Simple menu planning to make your life easier.

simple menu planning

My mom is a great cook. She cooks every day from scratch, just like her mother used to do. It’s a natural thing for her. I remember her often saying that she doesn’t mind cooking. It’s the dreaded “what to cook for dinner tonight?” question that drove her crazy. Having to face it every. single.day. is the killer of joy in the kitchen. If only someone came up with ideas for what she should cook! I don’t know why, but menu planning was not a thing in Russia back then (is it now?).

Well, it didn’t happen overnight for me, but I did figure out the way to keep that joy of cooking alive, and keep my family of six fed and happy. Throughout the years I tried different systems for a while, but they did not stick. At first I thought I am just not trying hard enough, until I realized: they fail because they do not fit my lifestyle.

If a menu planning system didn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean it is a bad system or you are a bad planner– it just means, it does not fit your particular lifestyle.

I thought I will share my experience in case you are struggling to find what works for you, like I did in the past.

 *What did not work for me and why:

1. Subscribing to a full weekly/monthly/yearly list of meals to be delivered to my inbox (like this service.  I still have their menus emailed to me in 2009!)

These plans don’t offer enough flexibility: the lists of meals are generic, and don’t consider my family’s preferences, allergies, etc. They also don’t take into account what particular items maybe on sale that week in my grocery store. Some plans have more flexibility then others, but it is still someone who doesn’t know me and my picky eaters family that creates my menu.

2. Assigning a specific theme to each day of the week, Monday- “Seafood”, Tuesday- “Soup and Salad”, Wednesday- “Mexican”, etc…you get the idea.

Just like in the situation above, this approach offers little flexibility. For whatever reason it is hard to stick to each “theme” day. There will be leftover seafood for Tuesday, or you are just not in the mood for Mexican on Wednesday, and the whole set up is shuffled just like that. I found that having one or two “theme” days is easier to implement (like Pizza night Friday, or Meatless Monday, etc.)

3. Using specially designed “Menu binders” or print outs, or writing my menu on a pretty chalk board, etc.

Pre-designed menu planning tools are too restrictive. There are always either too many or not enough lines for my weekly menu plan. Once I think I got every day covered and written down in my “Menu” print-out,  something comes up and I need to switch things around, and scratching out commences: neither pretty nor helpful.

Do you sense a theme here? Flexibility! I found that allowing for circumstances and being flexible was very important in making menu planning sustainable, something I could do long-term.  Because life! There will always be reasons to switch things around.

*Here is how I plan menus now:

1. Make a running list to cover 10-14 days: I keep adding to the list when I come across a recipe I want to try in the near future. This keeps me stocked up with meal ideas.

2. Use a plain compact spiral notebook. This way I can easily switch meals around if I need to, scratch out and add as I go. I am in control of the tool, not the other way around. For example, I have enchilada casserole planned for Monday, and shrimp with peppers in a creamy sauce for Tuesday. Comes Monday, and a kid gets sick and I need to make a trip to the doctor’s office, which takes all of the afternoon. No time to make the casserole, it will have to wait till the next day. I do have 20 minutes to quickly defrost the shrimp and throw some peppers in the skillet though. Quick switching around, no damage to the general plan.

2. Plan for leftovers: Brown more ground beef, saute an extra chicken breast, make more soup than enough for one meal. Then I either freeze the leftovers (“freezer stash”) or make them a part of another meal later in the week. Cook once, eat twice.

3. Look for ideas and recipes: online, magazines and cookbooks, Pinterest (here is my “Quick dinners from scratch” Pinterest board), poll my people– ask if they have any requests. I keep the most popular recipes in a folder in the kitchen cabinet, along with recipes to try (which then get moved into the “popular” category, or get tossed).

4. Think in terms of protein sources: chicken, beef, pork, seafood, legums, etc.  I don’t want three “chicken” days in a row for example, but plan a day per each source, spreading them evenly throughout the week. And that’s the base of the menu. Once I have chosen protein, I add sides, typically a veggie and a grain/pasta/potato. I start with the “protein” that I already have, and then see if I need to buy more.

