Stretch your grocery money further this summer with delicious, easy fast-food alternatives | Living

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Fast food is popular because it’s convenient, it’s cheap, and it tastes good. But the real cost of eating fast food never appears on the menu. — Eric Schlosser.

If you have purchased groceries in the past year, you are obviously well aware that $150 worth of groceries doesn’t buy what it bought even a year ago. FGG had the painful experience of running to Walmart to pick up a few grocery items that I had run out of last weekend. Now, I usually do the grocery shopping, so, needless to say, he was shooketh when the bill was over $150—and it was not a full cart of groceries for the week. I saw a joke on Facebook this week which said one way to not spend money on groceries is to just fill up your vehicles with gas, because then you’ll have no money left for groceries. 

Inflation is a thing, and most of us are feeling it.  With school summer vacation just around the corner, parents (and grandparents) with kids home all day will soon realize that the kids don’t…stop…eating…all…day! Also, if you are planning a graduation party, Memorial Day gathering, or Father’s Day celebration, how do you feed everyone without breaking the bank? 

Let’s talk about the kids eating us out of house and home all summer long. A cheap and easy solution we have all been guilty of at one time or another to feed the kids is heading to the drive-thru of a fast food place. It’s fine for a treat every once in a while- don’t get me wrong!

Unfortunately, the drive-thru workers know your name and car, you might be relying on this option a bit too heavily. Saving a few dollars eating cheap food too often is paid in a cost to one’s overall health. Ellen Gustafson, a social entrepreneur and sustainable food system activist, says, “The abundance of cheap food with low nutritional value in the Western diet has wreaked havoc on our health; in America, one third of children and two thirds of adults are overweight or obese and are more likely to develop diabetes and cardiovascular disease.” Of course, healthy eating is important, and making budget-friendly meals for the entire family does not mean having to sacrifice quality or taste. I hate when well-meaning bloggers say, “Try this great recipe for cauliflower poppers.” I’m sorry, but neither my kids nor my husband will not be psyched to eat said poppers, and then it’s just wasted food (and money). It’s relief to make good food everyone will eat, and it saves money, too.

I turned to my Facebook friends for meal ideas for this column, and added a few of my own, as well. While I can’t give you a “price-per-serving” breakdown (I just don’t think in those terms), I can tell you that these cost-effective meals will, most likely, get eaten, and that you can certainly “meal prep” one day a week and let the family feed off of what you prepare for the rest of the week, thereby saving you time, as well as money. Typically, I only cook twice a week and make a huge batch of whatever is “on the menu,” put it in the fridge, and let the family help themselves until we are running low. These yummy, cost-effective options are great for both moms and empty-nesters alike.

Now, let’s talk about the quandary of what to feed people at a party or large gathering. If you are scratching your head and simultaneously pulling lint out of your wallet, trying to figure out what to serve that everyone will love, one of these suggestions will work well for you: The Mexican Buffet. So, start reading: I got you!

Holly Strawn’s Homemade Pizza

Holly Strawn is a long-time friend of mine who was first to respond to my Facebook request for delicious, budget-friendly meals with her yummy homemade pizza recipe. Holly, with whom I used to teach back in my Florida teaching days, has two growing teenage boys at home. She loves this pizza because her boys tend to order food to be delivered to the house via Door Dash (a habit of which she is not a huge fan). Usually, said food is fast food. When she makes this pizza, which is a healthy alternative to fast food, the boys chow down. It may not turn out perfectly symmetrical and pretty, but who cares? It is DELICIOUS.

Ingredients (for BB-CEC20 bread maker, although, if you do not have this bread maker and need one, you can find bread makers at reasonable prices at most thrift stores which have a dough setting): Traditional Pizza Dough (makes 2 pizzas): 1-1/4 cups water, 1-1/2 Tbsp. olive oil, 3-3/4 cups bread flour, 1-1/2 Tbsp. sugar, 1-1/2 tsp. salt, 1-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast, toppings (for 1 pizza): 2/3 cup pizza sauce, 1-1/2 cups shredded cheese, 1/2 bell pepper and 1/4 onion, sliced, and Pepperoni slices. Tip: Grow your own veggies in a backyard garden to save money.

