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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Questions, questions, questions

I thought I would lump all my questions into one post and hope for some great answers.

One of my daughters wore through her high school backpack mid-year last year. I loaned her my travel backpack for the rest of the year. It's a Jansport, and really hasn't been used all that much. But this summer, it's beginning to show wear in the bottom of the backpack, like see-through wear. So, this daughter needs a new backpack. We replaced the other daughter's backpack early last school year, as her high school one bit the dust a loooong time ago. We went to REI and used a gift card to buy her new one. So, my question -- have any of you found an especially great brand of backpack that would last through daily use for 3 years or more?

When I was sick last week, I had a hard time putting together dinners. Everyone in the family gets home so very late, that dinner needs to be on the table when they walk in the door. As illness strikes with no warning, it wasn't as if I could just prepare ahead of time and stock the freezer. I was sick all week, and we went through every prepared food in the freezer that I could find, and still needed more meals. To complicate things, our budgets are strained even further this summer, with some medical bills needing to be paid, and the medical fund needing to be replenished. So, just ordering pizzas won't work for us. My question here -- what quick and easy dinners do you put together under similar circumstances?

Finally, my 3rd and last question burning in my mind this week. How old is too old for using gravy? I roasted a whole chicken a couple of weeks ago (on a Saturday). I made gravy with the drippings that night. The leftover gravy sat in the fridge all the following week (until the next Friday morning), when I finally realized that it was not a container of some peanut butter-y concoction of one of my kids, but indeed was chicken gravy. I immediately tossed it into the freezer, at about 6 days old. What do you think? Is 6 days in the fridge (40 degrees F) too long for gravy? If I heated it through real well, would it be safe to eat?

Thanks, to all of you! I just know I'm going to get some really great and useful answers!


  1. First, we have never had a backpack last more than a couple of years. It seems that is about the lifespan before something beyond my ability to "rig" it happens. That being said, we have had backpacks go out the door held together for a while by duct tape and shoe laces.

    I keep small packages of cooked chicken, browned and seasoned ground beef, chicken, turkey, and beef broth, varieties of cooked beans, and cooked brown rice in the freezer all the time. With all that already done it is pretty easy to assemble a meal quickly. I purchased a tortilla press recently and am experimenting with freezing corn tortillas ( Haven't had them in the freezer long enough to see how they hold up to being frozen.) Also any time I make lasagna or ziti I double the recipe and freeze half.

    The gravy should be fine but I would heat it to a slow boil for several minutes. After you use it that time I would probably discard any leftover, just to be safe.

    1. Hi Anne,
      Great meal ideas, and would be helpful under a lot of circumstances!

      Making your own corn tortillas -- how wonderful! Are you using only corn masa, or adding some wheat flour? I have some masa in the pantry needing using. I've made corn/wheat tortillas by rolling out between waxed paper, but never tried only corn. How fun to have a tortilla press!

      I am still on the fence with the gravy. LOL!

  2. HI Lili

    I would concur about the gravy... heat to boiling or use it in a casserole, but make sure it is heated thoroughly... then give the rest to the pets(if you have any) or discard. My go to meal is eggs or something like that. Having packages of bacon around is a bonus... eggs and bacon, egg bakes, BLT, pancakes, etc. As for the backpack, unfortunately, I am in agreement with Anne also. I am not sure if it is a problem in general with backpacks, but for daily use, they just don't hold up. I do know that leather ones hold up better than the nylon ones, but even with the leather sometimes the zipper goes... and then you are also talking some big $$. Glad you are feeling better.

    1. Hi Lisa,
      You're right, eggs can be great for easy meals. I can't remember what I made last week (the week went by in a fog), I hope I did eggs at some point. I think that I ought to make up a written meal plan and tuck into my recipe box, with some of these simple meal ideas. I just couldn't think clearly all week.

      If I do use the gravy, I'll make sure to really heat it well, make sure we eat it right away, then toss anything leftover. My very frugal son is even wary about eating it!

  3. LLBean has backpacks on sale for $29.99 with free shipping. The nice thing about this company is that they quarantee to replace it if anything happens to it(zipper breaks or it develops a tear). My daughter still uses her backpack that I bought her 18 years ago.

    1. Hi Alana,
      Ooooh, thanks for the heads up with LLBean's sale. I'll check them out. Yes, I've also heard of their guarantee, and that would be great, especially for backpacks, which see a lot of wear.
      Again thanks!

