You can have festive family meals that don't take a lot of money or time to prepare, especially if the family is willing to help out. Actual costs will depend on your location as well as how many mouths you need to feed, but many of these suggestions can feed a family of four for under $15, based on 2011 averages published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Place a variety of individual food items that go together in bowls, then set out a platter of lettuce leaves, flatbread, halved tortillas or even seaweed sheets if your family is adventurous. Each family member can place as much of each filling as he likes in a wrap and fold it up to eat. For a meal with Asian flair, food selections might include cooked and flaked fish, rice, chopped ginger, small pieces of peeled orange or lime, sweetened coconut flakes and peanuts. For a Mexican style wrap night, set out your favorite taco fillings. Other selections might include chicken pieces, chopped apples, shredded carrots, alfalfa sprouts and dried cranberries or raisins. Base the selection on your family's favorite foods, and watch them enjoy a finger-food feast. Set out creamy dressings or dips to accompany the fillings and to hold the wraps together.
While the name may sound expensive or daunting, Cornish game hens are small birds that usually cost only a few dollars each. Baste them in ranch dressing, a marinade or sprinkle on some olive oil and spices, then bake them in the oven. Accompany the meal with other miniature offerings, such as roasted baby potatoes, baby carrots and sweet hot chocolate in demitasse cups. Since everything is baked, cooking doesn't require much time or thought; just keep an eye on your oven timer. If the cost per game hen is too much in your area, let the kids split a hen between them or let everyone share a hen with a partner, and fill in the meal with veggies and potatoes.
Move your cooking adventure to the outdoor fire pit in the summer. Chop potatoes, boneless skinless chicken, and a few of your favorite veggies into cubes approximately 1/2-inch square. Mix these with a dry ranch seasoning mix or a marinade, then place a scoop of the mixture onto a square of heavy aluminum foil. Fold up the foil, rolling the edges together until you have a flat, airtight pouch. Once all of the mixture is packaged into individual pouches, place the pouches into an already-roaring fire. You'll need some tongs to retrieve them about 30 minutes later, but when you do, your whole family will have individually wrapped fresh-cooked meals, all with very little cleanup for you. This is also a great hot winter meal in the fireplace, especially if the power goes out.
Food is more fun to eat when it's stuffed into other food. Hollow out your favorite peppers -- spicy poblanos, sweet bells, or even hot jalapenos -- and stuff them with ground beef or turkey, cooked rice, your favorite vegetables, spices and cheese. Add your favorite sauce, such as enchilada sauce for poblanos or spaghetti sauce for bell peppers, and bake them in the oven until the meat is cooked through and the pepper is soft. You can substitute breadcrumbs or oats for the rice, making more of a meatball-type texture. If your kids balk at squishy peppers, bake the meat mixture separately and serve it in halved raw bell pepper shells. For summer meals, make a meaty salad from leftover meats, rice, shredded lettuce and other veggies, lightly dressed and sweetened with raisins or other fruit, then scoop that into bell pepper shells. Or hollow out apples, orange peels or avocados for summer-style stuffed produce dinner.
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