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Posts Tagged ‘menu planning’

A year ago, I was struggling with overwhelming cravings for sweets and carbs, bloating every night, and frustration over having gained 20 lbs. (welcome to middle age), among other things. It was a relief to discover that grains – including gluten free grains – and refined sugar were the main culprits behind most of my issues. My digestive distress has actually been a blessing because it motivates me to eat healthy or suffer the consequences. However, for those who don’t have obvious digestive issues, but still want to lose weight and be free of cravings, a substantial diet change can be daunting. (Can I get an “amen” from the gluten-free choir?)

Why is it that we get motivated to eat healthy, and perhaps even attempt a “Whole 30” diet cleanse in January, but at the end of the month go right back to eating processed foods and all the junk we know we shouldn’t eat? There’s a reason they call processed foods “convenience foods.” If you look at the typical Paleo blog there is just nothing convenient about all the prep necessary to rely on fruits and veggies for your carbohydrates. Those of us juggling the demands of busy schedules and kids need to be able to balance nutrition with time constraints and different eating requirements. (No, my skinny-as-a-rail son does not need a low-carb diet!) However, there is a healthy way to lose weight and keep it off without spending hours (and money) at the gym or making weight loss the only priority in your life.

The “Mostly” Principle
I’ll spare you the details of my personal saga (because you and I both know there will already be many words in this post – if not, welcome to my blog), so to sum up:

  • Over the last 9 months I’ve lost about 20 lbs. and have kept it off, even through the holidays (while still enjoying small amounts of our favorite goodies).
  • I’ve mostly gotten rid of cravings for sweets and carbs (as long as I don’t eat grains or sugar during the day – if I do, it’s Hello Kettle Chips!).
  • I’ve mostly said good-bye to bloating and digestive distress that had become the norm over the past few years (caused by the above foods and legumes, including peanuts).
  • I’ve managed to do this by eating a “mostly Paleo” diet.

Are you catching a theme, here? The “Mostly” principle is what keeps me on track with healthy eating because I strive to eat grain-free, refined sugar-free most of the time. I try to consume mostly whole foods, but I do take advantage of some convenience foods. (Call me lazy, but I’m NOT making my own mayo or ketchup.) I cook from scratch most nights, but give myself the freedom to heat up a frozen GF pizza on nights when I just can’t bear to cook (like every Friday night). I don’t obsess over whether there is a gram of sugar in my salad dressing or turkey bacon, but focus on choosing the most healthy options that fit into my budget (because I live in the real world where organic foods are mostly too expensive). This is why my recipes are tagged as “Paleo-ish,” because I’m not a strict Paleo guru.

The freedom found in the “Mostly” principle is what has made my eating plan realistic for long-term success because the requirement of perfect adherence to a strict diet is often the enemy of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. The meal plan that has evolved is one that is sustainable for life in a busy, gluten free family of four who likes to travel, throw parties, and occasionally eat out.

The Weekly Meal Plan
What makes my eating plan sustainable is the simplification of menu planning by designing a 2-3 week meal rotation that allows me to fix the same food for myself as for my family, with just a minor tweak; I omit the carbohydrate side dish for myself and eat a larger portion of veggies. So simple! If I get bored and want to swap in another diet-friendly recipe, I just find the slot that matches the side dish I’m using and plug it in to that week’s menu. I can’t begin to describe what a huge time-saver this has been! It’s even become the framework for the cooking lessons I’m giving my son this year, since repetition of the same menus will allow him to watch and learn, then assist, then prepare each meal by himself. Score!

When you look at the meals on my menu you’ll probably be a bit surprised that this has been my “diet” because we eat normal, kid-friendly food. Each night has its own theme, and I’ll move the nights around to fit my schedule as needed (like switching a crock pot meal to a busy night). My menu is simplified because I keep any grains separate and low-prep, so my family can help prepare that side dish while I focus my efforts on the vegetable side instead. (Initially, you might want to skip the potatoes for weight loss. Doing so, I lost about a pound per week. Now that I don’t want to lose any more weight, I try to eat a serving of potatoes or yams each day.)

As always, all my menus are gluten free! So even if you’re not looking to lose weight or curb cravings, you can still simplify your menu planning with the easy-to-prepare, “normal people” meals at the end of this post! Since too much dairy can also cause digestive distress, most of my meals are also naturally dairy free, with the exception of a few made with butter or topped with a little Parmesan cheese. However, I use coconut oil or olive oil in most of my baking, unsweetened almond milk when needed, and cheese is usually optional.

Breakfast
Changing the way I eat breakfast has been the key to eliminating cravings. I can occasionally eat pizza or a small amount of grains and refined sugar for dessert in the evening as long as I avoid them for breakfast. The good news is that grain-free muffins taste great (especially the day after they’re made) and fill you up because coconut flour is high in fiber, as well as really good for you (and does not taste like coconut, although it does lend a distinct flavor to baked goods, which is why I blend it with almond flour). Sweetening baked goods with fruit and honey is not only more natural, it doesn’t cause spikes in blood sugar like refined sugar, so my energy level stays steady throughout the day. Plus, shopping is simplified because you only need 2 flours as opposed to half-a-dozen needed for gluten free baking! 

Grain-free Muffins

I make enough grain-free muffins or pancakes for myself on Monday morning to last for the week, then just reheat them for stress-free mornings. I usually have 2 muffins or pancakes with an egg or piece of nitrate-free turkey bacon (or both) and a small serving of fruit, like an orange wedge or handful of berries. If I’m fixing hashbrowns for my family, I may just have one muffin and a small serving of hashbrowns.

Lunch
The key to eating a satisfying, low-carb lunch is to fill up on veggies and fruit, and make sure you have some sort of fat if consuming a low-fat meat like chicken or turkey (i.e. olive oil, avocados, nuts or cheese, if tolerated). During the winter, I like to make a big pot of hearty soup once a week that’s full of veggies and meat with no grains, corn or beans. If you chose a canned soup, which tends to be mostly broth and not filling, toss in some frozen veggies and leftover meat when you heat it or just round it out with some raw veggies.

Turkey Vegetable Soup

In the summer, I ate lots of salads for lunch with leftover roast chicken, canned salmon, taco meat, etc. Cucumbers add a nice crunch as a substitute for croutons, and you can load up your salad with whatever veggies you like. I quickly grew tired of salads, though, and ended up preferring lettuce-wrapped burgers or leftover meat and veggies. For a quick and easy lunch, I’ll heat up a Jennie-O turkey burger patty with some taco seasoning, then top it with guacamole and chopped tomatoes or salsa.

Bunless Guacamole Burger

We drove across the country on a 2-week trip last spring, and survived on turkey “sandwiches” made with thick slices of oven roasted turkey (from Costco) as the “bread,” filled with guacamole (squeezed out of single-serve packets) and sliced tomatoes, wrapped in a lettuce leaf. These can be made ahead of time for lunch on the go. With a handful of carrots and an apple (plus a bag of chips for my family members), this lunch sustained us for hours of walking around Washington D.C. Another variation is to spread some Dijon mustard on one turkey slice, top it with sliced avocado and tomato, then put another turkey slice on top and wrap the whole thing in a lettuce leaf.

