Cooking for four, frugally
August 28, 2016 11:59 AM   Subscribe

I am currently between jobs and will soon have more free time than I want while my two kids are at kindergarten. I want to learn how to cook in large-ish quantites, healthily and more frugally for our family of four. Please recommend blogs or individual recipes!

- No crockpot, slow cooker or other specialised equipment.
- Only teeny tiny freezer space
- Both vegetarian and meat recipes...probably more with meat than without.

Thank you!
posted by Omnomnom to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Budget Bytes is a favourite of mine.
posted by essexjan at 12:12 PM on August 28, 2016 [15 favorites]

Jack Monroe's recipes are great - she's leaning more and more towards vegan these days, but I'm sure you could see where meat could be added :)
posted by Vortisaur at 12:14 PM on August 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

I haven't cooked from it myself yet, but I've been hearing a lot of good things about Leanne Brown's book Good and Cheap. (Free PDF or $10-ish in print). The book is meant to be ways to eat well on $4 a day, and the reviews say it's also very kid friendly.
posted by Caravantea at 12:15 PM on August 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

This vegetarian chili recipe is really delicious, and quite cheap because it relies on lentils and beans. At my house, we eat it with shredded cheese and sour cream or with waffle fries (yum!). It also freezes really well, for times when you have the freezer space available.

Also, I recommend checking out Leanne Brown's free cookbook, Good and Cheap.
posted by neushoorn at 12:52 PM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I love Deborah Madison's The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (an updated version of her old vegetarian cookbook). There are a lot of good recipes using pulses which would be inexpensive to feed a family with, as well as other vegetarian ideas. I'm not a vegetarian but I try to eat less meat, so many of her veggie recipes can double as sides so your family can eat less meat if that's what you want.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:09 PM on August 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

- If you've got nothing but time, then it might be fun to get into the Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen archives. You have to pay for a membership but also, if you google Cook's Illustrated or America's Test Kitchen + [Food item you want to cook] you will probably find blogs or newspaper articles with the recipes. Their recipes are notoriously time-consuming (and I find the palate a bit bland, though that might be good for cooking for 5 year olds) but you will learn A LOT about cooking methods.

- The hipper version of that is the Food Lab on Serious Eats.

- The Smitten Kitchen is great for somewhat-involved recipes. Especially whenever she cooks something by Ottolenghi.

- I also always like to recommend Simply Recipes, mostly because I have never had anything I cooked from there go wrong.
posted by lunasol at 2:31 PM on August 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Good and Cheap is not very good and not notably cheap -- the recipes are written by a student, not a chef or skilled home cook. Some are clearly quite bland, virtually all are not the best iteration of the particular dish. If you were a gently broke student looking to scale up your cooking from adulterated ramen packets, it's fine, but given the quality of the results it's more of a waste of time and ingredients if you are putting any effort in or wanting to upgrade your skills to "delicious!" rather than just "this is edible."

Budget Bytes is slightly better but suffers from some of the same problems -- the 'wonderpot' people seem to adore is inexplicably bland and off-puttingly mushy; nobody here would eat much. I tried a few times, upping the flavours and shortening the cooking time; no luck -- it is, I think, for people who would be fine with Kraft Dinner but who want to give something homemade a spin, and, to me, a huge waste of ingredients and time. Again, if you just want to move up from adulterating store-bought stuff without a lot of fuss, they're okay, but if you want next-level goodness, they are not the best. They have a lot of fans, but the fans are people whose previous cooking involved Hamburger Helper, I think.There is a LOT of better stuff out there...

...but you haven't told us what you and your family like to eat, or what sort of cooking skills/cuisines you would like to learn?

Is there any chance of acquiring a chest freezer? I am vegetarian, broke, and (surprise) something of a food snob, and a lot of freezer space makes everything so much easier. You can keep way more ingredients on hand (squeeze lemons, freeze the juice; mince herbs, freeze, etc etc) and do serious bulk cooking, and stock up like mad during sales. So many things freeze; most people have no idea. A 1950s-or-thereabouts comprehensive freezer manual or Joan Hood's Will it Freeze? are helpful.

