Cooking For 8: Frugal School Lunches

Frugal Lunchbox

I’m writing this on the first day of school here. At home, on my lunch break, in the quiet. (What? Not every working mom goes home to experience just a bit of that quiet house feeling? Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, I also spilled coffee on my white blouse, not once, but twice.)

I was planning on my next post in this series to be on making our own mixes, and I still plan on that, but I think school lunches are more timely.

My high school and middle school boys insist on school hot lunches. They will complain about them endlessly, but it is also so not cool to pack your own lunch. . .so.

However, my girls in kindergarten are blessed with an excellent school cook. But, in their minds, it is much cooler to pack a lunchbox. The payoff is that packing a lunch is cheaper. . .much cheaper.

The problem with packing lunch is that is just takes so much more time.  Four years ago, I wrote about how I streamlined lunchtime preparation. I am going to revisit those tips.

Over the years I have picked up even more helpful and frugal ideas:

  • My kids love those little snack size containers of Jello and pudding. I’m not crazy about the price, or the waste, or what exactly they have to do to make jello or pudding shelf stable. So I purchased some of these reusable containers and I make jello or pudding once or twice a week. It is much cheaper and I can do things like add fruit to the jello. Yeah, not exactly health food, but at 3 ounces at a time, I’m not worried .
  • My kids always think they want those Lunchable meals. But then they get them and realize that they do not like processed cheese. So, instead of sandwiches, I will often slice up some real cheese and set it in a container with some deli meat and then tuck in a bag of crackers. A LOT cheaper, and you can control the serving sizes.
  • It is easy to toss fruits and vegetables into a lunch box if they are prepped ahead of time. I try and set aside some time on Sunday afternoon to peel and slice a pound or two of carrots, a bunch of celery and a head of cauliflower. Then package these into zip top bags and they are ready to grab and go.
  • I also take time to portion grapes, clean and slice strawberries and slice apples (dipping them in lemon juice keeps them fresh. Also, tart apples like Granny Smith hold up well over time.
  • I’m going to try making these Homemade “Uncrustables” this weekend. The girls are in a peanut free school (which makes planning a little tougher), but I sprung for a jar of Sunbutter, which I hope passes muster with my PBJ loving girls!
  • I like to keep hard boiled eggs on hand (mostly because they are a favorite to-go breakfast for me.)
  • Most store bought granola bars are out (See Peanut free School above), but I am going to try my hand at these nut-free “Lara Bars”.
  • I will sometimes buy prepackaged string cheese to toss in lunches, but mostly I buy big chunks of cheese and cut it up myself.

It is fun to get your kids involved in the process, get ideas from them about what foods they would like to see in their lunches and see how you can adapt. One of the twins would eat chilli every day if she could. I may just make a big pot at the beginning of the week and pack her a themos-ful every day!


Chime in! I’d love to hear your fast and frugal lunchbox ideas!


Cooking for 8: Clean Out the Fridge Soup Recipe

Welcome back to our new Wednesday feature: Cooking for Eight. If you want to see what this series is about, check out this post right here.

Soup photo

Last week I visited with you all briefly about snacks in my budget kitchen. Today I am going to talk about a dinner that you can make if you forgot to plan dinner (we have all been there, right?)

On of the toughest parts about me going back to work was adapting to a new routine for getting dinner cooked. I am a huge proponent of the family dinner. I realize that we may not all be able to gather for dinner, but I try to make sure that there is a healthy, hearty meal on the table every night for those who are home.

I generally enjoy menu planning and I have tweaked the system to work for our family. But, sometimes, our meal planning falls off the rails. For example, this past weekend I was out of town with a friend. I generally meal plan and shop on Saturday or Sunday, so I skipped it. I ran to the store to pick up milk and a few staples on Sunday night, but I decided we would  eat out of our pantry and freezer for a week (this is a good practice–periodically).

Last night I arrived home from work to some hungry kids. With the dreaded question: “What is for dinner?”. My answer was,  “soup”!

This particular recipe has really evolved over the years. I love that I almost always have the basic ingredients on hand, and it is nice that it comes together in less than 30 minutes. Most everyone in the family loves it, except an unnamed child who hates everything.

This recipe is also a Two-For-One recipe, as the cheese sauce is the same exact cheese sauce that I use for my homemade mac and cheese. So, if you don’t happen to have a lot of stuff to clean out of your fridge, you can come up with some hearty mac and cheese in a snap!

