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Feeding large families without breaking the bank

By Jackie Clay

Issue #116 • March/April, 2009

Many of us have been there; for unforeseen reasons, suddenly we have a lot more people to cook for. With the economy melting down, jobs ending, and the cost of living skyrocketing, a lot of us have parents, adult children with their children, and even friends moving in with us.

It's the kind of challenge that can be very rewarding. When Mom and Dad moved in with us, we lived for three months on our new, raw homestead, living in a travel trailer and attached fish house "living room." And we were pretty broke, too, from the move. We had to tighten our belts a bit, but we still ate great meals cooked from ingredients mostly already in my food pantry. It was a fun and interesting experience.

Stretching your food dollar

When you cook for a bunch of people, there are a lot of things you can do to make great meals for less money...and still eat well. At the top of the list is to reduce the amount of meat you use. Sure you can have that roast and vegetables on Sunday. But make that your "feast" day. If you use meat more as a seasoning, rather than a main ingredient, you can eat well for a whole lot less. And your stored food will last a longer time, by far.

If you can plant a garden, or enlarge the one you already have, great. The garden will not only help feed you, pretty much for free, but it will let you store up tons of food for feeding your "larger family" during the winter months as well.

Don't discount wild foraging. We may have been new on our wild homestead, but every morning in June and July, I'd get up and go out with my little bucket and pick wild blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. These would go on plain cold cereal, or in pancakes and muffins, making them seem like a special breakfast. And they cost absolutely nothing.

I pick wild greens, such as lamb's quarter, asparagus, and pigweed. We have fished for many a supper and hunted upland birds and big game for many more. Home-canned venison really helps us stretch our food dollar.

Bake regularly. By adding home baked biscuits, rolls, breads, pies, bars, cookies, cakes, and doughnuts to your menu, people will scarcely miss abundant meat with all those special treats on the table! If you haven't learned to bake, do so. You can start with biscuits, cookies, cakes, and rolls and work your way up to breads, pies, and doughnuts as your confidence increases. Baking is really easy and fun, too, once you get the hang of it. And your family will profusely thank you. And guys, you can learn to bake, too. My oldest son, Bill, has been baking for several years now and is certainly no "sissy." (Remember Bill, who built his own log home a few years back?) Well, he can make a killer apple pie from scratch.

A productive garden makes cooking for many easy and inexpensive.
A productive garden makes cooking for many easy and inexpensive.

You can also use your own home baked bread for other things, such as slicing it up to use as French toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, making stuffing or croutons from older bread (before it goes stale or molds), and slicing a long loaf lengthwise and making garlic or herbed cheese bread from it; a complete meal in itself...even better served with a hearty soup.

Stay away from packaged, processed foods. The more packaging and processing a food has, the more expensive it is. Who would spend $1.29 for four or five medium-sized potatoes and a little cheese sauce? Not me. Even if you had to buy 10 pounds of potatoes for $7.99 and added cheese powder and milk, you could make double the amount of potatoes au gratin that you could from the little boxes. And the potatoes would actually taste great, too. If you grow your own potatoes and have cheese powder and powdered milk in your storage pantry, the same recipe would cost pennies. And if you have a couple of dairy goats and make cheese regularly, you've essentially got yourself a free meal.

Vary your menus

Everybody gets tired of beans, beans, beans. Or potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. To keep a happy group, don't repeat meals often. There are enough choices out there, even with a limited amount of the basics. Read some Amish books, including recipe books, for inspiration. The Amish may be plain people, but they eat really well. It is good to follow their lead.

At meals, offer plenty of choices. Old time farm wives weren't so dumb. They may have set the table with cornbread and beans, but they also had jams, several kinds of pickles, vegetables, and fruits as well, not to mention farm-made cheeses and butter. The main "dish" of cornbread and beans wasn't big or fancy by any means, but with the extras, everyone at that crowded table left satisfied.

When you do splurge and make a roast or bake a roasting chicken, make it big enough to use for a second big meal. For instance, when I make a roast, I grind up the leftover potatoes, onions, and trimmed meat and make a big pan of hash the next day for lunch or supper. Or I pick the meat off the roast chicken, boil the carcass, strain off the broth, add the meat, and make a big pot of chicken and dumplings. I hate leftovers...you know, the same meal served over and over. How boring. When times are tough, you don't need that.

If you have to buy meat, don't always pick the cheapest cuts. I look at a piece of meat and figure about how many people I can feed well from it, and how much further use I can get out of it. I've passed by $1.19 chuck roasts in favor of a $2.99 rump roast, trimmed and defatted. But out of that roast, I've gotten two large, good meals instead of one poor one.