This golden carrot soup recipe is cheap and delicious. These banana crumb muffins are great, and you can stuff in at least two cups of extra fruit (chop up those apples that are starting to get a little past it, dump in frozen berries, anything works -- so does chocolate...).

For 'frugal,' consider what's cheap and use a reliable classic cookbook -- the 1975 Joy of Cooking is a good all-purpose book, and Cook's Illustrated recipes are reliable and can usually be found reprinted on a blog somewhere -- to find recipes for things like potatoes, rice, eggs, flour... Also look into "ethnic" and "peasant" cuisines -- the Irish certainly know what to do with a potato (boxty, champ, and colcannon are all delicious; I like a probably inauthentic but still terrific combination of colcannon and champ -- stew a lot of green onions in cream, boil up a mess of potatoes and kale, roughly mash it all together with butter) and Ethiopians have turned lentils into art -- mesir wot is great, and Saveur has some reliable Ethiopian stews. Colombian arepas are not too tricky to learn to make, and very versatile. If you like Indian food, Tarla Dalal is sort of an Indian Martha Stewart and her site is enormous and has a recipe for everything.

A mess of spicy rice (look up Colombian sofritos, try adding that) + beans of your choice (I like black or pinto or refried -- making your own refried is very easy, too) is good on its own in a bowl (perhaps with a crispy topping if you have some tortilla chips to use up) and, especially with cheese and sour cream, a first-rate pile of burrito filling.

When my daughter was young we went through gobs of 'baby pizzas' which were just mini pitas smeared with a bit of pesto (less messy and less likely to have a burning hot spot than tomato sauce), topped with loads of chopped veg and baked briefly with just enough cheese to glue the toppings on.

Most kids like hummus these days, it seems, and it is easy to make at home -- recipes abound; it's fine to tinker with quantities to get it to your taste. If your kids like it but are used to store-bought, try adding a little bit of citric acid; it gives it a sort of Sabra-esque tang -- and puree it like mad (I'm hoping you have a blender or food processor? Serviceable ones are cheap at thrifts if no).

Bread machines are also cheap and ubiquitous at thrifts -- double-check to make sure it still has its mixing paddle -- and if you buy your yeast and flour in bulk it is crazy-cheap and very, very easy to make. (I have our favourite recipe stuck on the side of the machine so my kid can be tasked with making the bread, though it takes me all of 90 seconds to load the machine.) Bread can become bread pudding, strata, tomato/bread salad, croutons, and this fantastic panade -- I use veg broth, navy beans, a sharp old cheese, sturdy greens, onions, small cubes of potatoes, maybe celery, maybe whatever else is on hand.

(On preview, I agree the CI palate can lean towards the bland -- also at times the sweet, and greasy. It makes me think a little bit of the Cheesecake Factory. It's very...American? But the finished product will definitely be what it was meant to be with no flaws in the prep method that would lead to mushiness etc, and it's easy to add more flavour.)
posted by kmennie at 2:42 PM on August 28, 2016 [17 favorites]

Since you don't have the space for freezing but you do have lots of time, have you thought about learning canning?

It's surprisingly simple and much more like baking than cooking in my opinion (clear instructions, guidelines on the right way to do it, simple is almost always better), and although it requires a little bit of special equipment to start with you can often find it super cheap at charity shops or even free from a friend who tried it as a hobby and stopped. Also you can reuse your jars over and over again.

