What’s For Dinner (No. 191) & Cooking Tips, Too!

whatsfordinner

This week’s What’s For Dinner is a bit different since it includes the Thanksgiving meal. There are lots of things I want to share about some of the foods I made this year.  Plus I found a few really great recipes you might be interested in. So let’s get started. Continue reading “What’s For Dinner (No. 191) & Cooking Tips, Too!”

How to Set-Up a Freezer Meal Exchange Group

How to Set Up Freezer Exchange Group

By Elizabeth Scholes

About two years ago a friend invited me to attend a freezer meal workshop with her.  We received grocery lists, bought ingredients, prepped them and then met to assemble meals.  The result was 10 delicious meals to take home to our freezer. My family enjoyed them and I enjoyed the ease of having something to pull out for dinner.  The only drawback was that it was time consuming (about 3 hours plus prep work done at home) and difficult to have enough space for everyone to assemble their meals (since none of us just happen to operate in an industrial sized kitchen).  That same friend and I got to talking a few months later about how we could achieve the same result – meals in our freezer – but bypass those challenges. We came up with the idea to form a freezer meal exchange group.  We asked another friend to join us and she gladly accepted.  We’ve exchanged meals several times since then and all of us are still so pleased with the meals we receive and the little effort it takes to accomplish.

Here’s how we do it:

– Every 6-8 weeks we select a weekend that works for all of us to exchange.  Since we happen to see each other frequently, the exchange isn’t hard to plan, but I’ve heard of people selecting a day and time to meet at someone’s home or even a parking lot for just a few minutes.  You could also plan to have a fun coffee date and chat during the exchange but that’s not necessary.

– We each choose two meals we will make and multiply the recipe by three (one for our own family and one for each of the other participants).  We run ideas for these meals by each other to make sure they’re likable and also to be sure we have variety.  For example, this last weekend, between the three of us, we had lasagna, breaded pork cutlets, beef stew, chicken and wild rice soup, chicken parmesan and chicken pot pie.

– We know each other’s preferences and respect them. Our husbands (and kids sometimes) also weigh in to let us know what meals were successes and which were not.  We have one family in our group who doesn’t eat mushrooms, so for a stir fry recently, the preparer left out mushrooms from that family’s meal.

– We use disposable pans or freezer safe Ziplocs, depending on the type of food. This ensures none of us have to be responsible to get pans back to each other.  You could, however, all agree to purchase extra pyrex dishes or freezer proof plastic containers and return to use for future meals.

– We label everything clearly with name of dish and cooking instructions.

– We generally only expect to receive the main dish.  We know each of us will fill in our own sides.  Occasionally someone will throw in rolls with a soup, or mashed potatoes with a roast and that’s always a nice treat.

– Some meals are one dish to freeze.  Others might take multiple containers and steps (i.e.: stir fry might contain a bag of veggies and meat, bag of sauce, bag of uncooked rice or a container or spaghetti and meatballs with a box of spaghetti noodles).

That’s pretty much it. I can usually knock out my meals in a couple of hours or less, depending on what I’m making that day. Obviously these meals don’t replace regular daily cooking, but after walking away with six freezer meals, we have about one meal a week for the length of time between exchanges.  It’s also easy for our husbands to pop in the meal if needed on a busy day.  This reduces the number of times we have to eat out and reduces our grocery bill because most of the time multiplying a recipe costs less than making six totally different meals.

The best part is you can cater this to your needs.  You could exchange with just one other person or have up to 4-6 people in the group depending on how much freezer space you have.  Exchange once a month, or once a quarter or anywhere in between. It also helps to have a similar number of family members, or at least know that similar quantities will be eaten by everyone.  I would suggest gathering your group and doing a trial exchange (or two) so there’s no long term commitment if it doesn’t work out well for everyone.

The sky is the limit! I hope you’ll try it!

NOTE:  In case you were wondering, we are by no means the first people to form a group like this.  We found a lot of helpful tips and recipes from at: 70+ Healthy Freezer Meal Recipes | Thriving Home

(Not sure what you can freeze? Check out this article by Elizabeth to find out what items freeze well.  You can read it here.)

What’s For Dinner (No. 181) & Cooking Tips, Too!

Place Setting

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Another week of successful menu planning and cooking!  Yeah!

Monday
Gluten Free Pizza (David)
Totinos Combination Pizza (Patty)

Gluten Free Pizza

Totinos Combination Pizza

NOTES:  I tried a new crust mix for David’s gluten free pizza.  I think it’s his favorite so far.