  4. In my experience, leather backpacks are the best. They last sooooo long. I searched until I found a really great sale and then "splurged". I've never regretted it. you might be able to find one at a thrift store or garage sale, or mention to your friends and neighbours. It's quite possible that someone has a leather backpack gathering dust in a closet somewhere. also check Craig's List , etc.

    Fur us, cheap meals usually revolve around pasta, with the simplest being just basic pasta (any kind) bought on sale and homemade pasta sauce (or store-bought if its really a good sale). You can mix together and add some herbs from the garden and it always tastes good. If I have the ingredients available, I also make lazy lasagna which includes sour cream/cottage cheese/ground beef and then some mozza cheese sprinkled on top before baking in the oven. I've also made it without the meat. You could add tofu instead perhaps. Another cheap meal that's easy to make is pancakes or waffles -- make two or three batches, wrap individually and freeze. This makes it easy to use them for any meal (snack, breakfast, lunch or dinner). Add some homemade syrup (maple flavouring, or using some fruit) or other toppings, such as PBJ, bean spread, cheese, etc. And the main standby for a super cheap meal is soup and bread. I make a wide range of soup in large quantities then freezer in smaller amounts. Soup has to be one of the cheapest meals possible, if you use what's on hand or in your garden -- swiss chard, onion, tomatoes, herbs -- they can each be used for a great soup or combined. I also keep bread stocked in the freezer which can serve as the base for a meal or to round out a meal. I often say that my retirement years will be fine because I make good soup and bread (LOL!)

    Youm might want to consider doing a day on the weekend to do batch cooking and getting your daughters to help out. that way you can get a major stock-up of "go to meals" in your freezer in a short space of time.

    As for the gravy, (after getting frustrated with myself for not "saving" it sooner) I go by the motto of "when in doubt, throw it out". I don't want to risk anyone's health just to use up the last bit of something when I'm not sure how healthy it would be.

    Glad to hear you're feeling better.

    1. Hi Jayne,
      Great easy meal ideas! I'll be adding those to my "sick day meal plan". When not feeling well, nothing sounded even remotely appetizing, but I'm sure my family would have appreciated anything I made, even pbj sandwiches. In retrospect, I think I could have put out the jar of peanut butter, some jam and a loaf of bread, plus a bowl of apples from our trees, and they would have at least had something.

      Yeah, on the gravy, I just don't know. That's why it's "holding" in the freezer until I can choose which side of the fence I want to be on. LOL! Who knew I would be so indecisive about 1 cup of gravy!

      Thanks for your suggestions/advice!

  5. I try to keep some meals in the freezer at all times for occasions like this (try being the operative word, I don't always succeed). I like to keep prepped garlic bread, enchiladas, burgers (turkey and vegetarian), burritos and chicken prepped for the crockpot. Pasta, salad and garlic bread is a super easy meal that anyone can put together. Salad and garlic bread, too. If I make lasagna, I always freeze one as well. Enchiladas and burritos can be microwaved or baked, depending how you pack them in the freezer. And the chicken thati prep for the crockpot usually gets mad into a lot of differen meals-tacos, taco salad, enchiladas or burritos, soup (thinned with broth). Obviously tex-mex is kind of my go to for easy prep. I also usually have cheese slices on hand for grilled cheese sandwiches. And I third the call for eggs -- so easy and so many simple things can be done with them. Also, quiche freezes well.

    1. Hi Laura,
      So many great ideas -- thank you! Now I'm smacking my head, thinking why didn't I do grilled cheese sandwiches? That would have been simple, and I could have just added fruit and called it dinner. I'm adding your ideas to my "sick day meal plan".
      We like Tex-Mex, too. I just add some chili powder and cumin and call it Tex-Mex. Great suggestions!

  6. Oh, I meant to also say that I have an LLBean backpack that I used in college and it is still going strong. They are really nice and have a great guarantee. They may cost a little more upfront, but are well worthit in my opinion. I graduated from college over ten years ago, for perspective. :)

    1. Another vote for LLBean. I'll be checking out their sale!

  7. Hi Lili,
    About 15 years ago, I began to use my daughter's long-discarded PacSport Connections backpack. She had used it in elementary school - she is now 29! It is only just beginning to get see-through wear like you describe in your post. I imagine we bought it quite inexpensively at Walmart or K-Mart...
    As far as LL Bean, I can affirm that they will back up any purchase with their guarantee, and now they offer free shipping on everything.

