Sunday, July 7, 2013

What We Eat -- Meal Planning for the Family with a Toddler

I swore that I would never put recipes on my blog, mainly because I'm a bit of an, um, unconventional cook in the kitchen. I get creative with what we have, but my recipes aren't exactly all-organic, beautiful, or award-winning. However, they are quick, versatile, and family-friendly, even for the family with a toddler and a tight budget, so I thought I'd share! I tend to go for a mix of healthy, organic, and old-fashioned, 1950s-Betty-Crocker-inspired meals.

I would also love to hear about your family meal planning for some new ideas! Please link up by commenting below!

These are the foods we always keep in the house and what we do with them:


Our favorites are: bananas, apples, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and pineapple.

Greek yogurt
  • Maple- and mango-flavored are our favorites! They can be paired with any fruit your family likes and/or granola to make parfaits.
  • A scoop of yogurt in the blender with a splash of milk and favorite fruit make perfect smoothies! E absolutely loves them!
  • If I run out of eggs, I use a scoop of yogurt as replacement in breads, pancakes, etc. In some things, it slightly changes the texture, but does the job!
Unsweetened Apple Sauce
  • Another great egg-substitute, especially in pancakes. I use about 3 tbsp. per egg called for in recipe.
  • Also, just a great lunch or afternoon snack for my toddler. You can add cinnamon to it to spice it up a bit. A few cubes of cheese on the side make it more filling and add protein.
  • Can be added to a smoothie.
Kid-Friendly Cereal
We always keep Kix, Chex, and Cheerios on hand. They can be used as a toddler-granola with yogurt, but my little one most often has some for breakfast or with a toddler-friendly trail mix to add to Baby Goldfish, and raisins.

Raisins & Other Dried Fruit
I have to add raisins just because E is obsessed with them, and I forget to buy them sometimes!

Pancakes & Waffles
  • I use a standard recipe from for my pancakes. Here's a link to an easy one I used this Saturday.
  • My little one loves pancakes with chunky applesauce in the batter (as an egg substitute) and any other fruit on top, particularly bananas.
  • She also will eat pancakes right out of the fridge, so I make extra and send them to day care with fruit for a breakfast.
Oatmeal/Cream of Wheat
You can do so much with oatmeal/cream of wheat. E loves it with fresh fruit or raisins, some applesauce mixed in, or a little brown sugar.

Fruit/Vegetable Breads
Homemade, "healthified" banana or zucchini breads are a favorite at our house. Here's another recipe -- this one for banana bread. I haven't actually tried this one, but it's similar to my mom's with healthier options. Adding raisins or chocolate chips is yummy too!


E loves carrot sticks, but raw ones are out due to the choking risk. I find that boiling them for 25-30 minutes makes them softest, so I boil a package at the beginning of the week and keep them in a Ziploc bag in the fridge. She snacks on them cold throughout the week. Mark and I eat them raw.

Other than fresh veggies like carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, and some other veggies that I sometimes steam in a stove-top steamer, I'm not ashamed to admit that we buy almost all of our veggie sides for lunches and dinners in the steam-bags. They're just quick, easy, and have far less sodium than canned. They also make it easier to have more variety and therefore more veggies in our diet. Our favorites are: broccoli, green beans, peas, brussels sprouts, asparagus, corn, etc.!

Sandwiches & Salads
We always keep lunch meat, lettuce, and sometimes tomato in the fridge to add to sandwiches or make salads with lunch meat/cheese. Cooked veggies from the night before make a great addition to salads or can be used as a lunch side.

