(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)
I learned a long time ago that when the budget was particularly tight around our house if I stressed over it, I would see that stress reflected in my children. I tried, of course, to take the opportunity to display faith and trust in the Lord. There were times, I confess, that I stood firmer on my faith than at others. I remember one night in particular our car had broken down. There, in the freezing cold, on the side of a major highway in New Jersey, my kids and I stood waiting on a tow truck. The kids were 8 or 9 years old at this time and it was the same year that we lost everything. The additional loss of the car felt daunting. I can still hear the anguish in my daughter’s voice and the weariness in my own as she cried, “Now we don’t have a car! What are we going to do now?” and I answered, “I don’t know honey, the Lord will provide.” That was met with a grumbled, “You always say that!” Humph. Well.
As a woman of Italian heritage, raised in part by my immigrant grandmother, what one puts on the table has great significance. Food is how you say, “I love you.” Well-prepared, intentionally presented food says, “welcome to our home.” And good food at dinner time says, “I’ll take care of you.” For Italians, the kitchen is the heartbeat of the home and food is life itself. My goal then became bigger than just low-cost meal preparation. I deeply desired to put a meal in front of my family that made them feel secure and stable. And I honestly believe seeking Him during those times helped me to find some creativity in the kitchen, enabling me to go beyond just feeding my family ‘something’ but gathering them around the table to enjoy a wholesome, tasty and inviting dish that defied its dollar value.
Which brings me to Part 2 of Meal Stretching. As discussed in Part 1, meal stretching is the learned art of taking simple, inexpensive ingredients and turning them into not just one but several meals to satisfy one’s family. The basic premise usually focuses on a low-cost meat option and some accompanying food items, creating a menu for several days. In Part 1, I utilized chicken leg quarters, rice, beans and a few add-ons to make entrees for a family of four for 5 nights with a total cost of less than $18.
The following menus are meant to build on one another so I may utilize some items purchased for Part One’s menu. I have decided to list all of the ngredients needed upfront as a shopping list and then will repeat each one individually as they are utilized in the recipe.
- Smoked Ham, shank portion (just bought one at my local grocer 7.37 lbs for $10.17)
- Russett Potatoes, or whatever is on sale (5 lb $2.57 at Walmart)
- 1 small to medium Onion (50 cents – if you have the added budget, get a 3lb bag for around $1.99, then you are free to add additional onion to any recipe, if desired)
- 18 pack eggs ($1.60 at Walmart – sometimes Aldis has even better prices. Now, I’m blessed to raise my own chickens!)
- Dry Pinto Beans (2 lbs bag $1.79 at Target)
- Cornbread mix 4 oz box x 2 (.47 each or 94 cents)
- 1 lb Pasta (78 cents at Walmart)
- 8-Ounce block sharp cheddar cheese, shred and divide into 3 portions of 2/3C each ($1.48 at Walmart)
- Whole Milk ½ gal ($1.69 at Walmart)
- 1 Bag frozen vegetables ($1)
- 2 cans mixed vegetables (2 x 50 cents)
- Celery stalk/ carrot (if you followed last weeks’ menu, should still have some left over, if not, then omit)
- Salt (also purchased last week)
- Oil, margarine, etc (either on hand or purchased last week)
- Garlic powder (optional but desirable, if you don’t have it on hand, then 98 cents Walmart)
You will notice that I spent a little bit more this week. For Part Two, my intent is to design a menu for those that may need to feed a larger family, say 6 or 8 people. Still, the total comes in at just under $25. That’s assuming you needed garlic powder but only bought one onion. Yes, those are the types of decisions that are carefully considered when the purse strings just don’t seem long enough! Not to fret, we will make so much wonderful food, no one will be the wiser! Let’s get started on making some delicious meals…
Baked Ham Dinner
- Approx. 7 lb shank portion ham ($10.17)
- 6 med potatoes, washed and quartered (5lb bag $2.57 Walmart)
- 1 bag frozen vegetables ($1)
A great dinner to start off the week or to serve after church on Sunday. My family loves the taste of ham so I honestly do very little to it. I put it in a large roasting pan, pour a little water over it, loosely cover the top with aluminum foil and bake it according to the suggested cooking times! During the last half of the cooking time (about 90 minutes) add the quartered potatoes around the ham, baste, remove the foil and finish cooking. Baste the ham at least once an hour. Once cooked, remove from oven and let it ‘rest’ for about 20 minutes before carving. Then carve the ham in ¼” slices and lay the slices back in the same roasting pan with the drippings in it. Prepare the vegetables per package directions (my husband is partial to green beans) and serve alongside the ham and potatoes. A filling and wonderful dinner.
