In just a few short years, she's taken a semi-commonsensial idea and turned herself into a full-blown star and household name. During a recent trip to Columbus, I had the opportunity to meet the star of Food Network's Semi-Homemade show, Sandra Lee.

In just a few short years, she's taken a semi-commonsensial idea and turned herself into a full-blown star and household name. During a recent trip to Columbus, I had the opportunity to meet the star of Food Network's Semi-Homemade show, Sandra Lee. In town for a book signing at Barnes & Noble at Easton, we met for a brief chat before her scads of fans had their turn. In true Sandra Lee fashion, semi-homemade appetizers were served while those loyal fans waited patiently in line.


For any of you not familiar with Sandra Lee, her claim to fame is using ingredients you already have around the house-boxed mixes, canned goods, etc.-and jazzing them up into something, well, semi-homemade. She also uses found items to create adorable tablescapes to set the mood. On her show, she takes great care to integrate her clothing palate into her set, food, and theme. As precious as that sounds, she is definitely not that way in person. She's an all around regular gal.


We asked Columbus Parent Magazine readers to submit food and decorating questions to Sandra. Below are her responses. Congrats to reader Molly from Baltimore who won the signed Semi-Homemade 3-book giftset!


Q: Sue in Grove City asked: I am watching my weight and usually substitute Splenda for sugar in recipes. Why do some recipes turn out okay and other aren't so great?


A: That's one of the reasons why semi-homemade is so complicated. Easy for you, but difficult in the creation of it. Combining different ingredients is almost a science. Whereas a 'from scratch' recipe is really very simple: it's flour, salt and baking powder. You know how to make a biscuit. Or use Bisquick; that's semi-homemade!


A lot of different ingredients are in a manufacter's branded product and they have to come together and marry in a very symbiotic way and that is what this reader is finding when trying to put something different into a recipe. However, I've never seen a problem with Stevia, which is a natural herb used to sweeten a recipe. Or I would substitute 100 percent all-natural organic honey. And besides, can I just tell you, there are only 13 calories in a teaspoon of sugar.


We stopped right here to talk about why she and I both use the phrase, 'Can I just tell you?' Turns out her "sweetie" has three girls: two 13-year-old twins and an 11-year old. This kind of talk is very tween-like, and we've both found ourselves using it. And since these are her sweetie's kids, not her own, she's dubbed herself a 'semi-homemade mommy' which made me like her even more. She does not like the word "stepmom." We chatted like old friends about parenting, food, and making cocktails (another one of her specialties), so it took us a while to get back on track.


Q: Christine in Galloway wanted to know: I am a full-time working mother in a one income home, but I still like to cook balanced meals for my family, which sometimes might include extra people. Do you have suggestions for meals that are quick and inexpensive?


A: Well, that's just knowing your grocery store. The first thing you start with is your meat. Knowing that things like a beautiful chicken dinner is really easy to do. You can go online and learn how to cut a chicken. A whole chicken costs a quarter of what boneless skinless chicken breasts cost. A quarter! And I think a little less than half of what cut up chicken costs.


Or try bone-in ham. You don't have to buy a ham as big as your table. A small family-size ham is great and is less per pound than ground beef. You put a little maple syrup on that ham, a sprinkling of a little brown sugar and some pumpkin pie spice and you are honey baked!


You need to think about making one large dinner and have enough for two nights. Say Sundays are when you take pleasure in your cooking, and maybe Thursdays. Then Wednesday is rotisserie night and you pick up a couple of rotisserie chickens. Then you figure out, "Am I making ham enchiladas or am I making pulled pork sandwiches out of my ham? Or maybe barbecue?" Things that take 5 or 10 minutes on the other few nights.


Q: Tari in Columbus asked: When I have family and friends over for dinner, I like to make something special and different they wouldn't ordinarily have, but I worry about picky eaters. How can you do this without making multiple dishes to accommodate the differing tastes?


A: I always use safe pantry items that everyone loves. Everybody loves things like Johnsonville sausage. People like a lot of flavor in their foods so a lot of times instead of ground beef I'll substitute the Italian sausage with crushed red pepper in it and that just adds a lot more flavor.


I do a stuffed mushroom that I turn into cornbread stuffing. And we all like parmesan cheese, whether it's coming out of the green can or you're shredding it. But by the way if you shred it yourself, you're going to save about 75 percent on the cheese.


So, you take the stems off the mushrooms and pop those in a bowl. Put in pimentos or red peppers. Everybody's got those pimento jars that we don't know what to do with. Here's a great way to use them. Frozen spinach that you've thawed out and that makes a nice binder with an egg. Toss that about and that's your stuffing for your mushrooms. Toss that with some cornbread for stuffing and you're golden.


Everyone likes deviled eggs. You just have to make them with Hellman's mayonnaise, yellow mustard-real live stuff-sweet pickle relish, paprika, salt and pepper. This couldn't be easier. And if they're dry, put more mayonnaise in them before you put them in the eggs! Who doesn't like deviled eggs? Every child loves them, every person loves them. And make two dozen instead of one, so you have enough for everybody-you chop up the deviled eggs into nice chunks and you've got a beautiful sandwich the next day. Voila! Egg salad!

Q: These days we need all the money-saving tips we can get. What are a few shortcuts we can do when guests are coming over unexpectedly to make the house homey and inviting?


A: I love candles, although I use unscented candles because a lot of people don't like the smells. Or I'll make my own diffuser. Take your own jar and put your own oil in and a bottle of vanilla extract, put in skewers and it's, like, $2.50 and those things usually cost 20 bucks!


I also love taking the branches off the back of the Christmas tree-the part that doesn't fit up against the wall-take off those branches and you can do all sorts of things. Cut them up and use them for a centerpiece or as an anchor on your fireplace. There's a huge bag of scented pinecones at Jo Ann's for about $4.99. Spray paint them silver and decorate the tree. I love Jo Ann's!