Snacks and Sweets and Feeling Satisfied
The key difference between the way I eat now and the way I used to eat is that I used to eat until I was “full;” now I eat until I’m “satisfied.” When you cut out grains (and initially, starchy veggies like potatoes) you’ll notice that you don’t feel full, in the sense that you’re stuffed and can’t eat another bite. But by filling a third of your plate with veggies, a quarter to third of your plate with meat, and a quarter to third of your plate with fruit, you’ll feel satisfied. You’ll walk away from the meal feeling like you’ve had enough to eat to sustain you for the next 3-5 hours, but you won’t feel uncomfortably full.

Chimichanga Beef, Zucchini and Pineapple

Chimichanga Beef, Sauteed Zucchini and Fresh Pineapple

If you do get hungry between meals, a handful of almonds and a piece of fruit or handful of carrots should get you through to the next meal. Lara bars are great, sugar-free, all-natural bars you can throw in the car for running errands. Now that I’m not trying to lose weight, I also snack on sweet potato/root veggie chips (from Trader Joe’s) because the inherent sweetness naturally limits my portion size. For dessert, I usually enjoy a handful of salted almonds with about a tablespoon of semi-sweet chocolate chips, since a little dark chocolate is good for you! If you crave ice cream, try the Dole frozen chocolate covered banana slices that come in convenient 4-packs. (When I serve the family ice cream, which was my go-to easy dessert for them over the summer, I sometimes pull one of these out for myself – and the kids get jealous!) But as I said, once you’re free from cravings, a little dessert with the family from time to time should be fine.

Dinner
I’ve linked recipes that are already on my blog, and will come back to this post in the future to add in links as I post more recipes. My plan is to post recipes for all the options below. If you don’t like a particular vegetable on my list, substitute one you do like! (Although I’d encourage you to try the roasted broccoli and Brussels sprouts before you dismiss them. Roasted veggies are amazing!) If the veggies listed aren’t filling enough at first, add a side salad to your meal and remember to include a serving of fresh fruit. During the winter, pineapples are reasonably priced where we live. A fruit salad made with pineapple, kiwi, and pomegranate seeds will end your meal on a sweet note. Diced pears with fresh blueberries or a mango/kiwi/blueberry combo also make good winter fruit salads.

2-3 Weeks of Meals Designed for Weight Loss for 1 in a GF Family of 4
(Serve with fresh fruit. Serve the carb listed to your family only.)

Day 1: Italian

  1. Spaghetti squash with meat sauce (ground turkey or beef in a homemade sauce or one from a jar)
    • Salad
    • Family Side: Brown rice spaghetti noodles (if your family doesn’t like spaghetti squash)
  2. All-natural Italian sausage (like Falls brand Hot Italian) with optional marinara sauce
    • Option 1: Serve meat sauce over thinly-sliced, grilled eggplant, topped with Parmesan cheese
    • Option 2: Serve sausage link with a side of yellow squash sauteed in olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper
    • Family Side: Garlic toast (buttered gluten free bread, sprinkled with garlic salt, cooked butter-side-down on a griddle or frying pan)

Day 2: Seafood

  1. Garlic shrimp stir fry
    • Frozen snap pea stir fry blend sauteed in olive oil with salt, pepper, and McCormick’s Garlic and Herb Seasoning; add thawed, frozen salad shrimp just before serving 
    • Family Side: Heat-and-serve rice or Seeds of Change Garlic Brown Rice and Quinoa
  2. Salmon burger patty (like Trident salmon burgers from Costco) or baked salmon (with olive oil, salt, pepper, and basil) with fresh squeezed lemon juice
    • Buttered peas and carrots or snow peas sauteed in olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper
    • Family side: Rice or quinoa

 Day 3: Chicken Comfort Food

  1. Homemade or Costco roast chicken
  2. Baked, grilled or sautéed chicken with olive oil & herbs
    • Roasted broccoli or asparagus
    • Family Side (optional for you): Mashed potatoes or yams (mash microwaved yams with butter, unsweetened applesauce, salt and a dash of cinnamon, and top with dried cranberries or chopped pecans)

 Day 4: Mexican 

  1. Taco salad made with leftover roasted chicken and salsa or ground turkey with taco seasoning (and whatever veggies you like)
    • Family Side: Tortilla chips
  2. Beef Chimichanga filling (made with leftover roast from day 7), crock pot pork taco meat, or fajita meat with zucchini, salsa, and guacamole
    • Serve Chimichanga or taco meat with sliced raw zucchini “chips” for scooping up meat
    • Serve fajita meat with zucchini, bell peppers, and onions sauteed in oil with salt and pepper, topped with salsa
    • Family Side: Heat corn tortillas on a griddle with shredded cheese and fill with meat, salsa, and guacamole (optional); for fajitas, fill tortillas with meat, veggies and salsa

Day 5: FREE NIGHT!

  1. Pizza – Seriously, take one day off and eat a REASONABLE portion of whatever you want with a side salad or raw veggies, or keep it low(er) carb with my homemade pizza crust/bread stick recipe that replaces 2/3 of the flour with almond flour.
  2. Visit a buffet restaurant (like Golden Corral or Tucano’s Brazilian Restaurant) and load up on meat, fruit and veggies. If you’re super serious about weight loss, make your soup for the week on this night, and make enough for dinner with leftovers for lunches.

Day 6: Burger Joint Food

  1. Jennie-O turkey burger patty or beef patty with whatever condiments you like, wrapped in lettuce (optional – this is just too messy for me, so I prefer to eat it with a fork)
    • Sweet potato fries and salad or raw veggies
    • Family Side: Bun (we use the heels of our gluten free bread for buns)
  2. Buffalo chicken (cubed chicken breast sauteed in olive oil with Lowry’s seasoned salt, pepper and parsley, served with buffalo ranch dressing)
    • Baked fries or sweet potato fries, salad or raw veggies
  3. Optional Party Food: Buffalo Chicken Dip with celery sticks for dippers (FYI, I now cut back the ranch dressing in the recipe to 1/4 c.)
    • Carrot sticks
    • Family Side: Tortilla chips (for scooping up dip)

 Day 7: Meat and Potatoes

  1. Crock pot roast cooked with onion, celery, garlic clove and carrots (discard celery and garlic)
    • Green beans
    • Family Side (optional for you): Potatoes in the crock pot with homemade gravy
    • Family Side Option 2: GF sub rolls for French Dip with cooking juices
  2. Grilled steak or pork chops with Monterey seasoning
    • Green beans
    • Family Side (optional for you): Baked potatoes

As promised in my Pledge to Blog the Truth, here’s a snapshot of our menu this week. You’ll see that it’s been tweaked (because of ingredients that needed to get used up) and is yet another variation on the menu above. The possibilities are endless! 

This Week's Meal Plan

Remember to check back for detailed recipes to go with my menu plan. In the meantime, just remember the “Mostly” principle and enjoy a happy, healthy new year!