Cheese sauce

I can’t think of anything this would not taste good on, can you?

You also may want to come up with a new name for the soup–kids generally balk at something called “Clean Out the Fridge”–this is kind of my secret, working title. My version last night was named Bacon Cheeseburger Soup, because who can resist?

Clean Out the Fridge Soup:

  1. Chop up an onion–or half an onion–or some green onions, whatever you have that is onion-like sitting around.
  2. Chop up some celery. You know you have some limp celery ribs sitting in the fridge and the kids won’t eat it because it is not super crisp–chop it up, it works in soup! *
  3. Chop up some carrots. Are there any other leftover veggies hiding out in your fridge? Pull them out and chop them up!
  4. Toss all of the chopped veggies in a heavy bottomed soup pot with a pat of butter or splash of oil. Cook them up a bit until the onions are translucent.
  5. Choose a meat. This week I had a pound of ground beef that I found in the freezer, so I browned it up with the vegetables. Leftover pot roast is great, deli ham works great. Shredded chicken. Use whatever you have on hand. Add it to the vegetables.
  6. Now, peek in your pantry. My guess is you have a few kind of sad looking potatoes in there. I dice up about a pound, skin and all and toss them into the pot. No potatoes? Do you have some leftover rice or noodles? They will work!
  7. Now, add just enough water to cover the meat and vegetables. . .usually about two or three cups. Toss in some seasonings (I have a homemade ranch mix that I like to toss in–more on that next week). Bring the whole thing up to a rolling boil.
  8. Now, take out a 3 quart saucepan and toss 1/4 cup of butter in the bottom. If you use margarine I won’t tell, but butter tastes better! When that is all melty, toss in 1/4 cup flour and whisk it around. I then add 2 cups of milk to the flour and butter. . .slowly, with a whisk. I clean out my fridge with this too. I always seem to have a carton of heavy cream with two tablespoons left in, and the last bit if half and half from my coffee stash. And yes, that milk jug with a half cup of milk left that no one wants to seem to drink. Toss it in! Bring the mixture to a slow boil and when it thickens, remove it from the heat.
  9. Now, dig in your fridge for cheese. If you are like me, you have several bags of shredded cheese with just a little bit left, and random little hunks of cheese. I come up with about two cups, sometimes more. Add it to your cream sauce and whisk it until it is smooth. At this point I also hunt for tail ends of cream cheese. (why does NO one want to finish anything in my house???).
  10. Next, check the state of the vegetables in your soup pot. If they are nice and tender, you can go ahead and slowly stir the cheese sauce into the soup. (At this point do not let the mixture come to a boil or the cheese sauce may curdle).
  11. I also always have a few slices of bacon around, now that my friend Vanessa taught me how to stretch a pack of bacon! I chopped up a few slices and browned them up as the cheese sauce was coming together. These made great toppers for the soup.

This soup is absolutely hearty and delicious, and is honestly never the same soup twice. However, if you are like me, you are so proud of pulling off and unplanned meal without an emergency trip to the grocery store (we know how expensive those last-minute trips can be!)

Chime in! Do you have a great last minute meal idea? Share it in the comments!


*Note: if you want celery to stay crisp in the fridge for WEEKS, take it out of the plastic bag it came in when you get home from the store and wrap it in aluminum foil. I’m not sure why it works, but it does!


It has been a good summer. yes, we have 20 or so days left, but this is the point where I begin to reflect.

We began the summer with a family wedding in Florida. It was lovely and I had so much fun catching up with Matt’s siblings and significant others. The kids had a blast and were able to see many new things. I don’t have a whole lot of vacation time built up and summer is a super busy time for me at work, so I flew back home after the wedding and worked, while Matt and the kids had an #epicroadtrip. I was sorry to have missed seeing the family and friends he caught up with but I was not sorry to miss out on all of the time in the car!

Matt and the boys spent a week at scout camp, leaving the girls and I with a fun little staycation. We rode rides at our little amusement park in town, we ate treats, we had cereal for dinner, and we enjoyed all kinds of goodies at the Bismarket.

I don’t regret not getting away from North Dakota more this summer. North Dakota summers are GORGEOUS! I daresay they are #Legendary!Warm days, cool evenings and late, late, sunsets make for enjoyable evenings after work. There is always something to do.