Use plenty of vegetables and other "fill" in your recipes, such as rice, beans, pasta, and noodles. These will help round out your comfort food. In times of economic crunch, you want food that will satisfy a family, not leave them feeling hungry as they leave the table.

Shopping wisely

Ideally, we would be able to raise nearly all of our own food and would seldom need to go to the store. But, unfortunately, this isn't usually the case. What can we do when we're feeding a larger group of people? Shop smarter.

When you have a fully stocked pantry, you won't panic when you suddenly have more people to cook for.
When you have a fully stocked pantry, you won't panic when you suddenly have more people to cook for.

No, I'm not a coupon clipper; usually they are for items I don't buy anyway. I do keep aware of the prices of different "main ingredient" foods, such as flour, sugar, hamburger, beef and pork roasts, etc. If you can't remember, take notes. I mean it! There can be a huge price difference between stores. For instance, take common table salt. At Sam's Club, I bought four-pound boxes of salt for 88 cents. The next day, store brand one-pound boxes of salt in our local WalMart were 59 cents on sale. That equals $2.36 for four pounds—a big difference.

But watch it! Not all things at big box stores, such as Sam's Club, are a good buy. Seldom is anything on sale, and sales are what usually save you big bucks.

If there is a local farmers' market nearby, shop there. Buy from local farmers when possible. Not only is the food fresher and better, but you can often get great deals if you ask. Try "Gee those apples look great, but I'm on a limited income and can't afford them. Do you maybe have some that aren't as nice? My family would sure enjoy them..." instead of "Hey man, your apples are priced too high." Often you'll be rewarded with nice food for a lower price, plus you'll gain a future friend. If you shop at the end of the day you'll often find great deals because nobody wants to load up and take produce back home.

Okay, you've got your pantry, some fresh vegetables, fruits, and a few things from the store from time to time. Now to the nitty gritty—using them to your advantage. Just for kicks, we'll assume you are feeding eight people...maybe you, your spouse, two teenaged children, your mother, and your adult daughter and her two young children. I had eight children at home at once, so I've cooked for a bunch a whole lot of times. Here are a few recipes and ideas of how to do it well:

Main dishes

Chicken pot pie:

2 cups cooked chicken, boned and cut up, or 1 pint canned chicken
3 carrots, sliced
4 medium potatoes, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup celery, sliced thinly
1 cup canned sweet corn, drained
1 pint chicken gravy made from canned chicken broth or bouillon, thickened with flour
2 pie crusts, unbaked

Mix all together and pour into an unbaked pie shell in a large, deep dish pie pan. Put top crust on and crimp edges so they stand up to hold in any juices that boil. Bake at 375° F for about thirty minutes. You can substitute beef, venison, or turkey in your recipe, making gravy to match.

Boston baked beans:

1 lb. (2 cups) navy or great northern beans
1 medium onion, diced
½ lb. diced ham or bacon
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. molasses
1/8 tsp. black pepper

Cover dry beans with plenty of water in large saucepan. Heat to boiling; boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 1 hour. Add water to cover beans; simmer uncovered 50 minutes or until tender. Drain beans, reserving liquid. Heat oven to 300° F. Layer ham or bacon with beans and onion in ungreased casserole pan. Stir remaining ingredients and 1 cup of the reserved liquid; pour over beans. Add enough of the remaining reserved liquid (or water, if necessary), to cover the beans. Cover and bake 3½ to 4 hours, removing the cover for the last half hour of baking time. If beans get dry, stir and add a bit of liquid, if necessary.

Cabbage and hamburger bake:

1 head cabbage, shredded
1 lb. hamburger
1 green pepper, diced
1 medium onion, sliced
2 cups cooked rice
1 quart tomato sauce
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Steam cabbage until limp; drain. Fry hamburger until brown. Drain off excessive grease, then add green pepper, onion, and cabbage. Fry lightly. Place rice on bottom of ungreased casserole, then add cabbage/hamburger mix. Pour tomato sauce over it and press down to cover with the sauce. Bake at 350° F for 20 minutes, add cheese, then bake for another 10 minutes.

Baked spaghetti squash:

2 medium spaghetti squash
1 lb. hamburger
2 medium onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, mashed
¼ tsp. basil
¼ tsp. oregano
1 qt. seasoned tomato sauce
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Cut spaghetti squash in halves and fluff up strings, removing any seeds. Brown hamburger adding onions, garlic, and spices at the last. Add tomato sauce and simmer 10 minutes. Place spaghetti squash on cookie sheet and pour tomato sauce mixture over it carefully, keeping sauce on top of fluffed up squash strings. Bake at 350° F until squash is fork tender. Add grated cheese and bake until cheese is melted and just browning. Serve with garlic bread or bread sticks. Very good!

