Healthy meals that stick to your budget and don't stick to your ribs are a challenge. Double that challenge by creating meals you can put together in less than 30 minutes. You can make a complete meal using many of the ingredients in your pantry and fridge, so take inventory of these before heading to the grocery store. Serve your entrées with a thrifty side like a fresh fruit compote or a crisp salad with yogurt dressing for extra fiber and vitamins.
Eggs to the Rescue
Eggs can be a low-cost replacement for meat as a protein source. Lower the fat by using reconstituted egg whites combined with whole eggs. Free-range organic eggs are no more than 50 cents each -- that's only $1 per serving. A frittata combines eggs with potatoes -- frozen hash browns work -- low-fat cheese and your choice of sliced vegetables. Put them in a pan and bake until the eggs are cooked through, no more than 30 minutes. Other eggs dishes include poached eggs over wilted spinach. The egg yolk oozes over the spinach to make its own sauce. Combine eggs with cooked turkey or chicken sausage, onions and potatoes. Wrap them in a warm flour tortilla for a breakfast burrito. Add salsa if you like.
Pasta cooks in less than 15 minutes and is easy enough for the novice cook to prepare. A pound of pasta serves four to six people, depending on how hungry they are, for about 25 cents each. Add low-fat cheese, nuts, oil, herbs and a vegetable to take pasta from passive to perfect. Throw peas, for instance, in with the pasta during the last five minutes of cooking, and add cheddar cheese, walnuts, walnut oil and parsley. Change up the dish for another night by using Parmesan cheese, almonds, olive oil, basil and zucchini. Combine any leftovers with your favorite salad dressing and some raw crunchy vegetables for lunch the next day. Another idea is a pasta casserole. Combine the almost-cooked pasta with a sauce. Toss in some vegetables. Top with bread crumbs, and bake until the crumbs are golden, and the sauce, bubbly. Meatless meals such as pasta often cost less and are quicker to cook than most entrees based around meat.
Browsing the produce aisle at the grocery market gives you lots of ideas for quick and easy meals that won't empty your wallet. Grill summer vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. Toast some crusty bread while the vegetables are grilling. Layer on the vegetables, and top with a bit of olive oil for a vegetable bruschetta. Combine winter vegetables such as parsnips, carrots, turnips and cabbage with potatoes in a slow cooker. Add in a ham hock for flavor but not much fat. While the dinner does take a few hours to cook, the prep time is next to nothing. Another alternative is couscous -- which cooks in less than five minutes -- with baby spinach, shredded kale or chard. Add in the greens while the couscous is still hot so they wilt. Walnuts amp up the protein factor and add a satisfying crunch.
A hearty soup is cheap and takes less than 30 minute from start to finish. Start with chicken, beef or vegetable broth. Add in your choice of vegetables, like carrots, onions and celery always work. Toss in some pasta, rice, potatoes or cooked beans, and simmer for 20 minutes. If there is some leftover meat in the refrigerator, add that as well, though it's not necessary because you've got the beans for protein. A fast fiesta soup begins with canned diced tomatoes. Add Mexican spices such as cilantro, cumin and chili flakes. Throw in a can of beans with their liquid and some frozen corn, and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve with crispy baked tortilla chips.
- The Earth-Bound Cook; Myra Goodman
- A Fresh Taste of Italy; Michele Scicolone
- Splendid Soups; James Peterson