Archive for the ‘Tips and Tricks’ Category


Isn’t it a pretty color?

I don’t remember when I first made this pretty side dish, but it became an instant hit. Sweet and tart, and it makes the kitchen smell so good while it is cooking. It wasn’t long before I was bringing it to Thanksgiving every year, and I make it occasionally in the off-season and have more than once made a huge batch and canned it.

It is a bit labor intensive; there’s lots of standing over the stove and stirring. I tried roasting it in the oven once (which is how I make my regular applesauce when I’m making a big batch for canning) and the results were not nearly as good.

I almost always double, and sometimes triple or quadruple this batch. Because fresh cranberries are often only available in October and/or November, I grab several bags and throw them in the freezer to have on hand all year.

Some people prefer this warm; I will eat it warm, but prefer it cold from the frig.

Cranberry Applesauce

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsps. water
  • 4 cups chopped apples
  • 1-1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp grated lemon peel (I rarely have this, and often just dash in some lemon juice)

In a large saucepan, heat sugar and water over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Stir in apples, cover and cook for 5 minutes, stirring several times. Stir in cranberries; cook and stir for about 8 minutes or until cranberries begin to pop. Cover and cook 5 minutes more or until apples are tender, stirring several times.

Add cinnamon, ginger and lemon peel. Cook and stir about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat; mash until texture reaches desired consistency.


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Anyone who dinks around on Facebook and Pinterest knows that a simple “hack” to make life easier isn’t always as simple as it seems. But I have one you can do with just a twist-tie, and I learned it from my beloved grandfather.

Grandpa with camera

Grandpa Ed with his beloved camera.

Grandpa Ed was a gardener and a dedicated tinkerer. He earned his living fixing air conditioners, furnaces, and other odds and ends. Tinkering extended into every part of his life. He tinkered in the garden, trying new varieties of onions, peppers and other veggies. He tinkered with his camera, earning himself the nickname “Grandpa Flash.” He tinkered in the kitchen, making his own fruit leather, using a bread machine, and tweaking recipes. He tinkered with computers, learning new programs, creating greeting cards, and even writing his and Grandma’s life stories and desktop publishing them with photos.

After he passed away, I somehow inherited his bread machine and his food dehydrator. When they arrived in my home, they had a tiny touch of Grandpa Ed’s brilliant tinkering attached to them. When I went to plug one in for the first time, I found the cord wrapped around the appliance and secured by a twist-tie. Didn’t look like much until I untwisted the tie. After unwinding the cord, I found the twist-tie attached to the plug end of the cord by a simple twist, leaving the ends free to secure the rest of the cord.

plug hack

Keep your twist tie handy by attaching it to your cord.

This touch of genius means you never have to go searching for a new twistie, nor do you have to deal with loose cords flying around in your cabinets every time you pull out an appliance.

plug hack2

Use the tie to secure the plug end to the rest of the cord after wrapping around the appliance.

While I no longer have either of Grandpa’s appliances (sometimes regret getting rid of the bread machine) several of my small appliances, from my blender to my food processor, sport a twist-tie on their plug end.

Today, I added a new tie to a new-to-me appliance. And I thought of Grandpa Ed.

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We love this tasty dish from Practical Paleo, but I despise making meatballs. The process is just tedious and messy. So I’ve found a way to maximize output and minimize mess – at least how many times I have to make a mess.

This meatball recipe uses nuts and veggies as the binder for the pork as opposed to eggs or breadcrumbs. The result is a sneaky way to get a little extra nutrition and fewer carbs. The original called for cooking these tidbits in a skillet first, but we found we actually prefer the bit of crunch from not cooking them ahead. (Not to mention having one less dish to wash!)

Here are my meatball tips:

  1. I double the batch. This means I’m making this family favorite once but getting more than one meal.
  2. I use my cookie scoop/melon baller to measure out the meatballs. This ensures they are the same size without a lot of guesswork.
  3. I put enough in a pan for dinner. The rest go on a cookie sheet to freeze. After being frozen, I put them in a freezer container and label. From there, I only pull out what I need for the next meal and bake as usual.