Egg, Tuna, & Chicken Salads
  • I always keep canned tuna and chicken in the house for tuna/chicken salad sandwiches. Sometimes I just add a scoop to top a veggie salad. My mother-in-law puts mayo (2-3 tbsp to taste), mustard (about 1 tbsp), and Worcestershire sauce (about 1 tbsp) in her tuna salad, and it's delicious. We do the same for egg salad. E prefers egg salad, as she hasn't had tuna yet.
  • Curried Chicken Salad is a newer favorite of ours. If you prefer, you can use fresh chicken, but I've actually been quite happy with the Bumblebee canned premium chicken breast. I swore I'd never use it -- it just seemed wrong to can chicken, but I have to say... it's easy, and there are no fatty pieces. I mix 2 small cans or one large with 2-3 tbsp mayo, and about 4 tbsp curry powder (more or less to taste). If you have apple slices or grapes (halved), they're amazing mixed in. We love it on a toasted plain bagel or topped on a salad.
Crunchy Munchies
We do keep baked chips in the house, and I have some kettle-cooked salt & vinegar chips hidden somewhere in the kitchen... but I try to stick to: unsalted or lightly-salted pretzels, crackers, pita chips, organic tortilla chips, or veggie crisps. E also loves baby goldfish and some of the Gerber crunchy snacks, like puffs.

E loves her cheese! I buy whatever is on sale (cheese is expensive!). I try to avoid anything processed, but I do keep some Cabot American Cheese handy for grilled-cheese sandwiches.
E gets a few cheddar cubes in her lunch as a side, or melted in some hot lentil soup. Though I'm avoiding dairy right now, Mark and I usually love it on salads or on sandwiches.

I've always loved hummus, but now it's a permanent item on my grocery list. It's a great substitute for cheese on a sandwich, and is so yummy as a veggie or chip dip.

Canned Soups
I actually love some of the Progresso soups. They have really basic ingredients -- particularly the veggie ones, like Lentil soup. E loves it and has it for dinner usually once a week.


Dinners are really tricky for me. I like variety but can't afford to make a new meal every night. For sides, I usually do a veggie, then baked or mashed potatoes/sweet potatoes or whole-wheat bread for a starch. I sometimes cheat and buy the individually-wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes. They're just so easy. We also love butternut squash. I make it fresh when I can but keep some in the freezer for a quick side.

The supermarket deli is a great place to pick up unique sides occasionally (they can be expensive). But, one pound of potato salad or pasta salad can get us through a few meals and gives us some variety without extra work.

Main Courses
Here are a few of our favorite dinners:

Crockpot BBQ Pulled Chicken or Pork
You can make your own BBQ sauce or pick up a bottle at the store. I just put chicken breast or pork in the crockpot with the entire bottle of sauce -- on low for about 6-8 hours, then pull apart.
You can make it as simple or as complicated as you want -- you can add onions and peppers, or not.
Any of the sides listed above go well with this. I've even put my peeled, halved sweet potatoes in the crockpot with my meat to save time baking and to keep our apartment from overheating by using the oven. We've had this meal with deli potato salad and corn (steamed or on the cob, boiled for 5 minutes).

Veggie Burgers
I would love to make my own, but we often just buy the Morning Star Spicy Black Bean Burgers. Lettuce and tomato to top them, and any sides go well with them, but our favorites are baked potato or potato salad, and corn. 

This is E's absolute favorite meal, and it's so easy. My mother-in-law introduced me to this simple recipe, and as hard as I've tried, I can't screw it up. It's 1c. ketchup or tomato sauce and 1c. bread crumbs to about 1lb. of lean ground beef (or ground turkey), 1 egg to help it stay together, though the egg isn't necessary (baked at 350 for about 30-40 min).
  • I have made this meatloaf every way I can think of, and it hasn't failed me. One time I only had a little ketchup and no tomato sauce, so I added 1/2 c. BBQ sauce -- it was fantastic.
  • I've mixed about 1/4c. beef broth and 1/2c. ketchup in the bottom of our crockpot, then made 4 large meatballs out of the meat mixture, setting them on top of the broth/ketchup mixture. Cooked on low for 6-8 hours, it made moist, delicious, mini-meatloaves with a ketchup glaze.
  • I've done the same but put a can of beef broth and about 1/4 c. flour in the bottom of the crockpot, which makes a nice beef gravy with all the flavors of the meatloaf.
  • E prefers the beef, but ground turkey works just as well.
  • I've made my own bread crumbs, though the store-bought Italian ones are our favorite for this recipe. I've even used the stale heel of the bread loaf and broken it up into small pieces in a pinch.
Again, every side listed above is great with this, but our favorite combination is: mashed potatoes (with beef gravy), and cooked carrots.