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Making gluten free frozen meals doesn’t have to take extra time, just extra planning, and it can save you a bundle on expensive GF convenience food for those nights when you just don’t have time to cook.  The most economical way to freezer cook is to stock up on meat and ingredients for side dishes that freeze well when they’re on sale, and plan to cook enough for 2 or 3 freezer meals in addition to your dinner that week.  If you do this only twice a week, you’ll have a treasure trove of quick meals for busy nights in no time!  I did this for three weeks last month, and was able to take the week before Thanksgiving off of cooking as a result.  It was awesome!  If you’re having company come to visit, then you’ll definitely be glad you took the time to make a few meals in advance so you don’t have to spend precious visiting time slaving in the kitchen.

Tips on Freezer Cooking
The key to successful freezer cooking is to get rid of as much air as you can in your bag or container.  I have a fancy vacuum-sealer that I never use because it’s cheaper to just use a Ziplock freezer bag (I use generic brands).  Just place your completely cooled food items into the smallest size bag that will work, press out the air, close the bag almost all the way and, if it’s not raw meat, use a straw to suck out the rest of the air.  You’ll see the bag shrink around your food.  Then just pull out the straw and quickly seal.  Your food will last for months this way with nary an ice crystal to cause freezer burn!  For casseroles or side dishes like mashed potatoes, I like to place them in a disposable tin pan (from the dollar store) with a layer of plastic wrap against the potatoes and heavy duty foil over that.

If you’re new to freezer cooking, avoid dishes with rice or pasta, as these can be tricky to freeze without them turning to mush – especially rice pasta, which gets mushy easily.  However, corn tortillas freeze well, as do potato side dishes.  Most GF breads freeze well, as do cupcakes and cookie dough.  (I prefer to freeze the dough, rather than cookies which can crumble after thawing, since freshly baked cookies are the best!)  Homemade meatballs and chicken strips freeze well and go with side dishes that are quick to heat, like pasta or frozen GF French fries (always read labels on fries, since some contain wheat).  When making a homemade sauce or cream soup for casseroles, be sure to add a pinch of xanthan gum to keep the ingredients from separating.  (This miracle ingredient is in just about every commercial sauce or convenience food, and it’s already in your pantry.  Use it!)  It’s best to freeze sauces or crunchy toppings (like the onions for my Green Bean Casserole) separately and assemble thawed ingredients just prior to baking.

Some of my favorite freezer meals are right on this blog:

Crock Pot Pork Taco meat can be frozen in serving sizes for tacos or nacho meat. You can also make the tacos ahead of time and freeze them in a bag.  These make great enchiladas, too, but freeze the sauce for enchiladas separately.  This is a very versatile meat that is on the menu regularly because it’s easy to throw together, makes a lot, and pork roasts often cost less than $2/lb.

  • If you don’t have enough green chilies, you can substitute chopped onion.  Or if you’re not a fan of pork, just freeze your favorite meat with GF taco seasoning!
  • If you’re new to cooking with corn tortillas, heat 3 or 4 at a time over low heat on a griddle sprayed with oil.  Flip after a few seconds, and immediately top with shredded cheese (we use cheddar or co-jack).  Put a 1-in. stripe of meat down the center.  When cheese is melted, lift one side of the tortilla over the meat, then roll the whole thing over to seal.  The heat makes them more pliable for rolling, and the cheese will keep the tortilla from popping open.

Lasagna – Okay, I know I said to not do pasta, but this is the exception since you don’t cook the noodles in advance.  Just layer the ingredients and freeze for later, or make a double batch so you can cook one and freeze one.

Mashed Potatoes – I tried the recipe from the Pioneer Woman blog for Thanksgiving and loved it!  I mashed a 5 lb. bag of potatoes the week before and had some for dinner, then froze the rest in a gallon-size freezer bag.  Then, on turkey day, I thawed it in the microwave and plopped it in a greased crock pot on high for a few hours, stirring occasionally to heat evenly.  At first, it was really soupy, but it thickened as it heated up – and tasted amazing!

  • For dairy free potatoes, skip the cream cheese and just use dairy free margarine and rice milk.
  • For a one dish meal, set aside some mashed potatoes for Shepherd’s Pie, which can also be frozen.

Fried Chicken Strips – These are a great way to use tenderloins trimmed from chicken breasts, or you can slice chicken breasts into strips.  I’ve linked my Mandarin Chicken recipe, but these work with any dipping sauce.

  • To freeze, cool cooked chicken at room temperature on plates lined with paper towels, then transfer to a freezer safe baking tray to freeze for a few hours.  Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag and press out (or suck out) the air.  Cook from frozen in a 400 degree oven for about 20 min.
  • Recently, I’ve been using/loving the Hodgson Mill GF Seasoned Coating Mix (dairy, soy and corn free, and available at our Wal-Mart).  I follow the directions on the back for Country Fried Beef (which you can also make and freeze), and skip the messy egg wash by just applying a liberal amount of coating mix and frying in oil until golden brown.  (I coat all the chicken once, then do it a second time.)  The recipe on the box for Country White Gravy is easy and awesome, so make sure you freeze some potatoes to go with your chicken strips!  However, these also taste great with barbecue sauce or honey mustard.

Meatballs or Mini Meatloaves – You can grind oats in a food processor as a healthy substitute for bread crumbs in your favorite meatball recipe, or grind the heals from GF bread (I save mine in the freezer for making bread crumbs) and combine with your favorite seasonings.  Recently, I’ve begun adding shredded potato and grated onion to my meatballs for moist meatballs that somewhat resemble my Grandma’s Swedish meatballs (only I’m too lazy to roll them in flour and fry them, like we do with Swedish meatballs).

  •  I like to heat up frozen meatballs in spaghetti sauce while the pasta boils, but we sometimes eat them like mini meatloaves or as meatball subs in toasted Udi’s hot dog buns with some spaghetti sauce and melted mozzarella or provolone.

Ham and Cheese Sandwiches on Onion Poppy Seed Cheese Rolls/Buns – My mother-in-law made these for get-togethers with family and friends because you can make these in advance and pop the wrapped sandwiches in the oven for a quick meal.  I like to make cheese rolls from a Pamela’s bread mix for these, but you could use your favorite hamburger bun/hot dog bun/roll for these.

Also, don’t forget to freeze leftover turkey or roast chicken to make Turkey or Chicken Pot Pie Pizza or Biscuit Pot Pies!

Some of our favorite gluten free breads and desserts to freeze include:

With some quick meal items in the freezer this month, you’ll have time to bake yummy goodies like Sour Cream Sugar Cookies or these Easy Holiday Goodies to Make with Kids.  Throw some Wassail in the crock pot, and you’re set for the holidays!

 

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My body woke me up at 5:45 a.m. this morning – which has been its long running, not-so-hilarious joke all summer – so that I could tell you something very important.  (Are you ready for this?)

I ran out of eggs.

