If you’ve been reading my blog the last few months, you know that in late 2019 I decided to ditch diet culture and dieting all together. It’s been difficult in a lot of ways, but freeing in so many others.
One of my favorite changes has been embracing my love for baking (and eating dessert!). I’ve always loved to bake, but I’d basically given it up while obsessed with losing weight. My mom makes this delicious lemon poke cake that I wanted to imitate in premise, but I really wanted it to include cookies. Well let me tell you, that was a fan-freaking-tastic idea!
Cookies & Cream Pudding Poke Cake Ingredients:
1 box cake mix, baked according to instructions on box, cooled (as always, I prefer our Fiestaware bakers for just about everything)
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
1 box of cookies & cream pudding mix
½ c. milk (preferably 1% or 2%, but skim works if it’s what you’ve got!)
1 tub thawed whipped topping
Optional: chopped sandwich cookies for topping
Bake the box cake according the instructions on the box and let it completely cool.
Using the end of a wooden spoon, poke holes all over the cake (I like to make rows to get the best coverage).
Pour the condensed milk over the cake (you can avoid the temptations to evenly fill the holes… it’s not going to work out how you want it to, lol).
In a mixing bowl, mix the pudding mix and ½ c. of milk until combined (while annoying to clean, a whisk is best). Gently mix in the thawed whipped topping. Spread the mixture over the cake.
If you had sandwich cookies to chop up, top the cake with them.
You can eat this right away, but it gets even better while sitting in the fridge! Store covered in the refrigerator for up to a week (it won’t last that long, though!).
This version with red velvet cake and topped with vanilla sandwich cookies, but the options are pretty endless:
Classic: Vanilla/white cake mix with chocolate sandwich cookies
Spice: Using vanilla pudding, spice cake mix, and vanilla sandwich cookies
Chocolate overload: Using half cookies & cream pudding and half chocolate pudding, chocolate cake mix, and chocolate sandwich cookies
Chocolate chip: Using vanilla or chocolate pudding, yellow cake mix, and chocolate chip cookies
… like I said, endless!
I haven’t tried all of these, but I am definitely putting all of the variations on my ‘weekend baking adventures’ list. Have a favorite poke cake recipe? Please let me know so I can add it to the list of ‘to be made’, too!
I’m always on the lookout for a good meal that works well for monthly meal planning and lunches. When I scored a Pampered Chef Quick Cooker on FB Marketplace for $45 (yeah, you read that right!) I had never used any type of pressure cooker before (aside from canning as a kid). Luckily Pampered Chef comes with great manuals and videos, but of course I took to Pinterest to immediately begin researching recipes. I made a few ‘mac and cheese’ type recipes but they weren’t great. Not great flavor, not great blending for ingredients. I kept searching and stumbled upon this recipe from The Salty Marshmallow for Ham & Cheese Instant Pot Pasta.
I of course made some edits because I just can’t leave well-enough alone, but they were good edits, so below you’ll find my modified version of the linked recipe above. Also let me just tell you now, the price/serving on this is less than $0.70 per meal (cost breakdown is below)!
Quick Cooker Ham + Cheese Pasta Ingredients:
1 16-ounce box pasta (we like to use whatever; we’ve used both wagon wheels and rotini and both were great)
2 teaspoons Franks or another hot sauce (if you don’t really like the flavor of hot sauce you could reduce this to a few shakes or cut it, and if you REALLY like hot sauce I would add up to 2 tbsp!)
Garlic powder, mustard powder (you can skip this or substitute another seasoning like onion powder if you don’t have it), salt, and pepper to taste (I go pretty heavy on the garlic powder and black pepper and just a few shakes of the salt and mustard powder)
12-16 oz diced ham (I bought a ham steak at Aldi and chopped it into cubes)
4 ounces cream cheese, softened (15 seconds in the microwave if you don’t take it out ahead of time)
¼ cup sour cream
8 ounces shredded colby-jack cheese
½ cup milk + more if needed
Add the uncooked pasta, chicken broth, water, hot sauce, and seasonings to the Quick Cooker.
Stir it. Try to get as much of the pasta covered by broth/water as you can.
Put the lid on your Quick Cooker and ensure that the manual release button is level with the handle (otherwise you won’t get pressure).
Select ‘custom’, then select ‘time’ and use the down arrow to set the Quick Cooker to 5 minutes and press ‘start’.
When the timer goes off (it takes longer than 5 minutes, in case you haven’t used a quick cooker before), hit ‘cancel’ and manually release the steam (push the button on the handle).