These are all easy, quick to fix recipes that use ingredients common in gardening homes, and all are great, too. Most of us love our potatoes, which also grow in most gardens. Besides the old standbys—mashed, baked and boiled—there are many other great ways to serve this filling, tasty, comfort food. Here are a few:

Potato dishes

Potato salad:

4 cups cooked, diced potatoes
4 hard boiled eggs, diced
½ medium sweet onion, diced
¾ cup diced celery

Dressing:

1 cup mayo or salad dressing
1 Tbsp. prepared mustard
1¼ Tbsp. vinegar
1¼ tsp. salt
dash of milk
¾ cup sugar

Mix together salad dressing, mustard, vinegar, salt, milk, and sugar. When smooth, add to remaining ingredients. Mix gently but well. Refrigerate at least overnight. May double or triple recipe. It keeps for several days in the refrigerator just fine.

Fancy baked potatoes:

2 lbs. potatoes
1 pint chicken broth, thickened (2 Tbsp. butter, melted, 2 Tbsp. flour mixed in, then a bit of broth; stir into broth and stir until thickened)
½ cup celery, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
1 pint sour cream
salt and pepper
2 cups shredded cheese (optional)
½ cup butter
bread crumbs or cornflakes

Peel and slice potatoes, boil until just done—not too soft. Mix the rest of the ingredients, except butter and bread crumbs, stir well, then add potatoes. Put into casserole and bake at 350° F for 30 minutes. Top with bread crumbs or crushed cornflakes, drizzle with ½ cup butter and bake until crumbs are golden.

Potato cakes:

3 cups leftover mashed potatoes
1 large egg
1½ Tbsp. flour
3 Tbsp. cream
2 Tbsp. minced onion
4 Tbsp. melted shortening

Mix ingredients except shortening, and shape into flat cakes. Fry to a golden brown on both sides in shortening. This is a great way to use up leftover mashed potatoes in a way that tastes entirely different.

Potato chowder:

6 cups diced potatoes
1 small onion, minced
½ cup celery, diced
3 Tbsp. margarine
3 Tbsp. flour
6 cups milk
2 tsp. salt
½ pint canned sweet corn, drained

Cook potatoes, celery, and onions in 1 cup water until soft. Add all but a few tablespoons of the milk. Melt margarine in a small skillet. Mix in flour. Slowly add a little bit of milk, then slowly blend into potato mixture. Add corn and salt. (For a thicker chowder, use more margarine and flour, for a thinner chowder, just add more milk.) Continue to cook over medium heat until hot. Great with homemade breads, hot out of the oven.

Breakfasts

As you see, there are a whole lot of varied uses for those 'taters, which make cooking for a bunch a lot easier. And speaking of easier, perhaps one of the most challenging meals to make un-boring is breakfast! When there are just two of you, it can be fancy and fun. But when there's eight or twelve people elbowing up to the breakfast table, it's easy to get into the oatmeal/cold cereal/fried egg and toast routine.

Oatmeal peach breakfast cake:

½ cup butter or margarine, melted
1-1/3 cups rolled oats
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
11/3 cups flour
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. soda
1 quart canned peaches with liquid

Mix first seven ingredients together well and pour over the peaches. Bake at 375° F for 45 minutes. Serve warm with butter and sweetened milk, whipped cream, or even ice cream for a breakfast to remember.

Blueberry muffins:

2 eggs
1½ cups milk
1 cup vegetable oil
4 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. baking powder
2 tsp. salt
2 cups fresh or canned blueberries, drained

Grease bottoms only of 24 medium muffin cups. Beat eggs; stir in milk and oil. Stir in flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt until just moistened. Batter will be lumpy. Gently fold in blueberries. Fill muffin cups about ¾ full. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Immediately remove from pan to prevent sticking.

Caramel pecan cinnamon rolls:

1½ cups scalded milk
¼ cup shortening
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 pkg. yeast
2 eggs, beaten
5-6 cups flour

For topping, melt together:

1½ cups brown sugar
6 Tbsp. margarine
4 Tbsp. corn syrup
1 tsp. vanilla

Filling:

butter
brown sugar
cinnamon

Spread topping in bottom of two 9" x 13" cake pans and sprinkle with pecans. Scald milk and pour over sugar, shortening, and salt. Dissolve yeast in a little warm water. When milk has cooled, add yeast and beaten eggs. Beat well. Add flour gradually, mixing well. Make a moist but not sticky dough. Place in a well-greased bowl, cover with a warm moist towel, and let rise in a warm place until double. Divide dough in half and roll each half out into an oblong piece. Spread with butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Roll jelly roll style and cut into 1-inch thick pieces. Place slices 1 inch apart in pans. Bake at 350° F for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Turn upside down on cooling racks and remove from pans while hot.

