Try not to faint. Today I bring you a RECIPE. That’s right. Your pleas, your emails, your notes, your requests have not gone (entirely) ignored. You all want frugal food. Specially, you want MY frugal food. The last time I shared a recipe was January 2015, which was, uh, over four years ago… So apparently I’m on the one-recipe-every-four-years schedule. I have good reason for this, people! I am not our household’s–nor anyone else’s household’s–cook. Mr. Frugalwoods is our chef-in-residence and he is a master of frugal + healthy + delicious. But he doesn’t cook from recipes. And he doesn’t write down his creations.
Truth be told, his meals are different every single time he cooks them, which we love, but which makes recipe writing nigh on impossible. The massive downside of this approach is that he sometimes forgets stuff he cooked and when I ask him to make it again, he has no idea what I’m talking about.
He did something with split peas, tomatoes, carrots, and chicken a few years ago that I pine for to this day. He swears he has no recollection of creating such a dish. But he did! I can still taste it!
There is one thing I do in the kitchen: BAKE! And so today I bring you my newest invention: oatmeal pumpkin whole wheat bars. I’ll put the recipe here at the top so that you don’t have to scroll for it, but fear not, I wrote a ton of other things about food after the recipe.
Frugalwoods Healthy Oatmeal Pumpkin Bar Recipe
I did not get this idea from my own brain. Rather, I adapted, changed, and added to this Pumpkin Spice Baked Oatmeal Cups recipe over the course of several months to get it where I wanted it. Below is where I’ve landed with my modifications.
- 5 cups of oats (not quick oats)
- 4 cups of boiling water
- 3 cups of white whole wheat flour (this is a whole wheat flour that’s less dense than traditional whole wheat, which makes it lighter for baking, but still has all the nutrients of whole grain)
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 2.5 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1.5 teaspoons allspice
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 3 tablespoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- One 15 oz can of pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix, just plain pumpkin)
- The juice of 1 lemon
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup unsweetened apple sauce
- 2/3 cup pure maple syrup
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Measure oats into a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Cover and let sit while you combine the other ingredients.
- Combine all other ingredients in a large mixing bowl
- Add the oats
- Mix until well integrated
- Spray two 9 x 13 pans with cooking spray
- Divide batter between the two pans
- Bake for 45 minutes
- They’re done when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean
- Immediately turn out onto a cutting board and use a pizza slicer to slice into bar shapes
- I cut six rows by four rows, which makes 24 bars per 9 x 13 pan
Yield: 48 bars (depending on how big you slice them)
Storage: store in the refrigerator. Since 48 bars is a lot, each batch lasts us several weeks and they keep well in the refrigerator.
Note: I originally made these in muffin tins, but I find they’re much better as bars. The muffins were more dried out and not as conveniently shaped. Plus, it took a lot more time to ladle batter into muffin tins.
These Are Not Very Sweet
Before you get too excited, I must warn you that these things are not super sweet. They’re hearty, dense, and–in my opinion–delicious. But you might have a tough sell if your kids are envisioning a sugary dessert. It’s all in how you frame it, I think.
But They Are Very Good
Despite not being very sweet, my family adores them. They’re ideal for the baby to eat because she can maneuver them well with her little paws and they’re not too firm or crunchy. They’re ideal for the toddler to eat because they’re portable and not too crumbly. They’re ideal for me to eat because they satisfy my sweet tooth without an overload of sugar. All in all, I think we’ve landed on a winner.
A Years-Long Quest
For years, I’ve quested after a baking recipe that would yield something:
- Easy(ish) to make
I essentially wanted to make granola bars, but without all the labor that making actual granola bars entails (I googled it once and was instantly overwhelmed).
Since we try not to buy packaged food because it’s more expensive and less healthy, I’ve been experimenting with various muffin and bread recipes over the years. Most of these recipes flopped because they were either too much like a dessert (delicious, but with too much sugar or butter) or too much like cardboard that’s been used to mulch a garden. In other words, bad.
I made a “cranberry nut loaf” once that was so unpalatable (roughly the shape, texture, and heft of a brick) that Mr. FW wouldn’t eat it. I froze it and hate-ate it over the course of several years. Abysmal.