Now, it’s hard to know exactly how much meat will be left over and available for ‘stretching’. Take the leftover slices and then pick off the bone any extra and dice that up. Based on the numerous times I’ve done this for our family of 5, even when my ‘boys’ were big (over 6 feet tall, and more than 200 pounds) we’d always have multiple slices of ham left and at least two cups of diced ham.
So, I’m planning the rest of the meals assuming you have about that much reserved. And, remember to keep that ham hock, with all the lovely tough pieces of meat stuck to it! Wrap that up and stick it in the fridge. We’ll make good use of it in a few days.
Mighty Ham Casserole
- 1 lb box pasta (elbow, corkscrew, or shells work well, 78 cents at Walmart)
- ¼ onion, diced (one small to med 50 cents, save remainder for other entrees)
- 1 rib Celery finely diced (should still have a few ribs from last week, if not omit)
- Carrots, finely diced (if left from last week, if not omit)
- 1 ½ to 2 cups diced ham (already paid for)
- 2 cups milk (1/2 gal 1.69 Walmart)
- 3 Tbsp flour (assuming you have on hand)
- 2 Tbsp oil, margarine, butter, etc. (on hand or purchased last week)
- 2 cans vegetables, I prefer I can of corn and 1 can of mixed veg (2 x 50 cents)
- 1 Tbsp mustard (if not on hand, 75 cents)
- 1/2 tsp salt (purchased last week)
- ¼ tsp Pepper (if on hand)
- 2/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar (8oz block 1.48 at Walmart)
In a large saucepan, melt 2 Tbsp oil, butter or margarine. Add 3 Tbsp flour and stir continually for 2 minutes (this is called making a roux). Slowly whisk in the milk. Add salt, pepper if available and mustard. Add shredded sharp cheddar and continue to stir until combined and sauce is thickened. You have now created a cream soup. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Boil pasta per package directions and drain. Place pasta in a large mixing bowl. Add celery and carrot (if available), diced onion, and 2 cans of vegetables (drained) and diced ham. Pour in soup mixture and stir until combined. Turn entire bowl into a large, greased oven-proof dish. Frankly, this makes such a large amount that I always use my roasting pan because even my 9 x 13 pans are too small for this! Bake at 350 deg F for about 40 minutes. Serves 8 hungry souls!
This is a very flexible recipe. If you don’t want to make a roux, then you can omit all of that and use a can of condensed cream soup (cream of mushroom, cream of celery, cream of chicken… add 50 cents). Add can of soup and a can of milk and the mustard to the other ingredients (omit the salt if done this way) and you will still have a tasty meal. Though, I encourage you to try ‘the long way’ because the flavors come together beautifully.
Also, you can be flexible with the vegetables. What do you have on hand? One can of corn and one of green beans? Sure! That will work. One of the best ways to successfully meal stretch is to use what’s on hand!
- 2 to 2-½ pounds of potatoes (already purchased, just leave about 3 potatoes for another recipe)
- Enough water to cover potatoes
- 2 cups milk (already paid for)
- 1 to 1-½ Tbsp salt (adjust per preference; already paid for)
- ¼ onion minced (already paid for)
- If you have any celery left, finely dice a small amount
- 2 T oil/margarine/butter (already paid for)
- 2/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese (already paid for)
Wash and peel potatoes and dice into about ½ inch cubes. Heat oil in large pot and add onion. Add celery if using. Stir over med heat for one to two minutes. Add diced potatoes. Add enough water to cover the potatoes by about an inch. Add salt. Simmer for 45 minutes, breaking up the potatoes with a wooden spoon as they cook down. Add milk and cheddar cheese. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally until most of the potatoes have started to break apart. That’s it! You have a delicious, easy to make on a weeknight soup that serves up to 8. Great choice on a cold day.