Carefully open the Quick Cooker. PROTIP: keep the lid over the cooker and tip it toward the cooker to catch the juice from the lid in the pot instead of on your counter.
Stir in the cream cheese and sour cream until combined.
Add the milk and the cheese. I stir quickly but if you don’t, you might want to add the cheese in two batches.
Add in the ham and evaluate your consistency. Sometimes it’s spot on and sometimes it needs more milk.
I immediately spoon this into 10 glass Pyrex storage containers (we use both round and rectangle) for a week of lunches for two. The cost breakdown for this week of lunch prep is freaking great (and this list assumes you have salt, pepper, garlic powder, mustard powder, and Frank’s or another hot sauce):
Cost/Meal Breakdown: Everything was bought at Aldi: $0.79 – 16 oz box of pasta $0.15 – 2 chicken bouillon cubes ($1.89 for 25) $3.50 – ham steak $0.40 – half a block of cream cheese $0.15 – 4 tbsp (¼ cup) sour cream $1.69 – 8 ounce block colby-jack cheese $0.11 – ½ cup milk Total: $6.79 Total cost/meal for 10 meals: $0.68 (rounded up!)
You certainly aren’t going to grab lunch anywhere for less than $1, let alone lunch this delicious and filling 🙂 I have a feeling this will be in our monthly set of lunch meals for a looooong time. If you decide to give a go, let me know how you like it and if you make any changes of your own!
My husband REALLY likes Thousand Island Dressing. Really really. When I told him I went looking for a Thousand Island Recipe because he likes it so much, he started listing all of the things you should dip in it… Doritos. Taquitos. French fries. The list goes on. Anyways, I know we hate when the recipe is a mile away from the title, so here it is:
Adapted from this Fed & Fit recipe (though as you can see, not Paleo, and not six servings)
Thousand Island Chicken Bake (For Two)
12 oz cubed chicken breast (I cube all of our chicken before I freeze it because of bulk buying for monthly meal prepping. You can use full breasts, tenderloins, thighs, whatevs)
⅓ cup of Thousand Island Dressing (I used Ken’s lite because that’s all our grocery store had #pandemicshopping)
Salt (a few shakes, because I don’t measure salt unless I’m baking, lol)
Pepper (a few shakes, because pepper lives next to salt, so)
Put the chicken in a mixing bowl.
Add the Thousand Island Dressing, salt, and pepper.
Use a spatula to mix it all together until all of the chicken is coated.
Bake at 350 for 20-ish minutes, or until chicken reaches internal temperature of 160° (I could just tell when it was done… it smelled SO fragrant and the top was starting to brown a little
Please note: you do NOT need to preheat your oven. It’s chicken, it’ll cook. Preheating ovens for recipes that don’t require scientific reactions is a waste of electricity, so save yourself a wee bit ‘o money by skipping it.
That’s it! You’re done! I served this over instant brown rice. I meant to make some steamed broccoli to go with it but I forgot, and I was hungry, so we skipped it, lol. You can easily serve this over egg-noodles, a salad, mashed potatoes… it’s super-versatile!
The Budget-Friendly Details
This meal is waaaay budget friendly:
12 oz of chicken (from a bulk pack at Aldi) – $1.59
Ken’s Thousand Island Dressing (⅓ cup = 5.33 tbsp) – $0.42
Instant brown rice (2 cups, from Aldi 28 oz box) – $0.72
IF we would have the aforementioned steamed broccoli ($0.89 steam bag from Aldi), our total would have been: $3.62 for dinner for two people.
I haven’t set a threshold yet for what I feel like a “good” amount of money is for a meal for two, but less than $4 is certainly great (just think, if all of our meals were $5 we’d only spend $120/month on dinner… I always want it to be cheaper, but I think that’s not bad?). One of my May budget goals (following Dave Ramsey’s baby steps, using this budget planner) was to cut our grocery budget by 20%, which we nailed (and still had money leftover). I’m tempted to cut it again, but we’ll see how June goes first!
Do you already inventory your food and meal plan? Have you ever done a full month? I’d love to know your process!
I know, I know, it sounds crazy – an inventory of our food?!
But trust me, it’s not crazy. Taking an inventory of your food ensures you know what food you have in your house, saves money through meal planning, and decreases waste (both wasted money and food) – all of which are big wins!
So how complicated is this “inventory”?
Taking an inventory of your food does not need to be complicated. Sure, you could set up a Google sheet or Excel system, update it after every meal, and truly have a living food inventory you can share with your significant other, roommates, or the teenager eating you out of house and home.