However, armchair traveler that I am, I have enjoyed watching other people’s vacations and I have decided to put a few on my bucket list!
Shockingly, our family has yet to visit South Dakota! I have had it on my short list for a while, but when I saw some friends had visited The Flintstones Bedrock City in Custer, SD. . .my decision has been cemented! What fun Americana!  We want to visit Mt. Rushmore, of course, but there is so much more to do! We will have to plan a long weekend next summer to take it all in!

Flintstone Park

A friend enjoyed a Scandinavian cruise much like this one a few years ago. I think this would perfectly combine my love of the show, Love Boat, and my love for our family’s Danish heritage!


Photo credit: Gary Light CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

But for now, I’m pretty happy to be right here in my beloved North Dakota.

note: I was sent this super cute Succulent planter from Pro-Flowers as an inspiration for this post.

Cooking for 8: Kid Snacks on a Budget

Cooking for 8.snacks

A facebook conversation today has inspired a new (hopefully weekly!) series on how I feed my larger than average, and hungry, family–without breaking the bank.

I have a few guidelines for the recipes and tips I will share over the next few weeks:

  1. I have a very basic kitchen. I have an old school electric range, and an oven that I have to remember to add 40 degrees to the temperature in the recipe. . .it is old, but it works–sort of.
  2. We have been blessed with no food sensitivities.
  3. I have some nice kitchen tools, such as a Kitchen aid Mixer and a nice food processor thanks to generous sponsors and my years as a blogger. For the purposes of this series, I will not be using them.
  4. I adore pretty produce from the farmer’s market and I like choosing choice cuts of meat from a good meat market. However, for the purposes of this series, my shopping is at Walmart. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that Walmart is fairly universally available. Also, let’s be honest, it is, hands down, the cheapest place to pick up groceries without having to clip coupons and hunt down sales. (and really, coupons on things like apples and bananas are like unicorns).
  5. My family enjoys protein-heavy meals. We could likely slash our food budget with one or two meatless meals, but I would have an unhappy and hungry crew. I will teach you how I feed my family a protein rich, satisfying, diet.

So, to start out with my first post, I’m going to share how we handle snacking in our family of eight.

Let’s face it. Kids are hungry creatures. They could eat all. Day. Long. if we let them. And, there are times when they do need a constant state of noshing–growth spurts being one of them. However, as every summertime parent can attest, sometimes kid just eat, and eat and eat–not necessarily out of hunger.

Dakotapam’s House Rules for Snacking:

  • I keep a produce drawer full of apples and oranges (also peaches and plums in season). These are “free” snacks for the kids. They don’t have to ask for them and can grab them and eat them. The sub-rule is a 15 minute wait in between a snack of fruit to allow their brains to catch up with their stomachs.
  • Often (especially in summer) thirst is masked as hunger. I encourage the kids to drink a lot of water during the day.
  • Boredom masks as hunger. And mindless snacking occurs when electronics are involved. So, with the exception of popcorn during a movie night, screens and snacks don’t mix.  Snacks, even a piece of fruit, is eaten at the kitchen table.
  • Kids love snacks like grapes, and berries, but too much can lead to <ahem> undesirable consequences. So I serve proper serving sizes of berries and grapes and teach the kids to savor and enjoy them.
  • On days when we are all home (like in summer) I schedule snacks: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I try to add a protein to the snack to give it some “staying power”. I prep a lot of these on the weekend and keep them in my other produce drawer in the fridge. Some ideas are: hard boiled eggs,  string cheese (sometimes I buy big blocks of cheese and cut my own), peanut butter with apples or celery, homemade granola with yogurt, carrots and ranch dressing, ham rolled with cream cheese. Keep in mind that these snacks should be mindful, and, really, a mini-meal, to keep energy levels steady and stave off being “hangry”.

Remember that setting guidelines for snacking is not cruel, and you are not “depriving” your children. In reality, you are teaching them a healthy relationship to food and healthy eating habits.  It is important to me that my children recognize their food cues and that they eat when they are hungry, and sometimes for fun and celebration, but not out of boredom and not to attempt to boost their mood.

Now, as for junk food. I have teenagers, and I am a realist, so I keep it around. Because, let’s be real here, potato chips taste really good. I’ve started buying chips in snack sized bags. This seems more expensive, but, in reality, I spend a lot less on chips. Because, once again, the portion control cuts down on mindless snacking. The boys are allowed to grab a single bag of chips for a snack. If they are still “hungry”, they are welcome to have an apple or an orange. Most of the time they find that that one little bag each fills their need. Before this I was having the three of them devour a family size bag of chips in an evening. Nobody needs that many chips–not even “growing teens”.

