Budget Friendly Quick Cooker Ham + Cheese Pasta

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.

Ummm, #nailedit.

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)! 

Disclaimer: this post contains Affiliate links and I may make a small amount of money if you decide to purchase from my links. Read my full disclosure and privacy policy here.

Budget friendly ham and cheese pasta made in the pampered chef quick cooker

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 cups chicken broth (bouillon cubes are way cheaper than boxed broth; I just use a 2-cup Pyrex cup and my hot water kettle to make it)
  • 2 cups water
  • 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 

Directions:

  1. Add the uncooked pasta, chicken broth, water, hot sauce, and seasonings to the Quick Cooker.
  2. Stir it. Try to get as much of the pasta covered by broth/water as you can.
  3. 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). 
  4. Select ‘custom’, then select ‘time’ and use the down arrow to set the Quick Cooker to 5 minutes and press ‘start’.
  5. 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). 
  6. 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.
  7. Stir in the cream cheese and sour cream until combined.
  8. Add the milk and the cheese. I stir quickly but if you don’t, you might want to add the cheese in two batches. 
  9. Add in the ham and evaluate your consistency. Sometimes it’s spot on and sometimes it needs more milk.  
Budget friendly ham and cheese pasta made in the pampered chef quick cooker makes 10 lunches for less than seventy cents per serving

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!)

Delicious, budget friendly ham and cheese pasta made in the quick cooker makes great lunches

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!

Easy Thousand Island Chicken Bake For Two

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: 

Disclaimer: this post contains Affiliate links and I may make a small amount of money if you decide to purchase from my links. Read my full disclosure and privacy policy here.

Adapted from this Fed & Fit  recipe  (though as you can see, not Paleo, and not six servings)

Thousand Island Chicken Bake (For Two)

This easy thousand island chicken bake is a delicious, quick meal for two.

Ingredients: 

  • 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)

Directions: 

  1. Put the chicken in a mixing bowl. 
  2. Add the Thousand Island Dressing, salt, and pepper. 
  3. Use a spatula to mix it all together until all of the chicken is coated.
  4. Pour it into a 9×9 baking dish (our Fiestaware baker is my go-to)
  5. 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 

Total: $2.73

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!

3 Reasons to Inventory the Food in Your Home (Plus Monthly Meal Planning Made Easy)

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! 

Disclaimer: this post contains Affiliate links and I may make a small amount of money if you decide to purchase from my links. Read my full disclosure and privacy policy here.

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:

And from my HP stash, I also use:

Which means our monthly food inventory looks like this: 

Make a food inventory to help reduce waste and save money.
Yes, that’s a little drawing of our chest freezer so I could organize what went where when we put everything back in the freezer lol

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:

Generate meal ideas using the food you have on hand, then you can easily figure out your grocery list for the rest.
My favorite part of this? Burgers, burgers, burgers, burgers 😃

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: 

An aisle-by-aisle grocery list makes it easy to navigate Aldi and not forget anything on your big grocery shopping trip.
Okay, okay – this makes it looks a little crazy. It ends up getting shoved in my hoodie pocket a lot so it’s a little wrinkled!

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:

Plan your monthly meals into a blank calendar to hang on the fridge!
Protip: hang this baby on the fridge and cross off meals after you eat them so you remember to take ingredients out of the freezer for the next day’s meal

There are some things I take into consideration when making this plan: 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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! 
  3. 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. 

Greening Your Cleaning with Grove Collaborative

Maybe it’s the mass amount of information I’ve learned from living on The Mighty Susquehanna, or maybe it’s that one Environmental Bio class I had in college that I LOVED, or maybe it’s that the smell of bleach makes me feel like I’m going to have a panic attack, but either way – I know that traditional cleaners (bleach, ammonia, etc.) are bad for the environment. But just how bad are they? 

Disclaimer: this post contains Affiliate links and I may make a small amount of money if you decide to purchase from my links. Read my full disclosure and privacy policy here.

