If you are trying to save money one of the first places you’ve probably tried to cut back is meals in restaurants. Most people would be shocked to find out the percentage of their take-home pay that is spent on restaurant food, both dine-in and take-out. Once you’ve made up your mind to reduce those expenditures, though, you’re still going to need to eat. One way to keep yourself on the budgetary straight and narrow is to stock your pantry in such a way that you’ll always have something you can fix quickly. An even more effective strategy is to make sure you have ingredients to make several different meals with a variety of preparation times, ethnicities and flavor profiles. This can help with the “that’s not what I’m in the mood for” problem that sometimes leads to unplanned meals out. Following are three meal categories that take less than 30 minutes to prepare, require no recipes and contain either no or very few super-perishable foods (foods that last less than one week in home storage).
Keeping a box of dried pasta on hand is hardly a new idea. But there are lots of shelf- or refrigerator-stable additions that can turn plain pasta and bottled sauce into an interesting and delicious dish. Pasta plus bottled sauce plus canned clams or shrimp makes a delicious option that can be ready to eat in as little as five minutes if you used angel hair pasta. Frozen hamburger added to ready-made sauce makes a hearty meal for a cold night. Cooked pasta can be quickly cooled by rinsing with cold water. You can then add whatever vinaigrette salad dressing you have on hand along with jarred olives, pickled veggies such as asparagus and canned artichoke hearts.
Crispy taco shells can be stored on the pantry shelf for quite a while if unopened. If you prefer soft flour or corn tortillas they can be frozen flat in the freezer and reheated either in the microwave or on a hot skillet. It’s a good idea to insert the tortillas in their original packaging into a large zip style freezer bag. For filling you can use pretty much any meat in your freezer. Chicken breast strips cook quickly and can be seasoned with fajita seasoning or the spice blend of your choice. Ground beef can be either thawed in the microwave or cooked directly from frozen in a heavy pan with a lid. When you do cook fillings for taco shells or tortillas, think about doubling the batch and freezing the leftovers for the next quick meal.
One of the fastest meals is a frozen casserole. When you have time to make your family’s favorite main dish always try to make extra to freeze. With some exceptions most casserole ingredients freeze and reheat well. Here’s a tip: Once you’ve prepared your casserole grease or spray the pan well and pour in the mixture. Wrap and freeze until solid. Once the casserole is frozen solid, unwrap it and invert it to pop the food out. Rewrap and replace in the freezer. When it comes time to reheat, simply place the frozen casserole back in the pan it was frozen in and thaw overnight. This saves room in the freezer and keeps you from using up all your casserole dishes on freezer meals.
The classic quick meal, sandwiches are limited only by your imagination. You can keep your favorite sandwich bread in the freezer and top with pb&j, tuna salad, egg salad, deli meat (one item you might have to pick up on your way home rather than store). Grilled cheese sandwiches are another classic that can be interpreted many ways. Try very sharp white cheddar on sourdough bread or grated cheddar mixed with chopped garlic.
Pantry, refrigerator and freezer suggestions:
- Dried pasta
- Bottled pasta sauce
- Canned seafood
- Canned mushrooms
- Jars of pickled veggies
- Canned artichoke hearts
- Canned tuna
- Peanut butter
- Jam, jelly, fruit butters, etc
- Hard cheeses
- Garlic and onions
- Vinaigrette salad dressing
- Sandwich bread
- Ground beef
- Chicken breast
Once you have stocked your pantry and freezer with a few basics and some imaginative additions you’ll never again feel like to “have to” eat out because there’s nothing to eat at home.