Something from Nothing: Making Delicious Meals with Staples
Remember that story about Stone Soup, where neighbours magically made a delicious soup from so-called stones? That, of course was not the case (they used fragrant fruits, veggies and spices), but the point is that they did not consider the power of what they already had on hand to produce a healthy, effective (and as it turns out, budget friendly) meal.
Here are some suggestions about how to use what you have lining your shelves, or what to make sure that your pantry is stocked with for a healthy, cheap meal in a pinch. And as busy parents know, this can be a lifesaver as back-to-school (and after school activities) get into full swing.
The Power of your Pantry
When stocking staples, use longevity and versatility as your guide. You want items that play a supporting role in meals that will keep for months at a time (canned goods, for instance) and that can offer flavour.
When doing your usual groceries, pay attention to sales on canned goods and condiments, and then stock your shelves for a rainy (or busy) day.
These extra little bits of planning can help keep your food budget intact, because when you are short on time, you needn’t pick up the phone for takeout. In the same amount of time, with a well-stocked pantry and fridge, you can produce a meal for a fraction of the cost.
Canned tomatoes are not only super healthy (packed with cancer-fighting lycopene that is intensified during the canning process) and inexpensive, but are also extremely versatile.
Canned tomatoes can be used as a base for soups, stews, chilis and sauces. In a pinch, defrost any meat at all, throw a can of tomatoes on top with some cheese, bake in the oven while you are unpacking school bags or doing homework and supper is done.
Chicken is otherwise known as the great protein chameleon, because it is so versatile and can serve so many functions. If you don’t already, make sure you have some frozen chicken on hand. Boneless pieces are the easiest to use, but are also the most expensive. Save yourself some money by buying bone-in chicken on sale and removing the bones before you freeze it.
Make sure you have on hand garlic powder and onion salt, in addition to a few other staples like basil, curry powder and oregano.
You can use combinations of these to season anything. Garlic and onion powders are particularly helpful to have on hand when you don’t have fresh ones available, and don’t have time to run to the store to get them.
Forget about fancy, time-consuming pan reductions and expensive store-bought sauces. Salad dressings can be the busy budget cook’s best friend.
Use oil-based salad dressings as a marinade or to sauté meat to add light flavour. Bake pieces of meat or fish in cream based dressings to keep them moist and flavourful.
You can even use cream-based dressings (like ranch or Caesar) instead of milk when mashing potatoes.
While olive oil is slightly more expensive than other oils, it is a good investment- both from a health standpoint (it is the healthiest of the oils) and from a flavour and usefulness standpoint.
Olive oil will not only be your go-to when frying up meat (healthier and lasts longer on the shelf than butter), but can be used as a major meal ingredient.
In a hurry? Boil some pasta, throw in whatever veggies or leftover meat you have in the fridge, toss with olive oil and whatever spices you have on hand, and you have yourself a tasty meal.
While we are still in summer produce season, and the stores and luring us in with pops of produce colour, it is worth stocking up on some frozen veggies as we move into fall. They provide many of the same health benefits that fresh veggies do and are very convenient.
Soup for dinner? Why not? Open up your favourite can along with some crusty bread or rolls (you can melt cheese to make it more substantial) and you have yourself a meal.
Soup is also great to use as a base for sauces. Chicken broth is especially versatile, and can be used for a myriad of recipe functions.
What’s in the Box?
Boxed macaroni and cheese is a meal all in and of itself, but move it out of its college dorm status by throwing in add-ins. Include veggies and ground beef or tuna and you have a more substantial meal that addresses all the food groups.