5. Sales-based grocery shopping: I don’t clip coupons, they are a huge time suck and almost never cover what I need anyway. I try not to buy food at a full price either. I look for what’s on sale that week, there is always something on sale. Here is where built-in flexibility comes handy: I can make substitutions easily based on what’s on sale. If I have cabbage penciled in to go with pork but the store has a really good price on green beans– that’s what I grab, with no harm to my menu plan. And I am always on a look out for sales on things I can freeze. Here is an iPhone app that I use for grocery list:

paperless app

This is it in a nutshell. I am not a crafty kind, and I can’t spare a minute (nor do I have a lot of spare minutes) to do anything more elaborate than jot a list of meal ideas in my trusty notebook. I am sure this system will evolve when our lifestyle changes. But for now it fits us perfectly. Once you find a system that works for YOU, you will not go back, I promise.

What are your thoughts on menu planning? Are gadgets and visual organizers your thing, or maybe you have a unique menu planning system of your own? Please share in the comments!

 

 

 

Healthy snacks: Peanut butter oat bars with chocolate chips

Peanut Butter Oat Bars with chocolate chipsThis is another recipe from Ann who blogs at  On Sutton Place. I have shared her recipe for oatmeal cake before (and here is another great version of this cake). I like Ann’s simple homey recipes. They are delicious, easy to make, and flexible.

I talked before about our transition to healthier snacks and more wholesome food in general. We have been making a switch from processed food whenever possible. A couple of years ago, I started paying really close attention to labels and nutritional information and reading between the lines, really educating myself any way I could. I believe that not all of the ingredients in pre-packaged food are harmful or bad for us. But a lot of them are not good either, and I just don’t want to consume them when there is a healthier alternative. A lot of things we used to buy are sooo easy to make at home that there is absolutely no reason to buy them. Every time I rediscover certain ingredient/food that can be made from scratch without much time investment on my part, not to mention the money, I almost want to cry.

I realize that when you bake from scratch, like these peanut butter oat bars, you do have to use fat (butter or oil), and sweetener (sugar, honey, etc.). The end product, calorie wise, may not always be “diet food”. To me the important thing is that it contains all wholesome ingredients in healthy quantities and are, therefore, satisfying and energy-rich. When I have a choice, I would rather eat a small square of a home-made snack bar than a store-bought granola bar that tastes like cardboard.

A great way to control calories in my home-made snacks (I don’t want a cupcake for snack, even a home-made one) is to reduce the amount of fat and sugar, sometimes by replacing them with apple sauce, other times just cutting them down. It almost always works. This is what I did with this recipe. I did add some dark chocolate chips. They begged me. But dark chocolate has numerous health benefits, so I felt no guilt at all. 

These bars come together in a flash: just mix everything thoroughly, spread in the pan and bake for around 20 minutes.peanut butter and oats bars

Let cool in the pan, slice into squares and enjoy. They have a dense texture, almost like a granola bar, and they are filling so one square will make you happy. I haven’t tried freezing them, but I don’t see why it couldn’t work. This would make them convenient to grab for breakfast or snack on the go.

peanut butter and oats bars

peanut butter oats bars

 Ingredients:

  • 1/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1/4 c. white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 c. peanut butter
  • 1 c. oatmeal
  • 1 c. flour
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 1/4 c. butter (I want try canola oil next time)
  • 1/2 c. dark chocolate chips

 

1. Line a 8×8 pan with parchment paper or grease it very well. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Mix butter, peanut butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla thoroughly. A mixer works great here, but you can do it by hand.

3. Combine flour, oats, salt, baking soda and add to the butter mixture. Mix to incorporate, and stir in the chocolate chips.

4. Spread the dough in the form (the dough will be sticky).

5. Bake for about 20 minutes (ovens vary, start checking at 18 minutes). Once cooled down, remove from the pan and cut into squares.

What are your go-to snacks that are easy and healthy?

 

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How to cook {healthy meals} fast: efficiency in the kitchen.

how to be an efficient cook

So much to do, so little time. Whether you work outside your home or otherwise, after a busy day having dinner on the table fast is always a pain in the neck an issue.

You see a recipe for a 20-minute meal, and attempt it yourself only to find out it took you twice as long. Or when someone– a food blogger?– tells you a recipe is “so quick and easy” and you end up with a mess on your hands that takes forever to clean. You throw in a towel (or an oven mitt) thinking, there is no way a delicious AND healthy meal can be on the table in shorter time then it takes for a take-out pizza. Sounds familiar?

