

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Kitchen gifts that will help save money

I am not much for lining my countertops with one-use gadgets such as bun warmers, ice cream cone makers, rotisseries, hot dog cookers, rice cookers, single serving coffee makers, etc. But, I do think that some small appliances can help make cooking at home faster, easier, or cheaper. Here are a few ideas for your gift list:

  • Slow cookers allow you to cook soups, stews, and broth without having to watch them all day. They are great for cooking less tender, less expensive cuts of meat and don’t take much energy to run.
  • Blenders are great for making smoothies out of fruit that is a little extra ripe. You can also use a blender to grate hard cheese, make bread crumbs, or make baby food.
  • Sets of food containers are helpful for storing family or individual servings when you make big batches of soup, chili, etc. If you have someone who eats alone or has difficulty cooking, buying food containers and filling them with meals is a great idea.

-pointers from Peggy

Slow-Cooker Meal for a Crowd

Last night I had my siblings, their spouses, and my parents for supper (11 in all). It was one of those times that I invited everyone and then started thinking about what I could make. The menu was a little trickier since my oven stopped working last week and I don’t have a replacement. I didn’t want to spend all day preparing the meal or spend lots of money—plus I wasn’t sure what time we would actually sit down to eat.

Here’s the menu I planned:

Stew in my slow cooker
Mashed butternut squash
Apple slices
Italian bread
Assorted desserts (My sister provided these from her freezer.)

The only foods I purchased were the meat, carrots, apples, and Italian bread. Using those costs, plus estimating what I used on hand, the meal total was around $16 (not including the squash harvested from the garden). 

Pork steak was $1.59/pound while beef stew meat was $3.29/pound. I bought 3 pounds of the bone-in pork steak. It took 20 minutes to cut it into bite size chunks. It took another 20 minutes to peel and cut up the potatoes, carrots, and onions. (I used about 2.5 pounds potatoes, 1 pound onion, and 1.5 pounds carrots.) The recipe I found on allrecipes.com used bay leaf, Worcestershire sauce, beef broth, salt, pepper, and wine. I choose this recipe since it did not use a seasoning mix. I also added a can of diced tomatoes.

I had two large butternut squash left from the garden which needed to be used, so I cooked them in the microwave and mashed them with a little brown sugar and margarine.

The apples I sliced right before we were ready to eat, so they wouldn’t brown.

For an appetizer, I had a package of a knock-off chex mix. Since this didn’t look like enough for everyone, I made several batches of popcorn. Interestingly enough, the chex mix was left and the popcorn was eaten. Next time I’ll just do popcorn, which is super cheap when you pop it on top of the stove.

Here are the savings tips from this meal:

  • Plan menus around what you have on hand.
  • Cut the meat yourself—you frequently pay a premium for the butcher to cut it for you.
  • Soups and stews stretch your meat dollar because you can add more vegetables and use less meat.
  • You can skip the cost of seasoning packets when you use a recipe with the spices included.
  • Simple foods like apples, popcorn, squash are inexpensive and healthy.

-pointers from Peggy

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