This happens about…never.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m part squirrel who lives in perpetual fear of winter, so as soon as I open the last container of something, I put it on my grocery list.  I then buy multiples of it to ensure that I never run out of it.  E-V-E-R.  When we’re about to go on a trip or preparing for a holiday, I go into stockpiling overdrive because HEAVEN FORBID that I should run out of something during this week and…go to the store.  I’m sharing these mysteries of my universe with you at o’dark thirty because the ridiculousness of my irrational fears is starting to sink in.  In case you’re one of my psychoanalysis friends, no, we never ran out of food when I was a kid.  There was always enough Hamburger Helper to go around.  So if I can’t blame my upbringing, as is the custom of my generation, what’s my deal?

I pondered this question as I went to just 2 stores with my tiny little grocery list this week.  I did try the Farmer’s Market last Saturday, as outlined in my plan to purchase most of my produce for 7 weeks from local farmers, which sounded so wholesome and environmentally friendly, and is clearly a sign that I’ve been brainwashed by the granolas.  However, when I rolled into the market 2 hours after it opened, when the granolas had already cleared out the good stuff, I realized that my plan blows for 2 reasons:

  1. There is simply not enough variety at our Farmer’s Market, unless I want to feed my family on mystery squash, rhubarb, local honey and homemade jam.
  2. Who in their right mind goes somewhere at 9 a.m. on a Saturday?  Saturday mornings are God’s gift to parents; that’s why he created cartoons.  We don’t DVR their shows during the week.  They have to wait until Saturday morning and watch whatever’s on, just like we did as kids.  Saturday morning is a big deal to my kids.  It’s their Sabbath, and I don’t mess with it.  It’s also my morning to leisurely drink coffee and ponder my Bible study and dink around on the internet (which I usually do most days, but on Saturday there’s no guilt!).

So I’ve decided to compromise by going to the market of our local farmer that’s just down the road and getting any produce I can there before going to the big box grocery stores.  They have non-GMO sweet corn, and the farmer brings in produce from his other farms in neighboring states, so there’s much more variety.  When I shared this with the family, my 9-year-old granola-in-training piped up.

Daughter: “But doesn’t the CO2 from the trucks used to drive the farmer’s food to the market still cause damage to the environment?”
What I thought: What the heck!  Who’s been telling you about CO2?  They’re dead to me.
What I said: “Yes, but that’s not the point.  We’re still supporting our local farmer and helping our local economy, which enables him to grow his farm and provide us with even more choices, like his new pumpkin patch.”  (Don’t even get me started on the other farmers who’ve turned their sweet little pumpkin patches into huge fall carnivals that cost as much as Disneyland.)

Anyway, back to the eggs.  When I opened the fridge to pull out the ingredients to make muffins, I realized that I couldn’t because I didn’t have any eggs.  I stared at the fridge, willing them to appear, then decided to eat sausage and leftover pancakes instead.  The kids ate yogurt and my homemade granola (because granola is for eating, not being).  We all managed to eat breakfast with no eggs in the house.  I know, this is so profound, but I needed to experience this little object lesson.  Why?  I needed to face my irrational fear of running out, and realize that it’s okay.  We won’t starve if I don’t have a particular ingredient.

There’s a difference between stocking up on sales to be thrifty, and stocking up on groceries for fear of not having 8 kinds of baking chips on hand in case the mood strikes me to make muffins with semi-sweet, butterscotch, cinnamon, peanut butter, mini semi-sweet, white, mint, and milk chocolate chips.  And there’s the hidden reason behind my fear of running out: I have a split personality.  One half of me is super organized, and the other half craves spontaneity.  My organized, Boy Scout side says, “Be prepared.”  My rebellious, “Don’t tell me what I’m going to cook, bossy menu plan!” side wants freedom to make whatever she’s in the mood to eat.  This means Boy Scout has to be prepared for all of Rebel’s moods.

So guess what God had to say about all this?  Surprisingly little.  He’s letting me figure out on my own that I have enough; that I don’t need so many choices, and that there’s freedom in limiting my options.  No eggs?  So I can’t make muffins – I just saved myself a whole lot of time and dirty dishes!  (Can I get an “Amen!” from the husband?)  Studies have shown that the more choices we have, the more miserable we are.  It’s true.  Having a gluten free family has drastically reduced my choices in the grocery store, and though I mourned this at first, it’s actually quite freeing.  Fewer choices mean less time shopping and making decisions.

When I went to the 2 stores with just $20 left to spend after the Farmer’s Market and buying toilet paper (which I will NEVER run out of), it was such a different experience than my usual circle-each-store-for-deals, cart-filling marathon.  I bought whole carrots to peel and chop instead of the more expensive baby carrots because I was conscious of making my tight budget stretch.  I did a little happy dance when I saw tiny apples on sale because I could buy lots of them for lunches.  I breezed past the gluten free aisle and the baking chips to get my eggs and milk.  I was relaxed (admittedly, because I’d dropped the kids off at the library for a movie).  I walked slowly and smiled at people.  I stopped to talk to a friend and chatted with the cashier.  I was grateful for what I was able to put in my cart, instead of focusing on finding deals on more stuff to cram into my pantry.  And I came in $3 under budget.  Hmmm…

Okay, God, so maybe you’re telling me that when I stop scurrying around, focusing on gathering all my nuts for winter (which is still 5 months away), perhaps I’ll begin to look up and see the faces of people who need a smile, a friend, a word of encouragement.  Perhaps more room in my cart leaves more room in my heart to be filled with gratitude for what I have.  Perhaps gratitude leads to less spending and more money for giving.  Perhaps my purpose in life is not to keep my cupboards stocked, but to pour out blessings on people who need to be filled more than my pantry.  Perhaps it’s time I discipline my spontaneous side and limit her choices to free up time to invest in relationships with my family.

Perhaps.  As long as I don’t have to go anywhere on Saturday morning.  (And all my people said, Amen.)

To follow my journey of buying less over the next several weeks, check out the posts under the category “My Fast” on the right.

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It’s that time of year when our mailbox and newspaper are filled with toy catalogs and ads for Christmas gifts.  I used to enjoy looking through these to get gift ideas for my kids until we went through our massive toy purge last summer when we sold 8-10 large storage bins full of toys on Craigslist – and have not missed them a bit.  My kids are older now – ages 8 and 11 – and have settled into their favorite playthings, so we no longer need a huge variety.  Now, when I look through the toy catalogs, I see expensive items that my kids would enjoy playing with for all of 2 days, and then I’d be stuck trying to find a place for them until our next Craigslist sale.  Sound familiar?

My solution this year is to avoid the unused toy glut and pressure to overspend by:

  1. Limiting the number of gifts from us on Christmas day to one.  Since they receive gifts from extended family members, there’s no need for me to overwhelm them with more gifts from us.  Just like the enjoyment of eating a rich dessert diminishes with each bite, the enjoyment of opening each gift lessens over time.  Why not let them fully enjoy the gifts lovingly picked out by others instead of cramming more down their throats?
  2. Keeping the budget small.  An expensive gift doesn’t guarantee more enjoyment.  Besides, I’m still responsible for making Santa look good, so in addition to their stocking, one thoughtful gift from us for each kid will suffice.
  3. Choosing only gifts that will get continual use (like Legos), are educational (which includes activities), or consumable (like craft supplies that continually need to be replenished).  If something doesn’t fall into one of these categories, chances are it will end up in a closet, which is a waste of money and space.