    For unexpected quick meals, I try to freeze any leftovers from meals, cook larger than needed quantities and freeze the rest, have breakfast for dinner, or just have odd combinations of leftovers with other foods on hand. These are probably strategies you already employ - you are so good at creative meal planning!

    As far as the gravy, I would second the "when in doubt, throw it out" sentiment. (I HATE tummy troubles!)
    Jo Ann

    1. Hi Jo Ann,
      Hmmm, PacSport. I'll look them up.
      Breakfast for dinner always seems to be a hit, doesn't it? And just using odd leftovers, combined with whatever I could find in the pantry, also would have worked. (We did go through all the frozen leftovers in the first couple of days, but I think I could have scrounged more from the pantry and fridge.)

      Another "throw it out". You mentioned the tummy troubles. Put that way, it does persuade me towards throwing it out! Thanks! As much as I hate to waste food, I think I hate to be sick even more!

  8. Hmm...not sure on the backpack. Jansport used to be a good brand but we haven't purchased one since our own college days (20 years ago now). I have had good luck with LL Bean for other products so the suggestion above might be a wise one to check out.

    For quick meals that are easy, we like the occasional salmon patties or the same thing made with ground beef. The salmon ones taste great stretched with mashed potatoes (in them) and the ground beef ones could presumably be stretched with lentils or oats, though I typically make them with just the beef. I make them as my mom did: egg (one per lb of meat or filler), filler (cracker or bread crumbs, or oats or mashed potatoes), salt, pepper, a little garlic sometimes, and diced onion.

    For the gravy, I'd bring to a good boil, then simmer, and then use it. :)

    1. Hi Cat,
      I will definitely check out LLBean's backpacks. That would be reassuring to know they'd replace it if the zipper went, or a seam ripped.

      Meat patties of some sort sound good, and they would have satisfied the family. Thanks! And you're right, they're versatile in what you can use, and quick to do.

  9. Not sure I have anything brilliant to add, but I'm very interested in everyone's backpack recommendations! Ours typically last a couple of years but that's been with elementary school--not sure what will happen as they get older.

    For super-quick, I-can-barely-stand-on-my-feet-much-less-cook meals, I reheat ham slices; bake chicken/potatoes in the oven; make eggs/toast; and a new favorite with my kids that I tried recently (recipe on, baked eggs--crack 2 eggs in a souffle cup, put a tablespoon of milk on top, mix Dijon mustard/grated cheese and put on top of that, and bake in a 350* oven for about 15 minutes or until set. You can throw tomatoes or spinach or whatever in these, and I make toast. Also, this may be out of your price range, but when turkey kielbasa is on sale, I stock up on that, as it's pre-cooked--I add it to a stir-fry recipe I have or a red beans & rice recipe, but you could just heat it and slice and eat it on a bun or with potatoes ... I also find canned tuna is helpful to keep on hand if I need protein that doesn't need to be thawed/cooked. Sometimes I make cheese tortillas. Our freezer typically is stocked with frozen veggies/fruit and all we need to do is microwave the veggies. Couscous may also be too pricey but I like to keep a box on-hand for a quick, easy side dish (or you could make it a meal-in-one and throw in protein and a veggie). I have also done some of the comments suggested above. Thing is, it can be hard to manage food during an illness, since it's not something you expected to have happen to you.

    1. Hi Kris,
      yum those baked eggs do sound delicious! A variation that I've made a couple of times -- sliced ham to line a muffin cup, then the egg dropped in, and topped with salt, pepper and cheese.
      Thanks for your ideas. And even though kielbasa might be out of price range at regular prices, I do sometimes see it on markdown, and I could pick some up for the freezer. It does make a quick and tasty main dish, as it's already seasoned.

      You bring up the point that made the week so hard with meals -- it was unexpected and I could barely stand in the kitchen, had no appetite myself, and didn't want to think about food, let alone have to prepare it. If it had been up to me, we just wouldn't have eaten dinner all week. But that doesn't quite work, does it? I think writing down these ideas, and keeping them tucked in my recipe file will at least do the thinking for me. Thanks for your suggestions!

