With the US economy in the doldrums, many Americans are struggling to stretch every dollar as far as possible and that includes their food dollars. It is in times like these that imagination and creativity in the kitchen become especially important. With the right amount of thought and planning, it is possible to create delicious low-cost meals. And if the need to spend money more carefully leads to more nutritious, home-cooked meals in American households, that is a “good thing”.

Of course, many cooks, past and present, have had to economize at certain points in their lives. They’ve done it by comparison shopping, buying produce in season and adding more vegetables and less meat to the pot. Frugal cooks also bypass convenience items such as fruits and vegetables that are pre-washed and pre-cut and some buy extra produce, when the price is right for canning and freezing.

Hectic schedules and the readily available convenience foods have paved the way to less-healthful eating habits. In much of the United States, it is just as easy — or easier — to order out or pick something up for the evening meal, as it is to prepare the meal at home.

One way for Americans to spend less money on food is to choose unprocessed (or less-processed) foods, with a few fresh ingredients added, as the basis of a meal. Packaged and prepared meals cost you considerably more than cooking with raw ingredients at home. Focus on the products stocked along the perimeter of the store. This is where healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, meat and fish are usually located. Preparing meals at home allows you to control the amount of salt and fats you use in your recipes.

Another suggestion is to buy produce that is in season to keep costs down. In American supermarkets, it is not uncommon to find certain items, such as broccoli, cucumbers and apples, on produce shelves year-round. But unless these items are in season in your area, they are being shipped from somewhere else or are being pulled from cold storage. When fresh produce is shipped long distances, it tends to lose some nutrients along the way and flavor often suffers. It also tends to be more expensive. Frozen fruits and vegetables can also taste fresh and provide high amounts of nutrients, if they were processed immediately after picking. In the winter, especially, frozen fruits and vegetables may be a nutritious and economical option.

Taking the time to plan your weekly menu not only helps to save time and money, but also provides a way to create meals with a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat, plus all the essential vitamins and minerals needed by adults and children. When eating balanced meals your body feels satisfied, has fewer cravings and, this in turn, prevents late-night snacking. Make a shopping list before you go to the supermarket and stick to it.

Tougher cuts of beef and pork are a lot cheaper than steaks and chops ($2 to $6 per pound for many cuts compared with $10 or more per pound for steaks and don’t forget to watch for sales), but no one wants to eat a piece of leather for dinner. The best way to cook tough cuts of meat is low and slow, usually for 3 or more hours, often in liquid, to make them melt-in-your-mouth tender.

When you’re making dinner, think about what you’re going to eat for lunch tomorrow. If you’re making a salad for dinner, make a little extra and put it in a container, undressed, for lunch the next day. And what about your leftovers from dinner? Is there a little extra chicken or maybe part of a can of beans? Toss that in with your lunch salad. Packing lunch is a great way to make sure you’re not wasting any leftovers—and to help you eat healthy, save money and save time throughout the day.

Italian Beef Stew

Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 7 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped carrot
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 pounds boneless chuck roast, trimmed of fat and cut into cubes
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 26-28 oz. containers Italian chopped tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups lower-sodium beef broth
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 (8-ounce) package mushrooms, quartered
  • 2 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 3/4 cup (1/4-inch-thick) slices carrot
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Directions

Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon oil to the pan. Add onion and chopped carrot; sauté 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic; sauté for 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Remove from pan to a bowl and set aside.

Add 3 teaspoons oil to pan. Place 1/4 cup flour in a shallow dish. Sprinkle beef with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper; dredge in flour. Add half the beef to pan and sauté about 6 minutes, browning on all sides. Remove from pan. Repeat procedure.

Add water to pan and bring to a boil, scraping pan. Return meat and the onion mixture to pan. Add tomato and next 4 ingredients; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover and stir in sliced carrot, mushrooms and potato. Simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour or until meat is very tender, stirring occasionally. Discard bay leaf. Stir in remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, basil and parsley.

Slow Cooker Chicken Osso Buco

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 pounds chicken thighs, skinned
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped (1 cup)
  • 1 large onion, chopped (1 cup)
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped (1 cup)
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
  • 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 3/4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
  • Snipped fresh parsley

Directions

Place flour, salt and pepper in a resealable plastic bag. Add chicken, a few pieces at time, shaking to coat.

In a large skillet brown chicken, half at a time, in hot oil over medium heat about 10 minutes or until golden, turning once. Remove to a plate.

