Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pinterest Success: Buckeye Brownies

Buckeyes: chocolate covered peanut butter balls.

Brownies: self-explanatory.

Together?  Uh, can we say YUM??  :-)

The Recipe

My Results.  I apologize for the picture quality.  Taking pics in our home at night with an iPhone never makes for quality.  Also, I'd love to know how the recipe's author cut hers so perfectly!  :-)  They eat the same, though!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Once A Month Cooking, Part 2

How I Began

I first started by sitting down to make a master list of my family's favorite meals.  I just thought it through without looking at cookbooks or online recipes.  That way I knew it would be the TOP favorite meals and the most go-to dishes.  I didn't think it would be many, but I ended up with 18!  I realized I could stop there, but that wasn't quite a month.  So why not double 18 and end up with more than a month rather than think up more meals?  Wouldn't that be nice??  I printed out a table with all of the meals to have on my fridge.  I did NOT use a calendar or date the boxes of the table.  Leftovers are bound to become a meal, and what if I wanted to try a new recipe one week or we ate somewhere else one night?  Then the whole dated meals would be thrown off.  This way, I could just move through the meals one at a time.

My 36 Meals... Fish 'n Chips was added as a reminder Hubz likes it.
So I might throw it in somewhere for his sake.
Do feel free to read through the meals if you want ideas of what can be done!
Once I had my menu, I then began the monumental-but-doable task of assembling my grocery list.  I made up a blank list with categories based upon my grocery store's layout (something I use every time I shop).  Then I went through each recipe, writing down the double amounts of each food item in the right category.  Only write down ingredients that will not perish: meats to freeze, canned goods, pasta, baking supplies, spices, etc.  (You'll buy produce and other perishable ingredients each week.)  Then if a food item repeats in recipes, just increase the amount on your list.  Very basic and easy, just time consuming.  At the end, you'll have what might be the biggest grocery list you've ever made.  But that's ok!  Think of how little time and money you'll spend at the store for the rest of the month!

Before I started the grocery list, I went through on my table and penciled in how much meat each meal would use on the first 18 meals.  I would use 4 chicken breasts for BBQ Chicken x 2 would mean I 'd need 8 chicken breasts on my grocery list for two meals of BBQ Chicken.  Spaghetti would use 1/2 pound hamburger x 2 meals, so I needed 1 pound of hamburger for two meals of spaghetti.  And so on.  I hope this isn't confusing anyone!  Do what works for your brain.  It just made it easier for me to add up the meat poundage for my list AND know how much to allocate to each freezer meal once I had it home for preparation.  'Twould be a shame to get all that meat home and not remember how many pounds went with each meal.  Talk about feeling lost!

Initial Tips

1) Make sure you don't make more meals than your freezer can hold!  If we hadn't had an extra fridge in our garage from when friends were living with us, I would have gotten seriously stuck in this process!  I hadn't even though about how much our freezer would hold (or not).  :-)  After we had been through a few days of meals, I was able to fit it all in our own freezer.  Whew!  And we got rid of the extra fridge... so I need to really think through storage space for my next OAMC!

2) Be sure to purchase storage items: parchment paper, aluminum foil, freezer zip-top bags in both gallon and quart size.  It is also helpful to have a cookie sheet that will fit into your freezer.  This helps liquids in zip-top bags freeze flat instead of with ridges from the wire shelves.

3) Carve out a good chunk of hours for the shopping and cooking.  I did my shopping and cooking over two days, and it ended up being about 12 hours total for work time.  It would have been a bit more if I hadn't forgotten to purchase the Italian sausage for the lasagna.  So add maybe 2 hours (my sauce simmers for 1.5 hours).

