Monday, April 26, 2010

Thinking Outside the Boxes & Cans

It's day 3 in the Austin Food Bloggers Challenge where Austin bloggers take a typical basket of items one would receive from their local food pantry via the CAFB, supplemented with $30.00 from the food stamp program and a few bucks from the WIC program. Our mission is to take these items, along with a few of the items we might normally keep in our pantry on a daily basis, and create some nutritious, delicious meals that will stretch out to feed a typical average family for a week.

With stretch being the key word here, I'm not used to stretching my mind to play "Chopped" without access to a Food Network-like pantry. I may not be serving my food to celebrity foodie judges, but I am serving these meals to the most important people in my life - my family. My first challenge was coming up with a menu. I usually make a weekly menu, but it's based on my desires for trying new recipes while mixing in old favorites. This week's challenge forced me to look at my menus from a completely different perspective. While sitting down to figure this out, I had to take into consideration that, at the end of paying bills, I would probably not have any "extra money" to just go pick up those extra basic ingredients - let alone any "exotic ingredients" - that I normally would to try in some new recipe. What if I had to make a decision between getting that beautiful, fresh produce from Central Market or paying the phone bill and instead buying canned veggies and fruit? What if this was the week we needed toiletries? What if my daughter's birthday was this week and she wanted a party and I had to figure out if we could actually do this or politely ask her to understand that we just could not afford the cost of a birthday cake?

Seem a bit extreme? Unfortunately, it's not. For a large portion of our society, these decisions and more are made every day. The more I investigate and learn about our local hunger issues, the more frustrated I get. I find that, like most important issues, it's all about awareness and information first, followed by small, individual actions that by themselves do not make change, but when put together, make a real difference and can effect a change. I hope to take information I've learned and share it with more of my friends so that they, too, can share with their friends and maybe we will start a new positive buzz about changing the face of hunger.

Back to the menu - since the special this week on meat at my local grocery store was a choice between a value pack of lean round steak and some fatty pork chops, I decided to go with the beef. It will work better with the food my family is used too. Also, by buying it in bulk at the "value pack" price, I can actually grind some of it into ground round for burger recipes and spend less than if I bought regular ground beef. I started thinking literally outside of the box. I took some of my family's favorite meals and changed them up a bit to accommodate the items in my "new" pantry. I also spoke to quite a few friends that I regularly exchange recipes with and asked them about a time when they had to really watch their pennies. What were some of their tricks? Ends up, quite a few of my friends have fallen on hard times at some point in their lives (not including those fun college years of surviving on mac-n-cheese and hot dogs). They had lots of ideas to share on how they creatively stretched those dollars. Coupons, co-ops, growing your own gardens and using fresh herbs for seasonings, extending pasta dishes, potlucks, soups and slow-cooked meals were all touched on. With all of that info and the items and budget I was given, here is what I came up with for one week's worth of dinners.

Day 1 - Spaghetti Bolognese, Garlic Toast, Fruit Cocktail, Mixed Green Salad

Day 2 - Amy's Lasagna Soup, Crispy Chipolte Quesadillas

Day 3 - Fresh Garden Herb Grilled Steak, Baked Potatoes, Herb Butter Lettuce Salad with Avocado, Pears Simmered in Cinnamon

Day 4 - Chimi Churi Steak Tacos, seasoned Rice and Beans, Avocado Salad

Day 5 - Gnocchi with Carbonara Sauce, Corn Fritters, Cucumber Pickle Salad

Day 6 - Breakfast for Dinner, Baked Oatmeal with Peaches, Candied Bacon

Day 7 - Leftover Pizza - (homemade pizza dough with a wide range of leftovers from fridge to put on as toppings)

Of course, my family has no problem eating cereal for breakfast everyday so that was not a challenge - not as healthy as I'd like, but in budget! Giving up sodas and fancy coffee creamers for a week will actually have a "good" reverse reaction as well.

Doing this project for only a week does not come anywhere close to understanding what hunger feels like and I won't even pretend to understand that sinking feeling of sadness that comes when you kiss your child goodnight and they tell you they are still hungry. We are already the most charitable nation on Earth and yet we still see the face of hunger in most every town. Together we can educate, raise awareness and continue to take those necessary, small, individual steps towards meaningful change.
Won't you join me? Because when it comes to thinking outside the box and stretching your dollar, look no further than your local Capital Area Food Bank, where they turn every five dollar donation into twenty five dollars! I'm jus' sayin'!

Amy's Amazing Lasagna Soup

Lasagna Soup

1 lb. ground beef
1. onion, chopped
Lasagna Hamburger Helper
6 C. water
1 large & 1 small can diced tomatoes ( I use 2 14oz. cans)
1 can corn
1 zucchini, chopped
2 T. Parmesan cheese

Open one box of Lasagna Hamburger Helper and set aside. Saute beef and onion. Drain well and add 1 seasoning packet of Lasagna Hamburger Helper, water, tomatoes, corn, Parmesan cheese. Cook 10 minutes. Next, add Lasagna noodles and zucchini. Simmer 20 minutes; sprinkle Parmesan, serve and enjoy! I serve with a salad and garlic bread sticks.