Updated on 09.17.14

The Tightwad Gazette’s “Flexible Casserole Recipe”

Trent Hamm

tightwad gazetteAlthough I love cooking interesting and complex meals for my family, the reality of life is that many nights, the time for meal preparation is sandwiched tightly between my work, my son’s soccer game, a community meeting, a promise to draw pictures with my daughter, and a pretty firm eight o’clock bedtime.

The easy solution is to go out for dinner – or, even quicker (and less healthy), order some sort of take-out or delivered food. The problem here is that it can be quite expensive – and I also have little control over the ingredients, which means that I lose some control over the amount of vegetables and other healthy elements that I want my kids to have.

So what’s the solution? For us, it all revolves around finding ways to get healthy (or reasonably so) home-cooked meals on the table quickly.

One of my favorite pieces of Amy Dacyczyn’s Complete Tightwad Gazette is her framework for a simple, quick casserole on page 625:

1 cup main ingredient
1 cup second ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1 1/2 cups binder
1/4 cup “goodie”

Main ingredient: tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, etc.
Second ingredient: thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, etc.
Starchy ingredient: thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice, etc.
Binder: cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup, etc.
“Goodie”: pimiento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts, etc.
Topping: cheese, bread crumbs, etc.

The advantage of this recipe structure is the flexibility. All you have to do is have one item in each category that seem to at least reasonably match well in terms of flavor. Cook any uncooked element thoroughly, put all the items in a large pot, and gently cook it over a steady heat, and just ten minutes or so later, you have an original creation on the table – just as healthy or unhealthy as you want it to be.

Frugal Casserole Recipes

Chicken-Broccoli Casserole

1 cup diced chicken breast, cooked
1 cup broccoli, cooked
2 cups rice, cooked
1 1/2 cups cream of chicken soup (or a healthier substitute)
1/4 cup mushrooms or black olives (purely optional)
pepper to taste
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Combine all ingredients except cheese. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until hot. Top with cheese and serve.

Tuna-Potato Salad

1 cup tuna
1 cup chopped hard-boiled eggs
1 1/2 cups diced potatoes, cooked
1 1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup black olives
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup mustard (dijon is fantastic!)

This one is a great light supper served cold on a warm summer evening, and works great on sandwiches. Just mix all of the ingredients together.

Ham, Apples, and Sweet Potato Casserole

1 cup ham, cooked and cubed
2 apples, sliced
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup water
1/8 cup light brown sugar
1/8 cup marshmallows (seriously!)

Combine all ingredients except marshmallows, then spread the marshmallows evenly on top. You can either bake this at 350 for about 30 minutes or cook it over medium heat, covered, on the stovetop.

Reuben Casserole

1 pound corned beef, chopped into small pieces
2 cups sauerkraut
1 1/2 cup rye bread crumbs (just toast four slices rye bread and chop ’em)
1/4 cup Thousand Island dressing
2 teaspoons melted butter or margarine
1/2 lb. shredded Swiss cheese

Combine all ingredients and cook on the stove top in a covered pan until thoroughly warm!

Additional Tips for Making Casserole

How to make meals with these casseroles more well-rounded or to shave some additional spending from these dishes.

As you can see, this framework is really flexible, enabling you to turn out all kinds of different things. The best part is that it’s often easy to make these work based entirely on what you happen to have on hand – I’ll often assemble dinner based solely upon what I find in the cupboard or what I picked up on sale at the grocery store last week.

Many casseroles are best served with a vegetable on the side

Depending on the season, we either steam flash-frozen vegetables or fresh ones, or we make a small, simple salad. Usually, this is steered by what vegetables are on sale that week at the grocery store. In other words, let your grocery store’s flyer take the lead here. Use it not only for an ingredient or two that would fit into these casseroles, but also use it for the vegetables on the side.

Rice is my favorite constant element, so we’ll buy it in bulk

I’d be happy to have long grain rice with every meal if I could, and there are many, many casseroles with this framework that a person can make using rice as the “starchy” ingredient. Because of that, rice is something we’ll always buy in bulk – we can use it in so many things and it’s very flexible.

