Category Archives: Recipes

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Freezer Meal Swap

​Imagine with me that you have a freezer brimming with “ready to heat” meals. Imagine that your family gets to try several new meals each month that you didn’t even make. Imagine that you could save both time and money while cooking. AND imagine that you have a practical excuse to get together with other like minded ladies for a time of fellowship each month.

​Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it??

​Allow me to introduce the marvelous idea of a Freezer Meal Swap Group. J

​There are different ways you can go about this. The bottom line is that a group of people get together and swap meals they have made. It saves time and money because you are doing bulk cooking and you get the benefit of enjoying meals you may not normally make, plus all of the meals are prepped and waiting in the freezer on a busy day.image

​Here’s how to do it!

#1.
​Invite friends to join you. You may think you have a lot of friends who will want to take part, but you might be surprised how few actually do it. It’s a big commitment and involves both time and trust of the other participants, so I always encourage the ladies to just try it for a couple months and see what they think. Some will fall in love with the idea and others will move on, but either way, the variety in participants is lots of fun. J We average 5-6 in our group, but I’ve heard of as many as 12. You want a manageable number but still worth it for people to make the trek to exchange meals.

​I am very careful who I invite. Your situation might be different, but here is my criteria: A woman in a similar stage of life as me, with a similar family size, like-minded, has a clean home, is dependable, is able to cook. This way, the time of getting together each month is profitable for fellowship and encouragement. It’s crucial that the ladies are dependable because no one wants to go through all that work and not get a meal in return. And most importantly, I make it clear to anyone interested in joining that the ladies all have clean homes. NO ONE wants to eat food from a dirty kitchen.

#2.​Decide what type of swap you will have. You can ask the other ladies what their preferences are as you prepare for your first swap, but here are some options. Some of this is listed in our QUESTIONNAIRE if you just want to use that.

• Have each person make multiples of the same meal. This way they are just making 1 recipe times the number of participants.
• Have each person make different meals. This way they can just double various recipes they are already making throughout the month.
• You could assign people certain ethnicities or food types to prevent duplication. Some ideas are: Red Meat, Poultry, Meatless, Crock Pot, Breakfast, Ethnic, Italian, Soup, Freebie—anything. Or you could just have them bring anything they want. Regardless, it’s like a treasure hunt every month when you arrive to see what meals you will get. J I remember we were all pretty giddy when we arrived at 2nd freezer meal swap to see what we would get that month!

#3. ​Decide how often you will meet and when.

​Some groups meet weekly while others meet bi-weekly or monthly. We meet the third Thursday of every month at 1pm. We always meet at the same person’s home because she is centrally located and some of us live nearly an hour apart. This is nice because we never have to question when or where we will be. I send out an email about a week before each swap, but if I forget, it’s okay. Everyone is independent on this and I think that’s really important. We are EXTREMELY blessed to have very dependable ladies in our group!!

#4.​Decide how the meals will be stored

• Freezer bags
• Disposable containers
• Containers that they re-use and pass around each month
• Each person does whatever

​We mostly do freezer bags flattened and folded in half to save as much space and money as possible. Sometimes though, you need a container and that’s okay, but we try to be conscious of freezer space.

#5.​Decide how the meals will be labeled
​Some of this will depend on how they will be stored, but some is basic. Ask the ladies at the beginning if it’s important to them that you include the recipe of the meal. For our group, it’s not important, but if it’s easy, we include it. These days, most recipes are off the internet so that helps. If not including the recipe, you can simply write in a permanent marker the following information. Or you could print it on paper and rubber band it to the bag. Tape and Staples don’t work very well.

​Include:
o Name of meal
o Date it was made—they last about 3 months safely, so it’s good to know when it was made!
o Preparation instructions including whether or not it needs to be thawed
o We started including the word, “Raw” if the meat was uncooked so we had a better idea of what we were working with if we were in a hurry when prepping. J

#6.​Determine any food allergies or strong preferences in the group.
​This is important yet you want the food prep to be as simple and generic as possible, so I stress the STRONG preferences. For example, my husband will eat anything, except he really and truly cannot stomach onions. He won’t eat anything that has them, so we use onion powder for ALL of our cooking and this has to carry over into the swap. I, on the other hand, am an EXTREMELY picky eater and have more foods I dislike than like, but I don’t list any preferences on the sheet because I can always pick things off, eat around things, and so on. There is definitely some give and take in a freezer meal swap group. To be honest, we have had meals we didn’t like at all, we’ve had several some loved and some hated, but mostly we’ve had a lot of really wonderful meals, obtained several new recipes and ideas, and rounded out our overall menu.

