Yummy Burgers in a Hurry

One of my favorite things about being a food blogger is that occasionally I get asked to test a new product, service, or cook book for free. 
That was the case when I was recently given the opportunity to test a new product from the folks at Ball Park. Being a big fan of their delicious hot dogs, it didn't take me long to agree.

The new product I was asked to test is Ball Park's new fully-cooked, flame-grilled burgers. I was given a choice of several flavors, and since I'm a big fan of pretty much anything that includes cheese, my decision wasn't hard- I went for the Beef & Cheese Patty of course. The box from Ball Park arrived a few days after I made my choice, and conveniently, it was Super Bowl weekend. So, since Ball Park is an all-American company, my son and I decided to make these burgers for the granddaddy of all-American sporting events- the Super Bowl.

I have to be honest here and say that I went into this with a healthy dose of skepticism. Generally I'm not a huge fan of pre-cooked patties, even if they do include cheese. This is because in my experience they tend to be dry and tasteless...and I hate the "painted on" grill marks you find on some brands. However, this wasn't the case with the Ball Park patties. They were fast and easy to make and more importantly, they tasted great too. In fact, the only "flaw" I could find was that I wish they had been a more just-grilled burger color....they don't really look like they just came off the grill. But thankfully they don't have the fake grill marks you see often on pre-cooked patties.

 But color issues aside, these burgers were really good. I can see them being a "go-to" freezer staple at my house for quick, last-minute meals or as a fast and yummy snack. I also think they'd be great for a quick and delicious weeknight meal: you could do a "burger bar" for supper; just put out all kinds of toppings and condiments with some fresh bakery buns, and let your family make their own customized burgers in record time.

Give them a try at your house and see what I mean- these really are yummy burgers in a hurry!

Make Your Own Freezer Meal Kits

Italian Chicken and Pasta

Have you ever purchased one of those frozen meal kits from the store? They sure are fast and easy…just toss the contents in a large skillet with some water, bring to a boil and then simmer, and dinner is done in about 20 minutes. Couldn’t be easier right? But there are also drawbacks to these convenient kits. They’re fairly expensive when you consider how much you’re getting, they’re typically high in sodium, and the ones that include meat are so skimpy with it, you wonder why they even bothered. In addition, most of these kits claim to feed four people, but the portions would have to be mighty small at best, so unless you buy two kits, chances are good that someone is going to be hungry later.
Given the drawbacks of store-bought meal kits, it’s understandable why you might be tempted to avoid them altogether. But why miss out on the ease and convenience? Instead of buying your meal kits already assembled by a machine in a factory, why not make your own meal kits at home instead? It’s easy, and you’ll have the added comfort of knowing that you're in control over the ingredients.
To help you get started developing your own meal kit ideas, here’s an easy meal kit recipe that I came up with recently. This Italian Chicken and Pasta Dinner Kit is super-easy and my family loved it. By prepping your noodles and chicken ahead, and by making use of frozen veggies from the store, this yummy kit is a cinch to make.
For a printable PDF version of this post and accompanying recipes, please click on the post title to open in a new window and look for the "Print-Friendly" button at the bottom of the recipe.