In a 4- to 5-quart slow cooker combine carrots, onion, celery and garlic. Sprinkle with tapioca. Place chicken on top of vegetables.

In a medium bowl stir together tomato sauce, broth, lemon peel, lemon juice and thyme; pour over chicken.

Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 5 to 6 hours or on high-heat setting for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

Serve chicken and sauce over hot cooked pasta or rice and garnish with snipped parsley.

Baked Spinach Casserole

Serve this vegetable pasta dish as an entree or as a side to perk up baked chicken or meatloaf.

Ingredients

  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 4 lasagna sheets, traditional or no-boil
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 bunches fresh spinach (about 12 ounces total), washed, thoroughly drained and coarsely chopped;
  • or 1 package (9-10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed, thoroughly squeezed and drained to remove all water
  • 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup fat-free milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch ground nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F. Coat a 9” x 13” baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Cook the lasagna sheets according to package instructions, drain, and layer in the bottom of the baking pan. (If using no-boil lasagna sheets, soak for 5 minutes in hot water to soften before layering.)

Heat the olive oil over low heat in a large frying pan or Dutch oven. Add the spinach and onion. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cool.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Add the ricotta, milk, salt, nutmeg and the spinach and onion mixture. Mix well.

Pour the mixture over the lasagna sheets. Spread evenly. Sprinkle grated cheese over the top. Bake for 40 minutes or until a golden crust forms on the top. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Yield: 4 servings

Tomato Lentil Chili

Some good bread, homemade corn bread or biscuits would be a nice addition to this meal. Make extra to take for lunch.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup dry lentils (red or brown)
  • 1/2 cup quick cooking bulgur, whole wheat couscous or quick-cooking (pearled) barley
  • 2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans reduced sodium vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 (14 1/2-ounce) can petite diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Yogurt, chopped red onion, hot sauce (optional)

Directions

Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onion, bell pepper and garlic; cook 7 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except the toppings. Simmer 30 minutes. Serve with optional toppings: yogurt, red onion and hot sauce.

Pasta with Tuna Tomato Sauce

Salad and some homemade garlic bread is all that is needed to complete this quick meal.

Ingredients

  • 1 can (26-28 ounces) peeled plum tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 large whole cloves garlic, peeled 
  • 2 anchovy fillets (optional)
  • 2 cans (6 ounces each) tuna in oil, drained, retaining oil separately
  • 8 ounces penne or spaghetti, uncooked
  • 1/4 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
  • Chopped parsley or other herbs for garnish

Directions

Empty the tomatoes and their juice into a large skillet. Add the whole garlic cloves. Cook over low heat for 25 minutes, stirring frequently, breaking the tomatoes into small pieces with the back of a wooden spoon or fork. Remove from heat. Remove and discard the garlic. Add the anchovies, if desired; use a fork to break them up and mix them into the tomato sauce.

Break up the tuna chunks in a small bowl using a fork, then add to the tomato sauce, stirring in gently.

Cook the pasta according to package instructions. When the pasta is ready, drain thoroughly. Return it briefly to the pot, add a little of the tuna olive oil and mix well. Add the pasta to the sauce in the skillet. Using tongs to lift the long strands, fold it gently into the sauce. Stir in the breadcrumbs and garnish with parsley.

Yield: 4 servings

Better For You Brownies

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons canola or other neutral tasting oil
  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs, cold
  • 1 tablespoon cold leftover brewed coffee
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Directions

Position rack in the lower third of the oven and heat oven to 325 degrees F.

Use an 8 by 8 silicon baking pan or line a similar sized metal or glass baking dish with foil or parchment paper so it hangs over the edges by about 1 inch. Spray the prepared pan completely with cooking spray.

Put the butter, oil and chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat at 75 percent power for 2 minutes. Stir and microwave again until completely melted, about 2 minutes more. (Alternatively put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl. Bring a saucepan filled with 1 inch of water to a very slow simmer; set the bowl over, not touching, the water, and stir occasionally until melted and smooth.)

Stir the brown and white sugars, vanilla and salt into the chocolate mixture with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs and coffee and beat vigorously by hand until fully incorporated and the batter is thick and glossy. Add the cocoa, flour and baking soda and stir just until it disappears.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake until the top is crispy and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with a few crumbs, about 30 minutes (40 minutes if not using a silicon pan).

Cool the brownies in the pan on the counter. Lift brownies out of the pan by the foil, if needed. Peel off the foil and cut into 16-2-inch squares.

Store extra brownies in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

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