Thursday, 7 May 2015

You're heading home after a long day at work, and now you face that nagging question, What to have for dinner?

You might be tempted to buy take-out food or stop by the grocery store for some ingredients for an easy meal.

But hitting the grocery store or the drive-through several nights a week can be a real budget buster. So what's the answer? Get a little creative and cook with what you already have in your pantry.

Chances are you have enough food at home to whip up a healthy meal. Not only will that help your bank account — it also will be good for the planet. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in America is wasted.

No wonder "pantry" cooking is on the rise. With some simple strategies and minimal planning, you can create easy, tasty, and inexpensive meals using the ingredients you have.

Start with nutritious ingredients

According to Sandra Koulourides, a Birmingham-based diet and exercise consultant who holds a master's degree in nutrition, the key is to look for healthy ingredients. "You can certainly find ingredients you can combine to make a 'meal,' but you always need to consider nutrition," she said. "Each meal should have a source of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fat."

Stock your kitchen with healthy staples

Koulourides said you should always have eggs, cheese, salsa, potatoes, and some kind of tomato product, like diced tomatoes or spaghetti sauce. Olive oil, chili powder, Greek seasoning, garlic, and breadcrumbs are good to keep on hand as well. And don't forget the nuts, she said, adding she's partial to almonds, walnuts, and peanuts in the shell.

She keeps whole wheat bread and whole wheat wraps on the shelves, too.

Make extras

To help make sure you always have a protein source, when you're grilling chicken or steaks on the weekend, make extra and freeze it in one-meal portions, like a quart-sized zipper bag. "Then, you can move them from the freezer to the refrigerator in the morning and it'll be ready to use when you get home." She also said ground turkey, beef, and chicken are good to staples to keep in the freezer.

Avoid canned foods

Canned foods aren't at the top of her list, either. "Too much salt, vegetables are mushy, and then there's that canned taste." She also warned against stocking up on things like dried beans. "No one has the time to soak beans," she said.

Always have frozen foods on hand

Frozen vegetables, fish, and fruit are great to have on hand. They're tasty and healthy. "Frozen vegetables are packaged at peak freshness," she said, "and they retain much of their nutritional value."

Keep it simple

With these basic ingredients on hand, Koulourides said, anyone can prepare simple but tasty meals. "You don't need recipes. Recipes can be very complicated and include unnecessary, expensive ingredients," said Koulourides. "You don't need all that fuss."

A typical weeknight dinner at her house? It might be scrambled eggs with onions, green peppers and frozen corn, rolled into a wrap with salsa and cheese. "You've got your protein, carbs, and fat," she said. "Everything you need, made in 10 minutes, and delicious."

Sautee frozen vegetables with a chicken breast, some Greek seasoning, and top with Parmesan cheese. If you want, you can wrap it, too.

Pasta dishes don't have to be elaborate. Sautee frozen vegetables, mix with spaghetti sauce, and you have a delicious meal.

Roast vegetables like potatoes, squash, onions, cauliflower, and broccoli. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve with scrambled eggs, baked chicken breasts, or baked frozen fish.

Substitute ingredients

Oil-based salad dressings can make great marinades for chicken and fish. Cottage cheese can replace ricotta in pasta dishes. Crushed crackers can replace breadcrumbs. Plain Greek yogurt can replace sour cream and mayonnaise. And salsa can be used on just about anything.

Add some yogurt, cold cuts, hummus, peanut butter, and whole grain cereal to your stash, and you'll be ready to prepare quick, nutritious meals for lunch and breakfast, too, Koulourides concluded.

Use easy recipes

If you aren't as confident in the kitchen and need recipes, there are several web sites you can use to find recipes using the items you have in your pantry and fridge. Try pantry recipes from the Food Network, Delish, and Simply Pantry Cooking blog.



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