Make Your Own Ranch Dressing Mix

Ranch dressing mix is so versatile and can be used to add flavor to many different dishes or just use as intended for a salad dressing.  Unfortunately, the packet of mix can be expensive, especially when used as an ingredient in bulk cooking.  For example, when Kayte and I planned a freezer-cooking session involving 13 pounds of Rio Chicken (enough for 30 meals), the recipe called for 12 packets of Ranch Dressing mix.  My favorite use is with buffalo chicken wings.



I have been mixing up my own for several years, so I multiplied the recipe as needed and the cost  of all the ingredients probably added up to about what 1 packet of the mix would have cost had we bought it.  For my own use as salad dressing, I always mix up enough for at least 4 batches and store the mixture in a small glass jar with the instructions for mixing with the wet ingredients taped to the jar.  It is very simple without a lot of “junk” ingredients, and if you have a well stocked spice cabinet, you probably have everything you need already on hand.  I am going to detail the original recipe for a small quantity, and then also give you the recipe in the amount that I usually use.

Ranch Dressing

Makes 3/4 cup (about 1/2 purchased packet)

  • 1/4 tsp, plus 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder
  • 1/8 tsp dried parsley
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper
  • 1 pinch dried dill weed
  • 1 pinch dried thyme
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup mayo 
Mix everything except the last two ingredients together, then add the buttermilk and mayo. Stir well and let sit for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to meld.  The original recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch or arrowroot powder to thicken, but I prefer to substitute sour cream for half of the buttermilk (1/4 cup of each) instead.

For a larger batch, take everything x 4.
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp dried parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp dried dill
  • 1/8 tsp dried thyme
Mix well and store in an air-tight container.  To use, add 1 tsp.of the mix to 1/2 cup buttermilk (or 1/4 cup buttermilk and 1/4 cup sour cream) and 1/4 cup mayo.  Stir well (using a whisk makes it easier) and let sit for at least 30 minutes before using.  



Often toddlers will eat just about anything if you give them something to dip the food in, and this is a great alternative to ketchup.

Making Changes – Choosing Healthy Foods

Making healthy choices when choosing what food to buy doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  If you approach it that way, chances are you will quickly throw up your hands and give up.  My own journey to making healthy choices has been over a period of years, and has included falling off the wagon more than once.

Start from where you are and take one step at a time, giving yourself time to get that change down pat before you move on to the next one.  For example, if you eat most of your meals out, start cooking at least one meal a week at home.  If you don’t know how to cook, find someone you know who does and ask them to help you learn.  Invest in a good cookbook (try The Kitchen Counter Cooking School or  100 Days of Real Food).  If you can’t afford one, look at your local library – they have lots.  Ask friends to share quick and easy recipes, check the archives in our blog, or look online.  Two recipes from our archives I would recommend for beginners are Clam Spaghetti and Quick and Easy Burritos.  Many of our other recipes are quick, easy and require only very basic cooking skills.

If you are already preparing many of your meals at home, perhaps the first step might be to add a vegetable or fruit serving at every opportunity. If your family doesn’t like veggies, try fixing them in new ways (example – raw, steamed, with sauces or glazes, roasted). It is great if you can afford to buy all organic ingredients, but very few of us can.  If you are on a tight budget, know that it is more important to incorporate any kind of vegetables and fruit in your meals than it is to avoid them because you can’t afford to buy the best. Do the best you can with what you have or can afford. Check out the Dirty Dozen (items to only buy organic if you can) and just as important, the Clean 15 (items that aren’t important to choose organic). A great resource on making changes incrementally is the mini-pledge program on Lisa Leake’s blog, 100 Days of Real Foods.  She also has lots of “real food” tips and recipes.  
One of the most effective ways to manage to cook most meals at home is to Menu Plan. This is also the best way to save money, because you should be buying only what you know you will use, and you can avoid extra runs to the store (and impulse buys).  I use a simple Excel spreadsheet and don’t plan my breakfasts because they are always pretty much the same.  I make a note of anything special I may have going on that day, and plan a simple meal if I have a busy day.  I like to plan a week at a time, but my daughter and daughter-in-law prefer to do a month at a time, and plan only their dinners. On my menu plan (see picture below), the notes in red in the center column are days that I watch one of my grandkids or other special things I have planned. The notes in red in the right-hand column are reminders to do something beforehand, and the ones in black are ingredients that I need to buy for the meals planned for that day.