Italian Chicken and Pasta Dinner Kit

2 (6 oz.) cans tomato paste
2 tsp. dried Italian seasoning 
1 lb. Penne pasta
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 (16 oz.) bag frozen broccoli
1 (14 oz.) bag bell pepper and onion blend (such as Fajita blend)
1 frozen crushed garlic cube
1 frozen chopped Basil cube
In a small bowl, combine tomato paste and Italian seasoning. Spoon tomato paste mixture into ice-cube tray sections; place in freezer and freeze until firm. Prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain and let cool. Meanwhile, brown chicken in a large skillet; reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through. Remove from skillet and let cool on a paper towel-lined plate. In a large bowl, combine frozen broccoli and onion/pepper blend. Divide vegetable mixture between two gallon-size freezer bags. Add 1 frozen crushed garlic cube, 1 frozen chopped Basil cube, and half the frozen tomato paste cubes (about three) to each bag. Divide cooled pasta between two gallon-size freezer bags, making sure to remove as much air as possible and seal. Divide cooled cooked chicken between two quart-size freezer bags, making sure to remove as much air as possible and seal. Add one bag of cooked chicken and one bag of cooked noodles to the bag with the frozen vegetables (you may have to fold the tops of the bags down a bit to make everything fit). Makes 2 kits @ about $5.19 per kit. Each kit makes 4 generous portions @ about $1.30 per serving. Cook’s note: Frozen crushed garlic cubes and frozen chopped Basil cubes can be found in your grocer’s frozen vegetable section.

To prepare Italian Chicken and Pasta Dinner Kit:

Remove noodle bag and chicken bag from the vegetable bag. In a large skillet, combine contents of vegetable bag with 1 ½ cups of water over medium heat. When mixture begins to boil, reduce heat and add noodles and chicken. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until mixture is heated through, about 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4 @ about $1.30 per serving. Cook’s note: you may need to add a bit more water if it boils off too quickly. Mixture should be well-sauced but not “soupy” or too dry. For added richness, substitute chicken stock for the water.

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Save money and time with these double-duty recipes

When the mornings start to get cooler and autumn is right around the corner, don’t you find your thoughts turning towards comfort food? You know… dishes like soups, chili, meatloaf and pot roast? Here at $2 Dinners we love a good pot roast, but let’s face it, roast beef is delicious, but it’s not exactly the most budget-friendly meal in the recipe box is it? Even though it may not be an affordable option for just one meal, if you split one roast between two recipes, it suddenly becomes a frugal cook’s new secret weapon.

Using one roast for two meals doesn’t have to be boring either. We love leftover roast beef sandwiches as much as anyone, but we also know that there is so much more you can do with your leftover beef. Our Italian-style pulled beef sandwiches and Vegetable Beef Soup with a Kick are perfectly delicious examples of what you can create from just one roast and they couldn’t be easier. Make the sandwiches for lunch or dinner one day, use the leftover beef for a delicious soup later in the week, and you’ve got two great meals for one budget-friendly price.

For a printable PDF version of this post and accompanying recipes, please click on the post title to open in a new window and look for the "Print-Friendly" button at the bottom of the recipe.

Italian-Style Pulled Beef Sandwiches

4 ½ - 5 lb. beef roast
1 (14 oz.) can beef broth
¼ cup water
3 tbsp. salt-free Italian seasoning
1 tsp. salt
1 (16 oz.) jar Pepperoncini (whole or slices) with juice
Sub or hoagie rolls, if desired
Cheddar or Mozzarella cheese, if desired

Combine broth, water, Italian seasoning, salt, and juice from ½ jar Pepperoncini in a slow cooker. Add beef. Scatter ½ jar Pepperoncini over and around beef. Cook on low for 8-10 hours or until beef is tender. When beef is cooked, remove to a cutting board and let rest for 10- 15 minutes. Then, using two forks, gently pull and shred beef apart. To make sandwiches, toast rolls or buns, top with shredded beef, a drizzle of juice, peppers and cheese. Store beef and peppers, almost covered in juice, in a container in refrigerator. Serves 10 for approx $1.36 per serving.
Vegetable Beef Soup with a Kick

Leftover Italian-Style shredded beef (include juices and peppers)
1 (10 oz.) bag frozen mixed vegetables
2 (14.5 oz.) cans diced tomatoes with juice
1 (30 oz.) carton beef broth
2 cups water
¾ cup barley or small pasta

Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Simmer until vegetables are cooked through and flavors are combined. Serves 6-8 for approx. $1.00 per serving.

