The Secret to Easy Stovetop Mac & Cheese

Fact of life: Feeding children is like being a short-order cook in a busy diner. There are orders and special requests coming at you fast and if you’re not prepared, the whole operation can come apart at the seams. Those of us in the kitchen trenches are continually honing our skill set to better manage day-to-day life and meet everyone’s needs in the most efficient and effective way we can. We gather recipes and tips from fellow kitchen warriors and are always searching for ways to improve our craft.

I’ve personally searched for and tried more mac & cheese recipes than I can say including a very tasty baked version that required a good amount of prep and $20 worth of ingredients. It’s delicious and a great one to have for special occasions but perhaps not a realistic choice for my 2 year old at lunchtime. So stove top macaroni is my go-to for a quick, pleasing meal for the kiddos. With efficiency in mind, I always have the ingredients on hand to throw together a batch of mac & cheese, either for quick hearty kid lunch or an easy weeknight dinner. There are A LOT of recipes out there alleging to be the best version and I make no claim to that here. however, the recipe I’ll share- well method really- is one that every home cook should have in their arsenal. It doesn’t involve evaporated milk, mustard powder, or anything fussy. Starting with this method you’ll have your own perfect mac and cheese that will have other Mom’s asking how you do it. Play around and make this your own “Best Mac & Cheese” recipe.

Easy Stovetop Mac

Ingredients

  • 2 C or 8 oz. of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 C milk
  • 2 T cornstarch
  • 2 C dried Macaroni or shells, prepared
  • Seasoning of choice *I use all-purpose seasoning salt and a dash of onion powder, you may want to add some cayenne or a little smoked paprika. Experiment to find the flavors that you like.

Note: You can use any cheese or combination of cheeses you like here, as long as it melts. In order to have a flavorful sauce you’ll want to choose cheese that has a strong flavor which is why I use sharp. It’s okay to use mild or whatever you have on hand though you may need to season your final product a little more to keep it from being bland. No need to run to the store, show-off your homemaker chops by making do with what you have.

cheese sauce

Prepare the pasta according to package directions. My kids like really soft macaroni so I add 2-3 minutes to the cooking time. For the cheese sauce, start by heating the milk. Get it nice and hot but don’t boil it. You can either do this in the microwave or on the stove top. While the milk is heating place your shredded cheese in a bowl and toss it with the corn starch to coat, you could also do this in a baggie. Once the cheese is coated, stir into the hot milk until smooth. Taste and season your sauce to your preference and then stir in the pasta and serve. Make this a dinner by doubling amounts and adding cooked meat, or boiling sliced hot dogs in with the pasta. This would be perfect for Meatless Monday. Add a side of veg for good measure.

Stuffed Shells and Stocking Up on Freezer Meals

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I haven’t had a chance to photograph this recipe yet, so how about a random picture of an onion instead? Aren’t vegetables beautiful? So, any-hoo… my husband calls this recipe amazing. I usually get comments like, “Whoa. How do you make this? It’s SO GOOD!” My shells aren’t mushy in texture and hold their shape well. Another mark in their favor is that Stuffed Shells is one of those recipes that makes more than we can possibly eat at once so I always have an extra pan for the freezer. Bonus! Doubling something I’m already cooking is pretty much my approach to building up a stash of freezer meals. There are also a few things I like to cook ahead and freeze for faster meal prep later like:

  • Rice: Next time you make rice, do a double batch. To reheat, just add 2 tablespoons of liquid for each cup of rice; microwave or cook in a saucepan (on the stove) until heated through. Will keep in the freezer for up to 6 months.
  • Ground Beef: I buy beef on sale and usually come home with 5 to 10 pounds at a time. The trick is to process the meat ASAP to preserve and get it ready for quick dinners later. I brown some and make burger patties or meatballs out of the rest. See my recipe for ground beef mix here.
  • Tomato Sauce: I like to buy a giant can of peeled, whole tomatoes and make up a bunch of spaghetti sauce for the freezer. On Italian night I go to my freezer for a package of pre-cooked ground beef, a jar of sauce and some Texas Toast. Boil noodles and toss a quick salad and dinner is done in under 30 minutes.
  • Shredded Cheese: Once in a while I get a really good deal on cheese and buy a lot of it. To freeze cheese grate it and package in airtight freezer bags with as little air inside as possible. Whole bricks of cheese will crumble upon thawing but shredding it eliminates that particular issue. Thawed cheese melts just fine so I pull it out to make cheese sauce, top casseroles, quesadillas and even sprinkle on sandwiches.