Or, you can just use a notebook and pencil (no really, use a pencil, I erase a LOT while inventorying food!) for a once-a-month inventory like I do.
I use a Happy Planner that I customized to be our food management system. I already had a cover and a set of rings from a previous year’s planner, so I bought:
Which means our monthly food inventory looks like this:
While this page is only our chest and refrigerator freezers inventory, we also inventory our refrigerator and pantry. Our “pantry” is actually several regular-sized kitchen cabinets, though we’re hoping to move it to our laundry room someday!
Note: if you don’t have a chest freezer, you can still make this work! Just figure out how much space you have to work with for freezing meat/veggies in your refrigerator freezer. I only do one major shopping trip per month (complete with breaking down and freezing meat for later use) and then small trips for milk/half-and-half, but you could easily split the big trip into two so you have room in your freezer to make it work.
Other than food location, I don’t break down our food into any further categories. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that for me to do our monthly meal planning, which is where the big money-saving factor comes in.
Now you know what food you have on hand, so you can start your Upcoming Month Meal Ideas List:
This list will consist of ideas from what you already have in your inventory, and will serve as the catalyst for your grocery list. It can also include things you don’t have the ingredients for, too – especially if you’d like to try some (or all) of the new recipes you’ve been pinning in your free time 😛 Your goal is to have around 35-40 meals, which will make up your dinners and lunches for the month (plus a few extra).
Next up? Grocery list!
You know what you have, and now you know what additional groceries you need to make your next month of meals. Things are a little complex these days with grocery shopping, so the extra few meals will come in handy in case there is something you can’t find at the grocery store (or perhaps you are like me and aren’t going to spend $7 on a pound of ground beef) so you have a little wiggle room to replace a ground beef-based meal with a chicken-based meal.
I’m a grocery list-junkie, so my hand-written list is organized by the aisles in our Aldi:
This once-a-month shopping list means that we buy bulk ground beef and chicken, and break it down into 12 oz portions for freezing. We do have small supplemental store trips for dairy: milk and half-and-half (and sometimes ice cream, let’s be serious). But! 98% of the month’s food needs are purchased during one grocery trip (to Aldi, for the most part!). Alright, now onto the really fun part:
Monthly Meal Planning
Almost every time I say “monthly meal planning” people look something like this:
But I promise, it is not as complicated as it seems, because you have your trusty food inventory to work from! For lunches, I pick one meal that can make 10 lunches (one for each of us, five work days) and prep it on Sunday for the work week (as we speak, that will be chicken pot pie). Do that one time for each week of the month, and you’re done planning lunches for the month!
Grab a blank calendar for the upcoming month (I like print-a-calendar.com because they waste the least amount of space) and input anything you already have planned: date night take-out? Husband’s birthday dinner? Cookout at your sisters? Cool – now you have three meals planned! Take your meals idea list and input a meal on the remaining day of the month, and that’s it – you’re done! Our April looked like this:
There are some things I take into consideration when making this plan:
Will any of these meals have leftovers? I try to make our meals not have leftovers, but sometimes they do. If so, I try to make it on Friday and use the leftovers as lunches for the weekend. Or if something I want to make for lunch only makes enough for 4 days, I’ll plan a leftover-having-meal on Thursday so we have lunches on Friday.
What is the weekend like? Usually we have a late breakfast and skip lunch on the weekends, but will we have a busy day? If so, I don’t want to plan a laborious dinner or something that won’t be ready within a short window of me realizing I’m ravenously hungry after working outside all day!
Meatless Mondays – We started Meatless Mondays in April 2020 and I’ve really been digging it. A) it’s good for the planet to use less meat, though I love the ag industry AND bacon so I’m not going to give it up entirely and b) it challenges me to come up with something meatless for dinner. Some of our meatless Monday meals have been: grilled cheese and tomato soup, pancakes and eggs, french toast, Mexican skillet (with rice, black, beans, and Ro-tel), and homemade pizza.
And that’s it! Inventory your food, make a meal ideas and grocery list, and put your meals on the calendar. Your process may vary, of course, but I am still confident you can inventory your food to help you meal plan, save money, and reduce waste.
The three reasons why I ditched diet culture… getting to a point where I can write this post has been quite the journey. I’m still in the thick of it – learning, changing, growing, forgiving, accepting, loving. But what even got me to this point?
“Well, all of your bloodwork is totally normal… you’re a little low in Vitamin D, but that’s easy to supplement with over-the-counter. You’re a very healthy young lady.”