Do not order that pizza yet. I wanted to encourage you not to disregard the concept of quick dinners from scratch. Food bloggers and food magazines are not making it up. I have been cooking for my family almost on a daily basis for years, using fresh ingredients. Along the way I have figured out a few things that make cooking easy, fast, and enjoyable both for the cook and for the recipients.

Here is what helps to be an efficient cook

Place your most often used cooking tools and pantry items at your fingertips: most of the time we don’t get to choose a layout of the kitchen. As much as I love the general layout of my house, the kitchen is far from being my dream kitchen. For one, it has little natural light (which makes it almost impossible to photograph).

photo4 (2)A view from my kitchen window:a lovely fence and a light-blocking neighbor’s house

 Also, the cabinets, though nice quality, are too high for me to reach comfortably.

Well, you can’t have it all perfect, can you? What you can do however is strategically arrange frequently used tools and ingredients. I guarantee you will NOT feel like cooking much if you have to trek your kitchen to assemble everything you need for a recipe.

For example, since I bake almost daily (bread, muffins, granola) I set up the baking station close to the oven. I do not bake elaborate desserts daily however, so the rest of my baking ingredients (cocoa powder, cake flour, cookie cutters, sprinkles, etc.) are in the pantry, on the opposite end of the kitchen.

Here is what else I keep within easy reach: most often used spices (upper cabinet), utensils, oil, salt&pepper (on a tray next to the stove), stand mixer (too heavy to lug around), large canisters with white sugar and all-purpose flour (use those all the time), and my heavy marble rolling pin (I make a lot of pie crust). Obviously, your set up will reflect your needs and cooking preferences.

kitchen organization

spice cabineta closer look at the spice cabinet (the darkest corner of the kitchen!)

Organize your pantry: pantry organization deserves a separate post (coming soon) but the main things to focus on are making the ingredients easily accessible and visible (you want to quickly grab that bag of pasta and that can of tomatoes, not dig around and shuffle the half-open bags and boxes. Stock up on items you frequently use and avoid over-stuffing your pantry.

school snacks basket in the pantry

pantry2 I had help with pantry organization, why leave empty space?

Rely on pre-made (preferably) home-made staples:  I call it “freezer stash”. Whenever you have some leftovers that you are not planning to use in the near future, freeze them. A lonely chicken breast, leftover gravy from pot roast, a handful of rice? Zip-lock bag them, label the bag, and put it in the freezer. I use a plastic shoe box for this purpose. Fried rice, burrito, quesadillas, soup, protein for a salad, etc. for your busy night ready in no time!

Keep stock of fresh basic ingredients that can be used in a variety of quick recipes: The list will depend on the type of food your family prefers. I always try to have on hand fresh parsley and cilantro, Dijon mustard, cream, Parmesan cheese and some chicken and beef broth. I can put together a scrumptious sauce to go with some simple chicken breasts/ seafood, steam some veggies– a speedy healthy dinner is done!

Storing herbs in the refrigeratorkeep fresh herbs on hand

shrimp with peppers and capers in cream sauceshrimp and chicken with peppers and capers in cream sauce

Minimize the mess: Clean up as you go, use fewer tools. Honestly, if I could stir soup with my hand, I would. I hate dirtying up dishes while I cook. “Impeccably clean” (Julia Child’s quote) hands are cook’s best tool. I don’t know if she hated dirtying dishes, but I know she was a fan of cleaning as you go. I couldn’t agree more. It’s not fast cooking if you have to spend additional half an hour cleaning up.

Plan your menus: Please do yourself a huge favor and do some form of menu planning. It does not have to be elaborate. There are lots of ideas online on how to menu plan, I will share mine soon. No matter which method you use, you will not only have a list of meals to rely on, but will also make sure you have all the ingredients on hand (hopefully) when you need to throw together some quick dinner.

oven roasted salmon with sweet potatodilled salmon with oven roasted sweet potatoes

Use a scraps bowl on the counter: Minimize trips to the trash can and back by using a scraps bowl. No need to pay twenty bucks for one, any old bowl will do.

(really, Rachael Ray?)

 

 

Here are additional helpful ideas from around the internet:

Menu Planning from Morganize With Me

Easy family dinner recipes in this book

Good tips on general kitchen organization from Olga’s Flavor Factory (great recipes on that blog too)

 

It really isn’t complicated, but takes some forethought and planning, as well as a little creativity and thinking outside the box.

Do you have some tricks you use to save time in the kitchen (apart from ordering a take-out, of course?)