I don’t have to put aside a special time to do freezer cooking since things like homemade sauce, casseroles or soup can be made in larger quantities with very little added time & effort and stashed for a night when I just really need a break.

Stuffed Shells

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, cubed
  • 1 sweet onion, minced
  • 1 C mayo
  • 3 C shredded cheddar
  • 3 C shredded mozzarella
  • 1 lb. ground beef, browned & drained
  • 1 T minced garlic
  • 1/4 t Salt & 1/2 t pepper
  • 1T Italian seasoning
  • 2 jars of spaghetti sauce
  • 1 12 oz. box jumbo pasta shells

Boil shells according to package instructions. Be sure to salt the water to help reduce sticky pasta. You can also add a little oil. Stir gently & frequently to avoid clumping. Remove shells to a single layer on wax paper. Brown beef with garlic & onion, drain.  In a large glass mixing bowl and microwave 30 seconds to soften. Stir in mayo, Italian seasoning, salt & pepper completely. Then add shredded cheese and ground beef and to create your filling. I skip this step and pull pre-cooked ground beef ready to use from the freezer. Prepare your baking pans with a little sauce to cover the bottom of each. Spoon filling into shells being careful not to over-stuff them, about 1 1/2 T. Arrange shells in your baking dish then ladle sauce to cover and top with more cheese if desired. I like to use a little cheddar on top. Cover with foil, bake 35 minutes until hot and bubbly.

To make ahead: Prepare but don’t bake. Cover tightly with plastic wrap then foil and refrigerate for up to 24 hours or freeze for up to 2 months. Remove the plastic and replace foil to bake- refrigerated 40-50 minutes, frozen 2 hours.

Copycat Rice-a-roni

Whenever I’ve bought a box of Rice-a-roni or Hamburger Helper and cooked it up for dinner my family is like, “Oh, man this is so good! You should make this all the time! I love this stuff!” Prepackaged, sodium-filled, preservative-ridden food is their favorite. I can’t blame them, it is delicious. My Mom conscience, however, won’t allow me to feed them crap on a regular basis so I try to make the things they like from scratch instead. I can make more for less and it will have fewer ingredients which quiets my inner critic that nags me to feed them all natural, BPA free, non-GMO, sustainable organic, whole foods at every meal. I strive for not fast-food and usually succeed, so pipe down inner critic.

Tonight I’m making my homemade version of Beef Rice-a-roni but I also do this recipe with chicken which is the same method but substituting chicken breast and chicken broth for the beef. Everything else is the same.


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Homemade Hamburger Rice

Serves 6-8 plus leftovers. We love leftovers.

  • 1-2 lbs. ground beef, browned & drained
  • 5 1/4 -1/2 C beef broth (I mix up some bouillon)
  • 4 T butter, margarine or oil
  • 3 Cups white rice
  • 1 pkg vermicelli

    Toasting the rice & pasta

Brown  & drain your beef then set aside or, you can take a page from my book and pull your pre-cooked ground beef out of the fridge or freezer ready to go. Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add uncooked rice and vermicelli and stir frequently to toast until you can smell the roasty toasty buttery goodness and start to see pieces of rice & pasta turn golden. Add the beef and broth and stir to combine. Bring to a boil then cover and reduce heat to low. Let cook without opening or stirring for 20 minutes or until rice is tender. Serve.

Note: I use a 12″ deep-sided skillet with a lid for this recipe. If you don’t have one this recipe can be halved and made in a smaller skillet. The vermicelli I use can usually be found in the Hispanic foods section of the grocery store. 

Ditch the Store-bought Dressings!

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I try to avoid soy which makes buying salad dressing off the shelf difficult. Also, I like fresh and am totally picky when it comes to condiments. Homemade tastes so much better than store bought, am I right? Here are 3 of my family’s favorite salad dressings that are simple to make as well as delicious. Make them your own by tweaking the recipe to suit your tastes. Diced, pickled jalapeno would be a yummy addition to the thousand island for example. Mix it up!


