Thursday, July 7, 2011

5 cheap, quick and healthy dinners

It's so easy to order in. I have a real weakness for authentic Mexican food, but for $30 (3 people, not just me eating $30 worth of take-out on my own) and 1,200 calories a plate, it's just not a smart meal. Other options include pre-made frozen dinners which to me consist of calories, calories, sodium, artificial flavoring and overall a very bland and often rubbery dinner that 9 times out 10 I feel depressed about eating afterward; but it's quick and will fill you up when you're hungry, problem solved.

My husband does not enjoy cooking on a regular basis and has a hard time coming up with healthy meals during the week. I work too much and prefer to spend time with my toddler instead of slaving over the stove when I get home; yeh yeh, typical American life. But instead of turning blindly and giving into pre-made foods I'm trying to combine the best of both worlds: fast food that is still all natural and healthy. I'm determined to provide real food to my family without compromise. This is my mission in life.

Planning, planning, planning is the key to success. When you're on your way home, starving, tired and not feeling up the Top Chef surprise box dinner challenge with a toddler screaming in your face instead of Gordon Ramsey, it's easy to whimp out and speed dial (I know you all have Mexican take-out on speed dial) your fav local spot and just pick it up on the way home. It doesn't help that my husband LOVES take-out and is happier to see when I have the cheesy looking smiley face thank you bag in my hand as I walk up the driveway (whats up with the smiley face bag anyway?).

To help you out and have this as a personal reference of my own, here is a list with a guestimate-breakdown of cost for 5 of my favorite fast, healthy and actually great tasting meals. With some super easy beginning of the week planning you can avoid the  temptation to order out or pop that Stouffers lasagna you've been dreading into the oven as a quick fix.

Photo credit Lara604
1) Homemade bean burgers
Look at the ingredients list for many of the vegetarian burger options in your freezer section. What is that stuff? Making them at home on your own is super easy, fast, cheaper and more nutritious. This recipe is one of my favorite go-to's:

1 can of Eden Foods* beans (black, white, red, chickpeas, whatever...)
1/2 cup flour (white or wheat)
1/4 cup of breadcrumbs
1 egg
1/2 onion diced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper to taste

Drain and then mash the beans in a medium bowl using a fork or potato masher.
Add all of the remaining ingredients to the bowl and mix until evenly combined.
If you're feeling adventurous you could also add mushrooms, green pepper, shredded carrots, corn or jalapenos to the mixture.
In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. You can use your hands to make the mixture into a patty, or drop it by the spoonful into the skillet and using a fork shape it to your desired size (be careful of splattering oil!). Brown each patty well on each side - approx 5 minutes per side.
That's it! These are great on hamburger buns, in tortilla shells, on a salad or as a meat replacement in soups and chili's.

Meal cost: 
.50 cents for the beans ($2.00 for the can of beans/4 servings)
.50 cents to place the patty on a bun
.50 cents for other condiments and toppings
and an estimated .50 cents for the other ingredients from your pantry
Total per person: $2.00

Grocery list note: Most of the items for this meal are readily available in your pantry. Make sure you add to your grocery list a variety of Eden Foods canned beans to have in stock!

Have even less time? Make these patty's in advance and freeze them. When you get home quickly fire up the grill or a fry pan and toss them in to reheat.

* Eden Foods is one of the only brands I'm aware of that is BPA Free

2) Easiest gourmet spaghetti ever
For a while I was on the search for an easy yet flavorful spaghetti sauce. I like spice, flavor and simplicity all at once. Surprisingly the Travel Channel offered a recipe for just this, and to make it a little more time efficient for when I get home from work I've taken their Spaghetti With Fresh Tomato Sauce and Basil recipe and made it into a fast and easy version: obviously the original is better and I highly recommend it if you have the time and resources, but my version cuts a few corners with little compromise.

2 cans, drained well, diced or whole tomatoes
1/3 cup olive oil
pinch of crushed red pepper
kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon dried basil (fresh is better if you have it on hand!)
1 lb of spaghetti
1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese (optional) 

For the sauce: Heat the 1/3 cup of olive oil over medium-high heat.
Add your drained tomatoes, red pepper flakes, dried basil and a little salt and pepper (you can always add more later, better to start light.)
Give the tomatoes a few minutes to get hot and then using a potato masher work them until they are finely chopped. Continue to cook for about 10 minutes or until the sauce starts to thicken.

al dente (pasta should be firm, and slightly chewy, just shy of what you would consider 'done'). Drain the pasta, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking water.
Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat while gently tossing the pasta until it is tender and the sauce has absorbed. If the mixture seems too thick, slowly add some of the reserved pasta water to thin it out.  Remove from heat, add the butter and cheese if desired and gently toss until well combined. Serve immediately.
This dish seems really simple, but it creates a very flavorful and satisfying pasta dish as either a side or a main course with salad and garlic bread.

Meal cost: Spaghetti is always economical and quick to make. A box of pasta is only about $2.00, 2 cans of tomatoes will run you around $4.00 and 1/3 cup of olive oil will also cost around $2.00.
Total meal cost approximately $8.00 divided by 4 people for a cost of $2.00 per person. Add some french bread and pre-cut salad for an additional $2.00 per person.

Grocery list note: Olive oil is a must on our grocery list. It provides healthy fats to the diet and offers plenty of flavor in Italian dishes. If it's not already in your pantry, add it to your grocery list today. 

Have even less time? Make the sauce in advance and freeze it in portion size containers. Just make your pasta and toss the sauce in when you get home!