Before you start thinking I’m the Grinch Mama who stole Christmas, you need to hear the second part – the real genius – of my plan.  If your kids are like mine, they probably enjoy playing with their new toys for about 2 days after Christmas, then drive you crazy until New Years.  In the past, we’ve celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas by giving our kids various school supplies to add a little fun to Christmas break (i.e. 4 glue sticks, 3 erasers, 2 pencils, 1 pencil sharpener, etc.).  This year, we’ll celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas by spreading out their gifts from us from Christmas Sunday (when we’ll exchange gifts with my extended family) through New Years.

How to Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas
On each of the days following Christmas, the kids will get to open one more gift.  Sometimes the gift will be for both kids to share, like a game or new puzzle I found at the thrift store.  Sometimes the gift will be craft related, like new watercolor paint sets from the dollar store or the craft kit we’ve never gotten around to opening that’s been in my closet for over a year.  Some gifts will be educational, like the interactive human body books I found at the thrift store.  And some may be activities, like going to a children’s museum or play center to get us out of the house.  The beauty of this way of celebrating is that it gives the kids something new to look forward to on cold winter days that are typically unstructured and would otherwise end up in whines of “I’m boooooooored.”  Plus, kids are more likely to get excited about an educational gift if it’s the only thing they’re getting that day.

Remind Kids Who We’re Celebrating
For a spiritual tie-in, we’ll share the real meaning behind the 12 Days of Christmas and what each day represents.  (This video shows pictures of the Christian meaning of each symbol while the song is sung, so kids can try to guess what each day represents from the pictures and check their answers when the meanings are revealed at the end.)  The last time we celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas, we had the kids recite the symbolism of the previous days before moving on to that day’s gift.  We also hid the gift(s) each day because our kids love treasure hunts – and why should Easter get all the fun!  I especially like the idea of holding off on some of our celebrations to increase the anticipation aspect of advent.  After all, the advent season is all about creating within us a sense of longing for Christ to come.  There’s not a whole lot of longing if we start partying on Dec. 1.

Keep Costs Low at…The Dollar Store
You’ve probably picked up on the fact that this doesn’t have to be expensive at all.  Dollar stores are great places to find craft supplies and kits.  If you start now, you can use the 40-50% off coupons for Michael’s craft store that come in the Sunday newspaper (in ours, at least) to pick up things like Build-A-Bear kits or woodworking projects, which are perfect for the lazy days following Christmas when you might actually have time to do crafts with your kids.  (I’m notorious for buying craft kits and sending them with my kids to Grandma’s house because I don’t have the time or desire to do it with them.  Just keepin’ it real.)

The Thrift Store
I also mentioned the thrift store because we have a great one in town that carries fun children’s books, games, sometimes unopened puzzles, and even educational CD-roms.  When I cleaned out our closets last summer, I divided our clothes into kitchen-sized garbage bags, and I throw one in the trunk every time I stop by the thrift store because I can get an additional 20% off for donating.  Kids don’t care if something is used – at least I’ve trained my kids not to care.  I occasionally take them with me to the thrift store and let them pick out a book or game, so they view it like any other store (except that they are actually allowed to get something at this store).  If you’re not sure how your kids will respond, sit down with them and watch the informative, yet entertaining, online video, “The Story of Stuff.”  Afterward, they may thank you for reusing items instead of buying more junk to go in a landfill.

Check Online for Activity Discounts
For good deals on children’s activities, check your local kids resources magazines for free activities in your area.  Visit the websites of favorite play places to find out if there’s a discount day of the week.  Check out Groupon for deals in your area.  We bought a Groupon deal for an indoor miniature golf course last summer and saved it to use on my son’s birthday in November.  Start looking now for deals you can save until Christmas week – but be sure to check expiration dates!

The Best Family Activities Are Often Free
Of course, activities don’t have to cost money.  Maybe some of those favorite holiday activities that you’re hard pressed to find time for before Christmas could be saved for the week after, like driving around to look at Christmas lights or having a holiday movie marathon that ends with everyone sleeping in the living room by the Christmas Tree.  (We traditionally watch a favorite trilogy during this week and spend the day in jammies, munching on snacks and leftover goodies.)  Activity gifts can be printed as certificates or presented with a token.  We usually get together with friends for New Years Eve, so I may give the kids a bunch of glow sticks from the dollar store to share with their friends for playing tag in the dark!

Chances are, you’re already looking at your December calendar and wondering how you’re going to find time for everything.  Why not join me in taking a break from the pressure to party all month long and save the giving and family fun for after Christmas?  If you’re a procrastinator, you could even take advantage of after-Christmas sales this way!  The possibilities are endless.  If you have ideas you’d like to share for more cheap 12 Days of Christmas gifts/activities, please share them with everyone in the comments section below.

I wish you a blessed, joyful holiday season!

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It’s the beginning of the month, when most people stock up on groceries.  If you read my post about menu planning on a budget, you know that I approach grocery shopping a little differently than most.  Since the best deals tend to be in the middle of the month, I try to spread out my shopping and discipline myself to only buy what’s on sale or at the best price each week.  If it’s a really good price, I stock up.  This allows me to keep a well-stocked pantry with lots of variety and meal options throughout the month, even on a $100/week budget.

The key to stretching your grocery budget is to make sure nothing is wasted, because it doesn’t matter how cheap something is if it ends up going in the trash! I prefer to buy fresh fruits and veggies year round, but it requires diligent shopping and storage when you’re on a tight budget.  Over the years I’ve learned that there are simple things I can do to prolong the shelf life of perishable items, thus saving us money by reducing waste (and icky, squishy, “I think that used to be a lemon,” moldy things in the fridge).   These insights are probably obvious to everyone but me, but in case they’re new to you, I’ll go ahead and share what I’ve learned:

  • Take inventory of what you have before you go shopping.  This is a “duh” one, but sometimes I forget and end up loading up on perishable food that will inevitably go bad before it’s used.  Also, by paying attention to how often my family goes through certain items, I can better calculate how much to buy.  For instance, bananas may be on sale, but it’s pointless to buy more than I know my family will eat, unless I’m planning on making banana bread.
  • Speaking of bananas, buy bananas slightly green because they will continue to ripen at home.  Sometimes I break off 2 or 3 really green ones and buy 2 or 3 bananas that are closer to being ripe, so I’ll end up with perfectly ripe bananas when we are ready to eat them.  Store them at room temperature until peak ripeness, then put in the fridge.  (The peels will brown faster in the fridge, but the inside is often still fine.)  We almost never have to throw out bananas anymore since I started doing this.
  • Pears are also best if bought slightly under-ripe because they bruise easily when ripe.  I got tired of them getting gashed and brown before I even got home from the grocery store, so I started buying greener pears.  I use the same method with pears as I do with bananas, and buy them in varying degrees of ripeness.
  • Store most veggies loose in the crisper drawer or in a paper bag.  Those plastic bags you put them in at the grocery store might as well say, “Mold goes in here,” across the top because they make produce go bad twice as fast.  Cucumbers, zucchini/squash, peppers and mushrooms, especially, don’t like the plastic.  The same goes for soft-skinned fruit like peaches and pears.  Take the bags off when you get home, but wait to wash fruits and veggies until you’re ready to use them since moisture can speed up spoiling.
  • Store potatoes and yams at room temperature in a paper sack or box.  I also store my onions loose in a small cardboard box in my pantry.
  • This may seem obvious, but check berries thoroughly for mold before buying them, especially if it’s a jumbo-sized package where the entire center may be a big ball of mold that isn’t visible on the outside.  When you’re ready to use berries, always look for the darkest/ripest ones to use first, and inspect carefully for moldy ones (this is especially important with blueberries, since the moldy ones can easily hide and destroy the package).
  • Store bread in the refrigerator and it will last for a month.  If you find a good deal on bread, put extra loaves in the freezer and thaw when ready to use.  It makes no difference in taste.
  • The same goes for corn tortillas.  They will last a long time in the fridge, and can be frozen, as well.
  • If you have produce that’s about to spoil, but you’re not ready to use it in a recipe (like onions, peppers, berries), chop it up and store it in freezer bags.  You can use frozen onions and peppers straight from the freezer for recipes in which they’ll be cooked.  Berries can be frozen for later use in smoothies or jello.  Bananas can be cut up and frozen for smoothies or a summertime treat with a popsicle stick inserted in one end (my kids love frozen bananas on a stick).
  • When trimming chicken breasts, spray a frying pan with a little oil and set it next to you.  Cut off any little meat bits that are attached to fat that would otherwise be thrown away, and put those little pieces in the pan.  Also cut up any tenders that aren’t big enough to use in a recipe.  Sprinkle chicken pieces with a little seasoned salt and cook over medium heat until browned and cooked through.  These can be used in Caesar salads, barbecue chicken pizzas, or quesadillas (add some canned beans for more volume).

Another common challenge is what to do when you have just a small amount of something leftover from another meal.  And the winner of the “most often thrown out jar of something in the fridge” award goes to…spaghetti sauce.  For some reason, there’s always about a third of the jar left when we fix an 8 oz. box of spaghetti.  What in the world do you do with a third of a jar of spaghetti?  I’m glad you asked.

  • Tomato soup.  I made this happy discovery when trying to figure out how to make a dairy free tomato soup for my daughter.  The rest of us were enjoying a box of GF tomato soup (the condensed kind contains wheat), and my daughter wanted some, too.  So I poured that third of a jar of spaghetti sauce in a pan and thinned it with a little rice milk.  Voila!  Tomato soup that tasted just as good as our fancy-pants organic soup at a fraction of the cost.  You could also make this with regular milk.
  • Pizza Mac and Cheese.  I modified a favorite family recipe to make a quick, skillet dinner that can utilize leftover spaghetti sauce (especially good if it’s meat sauce).  Fix one or two packages of mac and cheese according to directions (1 box would work, but Annie’s GF mac and cheese makes less, so I use 2 boxes).  Meanwhile, pour leftover spaghetti sauce in a large, 12-in. skillet.  If there’s not enough sauce to cover the bottom, add a can of tomato sauce, 1 tsp. Italian seasoning, 1 tsp. minced garlic and a pinch of oregano (or season to taste with whatever spices you prefer).  Add leftover ground beef or sausage and some chopped pepperoni (the pepperoni is what gives it the pizza flavor).  You can also throw in any leftover veggies that need to be used up (like mushrooms, peppers, onions), if desired.  Heat sauce and let simmer while preparing mac and cheese.  Spoon mac and cheese evenly over top of sauce in skillet.  Sprinkle with pizza blend cheese or some mozzarella and cheddar.  Cover and let simmer until cheese melts.  If desired, sprinkle with crushed red pepper flakes for a little heat.  This is, hands down, my son’s favorite casserole.

Now it’s your turn to share.  What’s your favorite way to keep leftovers from going to waste?

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DISCLAIMER: This post is based on my oh-so-scientific research (via Google) and experience.  I am NOT trying to persuade everyone to think and act like me, despite the smartypantsiful tone of my blog.  I do hope, however, that this as least raises some questions that need to be asked for the sake of our kids, and inspires others to start reading labels and doing their own research.

You may have noticed by now that I believe there are benefits to an old fashioned diet based on real food, the way God intended.  In the book of Acts, when God gave Peter the vision of all kinds of animals being let down from heaven on a sheet for him to eat, I believe God was telling Peter to go get him some bacon (nitrate-free, of course).  That’s right, shortly after the gift of the Holy Spirit, God gave us the gift of bacon (and all God’s people said…).  He did not, however, give us artificial ingredients like High Fructose Corn Syrup and MSG, which is why I try to avoid them along with other artificial ingredients whenever possible.

Pick up a parenting magazine and you’re bound to find an article about how kids in America are struggling with obesity and diabetes – kids! You’ll also find plenty of articles on how to get picky eaters to eat a variety of foods.  I can’t help but wonder if the two issues have the same root cause – processed foods loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients that train your taste buds to prefer foods containing those chemicals.  Have you recently read the ingredients in the foods that are aggressively marketed to our kids and busy moms?  Many snacks that are targeted at kids contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  Some are obvious, like sugary drinks and cookies, but others are less obvious, including:

  • Hot dogs and lunch meats
  • Yogurt and other dairy products, including most ice cream
  • Bread, crackers – including savory crackers, like Ritz
  • Cereal, granola bars, cereal bars
  • Ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, jams and jellies
  • Canned fruits, applesauce, cranberry sauce
  • Canned tomato products, spaghetti sauce, baked beans, pickles

As I mentioned in my earlier post about Breaking Free From the Sugar Addiction, HFCS is one culprit in weight gain.  It interferes with your body’s ability to produce the hormone leptin, which is what helps regulate your appetite.  It makes your brain think it’s starving,  so it causes kids (and adults) to crave food when they’re not hungry, and can potentially lead to kidney disease because our kidneys don’t know how to process it.  Too much sugar, from any source, spikes your insulin level and causes your body to store fat.  But what about kids who aren’t overweight?  It doesn’t matter what they eat, right?

