Weight Watchers, Week Two

Week one was definitely a learning experience, but I did lose 1 1/2 pounds!  One of the lessons I came away with is that the only way I am going to be able to keep on track is by planning out my menus for the week.  Without that, there would have been too much temptation to just grab something or even run through the drive-through at a fast food place.  Kitchen scales make the planning much easier by taking the guesswork out of portion sizes.

This is a simple Excel spreadsheet that is easy to set up. I start by filling in any activity I have going on a specific day (the red in the center column) so I know how much time I will have to cook on that day.  I usually eat the same breakfast, so I only plan lunch and dinner.  I eat my main meal at lunchtime, and then a light meal for supper.  (It will probably be the other way around for most of you.)  I am careful to plan for leftovers, both so I don’t waste food and also because it means I don’t have to prepare another meal. I use the right-hand column to list anything I need to buy, and try not to make more than one trip to the grocery store each week. 
Now just because I planned all the meals for the week doesn’t mean that is what I ate.  I stuck pretty close to the plan for most of them, but forgot to get the fresh ginger for the Asian Ground Beef & Rice on Wednesday, so I used some of the ground beef to make a hamburger (without the bun), and had some kale salad as a side.  I was much later getting home on Thursday than I anticipated and didn’t have any rice cooked so I ate a sandwich.  Kayte had some Eggplant Parmigiana leftovers on Friday, so I ate that for lunch and had the tuna salad for supper. The point I am making is that although having something planned is great, it isn’t set in stone. Maybe you are just not in the mood for what is on the plan for that day, or life happens, so switch it with one of the other days or eat something else.
Well, enough about the planning – let’s get on to the food!  Here are six suggested meals for the coming week:
Baked Spiced Chicken – 8  This is for 2 drumsticks with skin and bone. Use a chicken breast with skin and bone instead for 7 points (it is much tastier when baked with skin and bone). Roll raw chicken in whatever your favorite mixture of spices is (chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, etc.) until completely coated so that you can’t see the raw chicken. Think the old-fashioned Shake & Bake, my favorite way is to dump spices into a gallon freezer bag and shake with the chicken. (Johnny’s garlic spread  from Costco is one of my favorites.) Bake at 400 degrees for 30-45 minutes, turning halfway through, or until done. The spice mixture will form a crunchy crust (don’t be afraid of the chili powder, it isn’t that spicy). Round out the meal with salad with light dressing (2 points) and/or fruit.  Add-ons for family could be baked or mashed potatoes, rice, bread and dessert.
Steak – 3  Lean steak is surprising low in points (this is figured for 3 oz.). Serve with small baked or boiled potato topped with 2 tablespoons light sour cream and chopped onions or chives (4 points) and roasted veggies or a salad with light dressing (2 points). Add-ons for family could be crusty bread and dessert.
Pork Cube Steaks – 9  This is for 4 oz. of lean pork, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic & onion powder, and paprika, coated with flour or masa harina (my favorite), and fried in 1 Tablespoon oil (it cooks fast, do not overcook). Serve with crudites (raw carrots, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, etc.) fruit, or a salad with light dressing (2 points). Add-ons for family could include rice, potatoes, bread and dessert.

Baked Salmon with Garlic & Dijon – 9   The recipe can be found here. This is for a generous 6 oz. of salmon. Serve with a side of roasted veggies or a salad with a squeeze of lemon juice instead of dressing for no added points or add a light dressing on the salad (2 points).  I prefer to use parchment paper instead of foil to line the baking dish.  Add-ons for the family could be rice or potatoes, bread and dessert. (Thank you, Lauren, for the picture and  recipe.)     

Pesto Pasta & Roasted Veggies – 9  This is a recipe from Kayte that she put together with items she had on hand and she says it’s a keeper.  Roast a variety of veggies (she used red peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts and carrots – use whatever you like, the more the better), combine veggies and cooked rigatoni or pasta of your choice (2 oz dry weight per serving) with a little feta and 1 tablespoon of pesto per serving and mix well. Pasta is high in points, so the goal is to minimize the amount of pasta and maximize the veggies. Keep in mind that the veggies shrink quite a bit during the roasting process, so use at least twice as many as you think you need.. Add-ons for the family could be cooked chicken or other meat, bread and dessert.

