My cousin, the mother of a toddler and a kindergartener, says somebody needs to produce a reality TV show where they come to your house unannounced and cook a meal in 30 minutes or less, using only what you have on hand.
She and her husband have experienced coming home from a trip, with children cranky from hunger, to a house with nothing to eat.
I use that term figuratively. Like many of us, she has food in the fridge and pantry but still “nothing to eat.” You could drop by my place unannounced, for example, and have dinner if you don’t mind the meal consisting of canned tuna, Nutella, onions and oatmeal.
I understand her pain. When my family was young, we often arrived home from activities with everyone hungry and “nothing to eat” in the house.
Some people solve the problem by going through the drive-through, but our family rarely did that. I didn’t like the expense, calories and lack of balanced nutrition. When you live in the country, the drive-through isn’t an option, nor is a quick trip to the grocery store.
Former SDSU extension home economist Amber Lounsbery, a member support specialist with Girl Scouts Dakota Horizon Council and a cattle producer who lives near Centerville, South Dakota, said it’s hard to control food quantity and quality when you eat out. At home you can control ingredients, such as the amount of salt in a dish.
A few years ago, Lounsbery challenged herself to come up with interesting meals that her young daughter would eat.
“I would find good deals at the store or I’d buy ingredients for a recipe and later I would forget what I bought the items for and would end up with random ingredients in my pantry,” Lounsbery said.
She set out on a “use-what-you-have” mission in her kitchen and frequently posts her creative meals on social media. Lounsbery uses an allrecipes.com app on her phone called Dinner Spinner, which allows her to type in the type of meal she wants to make, or enter the ingredients she has on hand, and the app suggests what to cook.
“You’d be surprised all the recipes it pulls up,” Lounsbery said. “It’s a good way to use items you have on hand.”
Those of us who have been cooking for years are usually pretty good about getting something on the table in a short amount of time. But it’s easy to forget that we, too, were once young cooks. Early in my homemaking days, I had to follow a recipe to the letter in order to get a meal on the table. Now I know how to cook with a pinch of this and a dab of that, but only after years of practice. Lounsbery encourages cooks to learn what ingredients can be substituted for each other. Print out and post a substitution chart inside a cabinet door as a handy referral.
She also reminds you to stock up on basics that are designated for fast meals when you don’t have a lot of time to cook. For a long time, my strategy has been to make two casseroles instead of one, popping the spare in the freezer for baking later.
Lounsbery says many homemade soups freeze well and can be thawed quickly. Frozen vegetables are an excellent substitute for fresh ones when you don’t have time to shop or need to put a meal on the table in a hurry. Lounsbery says we might not think of shopping for onions in the freezer section, but frozen chopped onions and frozen chopped peppers can cut preparation time significantly. Or, when you’re cutting onions or peppers for a dish, cut extras and freeze them in zipper-type bags to use later.
Lounsbery suggests watching for sales and keeping these staples on for easy meal ideas: Pasta and pasta sauces, rice, low-salt canned tomatoes and beans for layering in soups and chili; cheese and other dairy products; and condiments such as ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise which can be used in a variety of forms. Frozen potatoes, frozen meatballs, hamburger patties, and pork sausage are versatile in dishes. Don’t forget all-purpose spices including garlic powder, chili powder, cumin and oregano, and basic baking items such as flour and sugar.
When I buy fish, I add seasoning before separating it into individual portions and freezing. I usually don’t have to thaw the thin filets before cooking. Buy a family-size pack of chicken breasts on sale; separate it into smaller bags before freezing. You can even go a step further by slicing the chicken breast into bite-size portions and marinating before freezing, which speeds thawing and cooking time. Cut up and freeze leftover ham and turkey after a holiday – you’ll thank yourself later when you have a package of cooked meat ready to use in a quiche, egg bake, pasta sauce or soup.
Stocking up on ingredients is one thing but resist the urge to hoard. Lounsbery reminds us that foods won’t keep forever even in the freezer; use them up before they must be thrown away.
Below, I devised a hearty soup recipe using ingredients that are easy to keep in the pantry and freezer. The smoked sausage in this soup, especially when purchased in links the size of hot dogs, is precooked and can be cut while partially frozen. It will thaw quickly once it’s placed in the soup.
About 6 cups canned beef or poultry broth
1 onion, chopped previously and frozen
1 to 2 large stalks celery, chopped previously and frozen
1 28-oz can tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, or canned tomatoes
1 heaping teaspoon each of parsley, oregano, and basil
1 to 2 cups dry macaroni
Pinch of garlic powder to taste
1 12-ounce package frozen mixed vegetables (green beans, peas, corn and carrots)
1 14-ounce package smoked sausage, cut into bite-size pieces
In a large pot, sauté onion and celery until tender. Add broth and tomato sauce and bring to a boil. Add 1 to 2 cups dry macaroni along with parsley, oregano and basil. Add frozen mixed vegetables and boil until macaroni is tender. Stir in the smoked sausage. Serve when sausage is heated through.