According to the EPA in this article, traditional cleaners can present substantial personal and environmental health concerns:

  • Cleaning products are released to the environment during normal use through evaporation of volatile components and rinsing down the drain of residual product from cleaned surfaces, sponges, etc. Janitorial staff and others who perform cleaning can be exposed to concentrated cleaning products. However, proper training and use of a Chemical Management System (a set of formal procedures to ensure proper storage, handling, and use) can greatly minimize or prevent exposure to concentrated cleaning product during handling and use.
  • Certain ingredients in cleaning products can present hazard concerns to exposed populations (e.g., skin and eye irritation in workers) or toxicity to aquatic species in waters receiving inadequately treated wastes (note that standard sewage treatment effectively reduces or removes most cleaning product constituents). For example, alkylphenol ethoxylates, a common surfactant ingredient in cleaners, have been shown in laboratory studies to function as an “endocrine disrupter,” causing adverse reproductive effects of the types seen in wildlife exposed to polluted waters.
  • Ingredients containing phosphorus or nitrogen can contribute to nutrient-loading in water bodies, leading to adverse effects on water quality. These contributions, however, are typically small compared to other point and non-point sources.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC) in cleaning products can affect indoor air quality and also contribute to smog formation in outdoor air.

Personal health, water and air quality, wildlife… the list of environmental and health concerns stemming from the slew of bottles underneath our kitchen and bathroom sinks is incredible. I think I knew this already… I must have, right? But I felt so overwhelmed by it all. Is “environmentally-friendly” good enough? What does that even mean? Some of the “natural” cleaners are close-ish in price to their bleach-filled brethren, but some of them are substantially more expensive. Why is that? Why are some brands exclusive to one store or another, and some can be purchased on Amazon? I felt like I couldn’t really make sense of it all, and there was so much information to take in. I started small and made small replacements, but my real commitment to “greening my cleaning” was when I was introduced to Grove Collaborative (this is my referral link – you get a free Mrs. Meyers cleaning set and I earn $10 of product credit if you decide to purchase from them). 

Grove Collaborative is a flexible recurring shipment service (though you can absolutely opt out of regular monthly shipments) that exclusively sells products that meet their high standards for being “non-toxic, effective, sustainable, and cruelty-free”. They “value safety, transparency, social welfare and exclusively work with partners who do, too..and also carbon offset every shipment that goes out the door”. Basically, they took all of the hard work out of figuring out what to buy and from whom. 

Grove sells products from brands like Mrs. Meyers, method, Seventh Generation, and of course has their own line of sustainable, eco-conscious cleaners, household products, and more. The beset part? It’s all at a discount that makes them cheaper than picking them up at the grocery store. Some of my favorite products I’ve gotten with my Grove VIP membership ($19.99/year and gets you free shipping on every order (flat-rate $2.99 otherwise), free gifts throughout the year, access to sales/new products, etc.) are:

  • Grove’s cleaning concentrates and glass spray bottles
  • Coconut scrubber sponges
  • 100% recycled plastic trash bags
  • Mrs. Meyers Room Refresher
  • and LOTS of others, but these are my super-go-tos

As an added bonus to the savings and the referral program (and in true taste to their mission), Grove has a “carbon offsetting” program to help offset the emissions created by their business. According to their website, they purchase credits to fund projects that help reduce pollution, like wind farms and energy efficiency retrofits. It makes it feel so GOOD to put in the time and money to make green cleaning switches when they company you’re supporting is continuing to support their Earth-focused cause in additional ways (with said money). 

Have you wanted to “green” your cleaning? Or have you already made some switches (or maybe Grove isn’t at all new to your and you’ve been Grove-ing for months!)? Feel free to use my referral link (the one where you’ll get a free Mrs. Meyers cleaning set and I’ll get $10 toward my next purchase – win-win!) if you want to get started: https://www.grove.co/referrer/75471345/