Look at what you have on hand, check the current sale ads, adjust your menu plan if needed, and then use your plan to list everything you are going to need, and don’t be tempted to buy anything that is not on your list (if you are planning for a month, you will need to plan to make another grocery run or two for perishable items).  Make it work for you – plan to eat out on a specific day, have a kid’s choice day (and let them help you fix the meal), only plan two or three meals a week. Have a plan to use up leftovers, either by repurposing them into a completely new dish (example – Fried Rice), making one dinner a week a leftover buffet, or eating them for lunches. Statistics show that Americans throw away 25% of all the food they buy – those dollars can either come straight off your food budget, be used to buy more or better food, or splurge on a night out.  

Salmon With Orzo Pilaf and Veggies

This meal is in regular rotation at our house. It’s not exactly a freezer meal, though the ingredients come straight out of my freezer, or pantry. We always have a bag of Kirkland Signature Boneless/Skinless Salmon Fillets in our freezer. These bags retail for about $28, and contain 7 individually wrapped fillets (around $4/Fillet, a pretty good price for Salmon). I usually have a variety of frozen veggies on hand, too.  I also keep several types of pasta in my pantry, including orzo. Again, I stock up when both these items are on sale and use them as needed. 
The picture above is salmon, cooked according to the bag directions, with a bit of olive oil and Penzy’s Shallot Pepper Seasoning. I’ve made it with salt & pepper, seafood seasoning, and other seasoning mixes, as well. The recipe for the orzo is listed below. 
 Orzo Pilaf with Veggies

Ingredients

  • 1 TBL Butter
  • 2+ Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Tsp Montreal Steak Seasoning
  • 2 Cup Water (Or Chicken Stock)
  • 8 oz Orzo (1/2 box)
  • 1/4 C Italian Cheese/ Parmesan/ Goat Cheese
  • 1 Bag frozen veggies (see pic for my favorite!)
Directions
  1. Melt butter in pan on medium heat. 
  2. Saute garlic, until fragrant
  3. Add orzo. Cook until it begins to brown, approximately 3 min. 
  4. Add water (stock), frozen veggies, and seasoning,
  5. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes.
  6. Add cheese, stir and remove from heat. Serve. 

What I Ate Last Week … Meals On The Cheap

While I absolutely love to take a meal out of my freezer and pop it into the pressure cooker or slow cooker and walk away, then come back to something hot and delicious…I do also really enjoy cooking. These BBQ ribs were pretty much the bomb. They were super easy. Pre-cooked in a pressure cooker, then broiled following Mrs. Vickie’s recipe. We ate them with some costco Cesar salad, and asparagus and butternut squash. . Both of these veggies came from my freezer stock pile, at less than $1 each! (and that is Why I Coupon).

I tend to save my freezer meals for crazy days, or when I am working, particularly since we have a baby coming. Menu planning works best, when there some predictability to your schedule. Between traveling, family visits, and pre-term labor scares, life has been far from predictable for me lately. That is when a stocked pantry and freezer, and the means to bulk buy comes in handy!

At the beginning of last week I stopped at Kroger, purchased some fresh groceries and stocked up on a fantastic meat deal: Pork Shoulder was only $1.99/lb. This was a great stock up price! I purchased two 8 lbs pork shoulders, but you’ll have to check back later to see what I did with it. I also got the rack of ribs at a great stock up price.

After this I stopped at Costco and purchased a Costco Rotisserie Chicken ($4.99) and a Prepackaged Cesar Salad ($8.99). I’ve already written about my love for the rotisserie chicken, though I often forget how much I really do love it until its in my possession. This wonderful blog post, breaks down the cost of making one’s own chicken vs costco chicken – honestly, the price and convenience can’t be beat! We had chicken salad sandwiches, chicken Cesar salad, chicken quesadillas. My kiddo had some quesadillas, and dipped chopped up chicken in BBQ sauce.We always have shredded Mexican cheese, BBQ sauce, sour cream, and tortillas on hand. This chicken fed two adults and a toddler for more than 3 meals! The salad was used for one of those meals, and a side for two others. We easily spent less than $5 a meal for all of those meals.

Meatball Subs

These meatballs have become a family favorite. I make them regularly. I make at least a double batch and then freeze them in bags of 10-12 meatballs. Unfortunately, I can’t claim ownership of this recipe, it hails from Budget Bytes, a delicious, budget friendly blog. I used these meatballs to make Salisbury steak meat balls a few weeks back (see the post here). They are delicious. While I have managed to find a variety of uses for them, we most commonly use them in classic spaghetti & meatballs, and meatball subs. Both meals are incredible quick and easy. 
I just reheat the meatballs in sauce, put them on a bun, with provolone cheese, and place under the broiler until the cheese is melted. Super easy, and super satisfying! 

