Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Making Homemade Versions of Packaged Foods

I don’t know about your family, but we eat too many packaged foods. From little cups of yogurt, granola bars, peanut butter crackers to fruit leathers, we eat a lot of them. When we run from school to martial arts to swimming to art class, it’s easier to just grab something from our snack box rather than making a fresh snack in our limited time. And when it’s the kids who pack their snack, making them prepare something is not really possible. I’ve done my best over the years to pick out the healthiest kinds of these packaged foods. I’ve eliminated the hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, and I’ve tried to get the ones with the least sugar, most whole grains and organic ingredients if possible. But even the healthiest of packaged products won’t be as healthy as something made at home with hand chosen ingredients.

The packaging itself is also one of my pet peeves. Why do snacks have to be in bags inside boxes inside bags inside boxes. I feel like I'm opening one of those little Russian stacking doll toys when I try to open something. By making snacks myself, I can eleminate the extra packaging and waste that comes with the grocery store versions.

To that end, I’ve been working on finding kid-friendly, healthy alternatives to these packaged foods that I can make at home and package myself for on-the-go snacking.

Banana Chips
The banana chips you buy in the store are, for the most part, fried in some sort of oil to make them crispy. Rather than take a perfectly healthy fruit like a banana and fry it in oil, I take the easier and healthier route to make mine. I finally got a food dehydrator this year and love it! Banana chips were my first project with my new toy. The model I have is one of the round ones with multiple layers of trays. This model was a moderately priced one, around $50, but there are big microwave shaped ones in the $130 range that would be able to dehydrate larger quantities.

The entire recipe is this: slice your bananas into quarter inch coins, lay them on the dehydrator rack and turn dehydrator to 115 degrees (lower temps preserve more of the enzymes and healthy bits in food whereas higher temps kill these). Dehydrate for about a day or until chips get slightly crispy. My whole family loves these banana chips. I think they have much more of a banana flavor than the ones from the store and they are healthier. Win-win!

And why stop at bananas? You can dry almost any fruit in your dehydrator. I’ve dried bananas, apples, pears, halved cherries, strawberries and pluots. One thing to remember when dehydrating fruit is that any fruit with a skin must be halved or pealed to allow the dehydration to occur inside the fruit. For example, a cherry or blueberry really should be cut in half or it will take a really long time to dehydrate. I tried to dehydrate a raspberry and after taking days to dry, it really wasn’t that tasty. So small cell fruit like raspberries and blackberries should be blended and made into fruit leather rather than dried whole.

Fruit leather
Fruit leather is really nothing but dried pureed fruit. The leather can contain any fruit or vegetable you want to mix into it. When I decided to make some I looked through my refrigerator and pantry to find any fruit or vegetable that was getting too ripe or just hadn’t been eaten lately. A couple of my favorite combinations are Banana-Apple-Sweet Potato and Cherry-Berry-Carrot-Apple. I found that I could sneak in about 1/3 vegetables without my kids noticing.

To make the puree, cut fruit and veggies into one inch chunks, put it in the blender with water, apple juice or any other juice of choice. Blend until totally smooth then pour onto the fruit leather tray for your dehydrator. You really do need one of these to make fruit leather or you are likely to end up with a fairly large mess in your machine. Dehydrate at 115 degrees for about 24 hours then try to peel up the leather and turn over to get the bottom side completely dry as well. My leathers never turned out perfect-looking. I always had cracks where the fruit contracted as it dried in random places. But regardless of the appearance, the finished product always tastes great, is healthy for you and has great kid-appeal.

Yogurt is usually over-packaged. I understand why the yogurt is sold in those little cups with the foil and plastic lids on top, and have been happy to have them so my kids could stick a straw through the foil to drink them with less mess than using a spoon. But the waste-hating part of me really doesn’t like the packaging waste that comes with them. These days I usually buy yogurt in the 32 oz or larger tubs rather than the little ones, but when I realized how easy yogurt was to make, I decided that making my own may be the best option for a healthy food and less waste. Yogurt cultures multiply best at about 100 degrees. Some ovens have keep-warm settings that will keep ovens at that temperature. If you’re lucky enough to have one of these you can make yogurt right in your oven overnight. If not, you may have a large cube-shaped dehydrator that would also do the trick. Otherwise, you may need to invest in a yogurt maker to make your own homemade yogurt. Yogurt makers aren’t expensive at all, and you would make back the purchase price very quickly if your family eats a decent amount.