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Rye bread (bread machine recipe).

Rye Bread from a bread machine

This post has been a long time coming. I have been baking this bread (an other kinds of bread, as well as making pizza dough) for over a year now. It always disappears before having a chance to go stale.

Bread in general is not a staple in our house, but when we do eat it, we prefer a good quality loaf– not the squishy never-molding kind from the grocery store.

In fact, bread, and food in general, was one of the biggest adjustments when I moved to the US 11 years ago. Growing up we used to buy bakery bread (and I mean real bakery, not a supermarket “bakery”) almost daily. Since I was 6 or 7 it was my job to walk to the “bread store”  which was 10 minutes away to get a loaf of “grey” (similar to my rye) and half a loaf of “dark” (pumpernickel), my mom’s favorite.

I don’t have a bread store within a 10 minute walk anymore. But I can make a fresh loaf of “grey” anytime in my own kitchen. Using a bread machine makes it really easy, contrary to what you may think. Here are some misconceptions that you may have about bread machines (I know I had them before I started using one):

Myth: Bread machines are expensive.

Fact: There are different price levels of bread machines from $25 and up to over $200. Mine is from a Goodwill (pictured below), they always have several to choose from in new or almost new condition (tells you how many home cooks never got around to appreciate this gadget). I paid whopping $9 for it. Goodwill has a 48 hour return policy on appliances, by the way. My bread machine came without a manual but it is easy to find online.

Myth: It takes a lot of space and is cumbersome to manipulate.

Fact: My bread machine is pretty compact and takes very little space on the floor in the pantry. It is lightweight, especially compared to my KitchenAid mixer, so there is no problem taking it out for use and putting it away.

Myth: It is a pain to clean.

Fact: The clean up is actually easier than with traditional method of baking because the bowl of the bread machine has a non-stick coating. All that is needed is a quick rinse with cold water. Plus there are no additional utensils to wash since the machine does all the work for you.

Myth: It is too involved and confusing.

Fact: Some recipes are more straightforward than others, but it all comes down to loading a handful of ingredients and taking out a baked loaf, or, alternatively, taking out mixed dough and baking it in the oven in a loaf pan (my preference). It may take a couple of tries for you to get a hang of it– anything worth doing comes with a learning curve, doesn’t it?

Seeing, and facilitating, a transformation of a few simple ingredients into a freshly baked bread is so much fun, even therapeutic. Every time I take a loaf out of the oven I wonder how it is possible. Magic! (Not really–just a few chemical reactions).

Now on to what to do to have a delicious loaf “magically” appear in your kitchen!

 

Internet is full of resources on using bread machines, no need for me to reinvent the wheel. I recommend checking out this and this one.

A note on ingredients:

* I buy Hodgson Mill brand Rye flour at my local grocery store because it is cheaper than Bob’s Red Mill. Quality wise they both work. You can use whichever brand you can find where you live/online.

* You want to buy your yeast in bulk (Costco!) and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Small packets of yeast will break your budget, if you bake a lot of bread.

* Powdered milk can be found in any grocery store where baking supplies are sold.

* Vital wheat gluten is “vital” to the structure of whole wheat/rye bread. If you leave it out, you will end up with a flat brick of a loaf. It is on the expensive side (around $8) but you only need a little at a time so it lasts.

Vital wheat gluten

Rye flour

OK, time to make it. Here is what you need:

1 1/2 cups Warm water (90-110Degrees F)

2Tb Canola oil (or vegetable or olive)

2Tb Sugar

1 1/2 tsp Salt

2 cups Bread flour

1 cup Whole wheat flour

1 cup Rye flour

2Tb Dry milk powder

1Tb Vital wheat gluten

2 1/2 tsp Active dry yeast

1 Tb Onion powder

1 tsp Caraway seeds

 

What to do:

Make sure the mixing paddle is positioned properly in the bread machine bowl. Add the ingredients to the bowl of the bread machine in the order listed.

IMG_2485

Put the bowl in the machine and turn it on the “Dough” cycle, it should take an hour and a half to complete. After the first five minutes open the lid of the bread machine and check the consistency of the dough. If it is too wet (not forming  ball) add flour 1 T at a time. If it is too hard (banging on the sides of the bowl) add water 1 T at a time. Let the dough mix for a couple minutes after each adjustment before adding more flour/water. With the proportions given, I rarely have to add either.