Start going to farmer's markets and pay attention/ask questions about what produce is in season and when. You might be really surprised at how inexpensive fresh produce can be when it's in season. And things canned yourself means that you control what else goes into it, so that kind of yucky overly seasoned flaccid canned veggie taste is not a concern. You'll probably boggle at how delicious a well-canned jar of asparagus will taste in the middle of winter. Something easy and immediately rewarding to start with is a fruit jam (berries of most types are in season in the northern hemisphere now) and if your kids are big PBJ eaters you know it won't go to waste.
posted by Mizu at 2:49 PM on August 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Learn to cook chicken legs - thigh + drumstick, but cheaper per pound than either. You sometimes can get "chicken leg quarters" for even less. Remove the backs & save them for making soup - this takes a little freezer space, but not a ton. If you can find a used copy of the 60 Minute Gourmet, any of the recipes for bone-in chicken will work with legs. Chicken fricassee, chicken cacciatore, arroz con pollo, etc. One recipe that's not in the book - marinate chicken legs with oil, lemon juice, garlic, hot pepper. Roast at 350 for about 50 minutes. Optional: put a layer of potatoes, sliced 1/2" thick, on the bottom of the pan (after dipping them in the marinade), increase cooking time to about an hour.

Make marinara sauce from canned tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. Throw in a (drained) can of chick peas. This was my mother's go-to meal back when Friday meant meatless. Add some ground beef and/or sausage for Italian-American meat sauce (aka ragu, or gravy in some neighborhoods).
posted by mr vino at 3:00 PM on August 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

A quick skim of Good And Cheap implies to me that it's a fine cookbook if a bit basic. None of the recipes seem bad or like they were offering improper techniques. At least not any more than other recipes often do. I recently made a Martha Stewart corn soup recipe that was miles worse than the one in Good And Cheap, and that one called for probably $30 of specialty ingredients.

It definitely seems more useful for inspiration than strict adherence to recipes, though, as a lot of it is very simple, like make a veggie and egg scramble, make a salad with kale, quesadillas, baked potatoes, etc. On the other hand there was a whole page of ideas for oatmeal that I'm taking to heart because I've gotten into a bit of an oatmeal rut of late.

I found it refreshing if only as a return to basics from the over elaborate trend-oriented recipes that tend to go around online or in chef-driven cookbooks.
posted by Sara C. at 3:26 PM on August 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Find your local Asian, Latin, and "International" (in my neck of the woods that often means Russian/Eastern European + Middle Eastern) grocery stores and figure out which ones have cheaper produce* than your regular Western chains - it may be all of them, in which case also check the * part which is meat. Those stores also generally have a much bigger and better range of rices, flours, dried beans**, some canned and frozen vegetables, and many spices and condiments.

**Learn to cook beans from dry. Not only are they dirt cheap, but they taste so much better than canned that they are like actual food rather than filler. (And pick up bay leaves for your beans at your alternative grocery, where you can get 10-20x the leaves for half the cost of the ones in the jar.)

I am another fan of Serious Eats, and they are doing a Dinner in 20 (minutes) series right now which is not what you were asking for but they are all simple - which is generally cheaper - and still focused on flavor. At least peruse them for inspiration.

Since you do have lots of time on your hands, you've got time for bread to rise. I like a lot of Farmgirl Fare's recipes (and her instructions). Try her Farmhouse White Bread as a beginner's recipe.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:30 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

To answer the question:
I am most interested in things I can cook in the mornings and then reheat for dinner. Though, making the sides fresh would be fine .

So...probably stews?
Also, the kids won't eat anything spicy, and with a lot of recipes I'm not sure if it'll still taste good without the poblano in it (or whatever).
We cook pasta fairly often, so I'd prefer to get advice for non-pasta meals.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:33 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

with a lot of recipes I'm not sure if it'll still taste good without the poblano in it (or whatever)

Yes, it will. You can swap in a sweet pepper (green bells are always cheaper than red or orange and they taste the same when all is said and done) for any fresh hot pepper, and paprika and/or non-hot plain old 'chili powder' for any sort of ancho/chipotle powder. You can sub ketchup with a dash of garlic powder for sriracha or hot sauce, or just skip if it's measured in dashes.

things I can cook in the mornings and then reheat for dinner

You want stews and casseroles, probably, though I also bulk cook chicken breasts or pulled pork so I can throw together Meat And Three plates (one cooked veg, one starch or legume, one raw veg or fruit) later, or chop it up to stir into rice/pasta/soup dishes.