Kids + Food
This quest for a healthy, homemade baked good began long before we had kids, but our two niblets accelerated my kitchen experimentation. My children are always hungry. Always. ALLLLLL the time. I swear I feed them. ALLLLLL the time. Most of our foods are whole and cooked from scratch and I want our snacks to be the same way. However, this approach left us without many portable snacks, which leads me to…
Times When These Oatmeal Pumpkin Bars Have Saved My Life
The time is 4:00pm. The day is every single day of my life. The issue is what the issue is every single day of my life: my children want something. They would say “need,” but I refute it’s a want. I’m doing laundry/cleaning the kitchen/combing play-doh out of hair and the small mammals are hot on my trail. Littlewoods recently joined the rest of the family in standing up and she loves to pull up on my legs while I’m mid-chore and just sort of hang on, hoping she can hitch a ride around the house.
Kidwoods likes to plunge her hands up the sleeves of my sweater to “snuggle your arm skin.” Direct quote, in case you’re wondering. They both desire to attach themselves to me, in the mistaken evolutionary belief that mama was once, is still, and will always be their entire source of sustenance. Despite the fact that neither of them still breastfeeds.
I begin to fling organic carrot sticks (which I dutifully peeled and chopped myself) on the floor, in the hopes that this’ll tide them the entire ONE HOUR until dinner. Yes, my kids eat dinner at 5pm. I know it’s ridiculously early, but I can’t fend them off any longer! Yesterday they ate at 4:45pm. I didn’t know what else to do–they’d eaten all the snacks–including several slices of grilled chicken (which wasn’t intended as a snack, but which they devoured like the wild animals they are).
The time is now 4:10pm. The day remains a carbon copy of every other day at 4:10pm, because 4:10pm is always 50 minutes away from dinner and always, always interminable. The (chopped, organic, wholesome) carrot sticks are being used in four ways:
- As food. Kidwoods ate AN ENTIRE glass tupperware of carrot sticks by herself last week.
- To sharpen fangs. Littlewoods gamely uses her 5 and 1/2 teeth to serrate individual carrot sticks in much the same way as I imagine an electric pencil sharpener would. Some carrot is ingested. Other bits of carrot go down her shirt. Most of the carrot can be found on the floor, dispensed from her mouth in grass blade-sized shavings. Carrot serration: yet another reason why my Roomba is my BFF.
- As weaponry. As all parents of all siblings everywhere are aware, anything can be weaponized. One has not lived until one has heard “she’s chasing me with a carrot stick” shrieked by a three-year-old in reference to a one-year-old crawling (and not fast either) toward her with a carrot stick held aloft, which is only held aloft (in the style of a bayonet, I’ll admit) because the one-year-old needs the other hand to propel herself across the floor.
- For the toy barn animals. I discovered, recently, that some of the fresh veggie snacks are making their way into the toy trough for the toy pigs in our toy barn. Unclear how long this has been going on, but safe to say probably for quite some time.
4:15pm: I escalate my snack offering to peppers. Red peppers, yellow peppers, and green peppers are adored by my girls. I don’t know if it’s the color or the sweetness, but they devour them. Also serrate/weaponize/feed them to plastic fauna. I really don’t care what they do with all this fresh produce as long as they stop trying to climb all over me, pleading for food.
I’m now back to doing laundry/cleaning the kitchen/combing play-doh out of hair/trying to write this post and the escalation of screams tells me what I already know: they would please like more substantive snacks. Desperation and perspiration mounting, I ransack the fridge and assemble a picnic* of:
- Hard boiled eggs
- Almonds (for the toddler, not for the one with 5.5 teeth).
Protein, I think! Protein will fill them up. They chow down.
*”picnic” is the word I use when I let my children eat off of the kitchen floor
But alas, they also need carbs for quick fill-up and so I turn to my ringers. My guaranteed-five-minutes-of-peace, my healthy things I’ve convinced my kids are a “dessert,” my surefire, spitfire oatmeal pumpkin bars.
5:00pm: both girls sit down at the dinner table and proceed to eat an entire meal of baked chicken, kale, sweet potatoes, and berries from our garden. I know many parents struggle to get their kids to eat and I feel their pain. Somehow, I find myself in the reverse position and can’t seem to feed my kids enough.
Other Times These Bars Have Been Useful
- In the car
- While driving in the car
- Going somewhere via car
- When out and about, because we went somewhere in the car
On longer-ish car rides, my restless creatures need snacks. I refuse to snack them on short trips, but for 45 minutes or longer, I find things go better with a few snacks. We try not to buy food when we’re out running errands or playing, so I’m an epic packer of snacks and water bottles.