Stuffed Bell Peppers

This is a family favorite and I am happy to say a (somewhat) toddler approved meal. I started making this at least five years ago, and have lost the original recipe. Regardless, I’ve made many changes over the years. The current version has to be the most satisfying, and its very busy-mom/OAMC/freezer friendly!
When I first started making this recipe, I cut the bell peppers length wise, and made little boats. I baked them in a casserole dish. Later I begun doubling our recipe, and freezing a second tray. More recently I discovered that it was possible to make these in the crock pot! Not only does this require significantly less active cooking time, it requires quite a bit less prep. The recipe below makes approximately 10 peppers. I cooked 5 the other day (enough for dinner and left overs) and then froze the remaining peppers. As they are individually freezable, you can choose how many you want to freeze and/or cook in the future. Lastly, I included some suggestions, these are quite customizable to your taste.

Taco Stuffed Bell Peppers

Ingredients
  • 1 lb ground beef (or ground turkey)
  • 1 med onion, chopped
  • 1 can black beans*
  • 1 can pinto beans*
  • 2 packages taco seasoning**
  • 1/2 cup water (per taco seasoning directions)
  • 10 bell peppers
  • 1/2 cup salsa (or Rotel)
  • 1 block cream cheese
  • 1 cup shredded Mexican/taco cheese
Optional ingredients & toppings
  • additional shredded Mexican/taco cheese
  • sour cream
  • hot sauce
  • crushed tortilla chips
  • Jalapenos
*You can substitute cooked dry beans, I just didn’t know how to make them until recently. Check out Mary’s post for more info. 

**I purchase this ingredient in bulk at Costco. I know some people make their own. (Another project for the future!). Use enough seasoning for 2-2.5 lbs worth of meat.

Directions:

  1. Drain and rinse beans. Set aside.
  2. Brown the ground beef.
  3. Add onions, beans, taco seasoning, and water to the pan.
  4. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally until onions begin to soften (approx 5 minutes)
  5. This is a good time to cut the tops off the bell peppers, and clean out the seeds/insides. Set aside for later.
  6. Stir in 1/4 C salsa or Rotel
  7. Add in cream cheese – I slice mine up into chunks to make it easier to blend
  8. Stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup shredded cheese based on your preferences
  9. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
  10. Scoop the mixture into the bell peppers. Top with shredded cheese
To Freeze: Place peppers upright on a pan or plate. Freeze over night. Wrap individually or put in bag or container.
To Cook (in slow cooker) Place peppers in slow cooker with 1/4 C salsa + 1/4 C water. Cook on low for 4 to 6 hours. You can also use taco sauce in the slow cooker instead of salsa and water.
To cook (in oven): This requires an additional step. Before stuffing, boil bell peppers for approximately 5 minutes to soften and start the cooking process. Then follow the steps listed above. When complete, cover the bottom of a casserole dish with salsa, or taco sauce, place peppers and bake covered for 20 minutes at 350. When cooking this way, I slice the tops of the peppers, then length wise to make boats, so a cover can fit on my dish. You can fit 4 upright peppers in a square casserole dish, or 4 pepper boats (2 whole peppers). They could be frozen this way as well. 
To Serve: Eat each pepper as is or topped with crushed tortilla chips, hot sauce, jalapenos, or whatever other topping you may enjoy.  

Variations & notes: 
  • While it was not part of the first recipe I used, many versions of this include cooked rice. I’ve never made it with rice, but you could add it. In addition to onions, you can add bell pepper (I was left with an entire bowl of diced bell pepper from the tops), mushrooms, or other veggies (like corn).
  • We used salsa since my toddler cannot eat spicy foods, but prior we usually used Rotel. I’d probably add some chipotle peppers in adobo if we could eat spicy now. 
  • I like this combo of beans and meat, but you could double the meat, or use only one type of beans, or do all beans or beans and rice for a vegetarian version. I’ve never tried it, but I bet this would taste good with chicken or pork also. 
  • I’ve seen versions of this made with raw meat. As 6 hours on low in a slow cooker is more than enough time to cook raw ground beef, this would cut way down on prep time, but I’m not sure how mixing all the ingredients (spices) together raw would work. 
  • Finally, we’ve used pretty much this same filling with some additional taco sauce to make taco stuffed pasta shells…. another recipe which is delicious as well as easily prepared and frozen. 

OAMC Session #2- Cinnamon Sweet Potatoes, Wings, Fried Rice, and Fried Chicken

MaryP and I undertook our second Once A Month Cooking (OAMC) session this week, and chose my friend BethAnne from our waiting list of people who would like to join us. Her heartfelt pleading and willingness to drive 30+ minutes to join us the next evening after she got off work won me over in the end. Since my mom and I have easy access to Costco, we bought all the ingredients and just asked that BethAnne bring a large cutting board, good knife, and her own freezer bags. She has a REALLY nice knife, by the way, which is good because we soon learned that she should not be left unattended with a food processor. BethAnne only cooks for herself and her teenage son most nights, but opted to package her meals to feed a family of four, since they often have company and also enjoy leftovers. We made seven servings of the following: Fried Mustardy Chicken, Cinnamon Sweet Potato Bites, Chinese Wing Marinade, and Cauliflower Fried Rice. The cost per meal came to $4.85 (for 4 servings).

