In my house, I do the grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking. Recipes must jump through a lot of hoops if they want to be featured on my dinner table more than once. They must:
1. Be tasty (of course).
2. Be easy for my toddler to eat. I hate making a meal for us adults plus a separate meal for my toddler (so long, green salads; hello green smoothies!).
3. Take less than 30 minutes to prepare. The faster, the better. I have learned the hard way the if I’m attending the stove, my toddler gets into trouble and my baby wakes up crying. If I attend to them, whatever is on the stove burns. So I do not have a lot of stovetop recipes. Thank goodness for the oven, the crockpot, and the rice cooker.
4. Be inexpensive. I try to stick with meals that are around $5 per meal to feed myself, my husband, and my toddler. Since I’m breastfeeding, I’m technically eating for two and I have a very healthy appetite, and I try to eat an ample amount of protein each day.
5. Be healthy and nutritious. Or at least, mostly healthy and nutritious.
6. Be different from what we ate the last few nights.
With all that in mind, it is very hard to find a new recipe. So rather than re-inventing the wheel every week or so, I created a list of 15 meals that I know accommodate all my priorities, while making them as varied as possible so we don’t get bored with them. For the past few months, I’ve been cycling through my list, with the rare splurge on new recipes for special occasions. It has worked wonderfully! I spend less time planning meals and looking for recipes, and more time doing things other important things, like helping my husband build forts in the living room for our kids. I try to make meals in the order that they’re in on my list. I also listed all the ingredients for these meals and I make sure I almost always have everything in stock, so if I feel like going out of order, that’s fine too. This has also helped with grocery shopping–since I know exactly what I need for the next few weeks/months, I can stock up on items when they’re on sale. In my effort to be frugal, I almost never buy something if it’s not on sale or if I don’t have a coupon.
Frozen vegetables have become my new best friend. The don’t go bad, cost the same or less as fresh vegetables, and cook up soft enough that my toddler will usually tolerate them. I use a lot of frozen vegetables in my meals.
My Meal Rotation
1. Pork loin roast: Pork is usually an inexpensive meat; I stock up when it’s on sale for around $2/lb. I get a large cut and cook it once, then freeze leftover slices to use in other meals. The pork cooks up soft and moist enough that my toddler will eat it if I cut it into very small bite-sized pieces. To prepare the pork, I like to soak the pork in a brine solution for several hours first (in the fridge). My brine is made of 6-8 cups water, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 CUP salt, 1 tablespoon pepper, some rosemary, and a bunch of garlic and ginger. After it has been sufficiently brined, pre-heat the oven to 350 F. Put a large cast-iron skillet into the oven while it heats so the skillet gets good and hot. When the oven reaches 350, pull out the skillet (careful; it’s really heavy and hot!) and put it on the stove. Turn it on to medium-high heat. Brown the pork on all sides in 2-3 Tablespoons of butter. Then roast it in the oven, uncovered, on 350 F for 45-60 minutes until the internal temperature is about 165 F. Remove from oven, baste with juices, and then let it sit for at LEAST 10 minutes before carving. Slice it up, and be sure to pour some of the juices over each slice. I dish it up with something easy, like baked potatoes, frozen vegetables, and/or a Knorr’s Rice Sides. If I’m feeling adventurous, I might make up some dinner rolls using my breadmaker.
Tip: to make baked potatoes, first scrub the potatoes, then rub each one with olive oil, then salt and pepper. Bake at 350 F for 45-60 minutes. It’s that simple. No need to wrap them in foil, no need to poke them with a fork. And if you use top quality potatoes, you don’t even need to serve them with butter. They are good enough on their own.
2. Enchilada casserole–like a Mexican version of lasagna. Create layers, using the following ingredients: 1 large can Rosarita’s red enchilada sauce, 30 corn tortillas, 2 cups cooked shredded chicken, 1 medium chopped yellow onion, 2 cans diced green chiles, and 2 cups shredded Mexican blend cheese. Bake at 350 F for about 20 minutes. Dish it up with refried beans and cilantro.
Tip: to make shredded chicken, put a bunch of frozen chicken breasts in the crockpot. Add a little water, and cook on low for 6-8 hours. When it’s done, mash it up and it will easily shred. Freeze it in 2-cup portions to be used for this recipe and others.
3. Chicken Tikka Masala–This tastes amazing, but it is a lot of stovetop work, so I usually save it for special occasions. The recipe calls for a bunch of spices I already have, plus the following fresh ingredients: 1.5 lbs chicken breast, cubed; 1 cup plain yogurt; 1/4 cup chopped cilantro; 1 can tomato sauce; 1 cup heavy whipping cream (I cheat and substitute with milk. It’s not the same, but I just don’t want to splurge the money or calories on heavy cream). Garnish with cilantro and peanuts, and possibly some golden raisins and shredded coconut flakes if you really want to splurge. Yum!