French Dressing

  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 1 1/2 C canola oil
  • 1/4 C water
  • 1/2 C white wine vinegar
  • 2 t montreal steak seasoning
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 2 T mayonaise
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t pepper
  • 1 t prepared mustard

Combine all ingredients in a blender and mix until creamy. Pour into a quart mason jar and store in your refrigerator. Shake before using and use within 5-7 days.


Thousand Island Dressing

  • 1 C mayonaise
  • 1/2 C ketchup
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 t onion powder
  • 1/2 t garlic powder
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1-2 T water to thin (depending on the consistency you like)
  • (optional) 1-2 T sweet pickle relish
  • (optional) 1 t hot sauce

Stir ingredients together in a small serving bowl. Can be used as a dip or dressing. Refrigerate any leftovers and use within 7-10 days.


Blue Cheese Dressing

  • 1 C sour cream
  • 1/2 C mayo
  • 2 t white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 t minced garlic
  • 1/8 t salt
  • 1/2 t black pepper
  • 1 4 oz. container of crumbled blue cheese or gorgonzola
  • (optional) milk to thin

Whisk ingredients together in a bowl. This will be thick and rich but you can thin it out if you want it to be easier to pour. This is wonderful as a dip with vegetables or hot wings. Heck, I like it with potato chips! Refrigerate any leftovers and use within 5 days.

 

 

Lactation Cookies to Boost a Mother’s Milk Supply

 

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March 2006

To be honest, if baby formula had been within our budget (or free) when we had our first child, I’d have gone that route. I found breastfeeding to be miserable and very, very difficult. My poor baby didn’t gain weight for the first 6 weeks and even after that she wasn’t chubby. She nursed every 30 minutes to an hour because my output was so low. But I had to stick with it to save money and ultimately am so glad I did. I found that a Lactation Consultant is worth their weight in gold and that any breastfeeding problem, no matter how hopeless it may seem, can be fixed with their help.

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June 2008- tandem nursing

I continued to nurse that first baby through a pregnancy, her 2nd birthday and alongside her baby sister to spite the fact that I promised myself I’d quit after 5 months. I went from hating it & counting the months until I could quit to loving it and wanting to help other moms succeed like I had.  With our second baby I was suddenly a high producer and it. was. AWESOME!

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May 2012- Struggling to make milk again

Then… with our 3rd, I barely made enough to sustain a flea and sought help from a Lactation consultant again. I was given a supplemental nursing system to feed my little one his formula while getting the stimulation I needed and avoiding getting him hooked on bottles.

That combined with taking a lot of fenugreek had me exclusively breastfeeding by the time baby was 2 months old.  I would not have been able to do it without the help of professionals and now I’ve nursed 3 babies through toddlerhood. Can you tell I’m proud? 🙂

Medela's "starter" SNS
Medela’s “starter” SNS

I enjoy these cookies with a hot cup of Mother’s Milk tea and some Jane Austen. Don’t fret if your husband and children want some, they won’t suddenly start lactating as a result and this recipe makes more than enough to share. I like to make up a batch and deliver along with a box of tea to anyone who has just had a baby. You can type up the recipe and put it in a card for a baby shower. I don’t need much of an excuse to make cookies though. Happy baking & milk making!


 

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Lactation Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen

Preheat your oven to 325° and grease your cookie sheet.

Combine then set aside to soak :

  • 4 T water
  • 2 T flax meal

In a separate bowl, thoroughly combine then set aside:

  • 2 C all purpose flour
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t salt
  • 12 fenugreek capsules, open, sprinkle powder & discard capsule (optional)

With a stand or hand mixer, combine:

  • 1 C softened butter
  • 1 C white sugar
  • 1 C brown sugar

Once those are creamed, mix in:

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 t vanilla
  • 1 T brewer’s yeast
  • pre-soaked flax meal

 

Add dry mixture, stir (mix gently). Then add:

  • 3 C oatmeal
  • 1 C chocolate chips

Drop dough by rounded spoonfuls onto a lightly greased (or use parchment paper) cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes. After removing from oven, allow to set for a minute before moving to a cooling rack.


Tips

Oven Temp: You can bake these cookies anywhere from 325° – 375° depending on how crispy you want them to be. Keep in mind they’ll cook more quickly at the higher temp. My family likes them soft so I cook them at a lower temp. If you consistently burn or under-cook foods, use a thermometer to test the true temp of your oven and then adjust accordingly.