Me, all 230 lbs of me, who has always been told I need to lose weight, sitting on the exam table:
I managed to stutter out “Oh, okay, awesome” as he continued explaining my blood-work to me: what these numbers mean and what those numbers mean, and why eating fewer eggs might lower your cholesterol but also might not… I was trying desperately to listen thoroughly but also trying not to cry at having heard the word “healthy” used in reference to me.
I’d already had a minimal “fuck it” attitude by the time I went to this doctor’s appointment… I was very tired of (read: exhausted by) Fit Girl-ing and Keto-ing and weighing my food and the costs (both time and money, and usually ignoring the mental cost associated with it) of all of it. I told my husband, “I don’t want to be one of those girls who gets married and then ‘let’s herself go’” (at the time not realizing that this was just another form of fat shaming, but I’ve been on a weight loss journey for forever, so this is an uphill climb with a LOT of learning) but also that I didn’t feel like I could keep living like I was: always hyper-focused on losing weight. We want to have a kid, we’re starting our farming life… we’ve got a lot of things we want to do and 90% of my brain capacity is OWNED by weight loss and weight loss-related things. I just didn’t feel like it was a sustainable (again, still not really taking the mental cost into consideration) way to live.
So I started feverishly googling “intuitive eating” because I’d heard that basically was letting go of a diet (merrrrrr, not necessarily.. Make sure you’re really checking what you’re reading if you take this path!). I learned a lot in those first few days… one of the primary things that I knew I needed to do was to dig into WHY I had been dieting my whole life and WHY I wanted to stop it now. “Why” is always an important question to ask in any situation, and in this situation, it was what freed me from my own self.
Here’s what I came up with:
I’ve been dieting for probably the same reasons a lot of us have:
I was influenced and often actually TOLD by people close to me and by society that the person I was wasn’t good enough, especially in regard to my weight (and in various other ways too, of course)
I had this idea that I needed to look a certain way to a) achieve that^ “good enough” status so that I could ever b) be accepted as a “successful” person (because aren’t all successful people completely healthy?!)
I thought that achieving those 2^ would allow me to experience “happiness”, the elusive “happiness” that certainly only comes when you aren’t fat, right?
I felt a little bit cuckoo (granted, I AM a little bit cuckoo) reading these back to myself. I logically understand that my weight has absolutely nothing to do with my value as a human, with my ability to have a successful career, to be happy, to have a good life.
So then why am I letting it do all of those things to me emotionally?
More tears. So the reasons I ever became obsessed with weight loss in the first place are now the reasons I’m giving it up. I deserve more from myself than to only care about how I look. I have great bloodwork, I move my body and am capable of using it to accomplish both things like yardwork and also hiking 28 miles through the Fort Indiantown Gap, PA mountains, I enjoy cooking and baking and EATING food…. My life is about so much more than what size my jeans are, what society says about whether or not I ‘should’ wear a bikini (spoiler alert: I wear and ROCK a motherfucking bikini). “Diet culture” (a relatively new term) is about a lot more than just stopping dieting, though. Diet culture assigns a morality to thinness – it encourages the belief that if you are fat, you simply aren’t good enough. You aren’t a hard worker or you’d lose weight. You don’t “eat healthy” or you’d lose weight. You’re not exercising correctly/enough/at the gym/at home/with weights/without weights/with running/without running (this list could go on forever) or you’d lose weight. You don’t spend enough time or money doing x, or you’d lose weight.
Diet culture makes EVERYTHING about your weight. It teaches us (all of us, men, women, and children) that unless you’re “thin” (because what does that even mean), you cannot be good enough.
Did you know that as of February 25, 2019, the weight loss industry in the United States alone was worth $72 BILLION dollars. I had no idea.
Seventy. Two. Billion. Dollars.
That’s a whole hell of a lot of money being made from “fat people” (again, because what does that even mean) being taught they aren’t good enough.
According to a study by Dove which interviewed over 10,000 women and girls,
“nearly all women (85%) and girls (79%) [saying they] opt out of important life activities – such as trying out for a team or club, and engaging with family or loved ones – when they don’t feel good about the way they look”
Dove Self Esteem Project, 2016
I want to say “WTF!”, but…
I know I’ve done this – straight up not gone to/done something because I don’t feel good about how I look. Or changed my clothes 15 times trying to feel better about how I look before I go to karaoke, go to dinner with friends, go to mow the fucking grass, even.