Some of my go-to casseroles are:
Chicken Broccoli Rice
Easiest Lasagna Ever
Shepherd's Pie
(Un)stuffed Cabbage Casserole
posted by Lyn Never at 4:02 PM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might want to check out the EatCheapAndHealthy subreddit for some ideas.
posted by Snerd at 4:10 PM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

The site has had a major redesign, but The Hillbilly Housewife used to have a lot of this kind of thing.
posted by dilettante at 4:53 PM on August 28, 2016

Chicken & sausage jambalaya (can just omit the Cajun spice for the kids)

Chicken paprikash (same; I do something like this, but add tomatoes)

Red wine beef stew (but I would add 3-5 stalks of chopped celery in there with the carrots. edit: and oh jeez, I'd quadruple the onion. 1 medium onion for 4 lbs of chuck roast would be depressing, what is going on there! But basically, those ingredients are in a stew I make & love)

Black bean chili
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:30 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Our guilty-pleasure/go-to frugal meal is american chop suey. It's a pound of mini elbow pasta, a pound of ground turkey and a jar of marinara sauce. Viola.
posted by pintapicasso at 5:33 PM on August 28, 2016

Cream of Whatever-is-in-the-Crisper Soup:
- whatever is in the crisper
- one potato
- couple of onions
- salt n pepper
- one herb of your choice. Thyme goes with lots of stuff.
1. Cover with water and boil till tender
2. Puree in blender
3. Add milk / grated cheddar to taste
4. Serve with buttered toast
posted by BinGregory at 6:21 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite] is my personal favorite for ideas & inspiration. He has great recipe videos and generally good advice for techniques.

One thing that's a little off the slant: (re)consider your shopping habits. Don't buy premade, pre-packaged food. Just don't. Unless it's something way involved to make on your own, consider whether it's really worth the price/convenience/health impact.

Get produce that's actually in season, that you'll actually use in its entirety. (Train everyone to love in-season fruit.) If your produce doesn't ever seem to last more than a few days, look up ways to store it so it does. Also, shop around -- something like $100/week can be the difference between in-season produce bought at a cheap local grocer and...not. To that end, look for any "ethnic" grocery stores in your area. Finally, if you're an herb person, consider growing your own -- in the long run it's cheaper and easier on you.

(Sorry if you already do these things...but it took me a while to figure it all out so I thought I might as well)

Thick stews thrown together with [whatever produce is about to go bad] are mostly water, filling, and delicious. Saute an onion, add literally whatever chopped meat, then add literally whatever chopped veg and some water. Season like a madman. If it looks skimpy, fill it in with some rice/beans/bread. This is literally all I eat some weeks in the winter and it's amazing. Some of my go-to combos:

- beef chuck + potato + carrot + onion, chunky and salty and hot and comforting. Put it over rice for some more starch.
- onion soup -- loaded with flavor, cheap, and supports any less-than-ideal dark meat that you may have around
- tomato and beef/lamb/pork. Sautee some tomato until it starts to get weird and runny, then add some water and break it up until it really starts falling apart. Add thin cuts of meat and whatever other vegetables. I like it over rice or mashed potatoes.
- egg-drop style soup filled in with rice or pasta and chicken
- moussaka!
- potato soup with ground beef/lamb/pork and peas, like a stewy bangers/mash
- sopa de ajo -- you have never had anything so aromatic and comforting
- butternut squash soup is ultra cheap, filling, and can be savory or sweet depending on your mood! Refrigerates/freezes well too. Add some cream/aromatics for body, and you're done.

Almost any combination of starch + protein + vegetable can also be made creamy by...adding cream and then reducing over medium. Totally changes up the flavor so you can reuse tired ingredients.

Salmon cakes (from canned/frozen salmon) are easy and healthy and you can sneak in most vegetables too.

Beans-and-greens are also easy/cheap/reheat well. Cannellini beans sauteed with some of that wrinkly cabbage and arugula and/or kale. You can make it salad-like, or soupy by adding and reducing some stock/cream.

Coleslaw coleslaw coleslaw coleslaw. The longer it sits, the better it tastes. I love adding fruit to mine, to make it almost like a desserty thing to graze on after dinner.