Thanksgiving Stuffing Meatballs

meatballs and corn

Thanksgiving stuffing meatballs with corn on the cob. Yummy!

  • 2 lbs ground pork
  • 2 Tbsps. Italian Sausage Spice Blend (recipe below)
  • 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped*
  • 1/4 cup celery, finely chopped*
  • 1/4 cup carrot, finely chopped*
  • 1/4 chestnuts, walnuts, pecans, finely chopped*

*I put all these ingredients in my mini food processor. Speeds up the prep time.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine pork and spice blend until will combined. Then combine onion, celery, carrot, and nuts with the meat mixture until well combined.

Form into 1-inch meatballs. Place in an oven-safe dish or on a baking sheet and bake approximately 25-30 minutes or until cooked all the way through.

To use frozen meatballs: Place as many as you need on a baking dish or baking sheet and bake at 425 for 30 minutes or until cooked through.

Italian Sausage Spice Blend

  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 Tbsp. fennel seeds, ground
  • 1 Tbsp. ground sage
  • 1 Tbsp. garlic powder
  • 1 Tbsp. onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp. white pepper (or 1 tsp. black pepper)
  • 2 tsps. dried parsley (optional)

*I mix up a big batch of this (like, triple) and keep it on-hand in my spice cupboard. I tend to leave out the fennel, and it is still tasty. You can use 2 tablespoons of this per pound of meat to make sausage.

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love my deep freeze. I freeze all sorts of things to have on hand to make cooking and prep work easy. Here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks for making your freezer work like a second pantry.

Chopped bell peppers

Chopped bell peppers ready to be frozen on a cookie sheet. Freezing in this method prevents clumping.

Chop veggies and freeze on cookie sheets. Peppers, onions, sweet potatoes, mushrooms and more can be chopped, frozen on cookie sheets, and then stored in freezer containers in this method. When a recipe calls for 1/2 cup chopped onion or bell pepper, (like Pineapple Chicken Fajitas) you’ve got them ready to go. (Note: these veggies are best used in recipes where they will be cooked, and not left raw. If your recipe calls for raw onion/pepper, buy what you need for the raw portion, and chop up and freeze the rest!)

Freeze sauces, juices, and broths in ice cube trays. Pesto (like for my turkey burgers) freezes great in ice cube trays. Pineapple juice, tomato paste, and chicken broth are also handy to have frozen in 1 or 2 tablespoon measurements. Freeze in ice cube trays, then pop into freezer containers. (Pineapple juice, prune juice, and a few other juices don’t freeze super solid, so a lidded ice cube tray can be nice for these.)

Freeze shredded cheese. I keep shredded cheddar and shredded mozzarella on hand at all times. Then we are ready to go for pasta, pizza, and taco nights.

Rectangular freezer containers

Rectangular freezer containers. You can see the top one labeled with a dry erase marker. It is full of shredded carrot.

Square plastic freezer containers are AMAZING. They use all the space you have, stack and nest well, and prevent crushing. And they are reusable!!! They come in 1-pint, 2-pint, quart, and 4-quart sizes. One pint size is just right for a pound of ground beef, so I buy it in 10 lb. tubes, slice it with a knife and put in a container. They stack neatly in the bottom of my deep freeze.

Label plastic freezer containers with dry erase marker. Yes! It works. No more searching for masking tape and a pen to label things. (I still do that sometimes too.) But for the reusable containers, the dry erase will stay put until you are ready to wash the container.

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Now that you know how and why I make a meal plan from Part 1 and Part 2, it might be helpful to know how my meal plan actually works in action. Here is a real-life example of what happens in my house.

Week One

My shopping was on Tuesday, so my meal plan began Tuesday evening. Here is what we actually made. (Not entirely sure what the original was, but it is important to see what we made so you know how this week played out.)