Since I refuse (for the most part) to buy packaged snacks, I’ve committed several Sins Related To Owning A Car While Having Children:
- Do not give a toddler a hardboiled egg as a snack in the car.
- Even if the toddler insists she will “handle the egg properly,” do not believe her.
- Putting the egg in a tupperware bowl DOES NOT HELP.
- Regardless of how great an idea it seems (what’s the worst that could happen?!?), refer back to item #1.
- If anyone knows how to get hardboiled egg out of upholstery, please contact me.
Another bad thing I have done:
- Do not give a child a veggie pouch in the car.
- There is no way to prevent veggie pouch spray from hitting both ceiling and floor.
- The properties of physics that allow this to happen remain unknown and unstudied.
- NASA, take note.
- At this time, I would like to share that I PAINSTAKINGLY made homemade, reusable veggie pouches for my kids and they both refused to eat them. They, of course, love storebought veggie pouches, which are THE SAME THING (I tasted them to be sure), but cost $87 each. So, no more veggie pouches for us.
Things that are moderately OK in the car:
- Cheerios (one of the few packaged things we do buy. I get the generic store-brand of sugar-free cheerios, which works to distract my kids more than it actually feeds them).
- Baby Mum Mum crackers (another of the packaged things I used to buy. These are rice crackers made without sugar and with kale powder. Yum. I’ve stopped buying these for now since they seem sort of pointless from a nutritional standpoint).
Small pieces of fruit. Apple slices, orange slices, anything that’s not too mushy.
- Sidenote: Do not give a child a banana in a car. EVER.
- Almonds, for those children who can reliably chew, which leaves out 1/2 of my children.
- Cheese sticks. Kidding. I thought these were working well until I cleaned out our Prius last summer and discovered 900,897 particles of string cheese encrusted beneath the carseats. Never more. After making similar discoveries of petrified cheese stick inside our home, I’ve learned that my kids don’t like cheese sticks. This is odd because I was previously unaware there were people in the world who didn’t like cheese. I’m still processing this information.
Best car snack:
- You guessed it, the oatmeal pumpkin bars. They are filling, wholesome and when they drop crumbs, they’re usually large crumbs that I can swipe out without too much consternation.
- Helpfully, they work well as adult car snacks too!
Unrelated to food, a good car thing we did (to try and balance out all of our Sins):
Following last summer’s eye-opening/disgusting excavation of our Prius, Mr. FW and I purchased this backseat cover from Amazon (affiliate link). It covers the entire back seat (both the backs and the seat parts), which saves the upholstery of our Prius from unmentionable acts perpetrated by our tiny passengers. It is, purportedly, washable, but I have yet to remove it and wash it. It does, however, wipe down pretty well with baby wipes.
How Do You Get Your Kids To Eat Kale?
Other parents often ask me how we get our girls to eat such healthy foods and I have several responses:
1) I have no idea.
No one knows what they’re doing with parenting (least of all me) and every child is different.
2) My kids love to eat.
What can I say? They’re eaters.
3) We don’t have sweets or junk food at home, so they know that’s not an option.
A kid can’t beg for chicken fingers and Oreos, for example, if you don’t have chicken fingers and Oreos in your house. By not having junk food and sweets in our house, I don’t have to contend with kids asking to eat those foods.
When we’re at, say, a birthday party, we let Kidwoods eat junk food and sweets. However, she understands that we don’t have those foods at home on a regular basis. When she asks about candy or cake or the like, I respond with my standard line of “we don’t usually eat that in our home.” This phrase leaves it open for us to do that when we’re at a party or on vacation, etc.
One workaround I’ve found: sometimes we make special food when friends come over. When we host playdate lunches, for example, I almost ALWAYS make boxed (organic, no butter) mac-n-cheese because it’s warm, easy, and quick. Kidwoods devours it, but she also knows that we only have it when friends come over. This eliminates (most of) the begging for something special like mac-n-cheese. Same goes for tasty foods we have at the holidays and on birthdays.
4) I don’t offer substitutes for food.
I learned this the HARD way. I used to let Kidwoods select from a panoply of foods for every meal. If she requested avocado instead of chicken, then like a fool I’d hop up and get it for her. If she wanted cottage cheese instead of yogurt, I’ll smile and make the substitution. After about a year of this, I realized we were setting a terrible pattern.