Think about your favorite salsa/dip. Diced tomato? Black beans? Corn? Stare at the canned-goods aisle and daydream about combinations. You can make it more hearty with ground meat, seasoned liberally with pepper/paprika/cumin/onion powder; avocado; you can add filler shreds of vegetables and rice too. Most of the base ingredients come cheap in cans, so you can forget about them while having them at the ready whenever you're out of ideas and energy. I've had several dinners' worth of tortillas + the above, especially in the summer/fall.

If you're into bread, you might be interested in this: -- it's basically a super-simple, no-knead dough that you keep in the fridge for up to two weeks, and any time you want some bread just pick off a pound or so, proof it for 30 mins, and bake it.

...I just realized that I didn't give actual recipes, but I just wanted to throw out some ideas. The internet is there for your more specific wants/needs.

Best of luck!
posted by miniraptor at 7:35 PM on August 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

If you have a fridge and an oven, you can make Artisan Bread in 5 minutes a day, and never buy or throw out bread ever again. I just started doing this last week, and it's life changing. The dough sits happily in the fridge for up to two weeks, and you just pinch some off every day and bake it fresh. Buy your flour and yeast in bulk and it costs just pennies a day. Did I mention, no kneading ever?!

The dough can also be used for pizza. And if there's ever any leftover bread, it can be turned into breadcrumbs, bread pudding, or croutons.

I would also recommend getting a 11 or 14 cup food processor. I got one off ebay for $60 or so. It makes pie dough ridiculously easy - that gives you quiche and fruit pies, which is always a favorite. I also use it to shred cheese.

Discount groceries like Smart and Final are great for bulk goods like butter, sugar, flour, and milk.
posted by metaseeker at 7:45 PM on August 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

The book, Whole Foods for the Whole Family was among my favorites when my kids were little. It's easy to use, recipes tell you if they take a lot of time, and it's focused on nutrition for kids (and the family!). There is even a kids section in the middle, with easy recipes for children, to teach them how to make healthy snacks.

These are recipes tried by mothers in the real world. One of our family favorites was the Chicago style pizza dough recipe. It only takes about 20 minutes to rise and you can probably make the dough in the morning and prep your toppings, then take the dough out of the fridge, form it on an oven tray, throw on the sauce and toppings, and bake. One benefit of this was that we could divide the pizza up according to tastes. My son refused to eat anything with onion, for instance, so his 1/3 of the pizza was plain tomato sauce and cheese. I laid it out in a rectangle on a large cookie sheet to make it easier to divide. Currently, in lieu of the whole wheat flour that's available at the grocery store, I buy a locally grown stone ground whole wheat flour, and the difference is amazing (I keep it in the fridge). The pizza dough recipe calls for a mix of white and whole wheat (I think, that's what I did anyway, as the kids wouldn't eat whole wheat dough and I didn't care for a 100% whole wheat pizza crust).

They have the book used on Amazon for as little as 25 cents. It was developed by La Leche League International, and you might even find it in a used bookstore or at a Goodwill-type shop.

Pretty sure there aren't any recipes in this book that are too spicy for kids, but if your making a rice dish, for instance, you can throw on some spices on your portion (I like hot sauce on just about anything, myself).

I just made this Rosemary Onion Potato bread, which uses leftover mashed potatoes. I used less than one cup of sautéed onion (1 small yellow onion) and I made sure it was really soft, so it was pretty sweet and just lent a small back taste, not very strong, to the bread. I used only 1 TBS of fresh rosemary, not 2, and again, it wasn't too strong (you could use anything the kids will tolerate, a pinch of dried oregano, etc.). I baked mine in a Bundt pan, because I feel like that makes quick breads turn out more evenly, and cooled it on a rack for quite a while before slicing it with a bread knife (the shape also lends itself to big or small slices, perfect for slicing small portions for little kids). It was moist, but not too dense, and turned out really well. All of my taste testers approved. One thing I substituted was buttermilk for the 1/2 cup milk in the recipe. You can always put a dollop of plain yogurt in if you don't use buttermilk.