To make your own yogurt you will need milk of your choice (I used rBst free skim milk.) and about 3 tablespoons of plain organic yogurt with active cultures. Scald your milk in a sauce pan then let it cool to room temperature before stirring in the plain yogurt until smooth. Pour milk/yogurt mixture into the vessels of your choice for making yogurt. Yogurt machines usually come with their own glass jars. If you are making your yogurt in an oven or dehydrator you will need to decide which glasses, jars or bowls you want to use. Turn your yogurt machine on according to its directions or set your oven or dehydrator to 100 degrees. Yogurt should be ready in about 10 hours. Mix in any fruit, jam, honey or other desired addition before eating. Refrigerate for up to a week.

Granola bars
I have a love-hate relationship with granola bars. I love the convenience of the pre-wrapped bar, but hate that most granola bars tout their health benefits when almost all of them are just a candy bar with some rolled oats mixed in with the sugar. They are also really expensive for what you get in that little box. This past summer I went on a quest to find a homemade granola bar that could pass for a store-bought one. My adventures in granola bar baking are chronicled in past posts. The first attempt was more cake-like, but still very yummy. Attempt #2 tasted a lot like a peanut butter cookie and less like a granola bar. Attempt #3 was apparently too healthy tasting according to my family so I didn't even blog about that one. I liked them, but I’m not really the one I’m trying to satisfy with these multiple attempts. But I hit pay dirt with attempt #4. This one tastes a lot like your typical chewy granola bar and can be adapted to taste like almost any flavor. Add chocolate chips or raisins or nuts to suit your taste. These can then be stored in the refrigerator and plopped into a plastic or fabric snack bag or a reusable container for snacks on the go. Even the kids can get these into their lunch boxes on school days.

Crackers, cheese-its, cereal and Pop-tarts
Crackers are one of those things that we all love but are ridiculously expensive and over packaged for the small quantity you get. It seems like we can go through a grocery store sized box of crackers in one sitting. And the number of ingredients in a cracker is kind of scary. When you really don’t need much more than flour and water to make a cracker, why are there dozens of ingredients in a store-bought cracker? For increased shelf life, that’s why. But when you make crackers at home you can include only those ingredients you need and want.

The basic cracker recipe found here is the backbone for making all kinds of other packaged treats. Put cheese on top or in the mix and you’ve got Cheese-its. Sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar and you’ve got cinnamon toast cereal. Then sandwich some jam or chocolate between two larger squares of dough and make a Pop-tart! The possibilities are virtually endless and based entirely on your personal tastes. And what’s the best reason yet to try these? They cost a tiny fraction of the grocery store price and waste absolutely no packaging! Ok, that’s 2 reasons, even better. One thing to remember when making any of these products is to make the dough as thin as you possibly can. If you have one, use a pasta maker to make the dough sheets even thinner. Thinner dough makes a crisper cracker!


  1. i'm totally not trying to downplay your cracker-making, just share something i found to be surprising, good news. i almost never buy crackers, because of the same reasons you mentioned, but when dave's parents were here at christmas, we bought a couple boxes... wheat thins and triscuits. i happened to look at the triscuit ingredients: wheat, salt, and some kind of oil... soybean, maybe. at any rate, i was fairly impressed with the small-ness of that list!

  2. do you think i can make yogurt with soy, almond or rice milk?

  3. Melanie, I've never tried to make non-dairy yogurt but i found this site that has a recipe that sounds pretty good. http://funkyfoodallergies.blogspot.com/2009/02/allergen-free-yogurt-recipe.html

    Give that one a try!



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