Four meals for a family of four for $40? It's a heck of a challenge, but chef Susan Maddox of Le Titi De Paris threw down like a budget Iron Chef at the Prairie Lakes Community Center last week.
"I heard a show on NPR talking about how families who use food stamps and food pantries end up with a lot of junk food or processed food because they can't afford healthier foods on such small budgets," said Jeanine Stricker of Des Plaines Health and Human Services. "We started brainstorming ideas for teaching people healthy eating while staying within a budget."
Stricker brainstormed with Shelly Sarge of the Des Plaines Park District and they approached Maddox. "When we realized Susan does this at home it all fell into place," said Stricker. The Des Plaines Community Foundation sponsored the event, which was free to the public.
Maddox had one hour to demonstrate how to make four meals from scratch.
"You can do this," she said. "A lot of people think cooking is a chore but with this we are literally taking two chickens and making four meals. It's budget friendly, it's easy, it's something you can let kids help out with."
As a working mother, Maddox is realistic about the cost of food while also being passionate about the importance of sitting down for dinner together in order to create healthy families.
"Everybody's on a budget," she said. "I'm a mom of two, with an 11- and 13-year- old. We're all on a budget. We all have a tight schedule. But families need to eat, and it's best when they eat at home, sitting at a table together instead of catching something in a drive-thru. Being home, eating together, that's what you remember. You can do that and eat healthier, but to eat healthier you need to get out of your car."
Maddox started by preparing two whole chickens she'd purchased at Costco. Together, the chickens cost $9. "People are intimidated by whole chickens, but you're paying more to have someone else cut it up for you," she said. "It doesn't take a lot to cook a chicken. Put it in the oven at 400 (degrees) and walk away. You don't need knife skills. Once it's cooked, you can break it apart with your hands. It's not art. It's dinner."
To kick off her easy four day meal plan she started by roasting two chickens for a sit down Sunday dinner - one for the table, one for leftovers. From there, she shredded the legs and thighs to use in a Mexican inspired Chicken Fiesta, sliced the breasts for an Asian stir fry with vegetables and noodles, then picked the remaining meat off the wings and bones for a shepherd's pie style chicken bake with pre-made stuffing mix.
Each step of the way she relied heavily on prepared items from the grocery store.
"This is where we're at," she said with a laugh, gesturing at the Wal-Mart generic salsa, a $1 bag of seasoned rice, and a package of instant stuffing mix. "It's okay to use cheaters," Maddox added. "Sure, I'm a chef, but I'm a mom first. I have a budget at home, just like I do here. Today, I'm feeding 45 people on $75. Buy the budget friendly items. If you're afraid of fresh produce going bad in the fridge, start by buying things that already have vegetables in them, like a corn and black bean salsa."
Maddox also had advice for dealing with picky eaters of any age - cut fresh ingredients into large pieces. "I cut the scallions into big pieces so my son can pick them out," she said. "Don't deny everyone at the table vegetables because of one picky eater. Plus, if you put it in front of them enough times they might accidentally eat some and decide they like it."
Maddox also advised planning a menu in advance so you can go to the grocery store with a strict list. That way you not only stay inside your budget but also only buy food you will actually eat. "So much money is wasted on food we throw away," she said. "Pick out your four meals for the week and only buy what you need."
Due to the popularity of the class, Stricker said the Des Plaines Healthy Community Partnership is working on offering a series of similar programs next year. "Our minimum for this class was 20 people and our maximum was 45," Stricker said. "We couldn't believe the response. We filled up so fast, and even had people calling this morning to ask if we still had space."