1. Make sure the kneading blade(s) are properly attached. Add the Traditional Pizza Dough ingredients to the baking pan in the order listed, and prepare the dough using the DOUGH course. Remember to add the liquids first.

2. When course completes, remove the dough from the baking pan onto a lightly floured surface. For 2-lb. breadmaker, cut the dough in half. For 1-lb. breadmaker, use the entire dough. Form a smooth ball, place in bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rest for 20 minutes.

3. Remove the dough, place on parchment paper, and roll out using a rolling pin to create a 12-inch circle. Use a fork and poke holes on the dough. Move the dough onto a pizza pan.

4. Spread the pizza sauce evenly on the dough, and cover with shredded cheese. Place sliced bell pepper and onion, and top with pepperoni. Bake in an oven preheated at 400°F for 20-25 minutes. 5 Once the cheese is bubbly and the crust is baked, remove from the oven. Slice and serve hot.

Mexican Buffet Night (tacos, fajitas, and nachos)

You don’t need to wait until Tuesday to have your tacos! This is a Gay Family favorite. Back when we lived in Florida, all five kids and my in-laws would come over, and this easy, inexpensive meal was a game-changing crowd-pleaser. It requires very little effort. For these reasons, this is also an easy meal that college kids who live on their own can make. Bella will have her own apartment in the Fall for the first time. She is ready to “meal prep” for her busy college schedule by prepping this on Sunday nights and eating off of it all week long. This is an easy party meal, too!

• 1 lb. 90% to 93% lean ground beef

• 1 tablespoon chili powder

• 1 teaspoon ground cumin

• 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

• 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

• 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

• 12 taco shells (either hard shells or small 6-inch soft flour tortillas will work)

• optional taco toppings: shredded cheese shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, diced red onion, taco sauce, sour cream, guacamole, etc.

1. Add the beef to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Break the meat apart with a wooden spoon. Add the chili powder, cumin, salt, oregano, garlic powder, and pepper to the meat. Stir well. Cook until the meat is cooked through, about 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the tomato sauce and water. Stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 7-8 minutes, until some of the liquid evaporates but the meat mixture is still a little saucy. Remove from the heat.

3. Warm the taco shells according to their package directions.

4. Fill the taco shells with 2 heaping tablespoons of taco meat. Top with desired taco toppings: shredded cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, diced red onion, taco sauce, sour cream, guacamole, etc.

Stretch this meal even further by adding black beans and yellow rice.

• 1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, sliced

• 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

• 2 cloves garlic, minced

• 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika

• 1 teaspoon onion powder

• 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder

• 2 teaspoons olive oil

• 1 yellow onion thinly sliced

• 3 bell peppers, thinly sliced (you can use red, orange, yellow or a combination of colors). Tip: grow your own veggies in a garden to save even more money. Adding veggies to the fajitas stretches the meat.

• 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (I have a very tough time finding fresh cilantro locally, so I grow my own!)

• tortillas, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, salsa etc. for serving

1. Place the 1/4 cup olive oil, lime juice, sugar, salt, cumin, garlic, water, smoked paprika, onion powder and chili powder in a gallon sized resealable bag or large bowl.

2. Whisk until thoroughly combined.

3. Add the chicken, onions, and peppers to the marinade. Chill for at least 1 hour or up to 8 hours.

1. Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.

2. Add the chicken and pepper mixture. Cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked and vegetables are tender.

3. Season with salt to taste, if desired.

4. Sprinkle cilantro over the fajitas, then serve with tortillas and toppings of your choice.

To add nachos to this meal and stretch it out even further, have a bag of tortilla chips, sour cream, cheese, salsa, etc. available, then let everyone layer the chips with their choice of taco meat or chopped up fajitas, beans, cheese, and rice. This is my 17-year-old Jackson’s favorite meal. He eats it for breakfast sometimes- not kidding. Make it healthier by using baked chips.

Yummy Burgers and Hand-cut Fries

If you read my column, you know I adhere to a strict low-carb diet. I eat these burgers with low-carb buns or on a bed of lettuce, with no guilt! Of course, I skip the fries, but that’s okay, because it just leaves more for the kids to eat!