NOTE: Sometimes I can score a jar of some kind of Indian marinade at the clearance section of the grocery store, which cuts down on the prep time a lot. Or I can make chicken curry with vegetables, which is cool, too.
4. Vegan Chili: This one is super easy. Pour 3 different cans of beans (or about 6 cups cooked beans) and 1 can diced green chiles (don’t drain the cans) straight into a pot on the stove (or better yet, a rice cooker). Add a bag of mixed frozen vegetables, or whatever fresh vegetables you want (onions, peppers, celery, corn, squash, tomatoes). For flavor, add garlic, 1 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp paprika, 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, and pepper to taste. Or, just add 2 tsp shishkabob seasoning. Add just a tiny dash of lemon juice for acidity (but not so much that you actually taste the lemon). Add in some chia seeds for extra protein and fiber. If there is any cilantro leftover from the previous two nights’ meals, use the rest of it to garnish the chili. Also, toss some shredded cheese on top. If you have any corn tortillas left over from the enchilada casserole, bake them up into tortilla chips. And take Gas-ex after eating. 🙂
Chili variation #1: Slow Cooker White Bean Soup recipe. This is an inexpensive, hearty meal with very little preparation. Put a couple of fresh or frozen chicken breasts in the bottom of a crockpot, cover with 1 lb DRY beans, SIX CUPS water, some vegetables like celery, onion, and carrots, and the above herbs and spices. Cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4-5 hours. The chicken will shred easily when you stir it up just before serving.
Chili variation #2: Slow Cooker Chili. This recipe calls for 2 lbs ground beef, 1 onion, garlic, chipotle chili in adobo sauce, 2 cans dark red kidney beans, 2 cans tomato sauce, 2 cans diced tomatoes, 1 can light red kidney beans, 1 can green chiles, 1 cup beef broth, and some spices that you probably already have in the pantry. This variation is more delicious than the others, but more expensive, too. In the rare event that I use a beef steak for this recipe, I can use any leftover beef to make beef stroganoff. Yummy!
5. Green chile and cheese egg bake. Whisk together 5 eggs, 3 cups milk, 1 heaping cup flour, and 1/2 tsp salt. Pour mixture into a greased 9×13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle on top: 1 can diced green chiles, 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, and a bunch of chopped bacon or ham. Bake at 350 F for 40-45 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Serve with a size of broccoli or other vegetable.
Note: I’ve tried cooking the broccoli in with the egg bake so it’s a one-dish meal, but the moisture from the broccoli prevents the casserole from firming up like it should. It’s best to just serve the broccoli on the side.
Another Note: To improve your body’s ability to absorb the iron in the eggs, eat something high in Vitamin C with your meal. Citrus fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes, and many fruits are all high in Vitamin C.
6. Stir Fry. First, heat up a blend of peanut oil and sesame oil in a wok or very large frying pan. In the oil, stir fry your choice of protein (some tofu, or use some of the leftover pork loin roast) and set aside. Then fry up your choice of vegetables (I like to use one bag of stir fry vegetables, and one bag of onions and peppers). This is a great time to use up cabbage when it’s super cheap around St Patrick’s Day. If you want, add cooked rice and an egg or two, cooking the egg in the wok by moving your other ingredients to the side, scrambling the egg while it cooks, then stirring it all together. Toss the protein back in and add some light soy sauce. Try adding a little Chinese Five Spice for extra flavor. Finally, garnish with shredded carrots and green onions.
Tip: chop all your green onions at one time. Freeze whatever you don’t use this time, and use it next time!
Note: Tofu is a good source of protein (about 7-8g per serving) but not the best (e.g. chicken has about 22g protein in a 1/2 cup serving). It’s still a good, affordable alternative to meat, and my toddler finds it easier to chew. Plus, I don’t have to worry about my kid getting salmonella if I don’t prepare it just right (sorry, chicken!). Working with tofu can be confusing if it’s your first time. Here’s what I do: select firm or extra firm tofu when you buy it. To prepare it, first press out a lot of the moisture from your block of tofu by wrapping it in a thick kitchen/hand towel, placing it between two plates, and putting something like cans or a brick on top of the top plate to weigh it down. Let it sit in the fridge like that for several hours, or overnight. Then, cut it into bite-sized pieces and bake them in the oven so they get nice and crispy on the outside (30 minutes at 400 F, flipping them halfway through). Then stir fry them in your oil blend. Set them aside, stir fry your other ingredients, and then toss the tofu back in just before adding the soy sauce.