#7.​Decide how the meals will be distributed at the swap.

​There are several interesting options for this. Here are some I’ve seen and how to implement them.

• Some groups lay out all of the freezer meals from everyone in the group on the table. The person who brought the most meals chooses an equal number of meals first. The person who brought the next highest amount, chooses her equal number of meals next, and on down the line until all of the meals are gone. This works well if the participants bring various types of meals (from doubling recipes throughout the month) or if they bring several of the same meal. It’s also a good option if you choose to meet weekly. This method also gives the ability to bring a few meals or several if someone has had a busy or quiet month. Lots of flexibility here.
• Some groups make a meal for each person in the group, but they make lots of different recipes (like doubling recipes throughout the month), then they lay them out on the table and people just choose the appropriate number of meals randomly.
• Other groups make several of the same recipe and lay them out in organized piles on the table. Each lady walks around the table and gathers her own meals from each pile to fill her container.
• Our group currently has 5 members. We fluctuate between 5 and 6 regularly. We each have our own large container with our name on it that stays at the hostess’s home to be used each month. We each make 5 of the same meal and distribute them into each person’s appropriate container as soon as we arrive. Then we go off to fellowship as long as we want. Afterward, we package up our meals into our coolers or bags and head home. J We require that the meals be completely frozen when each lady arrives so that thawing isn’t a concern if we have to run a few errands or get delayed.

#8.​Back up Plans

​First, I’ll just add this here: The #1 thing we ask of the ladies in our swap is that they be on time. Most of us are able to stay and chat each month and we all look forward to that time, but sometimes we can’t. 1 person has 4 kids and often had to leave immediately early on. We didn’t want her to have to bring all of her kids in and wait unnecessarily for who knows how long before she could leave. This way, she can (theoretically) leave her kids in the car, dash in to grab her meals, and be off. It’s just a courtesy to the other ladies and I think everyone appreciates it. Of course, we all have our times when we’re a few minutes late, but we try really hard. J

​Life happens, so sometimes someone has to miss a swap. Here is how we handle it according to our guidelines which each lady receives up front.

If you can’t make it to a swap and would still like to participate, please arrange two swaps with another person because they will need to bring your food to the swap and bring your new food back to you. Just be aware that freezer food is heavy, so this will add a challenge for the other person and also take up their freezer space.

We’ve all had to do this, and no one really minds. You just need to have a plan in place. We’ve never actually had anyone randomly miss a swap, but you could just have them drop out for a month instead.

We are all in the childbearing stage of life, so we have fun with it! Each lady who is going to have a baby picks a month to take off. It is usually the month before or just after her due date so she can rest. (It’s HARD, if not impossible, to make several freezer meals post partum!) Then we each make our normal number of meals and one person is designated to take them to the new mom. It’s an enormous blessing to her to receive several new meals during that time (plus all she’s stockpiled leading up to her baby’s arrival) and we all enjoy being able to help her in that way. We are short one meal that month, but it’s worth it and we know our time will come too. J To give you an idea of what a blessing this is: For my last baby, I stockpiled nearly 30 freezer meals before her arrival! I barely cooked for several months afterward, so my kids started asking me every night at supper who had made their meal. J

As you can see, there are many blessings of a Freezer Meal Swap Group. We are coming up on 2 years as a group, and we love it. It has stretched my creativity, motivated me to do more freezer cooking, saved us time and money, but most importantly, I have cultivated relationships with other like minded women I never would have taken time to fellowship with. My kids also love playing with the other kids—there will be 13 kids by next month!

I hope this is a help to you if you would like to start a group in your area. Here is the QUESTIONNAIRE that I sent out when we first started and here is a copy of our current GUIDELINES if that information is helpful as you begin. Also, here is an article I did on 10 Freezer meals from your pantry to get you started.