    2. Ooh, your egg cup idea sounds good as well. And I don't think I saw anyone mention French toast--that was always my go-to quick supper when I was single. A little more protein than pancakes but uses less eggs than an actual egg dish. Top it with fruit or your rhubarb sauce to health it up a bit.

      I know you keep around frozen cooked turkey at different times of the year--maybe if you hit a great chicken sale, you could also pre-cook and freeze that. There are so many fast and easy meals you could do with chicken (or just serve it as-is!).

  10. I don't have any advice about backpacks. My sons' have never had one that lasted more than a year, or two at the most. After reading through these comments though, I think I might check out the LL Bean backpacks. My 12 year old son needs a new backpack for the coming school year. The LL Bean guarantee sounds like a good deal!

    I've been building a collection of quick meal ideas over the last year and a half. My husband's hours changed at work and he usually gets home between 8:00 and 9:00. I get home from work at 5:30. The boys and I spend time together while working on the household chores. By the time my husband calls to tell me he's on his way home, I'm worn out and the last thing I feel like doing is cooking!

    The thing that has helped me a lot has been mentioned a few times in these comments, prepping meat ahead and freezing it for later use. I cook six pounds of ground beef at a time and freeze it in Ziploc bags in one pound portions. Some of it I freeze plain and to some I add taco seasoning. I also boil and shred chicken and then freeze it in Ziploc bags in two cup portions. Just starting out with the meat already cooked saves me a lot of time when I'm cooking dinner.

    We eat a lot of pasta and rice. Here are some of the things I make with my pre-cooked, frozen beef and chicken:

    ~ Spaghetti with meat sauce, although sometimes we go without the meat
    ~ Cheeseburger macaroni, I make this from scratch and don't use boxed mixes. For variety, I also make chili cheese macaroni and also a cheeseburger macaroni with taco seasoning
    ~ Beef or chicken tacos
    ~ Chicken Alfredo
    ~ Chicken and biscuits (like chicken pot pie, only with biscuits on top)
    ~ Chicken and pasta (skillet meals with various seasoning...sometimes cheesy, sometimes garlic-y/buttery, sometimes spicy

    Here is one super quick, chicken skillet meal that my family really loves:

    I put 2 cups of water (or chicken broth I saved from cooking chicken) in a large skillet and bring to a boil. I add 2 cups of cooked, shredded frozen chicken and 2 cups of my frozen diced tomatoes and peppers (or 1 can of Rotel). Simmer for a few minutes until the chicken, tomatoes and peppers are thawed. I add 2 tablespoons of my homemade taco seasoning (or 1 packet of commercial taco seasoning) and stir. I stir in 2 cups of instant rice, remove the skillet from the heat and cover. I let sit for 5 minutes, remove lid and stir. We spoon the mixture into warm tortillas and sprinkle with shredded cheese and add a spoonful of sour cream. This meal honestly only takes about 15 minutes and everyone really loves it. My family will even eat the leftovers cold.

    As for the gravy, I would throw it out, even though I hate food waste. Better safe then sorry. If it makes you feel any better, I had to feed 1/2 of a cheesy hamburger/macaroni casserole to my dogs last week. I had left the casserole on the stove to cool a little before putting it into the fridge. My husband had arrived home from work really late that night and we were tired. We went to bed not too long after eating and I forgot the casserole. I had a sick feeling in my stomach when I saw that casserole on the stove the next morning. I really hate to waste food. Then I decided to quit beating myself up over it and added it to my two Labrador's morning food. They enjoyed it anyway! The worst part of it was, we were planning on having the leftover casserole the next night for a quick supper. :)


    1. Hi Angie,
      thank you so much for all of your ideas!
      Oh, that's too bad about the casserole. I am so tired, too, by the time everyone comes home, that it's easy to just leave something and forget it.

      About the backpack-- I got an email yesterday (from Cathy -- thanks Cathy). Jansport has a lifetime guarantee on their packs. I'm going to try that and see if my old backpack can be repaired! All it would cost me is shipping the pack there. They pay return shipping. There is a 4 week turn around. Fortunately we still have time! Woo hoo!

  11. It's interesting that this post and another one of yours showed up on the same day. I often wonder how so many people comment so quickly on a post. Now I know, they see it before I do.