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Muffins Make Back-To-School Mornings Delicious

While some kids in our area have already started back-to-school, for most families the countdown to the end of summer vacation has just begun. And while kids may be sad about the end of summer, many parents view the approach of back-to-school time with equal amounts of anticipation and dread. Why? Because while it means settling back into a comfortable routine, it also means the return of the school day morning stress and all that goes with it. With the rush to gather scattered homework, lunches, book bags, etc., it can be a challenge to make sure your kids have some sort of (hopefully healthy) breakfast in their tummies before they go out the door.
So how can you make sure your kids get a healthy breakfast before school? Bake them some delicious and healthy muffins. They’re easy to make, yummy, portable, and endlessly adaptable to taste and nutrition preferences. Here are some tasty recipes to get you started.
For a printable PDF version of this post and accompanying recipes, please click on the post title to open in a new window.
Tropical Morning Muffins

2 ½ cups white whole wheat flour (or a mixture of whole wheat and all-purpose)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup honey (or maple syrup)
1/2 cup light brown sugar, loosely packed (or dark brown sugar)
1 cup mashed very ripe banana (about 2 large very ripe bananas)
1/4 cup nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt (or any yogurt)
1 large egg, beaten
3/4 cup milk (almond milk, soymilk, cow's milk, rice milk)
zest from 1 orange
1 ¼ cup diced pineapple (fresh or canned)
1 thinly sliced banana for topping
1/4 cup shredded coconut, optional

Preheat oven to 325F degrees. Spray 15 muffin tins with nonstick spray (do not use cupcake liners- muffins will stick to the liners). Set muffin tin aside. In a large bowl, gently toss the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon together until combined. Set aside. In a separate bowl, mix the honey and brown sugar together, using a fork to break up as many lumps as you can. Add the mashed banana, yogurt, and beaten egg. Slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Gently begin to fold it all together. It will be very thick. Add the milk slowly and continue to gently mix the ingredients together. The milk will thin everything out, but the batter will still remain thick. Fold in the orange zest and pineapple. Do not over-mix the batter, which will lend tough, dense-textured muffins. Divide the batter between 15 muffin tins. Fill all the way to the top. Top with 2-3 thin slices of the sliced banana and a sprinkle of coconut. Bake the first 12, then the last three in another batch. Fill the empty muffin tins halfway with water in the 2nd batch to ensure even baking. Bake for 17-18 minutes until very lightly browned on the edges. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. Allow the muffins to cool completely.

Cook’s note: Muffins taste even better the next day, like most banana bread recipes.  Muffins remain fresh and moist stored at room temperature for up to 5 days.  Muffins freeze well, up to 3 months. Makes 15 muffins @ about .67 cents per muffin.

Blueberry-Applesauce Muffins

1 1/3 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cups rolled oats
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1 heaping cup unsweetened natural applesauce
1 tsp. oil
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
1 ¼ cups blueberries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
For topping:
3 Tbsp. oats
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1 Tbsp. whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp. butter, melted
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 12-cup muffin tin with liners and coat the inside of them with cooking spray In a large bowl combine flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl combine applesauce, oil, brown sugar, egg, and almond milk. Add flour mixture and stir until just combined. Don't over-mix! The batter will be slightly lumpy, but that’s ok. Gently fold in the walnuts and blueberries. To make the topping: In a small bowl combine oats, walnuts, flour, butter, and cinnamon. Sprinkle 1 heaping teaspoon over each muffin. Bake muffins for 15-19 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean or with a few crumbs attached. Makes 12 muffins @ about $1.20 per muffin.

Chocolate Chip Muffins

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup ricotta cheese
2  large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/3 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup canola oil

Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 1/4-cup muffin tin lightly with cooking spray (do not use paper cupcake liners). Mix the flour and next 5 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. Place the cheese in a medium bowl. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Whisk in the milk and vanilla until blended. Fold the cheese mixture and oil into the flour mixture until just blended. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, and bake 25 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the muffins from the pans immediately, and cool on a wire rack. Makes 18 muffins @ about .44 cents per muffin.