4) Figure out which part of the recipes you can prep/freeze.  Here are a few examples:

  • Asian Beef w/ Broccoli & Rice: roast can be frozen in zip-top bag with marinade; prep frozen broccoli and rice day of.
  • Chicken Pot Pie, Fruit:  filling can be made and frozen (do NOT freeze raw potatoes...subtract two meals from my menu above); pie crusts can be frozen or made day of; purchase fruit week of.
  • Spaghetti, Salad, Garlic Bread:  sauce and garlic bread can be made and frozen; prep noodles, salad day of.
  • Chicken Tortilla Chili: chicken can be boiled, cubed, then frozen; combine with canned goods and broth day of.  (beans can also be made and frozen if canned is not desired)
So now would be a time to get started on your own menu if you're interesting in trying this!  Go in easy.  Think of meals today, and write them down.  Do your list on another day.  Plan your shopping the next day.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  :-)

Next, I'll talk about a few tips on how to cook and freeze all the food!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Once a Month Cooking, Part 1

Food and drink.  Necessary for survival.  A blessing to be enjoyed.  And something to plan for!  Let me start by saying I feel quite inferior to the other blog posts and articles I've read about this "Once a Month Cooking" shindig.  It's cropping up everywhere on Pinterest it seems.  I've only tried it once, used my own recipes, and sort of just winged it.  How's it going now that I'm about two weeks in?  WONDERFUL!!!  Several friends have been interested in how I did it, so I thought I would share some of the basics from a non-professional OAMCook.  :-)

Why I Tried It

Because of all that has happened in the last few months for my family, there has been much good and bad stress.  On top of that, fatigue from life's duties and increased fatigue from my current MS flare have made it harder to function as a meal manager.  Spending brain power on menus and grocery lists proves to be a daunting task that takes longer than it used to.  Physically going shopping each week (sometimes with three kids in tow) and cooking every afternoon is hard on my back and energy level.  I began to loathe it all: the menu planning, the shopping, the cooking...  It made my impatience during the Valley of the Shadow (4:30 - 6:00 pm... you moms know what I mean) worse.  I'd be angry if my Hubz had to say he'd be later than planned (poor guy!).  I didn't enjoy creating food that would satisfy my family and make them smile -- I've always loved that about feeding people.  Something had to change even though I had tried several methods to make it easier.  So I got my Hubz on board with the OAMC idea (it's a bigger hit to the finances since it's all at once) and got the gusto to actually do it one weekend (Jan 28-29, '13).

Already Realized Benefits

1) I can't even begin to explain the burden that has been lifted from the Valley of the Shadow!  It's incredible.  Because there is much less prep that has to go into dinner, I have this strange time now that I can do...whatever!  I can say YES to reading a book or playing outside or sitting and snuggling with a groggy little girl who woke from her nap.  I don't have to be so tempted to use the Electronic Babysitter to keep them occupied without a fuss because I can be WITH my kids.  I can SIT down for a while instead of standing in the kitchen for an hour or more.  I can REST at the dinner table when we gather 'round rather than collapse in the chair with a sigh of relief that cooking is over.

2) The amount of brain power needed for meal management has been drastically reduced.  Slower cognition is actually a flare symptom of MS.  I've not talked to anyone except my doctor and those very close to me about it, and it's humbling to admit because it makes you feel stupid or forgetful or disorganized in front of others.  Very humbling, especially the disorganized part.  I think I'd rather limp or have a hand tremor.  Time to fess up.  I have experienced slower cognition over the last several months, some days much worse than others.  I think that, combined with the extra fatigue, is precisely what made meal management become SUCH a mental chore that I dreaded.  It actually makes me a little choked up when I think about how much more free I feel mentally when it comes to feeding my family.  Again, a huge burden - lifted.

3) Hubz had a good point.  With these meals made and frozen, should we choose to take a meal to someone (which we used to do often!) ... there's no extra prep or purchases necessary!  Gotta admit though, my knee-jerk reaction to that was selfishness.  "But if we take a meal to someone, that means one less meal for me not to plan!"  Silly Dawn.  Be generous!

Remaining Questions

1) How will the food budget at the end of using the meals compare to weekly planning/shopping?  Will we have come out ahead, the same, or will more have been spent?  My hypothesis is either ahead since more can be bought in bulk theoretically saving more, or it will be the same.  If we end up spending more, I think it will be because shorter grocery lists can sometimes give rise to feeling like you have more wiggle room to spend week-to-week.