While all the foods she requested were healthy (since, again, that’s all we have in the house), Kidwoods was learning to be demanding and rude around mealtimes. So we stopped cold turkey. Those first few meals were ROUGH. She begged and cried for other foods, but I remained firm. I would not swap out anything on her plate. And after about a week? She settled into the new routine and forgot all about our old bad ways.
Now, I prepare plates of food for each meal (the same thing for both kids because I’d like to make it to my 36th birthday), and then I don’t deviate. If they don’t eat it? Too bad, they’ll be hungry. If they’d like more of something that’s already on their plate? Sure! If they ask for anything different? Nope, nope, and nope.
5) We don’t talk about food during mealtimes.
Despite how much I’ve just written about food, Mr. FW and I work hard NOT to discuss food at mealtimes. We don’t say things like:
- Just take another bite
- You need to try everything on your plate
- You haven’t eaten enough
- You’ve eaten too much
- Just one tiny bite, please
We typically don’t say anything at all about the food. We talk about other things, we try to focus on the experience of eating a meal together. Admittedly, the conversation topics are limited with a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and the experience isn’t all that great for the parents. Mostly, we try to get them to keep the food on the table and not drop it into their laps and on the floor and each other.
I will sometimes cut the kids off if they’re on their 90th helping of a certain food and tell them to eat the other things on their plate if they’re still hungry. And again, since all of the options are healthy, I’m not bothered if they just eat their chicken and broccoli and leave the sweet potatoes untouched. I just pop the uneaten sweet potatoes into the fridge and bring them out for the next meal.
The more I say about food? The more of an issue it becomes. The less I focus on the food itself, the less of an issue it becomes. I’ve found that sometimes reading books during a meal is helpful when the kids are super tired/cranky/hungry. They can relax, listen to me read, and eat calmly without commentary or consternation.
6) Don’t take the bait.
I don’t take the bait of Kidwoods’ classic toddler exclamations of “I DON’T like avocado! I’m NOT going to eat it!” My response? A super breezy, “ok, then don’t eat it.” Her eyes get wide, she looks from me to Mr. FW to make sure we heard her right and then, I don’t hear about it again. 50% of the time? She’ll eat the avocado. The other 50% of the time? She won’t eat the avocado. Either way, we haven’t made an issue about it, I haven’t told her, “but you love avocado,” I don’t reason/rationalize/bargain/plead. Just a simple “ok, then don’t eat it” and we move onto the next thing.
My goal in doing all of this is to not create issues or complexes around food for my kids, which I’m sure I’ll manage to do anyway just by virtue of trying so hard not to… I find that when Mr. FW and I dig in on ANY topic with our kids, that’s an instant guarantee it’ll become an issue. When we stay firm but calm, things seem to go more smoothly. I want my children to appreciate healthy, whole, cooked-from-scratch foods and to eat only when they’re hungry.
7) Involve them in cooking and growing/buying food.
This one can get really annoying really fast, but, we find that the more we engage Kidwoods in cooking and preparing food, the more invested she is in the process and the eventual eating of the food. In her toddler tower of power–built by Mr. FW last summer–she can stand at counter height and “help” us cook and bake.
She’s also an active presence in our veggie garden and loves to sit between the rows, munching on fresh veggies. I swear most of her summertime meals are consumed straight-off-the-vine. But you don’t have to grow veggies in order to engage kids in their food.
8) Don’t offer a snack workaround.
If my kids don’t eat a meal, they don’t get a snack immediately after the meal. If they’re hungry, too bad. Both of mine learned VERY QUICKLY that if they are hungry, they need to eat at mealtimes. We do, of course, have about 59 snack times throughout the day, but, crucially these snack times are never immediately following a meal.
Additionally–and this is key–our snacks are not “treat” or junk foods. They are… basically the same foods eaten at mealtimes. On the below list, you will see a lot of “ambiguous” foods, which my kids eat for both meals and snacks. When I stopped making a delineation between “meals” and “snacks,” life became easier. For example, if my kid refused to eat her chicken and broccoli and I immediately offered her a snack of a chocolate chip granola bar, she’s going to internalize that she can get a treat if she simply refuses to eat her healthy food. I mean, being totally honest, that’s what I WOULD DO if I could ;).