Spicing is key

Almost any dish will either come out bland or come out spectacular, largely depending on how you spice it. Don’t be afraid to be liberal with the spices when you’re cooking anything. Don’t have any idea how to do this? If you’re just getting started, you really only need ten different spices in your kitchen – here’s a guide to those ten key spices and when/how to use them.

Good luck!

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  1. Lori says:

    We have six kids and are crazy frugal and have used this recipe, along with other FZ(Frugal Zealot) recipes all the time. It is easy, creative, and healthy and teaches my kids that yes, there is something in the fridge to eat. We have a small farm and using this book and its many recipes and ideas has increased exponentially the simplicity and value of our homelife.

  2. Kristin says:

    Casseroles may be quick and they may be easy, but they are not healthy. I can’t imagine that they taste very good either.

  3. K says:

    It surprises me that you consider feeding your family farm factory rasied meats and highly processed canned soups, dressings, and dairy products to be healthy.

    If you can’t afford to eat humanely raised, organic meat, then go veg. It’s cheaper and better for the environment.

    A good alternative to take out: buy from the deli in your local grocery or co-op. Big Box grocers tend to have pretty nasty stuff, but still better and cheaper than chinese food or pizza.

  4. Lorta says:

    The flexible muffin recipe in the “Tightwad Gazette” is also useful. Vegetables such as pureed carrots can be included in it to maximize the nutritional value.

  5. Christopher says:

    Is the eight o’clock bedtime yours, or your children’s (or both)?

    The ham, apple, and sweet potato casserole sounds great. I think I would omit the marshmallow, though, and do some sort of pecan-streusel topping (maybe chopped, toasted pecans, butter, and brown sugar).

  6. 444 says:

    One cup of diced meat does not sound like a lot of protein, especially in proportion to the simple carbs like white rice or sweet potato and apples. Is this supposed to feed four? I’m a little leery of the “starchy ingredient” and the fat (cream soup or mayonnaise) as the major components of these dishes. I think if I ate this kind of dinner I’d be raiding the fridge late at night out of hunger.

  7. paula d. says:

    I’m a big fan of throwing things together, and amazingly it usually works out. But I still remember the stir fried leftover meat loaf that didn’t work out so well, but hey, now I know.

    Great suggestions, there’s some combinations that I’d never have thought of.

  8. Danielle says:

    Add a little curry to your Chicken- Broccoli casserole. It’s fabulous and I have read that Curry may help fight Alzheimers- so it’s healthy too. :)

  9. I am so thankful you gave examples of different ingredients to use in this recipe. I have been a fan of Amy D.’s Tightwad Gazette since the early 90’s. I have all the original newsletters. But, I couldn’t think of what to plug into the recipe, so that was awswome! I’ve used her seafood casserole for years and done slight variations of that. I work at home and going out to eat alot os not in the budget often, so thanks again. It was very timely. I love your website!

  10. Darla says:

    Do you not just love that book?? It’s one of my very very very favorites.

  11. Linda says:

    You don’t need to post this comment. I wanted to apologize for my website appearing in the last comment. I was trying to put my name in there and have it hyperlink like Danielle did in her comment above mine. I guess I don’t know how to do it right.

  12. Ivy says:

    the eight o’clock bedtime has left me away for years.
    but your receipt is really great, and thanks for your suggestion.

  13. Charlotte says:

    Good starting points. However, not all are healthful. You call it a light supper, but the 1 cup of chopped eggs and 1.5 cups of mayo in the tuna-potato salad sound like a short-cut to heart disease.

  14. Andrea says:

    THANK you for having a reasonable bedtime for your kids! I hear about five, six,, seven, even fourteen year olds being allowed to stay up until midnight or even one am,and I marvel at how the parents ever get them to focus in school. Until I was ten I had an eight pm bedtime; until I was 13 I had a 9:30 bedtime, and after that I could stay up until 10:30 until I started making enough to contribute to the household.

  15. mary says:

    Thanks for these recipes; I look forward to trying them. Just a note– when using canned cream of anything soup be sure to check the sodium content! Even in a casserole, a can of soup will send the sodium levels sky-high. Same goes for seasoning packets; even organic ones sometimes have much more salt than herbs or seasonings. Best option is to use fresh herbs from the herb gaarden in the back yard or a window herb box!