2) Just how long will this last?  I think I was still used to cooking for two families when I made my list, or I had forgotten the exact amount my family eats by itself.  Several of our meals have extended into two dinners or even three  (Roast/veggies, leftovers, then a beef pot pie).  So making a date-less table already paid off (explanation in Part 2)!  I started out with 36 meals, and we have already gone beyond that.  This may end up being Once A 1.5 to 2 Months Cooking!

Next, I'll talk about what I did to prepare for OAMC!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Allrecipes Trial: Mouse's Macaroni & Cheese

Allrecipes and Pinterest.  Two sites I love to get new recipes from.  My most recent trial was Mouse's Macaroni & Cheese.  My Hubz had a potluck lunch at work and requested that I make macaroni & cheese... with the specification that he wanted it to be smooth and cheesy.  As in not the recipe I instantly got giddy to make (Ma Meador's Mac!) which is the down-home Southern type.  As in... more of the Velveeta type.  ::grin::  Some people just like the typical American way better -- processed.  And I admit, it sure is indulgent and tasty!  Just not the best for every day.

I doubled the recipe which made it fit nicely in a 9x13.  The only change I made was to use 2 lb of Velveeta rather than half American and half Velveeta.  Really... aren't they the same?  I actually Wikepeida-ed it.  Velveeta is indeed an American cheese, but it is made in such a way to melt more smoothly than regular American.  Who knew?

The biggest tip from the reviews that rang true for me is NOT to add more pasta.  When you first mix the partially cooked pasta and the cheese sauce, it's a soup.  But by baking it in the oven, the pasta finishes cooking by absorbing some of the cheese sauce and you end up with the creamiest mac!  I topped it with a bit of shredded mild cheddar once it came out of the oven.

Here is the doubled, slightly edited recipe:

Mouse's Macaroni & Cheese

3 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
1/2 cup butter
4 Tbs flour
2 tsp mustard powder
2 tsp ground black pepper (I used about 1.5 tsp)
4 cups milk
2 lb Velveeta, cubed
1/2 cup seasoned dry bread crumbs (I substituted shredded cheddar)

Preheat oven to 400*.  Butter a 9x13 casserole dish.  Bring a saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil.  Add macaroni, and cook until not quite done, about 6 minutes.  Drain.

In a separate saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Blend in the flour, mustard powder, and pepper until smooth.  Slowly stir in the milk, beating out any lumps.  Add the cubed Velveeta cheese, and stir constantly until the sauce is thick and smooth.

Drain noodles, and stir them into the cheese sauce.  Transfer the mixture to the prepared casserole dish.  Sprinkle bread crumbs over the top (optional).

Cover the dish, and bake 20-25 minutes, or until the sauce is thick and bubbly.  Top with shredded cheddar (optional).

I just saw that I forgot to cover my dish to bake.  Oh well!  It worked out fine anyway!  :-)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Holiday Decorating Simplified

Do you realize there is a "major" holiday nearly every month?  I really like holidays, all of them.  Well, most of them.  I like decorating for the holidays, but I'm not very creative.  To be even more honest, I'm lazy.  Dawn doesn't do a lot of decorating either, but her excuse is that lots of decor looks cluttered which is not her preference. And we all know more decor means more storage space needed.  We both prefer to just do little touches of festivity for the bigger holidays except one...  Christmas is the only holiday I go all out and decorate multiple rooms in the house and the one in which Dawn uses more decor than just little touches.  Though I confess, I find it a chore...mostly the putting everything away after Christmas.  (Boy, do I sound like a downer??)  Despite the laziness, I do like to decorate for the biggest holidays...Valentine's Day being one of them!  So I thought I would show you how I decorate quickly and easily for Valentine's Day.  You could do this for any holiday.  If you want to plan for the future -- and save money!! -- wait until after the holiday and purchase decor when it is on mega-sale.  So here are my little Valentine's Day decorations!