- Lydia

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Snowman Kit in a Jar!

IMG_3105Sometimes you need a fast, easy, cheap (or free), super cute, and practical gift for a child. I guess that sounds like a lot of criteria to fill, BUT I came up with the perfect idea and I can’t wait to share it with you!

It’s no secret on this blog that I LOVE play dough. I love making it, I love all the possibilities it presents, and I love that my kids can keep busy with it for long periods of time. :-)

I also love invitations to play, but they require so many pieces it’s a hard thing to give as a gift—until today!

I present to you: Snowmen in a jar!

Aren’t they cute?!?!

I started by making THIS recipe, but I added 1 teaspoon peppermintIMG_3101extract. (Did you know they are selling it at Aldi right now? So cheap!!) After the play dough was cooked, I added a bunch of glitter while I kneaded it on the wax paper. Ta da! Snow!

One batch of play dough is the exact amount you need to fill 3 baby food jars.

Next I just used items I had around the house. You could use anything! I chose 3 small pom poms in matching colors to be the buttons for each snowman. Then I cut green pipe cleaners for arms—I got 10 out of 1 pipe cleaner to give an idea of length. Next, I cut red pipe cleaner in slightly smaller segments for the carrot. Beads would work for eyes, or googly eyes.

I’m sure there are lots of great possibilities, but I was just using what I had.

I put everything into baby food jars—free containers! Any little container would work though—even Ziploc bags. I used black fabric paint to make eyes and a smile and then I used orange for a big carrot nose. I colored the lid with a big, thick permanent marker to look like a hat.

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To fill the jars:

Divide one batch of play dough into 3 parts. Roll each part into the shape and size of a small, chubby hot dog and slowly lower it into the jar being sure to fill the entire thing. You might need to smush it in with your fingers to get the air out. It should fill the main part of the jar perfectly.

Next, I laid the decorations on the top of the play dough—there is the exact amount of space you need for them!

Screw the lid on and you have a fun, fast, easy, cheap (or free), super cute, and practical gift for a child!

-Lydia

 

How I do ALL My Errands and Cooking in ONE Day

 

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Every couple weeks, I get my two least favorite activities (ERRANDS and COOKING) done in the same day. When I decide to do it, it opens up the rest of the week to so much productivity!

Here’s the general schedule and how I do it.

(BEFORE the day)

- Write grocery list (I’ve written about this before, but I write my grocery shopping list in the exact order everything is located in the store – helps a lot with speed and sanity when we are 17 minutes in and one or two kids start to whine.

- Have kids’ clothes laid out so I can throw their clothes on and we can leave first thing in the morning!

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- Have kitchen cleaned up. (The one morning a week that is my nemesis is MONDAYS so this is harder than it sounds!)

DAY:

8:00 Clean up Breakfast & Get Kids Dressed

Spend 10 minutes clearing toy clutter that they pulled out so we can walk into a clean(ish) house.

9:00 Walmart – and usually only one other place because that’s all we can do if I want to get home in time.

12:00 Home – Make them something fast like microwave burritos, Ramen or Mac N Cheese. (Errand day comes once a week so I figure they’ll survive with that type of food.)

12:30 All my kids take naps. (Errands wear them out too so even the 5 year old who is usually skipping naps now sleeps!) :-)

12:45 This usually gives me a solid hour and a half!

Now, at this point – all the food is sitting on the counter still. 

So (AFTER making coffee!) I put away what needs to be put away, but I end up keeping MOST of it out because I’m going to use it to make all the meals. (LOVE the excuse to not put stuff away!)

Here is a typical meal plan of the meals I make. I usually need to make ahead 5 meals:

1. Stuffed Green Peppers (Hamburger)

2. Thai Chicken Casserole (Chicken)

3. Burritos (Chicken)

4. Potatoes and Hamburger Gravy (Hamburger)

5. Tacos (Hamburger)

I make a graph to see at a glance what I need to use each main ingredient for.

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The top left shows the hamburger uses.

The top right shows the rice uses.

The bottom left shows the chicken uses.

And the bottom right is just a reminder of other main ingredients that are only used in one dish each.