Chocolate: It’s not a good idea to omit the chocolate chips from this recipe. They mask the flavor of the brewer’s yeast which is sharp and somewhat bitter. You won’t taste it at all with the chocolate in there, though!

Special ingredients: I find flax meal in all my local grocery stores either in the cereal or baking aisle. Brewers Yeast and fenugreek can be found in organic/natural food sections. Kroger, Safeway & Albertsons stores all have these special sections or you can go to a vitamin supplement store. As an added bonus, the fenugreek adds a pleasant maple flavor to your cookies.

Oats: Whole grain oats are great for helping stimulate milk production. That may be where the idea that beer is good for milk supply comes from! In addition to these cookies I eat a ton of granola bars when nursing an infant.

Banana Bread

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So tired of dry, bland banana brick!!! Excuse me, had to get that off my chest. Here is my tried and true recipe, modified many times until I was satisfied with the result. Eat it warm from the oven, butter melting on a slice, or cold from the fridge with a cuppa joe. This bread is so irresistible that I need to make 3 at a time just to have it last more than a day. In fact the loaf in this photo was pulled out of the oven a little too early and didn’t get the usual high crown on top. It just smelled too good and we couldn’t wait any longer to drop the hammer on the warm, cakey goodness. With ice cream. Mercy.


Banana Bread
Makes 1 loaf

Preheat your oven to 350° and grease your bread pan.

With a stand or hand mixer, combine:
1/2 C softened butter
1 C white sugar

Once those are creamed, add:
2 eggs
4 bananas, smooshed (a good task for the rugrat hanging from your apron strings)
1/2 t coconut extract (if you don’t have just double the vanilla- no sweat)
1 t vanilla extract

In a separate bowl, thoroughly combine:
1 1/2 C all purpose flour
1 t salt
1 t baking soda
1/4 t cinnamon
1/8 t nutmeg (if you don’t have, or don’t want, these spices, feel free to substitute apple pie spice, allspice, pumpkin pie spice, whatever you like)
1/2 C chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

Add dry mixture to wet mixture and stir just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 1 hour. A dry spaghetti noodle stuck into the center should come out clean, not gooey. Cool for about 20 minutes before running a knife around the bread and gently loosening from pan. I like to shake the pan back and forth and feel for the bottom to release before inverting.


Tips

Baking powder: It causes your banana bread to rise and gives you that nice crown on top. If the powder has been open more than 6 months you will not have as good of a rise so if you don’t know how old it is, use a new can. Also, it’s not a good idea to buy baking powder in the bulk dry goods section because there is no way to know how long it has been sitting there.

Flour: When measuring flour you want it to be light and airy, not heavy and packed. Before measuring, I use my scoop to toss the flour about in it’s container. Some bakers swear by using a spoon to gently measure it out or to sift it. Keep this in mind if you end up with a dense or dry baked good.

DIY Squeeze Jelly

 

Our kids are old enough to make their own PB&J though apparently not old enough to wipe up afterward. My kitchen counters used to get smeared with sticky globs of jam & jelly daily from the occasional toast or sandwich. I think it’s sweet and encourage their independence. I LOVE them being able to do things for themselves. However… I am all for making their journey to self sufficiency a little less messy and/or wasteful. So I shopped for the squeezy jams at the grocery store and was disappointed to find that I’d be paying more for my clean counters.

Epiphany! I have a food processor! I can puree my own jams and jellies and refill those expensive bottles! So that’s what I did. I wash and sanitized these bottles ( I have one for strawberry too) before each refill but you certainly don’t have to buy the expensive squeezies like I did. I thought of this after purchasing the jelly bottle, but YOU can just use one of those reusable condiment containers people take to BBQs and picnics. They probably work better since this jelly version tends to be slightly looser than the store bought and the smaller opening will slow the flow.

 Here’s what I used.

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Puree, then pour.

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The finished product! I’m not fussy about the old labels being attached, but if you want to pretty up that bottle use some Goof-Off. It stays in the fridge though so who will know if you don’t?

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Squeeze Jelly

…there really isn’t a recipe to give you. But I have photos, see? Just buy (or make) some jam or jelly, puree it in your blender or food processor, funnel into a squeezy bottle and refrigerate. No need to add any other ingredients like oil or thickeners. Easy!