Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What Works for Me Wednesday

So, here it is. Here's my contribution to Rocks In My Dryer's weekly compendium of useful (Well, useful if you feed a crowd like we do!) tips:

Feeding a Crowd

Let me start off by admitting that I am not a chef, just a mom. I'm an adequate cook with a few specialties; that's about it. And, though there are definitely foods, I enjoy, I've been too busy fulfilling the needs of a lot of tummies on a budget, to become a "foodie." I'm looking forward to that possiblity for my retirement, though! Goodness, there are some inspiring cooks out in the blogosphere!

In the meantime, though, we've become pretty adept at feeding a crowd and leaving them satisfied. Though a goodly part of the year, there are only around eight of us at home, when our four boys are home from school, we feed twelve people daily ~ and their friends and girlfriends often join the fun.

Our family, like most other large families (and army units), has always lived on a lot of casseroles and one-dish type meals. It's easy and economical to stretch meat in a sauce over a starch (like noodles or rice). Most of our meals are of this variety. Here's a typical week's menu:

*Sunday ~ either a big brunch of pancakes or waffles, eggs and bacon or sausage or a large dinner midafternoon, consisting of a roast or a ham, depending usually on whether we're raising or stocking beef or pork at the time.
*Monday ~ Leftover Casserole using anything possibly left from Sunday's dinner. Sometimes
we will purposely cook quadruple the amount of a roast to use throughout the week just for this purpose.
*Tuesday ~ Vat of spaghetti, enchiladas, stroganoff Corn Beef Bake (recipe follows), or the like, the remains of which will usually be eaten for lunch the next day.
*Wednesday/Thursday~ Chicken in the Trees (recipe follows), cooking up extra chicken for lunches. Stew or soup, black beans and rice, using any possible leftovers.
*Friday ~ Popcorn, cheese and fruit; quiche; broiled fish occasionally; tuna casserole.
*Saturday~ Any leftovers from the week are used up this day, reheated at lunch. Dinner is usually a "free-for-all," as well, unless a special event is planned, like a barbeque in good weather. Saturday is our work day so we try to keep it simple in the kitchen.

As a general rule...

We try to eat healthfully, which is possible, though sometimes challenging, on a budget and feeding so many people. We splurge on fish and specialty meats occasionally, especially at holidays. We lean toward organic vegetables whenever we can, but settle for frozen most of the year. We do fill up on carbs, which for my very active (somewhat skinny) children is a necessity. I wish it were as much a necessity for me!

We try to eat red meat only three times a week, maybe four, if we're stretching leftovers. We eat a lot of chicken, especially in soup and fajitas, both family favorites. When in season, especially, we serve sliced vegetables with meals, and occasionally salads. Our group is big on crudites. Anything they can dip, they like. I sabotage almost every casserole I make by adding hidden vegetables. Grated carrots, onion, and zucchini disappear in almost anything.

The only prepared foods we generally buy are the huge bags of meatballs you can get at Sam's or Cosco. They are a great time saver, and well-liked by the troops. Every once in a while we'll get boxed pizza. We almost never fry anything, and stay away from anything breaded. Too few nutrients, too many calories, for too much money.

We either raise or buy a side of organic beef whenever we are able. It's an expense, either way, but one we think is worth it. We raised our own organic pork for many years on the farm, and became quite used to substuting "the other white meat" for almost everything. I wouldn't suggest this without having organic pork, though.

I rarely follow strict recipes, anymore, unless I'm baking, and spice almost everything to taste, so what I'll do is sketch out what I do, then add a link to the closest recipe I can find out there on the 'net.

Some of Our Favorites

Beef and Cornbread Bake

~Brown 1-2 pounds of ground beef, drain grease, pour whatever portion of a jar of salsa thoroughly saturates your portion of beef
~ Make up a double batch of cornbread batter, either using your own recipe, or using the prepared boxes, judging how much you will need by the size of the pan you think will feed your family. A large jellyroll pan feeds most of us if the teenagers aren't here (That's roughly 8-10 people).
~ Pour half the cornbread batter into the bottom of your greased pan.
~ Add the ground beef mixture on top of that.
~ Top with 1-2 cups shredded cheddar cheese (or whatever cheese you have on hand).
~ Pour remaining half of batter on top of beef and cheese.

Bake in a preheated oven at about 375 degrees, for between a half hour and 45 minutes, depending on how big your pan is. I just keep an eye on it to see when the cornbread is baked through in the middle.
*Serve with more salsa. Or ketchup, if you're one of those ketchup loving toddlers.