 

I usually start the rice or potatoes (because they take so long).

Then I cook ALL the meat.

Finally, I add in the vegetables and extra seasonings to make the rest of the food.

And put them all together!

(USUALLY, I have most of the ingredients made but not much mixed together yet (i.e. NOTHING finished but everything pulled out when the kids get up from their naps.

But when they get up, we have my sanity saver of “MOVIE MONDAY” which I put in about 3:00. This gives me another much needed hour and a half! :-)

That’s it!

I usually can get the living room cleaned up (though not often the kitchen) by the time my husband comes home. Usually though, I can finish the kitchen after supper and enter Tuesday with a 5 day stretch of pre-cooked meals, no errands, a semi-clean house (and well…time to catch up on the laundry). :-)

-Verity

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10 Freezer Meals from your Pantry!

Have you ever had one of those times when you desperately wanted to be a blessing to someone, but you didn’t have very much money or were unable to go shopping? In the past, I’ve just lowered my eyes and said I couldn’t help by providing food for someone, but when a couple of different friends had legitimate needs recently, I decided to figure out a way to help! I was so pleased and encouraged with the results, that I thought I would share them in the hopes of encouraging someone else to step up to the challenge of helping even when you feel like you can’t. So, here is a list of freezer meals (or just meals) that most likely can be made completely from your pantry without an extra trip to the grocery store!

To preface: my main issue is always having fresh meat on hand for freezer meals. I don’t like to use meat that has been frozen before, plus meat is expensive so we are using it less and less. For these recipes I mostly went for beans and grains. We always have STACKS of canned beans in our pantry or dry ones for backup. Rice and Quinoa are also staples plus some noodles. I tend to have an overabundance of tuna so that’s an easy one to grab too. Many of these meals call for cheese, so it depends how much you have on hand. I buy ahead on cheese to freeze and for each of these meals I can add it frozen and then freeze the meals without ever affecting my frozen cheese. Everyone has different pantry items, but I felt like these meals mostly used staples. For spices, I often use onion powder in place of an onion. 1 T = 1 onion. I also use garlic powder in place of garlic cloves. ¼ t = 1 garlic clove. Some things in these recipes can easily be omitted if you don’t have them. :-)

Also just to note a pet peeve of mine. When you give a meal to someone to be a blessing to them, take note of the container in which you give the meal. It’s probably best not to use your own container where they have to somehow wash it and remember to return it. Also, they may be receiving lots of meals and freezer space could be tight. I find it best to use gallon size freezer bags folded in half and the meal flattened to take as little space as possible.

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South of the Border Pie

This is a FAVORITE for us! Always the first freezer meal I make for someone in need. I usually have all of the ingredients, it’s cheap, easy, and a healthy comfort food.

Taken from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

Ingredients:

½ cup chopped onion (1 medium)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 T olive oil or cooking

1-2 t chili powder

1 t ground cumin

¼ t salt

1 15 oz. can red kidney beans rinsed and drained

(I’ve also substituted pinto beans)

1 ½ cups cooked brown rice

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

¾ cup milk

2 beaten eggs

1. In a saucepan cook onion and garlic in hot oil until tender but not brown. Stir in chili powder, cumin and salt. Cook 1 minute more; cool. Stir in beans, cooked rice, cheese, milk and eggs.

**If doing a freezer meal, pour mixture into a gallon size bag, fold in half and freeze. Write the following for directions. Have the recipients thaw it first.**

2. Spray a 10 in. pie plate or quiche dish with nonstick cooking spray. Spoon mixture into pie plate. Bake, uncovered, in a 350 degree oven about 25 minutes or until the center is set. Let stand 10 minutes. If desired, sprinkle with sweet pepper and serve with salsa. Make 6 main dish servings (at most).

 

Black Bean Taco Soup

This is another favorite. It’s really more the consistency of chili than soup which is nice. You can include a Ziploc bag of uncooked rice if you like. The nice thing is that if you have frozen COOKED hamburger you can dump that in your bag along with all the other ingredients and be done. I love dump meals! Plus, this one makes a TON!

