Thursday, January 14, 2010

Frozen finds: Dishing up dinner from the deep freezer

Inspired by a blogger's challenge to eat a week just out of the pantry (with a little extra inspiration from a tire purchase, tuition and my unplanned dryer repair), I declared to my husband that my goal was to spend the next week cleaning out. The fridge. The pantry. The deep freezer. Particularly the freezer - that frozen tundra where food goes to die. (I think of those "mystery meat" meals my mother would make in the crock-pot as a kid...)

And no matter how crazy the menu, we were going to do it.

This is a true story...No sugar-coated posts about how wonderful it was to clean things out and how much money we'll save. It's all about, at the end of the day, getting those kids (and their dad) to eat a meal.

Day 1

I confess to cheating: I open it up to the kids' desires. Hot dogs and tater tots it is. (My husband really shouldn't be eating those anyway!) I munch on a rogue bag of microwave popcorn from the pantry. DH does his own thing.

Day 2

We plan to stick to a staple - baked chicken and rice. I'd gotten the chicken out of the freezer the day before. DH forgets to start it until about 10 minutes before we're home. We bake it; the kids dine on leftover soft taco fixings, homemade low mein and veggies. At least the random dishes are gone.

Day 3

The pressure's off - the entree is done! I whip up a batch of green beans sauteed with basil, oregano, onions, mushrooms garlic and water chestnuts no less - a loose takeoff from a recipe the Princess & The Frog cookbook my daughter received for Christmas. Her interest in playing tsou chef tonight lasts about 2 minutes, though she pops in periodically to mooch off a water chestnut while I'm cooking.

The kids go to bed, and I take stock of the freezer - it's a lot emptier than I thought. Lots of leftover berries and other fruits frozen when in season; not much for meats. Realize I actually have no more greeen beans in the house - surprising considering how much we froze from our garden this summer. Will have to get a little more creative as the week progresses.

Grab from the freezer a loaf of French bread (gotten from Sam's some time ago), some chopped apples (that never did make it for streudel) and cranberries (which sadly, were from last season)and use up my eggs prepping baked French toast.

DH casually goes into the freezer and pulls out a new bag of blueberries for a fruit smoothie the next morning. I stare at him. Did you check the garage, I ask? We bought a ton this summer when it was in season - and only have about three gallons of blueberries left. Hence the reason for our purge!

Day 4

A cold Saturday day is perfect for soup, I reason, and I'd finally gotten a recipe for carrot soup from the caterer from our commercial shoot. I'm anxious to try it and mention it to my husband. My husband gives me that look that he's about to throw up, then practically runs to the kitchen. The next thing I hear is, "Do you want macaroni and cheese too?"

After lunch, I start clipping coupons, and stumble across a recipe, which I don't normally read in the coupon section. I get excited as I realize I have every single ingredient...then find out we actually have no ground beef in the house. I truly think it's a first.

For dinner we'd planned on our one big splurge - our small roast that I'd picked up for our holiday celebration and then tossed in the freezer when we found out we were visiting the in-laws. Except it's still frozen on the bottom shelf of the fridge. The family has chicken fried rice instead.

Day 5

Sunday tends to be a free-for-all for us. With church times and nap times, we're often cramming a lunch whenever and however we can. Still bent on my soup kick, I heat up a bowl of leftover corn chowder that I'd frozen from last month. I offer it to my 2 year old, who flat refuses and asks for crackers. He is offered crackers and asks for chicken. (There are no chicken nuggets in the house.) He throws his sippy cup in protest. He is banished to nap time.

We hear from down the hall: "Daddy...hungry...chicken..."

Thankfully, he thinks the roast is chicken and eats three servings at dinner.

Day 6

Am driving to pick up the kids and have a panic moment: My planned dinner is still in the deep freezer. Whoops.

Determined not to have another meal from the big blue box, I spring the idea of pasta and ricotta on the kids when I arrive at daycare. They love it. We run to the store to grab some ricotta and walk out $20 poorer. (To my defense, soups were on sale for $.79, and they're a cooking staple in several of our family's dishes.)

Wind up cooking 1/2 package of pasta and tossing 1 cup of ricotta, 1 tablespoon butter, and some sauteed garlic (a large spoonful from the bulk jar) and 1/2 pound spinach in my pasta. More leftover spinach stays raw and is hidden by Mandarin oranges and some raisins, dressed with the leftover juice from the can. Little fingers keep picking off the spinach as I prepare the dish.

I offer the hungry natives the salad -- they're ready to meltdown over who ate the last of the dried okra -- while I finish prepping the pasta. My daughter eats the salad. My son makes it clear no spinach will cross his lips as he tosses the raw leaves aside. But then, he did ask for thirds on the pasta dish....

Day 7

The great thing about cooking at home is the ease of making extra. I whipped up the whole box of pasta and used half last night. Coupled with the leftovers still in the fridge, some fruit and the green pepper I picked up last night at the store, we're good to go for dinner. Not high cuisine, but happy kids.

Day 8

Today, I'm blessed to have an unexpected day off and am home with the kids. We make use of more leftovers - polishing off the rest of the spinach, pasta and ricotta for another batch of the dish for lunch. Of course, what was eagerly gobbled two days ago earns me the look of "Whatever!" today. At least I have tomorrow's lunch packed.

The end results

Total cost for the week: $30-$40, including the groceries (chicken nuggets) that mysteriously showed up in my home while I was at work.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. While my deep freezer has probably more ice and leftover Christmas cookies than anything at this point, it's good to rotate stock to prevent freezer burn. And while I didn't use as many canned goods as I thought I would, that's a task for another week.

Moving forward: I'm trying to be smarter about what I shop for and do a better job of menu planning and writing my grocery lists as opposed to my "grab on the way home" mentality of cooking. Too often, I remember that I need to pick up a few ingredients for a dish, and that wastes money, time and many times food, as I tend to overbuy in those instances.

As I'm watching the news, I'm acutely aware of the devastation in Haiti. The latest is that water and electrical systems are failing, adding to the crisis. While we're not rich people by any means, my plan is to do this again this week and send our grocery savings to Catholic Relief Services for the Haitian relief efforts.

How are you doing on your pantry challenges?

1 comment:

Corie said...

Way to be creative and use up the ol' freezer supplies! It truly does make a difference when you take the time to figure out a way to make do with what you already have. We plan a menu and do a pretty good job grocery shopping based on it, but we usually end up with at least one what-can-I-find-that-would-be-considered-a-meal night each week, too. I like to look at it as a way to save a few bucks by not buying anything extra for that one meal. So far, so good.

The Haiti earthquake has made me stop to realize just how fortunate we ALL are to live in this country, have roofs over our heads, heating & air conditioning, indoor plumbing, clothing, bed clothes and food each day. I heard a statistic that the average daily income in Haiti is $2/day. Makes me rethink my complaints about my own income. And 80% of the country was unemployed before the quake. Yet there isn't widespread looting or crime in the midst of the devastation. What an amazing group of people.