    You know me, the minimalist cook. When I'm sick, quick dinners are "I'm sick. Help yourself to whatever you can find." I'm sure your family wouldn't mind that at all. In fact, I know at least one of your daughters would be happy with a peanut butter sandwich. Also, remember it's your job to set a good example for your kids that it's okay to put yourself first sometimes and take care of yourself. That's hard for most of us mothers. It certainly took me a while to learn it. But as the kids get older and not so needy, it got easier.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      for some quirky reason, my blog posts don't show up in readers right away. I'm sorry about that. Some days they don't show up for about 10 hours, some days within about 3 or 4. So if 2 show up in the same day, it's because the reader listed the first of the two late and the second comparatively early.

      You're right. In hind sight, I think I could have put out bread, peanut butter and apples, at least one of the nights.

  12. Hi we got our back packs at office supply and office depot about 5 years ago
    they usally do a promo that if you buy a back pack they give you a gift card to the store for the amount of purchase. Not sure of brand they are packed right now. Glad you are feeling better.I use the crock pot when I am sick just put random frozen things right in the crock pot in the morning and by dinner you have a meal. Great way to use up random things in the freezer. If it was me I would toss the gravey hate for you or your family to get sick but I am a little cautious .

    1. Hi Patti,
      I am leaning towards agreement on the caution side with the gravy. It's just a small amount of gravy, so I think we could live without it.
      Thanks for the information on the backpacks, and suggestions on using a crockpot for sick days. Very useful!

  13. Holy Moly! I've got a JanSport backpack from the 1970's that's still goin' strong. I thought they were indestructible!

    Anyhow, when I'm not feeling well I tend to take the path of least resistance with food, which can vary significantly depending on what I have on hand. But here are some of my favorites:

    Tuna melts - either on bread or a tortilla.

    Anything burrito - If I have tortillas on hand I'll fill with beans, scrambled eggs, cooked ground meat or sausage, sauteed veggies, rice or whatever I've got. Top with shredded cheese (melt in microwave) and chopped tomatoes & lettuce. If you've got salsa or green chili sauce you can pour some on top but not necessary.

    Scrambled eggs with whatever I've got - if I have frozen veggie mixes from the store I just toss some in the pan until they're done, then add the eggs & top with cheese.

    Egg sandwich - works great on toast. Fry up an egg top with cheese and whatever else you've got handy. The Norwegians would put a thick split pea soup like stuff on top of egg sandwiches - it was actually great!

    Microwave Baked potatoes - takes about 4 minutes to "bake" a potato in the microwave. I suppose if you're doing half a dozen you could bake them in the oven and then just do a potato bar. I top with whatever I've got: cheese, sour cream or plain yogurt, canned beans, sauteed veggies, cooked ground meat or sausage, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, etc, even tuna or scrambled eggs work in a pinch.

    Pasta with anything - I'll set a big pot of pasta to boil then grab whatever I've got on hand and dump it in a skillet - usually if I'm sick it's frozen veggies, canned beans, canned tomatoes or tomato sauce, tuna, olives, cream of mushroom soup, grated cheese, etc - mix with pasta - dinner!

    Bean salad - If I've got canned beans on hand it's really easy to toss together a 3 bean salad, or a black bean & corn salad.

    If I don't have any canned beans or meat/fish on hand and can't stomach any more scrambled eggs, I'll generally cook up a pot of lentils or brown some ground beef, or toss some chicken in the oven to bake so I've got that to throw into any of the above for protein.

    1. Hi Cat,
      my guess is your Jansport pack, made in the 70s was of better quality than the packs sold today, unfortunately. But, I did find their guarantee info online and downloaded a form to send mine in for repairs.
      Thanks for all of your suggestions on easy meals. It's so hard for me to even think of something to cook when I'm not well, let alone even do the cooking. But I've gotten so many great suggestions, now I don't have to even do the thinking part!

  14. Jan Sport backpacks have a awesome warranty. If they ever break down they will fix it or replace it. Look up Jan Sport/ warranty. So if you ever see a good Jan Sport backpack at the thrift store pick it up.

    1. I did look up their warranty at!!!! So very happy!

      They have a form available to download online, along with address of where to send the pack. The customer pays shipping to Jansport, and Jansport pays return shipping. Great deal and I wish I had known about this before my kids started high school. They could have been using the same packs for university as well as high school -- for the cost of 1 backpack each.


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