Rye bread in a bread machinethe “dough” cycle is complete

When the dough cycle is complete, grease a loaf pan (I use PAM). Dump the dough on a floured surface and roll/pat it in a rectangle about the length of the loaf pan.

Rye bread in a bread machineRoll the dough as you would with cinnamon rolls and transfer to the loaf pan, putting it seem down, tucking the ends underneath.

DIY bread

DIY bread

Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Put in a warm place for 20-30 minutes (I put it on top of the stove while it is preheating).

Home-made rye breadthat’s a jar of DIY buttermilk next to it, if you were wondering

 Preheat the oven to 350 F. Once your loaf has risen about 1/2 of an inch to 3/4 of an inch above the top edge of the loaf pan, it is ready to go in the oven.

Rye bread in a bread machine

Bake for 40-50 minutes (ovens vary, mine is done in 45 minutes). When the bread is done, the crust is deep golden brown and there is a hollow sound when you tap on the crust.

Immediately remove the loaf to a cooling rack to prevent it from becoming soggy. Let cool completely before slicing.

home-made bread

Note on slicing: since this bread has no preservatives it will dry out fast. It is best to slice a few slices at a time, and keep the rest in an air-tight container. The leftover dried out bread (which rarely happens in my house) can be used to make bread crumbs.

I hope you give it a try. Let me know how it comes out!

 

Disclaimer: I was not compensated for any products mentioned in the post.

 

Keeping focus: going forward.

Focus

Making New Year’s resolutions has become a running joke, a cliche. When you google “New Years Resolutions” one of the first results is “resolutions are meant to be broken”. The word “resolutions” has a stigma attached to it.

Not to be hung up on the choice of a better word (hopes? goals? plans?), I personally think it is a great idea to spend a few moments to reflect on the previous year, to give yourself credit for what worked, and reassess and adjust what didn’t.

Here is a “helicopter view” of things that I want to focus on this year. Some are new and others proved to work last year, so I will keep doing them this year (and share here on the blog).

“Routines”

(Note to self: they take time to establish and require workable organization and planning)

* balanced diet centered on wholesome food, mostly homemade

* emphasis on exercise: I have been following this program for about five years and love it.

*daily routines: school readiness, etc.

* more productive/engaging family and kids activities

“Growth”

(Note to self: learning from experience is a big part of growing and moving forward, and it is an ongoing process)

* be intentional and thoughtful, ask questions, think critically

* don’t be wasteful: value time, resources, mind and emotions

* don’t get distracted by the insignificant and superfluous

* be flexible and open-minded

These categories are, of course, interrelated. The common theme? Being mindful in everything from daily mundane stuff to the big picture decisions. I hope I can do it:)

Everyone has their own system of going forward: some go with the flow, others “map it out”. I am a list-maker and a planner, it helps me stay focused and not be pulled in a thousand ways.

***

What is your system? Have you made New Year’s resolutions (whichever you may call them)?

 

Image source

Keeping focus on the priorities: holidays wrap up.

Happy New Year everyone!

Our Christmas decorations are packed up and put away till the next year, and we are shifting gears to our normal routine. It always takes a few days of mental refocusing and readjusting the schedule until things get back on track. This year the transition is especially challenging for us because we were hit by an abnormal amount of health issues. A way to start the new year, I’d say.

But in spite of the health related challenges, we really enjoyed this winter break.  We had no physical or emotional energy to “do it all”, so we focused on a few things that were essential, and let go of the rest. Letting go of “the rest” is not easy. It is so deeply ingrained in our heads, that it almost makes you feel inadequate. I had to switch my  holiday “autopilot” pattern off, and focus on the priorities.

Here are some things that we chose to skip this year:

  • Sending Christmas cards to family and friends: we hope our near and dear know that we love them and care about them even though they did not get a card from us this year.
  • Put up extensive holiday decor, as we did in the past: we had some outdoor  Christmas lights, the tree and simple, mostly recycled, indoor decor. The house looked cozy and cheerful enough. The time not spent on going all-out on decor went to watch Christmas movies. Not to mention the time saved putting everything away!
  • Bake million cookies and distribute them to the friends and neighbors: I had to fight my obsession with Christmas baking real hard this year. Ultimately everyone was happy with a handful of different types of cookies as opposed to twenty (yes, one year I made twenty different kinds of cookies. Like I said: obsession).
  • Host a holiday party: this one was easy. Sickness and parties are not a good combo.