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When is a Writer Really a Writer?

I read this post the other day by Crescent Dragonwagon (yes...that's her name, trust me...just Google it) and just had to share it with all of you who may be struggling at "being" a writer. Let me state for the record, I do not know Crescent, have never had the pleasure of actually meeting her, although I wish that were not the case. However, I do admire her a great deal, own some of her cookbooks and have exchanged comments with her on Twitter and Facebook on occasion (does that count?)

Why is she important to me? Well, in spite of the fact that we have never met, I consider her a mentor of sorts. A few years ago, when I began writing seriously, I was struggling...doubting myself and wondering if I would ever really "be" a writer. I reached out to Crescent on Twitter...and she responded. The thing about this that's so incredible is that Crescent Dragonwagon is a well-known, very successful author (over 50 books) who took the time to actually answer me. Amazing! She gave me words of encouragement...and then she told me "always remember..every day that you write, you're a writer!" I held on to those words, kept writing, and am now under contract for my first cookbook (coming 3rd quarter 2012). I will always be grateful to Crescent for her generosity and for being so approachable and genuine....she helped me more than she can ever know.

So here's a link to her recent post...I hope you get as much out of it as I did. And remember, whether it's a blog, a book, web content, or something else...every day that you write, you're a writer.


My Adventures in "Extreme" Couponing

Maybe some of ya'll heard about this...recently there was a show on TLC about "extreme" couponers. According to an article I read the day after the show aired, these people take couponing to a whole other level. For example, the woman who dumpster dives for coupons, or the man who's turned his garage into a mini-warehouse to store all the stuff he buys with coupons (including approx. 150 years worth of stick deodorant). I didn't personally see this show, but my impression from the article I read was that the show painted these people as borderline hoarders who buy anything as long as they have a coupon for it. I use coupons when I can, so I have to admit the concept of "extreme" couponing intrigued me in a train-wreck sort of way, so I did some digging for articles about it on the Internet. To my surprise, there was quite a lot of info. There are lots of blogs and websites dedicated to couponing, extreme and otherwise, with all kinds of systems and theories that seem (to me) very elaborate, complicated and time-consuming. Worse than that, many of them seem to be more about what you save than what you buy. I was more mystified than ever.

Most of what I found was overwhelming and a bit frustrating, because it didn't seem to apply to me and my lifestyle. My time is valuable (so is yours!) and I'm just too busy for some of the stuff I read about! A lot of these women are stay-at-home moms so I'm not sure how they have time for elaborate systems either! Obviously they must be more organized and better time managers than me. Then, just when I was getting ready to give up on finding anything useful, I came across a website that made me stop in my cyber tracks. It's called Southern Savers and it's written by a lady named Jenny who really knows her stuff. She explains in an easy-to-understand way how to effectively use coupons, and she doesn't advocate complicated systems or elaborate methods. On top of that, she has links to most of the major coupon sites like RedPlum and Coupons.com, as well as current weekly sales circulars for most major grocery chains. The best part of all, though, was that Jenny isn't trying to sell me anything...she's simply trying to share what she knows with the rest of us. Amazing! At last....here was what I was looking for...a site full of common sense and practical advice! I looked at the weekly sales circulars for the stores close to my house, checked off items I was interested in and printed my shopping lists with the convenient tool built right into the list. So easy! Jenny even tells you which items have manufacturers coupons, so I was able to grab those from my coupon file and match them with my shopping lists. It only took me a few minutes and I was ready to shop.

