Healthy and tasty budget-stretchers and recipe basics

I’ve mentioned before that I let sales guide my recipes, but that’s not exactly true. If I were to examine it objectively, I have other guidances and priorities in place, but they are so innate to my thinking that I don’t think about them. When something is second nature to you, it is normal to you, so you don’t feel you have to discuss or explain it. That’s the way I’ve been with my grocery shopping, and to some degree my cooking, so I’ll explain the steps I take to get to the meal plans, recipes, and shopping/stockpiling lists I have.

  1. Stick as close as possible to the original ingredients. This means my first stops are always in the produce, fresh meat, and fresh seafood parts of the store. Those are the most difficult to store, don’t keep as long (without freezing, canning, or preparing in a dish), are the best for you and usually the tastiest part of our shopping.
  2. Avoid processed/prepared foods. You’ll see jars of spaghetti sauce, packages of macaroni and cheese, and tortilla chips in my shopping cart. But, by the time those get to the table, they have been incorporated into something else that involves more real food. A 2-serving package of macaroni and cheese, for example, recently became a 6-serving meal when I added vegetables, meat, (real) cheese, seasonings, and milk.
  3. When there’s a choice, use the whole grain version. More and more name-brand companies are getting into this, and if you look at the nutritional information, you’ll see the difference. Cereals, rice, pastas, many of your staples will have a whole grain version at exactly the same price (or at least close to it) as the original, so if there’s a choice, that’s what I pick.

So, those are the considerations that are inside my head before I even start to do the shopping or plan the recipes. Once I’ve done the shopping, though, now it’s time to get creative. There are certain “stretchers” that I use, that I keep on hand for added financial and nutritional value when I make the recipes. These will always come in handy for you.

  1. Dried beans. More on this later. In the bags, they can store safely in a pantry for a long, long time. They are easy to reconstitute and use, very nutritious, make a meal more filling and hearty, and digest slowly so you feel full longer. Definitely a go-to food if you are watching your weight.
  2. Plain, unsweetened, or semi-sweet cereal. Think oatmeal, corn flakes, puffed wheat or rice, grits, cream of wheat, that sort of thing. Great crushed and used as toppings for casseroles or desserts. Taste can be sweet or savory, can be used as crunchy coating on fish and chicken, can be used as crumbs for meatloaf or meatballs, stuffing, dumplings, pancakes, biscuits, quick bread, cookies, can substitute for flour, great for adding low-calorie whole grain bulk to many different recipes.
  3. Pureed fruit or vegetables in season. A low-calorie, high-nutrition base for sauces, soups, crock pot meals, stews, etc. This year was the Year Of The Peach, I had peaches for everything. The great thing about peaches was if you eat them raw or alone or on desserts, they are flavorful and very noticeable, but inside a recipe, they just about disappear. They add a fragrant, light, floral top note and a slight sweetness, but aren’t overwhelming. This year I made peach ketchup, peach salsa, peach barbeque sauce, and used pureed peaches in baked beans, spaghetti sauce, taco sauce, pork barbeque, and lots of other recipes. You can also use potatoes, zucchini, carrots, apples, fresh tomatoes, squash, and lots of others if you think about it.
  4. Bags of frozen vegetables. Adds color, crunch, flavor, and texture to any kind of dish. Very cheap and the name brands are free or nearly free when you use coupons. Even when you don’t use coupons, a bag of frozen vegetables for less than $1 can turn a 2-serving meal into a 4-serving meal and it’s more nutritious and lower calorie than the original.

Uses for reconstituted beans:

Earlier this year, Bi-Lo had a buy one get one free sale on their bagged dry beans. I bought lots, because I use about one bag (one pound) a week. I set them to soak overnight, then season and cook them for a day in the slow cooker. The majority of the time, they become baked beans, because everyone in the house likes those and they make a great side dish. I had my last 2 pounds of beans and I decided to make a double batch, this was a little over a week ago. I set them to soak then cook, then the very next day I came down with a bad cold and barely had a sense of smell or taste. Since I couldn’t smell or taste, I couldn’t season them, so I had semi-seasoned cooked beans. It made over a gallon of them, I split them into four containers and started using them in recipes instead. Here’s what a gallon of beans made:

  1. Added a cup of beans to soups – worked well with vegetable soup, tomato soup, chicken stew, and beef vegetable soup. We often have soup and salad or sandwich for lunch, and the beans add a little extra flavor, texture, heartiness, low-calorie bulk to the soups.
  2. Pureed one quart and added a bottle of salsa that I had in the fridge and made bean dip.
  3. Made Cowboy BBQ beans – recipe I posted earlier this week – one quart made 6 meals. I served it in a bowl once, then another time on top of half a baked potato with cheese on top, then in a bowl with cheese on top and garlic bread on the side.
  4. Pureed two cups and added to half a pound of ground beef to make meatloaf – WOW that was great! The beans really made the beef rich-tasting and cooked very evenly for a nice texture. I had canned diced tomatoes with sauteed onions and garlic as a topping, it was a super low-cost meal and about half the calories of a full-meat meatloaf.
  5. Mixed with ground beef and taco seasoning, served over Mexican rice with cheese on top.
  6. … And I still have a quart and a half left, which I am giving to a relative so he can be creative with his own recipes.

All in all, using two and a half quarts of beans made over 30 servings, there’s still leftovers, and we are well within budget, eating heartily, going to bed stuffed, enjoying the taste, and I have extras to give away. On meals for the past 10 days for multiple people and not eating out and having 3 meals a day at home, I’ll bet it’s cost me less than $10.

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