Monday, January 21, 2008

Healthy meals on a budget

Low fat doesn't have to mean low taste. I have taken the extra fats out of lots of common everyday meals without any noticeable loss of taste. When you saute meats or vegetables, use broths instead of fats. You are actually adding flavor without adding any fat. I have done this with meats, stir fry, and even vegetables. That is where the ice cube tray comes in handy for freezing broth. Any time you cook meat and there is juice in the pan when you are finished, save it. It is amazing the amount of beef flavor you can get from a pot roast to add later to your soups or rice.

A few tips to follow when you are getting ready to start cooking frugally is to keep in mind the things you have on your shelf. What are you most likely to eat first? Can you make it yourself? Even if you can make it yourself, is it cheaper to make it or buy it? Will everyone in your household like it or just you or your spouse? Is your favorite recipe going to make enough of that meal to feed an army or just the two of you? Can you freeze it?

These are some of the things that ask myself every time I have to go shopping. The things we are most likely to eat first are snack foods. I have two teens in the house and my son will eat the pantry bare if I let him. My husband is also a big snacker. I try to keep things for everyone to nibble on between meals that doesn't involve chips and candy. Brownies seem to work out fairly well as does popcorn.

Since I cook a lot, there aren't really many things that I can't cook myself that aren't as good or better than purchased. This is a major plus on the frugal side. I have learned how to adapt a recipe to use less expensive ingredients and to make it healthier than most of the frozen convenience foods available. Recipes are available all over the internet or just flip thru a cook book to get some basic ideas. Soup is by far the healthiest choice. And soup can be just about anything you want to make it. Have left over mashed potatoes? Make potato soup for lunch the next day. Just add milk, black pepper, and a little shredded cheese. Add a piece of unbuttered toast and a salad and you are good to go. Have some bacon left from breakfast? Make a bacon and cheese sandwich for lunch. Left over breakfast sausage is perfect for adding to fried potatoes or use it to make cream gravy with biscuits the next day( I am Southern, can you tell?) Never let anything go to waste. Have a spoonful of corn and half a spoon of beans or peas left from dinner? Put them together in a freezer bag. Keep adding to it until the bag is full then thaw it all out together and make soup.

I have discovered that while I can make my own bread, it is actually cheaper for me to go to the thrift store to buy it. I can get a big loaf of brand name whole wheat sandwich bread for 69 cents. If I figure the cost of the yeast and flour, plus the energy used in baking it, it cost me way over that. I can still cost effectively make dinner rolls and specialty breads like cinnamon swirl, but for sandwich bread, it just doesn't justify.

Will everyone eat it is a tough one at our house. My husband isn't fond of pork, my son doesn't like sauces or eggs, my daughter will eat just about anything except corn ("corn is evil" she says) and I am not likely to cook something that I won't eat. It makes for some interesting meal times, but we have found ways around it.

Making a pan of lasagna is expensive, but by splitting it into two pans, bake one and freeze one, makes it almost cost effective. Soup can be done the same way. Soup is a very inexpensive way to serve up left overs and you can split it up and freeze part of it for a meal another day. If your family just can't give up an expensive meal, save it for a special time like for a birthday or anniversary. Or if you only make it once every couple of months, cut costs on other meals that month to make up for it. The secret here is to don't stop making it altogether, just cut back on when you make it. You don't want to feel deprived of your favorites, just make them more special.

Another thing we do at our house is freezer night. Evey couple of weeks, we go through the freezer and find the 10 chicken nuggets, 3 fish sticks, a hand full of frozen peas, the few french fries left in the bag, leftovers in the fridge, anything that isn't enough to make a meal by itself and cook it all for one meal. Everyone can take a little of everything or if they don't like it they can skip that food completely. This has a dual purpose. You can clean out the fridge of anything that might get overlooked or buried on grocery day and it will help insure that no food will get wasted. I usually do this the night before a planned shopping trip. The kids like it because it gives them another shot at leftovers they had forgotten about and it is kinda fun to just go digging thru the freezer. It also helps you get creative with ways to recycle veggies into a meal.

With a little planning, the weekly grocery trip will stretch a lot farther.

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