Photo credit star5112
3) Oven Kabobs
So easy. So versatile. So good.
Our grill takes a while to get hot and sometimes the oven is just easier; take this classic summer dish and cook it any time of the year using your oven.

Kabobs are great because you can use whatever you have in your house, or whatever your family favorites are. Here are some suggestions, cut them all into bite sized pieces:
  • Bell peppers
  • Onions
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Summer squash
  • Zucchini
  • Baby potatoes
  • Eggplant
  • Fresh pineapple
  • Salmon
  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Shrimp
  • Tofu
You can either skewer the kabobs yourself, alternating each of the items on the skewer or make it a family time and have each member skewer their own in a DIY dinner setting.
For a marinade I recommend just buying it instead of making it: this is a huge time saver. Of course read the ingredients label, many marinades can include corn syrup, artificial coloring/flavoring, mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) and other odd an unnecessary ingredients. Annie's offers a fantastic line of dressings and marinades.

Place the finished kabobs on a cookie sheet and brush them with your marinade of choice.
Turn the oven to broil.
Place the kabobs in the hot oven and watch closely, cooking approximately 10-15 minutes total, and turning every few minutes as they appear done on each side. Halfway through you may also brush the kabobs again with your marinade.
When done, let them set for 5 minutes to cool and absorb their juices. Serve with a side of brown rice or pasta and leave the extra marinade on the table as a dipping sauce.
If you don't have skewers just chop and roast the vegetables and meat on a cookie sheet turning with a spatula often.

Meal cost: There is a big variation in the cost of kabobs depending on what ingredients you use.
I try to use as many things from the garden and sitting in my refrigerator about to spoil as possible, keeping the cost to near free. When you start adding prime cut meats and gourmet baby potatoes you could potentially end up spending $5.00 per kabob. Keep this recipe as easy and simple as possible, kabobs turn out good no matter what.

Grocery list note: Having a good and healthy marinade/dressing in your pantry is always a good secret weapon. Use it on baked potatoes, pasta, vegetables or even as a dip for french bread.

Have even less time? Make the kabobs the night before and marinade them over night for maximum flavor. Just quick pop them in the broiler when you get home!

4) "I can't believe it's not take-out" peanut noodles
Sometimes I just crave take out Chinese food, but I'm usually disappointed with the results and with myself for eating so much of it.
This is a versatile recipe that is good hot, cold, as leftovers, packed in your lunch or for potlucks! Add extra veggies, tofu, chicken or beef for variation.

8 oz pasta (spaghetti, rice noodles, linguine, your choice)
1 bunch of green onions (white part only) or 1/2 diced white onion
2 tablespoons of sesame oil
1/3 cup peanut butter (crunchy adds texture)
2-4 tablespoons soy sauce (depending on taste)
1/4 cup hot water
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar (preferably organic)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
for extra heat add 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
2 teaspoon fresh ginger (optional, but very good)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro (optional, but VERY good)

Cook and drain pasta.
In a skillet cook the onions in the sesame oil until tender and then add remaining ingredients except cilantro. Cook just until hot and well combined. Remove from heat, toss into pasta and serve topped with fresh cilantro.
If you want to add more nutrition to this dish you can also top with sprouts, scrambled egg, sauteed broccoli or raw snow peas.

Meal cost: At the basic level, this dish costs approximately $3.50 per person considering the cost of pasta, peanut butter, sesame oil, onions, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and spices.

Grocery list note: Sesame oil is versatile, flavorful and healthy. Keep a bottle in your pantry to easily add flavor to salads, dressings, noodles and rice.

Have even less time? This basic recipe can also be used to fry leftover rice in place of pasta for a unique and quick dish.

Photo credit stu_spivack
5) Spicy 3 bean soup
For me there is nothing easier than throwing together a quick and tasty bean soup. This recipe has plenty of protein from the beans and packed with vitamins and minerals from the veggies. If the weather seems too warm for soup, serve it slightly cooled with avocado and sour cream!

1 can Eden Foods* northern white beans
1 can Eden Foods small red beans
1 can Eden Foods kidney beans
(really, any bean combination will do, these are just my favorites)
1 can diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons olive oil
4 cups organic vegetable broth
2 minced garlic cloves
1 onion
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1.4 teaspoon chili powder

The recipe covers the basics, but it is encouraged to make it your own by adding extras (or clean out your refrigerator by adding everything!)

In a skillet add the olive oil, onions, garlic and any other veggies you wish to add (green peppers, celery, carrots, summer squash, corn...) Cook until vegetables are tender.

In a large soup pot add everything together - the beans, cooked veggies from the skillet, spices, broth, everything.  Cook for about 20 minutes. Super easy.

If you would like to add hamburger or chicken, cook it in a skillet separately and add it into the soup.

My favorite way to serve this is with shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream on top with corn chips on the side!

Meal cost: Were mostly just opening cans and combining ingredients in this recipe
$6.00 for 3 cans of beans
$1.50 for a can of tomatoes
$4.00 for 4 cups of organic broth
$4.00 for veggies and onion 
$2.00 for spices and other
The total meal cost is approx $17.50. You of course could make this significantly less by not using Eden Foods brand and also using a non-organic broth, but the few dollars in difference is worth it to me for a more quality meal.

Grocery list note: Another good reason to have a wide variety of canned beans available in your pantry!

Have even less time? Throw everything in your slow cooker on low before you leave work and it will be ready by the time you come home! No need to pre-cook those veggies if you take the slow cooker route.

* Eden Foods is one of the only brands I'm aware of that is BPA Free


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