Do you have – or know – a kid who refuses to eat anything but pizza and chicken nuggets? I believe there’s a reason why some kids who’ve grown up eating processed foods and fast food refuse to eat anything else – and it’s not their fault!  MSG and artificial sweeteners like Aspartame (Nutra Sweet) are excitotoxins, which means they literally overexcite the brain.  According to Dr. Vince Bellonzi (whose YouTube video on the subject is available at http://www.healthy-holistic-living.com/msg-reaction.html), a component of these chemicals is found naturally in our bodies.  But in both MSG and Aspartame, they are at concentrated levels that interfere with the body’s neurotransmitters.  They excite the reward system in the brain and make us think foods taste better than they actually do.  Think about how different soup or broth made with MSG tastes than other brands or homemade soups.  (According to Dr. Bellonzi, “MSG could make dirt taste good.”  Mmmm…dirt.)  Not only does MSG make us crave more products containing it, which is why fast food restaurants and food manufacturers love it, it can cause serious side effects, especially in children.  Because of the way it overexcites the brain, MSG can cause problems with impulse control and concentration – what looks like symptoms of ADHD. (Some studies have shown that ADHD symptoms in certain kids disappeared when MSG was removed from their diet.)  Other MSG-related symptoms include migraines and depression.  These problems are amplified when there is a nutritional imbalance, like a diet lacking in protein or magnesium, or containing too much calcium.  To complicate matters, MSG is often disguised under other names, including – but not limited to:

  • Monosodium Glutamate
  • Autolyzed Yeast, Yeast Extract
  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Hydrolyzed Protein
  • Hydrolyzed Plant Protein, Plant Protein Extract
  • Hydrolyzed Soy Protein – and most soy products, like veggie burgers
  • Sodium Caseinate, Calcium Caseinate,
  • Textured Protein (Including TVP)
  • Hydrolyzed Oat Flour
  • Corn Oil
  • “Natural Flavoring” – doesn’t always mean MSG, but can.

So think about what we’re giving kids on a typical kid-friendly diet:

  • Breakfast – Nutri-Grain Cereal Bar (with HFCS in both the filling and bar, 12 g. sugar); GoGurt (with HFCS and more sugars/ounce than Coca-Cola)
  • Lunch – Campbell’s Chunky Vegetable soup (containing both HFCS and MSG disguised as “yeast extract”) or Nalley’s 99% fat free chili (with MSG listed under several names)
  • Dinner – Spaghettios (with HFCS as the third ingredient) or a Tony’s frozen pizza (with MSG)

Is it any wonder that kids turn up their noses at fruits and vegetables when their taste buds have been trained to crave only foods that are pumped with chemicals? Should we be surprised at constantly hungry children with a sweet tooth when they eat a sugary breakfast, causing their insulin level to spike and induce cravings for sweets all day?  If you have a picky eater at home, and suspect that these chemicals might be the culprit, don’t despair – all is not lost!  You can retrain taste buds, but it takes time.  When we had to suddenly cut out most of our favorite convenience foods because of gluten intolerance, it took a while to adjust to foods that weren’t designed by food engineers in a lab.  But now our taste buds are able to recognize how awesome “real” food tastes when it’s not competing with chemically enhanced versions.  Since it takes time to learn to appreciate food in a more natural state, you can take gradual steps toward a more healthy diet without risking an all-out rebellion at the dinner table.  Start out by reading labels and swapping favorite convenience foods with more healthy versions.  If that thought is overwhelming, here’s a list of ideas to get you started.

Some of our favorite kid-friendly, “real food” substitutions (all GF unless otherwise noted):

  • Dannon Natural Vanilla yogurt does not contain HFCS, but still tastes great.  Mountain High yogurt is also natural and has slightly less sugar.  Yoplait 25% less sugar kids cups are flavored naturally with fruit and sugar.
  • Instead of a cereal bar, try whole grain toast (with no HFCS) topped with Smuckers Simply Fruit jam (just fruit and fruit syrup/juice).  Or look for low sugar cereals like Kix.
  • Make extra homemade waffles or pancakes on the weekend to reheat in the toaster on busy mornings.  Log Cabin Lite syrup is the only brand I’ve found that doesn’t contain HFCS, aspartame or Splenda, but it’s still made up of artificial ingredients.  We prefer real maple syrup (which is expensive, so we don’t have it often) or fruit-sweetened pancakes, like this recipe for pumpkin cranberry pancakes, with butter and a little powdered sugar.
  • Substitute canned pasta with fun pasta shapes (like wagon wheels or Tinkyada’s GF brown rice “Little Dreams” in a variety of fun shapes) and Ragu No Sugar Added Tomato and Basil pasta sauce with all natural ingredients.
  • If your kids only eat meat in nugget form, try this recipe for my kids’ favorite chicken nuggets that are made with gluten free Corn Chex.  Dip them in Bullseye barbecue sauce, the only brand we’ve found with no HFCS.
  • Trade MSG/nitrate-filled hot dogs (like Ball Park) for all natural chicken or turkey sausages (brands like Amylu – who also makes great GF meatballs – and Honeysuckle Farms for bratwurst).  Serve with all natural fries baked in the oven and sprinkled with a little Lowry’s seasoned salt (our Costco carries Lamb Weston frozen all natural crinkle cut fries).  Dip in ketchup that doesn’t contain HFCS, like Hunts 100% natural ketchup.
  • Make mini pizzas with whole wheat English muffins (obviously, not gluten free – try Udi’s for GF pizza crusts) topped with pasta sauce or Mama Mary’s pizza sauce containing no added sugar, some hamburger or your child’s favorite pizza topping, and a little mozzarella.  Broil until cheese melts.
  • Ranch dressing can contain HFCS and MSG, so have kids dip their veggies in a healthier version like Newman’s Own Ranch dressing (it’s not lowfat, but kids need fat) or Marie’s Yogurt Ranch dressing (in refrigerated section of produce area).
  • For sandwiches, we like Hormel Natural Choice or Oscar Meyer’s nitrate-free lunch meat and real cheese (not individually wrapped “imitation cheese product”).  Substitute real mayo, like Best Foods mayonnaise, for Miracle Whip – the first ingredient in Fat Free Miracle Whip is HFCS – but read labels, since some brands contain HFCS and some don’t.
  • Make popcorn or homemade kettle corn for a healthy after school snack.
  • Trade chips like Cheetos and Doritos that are full of chemicals no one can pronounce, for chips with natural ingredients like Fritos, Wavy Lays, Ruffles, and Mission tortilla chips – which are all gluten free!
  • Look for unsweetened applesauce (watch out for  “low sugar” or “sugar free” labels because those may have Splenda added, which is another excitotoxin) and flavor with a little cinnamon, or try individually packaged Mott’s Healthy Harvest applesauce cups that are simply flavored with fruit puree.
  • Substitute raisins or other unsweetened dried fruit for “fruit snacks” (which we all know are fruit flavored corn syrup nuggets).  Dried apples, pears, prunes, peaches and apricots are other good choices.  Watch out for dried berries and cranberries because they are coated in sugar.  Sunsweet Prunes come individually wrapped, so they’re less messy and are easy to toss in a lunch bag for a high fiber snack.
  • Make natural, low-sugar, hot chocolate by adding 1 tsp. cocoa plus 2 tsp. sugar to a cup of hot milk (or rice milk or almond milk).  We like to also add a splash of vanilla.
  • Swap sugary drinks with water and a lemon/lime slice in a fun or fancy cup.  (My daughter loves this!)
  • When you just have to have a bowl of ice cream (which is a daily need in the summertime), try Breyer’s All Natural ice cream, which has no artificial ingredients or HFCS (this isn’t the case for the light ice cream, though).