7. Baked French Toast. In a 9×13-inch greased baking dish, pour in two (drained) cans of sliced peaches. Or use 3 fresh peaches, or apples, or whatever other fruit you want. Then cover the fruit with 3/4 loaf of bread, sliced and cut into cubes. Whisk together 7-8 eggs, 2 cups of milk, a dash of cinnamon, a dash of vanilla extract, and a dash of salt. Pour the mixture over the bread. If you want, sprinkle some brown sugar over the top. Bake at 350 F for 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. For an extra-sweet, indulgent recipe, try this one. It calls for half-and-half (or use heavy cream), butter, brown sugar, and light corn syrup.
8. Tortellini soup. I can get frozen tortellini for $3 for a 1 lb bag, and I use only 1/2 a bag at a time, so one bag will last two iterations of this meal. This tortellini does NOT make for good leftovers, though, because it becomes mushy the second day. So I try to only make what we will eat that night. I change up what I do with this meal, but the bare bones is the same: a soup made with tortellini, vegetables, and some protein (usually some leftover pork roast, or leftover shredded chicken from the enchilada casserole). The photo above is basically just tortellini, 1 onion, garlic, chicken broth, 1 can diced tomatoes, Italian seasoning, salt, 3 cups chopped fresh spinach, and some shredded chicken.
Or I may choose to follow a recipe like this Spinach Tomato Tortellini soup, which uses tortellini, 1 can diced tomatoes, 1 cup chopped fresh spinach, 2 Tablespoons flour, 3/4 cup milk, 3/4 cup heavy cream, salt, pepper, basil, garlic, and 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (it’s also great if you have any leftover tomato paste to add that in).
If I’m feeling really crazy, I’ll toss in some wild rice and mushrooms and do something to make the soup stock creamy, like they do in this recipe for Chicken Wild Rice soup. That recipe calls for 1 cup cooked wild rice, 1 onion, 2 carrots, 2 stalks celery, thyme, 3/4 cup flour, salt, pepper, 8 cups chicken stock, 2 cups cubed cooked chicken, 8 oz mushrooms, 1 cup half-and-half, 1/2 cup chopped parsley.
Tip: what do you do with the rest of your carton of heavy cream? Freeze it for next time, or use it for the Chicken Tikka Masala.
9. Chicken Salad: Because my recipe calls for red grapes, I only make this when grapes are in season and I can get them for $2/lb or less. This is my own recipe that I’ve tweaked over the years, and my family and I think it’s just perfect. It’s tender, juicy, crunchy, sweet, and just full of flavor: about 2 cups cooked, shredded chicken, 2 stalks celery, chopped; 2 cups shredded spinach or lettuce; 2 cups chopped red grapes; 1/4 cup mayo or miracle whip, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese. In my experience, it’s best with no onions of any kind. It’s great if you want to add in 1 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, but I usually don’t want to spend the money on walnuts. This is enough to serve 4 adults with some leftover. Serve on bread, or in lettuce wraps.
10. Creamy Potato Soup: There are so many variations of this kind of dish. I prefer recipes that call for cooking it in a slow cooker, or in the microwave. I add in broccoli for vegetables, and leftover cooked pork for protein and texture. I love this recipe for Quick and Easy Loaded Baked Potato Soup from the Pampered Chef. The entire prep is done in the microwave. The instructions on that site tell you to use the Pampered Chef’s Deep Covered Baker, but I don’t have one. I use my crock-pot, which is microwave safe (without the lid). That recipe calls for 6-7 russet potatoes (or 3 large baker potatoes), 3 green onions, 8 oz cream cheese (I use Neufchatel cheese instead), 4 Tbsp butter, 3 cups milk, 8 oz shredded cheddar cheese (about 1 cup), salt & pepper.
11. Lasagna: I found oven-ready lasagna noodles at my local dollar store. I did a little dance when I found them! Oven-ready noodles are great because you don’t have to boil them first. Just layer the uncooked noodles right on. Normally, a box of these costs about $3-4 at the grocery store, so I was excited to find them for only $1. Also, I make my own marinara sauce, I don’t usually put any meat in, and I use cottage cheese instead of ricotta. Total, I can make this usually costly meal for about $8, and it leaves plenty of leftovers for my small family. Here’s a link to my favorite recipe: 10-Minutes Spinach Lasagna. It calls for 3 cups marinara sauce, 9 no-boil lasagna noodles, 16-oz small curd cottage cheese mixed with 1 egg and 2 tsp Italian seasoning, 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, 2 cups fresh spinach leaves. Optional: 3/4 cup basil leaves, 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
My homemade marinara sauce is made with 1 24-oz can crushed tomatoes, 1 6-oz can tomato sauce, 1 tsp chopped garlic, 2 tsp Italian seasoning, 2 tsp sugar, and 1 tsp salt. This makes more than enough sauce for the lasagna, so save about 3/4-1 cup and use it for pizza the next night.