Tuesday: Fish with cornbread

stuffing for pineapple chicken fajitas

Pineapple chicken fajitas

Wednesday: Crockpot Cheater’s Chili
Thursday: Pineapple Chicken Fajitas
Friday: Spaghetti
Saturday: Tacos
Sunday: Vanilla Pork Chops with Spinach Casserole
Monday: Crockpot Pulled Pork

After this, we had a fair amount of cornbread, chili, fajitas, pork chops, spinach casserole, and pulled pork left in our refrigerator, along with some meatballs and sausage from the previous week.

Week Two

Here was what my original meal plan said:

Tuesday: Chicken Breasts with Marinated Broccoli

Crunchy Chicken Salad

Crunchy Chicken Salad

Wednesday: At a friend’s house – Take Broccoli Tortellini Salad and Raspberry Fool
Thursday: Pork Burgers with Sweet Potato Fries
Friday: Leftover Pizza (in the freezer) or Margarita Steak
Saturday: Camper’s Breakfast Hash
Sunday: Turkey Apple Cheddar Salad
Monday: Crunchy Chicken Salad

This week was a pretty set schedule for a summer week, and I chose items based on what we had going on. The chicken breasts had to be cooked, as they’d been sitting in the frig. (I’d gotten them at a great price the week before and the intention was for hubby to smoke them in his smoker Sunday with the Pulled Pork, but it rained, so he did the pork in the crockpot.)  Wednesday’s dinner date with friends was set. Saturday and Sunday I had an event out of town for most of the afternoon and wouldn’t be able to cook.

What actually happened:

Tuesday: Had leftover pork chops & spinach casserole for lunch. Made the chicken breasts in the oven, but ended up having raw veggies, cottage cheese and corn from the freezer as side dishes.

Wednesday:  Ate leftover spaghetti for lunch, while the girls ate spinach casserole and meatballs that were also leftover. Made the Tortellini Broccoli Salad in the morning, and prepped the puree for the fool. Made the fool in the afternoon.

Thursday: Made macaroni and cheese for lunch and ate it with applesauce, sausage, and carrots. Made pork burgers for supper, but did not make sweet potato fries. Instead had cottage cheese, cheesy green beans, and fresh fruit.

Friday: Ate fish and spinach casserole (leftover) for lunch. Had so many leftovers in the frig that we had chili, pineapple chicken fajitas and meatballs for supper.

Saturday: Finished the chili for lunch. Decided it made more sense to make the Turkey Apple Cheddar Salad for supper instead of for Sunday. My family ate that while I ate a packed dinner that I didn’t have to keep cold. (My event was outdoors and it was terribly hot and humid. Peanut Butter and Jelly with carrots, chips and a treat.)

Sunday: I took leftover Turkey Apple Cheddar Salad to my event for lunch. (It was not as hot, and I knew I’d be eating it shortly after I arrived.) Knew we’d be getting home right at about supper time, so we pulled the leftover pizza out of the freezer and heated it up.

Monday: Can’t for the life of me remember what we ate for lunch, but it was likely leftovers. That night I made the Crunchy Chicken Salad to use up some of the leftover chicken.

So as you can see, we still had the Camper’s Breakfast Hash left on the menu, so when meal planning came around, I had one less meal to worry about.

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stuffing for pineapple chicken fajitas

Pineapple chicken fajitas

In my weekly search for recipes, I ran across this one, in which I had written a note in the margin, “Good. Use more seasoning.”

I encourage you to make notes in your cookbooks. How else are you to know if you’ve already tried a recipe and hated it, or found it good, but not quite to your taste?  I always appreciate finding a frowny face or a “Yum!” next to a recipe I’d forgotten I’d tried. So get over your fear of breaking your teachers’ rule of not writing in your books. It took me years, but I finally did. (Here’s the book that did it.)

Making notes in your cookbooks allows you to rediscover and refashion recipes to your own liking. This fajita recipe is a perfect example. My notes said to use more seasoning than the 2 tablespoons originally indicated, and to use pineapple tidbits instead of chunks.