Slow Cooker Beef Stew – 8  The recipe can be found here.  A great dish for a busy day.  Prep the night before, refrigerate and start slow cooker before heading out for the day.  Nothing is better than coming in to a house filled with a wonderful aroma and dinner ready to serve.  It doesn’t really need anything as a side, but is good with 6 whole grain crackers (3 points), 1 small slice cornbread (4 points), or a biscuit (41 grams, 3 points).  Add-ons for family could be any of the above sides or crusty bread and dessert. Update: I made this and found it a bit bland. I added a can of fire-roasted tomatoes to the leftovers and it was really good. I will definitely make it again and add the tomatoes at the beginning of the cook time.

You may have detected a theme here in the first two posts.  I am trying to post a recipe for chicken, beef, pork, fish, meatless, and slow cooker each week. I am working a two more posts, one that will focus on last minute meals when you have run out of time and/or energy, and another one on some good veggie side dishes that add few or no points.  Fruit is always a great add-on that doesn’t add points as long as it doesn’t have added sugar.

Here is a previous post in this series:


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.  

Making Changes – Cooking at Home

My mother volunteered me to write a post about the benefits of cooking at home, and I admit, I feel like a bit of a fraud writing it. Mostly because I live with two devils (my husband and 10 year old son) who are infamous for such lines as, “Oh, let’s just order something” or, “I want Zia Taqueria!” To which my instant and mouthwatering mental response is, “Well crap, now I want a fish taco and nothing else will ever make me as happy as that fish taco and dear God in heaven turn the car around and drive to Zia or I will kill you all right now.” *Sigh* Thank goodness I have my (almost) 2 year old son to balance the other two’s unending temptation-filled mutterings by his sheer power to ruin any seated meal, let alone one had out in public. Dining out with Augustine? It just should not be done.
Augustine ~ 7 months old.

All that being said, I guess I should be proud that we eat at home roughly 6 nights per week. Eating at home entails consuming food prepared here, not just bringing Five Guys burgers and fries home and eating them at the dinner table, with or without actual dinnerware. Except for about four weeks last month when I was in the throes of first trimester nausea/exhaustion/crying misery. But we won’t count that, right? 

Could be a fetus, could be the fruits of too much Five Guys.
Things that I find make us drastically less likely to order a last minute pizza or something else I’ll regret are budgeting, menu planning, freezer cooking, and my pressure cooker. Budgeting keeps me aware and accountable to how much we spend on groceries vs. eating out. When I know takeout will cost us $35 and how many meals I could feed us on that same amount, takeout just doesn’t taste as good. Menu planning in advance allows me to have ingredients on hand, thus eliminating one excuse for not cooking. Freezer cooking gives me access to a freezer full of either ready-made meals, or things I can just throw in the oven while I sit on the couch and obsess about how much harder pregnancy is at 34 than it was at 23. Finally, my pressure cooker prevents us eating takeout due to not having enough time to bake/roast/boil (insert something obnoxiously time consuming here; i.e. boil brown rice).


Having a ready stock of easily prepared sides is also helpful. Sweet potatoes sitting on the kitchen counter in my fruit and vegetable rack, staring at me condescendingly day after day is usually sufficient for me to declare, “That’s it, you guys are going in the pressure cooker for 20 minutes…now let me fish something out of the freezer to eat with you.” Costco has a great selection of frozen vegetables (many organic), which are a simple and healthy side to any main dish. One of our favorites is stir fry veggies, which we saute tossed in garlic, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
As you can probably infer from all of this, dining at home is an active struggle and something we tackle on a daily basis. But most days I win, and to reward myself we budget and meal plan with one day per week allotted to eating out. Really, the whole thing is absurd because more often than not my husband and I look at each other across the dinner table and agree that no restaurant can compare to my mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe, my meatloaf, or his Jalapeno Cilantro chicken (recipe coming soon!). And then Augustine screams and pegs one of us with his food-laden fork like a javelin from 6 feet away, Ayden starts gagging on an imaginary piece of chicken gristle, and we know that the four of us should not be allowed to dine in public anyway.

We are open to renting him out to food addicts as aversion therapy.

I am including some other links to previous posts that are also relevant and most of them also have recipes.  I apologize for having all the links, but it helps to keep the post from getting too long and rambling.
Check back on Friday for the last post in our series – “Making Changes – Choosing Healthy Food”.

OAMC & Freezer Cooking

We have put out a few posts referring to bulk cooking and stocking up your freezer. Kayte & Mary even had their own freezer session. I have been doing some form of this type of cooking for the better part of 4 years. Sometimes I feel it’s the only reason I get a hot meal on the table for dinner. Having a stocked freezer is also helpful when you’re meal planning.  By planning ahead, you don’t have to make so many trips to the grocery store (save time, $$$, and gas) and you can take the time to buy items when they are on sale, and take advantage of opportunities to save money by buying bulk.
Currently I’m working on getting together all my food for this month, a bit for next month and stocking up for when the baby comes. On top of this, I don’t want to stray too far off budget. We use freezer meals two to four times a week. Other meals are left over, new recipes, something we are craving, or occasionally eating out or fast food.  