  16. tammy says:

    Trent, I have never seen this recipe framework before! I LOVE IT. I’m passing it along to my sister and friends.
    What a clever casserole!

    It’s great of you to spend time with your children and recognize it as valuable. GOOD JOB!

  17. Lisa says:

    Charlotte, do your homework. Eggs don’t cause heart disease. The mayo is okay too as long as it has an expeller pressed safflower oil in it. I choose to make my mayo homemade so I can control the ingredients.

  18. Betsy says:

    I’m with Darla. I keep coming back to the Complete Tightwad Gazette over and over. :) I’m still experimenting with the casserole recipe because I want the food goodness but with lower carb counts.

  19. Georgia says:

    Trent – I agree with Charlotte. Why all that mayo? That is one reason I refuse to buy made up salads at deli’s anymore. They drown it in mayo and it is yucky. Start with 1/2 cup mayo and if it is not enough for you, add a bit at a time until you get the consistency you like. 1 1/2 cups is almost 30% of the entire salad. Whew!!!


    But anyway, thanks for the great idea. I can make 1/3 of these amounts and still come up with a good meal and a leftover from these ingredients.

  20. Lenetta says:

    I linked to this on my weekly link roundup. Love that book!

  21. tentaculistic says:

    Hey, this is great. I read Amy however-it’s-spelled-but-pronounced-“Decision”‘s book Tightwad Gazette (funny enough, the one book at the library with the longest waitlist… wonder why). Some of the ideas were ludicrous to me, but overall I got some good ideas on how to get out of a cycle of mindless spending (“reduce! recycle! reuse!” as my childhood nightie, for some bizarre reason, had emblazoned all over). I intended to do this recipe, but forgot. It did help me when I ran out of certain ingredients, I had a vague idea of what part of a recipe does what. Very helpful, thanks!

    p.s. Charlotte and Georgia – the base recipe could not be more vague about the component ingredients. If you don’t like mayo, well, um, … ok, you know where I’m going with that one :) Besides, having gone back to look, only 1 of the 4 recipes has mayo (ok, the other has 1000 Island dressing, which is worse), but he provided a healthier alternative.

    Anyway, I know you’re trying to encourage healthy choices, and I do respect that, since I struggle against that for my family as well – but picking just for the heck of it (esp when he implicitly acknowledges your concerns elsewhere in the same article) just really rubs me the wrong way.

  22. Jen says:

    I love the Tightwad Gazette! I had forgotten about the flexible casserold, and will have to get creative.

    @Charlotte and Georgia: You should check out the book Nourishing Traditions. If you’re using the right kind of ingredients, mayo and eggs are extremely good for you!

  23. PJ Wyatt says:

    Just a note — in true cookbook form, “2 cups of rice, cooked” would mean taking 2 cups of raw rice, cooking it in appropriate amounts of water, and then using the result in your recipe. Lots of rice. I believe (hope) you mean to say “2 cups of cooked rice.”

    Picky, but for those of us who desperately depend on the accuracy of a recipe in order to function in the kitchen, this is crucial.

    …and it’s wonderful to have Amy’s books brought into play again. So many of the “new” money-saving ideas one finds in blogs these days come from her wonderful work. But YOU were the one who scored an interview with her! Kudos!

  24. tentaculistic says:

    @PJ Wyatt – Wait, really? Do you remember when he did that interview? I’m still pretty new here so I missed it.

  25. Charlotte says:

    I thought the 1.5 cups of mayo must be a typo. That would equal 24 tablespoons. The jar of mayo I have says that a tablespoon has 100 calories, with 100% of them being fat calories. The rest of the recipes looked good, but 2,400 calories from fat, not considering the remainder of the ingredients? That can’t be right.