Here's an official version: http://southernfood.about.com/od/hamburgcasseroles/r/bl30326t.htm

Chicken in the Trees

~ In standard jellyroll pan, melt app. 3 tbs butter in preheated 350 degree oven.
~ Add chicken cut of your choice, bone-in, boneless, breast or thigh. (We prefer boneless breasts for ease of eating, and feel like we'd just as soon not pay for bones, anyway.) Squeeze in whatever you can fit in the pan, turning over to coat both sides of chicken.
~ Sprinkle both sides of chicken with seasoning of your choice. We like garlic salt and lemon pepper, but cajun spices are good, as well as taco seasoning, or just salt and pepper or Mrs. Dash.
~ Bake until chicken is baked almost through, approximately 20 minutes, maybe more, depending on the thickness of your meat.
~ While chicken is baking, mix up a batch of cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soup. We do this from scratch, but you can also use a canned soup. (Watch out for the msg and sodium in these, though!). We sometimes stir some soy sauce or worcestershire into the soup for a little extra zing.
~ After the chicken is out, using either fresh or frozen broccoli (or one of the broccoli mixes), fit as much of the vegetable into the pan as you can, squeezing it into the spaces between the chicken and layering it over a little.
~ Pour the soup over the chicken and vegetables. Bake for another 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees.

*We often melt cheese on top of the whole mixture, depending on how calorie conscious the cook is at the time.

(Everyone's Favorite)

~Arrange plates of sliced cheeses (whatever are the family favorites), grapes and sliced apples on a picnic blanket on the living room floor (or high on a table if you don't want your toddler crawling into it).
~Serve vegetable crudites and dip, if you think it will be eaten, and maybe some caramel for dipping the apples if you don't mind the mess.
~Add one large bowl of popcorn (preparing to refill if necessary), a pitcher of juice, iced tea, cocoa or cider, depending on the season and your tastes.
~We have paper plates available for the fruits and veges, and individual cereal bowls for the popcorn, and leave the drinks on the dining room table for anyone under twelve years old to help keep the mess down a little.
~Say Prayers Before Meals and Roll a Movie!

Tuna Casserole
Most everyone has a favorite tuna casserole recipe. We don't like to use the canned soups, and make our own cheese sauce, with peas, usually. Or without veges in the recipe, serving salad or crudites on the side. This is not a really popular dish around here with our current group, though, so I don't make it often these days. Following is pretty close to our recipe: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Tuna-Noodle-Casserole-I-2/Detail.aspx
Let, me tell you, we make some rockin' spaghetti around here. And we're not even Italian. but, it's truly good stuff, and it's never the same twice, especially when the boys are around. You see, the base recipe for our spaghetti, comes from the old standard Fannie Farmer Cookbook, but we've drifted from it a bit. We start a vat early in the day. Sometimes with meatballs, sometimes meat sauce. (Are you reading this with an Italian accent?)
As the day progresses, anyone who is around, samples the sauce and adds to it, mostly me and my husband, but, my big boys will get in on it, too, especially our fourth son, the Renaissance Man and Super Chef, Jon. This can get tricky at times (Especially since my husband is a saltaholic!), but it always turns out really well.
In addition to the basic recipe, which follows, we will add things like diced zucchini, sliced black olives, ground sausage if we have it. And whatever spices anyone thinks they can get away with. It would surprise you!
Here's the basic recipe, though, courtesy of Emeril Lagassi: http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/recipes/recipe/0,,FOOD_9936_31567,00.html
To Find New Recipes
I generally go to the http://www.foodtv.com/ or good old Fanny Farmer (my favorite cookbook) when I'm looking for a specific recipe. I also love to use the community cookbooks that have been given to me through the years (especially the ones from my southern relatives!), as all those recipes are tried, true, and almost always simple. But a couple new favorite resources for me are the St Lawrence League and the Hillbilly Housewife.
Other Rules of Thumb We've Learned:
Good things to keep stocked
*Using good food grade containers is a must! We've lost stores by getting sloppy about this ~ and who can afford to do that?
Good meal stretchers:
* dried beans, (navy, pinto, peas ~ you name it)
* rice (minute and long cooking
* noodles of all varieties
*beef and chicken broth

* ingredients for biscuits, rolls, or corn bread

In General:

* fruit juice, tea bags, coffee, cocoa

* canned pie filling, which is good for tons of things! Try adding apple pie filling to oatmeal for a great, easy treat. Lemon pie filling doubles for lemon curd on scones. Add blueberry as a filling inside croissant dough. Use cherry pie filling for instant shortcake topping. In a pinch any of it can even be used for filling a pie! You're only limited by your imagination.

* jello and pudding mixes, for easy, inexpensive, popular desserts.

* dry milk, to add to diminishing milk supply in fridge. Used with the correct proportions of mix and water, the children can't tell their milk has been sabotaged, especially if it's well chilled.

*I'm sure there's more, but the above items are the ones that come immediately to mind!

Things that do not pay to stock up on ~ and by "stock up," I mean buying in advance more than about four months' worth:

* any kind of flour or corn meal (bugs love it!) unless you have freezer space or food grade containers with good seals.

*sugar, for the same reason and with the same qualifications.

* chocolate, as it gets "stale," unless you have freezer space for it and can seal it tightly

* breads, because, though they certainly freeze, they freezer burn so easily and take up so much space in the freezer. Ours always ends up getting squashed, or the bag breaks.