Live G Free Pizza Crust

TIP:  This pizza mix made two pizza crusts but I only wanted one.  So I measured the amount of mix and divided it in half.  I cut all the add-in ingredients in half and made only one crust.  I put the remaining pizza mix in a zip lock bag and put it back in the box for future use.  I’ve done this with cake mix, too, when I only wanted to make half a cake.

Pizza Crust Mix

Tuesday
Stewed Peppers & Tomatoes with Eggs (NEW)

Stewed Peppers & Tomatoes with Eggs

NOTES:  David liked this recipe a lot despite the fact that I overcooked the eggs a little bit.  Apparently there’s a fine line between undercooked and overcooked.  He wasn’t criticizing – he was answering my question about how it was and whether it was blog worthy.  He cooks eggs ALL the time so he’s really good at getting them just right.  I’m not as experienced.

Wednesday
Jim’s Chili
Cornbread Muffins
Honey Butter

chili

cornbread and honey butter

NOTES:  I intended to make roasted asparagus with this meal but I got busy and forgot to cook it – so no vegetable.  TIP:  If you think things are going to get hectic at dinner time, do as much as you can ahead of time.  Even leave yourself notes about what needs done.  As far as my asparagus, I could have prepared it before things got crazy and had it ready for the oven.  It probably would have been a good idea to set a reminder, too – you know, one to preheat the oven and another to put the asparagus in the oven.

Thursday
Papa Johns

Papa John's Pizza

NOTES:  My son and daughter-in-law were coming for dinner and I didn’t feel like cooking.  So I ordered pizza.  I didn’t feel too bad about it since we hadn’t done that in a while.

Friday
Leftovers

Saturday
Baked Rigatoni
Herbed Flatbread
Roasted Asparagus

Baked Rigatoni

Herbed Flatbread

Roasted Asparagus

NOTES:  I used gluten free penne for the baked rigatoni.  TIPI don’t love the gluten free spaghetti (except the ones made with quinoa) but the other types, like penne, are fine.

Sunday
Fish ‘n Chips with Peas (NEW)

Fish 'n' Chips & Peas

NOTES:  This tasty fish was coated with crushed Salt & Vinegar potato chips.  The peas were cooked in the microwave with butter and lemon juice and then pureed in the food processor.  I was afraid they would look like baby food but they didn’t. They were actually quite good.  I’ll be sharing this recipe in the near future.


More menu ideas are available here.
More great recipes are available here.


What’s For Dinner (No. 180) & Cooking Tips, Too!

Place Setting

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I tried lots of new recipes this week and all of them were successes.  I love when that happens!

Monday
Salmon & Veggie Skillet (NEW)

180 - Salmon & Veggie Skillet 1

180 - Salmon & Veggie Skillet 2

NOTES:  Usually when we’re cleaning up from dinner, David goes ahead and puts any leftovers in individual serving portions so he can grab them for his lunch.  It saves a lot of time in the morning and keeps from dirtying as many dishes.

180 - Salmon & Veggie Skillet 2

Tuesday
Baked Chicken Breasts (NEW)
Nutty Wild Rice
Steamed California Vegetables

180 - Baked Chicken Breasts & Nutty Wild Rice

NOTES:  I found the Baked Chicken Breast recipe on a blog called gimmesomeoven.com.  The recipe called for you to brine the chicken breasts.  I had never done that before but they turned out really excellent. You can find the recipe here.

The Nutty Wild Rice was a recipe I’ve had for a very long time but apparently had forgotten about.  After he ate his lunch, my husband texted me that he LOVED that rice.

Wednesday
Leftovers

Thursday
Baked Garlic Parmesan Chicken (NEW)
Baked Garlic Parmesan Wedges (NEW)
Garlic Bread
Steamed California Vegetables

180 - Baked Garlic Parmesan Chicken & Potato Wedges

NOTES:  Okay.  I have a lot to say about preparing this meal.  First of all, when you’re making a meal where you’re coating meat with crumbs, the first thing is that you can’t reuse any leftover crumbs once you’ve had meat in them.  However, I hate throwing the extra crumbs away so I have a strategy that allows me to save leftover crumbs.  I use TWO bowls.  One bowl has the crumbs in it.  The second bowl has the meat and some crumbs.  I add crumbs to the breading bowl as I need them.  When I’m done, if I have leftover crumbs, I can save them because they never touched the meat.  With this recipe, I increased the crumbs by 50% and did have some left over.  I labeled them and put them in the freezer for another use.

Bowls of Crumbs

Also, I’ve found that most recipes that require breading do not provide enough crumbs so I almost always increase the recipe by half or double.