My freezer from bottom to top (Left to Right): (1) egg crate of slow cooker meals, (2) two baskets, one with raw meat, 
and salmon, the other with meatballs and soup, (3) Popsicle, biscuits, veggies, chicken stock, and 
(4) baskets of frozen veggies!
While working on my current shopping list, it struck me that there’s plenty of ways out there to get this done. Generally speaking, all of these methods fall under the title OAMC (once-a-month-cooking) or freezer meals, but there are certainly different ways to go about making this happen. Honestly, first and foremost you have to choose the way that works best for you and your family. For us, it’s a little bit of everything. 
The first method is really a way of easing yourself into it. Planning on making spaghetti for dinner with your own homemade/meat sauce? Make two. For most recipes, the actual time it takes to double a recipe is only marginally more than a single recipe. Sauce freezes great, particularly flat in a Ziploc bag. My favorite sauce takes a good 30 to 45 minutes to make from prep to finish. I can pull a bag out of the freezer, defrost over night, or in water for a few minutes (just long enough to un-stick from the bag), then put into a pot on the stove, and by the time the spaghetti is done, it’s ready to go. This process works great for sauces, pasta dishes, and marinades. I recently used this method for chicken enchilada pasta, and Rio chicken.  
Enchiladas made with Rio Chicken. Pre-“Flash-Freeze”, and bagged for freezer
For marinades, I just make a double batch and freeze the meat with the marinade (it marinates while it defrosts) and then cook like normal – grill, bake, slow cooker, or pressure cooker. This brings me to one of my favorite methods: dump meals. A friend of mine and I did a giant cooking session, all dump meals. No cooking required. Throw ingredients and spices in the bag and freeze. Dump the defrosted ingredients in your crock-pot, and go.  You can adopt most slow cooker meals to this method. If you have a favorite, buy the ingredients, or buy double, bag and label for the future. 
Crazy Meal Prep: 20 “Dump” Meals for Each person. Look at all that meat!

Finally, there is full-blown once a month cooking (OAMC). This involves extensive shopping and a full blown game plan. Ideally, you make enough meals for the entire month, this type may or may not involve repeats, and the meals may or may not be fully cooked. It all depends on what you want in your fridge. This method is great, if you’ve got time, enough kitchen space, and perhaps a toddler-free environment. It does require pretty extensive planning, as far as ingredients, and order of prep and such to make it work. I’ve always thought it’d be a really great choice, if you had a few friends who you wanted to work with and split up meals. You can also do “mini sessions”, cooking a few meals at once, or perhaps all your meals that involve ground beef. Mini sessions are especially ideal, if you are watching sales, and a particular ingredient goes on sale (like meat).
Don’t forget to keep track of whats in your freezer

My current game plan involves a bit of all these methods. Last weekend, I found chicken breast on sale for less than $2/lb (stock up price!). I purchased two packs, for 8 lbs total. I turned 4 lbs of chicken into Rio Chicken. I split the chicken into 2 bags of cooked chicken (1 lb each), and a tray of enchiladas, and then ate some for dinner. It was the bomb! I cooked the remaining chicken, saving a pound to have in the fridge for my son’s meals this week, and the remainder went to a double batch of Chicken Enchilada Pasta.This fed us for dinner, with enough left overs for another meal, and two trays of pasta for the freezer. The grocery store also had frozen veggies on sale, so I picked up a crazy amount (20+ bags/boxes). Keep an eye out for a post on how awesome frozen veggies are!
Buying on sale in bulk, allowed me to save a lot of money, and time!

Save Time and Money by Menu Planning

One of the most effective ways of saving money and cutting down on mealtime stress is to menu plan.  I know that some of you are shuddering at the very thought, but stick with me.  There are many different ways to menu plan, and it is important to find one that works best for you.  There are also web-based services that will do the planning for you at a reasonable cost.  (I will be adding links to some of these at the bottom of the post.)  I prefer to do my own planning, and will share what works for me.