I approached this trip to the store very differently than normal. Instead of just making a list and then shopping like usual, I focused on items we use regularly that were on sale and for which I had coupons. For the first time ever, I would build my weekly menu around what I bought instead of creating a menu and then making a list of what I needed. This fits in perfectly with the $2 Dinners savings pyramid idea of having core budget-friendly recipes that make use of what items you have on-hand. Getting those items at a discount just maximizes the savings! My extreme couponing shopping trip took me to three grocery stores and one drugstore, all within 3 miles of my house (I wouldn't have gone to so many stores if they weren't so close). A few things I bought were necessities that weren't on sale, and for which I didn't have coupons, but most of what I bought was stuff we use on a regular basis, that was on sale, and for which I had a manufacturer's coupon, a store coupon, or both. Some of what I bought is planned for meals this week (I'll be posting recipes), and some things, like the canned tomatoes (5 cans for $1!) were purchased to stock up because I use them often. Here are the stats on my extreme couponing shopping trip:
  • Time spent = 2 1/2 hours
  • Grocery  bags unloaded = 28
  • Total money spent = $97.83
  • Retail value of purchase = approx. $150.00
  • Money saved = approx. $52.17
Here are pictures of the loot from my trip, so you can see for yourself what I was able to buy for less than $100.

I think once I get used to this new way of shopping, I can cut down the time it takes considerably. I have to admit it was fun...almost like a game to see how much I could save, and I was extremely pleased with the results. I learned that you don't have to go to extremes to save on your grocery bill, and you don't have to buy 150 years' worth of deodorant! So far this week we've had chicken and dumplings and pot roast, all made with items I purchased on sale.Thanks to Jenny at SouthernSavers.com for her great site, practical advice and awesome tools! If you're interested in learning more about couponing, I encourage you to check out southernsavers.com!

Wow your friends and family with this stress-free holiday dinner

For most of us, the holiday season means gathering in our homes with friends and family to enjoy company, conversation, and great food. If you’re planning a holiday gathering at your house, you may be looking forward to it with equal amounts of excitement and fear. I don’t blame you! It’s never a small feat to hold a gathering that involves food, and even small dinner parties can make your palms sweaty; the holidays only add an extra layer of stress! You’re not alone though, because even veteran hosts/hostesses can find it a balancing act to put together a great meal without spending all their time in the kitchen (and neglecting their guests).

The good news is that a holiday dinner party doesn’t have to be stressful, and you can pull it off easily and within budget. How? The secret is to plan ahead and to have an easy but delicious menu. The menu for our $2 Dinners “Stress-Free Holiday Dinner” is full of recipes that are delicious, super-easy and guaranteed to “wow” your guests! The best part is that each one has six ingredients or less (not counting salt and pepper)! For your upcoming holiday meal, try “Heavenly Christmas Ham”, “Scalloped Potatoes”, and “Bacon-y Green Beans”. With rolls and dessert purchased at your local bakery, you will have a delicious, stress-free holiday feast you can be proud of!

$2 Dinners Hints for a Stress-Free Holiday Meal:

- Read and re-read the recipes to make sure you understand the steps and to double-check that you have all the ingredients. Make a grocery list and do your shopping a day or two in advance.
- Set and decorate your table the morning of your party. Set out all your serving bowls and utensils as well. Guests who arrive early will most likely offer to help, so put a piece of paper with the name of the food it will contain beside (or inside) each serving dish. That way, your helpers will know where things go and you won’t be interrupted every 5 minutes to give them instructions.
- To avoid washing all those dishes, consider using paper plates. There are some really gorgeous patterns available and paper makes things so much easier. I love using my great-grandmother’s china, but since it has to be carefully hand-washed, I usually choose paper instead. While I still use my good flatware for the main meal, I do use plastic ware for appetizers and desserts (otherwise I would run out of forks!). I also purchase paper or plastic cups in a coordinating color or pattern for guests to use before and after the meal.

Click on the orange boxes for a printable version of the recipes

Heavenly Citrus Ham (makes 15 servings @ about $2.00 per serving)

Really Easy Scalloped Potatoes (makes 6-8 servings @ about .75 cents per serving)

Bacon-y Green Beans (makes 6 servings @ about .35 cents per serving)

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