I like quick breads because you can add things into them, like oh, a little chickpea flour, which is high in protein, and you can swap out other things according to people's taste.

One more thing I make, that my husband loves, is a meatloaf using ground turkey instead of hamburger. I add about 1/2 small can of tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, 1 egg, some breadcrumbs, and sometimes a little chopped onion, or some dried thyme. Then I top it with the rest of the tomato paste, which doesn't have a lot of sugar (like ketchup), but roasting tomato paste gives it a wonderful flavor (you can mix in a little Worcestershire sauce with it to tone it down, according to your tastes, but we like it). I hate turkey burgers, but this meatloaf is really good, and it reheats wonderfully, as it stays moist. I bake it at about 350 F for oh, 45 minutes. But you can hide veggies like cooked carrot in meatloaf (if the kids will tolerate it), or just serve sides with it. Turkey is a lot cheaper than ground beef, which I am veering away from, not just due to health reasons, but it's too expensive for my food budget!

Another thing my kids loved when they were little was Mom's "special fish". I would buy white filets on sale... sprinkle them with a little lemon pepper, and pan sauté in butter or a mix of oil and butter. Takes about 5-10 minutes tops. My kids were the type that would read the ingredients on a jar of pasta sauce and proclaim loudly that "it has dehydrated onions, ewwwww! I'm not eating this!" etc., but they did like lemon pepper, used with a light touch.

Speaking of chickpea flour: you can make crepes with it! Savory ones, as I found it doesn't taste right with dessert toppings like strawberries. I make a whole batch at once, and lay each one between a piece of waxed paper. If the weather is cool, I leave them out, covering the top one with waxed paper also, and if it's warm, you can put them in the fridge until supper time and take them out to come to room temp about 30 minutes before. Crepe batter should sit for a while first, so you can make it at night in a blender, then when the kids are gone, add some melted butter at the last minute, make the crepes and stack them up (and they don't break apart, the tiny bit of sugar is necessary to get the nice little brown edge, ymmv). I like to use leftover chicken bits and make a gravy to go with, using celery and mushrooms, so it's almost like a chicken pot pie flavor, but you can use any leftover meats and/or veggies to go in or on top of the crepes. Since it's chickpea flour, it's got protein, and you can always use a mix of regular flour and chickpea flour (experiment!). Crepes are really easy to make in a good non-stick pan, the first 1 or 2 always come out a little funky or messed up (in my experience) and the rest turn out wonderfully, once I get my crepe-making hat on again.

Chickpea flour is more expensive than regular flour, but it can be used to make snacks like socca, and a whole slew of other things that I probably don't know about, because I didn't grow up with it as a household staple and only really got into using it a few years ago.

Another thing my husband likes is pan-fried tofu. I drain it and sandwich it between two thick layers of paper towel, then slice into big rectangles and pan fry. You can put any seasoning on that the kids like, low-sodium soy sauce, or use a dipping sauce, or add on top of stir-fried veggies with rice, etc.

I have a rice cooker, and use that a lot, and save the leftover rice for other dishes, can be added to soups, etc. It's a huge timesaver for me, and I will indulge in a good organic brown rice, like Lundberg short grain brown rice (which I've also used to make sushi with, I make veggie sushi at home, cream cheese and asparagus, or smoked salmon and cream cheese with green onion, etc., and that's very filling). It's really tasty compared to regular generic-style brown rice, no card-board-y taste, and things like that I'll pay more for, because it has more protein and fiber, and I can use less meat because of the nutrition value in the rice.

Lastly, to amp up your pasta dishes: add a drained can of white beans, or any beans your family likes, to your pasta, if they will tolerate it. I made a carbonara style dish the other night, adding white beans, and canned diced tomatoes (which I always have on hand), and cooked chopped bacon on top (you can use turkey bacon and/or nitrate-free bacon). I cook the bacon ahead of time, and it comes together fairly quickly, and the egg yolk adds more protein to the meal as well as the beans, and they are getting some veggies with the added tomato. You can add any veg the kids like, or leave them out and serve on the side, such as a salad or green beans, etc. I've found that the high protein Barilla pasta goes over well here, but often will use the 99 cent pasta, depending on my budget for the week.

