An Easy Recipe for Taco Meat to Feed a Crowd (a perfect example of why I keep a well-stocked pantry)

When my teenage daughter told me the church youth group was going to meet at 11:00 in the morning in a couple of days to work in the church garden, I immediately realized two things…
• They were going to be very hungry when they were done, because they were going to be working through the lunch hour.
• They were going to be very hot when they were done, because they were going to be working in the heat of the day rather than the cooler morning or evening hours.

My reaction was to text the youth ministry intern who was in charge of the project and offer to bring lunch. He accepted and suggested it would be about ten people. I planned to fix food for a dozen and a half. (My husband was a youth minister before he became a head pastor, so I know kids can show up out of the woodwork!)

Among our students we have serious gluten, dairy, and nut allergies in addition to one person who is allergic to basically all grains except rice and one who is allergic to artificial food dye. The allergies meant I couldn’t use wheat, soy, barley, or corn (meal or syrup or starch) in a one-size-fits-all meal, which meant that inexpensive-but-filling pasta meals were out, along with baked goods, cream-based sauces, and casseroles that contain pasta or bread.

Please let me pause right here and give a huge hug to all of the parents of allergic kids. You moms & dads carry a heavy burden (and I don’t just mean the EpiPen) keeping your children safe. I know from talking to my friends who have kids with serious food allergies that you learn to cope and it gets a little easier, but it’s still not easy. Hang in there, allergy moms & dads!

To get back on our original topic, when I cook for the kids at church, I try very hard to keep the allergy-safe options as identical as possible to the “regular” meal because I don’t want the kids with allergies to feel singled out or left out. And in this instance I really didn’t have time for a complicated meal or a grocery store run. Here comes the well-stocked pantry for the win!

I decided to make burrito bowls and to serve them in the build-your-own style of a popular burrito chain restaurant. I offered white rice, “taco meat” that I made with ground venison and lentils, sautéed peppers & onions, black beans seasoned with Bean Zing, red chili beans, corn, shredded cheese, salsa, flour tortillas, and tortilla chips. The serving area was set up with each ingredient in a separate container with a separate serving spoon and my pastor-husband and I served, which meant the teens could choose what they wanted (and was safe for them) but we didn’t have to worry about one of the kids accidentally cross-contaminating the taco meat by dropping the corn spoon in the pot.

What to Do:
• Use the oil to cover the bottom of a very large skillet or small stock pot and brown the venison.
• While the venison is browning, use a separate pot to cook the lentils in water until the lentils are soft. Drain the lentils and set them aside.
• When the meat is fully cooked, turn the heat to low, add the lentils, and stir thoroughly to break up the lentils a little bit and evenly mix them with the meat.
• Add the seasonings and mix thoroughly. Allow the taco meat to simmer for a few minutes to blend the flavors.
• Serve in tacos or over rice in burrito bowls.

In case you’re not familiar with cooking with venison, it is VERY lean, which is why you’ll need cooking oil in the pot so the meat won’t stick during browning. If you substitute beef for the venison, you’ll need to drain the fat before you add the lentils and seasonings to the pot.

Lentils are a marvelous, inexpensive way to lower the fat content and stretch meat, either beef or venison, to feed more people. Lentils can be added to ground meat in taco and burrito fillings, meat sauces, and chili. The color and shape of brown lentils blends in with cooked ground meat and the lentils also absorb the flavor of the meat, so unless you draw attention to the lentils, most people won’t notice they’re there.

For dessert I could have made a couple of different items using ingredients from the pantry and covered all of the allergy bases, but given the time of day, the heat, and the allergies, I knew popsicles would be ideal. I do not have molds to make a dozen and a half popsicles and I didn’t have time to do multiple batches in the molds I do have, so I punted and asked my son to stop by Aldi on the way to the garden work day to pick up some of their gluten free, dairy free, artificial dye free, hooray-they’re-safe-for-all-of-our-kids popsicles.

The net result is that I fed a crowd of teenagers with multiple food allergies for four dollars and change out of pocket. I call that a pantry WIN! Want more incentive to keep a well-stocked pantry? Check here.

How do you feed a crowd on a budget while accommodating allergies? Suggestions are encouraged, welcome, and needed!

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