  26. jc says:

    ignoring the dietary fat haters in this thread, there’s a way to do all this low carb (or really, slow carb), but it means tossing the starch, at least for whoever is eating low carb.

    meals in my household:

    soak & cook one or two pounds of dried beans once a week.

    dinner each night:

    – start by boiling water for pasta/rice for any starch eaters
    – then start any kind of meat that can be cooked in under 15 minutes in a skillet
    – toss a little oil/fat in the bottom of a 3 qt pot, turn up to high, toss in a pound of frozen veggies, throw on the lid, stir once every few minutes (right after flipping the meat, say)
    – reheat beans in the microwave
    – everything is self-served from the stovetop

    looks like a lot but it’s all done in under a half hour unless the meat is frozen. even quicker: throw pre-cooked meat (either from a previous night or something like pre-cooked sausage) on top of the rice or veggies and steam it.

    either way, leftovers are for lunch the next day.

  27. Thanks for your post. We live on a small sailboat and appreciate meals such as this.

    All the best!

  28. Great post! I think we will try the chicken broccoli recipe first!

  29. Vickey says:

    Re “Nourishing Traditions” and whether or not mayo & eggs in large quantities can be healthy:
    Please check out the information available at http://www.bryannaclarkgrogan.com/page/page/3476771.htm

    See item#14 on that page for links to science and evidence-based responses to the Weston Price Foundation’s nonsense (A prominent WAPF officer co-wrote “Nourishing Traditions”)
    To your health,

  30. Bob says:

    Wow, it’s modular dinner… that’s awesome!

  31. Alita says:

    You know, it’s not like folks that add 1 cup of mayo to XYZ recipe are going to be sitting there with a spoon literally eating 1 cup of mayo. Or one can of “Cream of ABC” soup, or whatever the case may be. I am glad that folks are concerned with health, with humanely raised meat, and so forth — heck, I am too! — but jeepers.

  32. kathryn says:

    I made a version with tofu, kale, mushrooms and curry powder that was just awesome. The binder was cream of mushroom soup, and I’d definitely like to find less preservative-laden alternatives, but the cream of mushroom worked well in a pinch.

    As for the great fat debate, I vote for just making sure to add plenty of nutritional value with other ingredients if you make a higher fat version. Make those fat calories worthwhile!

  33. friendviola says:

    As I’ve become more proficient at cooking, i’ve been using more “modular” recipes like this as well as making my own. Thanks for another! Don’t forget to throw in some fresh herbs from those window sill pots…its basically free and makes all the difference. For those who avoid using canned prepared foods,as I do, follow his handy link to making your own white sauce. This is easy, healthier, cheaper, and much tastier. We also buy rice in bulk in 10-20lb bags we find at our Indo-pak store. This source is very low in price per pound and has many different kinds…last time we even found organic brown basmati! Ethnic groceries are also great for spices.

  34. jc says:

    I encourage people to read up the WAP Foundation’s advice, and their critics, and decide for themselves. To call their work “nonsense” and contrast it with “evidence-based responses” indicates that one has only read their critics, and knuckled under to conventional nutritional “wisdom.”

  35. JellyCity says:

    For those concerned about the fat content of the mayo, cream soups, etc. there are also reduced fat and fat free versions of mayo, cream soups, sour creams, etc. If you are concerned about the carbs, maybe increase the amount of fresh veggies and/or lean meats and use less of the starch. And using brown rice vs. white rice, or whole wheat noodles vs. those made with white flour would be healthier as well.

  36. Sharon` says:

    The “all casseroles are evil” comment is just silly. It’s entirely up to you just how healthy your casserole will be. This is just a framework for proportions, for heaven’s sake.

    If you don’t want canned soup, don’t use it. Salsa is a quick, low fat, addition instead. It’s less of a binder than a moistener, but really great for many casseroles. You can always use yogurt, as well. Homemade, if you like. I have been known to use a good old white sauce, or just milk, as well. If you don’t do dairy, then just use thickened veggie broth. It’s up to you.

  37. This is brilliant!

    Have saved a copy for my own cookbook and another (with lots of annotations) for a friend who’s great at his own country’s cooking but wants to learn “western cooking”. It’s hard to explain what can/can’t be varied in most recipes!

  38. Tracy W says:

    For those who are concerned about mayo or cream-of-soup, I used chopped tomatoes as a binder regularly in casseroles. You can use fresh or canned. And it means that if you let the casserole get cold then reheat it tastes even better.

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