I know what you’re thinking: You forgot to add the ham! While, yes, that is certainly an option I promise: it’s not necessary. This is a wonderful, simple dish just as it is. Of course, once again, I present you with a very flexible recipe and if you want to add ham and have enough on hand… go for it! Just dice some up and put it in the pot right after the onions. The possibilities are plentiful. Some green onion on top would be delicious. Or, perhaps, adding additional types of cheese, like Colby or American. As for me, I prefer my potato soup just like this. And, if you didn’t use up the ham in this soup you can stretch it into our next dish…
Ham, Egg and Potato Frittata
- 3 potatoes, peeled and shredded (already purchased)
- 12 eggs, scrambled (1.60 for 18 pack at Walmart)
- 2 Tbsp oil/margarine/butter (already purchased)
- ¼ onion diced (already purchased)
- 1 cup ham, diced small (+/- what you have left)
- ½ cup milk (already purchased)
- Salt (already purchased) and pepper, if available, to taste
After peeling and shredding the potatoes, squeeze the extra liquid out and discard. Scramble the eggs and add milk, salt, and pepper if available, set aside. Heat oil/margarine in a large ovenproof pan and add onion and ham. Stir over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add potatoes and stir. Cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it dries up too much, then you may need to add some additional oil/margarine. Once the potatoes are well softened but have not started to brown add the scrambled eggs mixture. Stir to combine. As it cooks, pull the cooked egg away from the bottom to let some of the liquid egg firm up. Then, while the eggs are still partially liquid, stop stirring and let the eggs start to set. When just the last bit of egg is uncooked towards the top, take off the stove and place under a broiler for just a few minutes until the top is cooked through but barely starting to brown. Remove from oven. Cut into 8 slices and serve like a quiche. Good for breakfast or dinner!
Great Big Pot ‘O Beans
- 2 lbs dry pinto beans ($1.79)
- Salt (already purchased)
- Whole ham hock (left over from Sunday dinner)
- Garlic powder (optional, but very desirable. If not on hand, about 98 cents)
- Cornbread mix 4oz box x 2 (47 cents each; total 94 cents)
- Enough water to cover everything
- 2/3 cup Shredded cheddar cheese (already purchased)
Okay, honestly, my mouth is watering just writing this. Hopefully, most of you have had the pleasure of making a big, beautiful pot of beans. If not, you have been missing out and it’s time to rectify that! I like using my crockpot for this recipe. I throw this together in the morning and the crockpot does most of the work!
Start by picking through the beans to eliminate any small stones or debris. Then rinse them and put them in a large crockpot. Shove the ham hock in among the beans and push it down so it’s partially ‘buried’. Add enough water to cover beans by about 2 inches. HINT: Do NOT add salt yet. In case you’re not familiar, beans will not soften if you prematurely add salt. We will adjust the seasoning at the end.
Set the crockpot on low, cover it, and leave it be. I don’t stir it until at least 4 or 5 hours have passed. At that point, using a big wooden spoon, stir the beans and roll the ham hock over, recover and let cook for another few hours. As it cooks, the beans will soften and glorious hunks of ham that were stuck to the bone will fall off.
Meanwhile, make cornbread per package directions, which will require 1 egg and 1/3 cup milk per box.
When most of the water has been absorbed and the beans have sufficiently softened, turn off the crockpot and remove the bones. The ham hock may have stayed whole but be careful as some pieces of bone may have splintered off. I use a slotted spoon and tongs and I spoon through the beans, setting aside the chunks of ham and discarding any pieces of bone.
Now, to season! I usually start with 1-½ tablespoons of salt and a ¾ teaspoon of garlic powder and go up from there. I add more until I love it! Adjust per your taste buds. Now, salt and garlic powder are all I put in my Pot ‘O Beans but other popular seasoning choices could include onion powder or cumin.
I serve this in a deep bowl with a hunk or two of the ham that broke off, a sprinkle of cheddar cheese on top and a nice square of cornbread on the side. Absolute yumminess.
To say this recipe serves 8 is an understatement. It will easily do that, and then some. If your family does not eat this all at once, it reheats well for a lunch or two and it freezes well for a later date. Or, we can stretch it a bit farther…
Reserve 2 cups of the beans and mash them with a fork. Add a bit more salt and garlic powder. Heat oil/margarine/butter in a pan and fry the mashed beans = a side dish of refried beans (and you didn’t add any cost).
Well, that’s it folks! With a bit of creativity, and some careful planning, those were another five large entrees (and a possible side dish) for just under $25. Assuming eight servings per meal that comes to about 63 cents per person, per serving.
Thank you for allowing me to share a bit of my family’s history and some of the challenges we’ve faced. I have seen the Lord’s hand of provision through this simple act of meal stretching and am grateful for the opportunity to share it. My hope: it will find a way into another mom’s kitchen just when she needs it most.