Here are some things that we did that didn’t feel like a chore:

  • Went to see a drive-through lights display.
  • Baked just enough cookies: we picked the most popular and requested kinds and baked half the recipe of each ( a new favorite trick of mine).

    snickerdoodles

    Snickerdoodles are among our most favorite

  • We simplified our gift giving routine: we really wanted to focus on the substance, not on the quantity of gift giving. It worked great!
  • We decorated our Christmas tree together: we do it every year with all the same ornaments, and it turns out the same every year. Some years I feel like changing things up, but the truth is we really like how it looks for now.christmas tree gold and red The culmination of tree decorating has been the same for years: S gets to put the star topper on the tree. The girl is getting to be too big for the job though, next year her baby sister may have to take over.tree topper
  • We had kids’ friends over for cookie decorating: I baked sugar cookies and made frosting ahead of time, and set everything out on a plastic table cover, nothing too fancy but lots of fun.
  • We made a simple craft, a count down to Christmas: it took us all of 15 minutes to do. It didn’t involve any daily treats, but it kept the anticipation high (“can you believe it’s only … days till Christmas???”)countdown to Christmas craft
  • We watched our favorite movies, played, went to the park and read, just spending time with each other–a  number one priority for me.

None of the things we’ve done were elaborate or time consuming. Nothing was Pinterest worthy in the sense of being flashy/just for looks. It was a more relaxed and meaningful holiday season for us. With the exception of sickness, I hope we can do it the same way next year.

I hope you all enjoyed your holidays and time with your near and dear, and stayed healthy!

Oatmeal snack cake.

Healthy oatmeal snack cakeHere is a recipe for a delicious and healthy snack cake. It is a good example of snack breads and muffins that I bake on a regular basis, with the goal of making them nutritious, tasty and lower on calories. Snacks=mini meals, and for the most part I try to keep our meals healthy, and splurge on desserts.

This snack cake is originally from Ann from On Sutton Place. It is her mother’s recipe, and I am sure it is delicious as written. However, I adapted it to suit our needs, and have been making it this way since then. I hope you try it, either the original or the “snack” version! It makes great breakfast too.Oatmeal snack cake

Ingredients

1 c. uncooked oats (I use old fashioned)

1 1/3 c. boiling water

1/2 c. brown sugar

1/2 c. white sugar

1/3 c. butter softened

2 eggs

1 1/2 c. flour

1 t. baking soda

1 t. cinnamon

1/2 t. salt (cut in half if you use salted butter)

Instructions


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a medium bowl pour the boiling water over the 1 c. oatmeal. Stir and let cool.

3. In a large bowl mix the sugars, butter and eggs until fluffy. Add flour, soda, cinnamon and salt. Mix well.

4. Add oat mixture and mix until combined.

Pour into 9 x 13 prepared pan.

Bake 35 – 40 min. until knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Cool before slicing.

This snack cake keeps well for a few days covered, at room temperature.

Healthy eating: choosing better snacks.

healthy snacks

What is your approach to snacks? We have been in the process of transitioning to more wholesome and nutritious snacks. It is not hard. It just takes a shift in the thinking.

Until about a year ago I used to rely on prepackaged snacks (granola bars, Gold Fish, Cheez-its, etc.), almost exclusively. They are easy, and they come in nice packaging. The packaging is what always got me: those bars always look so good on the wrapper. But the actual taste is never as good as I’d hope. Even “good” brands always leave the overly sweet, artificial aftertaste.  Ingredients-wise, most of them don’t come close to my definition of healthy nutrition. They are still OK for some situations but on a regular basis, there are much better options that taste infinitely better, are healthier, and cheaper.

Basically, any normal food can be snack. What can be a better snack than a piece of good bread with some cheese and an apple?  It is “back to basics”. I don’t know why it took me so long to get there (actually I do, but it would be off topic).home-made bread

Outside of the situations when I have no choice but to have something pre-packaged in the “dry feed” category, I prefer  snack options like these (most of them can be packed to-go):

yogurt (all natural, usually Greek kind)

- granola (I make my own)

- fruit

- carrots, cucumber slices with hummus

- cheese stick/cheese slices with good crackers or bread

- apple slices with peanut butter

- home-made muffins and snack bread (low sugar and low fat version, usually using whole wheat flour)

- a slice of good bread with cream cheese or sour cream (I make my own bread in a bread machine)

-nuts and dried fruit

I think this list has plenty of options to provide a variety of healthy snacks. It is more time consuming than opening a box of pre-packaged snack.  But I don’t mind spending a few extra minutes because a) my family’s health is absolutely worth any effort I put in preparing food for them, and b) I don’t view cooking/food prep as a chore, as something that needs to be reduced or eliminated from my life.