* spices, as most lose their potency after a relatively short time, need to be regularly updated, so it usually doesn't pay to buy the huge containers, unless you really use them a lot.

*Again, I'm sure there are more, but these are the biggies, in my experience.

Are You Curious?

~ Milk a week? Right now, since we don't have our own dairy animals, we go through 4-6 gallons a week, depending on what we cook. (That's with none of the teenagers home.)

~ Eggs? We go through two dozen, easy, in one breakfast. (Miss having our own chickens!)

~ Two pounds of meat per dinner is typical.

~ When everyone is home, we empty at least a couple boxes of cereal a morning.

~ A gallon of sweet tea at mealtime, at least.

~ We make one large shopping trip a month for essentials at Sam's. Mostly for paper products, chicken, canned products like crushed tomatoes, whole olives, etc, and some produce.

~ Weekly runs to the local grocery story are mainly for dairy and bread.

~ We frequent our local farmers' markets whenever possible, but are very sensitive to using organic whenever possible. Many farmers produce, unfortunately, is heavy on pesticides!

~ Our monthly grocery bill when we're not raising our own food is roughly $1000 a month, not including paper products, etc...

~ We could live for at least two months on the current contents of our pantry and freezer.

~ I don't regret one penny we spend to feed these people. They're a really nice bunch, and, really and truly, I wouldn't throw a single one back to save on the grocery bill.


Lady Why said...

Oh, these are some great ideas! I always need food stretchers and I need to get out of my cooking 'rut'! We have the same four meals over and over it seems! Thank you for the inspiration!!

Milehimama said...

Oh, I love Sam's for produce! Around here, it's the best kind for the best price. And I don't really mind buying bananas in 3 pound bunches, because it lasts maybe a day.
I buy my milk there too. I figured out that my savings on milk alone would pay for my membership within 3 months.

Thanks for the ideas and for a taste of "home" - I miss the mountains!

tonsofsons said...

Very helpful ideas! Thank you! I have 5 hungry boys!!!!!

And children are a blessing!!!! So sad so many people don't see it that way! May God continue to bless your family.

Amy said...

I can't believe you are using boneless skinless chicken breasts with a family of this size! You will save a fortune if you cut up your own chicken. It's really simple, and whole chicken is CHEAP! And if you've had a bad day, few things are better stress relievers than taking a cleaver to a chicken.

I always save the wings and drumsticks to make hot wings. I just throw them in a big ziplock bag in the freezer, and thaw them out when it's wing time.

Amy @ http://prettybabies.blogspot.com

Lisa said...

I know, Amy... It's a guilty splurge of mine to get the boneless skinless. The honest truth is, I just dont't like cutting up chickens ~ even though it is cheaper, I feel like I'm paying for a lot of wasted bones, etc. Though I don't know that it doesn't equal out on the whole chickn side, anyway. Cleaver-weilding stress-relief I can definitely see, though! &:o)

On Fire For Jesus said...

That was interesting. We have 7 people currently in our home. And this week only we have 7 more (missionaries staying with us for the week). Our home usually has 1-2 more people at the table, with friends and students. Economically we need good ideas, like these!


Alaina said...

Great post! I love how different people contribute to the spaghetti sauce. I'm the mom to two great toddlers so far but I'm from a fairly large family and loved it! :)

We try to use a lot of organic things also and have found Costco to be the best (and most affordable) place outside of the farmer's market. I think they have more organic than Sam's.

Oh and I totally agree about not liking to cut up the chickens - yuck! I splurge and buy boneless also. :)

texastanya said...

Yum! I want to come eat at your house!

Great ideas! Thanks so much for sharing and inspiring!

Kathleen Marie said...

I cook for a camp/retreat center so if you ever want large recipes let me know. I also at times make larger batches of rice, spuds, etc... to use later. Hugs!

Jenmomof4 said...

wow, You spent a lot of time writing that post! Thanks for the great ideas! I only have a family of 6 but I can sure learn something from you!!


Lisa said...

Hi, Jenmomof4! It DID take a long time to write that post! But, I actually started it over a week ago, as I'd planned to post it last Wednesday! In increments, it wasn't so bad! I'm glad some ideas were helpful to you! &:o)Thanks for stopping by!

tracy said...

Wow! i always learn from "large family food" posts. We eat a lot of organic so I need to get a handle on the grocery bill before my kids become teenagers!

I do a buying club and we often buy a quarter of a cow. I buy my eggs from a family with chickens. We go through more "almond milk" than cow's milk.

I'd love to get a membership at Costco or Sam's but the nearest one is 30-40 minutes away and I just haven't been up to doing that!

Lisa said...

We've got the same problem! It's a pain for us, too, because here Sams is more than an hour away. So we pile together all our "town" errands for the same day... Otherwise, it's not worth the savings.

Therese said...

Hey Lisa,

Tonight I made the beef and cornbread bake. It was delicious. I doubled the recipe and we have another one sitting there ready for lunch tomorrow. I think it is going to become a regular here.