I was afraid the kids would reject it, the oldest always saying, “I don’t like cooked fruit! I don’t like peppers.”

girl eating fajita

Pineapple chicken fajitas

I made it anyway, and said daughter proclaimed it, “The best dinner ever!” much to my absolute amazement.

So here you go:

The Best Dinner Ever! Pineapple Chicken Fajitas

  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into strips
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • each medium green, red, and yellow bell peppers, julienned. (I used 1/2 of each because I only had 1.5 pounds chicken, and I chopped finely so my girls would be less likely to notice them.)
  • 1 medium onion, cut into thin wedges (Again, I cut very small.)
  • 5 Tbsps. fajita seasoning (Original recipe called for two tablespoons. My note said to use more seasoning, so I used a whole packet!)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 Tbsps. honey
  • 1 Tbsp. dried parsley flakes
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 (8-ounce) can pineapple tidbits, drained
  • flour tortillas
  • Optional toppings: shredded lettuce, sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese

In a large nonstick skillet, cook the chicken in oil for 4-5 minutes. Add peppers and onion; cook and stir 4-5 minutes longer. In a bowl, combine the seasoning mix and water; stir in the honey, parsley, garlic powder and salt. Stir into skillet.

Add pineapple. cook and stir for 1-2 minutes or until chicken juices run clear and vegetables are tender. Place chicken mixture in tortillas and fold or roll up, topping with desired toppings.

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Before I start actually sharing my weekly meal plans, I think it is important for everyone to know that I think you should use whatever meal-planning process works for you. This is what works for me, and achieves the goals I have for why I do this.(See Part 1.)

How my planning process works:

  • Have a regular weekly shopping day. For me, it is a day I’m downtown near the grocery store anyway for a kid’s activity. My day changes as needed: during the school year, it was Wednesday; now it is Tuesday because the activity has shifted. But knowing when I’m going tells me when I need to have a list ready.


  • The day before I go shopping, I look at the calendar. I’m a consultant with Usborne Books & More, and if I have an evening party, or there is a special activity in the late afternoon/early evening, then I might select a super simple meal (like eggs) or a slow-cooker meal, or a meal that can be prepped ahead and just reheated. Or I might know we’re going out of town and don’t need to cook a meal on a certain day. Or there is a special picnic/potluck for which I need to cook something appropriate.


  • Plan one meal (usually supper) for every day a meal is needed during the week. If we’re expected to be home all seven days, I plan seven meals. If we’re only home four, I plan four meals. If I’m inspired, sometimes I’ll plan an extra. They come in handy. 


  • Try for variety. For example: Beef one night. Chicken the next. All-in-one casserole or pasta, and/or stand-alone meat with side dishes. Plan side dishes as necessary. (I’m bad at side dishes.)


  • Check my list of favorite meals. Thumb through cookbooks and magazine clippings. I usually pick at least one new recipe every one or two weeks. I’m always looking for the next family favorite.


  • Write my menu on my frig whiteboard.Dry Erase Calendar


  • Make my grocery list. Look at the recipes, then look at what I have in the pantry/frig/freezer. What am I missing? Write it on my ongoing list. Do I want to double something so we have leftovers, or so I can make a freezer meal? Plan appropriately. Then go shopping and buy it all.

That’s it. That’s my planning process in a nutshell.

What I don’t do: strictly stick to eating a specific meal on a certain day. If I plan vanilla pork chops for Wednesday, and then realize I forgot to brine them, I’ll make Thursday’s Sweet Potato Sausage Hash instead. Some meals won’t move because of specific dates. (See Look at the calendar.) The point is, I have ALL the ingredients to make everything on the plan and I don’t have to go shopping again.  Sometimes, we have so many leftovers in the frig we decide we don’t need to cook a day, and I’ve got an extra meal to jump-start the next week’s planning.

And I love it when that happens. 🙂

What do you like about my process? What won’t work for you? How does your process work? I’d love to hear it!

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