3 hrs = 35 individual meals + 9 side dishes

 Fried Mustardy Chicken

Maybe a weird family name for this dish, but my mother has been making it since I was a child and it never ceases to please. I don’t even particularly like mustard, but it adds a tangy flavor to this chicken that cannot be missed. We used pounded chicken thighs for this dish, despite a little reluctance from my mother to use anything but breasts. Personally, I find breast meat boring, dry, and expensive. They came out DELICIOUS. For lack of any good sales, we bought the frozen bags of chicken thighs from Costco, which came to $2.19/lb. The benefit of using this meat is that each piece barely needed pounding, which is a plus when you’re doing two whole Costco-sized bags!
When we first started experimenting with eating mostly Paleo, we discovered the versatility and joy the sweet potato provides. You can only eat them baked or as fries so many times, though. This is one of our favorite ways to eat them, but I abhor the peeling and chopping. Therefore my sweet potatoes often have a glorious and thriving afterlife in the back of my veggie rack, complete with purple sprouted arms reaching for the heavens in potato ecstasy. Having knife-happy guests over seemed like a perfect solution, especially when the three of us decimated 13 lbs of raw sweet potatoes in under 10 minutes, laughing and talking the whole time. This dish is obviously also vegetarian/vegan friendly, which is something we have been getting many requests for.

Beautiful BethAnne posing with her potato bounty.
We each bagged up our desired amount of roughly chopped sweet potato, and added a dollop of coconut oil, a hefty sprinkle of cinnamon, and a dash of salt, then shook the living daylights out of our bags before freezing. 
Sweet Potato, Cinnamon, Coconut Oil, Salt


Chinese Wing Marinade

I first saw this recipe on Food Network, and when Andrew Zimmermen mentioned the words “ancient Chinese recipe” I was sold. He spent almost 20 years trying to perfect this recipe, and swears that all ingredients must be precisely measured for the proper flavor. I’ll admit, it was a rather pricey undertaking the first time I made it, with a lot of time spent scouring our local Asian market (did you know you can purchase fresh pork uterus there?!). But many of the ingredients such as the chilis and star anise were practically a one-time investment for many batches of marinade. Sake is by far the most expensive ingredient, but can be purchased for $0.01 per mL. The flavor of this dish is unlike anything I have ever tasted, and completely worth the hassle. We put our marinade ingredients in gallon bags to be frozen, so that wings can be added later and allowed to marinate. I like to let mine sit for 24 hours after adding the wings, shaking and turning often. (You can also add the wings before freezing.) We just pour the wings and marinade onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 400 for 45 minutes, turning once. A word to the wise: do not attempt to eat the baked ginger slice, no matter how brown, gooey, and delicious it appears (ask me how I know). *full body shiver*

Even yummier than it is pretty.

Wings marinating and ready to cook.


Cauliflower Fried Rice

I swear you don’t miss the rice.

We love fried rice, and when I saw this recipe on one of my favorite sites, The Recipe Critic, I knew I had to try it adapted with cauliflower rice so we could eat it guilt-free. I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I go on and on (and on) about cauliflower rice, but 100% of people who have sampled my lunch at work (more than you would believe) are astounded at how delicious it is. I practically have to growl and eat hunched over my food to keep the vultures away, nurses are a curious and hungry lot. We used frozen organic mixed vegetables from Costco, and doubled the amount called for. We substituted a head of cauliflower (about 2 lbs) for the rice required in this recipe, and found that Costco had the best deal for 2.2 lbs of pre-cut (swoon!) cauliflower for only $3.79. With no swearing or cauliflower-destruction mess involved. You simply pulse the cauliflower florets 2-4 times in a food processor (or use a grater) until it is the size of grains of rice, and voila! Since these will be frozen and therefore will be soft when reheated, there is no need to cook. We also added chopped Costco rotisserie chicken and crumbled cooked bacon, because what isn’t better with bacon? Packaging this meal was a breeze, we simply added each ingredient as we prepared it, which made for a beautifully layered finished product. To prepare, one must simply defrost and heat in a large frying pan (we chose to add the soy sauce then). 

Cauliflower Fried Rice w/Chicken & Bacon

Cauliflower rice is great to have on hand for easy meal pairing.

We are working on getting all of our recipes added into the recipe page.  Please bear with us.