Don't be afraid to make things that are "semi-homemade" ala Sandra Lee from the Food Network. I've used boxed mashed potatoes to go with my turkey meatloaf, along with a side veg, usually frozen spinach, because that's my husband's favorite side veggie. I always have frozen veggies in the freezer, if you don't have a lot of space, just get two bags of whatever is their favorite of the moment, spinach, green beans, and I will buy the stir fry peppers and onions (but we eat onions here, ha-ha, kids are grown and out of the house). I also buy the frozen sweet potato fries, those are pretty nutritious and your kids might like them as a side dish.

In general, I buy whatever meat is on sale that week, use it for one meal, and use the rest for a leftover meal, and try and stretch it as far as possible. Last week it was boneless chicken thighs, which I baked with some sort of sauce, and things like that can be made into chicken enchiladas (which sauce usually is pretty mild, and it has cheese, which my kids did love). Once I get into a regular rotation of meals, I can sub in one protein for another, and then I switch it up, depending on the season. I think I actually did put the chicken thighs in the crockpot, but those can be baked in a casserole dish with some liquid, covered, for about an hour in a medium oven, as thighs tolerate a little overcooking and they actually have more vitamins that breast meat (so I saw on TV).

Good luck, I've been cooking for over 40 years, since I was a little girl, and I'm still learning new things all the time. I know it's hard to cook for kids and adults at the same time, and on a budget, so more power to you!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:05 AM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

When I was in your situation, these were our staple dinners:

Minestrone - seasonal vegetable soup (though I often added diced fried bacon add the end, or used a chicken or bacon broth as the base). Finely dice whatever vegetables you can find that are in season and thus cheap. You need to start with a soffrito of onion, carrot and celery, but in summer you'll use fresh onions or spring onions and in winter maybe shallots or yellow onions. In summer you'll use stalks of celery, in winter the root.
I like squash and cauliflower in there during summer, and cabbage and parsnips during winter, but it's all to taste.
When the soffrito and whatever other hard vegs you want are softened a bit, add the softer vegs and a glass of wine. Wait 3-5 mins before adding either fresh or canned tomatoes and water or stock and whatever herbs you like, finely chopped. Cook for 30- 45 mins. 10 mins before serving add soup pasta and a tin of beans (you can prepare the beans your self as well, but this is the busy mother version) or chopped string beans or green beans. There are tons of variations of this and it was/is popular in my family because it was never the same but always comforting and filling. Homemade whole bread on the side. This might be a starting point

Another favorite was couscous with some stew, against based on whatever was cheap. The good thing about this is that the prepping is very easy: the vegetables must be chunky, and I bought meat in chunks and chicken legs rather than a whole chicken. Mergez sausages are optional - they are cheap where I live now.
This is for "Couscous Royale" for 4 with some leftovers: 1 large onion or 2 small, 2 large carrots, 2 or more cloves of garlic, a small squash, a rutabaga, a tin of tomatoes or 3 large ones if in season, all cut into large chunks. 4 chicken legs (or whatever is in the package), 1/2 pound of veal or beef, cut into chunks. (Merguez sausage to taste, harissa if you can get it). Put everything except the sausage in a large pot at the same time, with a cup of broth. Bring to a boil, then turn down and skim the pot. Add salt, pepper, thyme, oregano to taste. Simmer gently till the meat is almost falling off the chicken legs. Add the merguez if you like ten minutes before serving with a heaping pile of couscous (follow instructions on package for this). When serving, mix a bit of the liquid from the stew with a spoonful of harissa for a hot sauce for the adults).
When you get the principles of this, everything except the onions and carrots are interchangeable. You can make it vegetable only, with fish, with a quartered chicken and no other meats, etc. The good things about it is that it is not at all spicy for kids, the spicy sauce is on the side. I think my original recipe was from the Larousse Gastronomique, which is a very useful and inspiring book.
For everyday meals, it was just the couscous and stew on the table, at weekends, we would start of with some nice seasonal salads.