As far as baking muffins and bread, it is not hard if you have your kitchen organized so that you have everything you need at your fingertips and don’t have to track your kitchen every time you bake. I timed the process of baking muffins, and the hands-on time took literally 5 minutes, plus 20 minutes in the oven (during which time you can do something else). It doesn’t have to be elaborate. But nothing beats a fresh home-made snack that contains 5 ingredients.

Do you plan your snacks? What are your favorite snacks?

delicious strawberry muffins

 

 

 

 

Red Velvet Cake (reduced sugar and fat).

Red velvet cakeThere is no such thing as “healthy dessert”. Dessert is indulgence, a treat, not health food. That said, so many times I have come across dessert recipes that are cloyingly sweet and/or too greasy. Excessive sugar and fat overwhelm overall flavor and add to the calorie count.

I have found that often a recipe follows some superficial rules that get replicated out of tradition, without any substantiation. I question things, including recipes. I want to know the “why”s behind every ingredient. And if loads of fat and sugar are crucial to achieve the best result, I will follow the recipe. Otherwise, I will adapt it.

This recipe for Red Velvet cake is delicious–moist and flavorful with a hint of chocolate as a good Red Velvet cake should be. I cut the amount of sugar in the cake, and both sugar and fat in the icing, with no harm to the texture or flavor of the cake whatsoever. In fact, I believe it improved the original recipe.

Red Velvet  cake low sugar

 

Red Velvet Cake.

(Adapted. I can’t find the source anymore. If you recognize this as your recipe, please let me know).

1 1/2 cup butter, softened to room temperature

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 1/2 cup vanilla yogurt or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk)

2 Tbs liquid red food coloring

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

3 1/4 cup all purpose flour

3 Tbs cocoa powder

2 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp salt

 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 8-inch or 9-inch cake pans (I like to use PAM with flour in it).

2. In a large bowl cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time.

3. Combine yogurt (or buttermilk) with the food coloring and vanilla extract in a small bowl.

4. Combine flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking powder and baking soda in another bowl (make sure there are no lumps in your cocoa powder. Sifting helps with that).

5. Alternate adding yogurt mixture and flour mixture to the creamed butter in the large bowl. Mix just until combined– do not over mix!

6. Pour into the prepared pans and bake for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Make sure to start checking early: over baked Red Velvet cake becomes dry. Cool for a few minutes in the pans, then remove to a cooling rack and let cool completely before frosting it.

 

Cream Cheese Frosting

 

16 oz. Neufchâtel cheese, room temperature

3/4 stick butter, room temperature

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 1/4– 21/2 cup powdered sugar.

 

Beat the Neufchâtel cheese with butter until well blended. Add vanilla and powdered sugar, blend well on low speed, then whip up the frosting on a higher speed till light and fluffy.

To frost the cake:

Cover the top of the 1st layer with frosting and put the 2nd layer on top. Cover the top and sides of the  second layer with a thin layer of frosting. Don’t worry about crumbs showing: you are making a crumb layer of frosting at this point. Chill the cake for at least 30 min. Then cover the top and the sides with the remaining frosting. Chill until ready to eat.

To serve, let the cake sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes.

Red Velvet  cake with cream cheese frosting

 

 

 

Get organized for Back to School: Daily school readiness routine, and a Giveaway.

Can you believe we have less than a month before the school starts? This is usually the time when “back to school” anxiety starts affecting both kids and parents: so much to do, so many questions (“Will I get a nice teacher or a mean teacher this year?”– we hear that a lot around here these days.)

Today’s Back to School Inspiration may be just the thing to help you tackle that anxiety and enjoy the last few weeks of summer vacation, as well as have a smooth start to the new school year!  I have teamed up with 11 other bloggers to give you a really fun…

Back To School

Each of us are sharing a super fun “Back to School” themed idea today:  I am sharing our school readiness routine.