I hope you have found these tips helpful and I’d love to hear how you help your kids snack healthy and on a budget. Feel free to use the comment section to continue the conversation.

Super Tuna Sandwich Recipe

Brownberrry Bread Disclosure: The coupons for product redemption, information, and gift card have been provided by Brownberry® Bread so that I could try the product and share my thoughts and information about Brownberry®. The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect the opinions of Brownberry® Bread.

What would make Dakotapastor smile AND agree to appear on my blog? He came home from church yesterday and I had made him lunch. Not just any lunch, but a lunch of my super delicious tuna salad on some hearty Brownberry® bread. (Nutty Almond, to be precise). And yes, he IS using a fork to eat his sandwich; partly because he is weird that way, and partly because the sandwich was rather, um, full.

After a busy Sunday morning at church, Dakotapastor often arrives home famished. I’m about 50% for remembering this, but yesterday was a good day. I have tweaked my tuna salad recipe for years, but it is really finally to the point where I don’t have to think much about it. Even the kids love it, though they will comment that they found an onion or a celery piece (as if that is a bad thing!). While the kids prefer theirs on white bread (who can blame them?), they also will eat it on a whole grain bread–if that bread is really good. Nutty Almond passed that test!

A few facts about Brownberry® Bread:

  • All of Brownberry® Whole Grain Sliced Breads and Brownberry® Sandwich Thins® Rolls contain/are:

o   3 to 4 grams of fiber per slice or thin

o   Zero grams of Trans Fat

o   No High Fructose Corn Syrup

o   Cholesterol free

  • The newly launched Brownberry® Healthfull® bread varieties contain/are:

o   Made with 100% whole grains

o   Good source of fiber

o   80 calories per serving

o   No High Fructose Corn Syrup

o   Heart healthy

o   Zero grams of Trans Fat

Do you have a great sandwich recipe?

ABS Contest Logo

  • Brownberry® Bread is excited to launch the second annual “America’s Better Sandwich” Contest! The sandwich architect whose filling matches the goodness of Brownberry® Bread will win a grand prize of $25,000.
  • Before entering an original better sandwich, entrants should make sure their recipes include any of the Brownberry® Whole Grain Sliced Breads, including the new Healthfull® bread varieties, or any of the Brownberry® Sandwich Thins® Rolls varieties.
  • This year’s contest includes five (5) exciting sandwich categories including:
  • “Creative Classics” (nutritious spins on sandwich creations that have stood the test of time, such as grandma’s club sandwich, BLT or other old-time favorites)
  • “Fueling Good” (these sandwiches should incorporate ingredients that help boost your energy such as healthful fats, protein, fiber and iron)
  • “Open-Face Artistry” (sandwiches are works of art for the world to see, and these snacks and meals announce their ingredients—like sharp cheddar or tasty tuna— sans second slice, highlighting bold colors and textures)
  • “Breakfast in Bread” (these sandwiches, featuring nutritious breakfast favorites like eggs and yogurt, invoke images of cozy mornings in bed or boisterous brunches with friends)
  • “Love, Healthfully” (celebrate our new Healthfull® Breads with innovative recipes that play off nuanced, foodie-approved ingredients like honey, flax and sunflower seeds)
  • The recipe in each sandwich category with the highest score will receive a $5,000 category prize.
  • Entries will be accepted June 15th – August 23rd, online consumer voting will take place September 21st – October 18th, and the winners will be announced on National Sandwich Day- November 3rd.
  • Brownberry® bread will donate one loaf of bread (up to 100,000 loaves) to Feeding America for each valid entry submission during the entry period and vote received during the online voting phase of the 2015 “America’s Better Sandwich” Contest

Giveaway time!

The folks at Brownberry® are super generous and are giving one of my readers a gift pack that includes:

– $25 Visa gift card
– One  coupon, valid for $5.00 off the purchase of any Brownberry® Whole Grain Sliced Bread of choice
– One coupon, valid for $5.00 off the purchase of any Brownberry® Sandwich Thins® Rolls of choice
– One coupon, each valid for $5.00 off the purchase of any Brownberry® Healthfull® Bread of choice

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