9) Don’t get caught up on kids’ weights and percentiles (they are not going to starve themselves).
Kids grow and develop at different rates and there’s a wide range of “normal” within that continuum. Kidwoods has been pretty middle of the road in terms of weight and height percentiles, and I think she’s currently at around the 60th percentile. Littlewoods, on the other hand, is living up to her namesake and is a peanut. She’s currently in the 4th percentile for weight, but she’s perfectly healthy and happy. My fabulous pediatrician–it is so important to have a pediatrician you love and trust–constantly reassures me that both of my kids are healthy, no matter their weight percentiles.
Another friend of mine who is a pediatrician recently explained to me that children under age six are not physiologically capable of starving themselves. In other words, they will eat when they’re hungry. And if what’s on their plate is broccoli? They will eat it. For example, Littlewoods did one meal where she refused to eat, she was hungry (I imagine), and she never did it again.
Plus, as my pediatrician explained to me, kids eat cyclically. Kidwoods will eat helping after helping of scrambled eggs for one meal, and then for the next meal, won’t take a single bite. Like not even a teensy nibble. And I do not sweat it. If she doesn’t eat, it means she’s not hungry. Pushing her to eat could create an unhealthy relationship to food and decrease her ability to determine when she’s actually hungry.
Here Are the Things My Kids Eat Frequently
I can just feel this question bubbling up and so here’s a list (to the best of my frazzled recollection) of what my kiddos typically enjoy eating. We’re a bit biased towards easy-to-chew stuff right now since they eat the same foods and one of them is short on teeth.
- Oatmeal (not instant, not flavored, just standard whole grain oats)
- Roasted sweet potatoes
- Hummus (homemade from garbanzo beans, olive oil, water, and lemon)
- Whole wheat pasta
- Quinoa (caution: this stuff gets EVERYWHERE when you feed it to a baby)
- Brown rice
- Hard boiled eggs
- Scrambled eggs (easy to sneak veggies into this)
- Grilled chicken
- Beans (black beans, kidney beans or garbanzo beans, in plain bean format)
- Frozen veggies (cheaper than fresh and already chopped! I can get a 4lb bag of organic frozen vegetables from BJ’s for like ten cents).
- Carrot sticks
- Green/red/yellow peppers
- Cottage cheese
- Yogurt (no flavors, no sugars, just plain yogurt)
- Cheese (but not very often since they don’t seem to like it?!?)
- Berries (picked from our garden last summer and frozen)
- Tomatoes in any format
- Salad greens (varied success, but with some homemade salad dressing, usually a hit)
- And, of course, my homemade oatmeal pumpkin bars
I’m always looking for more food ideas, so please share what your kids love!
Will These Bars Change Your Life?
Probably not, unless your life was really bad to begin with. However, these bars might let you eliminate a few packaged items from your grocery list (and thus save a tad more money). They might also allow you to decrease the amount of sugar you consume. They might allow you to trick your children into eating something that contains a vegetable and a lot of whole grains. You might just like them yourself. You might also think that I should DEFINITELY NOT become a recipe blogger. Fear not, there’s no danger of that happening since, based on my track record, I will not be posting another recipe until 2023.
Come Hang Out With Me In NYC!
Ok this is not at all related, but I am SO EXCITED to share that I’ll be speaking at The Financial Gym (134 W. 25th St., New York, NY) on Thursday, May 2nd from 6-8pm. The event is FREE and, naturally, boxed wine + snacks will be served. Space is limited and so you need to RSVP here in order to reserve your spot.
Shannon McLay (Founder and CEO of The Financial Gym, friend of mine, all-around excellent person) and I will discuss financial independence, other money-related topics, and likely quite a few topics that aren’t related to money at all… Then I’ll do a Q&A! Did I mention there’ll be wine?! I hope to see you there!!
If you can’t make the event, you can watch via The Financial Gym’s Facebook LIVE starting at 6:30pm on May 2nd. The Financial Gym is a personal financial services company that takes a fitness-inspired approach to their clients’ finances. By working one-on-one with a Certified Financial Trainer, each client learns to make smarter money decisions.
April is financial literacy month and The Financial Gym is hosting FREE educational events every single night this month. If you’re interested in working with a trainer at the Gym, Frugalwoods readers can sign-up for a free introductory phone call here and save 20% on a Gym membership.