12. Pizza: I like making homemade pizza with my homemade marinara sauce. My breadmaker has a pizza dough function, so I use that to make two batches at once, and freeze the extra for later. Roll out the dough, let it rise at least a few minutes or up to an hour, depending on how thick you like your crust. Next, bake the crust for about 5 minutes at 400 F. Top with homemade marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, and whatever other toppings you want (chopped tomatoes, spinach, a chopped red onion, pineapple tidbits, ham, etc.). Keep toppings to a maximum of 4 to make sure things bake thoroughly. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 F.
My homemade marinara sauce is made with 1 can crushed tomatoes, 1 tsp chopped garlic, 2 tsp Italian seasoning, 2 tsp sugar, and 1 tsp salt.
13. Spinach casserole: This one is fantastic, and would probably be a great one-dish meal if you add some ham into it. The recipe calls for 16 oz cottage cheese, 6 eggs, 1/2 cup flour, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper. Cream all that in a food processor or blender. Then mix in 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, and two 10-oz packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained. Bake it at 350 F for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. The recipe on the link tells you to then add two cups MORE cheese on top, but that seems overkill to me so I never do that. I like to serve this with some pork chops on the side–usually some pork steaks leftover from my pork roast (see above).
14. Chicken, veggies, and pasta skillet with ranch sauce: I love the Birds Eye Voila! Garlic Chicken frozen meal. I can get a family-sized bag for about $7-8. It’s a bit less expensive to make it myself, and I can get leftovers out of it, so I was inspired to make my own version. Here’s what I do: first, cook 1 box Penne pasta. While that’s going, use a separate wok or large skillet to fry up 6-7 chicken tenderloins, chopped. Once they are cooked through, take them out and set them aside. Next, use the wok/skillet to cook 1 bag Kroger frozen fiesta mixed vegetables, and 1 bag Kroger frozen onions/peppers mix. While those are cooking, put 1 cup milk and 2 tablespoons flour in a jar with a lid. Shake it up until there are no more lumps. When the vegetables are finished cooking, pour the milk/flour mixture into the skillet with the vegetables. Next, add in 1 more cup of milk, 1 packet dry ranch dressing mix, 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese. Let it come to a slow boil so it will thicken. Once it does, add back in your cooked chicken as well as your cooked pasta. Stir everything together so everything gets coated with the delicious sauce. Voila!
15. Meatball Stroganoff: This recipe does take a bit of stovetop work, so I usually make it when somebody else is home to help with the wee babies.
First, heat up an ample amount of oil in a large skillet or a wok (don’t worry about using too much; you’ll get rid of the extra oil later). Using medium-high heat, fry the meatballs until they are cooked through. Then use a slotted spoon to take them out of the oil and set them aside. Next, fry 1 chopped white or yellow onion and a pint of chopped mushrooms in the oil. Keep the heat up pretty high to bring out the best flavor of the onions and mushrooms. While they cook, put 1/4 cup flour in a jar, and add part of a 16-oz can of beef broth. Screw the lid on tight and shake it until there are no more lumps. When the onions and mushrooms are finished, use your slotted spoon to take them out of the oil and set them aside. Next, pour out the oil from your wok/skillet and discard it. Pour the broth/flour mixture into the wok/skillet and add in the rest of the can of beef broth*, and 1-2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (or substitute light soy sauce like I did). Bring it to a boil to let it thicken slightly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium and stir in 1/2 cup sour cream. Slide the meatballs, mushrooms and onions back into the skillet/wok and you’re done! Serve with 1 lb wide egg noodles, and garnish with chopped fresh parsley or dill (optional).
*You will use a total of 2 cups beef broth for this recipe.
Note: When ground beef or ground turkey is on sale for $3 per pound or less, I stock up and make lots of homemade meatballs, then keep them in the freezer for future use. Here’s a good recipe for basic homemade meatballs: Easy Meatball Recipe with Tips – Great For Beginners. Once you have a stock of meatballs in your freezer, it’s easy to use them to make pasta & meatballs, or meatball stroganoff.
16. Breakfast skillet: Use up any leftover potatoes you have in the pantry in a hearty breakfast. Cook the potatoes in the microwave until they’re mostly done, then add them to some scrambled eggs just before the eggs are done. Add some ham and cheese, and some peppers. Optional: use bacon grease instead of butter or oil when you cook your eggs on the stove. Yum!
Note: To improve your body’s ability to absorb the iron in the eggs, eat something high in Vitamin C with your meal. Citrus fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes, and many fruits are all high in Vitamin C.
I hope you enjoy some of these meals and that your meal prep is now just a little bit easier!