A few of the many different ways include planning all three meals, lunch and dinner, or just dinner; planning for a week, bi-weekly or monthly; assigning themes to each day of the week such as Mondays are Mexican, Tuesdays are soup, Wednesdays are chicken, Thursdays are pizza, etc.; making a list of meals that you want to fix in the next week and not assigning them to any particular day; and whatever other method that may work for you.  One of the crucial elements that they all have in common is making sure that you have all the ingredients on hand to fix all the meals (obviously that may not apply to a monthly plan, but you would need to have a specific grocery plan to cover the month).

Start simply and stay flexible!  Kayte has just started menu-planning, so I am going to share her experience with you.  She is planning only the main meal for a week, since breakfasts tend to stay the same.  Lunches are leftovers or something simple for her and her toddler, and her husband and older son are at work or school all day.  The first thing we did was to print off a form (a simple Excel spreadsheet) and note what days had something scheduled that would affect cooking.  In her case, that is the two days that she works (on those days, her husband fixes whatever he wants).  On Saturdays, they plan an “Eating Out” meal, knowing that often that gets switched to Sunday.  This left only 4 meals to plan for the week.

The next thing we did was to make a list of what she had in her refrigerator, freezer and pantry, making a special note of what needed to be used soon.  (We kept that list to use for the next menu-planning session, marking off what was going to be used this week.)  Kayte’s comments after the first week of using the meal plan were that it was great not having to try to figure out what was for dinner every afternoon – just look at the list posted on the fridge.  It also eliminated daily grocery store runs. Her 10-year-old son also has a habit of asking repeatedly what was for dinner as soon as he gets home from school, and a few days into the week, he asked and then immediately said, “Oh wait, I can go look on the refrigerator.”

I usually plan for a week in advance, looking at sale ads and what I have on hand, and plan only my dinners.  I eat my main meal in the middle of the day, and eat very light in evening, mostly eating leftovers or sometimes just a bowl of cereal or yogurt and fruit.  (I will confess that I sometimes have a big bowl of popcorn and a glass of wine for supper.)  Since I cook only for myself, I am free to eat pretty much whatever is handy.  However, this last month I have been doing a Whole 30, which takes much more planning, so I planned out lunches and dinners for an entire month. (The meals in red are new recipes.)

Another thing you can do that makes it easier to come up with meals for your plan is to make a list of what meals you cook often and/or what your family really likes.  Make a special note of quick and easy (including slow cooker) meals for the days you have limited time to cook.  Here is a list of some quick and easy suggestions to get you started:

  1. Burritos (tortilla wrapped around any combination of beans, meat, cheese, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce or cabbage, sour cream or feta cheese, etc.)  A side of fruit is a bonus.
  2. Soup and a good bread (homemade or store bought)
  3. Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich
  4. Anything in a slow cooker that can be left to cook while you do other things
  5. Fried rice (leftover cooked rice, any kind of veggies and/or cooked meat, stir fry everything and add a scrambled egg (optional) and some soy sauce)
  6. Repurposed leftovers (or pull out all the leftovers and let each person build their own plate)
  7. Baked potato bar (potatoes baked in slow cooker plus toppings in separate bowls for everyone to make their own)
  8. Salad bar (greens, leftover cooked chicken, shredded cheese, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, chopped or cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, craisins, chopped apple, etc. in separate bowls for everyone to make their own)

A few months ago, I sat down with my daughter-in-law who was very skeptical about the benefits of menu-planning.  We started by making a list of everything she already had on hand, brainstormed potential lunches and dinners for her family (her, her husband, and three sons ranging in age from 2 to 8).  After planning the next week’s meals, all she had to buy to prepare them was one can of tomato sauce.  Needless to say, she was sold!  After a few weeks of planning, she told me that their grocery spending was 1/3 less than before she started.

There are several reasons it saves money.  You aren’t wasting food or buying unnecessary items because you have a plan for everything you buy.  Your refrigerator is not overstuffed, with forgotten leftovers turning green and fuzzy because they are out of sight.  You are eliminating emergency runs to the grocery store where, if you are like me, you always pick up a few things that aren’t on the list.
Keep it simple to start with.  There are lots of blog posts with information on how to do it, and, as I mentioned earlier, plans you can pay for to have someone else do it for you.  I am including a few links below, but know that there are plenty more out there.  I have not used any of the paid services, but I follow blogs that have comments very pleased with those services.

Good Cheap Eats – Planning easy economical meals
Money Saving Mom – Free printables, links to many other money-saving tips
Life As Mom  – Some free meal plans
eMeals – Meal plans sent to you (for a fee)
Plan to Eat – Meal plans done for you (for a fee)
Once a Month Mom – A variety of different freezer meals (free) and/or membership (fee).