We aren’t born with that behavior or these ideas – it is learned.
And here we have reached my personal goal – to unlearn it. To change the statistics, to improve my well-being, to wake up each day and choose to love myself, be good to myself, and forgive myself for doing quite the opposite for most of my life.
Some things I’m doing to help myself through this journey:
Being open and honest about it with myself and others, to the best of my ability. I have SO MUCH to unlearn and with that means that I have to keep learning and adjusting my idea of what is “right” and what was just convincingly taught to me by advertisers (I’m an advertiser, so this is both a slight and just reality, LOL)
Eating FOOD. Whatever food I want to eat, whenever I want to eat it.
Forgiving myself for my past. For giving up my love of cooking and baking because it wasn’t “healthy” or “good for me”. For skipping events, for turning down opportunities, for forcing myself to work out, to eat a certain way… for so, so many things.
Taking in information. I’m currently reading The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner which is filled with information, studies, ideas… some things are enlightening, some things are “meh”, and some thing I think are a stretch (at least for me). But I’m being open to understand that I’ve been fooled, and trying to learn as much as I can so I can help stop the bullshit moving forward.
Telling you (see #1). Because like anything in life, we don’t need to go through our hard lessons alone.
This blog doesn’t have a good “ending point” because I’ve only just begun, so expect to see/hear more about this subject. I made a few posts about ditching diet culture on Instagram, too, so feel free to follow along if you aren’t already.
I’ve been rediscovering my passion for baking since deciding to “end diet culture” for myself, and let me tell you, it has been LOVELY. I discovered Sally’s Baking Addiction when looking for a cream cheese frosting recipe, so when my husband idly mentioned not having had lemon bars in a long time, I immediately searched her site to see if she had a recipe, which of course she did.
The things I wanted in a lemon bar recipe were:
Not terribly difficult to make
Uses fresh lemons
Didn’t require any special equipment (I generally live by Alton Brown’s ideology that most unitaskers aren’t necessary, with the exception of a great citrus press and a few other things)
Sally’s Baking Addiction came through with this recipe (originally found on her website):
1 cup (230g; 2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups + 2 Tablespoons (265g) all-purpose flour
2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
6 Tablespoons (48g) all-purpose flour
6 large eggs
1 cup (240ml) lemon juice (about 4 lemons)
optional: confectioners’ sugar for dusting (Deb note: I did this, it’s pretty, do it!)
Preheat the oven to 325°F (163°C). Line the bottom and sides of a 9×13 baking pan* with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on the sides to lift the finished bars out (makes cutting easier!). Set aside.
Make the crust: Mix the melted butter, sugar, vanilla extract, and salt together in a medium bowl. Add the flour and stir to completely combine. The dough will be thick. Press firmly into prepared pan, making sure the layer of crust is nice and even. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the edges are very lightly browned. Remove from the oven and set aside until step 4.
Make the filling: Sift the sugar and flour together in a large bowl. Add the eggs and lemon juice and whisk until completely combined.
Pour filling over warm crust. Bake the bars for 22-26 minutes or until the center is relatively set and no longer jiggles. (Give the pan a light tap with an oven mitt to test.) Remove bars from the oven and cool completely at room temperature. I usually cool them for about 2 hours at room temperature, then stick in the refrigerator for 1-2 more hours until pretty chilled. I recommend serving chilled.
Once cool, lift the parchment paper out of the pan using the overhang on the sides. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and cut into squares before serving. For neat squares, wipe the knife clean between each cut. Cover and store leftover lemon bars in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Some advice from my experience making this:
READ AHEAD. This recipe isn’t super-complicated, but it’s best to prepared, and you can only do that by reading ahead.
GET EVERYTHING OUT YOU NEED FOR THE WHOLE RECIPE. This isn’t just for this recipe, this is for anything you’re cooking/baking. Just get everything out so that once you’re hands are covered in butter and flour, you’re not opening a cupboard and making more of a mess than you’ll already have on your hands (haha, on your hands… *long sigh*).
TRUST THE PROCESS. There were a few times while making these that I thought (or said aloud) “is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” “this parchment paper is going to give the edges weird creases” “warm crust? So should I let the hot crust cool to warm?” but I just followed the instructions (and Sally’s tips, found throughout and after the recipe in her blog post) and trust me, these bars were utter perfection.
I’ve made a lot of other desserts in the past few months, too, and I’ll be sharing recipes and reviews for them, too. What is your favorite dessert? Do you have a recipe you’re willing to share? I’d love to try it!