You can find the recipe HERE along with 7 other great recipes

 

Classic Tuna Casserole

This is another great dump meal if you don’t have much time. I skip the pimientos and put the bread crumbs in a separate Ziploc bag with a note in permanent marker to add 2T melted butter and sprinkle on top of casserole.

You can find the recipe HERE

 

Copycat Starbucks Black Bean Quinoa Recipe

This one tastes AMAZING and is a nice difference from typical freezer meals. Just wrap them, stick them in a gallon size bag, and freeze them. The recipients can fry them so they’re nice and fresh.

You can find the recipe HERE

 

Bean and Cheese Quesadillas

Any type of quesadilla works great, but we usually have cheese and refried beans on hand at the very least.

Simply spread refried beans on half a soft tortilla shell and cover with cheese. I also like to add dried cilantro and salt. If you have chicken or hamburger you could add that too.

Fold tortilla in half.

**If doing a freezer meal, line them up in a gallon size bag with parchment or wax paper in between to prevent sticking. Then Freeze. The recipient can thaw them and prepare them as indicated below.**

Melt butter on the stove.

Fry 2 minutes on each side until lightly browned and cheese is melted.

 

Split Pea Soup

This one always tastes so great and is super easy! I don’t always have a ham bone, so I throw a couple strips of bacon in there—tastes amazing!

Taken from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

Ingredients:

2 cups chicken broth

1 cup dry split peas, rinsed and drained

1 to 1 ½ pounds meaty smoked pork hocks or meaty ham bone

¼ t dried marjoram crushed

1 bay leaf

½ cup chopped carrot (1 medium)

½ cup chopped celery (1 stalk)

½ cup chopped onion (1 medium)

  1. In a large saucepan combine first 5 ingredients with a dash of pepper. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove meat. When cool enough to handle, cut meat off bones, coarsely chop meat and discard bones. Return meat to saucepan.
  2. Stir in carrot, celery, and onion. Return to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes more until vegetables are tender. Discard bay leaf.

Makes about 5 ½ cups (4 main dish servings).

I’ve actually found it turns out best if you add the vegetables at the beginning with everything else.

 

Lentil Soup

Doesn’t get much cheaper or easier than this one, and everyone loves homemade lentil soup. Admittedly, I omit the sausage.

Taken from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

Ingredients:

1 cup dry lentils, rinsed and drained

1 cup chopped green sweet pepper

1 cup chopped carrots (2 medium)

½ cup chopped onion (1 medium)

2 t instant chicken bouillon granules

2 t snipped fresh sage or ½ t dried sage, crushed

1/8 t ground red pepper

2 cloves garlic, minced

6 oz. fully cooked smoked sausage links, quartered lengthwise and sliced

In a large pot mix lentils, sweet pepper, carrots, onion, bouillon granules, sage, ground red pepper, garlic and 5 cups water. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes or till lentils and vegetables are tender. Stir in sausage and heat through.

Makes about 7 cups (5 main dish servings).

 

Pepperoni Stromboli

This one might be more of a stretch when it comes to pantry ingredients, but I always keep a couple extra bags of pepperoni around for those pizza cravings. The taste of this meal is to die for!! If giving it as a freezer meal, simply prepare and wrap in aluminum foil that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Instruct the recipients to thaw it before proceeding with baking instructions.

You can find the recipe HERE

 

Spaghetti

There’s nothing wrong with cooking up the noodles, pouring a jar of spaghetti sauce on top and freezing it for someone. It certainly will make their job easier when it comes to dinner time! If you have hamburger or meatballs, add them.

 

Fettuccini Alfredo with Broccoli

This can be the same kind of thing. Pour a jar of alfredo sauce on cooked noodles and dump in a partial bag of broccoli florets. I’d love it if someone gave us this meal! If you have it, you can add chicken or shrimp.

 

Pancakes

Cook up a big batch of pancakes. This is something I can’t do for about 6 weeks after each of our kids is born, but they are my husband’s favorite. He would be one very happy man if someone brought us frozen, homemade pancakes! :-)

 

I hope this list is helpful and encourages you to find ways to be a blessing to someone even if you don’t feel like you can. I’d also love to hear any ideas you may have on pantry recipes!

