A familiar lament of most women everywhere is, "What should I make for dinner tonight?" When it comes to cooking for a large family on a small budget, the dilemma is multiplied. Creativity, research and planning ahead are the keys to success in the kitchen.

Tammy Doyle of McKinney, Texas explains, "I like to buy food in bulk and when I prepare a dish, I'll usually make extra amounts for freezing. It's best to cook from fresh items because of all of the preservatives food companies put into their items."

Soups and salads are healthy and easy to prepare

. A large pot of homemade soup will often create instant leftovers for the next day. My mother, who comes from a large family with seven siblings, said, "Over the years, we enjoyed a plethora of pasta dishes, Spanish rice, chili, homemade soups and a variety of chicken dishes."

Adding fresh and versatile fruits and vegetables like apples, potatoes and corn to your meals will stretch your menu for pennies on the dollar, since these types of produce are generally very inexpensive, especially when bought in season and in bulk. I'm suddenly getting hungry for apple fritters or a loaded baked potato. Something I learned from the American Heart Association is to shop the outer rims of the supermarket the most, this will keep you away from the lure of pre-packaged foods.

Buying items in bulk when they go on sale is a great strategy

Around the holidays, I've noticed items like chicken noodle soup have dropped as low as 50 cents per can. That's when it's time to buy a case. Oats are also a bargain around Christmas time, which are great for making quick and low-cost homemade granola bars.

When children are old enough to help prepare meals, they could learn cooking skills and develop teamwork in the kitchen. They will appreciate the meal even more if they helped prepare it. "Many hands make light work," as my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother used to say.

I recently found a wonderful cookbook in a used bookstore entitled, Casseroles to the Rescue: Easy to Make Home Cooked Casseroles by Barbara C. Jones. Some of my favorite recipes include: Speedy Chicken Pie, Chile Relleno Casserole and Baked Chicken Salad.

Other cookbooks I've enjoyed using are: The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook

by Erin Chase, and I Can't Believe It's Food Storage, by Crystal Godfrey. Glamorize and utilize a standard food storage item like pinto beans by making an appetizing Frito Pie.

Thinking of cooking as an art and enjoying new, practical recipes will make cooking a joy, even on a limited budget. Remember these tips:

Cooking and shopping tips

  1. Use fresh items whenever possible.

  2. Keep meals simple, varied and nutritious.

  3. Use food storage items, bought in bulk, mixed with fresh items.

  4. Try one-dish meals with added vegetables, or, add a side salad to make the meal complete.

  5. Involve your children in meal preparation to save you time and energy.

Try one of these two easy, inexpensive recipes

Fiesta Chicken

is a favorite recipe that my mother used to prepare. It's quick and easy:

Mix 1, 14 ounce can of cream of chicken soup, with 1 small jar of salsa, and pour it over a cut up chicken in a 9 x 13 baking dish. Cover it with foil and bake it at 350 degrees, for approximately 75 minutes, until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 170 degrees. Garnish with sauteed onions and green peppers. I've frequently seen chicken legs and on sale for only 99 cents per pound, so look for the best deals.

Tex-Mex Frito Pie Casserole

2-3 cups of cooked pinto or black beans

1lb ground beef (brown in a skillet & drain, add taco seasoning and mix in a small jar of salsa or enchilada sauce)

1 large bag of Fritos chips

3 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Layer in a 9x13 inch pan in the order given. Heat thoroughly at 350 degrees, until the cheese is melted and golden brown. Remove from the oven and cover with 2 cups diced tomatoes, 1 can of (optional) sliced black olives, 1 cup of chopped green onions, and add sour cream.

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