Everyone knows pasta is amazing, especially with a toddler in the house. E's pasta preferences change by the day -- sometimes she likes it with beef and tomato sauce, sometimes just a little butter, sometimes just plain and cold from the fridge. We like to make lots of elbow macaroni and use it for a few things:
  • Sunday night sauce. I'm Italian, so I'm required by law to tell you that I make my own sauce from scratch. But if I was, say, a mom of a wild toddler who worked part time mornings and evenings, who wasn't quite as ambitious as, say, my mom, I would probably find a supermarket sauce that was sufficient and add my own spices, etc. Pour over cooked pasta, and voila!
  • Goulash is one of my favorite meals, and I'm still trying to perfect it. Right now, I like to simmer onions (and/or peppers) in a frying pan with a little butter or margarine, garlic (fresh or garlic powder), salt & pepper to taste, then add ground beef (or turkey) and simmer on med/low until beef is browned. I add this to my sauce then slowly add in cooked pasta until it has the sauce-to-pasta ratio I like (more sauce for me!). I bake it in a casserole dish at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, until bubbling. We love it with wheat bread and green beans.
  • Pasta Salad is so much easier to make than I thought, and I often use any leftover pasta to make some. You can add a can of tuna or chicken (my favorite) to it, steamed peas, and mayo to taste.
I had no idea how easy it was to make a stew. Just put about 1/2 c. flour in the bottom of your crockpot, add a little salt/pepper/garlic powder or other spices that you like. Mix together well. Add whatever the heck you want... chicken or beef, veggies (peas, green beans, carrots -- steamed or raw), toss everything in the flour mixture until coated. Then add broth (chicken, beef, or vegetable -- about 2 cans should work). Heat on low 6-8 hours. We make chicken "stew" to put over biscuits (store bought or homemade) to make chicken & biscuits, and beef stew is a favorite.

Grilled Chicken Salad
We used to eat this a lot more before we had E. She's not a big chicken eater, but if your little one is, it's a quick meal, great for summer -- just cook some chicken in a frying pan with whatever spices or dressing you like -- Italian; a BBQ, Buffalo, Lemon-Pepper, or Sweet & Sour marinade. While it's cooking, make up your salads -- lettuce with whatever vegetables you have on hand. Pairing some crumbly bleu cheese with buffalo chicken is obviously amazing. We love it finished with Maple Grove Farms of Vermont's maple vinaigrette.

Another easy crockpot meal -- just add your veggies, beans (we usually do 1 can kidney beans, 1 can dark red kidney beans, and 1 can cannelini beans), ground beef or turkey, 1 jar tomato sauce, 1 small can tomato paste, and our favorite chili spice mix from the supermarket. You can Google other recipes if you want to get more creative. We once found a white-chili made with ground chicken that was really good.

We're big casserole fans -- and you can Google all different ones, so I won't get into my long list of casserole experiments here. Chicken and rice casseroles are a favorite. There are lots of recipes for zucchini and squash casseroles, if you're looking for a vegetarian option. They have the good, old-fashioned ones on the backs of the Campbell's soup cans, or you can find some healthier options online. Again, these are dishes that you can easily add veggies to. Since they usually are a one-dish meal, they're super easy, and you don't have to bother with sides.

You can make these as difficult or as easy as you like, and you can experiment with anything and everything. One of our favorites is ham with onion and green pepper. You can buy the crust or make your own. The filling usually just requires eggs, milk, and whatever veggies/meats you want to add.

Bonus: Most of these meals get us through at least 2 dinners and get sent off with E to day care for lunches

Um... hello! Fresh fruits! Ok... and cookies. I like the WhoNu soft and chewy ones. Oreos are my kryptonite, so I try not to keep them in the house.

Other ideas:
  • Strawberries with a little brown sugar. Great alone or over a biscuit (left over from chicken & biscuit night) with some whipped cream or vanilla ice cream/frozen yogurt.
  • Chunky applesauce with a scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt.
  • Frozen fruit pops (E's favorite!).
  • When on sale, I do buy some baking mixes to keep in the cupboard. We like brownies occasionally.
  • Banana splits with strawberries, frozen yogurt, and some chocolate or maple syrup.
  • Etc.

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