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Empty nests call for food preparation changes

Gate to Plate: Cheeseburger Macaroni Casserole

The other day, I walked out the front door of my home and was dive-bombed by a robin. I felt her wings graze my head.

I squealed and ran down the sidewalk. A person walking down the sidewalk looked at me with curiosity.

My daughter had warned me that we had an “angry bird” in a nest close to our front door. I noticed two robins had set up a parental surveillance system in our front yard. Female robins have duller-coloured feathers than males, so this was my introduction to “Mother Robin.”

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I sneaked back to our front step and peeked toward the crook of a tree to see three fuzzy baby birds with open mouths waiting to be fed.

I could see Father Robin, with his brighter plumage, collecting worms. Male robins also help their offspring learn to live on their own. The robins’ sons and/or daughters are well taken care of by their doting parents until they “fledge,” or leave the nest.

The Robinsons get to watch them from a distance, through a window near the tree, where they are safe from dive-bombing birds. Whenever I am on our front doorstep, I do not look at the nest. Mother Robin has her eye on me and squawks loudly.

“Mother Robinson” (yes, that’s me) also has three kids in our nearby nest, but two of them will be leaving later this summer. Our oldest will move to an apartment, our middle child will move to a dormitory, and our 12-year-old will get a lot of attention at home.

Lately, collecting things to feather their future nests has been my priority. What exactly do you need to set up a household, especially a kitchen?

If you’re assembling a kitchen or downsizing, be sure to have certain items on hand. Besides dishes and utensils, you will need pots and pans, knives, a plastic cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, mixing bowls, stirring spoons, a whisk and a can opener. Some small household appliances are handy, too, such as an electric mixer, microwave oven and toaster oven. Most of us need a coffee maker, too.

Organization helps, especially if your new space is a compressed version of your old space. For quick cooking, organize your kitchen so your equipment is within easy reach.

When cooking for one or two, be sure to choose recipes that are easy to divide mathematically. Sometimes you have to try some little tricks to make recipes work.

For example, in recipes calling for three eggs, use two eggs and remove two to four tablespoons of liquid (if present) from the recipe. If a recipe calls for a can of beans or soup and you would like to divide the recipe in half, use what you need and refrigerate or freeze the remaining beans or soup. Be sure to label the container with the contents and date.

When resizing recipes that include herbs and spices, add the seasonings gradually. Sometimes you may need to add more (or less) of the spice to reach the desired flavour.

Be sure to check for doneness of halved recipes five to 10 minutes sooner than the original recipe. Always be sure to keep notes about what works and what doesn’t.

If you really like your larger-sized recipes, think of the extra servings of food as “planned overs” instead of leftovers. You can use planned-over macaroni to make pasta salad or quick casseroles. Add planned-over vegetables or meat to homemade soup or stir-fry.

Try some easy-to-assemble foods or use “speed scratch” cooking techniques, where you add some fresh ingredients to convenience foods:

Make mini pizzas by topping English muffins with planned-over spaghetti sauce, vegetables and shredded cheese.

Add chopped onions, mushrooms, peppers and cooked meat to canned spaghetti sauce. Serve spaghetti sauce over noodles one day, then add kidney beans and chili seasoning for another meal.

Top a microwave-baked potato or sweet potato with planned-over chili and cheese.

Mix chopped yellow squash, green peas and grated carrots with a prepared rice mix.

Spice up canned tomato soup by adding chopped green onion, celery and some garlic powder.

A few years ago, I created a Cooking for One or Two publication, and I also worked with my students to create a series of Cooking 101 publications for singles and couples. You might enjoy the recipes and tips for yourself or to help any “fledglings” in your household leave the nest. Visit the North Dakota State University website to access some free online publications.

The fairly young Robinson children always enjoy a good hot dish. This recipe is courtesy of the Midwest Dairy Council. This recipe makes four servings, which is enough for a dinner for two, plus two lunches.

Cheeseburger Macaroni Casserole

  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 1/2 c. chopped onion
  • 1 c. whole wheat elbow macaroni (or penne or rotini pasta)
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped
  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. seasoned salt, optional
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 c. shredded cheese


About the author


Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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