Finally, we very often had rice and curries. We'd fry a store-bought curry paste with some oil in a hot pan, add cubes of meat or chicken if there was meat or chicken, then the vegs cut into nice shapes (again whatever was in season), then after a few moments of stirring, a tin of coconut milk. Then just before serving, a handful of shrimp, if there were shrimp, and two handfuls of chopped cilantro (I love cilantro, if you don't, it's fine to skip this). This is very fast to cook. Start the rice before the pan. I learnt this from a roommate and can't provide links.

Now I enjoy making a greater variation of food, but these three budget staples are still beloved by my now adult kids, and small kids love repetition.

For all three staples, the main point was that they were extremely adaptable to whatever produce we could find at a bargain, and that the very adaptability made them new every time, because we never used the same combinations of produce.
We also had a lot of other food, like you, we had lots of pasta. Lots of soups - my kids loved soup, and still do. If your oven can get very hot, making pizza with the kids is great fun. Keep it simple, the pizza police are not coming to your house, and small children really love eating their own pizzas. My pizza stone broke ages ago, and sometimes I use my griddle instead, but last time I baked pizza, I preheated a shallow ceramic dish in the oven before baking, and it worked like magic.
And sometimes, we just had potatoes or rice, some sort of vegetable stew or stir-fry, and a salad. Actually, we are going back to that these days, it's healthy and light. Maybe with some type of tomato bread as a starter, wether the Spanish style, where you rub garlic and tomato on lightly toasted bread and drizzle with salt and oil at the table, or the Italian style where you make a little nice herby tomato sauce and serve on toast.
posted by mumimor at 4:03 AM on August 29, 2016

OK, a bit more about the pizza.
For my kids, pizza was the entry "drug" of food. They loved making it, they loved having friends over for making and eating pizza, and my eldest made them each Saturday to sell at the local market - she is such an entrepreneurial person. All of this pizza-making stuff opened their minds to making and eating food. We'd experiment with different sauces (olive oil, canned tomato, oregano, salt and pepper is the best, but maybe don't tell your kids already). We'd use the cookie cutters and make different shapes. We'd discover that too much sauce and/or cheese ruined the pizza.
They always made a mess, but I figured that was a small price for introducing children to the joy of cooking. And I became the favorite mum of our neighborhood, because all the kids loved this.
I just make a simple dough of water, yeast, flour and salt. It's a bit harder than a normal bread dough because the rolling with kids is not good with a sticky dough. We go to the playground while the dough leavens. I save half the dough for adult food. Then the kids do some of the rolling. I roll it thin and smooth. Then we make kid-sized pizzas, using cookie cutters and cups.
I have made the sauce meanwhile, but discussed the ingredients with the kids, and I've cut out toppings they like to kiddy size. Back when it was my own kids, I used bagged pizza cheese, now when I'm only caring for small kids sometimes, I chop up a mozzarella cheese. Everything in small bowls or teacups.
Now the kids dress the pizzas. It's good to advise them a bit, but also to let them make mistakes. Meantime the oven should be really hot. Fast baking is essential to small-child engagement. If you don't have or want a stone, several other things in your kitchen can have the same effect: a cast iron pan, a ceramic pan or dish, a griddle. It's not strictly necessary, but a hot flat surface improves your pizza style. The good thing about child size pizza is that you can use your normal spatula to put them into the oven and take them out.
This goes on for ages, think of it as educational play. If you made sure they really worked themselves at the leavening/playground time, they will be finished when the pizza is eaten. Bedtimes.
Don't shut off the oven.
When the children are bathed, teeth brushed and soundly sleeping, you still have pizza dough. Now it is properly leavened and whatever container/surface you have in the oven is really hot. You can have any pizza you like: potato/anchovy/rosemary/ricotta, tomato/mozzarella/pepperoni, tomato/mozzarella/parma/rugola, well, I have conservative tastes, but you get the point. If you don't have the pizza stone and pizza ladle thing, make them small enough to use the tools you have.
posted by mumimor at 5:14 AM on August 29, 2016

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