• 2 lbs russet potatoes cut into French fry shapes (about 5 medium potatoes)

• 2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. While oven is heating, cut potatoes into fry shapes, approximately 1/4 inch thick.

2. Add cut potatoes, olive oil, salt + pepper to a large mixing bowl. Toss with a spatula to cover all of the potatoes evenly with oil & seasoning.

3. Place potatoes on a parchment lined baking sheet.

4. Bake at 450 for 25 minutes, flip & bake for an additional 15 minutes until all fries are golden brown.

5. You can broil the fries for an extra minute at the end to make them extra crispy, depending on your oven.

Do you own an air fryer yet? This handy kitchen appliance is very easy to use and gives so many different foods that delicious crispy, fried edge that a deep fryer does, without the deep frying.

• 1 lb. extra lean ground beef

1 tablespoon Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. Bragg Liquid Aminos contain essential and non-essential amino acids, both of which play many critical roles in your body. It tastes like soy sauce, but much milder, and with a tiny bit of sweetness to it. It is a little pricey compared to soy sauce, however, you are not going to use much each time you make this recipe. A bottle can last three years.

• 1 egg (I am fortunate enough to get my eggs for free from my friends with chickens- a great way to save a little money)

• 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

• 1/2 teaspoon onion powder

• 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

• 1 vine tomato, sliced (save money by growing your own!)

• 1/2 white onion, thinly sliced

• 4 tablespoons ketchup

• 4 tablespoons mustard

1. Prepare the burger patties by combining the ground beef with the egg, liquid aminos, spices, salt, and pepper in a bowl, then form into patties.

2. Preheat your Air Fryer for 2 minutes (follow manufacturer’s instructions for pre-heating).

3. Place the 4 patties in the air fryer basket and indent the center of the patties lightly with your thumb. This will prevent the burger patties from puffing up during cooking.

4. Set the timer for 10 minutes at 370 degrees, and at the 5-minute mark, carefully flip the burger patties.

5. Warm the buns and top with the burger patties and the burger fixings.

Five-Ingredient Ice Cream Cake

Here’s an ice cream cake that is an affordable alternative to a $40 DQ ice cream cake.  It’s super simple to make for a party, although you don’t need a special occasion to enjoy this ice cream cake.  You don’t even need a cake pan for this cake. 

  • 12 ice cream sandwiches
  • Chocolate Syrup (I like to use Magic Shell, or you can use Hot Fudge Sauce)
  • Caramel syrup (Again, I normally use Magic Shell)
  • 1 8 oz container of cool whip
  • One sleeve of Oreos
  1. Remove the wrappers from all the ice cream sandwiches. You need to move fast because ice cream melts.  It’s okay to unwrap them and put them back in the fridge, taking them out three at a time as you need them.  Bella is my kitchen assistant and hands me more bars when I am assembling the cake. Also, leave the Cool Whip out of the refrigerator while you are assembling the cake portion so that it’s softer and easier to work with when it’s time to “icing” the cake.
  2. Three at a time, lay cream sandwiches side-by-side on a large plate.
  3. Drizzle with the caramel and the chocolate.
  4. Lay another 3 ice cream sandwiches on top going in the other direction. Drizzle with more caramel and chocolate.
  5. Continue this process 2 more times so it is four ice cream sandwiches high.
  6. If the ice cream sandwiches start to melt, then place in the freezer for 30 minutes to an hour.
  7. “Ice” the cake with cool whip mixed with crushed Oreos.
  8. Drizzle the caramel and the chocolate on top, allowing it to drip down the sides.
  9. Freeze for at least 2 hours before cutting and serving.

Are you hungry yet? Even though there have been crazy grocery price increases, I hope these recipes empower you can still make yummy, budget-friendly meals without scrimping on nutritional value. Author Michael Pollan says, “Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies. And it’s charged to your health.”

He’s right! Let’s make good choices, friends. Your kids will thank you! Let me know if you make any of these recipes for your family, tell me how everyone liked them, and show me your food photos at [email protected]

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