Even though this year there are 32 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, food columnist Judi Leaming shares three very quick-to-fix meals that you can prepare and share with your family before you rush out looking for holiday bargains.

In case you hadn't realized it, this year Thanksgiving occurred on the earliest possible date in November that it can be held – the fourth Thursday in November. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday, authorizing that it should be held on the last Thursday in November. Because the Civil War was raging and the nation was divided, this new national holiday wasn't officially recognized until early in the 1870s.

Then in December 1941 President Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress that changed the holiday observance from the last Thursday to the third Thursday in November. President Roosevelt reasoned that moving the holiday back one week would stimulate the national economy. "Black Friday," thankfully not yet an official national holiday, allegedly earned its name in the very early 1960s when non-retail businesses in Philadelphia began the practice of giving their employees the day after Thanksgiving off from work so that they could begin their Christmas shopping.

It seems ironic that "Black Friday" has now become such a celebrated institution in this country that many retail workers now have to work on both Thanksgiving and the night and day that follow to satisfy the desire of many Americans to search out bargains that likely would be available to them almost any day between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Even though this year there are 32 days between these holidays I want to share with you three very quick-to-fix meals that you can prepare and share with your family before you rush out looking for holiday bargains. Sitting down with your family to savor a "homemade" dinner is, after all, one of the greatest gifts that you can give them.

Crock Pot Chicken with Black Beans and Cream Cheese

(from www.food.com )

3 to 5 boneless frozen chicken breasts*

1 (15 1/2-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 (15 ounce) can corn, drained

1 (15-ounce) jar top quality salsa (heat of your choice)

1 (8-ounce) brick cream cheese, regular or low-fat, cut into cubes

Cooked rice

*Recipe was tested with 3 boneless chicken breasts, which seemed very generous.

Place frozen chicken breasts into the container of a 4-quart or larger crock pot. Pour drained beans and corn over chicken then pour salsa over the vegetables. Cover and cook on HIGH for 3 to 5 hours until chicken is done. Shred chicken with two forks to distribute evenly throughout vegetables. Place cubes of cream cheese over all and let sit for about 30 minutes to melt cheese. Serve over cooked rice. Makes 4-plus servings.

Pizza Rice Casserole

( www.tasteofhome.com)

3/4 pound lean ground beef

1 medium onion, chopped

2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

Dash of black pepper

2 cups cooked rice

1/2 cup sour cream or 4% cottage cheese

1/2 to 1 cup shredded Mozzarella or Cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large skillet, cook beef and onion over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; drain if necessary. Add tomato sauce, sugar, parsley, oregano and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Combine the rice and sour cream or cottage cheese; spoon half of this rice mixture into a greased 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Top with half of the meat mixture. Repeat layers then sprinkle with cheese. Bake uncovered in preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes until heated through and bubbly. Serves at least 4.

Refried Bean Soup

(adapted from www.tasteofhome.com )

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

2 (16-ounce) cans refried beans

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can chicken broth

1 teaspoon dried cilantro

Optional garnishes:

5 (6-inch corn tortillas)

Sour cream and/or shredded Cheddar cheese

In a large saucepan or stir fry pan, bring the tomatoes, onion and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Whisk in the refried beans, broth and cilantro to a smooth consistency and continue to simmer for 15 minutes. While soup simmers, prepare tortilla strip garnish by cutting tortillas into 1/2-inch wide strips and baking them on a baking sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 12 to 15 minutes, until crisp. Garnish soup with strips, sour cream and/or cheese. Serves 6 to 8.

To contact Judi Leaming, email leamingjudi@gmail.com