I have a pair of decorative salt and pepper shakers.  They are difficult to fill because the hole
on the bottom is quite small.  Here's a simple tip to fill them without making a mess!
Take a small piece of tape and cover the holes.
If you don't, you may have a "duh" moment when you turn it over.  :-)
Next, place your tape-covered shaker in a container to keep it propped up.
Put in a small funnel, add salt or pepper, replace the stopper.  You're ready to go!

Salt and pepper shakers are only one part of my decor.  I have
these clear glass floating candle holders.  They are wonderfully versatile!  
Whichever the holiday, I can usually find something to fill
the candles holders.  For Valentine's Day, I use "conversation
hearts."  I would use chocolate...but it would get eaten.  :)
I have had these hearts for four years.  They just don't go bad!
I add the salt and pepper shakers to the candle holders and
end up with a nice little centerpiece for dining room table.

The only other places I have decor are on my front door and in my kitchen.  Wreaths are easy to switch out and offer guests (and yourself!) a festive entrance to your home.  Kitchen towels are a super easy way to keep a touch of fun with the functional!

Using simple decorations like these allows your home to be a touch decorated and festive for the holidays without all the fuss 'n muss and expense.  AND... it's easy to clean up, put away, and switch out for the next holiday!  What are some ways you decorate for the holidays?  Which is your favorite holiday to decorate for?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

One Week Down

Month of Freezer Meals...

LOVE.  After one week, both my Hubz and I have noticed how much smoother things run.  Especially in that Valley of the Shadow between 4:30 and 6:00.  I know I'm not the only SAHM that knows how hard those hours are!  With at least the main part of the meal already prepped, so much stress is taken off of that part of the day.  Hubz even had to call one night to say he'd be home an hour later.  Normally, I would NOT be happy with that but would try to suck it up and push through, desperate for help to come home.  This time?  "Ok, that's fine!  See you then!"  Because I knew that dinner prep/cooking was not going to be a big ordeal.  Dishes have greatly been reduced post-dinner which frees up time for family.  Oh, and reduced prep means more time to just chill with my kids.  Another bonus?  I had all of 8 items on my grocery list for this week.  Crazy!  I totally can do 8 items with 3 kids if I choose to go mid-week.  And I didn't have to use brain power to come up with a menu and list -- can't tell you how huge that is since quick thinking hasn't been one of my fortes the last few months.  Summary: We are lovin' it!

Health & Fitness...

This week saw me stepping out like never before to truly be disciplined with what I eat and exercise for both health and internal wellness.  I feel a strong need to get my body into good shape for the future since MS is unpredictable in it's timing and symptoms.  It has gone WONDERFULLY!  I attribute the new found discipline to making it a spiritual endeavor this time around.  Actually praying and asking God to help me choice by choice, day by day (with a few friends also praying for me!).  He is faithful to answer!  I also was led to My Fitness Pal, a website that helps you track food and exercise.  I checked into it -- and it is amazing!  I have never counted calories before, and it has turned into a challenge for me.  It also really helps the discipline with what I eat.  I can also plan out my day and "save" calories if I know of something I'll want to eat later (i.e. a restaurant where an MS seminar is held or Super Bowl snacks...).  My Fitness Pal also has an app which has been helpful when I can't sit on my computer.  If you are wanting to lose weight or are already working on it or you just want to see how many calories/nutrients you regularly eat, you should try it out!  It's free!  Within the calorie counting, I have also made sure to keep sugar intake extremely low and keep carbs/dairy on the lower side but NOT out completely.  My body still needs the nutrients found in them!

Weekly Tips...

* Do NOT freeze raw potatoes.  They turn BLACK and soft as well as leak liquid all in the container/foods they are in.  There goes both my chicken pot pies for the month.  :-P

* Buy your local grocery store's deli pizzas when they are on a good sale. Snip in half, plastic and all, with kitchen shears and wrap with foil.  They'll fit in your freezer for one of those nights and save you money!  Safeway's deli pizzas are big and go on sale for $5.00.  Two for $10 is better than any Pizza Hut special!

* Top Doritoes with shredded pepper jack and heat either in the oven or microwave.  YUM!  Thank you, Super Bowl, for the opportunity to have one of our favorite snacks!