We’ve been relying on our “school readiness” routine for a couple years now. It has proven to be very effective in keeping the stress level down, and making sure things run smoothly not only at the beginning of a school year but also throughout the rest of it. In addition to maintaining order and piece of mind, it helps the kids learn self-reliance and efficiency: I am a strong believer in teaching kids to be independent and self-sufficient from an early age.

Here is what goes into our “school readiness” routine:

** A list of things that needs to be completed every day/night before kids go to bed:

It took me some time to come up with a message board that would be a)easy to use, b) durable, and c) easy and inexpensive to make.  As a result, I created the following set up:

school readiness routine

We purchased a magnetic board from Ikea (not a dry-erase kind), and my husband hung it on the wall right next to the family calendar. I also bought two small dry-erase boards from Wal-mart and attached them to the magnetic board using a couple of peel-and-stick magnets. Then I used my label maker and printed “rows” and “columns” to mark a semi-permanent lay out — it can be easily switched if needed, but it stays put and doesn’t smudge from every day use.

The top board is a “To-Do” list for the kids. I divided it into three columns, one for each kid, marking the columns with strips of the label maker tape. This board is where I write chores (or “to-do”s) for the kids to do daily, so I won’t spend too much time talking about it in this post.

The second board is titled “School Readiness”. It was created in a similar way–using my label maker, I printed the board title, kids’ names, column dividers, as well as items for the kids to check off as they go through their routine to get ready for school. The items include:

- homework: this one is self-explanatory

- backpack: it is the kids’ job to make sure their backpacks are packed, and it gets done the night before.

- lunch: the kids make their own lunch the night before (more on this later)

- snack: snack goes in the backpack the night before

- room and bathroom: general pick-up, making sure nothing is on the floor, etc.

- clothes: the kids set out an outfit that they plan on wearing next day.

An hour or so before dinner, I remind the kids to start on their “school readiness” routine. Right before bedtime I see if they have checked off every item on the list– there is a dry-erase marker and an eraser in a magnetic cup attached to the bottom of the board.command center in the mudroom

The memo board and the calendar are located in our office/mudroom. I am SO happy with this set up: it helps streamline the whole process of dealing with school stuff. The backpacks hang right under the magnetic board which makes it easy for the kids to pack and unpack. There is a desk to the right of the magnetic board.  Basically, all their school related things are located in one area. All they have to do in the morning is grab their backpacks, step to the mudroom area to put their shoes on, and head out the door.

**Lunch and snack prep:

– Lunch: to keep it within the spirit of learning self-sufficiency, the kids are responsible to pack their lunch the night before. To streamline this process, I put a small magnetic board (a locker dry-erase board actually) on the side of the fridge. It is used for writing what they have prepared and put in the fridge in order to put in their lunchboxes in the morning. This way I know what each of them is taking to school, plus it is a good visual for the kids and a reminder to actually prepare lunch! I plan to write a separate post on food choices for kids lunches and snacks.school readiness routine

-Snack: we keep a basket labeled “school snacks” in the pantry, which makes it very easy for the kids to grab a snack, put it in the backpack and check off this item of the list on the magnetic board.school snacks basket in the pantry

I love the fact that the kids are learning to stay organized, keep track of their “to-do”s without me asking them fifty times if they have done this or that. Who has time for that?

 

And here are the rest of the projects, that I am sure you will find super  useful! They range from teacher gifts to advice for the anxious child heading to school. So be sure to check them out!

Back to School

Start of the Year Basket by Garay Treasures’s ~~ 1st Day of School Traditions by Mrs. Coach Sims ~~ 10 of the Best Back to School Teacher Gifts by Tales of Beauty for Ashes ~~ Back to School Fashion by Words About Waverly ~~ Creating a Portable Homework Station by Living In This Season ~~ Take Care of the Teacher by bybmg ~~ 5 Easy Fine Motor Skills Activities by Our Life on a Budget

Back to School

School Room by Abiding in Grace ~~ Back to School Party by All Kinds of Things ~~ Back to School Organization by Morganize With Me ~~ Preparing an Anxious Child by Almond Place

 

Of course, we didn’t want the fun to stop with the inspiring ideas… so here is a fun giveaway for a $60 Target Gift Card! Click on the a Rafflecopter giveaway link to enter. The winner will be announced on August 12th!

 

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What tricks do you use to have kids get ready for school? Please share!