Desserts

Of all the things we cook, the most fun to make and eat is dessert. Sure, we'd like to make a dessert for each main meal, but when we're cooking for a bunch, that sometimes just doesn't happen. I never want anyone at my table to feel deprived, so my remedy for that is to make big batches of cookies of different kinds to have on hand for those meals when I'm just too busy to make a special dessert. They also do double duty for snacks when someone gets the hungries during the day.

Here are a few quick, cheap, and easy recipes for satisfying cookies everyone will enjoy:

Dishpan cookies:

2 cups shortening
2 cups sugar
2 cups brown sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3½ cups flour
5 cups rolled oats
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Cream shortening and sugars together well. Add eggs and vanilla, mixing well. Pour in flour and other dry ingredients slowly and mix. You may also add raisins, chopped nuts, or baking chips if you'd like.

Bake on a very lightly greased cookie sheet at 350° F until the edges are just starting to brown.

Chocolate chip cookies:

4 cups brown sugar
2 cups white sugar
3½ cups shortening
8 eggs, beaten
4 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. salt
9 cups flour
1 package of chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts if desired

Cream sugars and shortening. Add eggs and vanilla, mixing well. Then add dry ingredients, chocolate chips, and nuts. Mix well again. Place on a very lightly greased cookie sheet and bake at 350° F until edges are just starting to brown.

Sour cream cookies:

¾ cup shortening
1½ cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
2½ cups flour

Mix shortening, sugar, and vanilla well. Add eggs and sour cream. Mix well. Add dry ingredients slowly, mixing all the while. Spoon out onto lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350° F until just starting to brown edges.

Besides cookies, sometimes we'd like to serve something extra special. When all my kids were at home, I'd try to do this when we were all working together on a heavy-duty project, like splitting our winter's wood, tilling the garden, or making hay. These three easy desserts make for a delicious reward when you've finished a big job:

EZ carrot cake:

2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour
1½ tsp. baking soda
1½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
3 cups shredded carrots

Frosting:

1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Cream sugar, oil, and eggs together well. Add dry ingredients. Stir in carrots. Pour into a greased 9" x 12" cake pan and bake at 350° F until the top springs back when touched. Cool. When cool, mix up a large package of cream cheese (8 oz.) with a cup of powdered sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla, then spread on top of the cake.

Raised donuts:

2 cups scalded milk
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. salt
1 cup shortening
4 eggs, beaten
4 pkgs. yeast
7-1/3 cups flour
grease or oil to fry

Scald milk. Mix in sugar, salt, and shortening. Let cool to room temperature. Add eggs. Then add yeast, let dissolve. Add flour, mix well, then knead into smooth dough. Place in a greased bowl, cover with a dampened kitchen towel, and let sit in a warm place until risen double. Punch dough down and let rise again. Punch down and roll out to about ¾ of an inch thick and cut with a donut cutter (if you don't have a donut cutter you can just cut squares). Lay out on a lightly floured board or countertop and let rise for 15 minutes. Deep fry in hot grease or oil. If the oil is hot enough, the donuts immediately rise to the surface. If they stay on the bottom, the grease is not hot enough. (Never let the grease get so hot it smokes!)

Apple crisp:

10 cups sliced apples
1 cup brown sugar
1½ cups flour
1½ cups rolled oats
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup melted margarine or butter

Place sliced apples in a greased 9" x 12" cake pan. Mix dry ingredients in large bowl, then pour melted butter over them, mixing until crumbly. Spread over apples and bake for about 45 minutes at 350° F. Good served with ice cream or sweetened milk.

I don't have room to give you more recipe ideas, but you get the picture. For more great, simple recipes for large families, check out a few Amish recipe books or the magazine Taste Of Home. Cooking for a bunch of people isn't hard once you get the hang of it. My biggest challenge was going from nine or ten people down to three! It's a great idea to share some of the cooking. This is a huge stress reliever. On those "Eeekkk!" days, it's wonderful to have your kids, mom, or even your sweetie pitch in and turn out a great meal for the family. And on any day, it really helps when the cook doesn't have to turn around and wash dishes and clean up the kitchen. I was lucky; my daughters handled that chore for me many days. And there wasn't a day that it was not truly appreciated. We not only made great meals, but great memories, as well.




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