 

-Lydia

5 Minute Homemade Playdough

imageI’ve mentioned in the past how much I love Invitations to Play. Many of these involve play dough which might just be because I enjoy making it so much. Today, I’m going to share with you, my all time favorite, “go to” play dough recipe. The best part? It only takes 5-10 minutes start to finish and uses all common ingredients. It’s also very flexible and forgiving!

HERE is the link to where I first found the recipe!

Ingredients:

¼ cup salt

1 cup flour

2 T cream of tartar

1 cup water

1 t oil

2 t food coloring (or however much you want!)

 

You can also add fragrance, glitter, etc.

 

Mix the first 6 ingredients in a pan.

Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes stirring constantly,

It will pull away from all the edges and form a ball.

Dump onto wax paper or parchment paper and keep kneading until smooth.

Then add glitter if you want!

You can store it in a container or a Ziploc bag.

Some fun fragrance ideas:

  • Extracts
  • Fresh lemon, lime or orange
  • Scented body wash

 

This recipe is so quick and easy and personable, it makes wonderful last minute gifts or party favors in a cute container, it’s fun for a rainy day, and kids enjoy making it too!

 

-Lydia

Home Made Frappe

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            As a busy wife and mother, there’s nothing quite like a bit of coffee luxury to break up my day. Whether it’s at 9am after a long night of getting up with sick kids every hour or at 2pm when I can have a few minutes alone to think, a frappacino seems to make everything wonderful. Funny how that works. About 2 years ago, I found a recipe HERE, which I can honestly say, has changed my life. I make one of these frappacinos almost daily and we have actually saved money in the long run since I now prefer them to coffee shops. Hard to believe, huh? I love the versatility of this recipe. I’ll share it and then give some additional ideas.

Recipe:

½ cup coffee

½ cup milk

6-8 ice cubes

2 ½ T pudding mix (Any kind. I like chocolate)

Fun ideas:

If you want it thicker and more creamy you could add about 1/8 t xanthan gum. I only recently started doing this. It’s not necessary at all, but it’s kind of fun.

Flavored coffee tastes SO cool! Any kind is fine though.

Any kind of milk is fine. I use soy.

I’ve found that 6 ice cubes if the coffee is cold, 7 if it’s room temperature, and 8 if it’s hot is about perfect.

You can use any kind of pudding mix. It’s fun to experiment. I typically just use chocolate.

You can add any mix-ins you like. I’ve done chocolate chips, coconut, flavor syrups, hot fudge, chocolate syrup, cake… Try whatever! J

Cost:

I figure this drink costs me around $0.33 a day. It depends on a lot of things. We actually get soy milk for free, so I’m really only paying for the pudding mix. At Aldi you can get chocolate or vanilla for $0.59, otherwise, I typically pay about $0.79 or a little less to get it on sale anywhere else. One frappacino uses about 1/3 of a package.

If you are looking for some fun coffee luxury in your day and you don’t want to leave your house or break the bank, I highly recommend this frappacino!

-Lydia

Homemade Yogurt Bites and Apple Sauce Drops

My 18 month old is obsessed with yogurt bites. Have you seen those in the baby section at stores? Unfortunately, the bags are small and typically cost a minimum of $1.99 each! I also was concerned about their natural nutritional value considering that they really are a processed food of sorts. One day I saw something on Pinterest that made me think of another option. Why not make my own!?drops

To make yogurt bites or apple sauce drops simply snip a tiny corner off of a Ziploc bag. I did find that Ziploc works far better than fold top, though maybe you would be less messy than I am! Spoon a few tablespoons of yogurt or apple sauce or baby food into the bag, seal it and gently squeeze it toward your corner. Then dollop away!

For freezer space, I found that using a toaster oven tray lined with wax paper or parchment paper worked best. You could experiment around and see what works for you!


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    Once you have your tray filled with cute little dots, simply place it in the freezer. Since the drops are so small, it really only needs an hour—perfect for a post nap snack! My daughter LOVES the fact that they are frozen and cool in her mouth. The one downside is that they do thaw quickly, so I only give her a small pile at a time and always on a plate. I just pop them off with a big spatula.We have done various flavors of yogurt, apple sauce and leftover fruit baby foods. My toddlers love that they are always different and it’s a fun way to eat fruit!