I believe that once kids have been weaned off of processed foods and have begun to accept more natural, homemade versions, it will be easier to introduce new foods, including fruits and vegetables.  I could be wrong, but this has been my experience.  My kids love to eat a variety of foods, and even enjoy fruits and veggies.  It can be done!

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It’s the end of the month and the end of the grocery budget, so I’m mostly going to be using ingredients from my freezer and pantry that need to be used up this week.  However, there are a few deals that were just too good to pass up, so I’ll be incorporating some of those items into this week’s menu.  One recipe on my menu below, we actually had last night (remember, last week I mentioned that I don’t usually adhere to my own schedule).  I had some leftover uncooked chicken breasts and heavy cream that was past its expiration date, so I decided to make our absolute favorite dinner – Chicken Scallopini with Roasted Potatoes.  If you try only one recipe from this week’s menu, it should be this one! My husband posted on Facebook, “It’s almost TOO good. I confess, I just scraped out a tiny bit of the cold sauce in the pan before rinsing it.”

I’ve incorporated a few gluten free convenience foods this week since I know it’s not practical for everyone to cook everything from scratch.  I’m also planning to make a lasagna for the freezer since ground beef is on sale and I want to provide some meals for my parents when they take our kids for the weekend next month.  You can make it for dinner or freeze it  – or both!  It’s wonderful to have something like a homemade lasagna in the freezer for company or special occasions (like a Saturday when your entertainment budget is gone).  There are only 6 meals listed, but a few of them will provide leftovers for lunch or another dinner.  There’s one more recipe on my menu, but it’s a secret – I want to test the recipe first, and make sure it works before I share it.  But if I’m successful, I will have found a way to make one of my husband’s all-time favorite meals gluten free.  Wish me luck!

This week’s menu:

  • Chicken Scallopini with Roasted Potatoes – my attempt at duplicating Carino’s GF Chicken Scallopini
  • Crock Pot Spicy Hamburger Soup – An inexpensive, easy recipe that is a nice change of pace from chili and provides plenty of leftovers
  • Herb Crusted Pork (our favorite way of preparing any cut of pork) with Lundberg Creamy Parmesan Risotto (GF boxed mix with no weird ingredients) or rice
  • Trident Salmon Burger (Costco) or Jennie-O Turkey Burger on a GF Kinnickinnick hamburger bun (Whole Foods) or English muffin (Fred Meyer, frozen GF section).  The salmon patties taste great without a bun, topped with a little lemon juice and mayo mixed with ketchup, and served with potato chips or fries.  You can also make a loaded turkey burger and use a lettuce wrap instead of a bun.  We stocked up on GF buns last time we made a pilgrimage to Whole Foods, so this is our weekend treat instead of pizza this week.
  • Lasagna with brown rice noodles (or regular noodles) for the freezer – you could also bake one and freeze one
  • Easy Rosemary Herb Chicken (stove top method) with Cranberry Orange Baked Yams – if you’ve only ever had yams with marshmallows on top, you’re missing out!  The orange juice and cranberries add just the right amount of sweetness and lots of flavor.  (If you’re cutting out sugar and not having this meal as a weekend treat, you can substitute a baked yam/sweet potato.  Wash, dry, and pierce a medium sized yam.  Place on a paper towel in the microwave and cook up to 3 yams for 5 minutes.  Turn over and cook another 5 minutes or until sides yield to gentle pressure.  Top with butter, salt and pepper, as you would a russet baked potato.)

Buying Fresh Fruit in Winter
Each dinner is always accompanied by a salad or vegetable and fresh fruit.  I am aware that it is the middle of winter, when fresh fruit is most expensive, but since I hate to consume all the added sugar from canned fruit, we limit ourselves to the fresh fruits that are in season right now.  For instance, did you know that pineapple is pretty much in season all year round?  It’s also about the same price year round, too.  I pick up a pineapple most weeks, when I can find it for $3.  A third of a pineapple is about the same amount in a can of pineapple.  So at $1/serving, it’s actually priced about the same as a can – and fresh pineapple tastes way better!  If it happens to be a small one, I’ll cut up a kiwi and mix that in.  Kiwis are cheap right now, and my kids enjoy eating them with a spoon when they’re cut in half and left in their skin.  Also in season are pears, apples, oranges and bananas.  For variety, I like to pick up unsweetened applesauce with fruit puree at Honks dollar store on $.88 Tuesday.  My daughter loves this as a treat.  We also eat dried apricots (because they have no sugar added) occasionally, and thaw frozen unsweetened berries to top yogurt or bake in a fruit crisp (see the recipe for this at the bottom of Breaking Free from the Sugar Addiction).  Winter doesn’t have to be boring!

If you don’t live in the Treasure Valley, my grocery deals below won’t benefit you much.  But it does show healthy products we like and how I match recipes to what is on sale or a good price in our area.  So if you see these prices or items on sale where you live, you can pull up the recipes above and make delicious, low sugar, “real” food on a budget!

Brenda’s Best Buys –  * means it’s a great price for stocking up
Wal-Mart:

  • Kiwi – $.25/each (look for ones that yield slightly to gentle pressure)
  • Tinkyada Brown Rice Lasagna noodles (GF aisle, by the rice) – $3
  • Lundberg Creamy Parmesan Risotto (GF aisle, by the rice) – $2.32
  • *Fresh yams – $.54/lb. (I store these in a paper bag in my pantry and they last quite a while)
  • Boneless, skinless chicken breasts – always $1.79/lb. (this week I’m using some frozen chicken)

Fred Meyer (prices good through Saturday, the 29th):

  • Pineapple – $2.98
  • Grapes – $1.99/lb. (these are a splurge, just to add a little variety)
  • Broccoli – $.68/lb. (pick some up if you haven’t made the Spicy Sausage & Veggie Pasta yet)
  • 85% Lean ground beef – $1.99/lb. for 3 lb. package (enough for lasagna and soup or chili)
  • *28 oz. Canned crushed tomatoes – $1 (for homemade pasta sauce or chili)
  • Fred Meyer Butter – $1.67 with coupon from ad (pick up in entry way)
  • *Medium cheddar cheese – $3.50/2 lb. block with coupon from ad
  • *Frozen Fred Meyer orange juice – $.79 with coupon from ad
  • *Fred Meyer toilet paper – $3.99 for 24 single-rolls or 12 double-rolls
  • Vita-Bee bread (not gluten free) – $1.25 with coupon from ad (this high fiber, wheat bread is low in sugar and contains no high fructose corn syrup or other funky ingredients)

Albertsons (prices good through Tuesday, Feb. 1, with coupons from ad in entry way):

  • *Ragu Pasta Sauce – $2/2 (we like the Roasted Garlic variety for lasagna, and Low Sugar Sweet Basil)
  • *Skippy Peanut Butter – $2/2 (Skippy Natural peanut butter has no hydrogenated oil)
  • *Breyers Natural Vanilla Bean Ice Cream – $2/5 (The ONLY ice cream we’ve found with no weird artificial ingredients.  The Light Breyers does not fall into this category, only the Natural Vanilla.)

If knowing about these deals is helpful to you, please leave a comment so I’ll know to continue doing this.

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