When I was making the potato coating, I had some clumps of garlic powder that wouldn’t dissolve.  I tried using a spoon and fork but they didn’t work well.  So I wiped off a bottle I had on the cabinet and used it instead.  It worked great.

180 - breaking clumps tip

If you have a lot of trash while you’re cooking and your trash can isn’t handy, put a bowl on the counter and throw all the trash in it.  Then when you’re done, you just dump it in the trash can.  I do this all the time!

180 - trash bowl tip

And, finally, when you have to put two pans in the oven to cook at the same time, keep in mind that it may increase your cooking time a little bit of affect the way the food turns out.  For example, something that’s supposed to be crunchy may not be as crunchy if it’s on the top rack.  I normally like to alternate the pans so that one is horizontal and one is from front to back but in this case I used my bigger pans and they’ll only go in horizontal.

180 - two pans in the oven tip

Friday
Soft Fish Tacos (NEW)
Maple Peanut Butter Fudge (NEW)

180 - fish tacos

180 - Maple Peanut Fudge

NOTES:  Wouldn’t you know, the Soft Fish Tacos recipe called for tartar sauce and I forgot to buy any.  I have never bought it before so I had no clue where it might be.  But as is my custom, I went to the internet and found a recipe for tartar sauce and whipped some up.  If you need it, you can find it here.   The recipe calls for ¼ cup dill relish which I didn’t have.  I did more research and found out I could use chopped up dill pickles.  It worked great.

I also tried this recipe for Maple Peanut Butter Fudge that I found on texanerin.com.  David loves dessert but doesn’t eat much anymore.  This recipe was gluten free and low fodmap so I whipped up a batch.  It was delicious and I’ll definitely be making it again.  I did have a little trouble getting the fudge out of my homemade wax paper liners.  The recipe recommends wax liners but I didn’t have any and couldn’t find any at Wal-mart.  So if I don’t find any in the near future, next time I’ll make this fudge in a pan and cut it.  If you’re interested in making this delicious fudge, you can find the recipe here.

Saturday
Leftovers

Sunday
Grilled Lemon Chicken
Parmesan Roasted Potatoes
Salad
60-Minute Rolls

180 - lemon chicken

NOTES:  These 60-minute rolls are SO good!  And they really only take 60 minutes.  If you’ve never worked with yeast before, these are a good beginning recipe.


More menu ideas are available here.
More great recipes are available here.


Why “Wing It” Menu Planning Doesn’t Work for Me

Menu Planner

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Winging it seems to be a commonly used menu planning strategy.  I, myself, have been doing it a lot more than I used to.  In the past, I “winged it” about once a year and it didn’t turn out well.

Lately, though, I’ve been doing it a lot.  I have several good reasons for this change in strategy:

  1. Frequently I don’t have time to make a menu.
  2. We’re pretty much eating the same things all the time.
  3. Cooking is VERY simple because of David’s IBS.
  4. I’m getting better at creating recipes with what I have on hand.

But . . . even though it’s working okay, I don’t like it.  Here’s why:

  1. I usually don’t have everything I need for any recipe so I have to get creative to make it work. I’m not opposed to creativity, but when I’m trying to figure out what to make for dinner NOW, I really don’t have the time, energy or desire to be creative.
  1. Being creative takes extra time that I don’t have. If I’m short an ingredient, I search the internet to find a substitute or figure out how to make the missing item from scratch.  That takes time and I usually don’t have it.
  1. Sometimes I can’t do as much as I want to because I have to spend extra time making things from scratch that I should have had in my pantry.
  1. I have extra folks for dinner a lot, and when I wing it, I don’t always have something suitable to make for guests.
  1. When I go grocery shopping without a detailed list and menu, I usually either overspend or don’t get enough.
  1. When I sit down at night to plan tomorrow’s day, I don’t want to have to figure out what to make for dinner – I want to choose an appropriate meal from a pre-made list.
  1. When I wing it, I end up cooking the same things over and over and over again instead of trying new things.
  1. I like looking for new recipes to try, and it’s more fun if you have the ingredients on hand instead of trying to make them work with what you have.
  1. I hate making mid-week trips to the grocery store. Those are budget busters for me because I can’t stick to my budget and I buy extra goodies while I’m in there.
  1. When I don’t have a menu plan, we end up eating leftovers more or pulling something together at the last minute.

So while I admire all of you who can wing it and make it work, I’m not one of you.  I need my menu plan, and by golly, I’m going to find the time to start doing it again.  Winging it is NOT for me!

Do you make a detailed menu each week or do you wing it?