One thing most of us do at the beginning of each New Year is plan out a brand-spanking new diet.
New diets can sometimes require you ditch everything in the pantry and start from scratch with specific foods.
Naturally this method is usually not an easy regimen to stick with, with hidden costs, higher grocery bills and the possibility of some folks at home not ready to change their eating habits. It could cause down right rebellion! Believe me, I have experience.
My advice, honed after years of trial and error, some successes and some failure, comes down to these simple steps to make your kitchen healthier, happier and budget-friendly.
Budget-stretching meals can really prove cost effective for your meal planning. A little bit of investment on the front end, but after a few shopping trips you'll really see the difference.
Buy a membership to a shopping club, like Costco. Here you can buy staple items in bulk. I really recommend Costco, too, especially if you are looking for more all-natural products and items for exclusion diets.
Brown rice, flour, salt and sugar can all be bought in bulk and stored. Pasta, even eggs and butter can be bought for much less in bulk. This is especially good for those of us who enjoy baking quite a bit.
As for ways to cook budget-stretching meals, you can reduce the amount of meat in recipes and add extra rice. Adding a bit of extra rice makes the meal go further, and with a pinch or two of extra salt and spices, is still just as delicious.
Slow Cooker Meals
Purchasing a slow cooker was one of the best decisions I ever made in a kitchen. Throw in some ingredients and bam! Five or six hours later, you have a fully-cooked meal.
It's easy to keep healthy with a slow cooker, too, if you are aware of what you are putting in one. Veggies, beans and rice can become glorious Vegetarian Chili in a matter of hours without much work on your end.
Some slow cookers can be set to cook while you are at work. I sometimes place a fresh, whole chicken in my slow cooker, pour in white wine, toss in some diced garlic and onions and fresh rosemary, set it on low and head to the office.
Eight hours later, delicious roasted Rosemary and White Wine Chicken. Slow cookers are perfect for those of us who might not have time every day to cook dinner. A few minutes in the morning filling your slow cooker equals simply filling a plate when you return home.
Freeze Ahead Time Savers
I've spent years working professionally as a chef, so it's not a stretch for me to buy bulk or cook in large batches. Realistically, it isn't a ton of work to create some basic freeze ahead meals and other meal-helpers for everyone.
Two things I cook in bulk on a regular basis are soups and stocks. Tomato Basil Soup is a big hit around our house, and this one is a must for the freezer. It can double for marinara or pizza sauce, so I make it a little thick, and add homemade veggie stock when prepping soup for yummy tomato soup and grilled cheese nights.
Having your own marinara/soup/sauce can also help with your budget. Store marinara is oftentimes pricey and loaded with sodium.
As for stocks, I try to keep two on hand – vegetable and chicken. This time of the year I sometimes have turkey stock as well.
Scroll down for Vegetable Stock Recipe.
Vegetable stock is by far the easiest one to keep in the freezer. When I am cooking, I save all the veggie scraps – onion and garlic peels, celery stalks, carrot shavings, etc. – and freeze them in a freezer bag, adding more each time.
Once I get two full gallon bags, it's time to make stock. Scroll down for Twinkle's Homemade Veggie Stock recipe.
This year, because of my daughter's increase in migraines, we are trying to work some gluten-free and vegetarian meals into our diet. Meatless Monday is a perfect way to ease yourself into including some of these options in your weekly meals.
Meatless Monday is an international campaign that encourages people to not eat meat on Mondays to improve their health and the health of the planet.
"Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. We provide the information and recipes you need to start each week with healthy, environmentally friendly meat-free alternatives. Our goal is to help you reduce your meat consumption by 15% in order to improve your personal health and the health of the planet." – From their website
Mondays are also a time when most people come home at the end of the day ready to just put up their feet and not worry about creating a big dinner.
Sunday night, prepare a vegetable casserole or gather the ingredients for a simple vegan pasta dish.
Leaving out the meat one night a week can also aid in lowering cholesterol and fat in your diet, as well as help save a bit of money.
In general this year, seek out ways to eat healthier. This doesn't mean jump on the next diet fad bandwagon or go crazy buying gym memberships. Exercise and eating right are important, but weigh your options and what your life and your budget can handle.
Simple substitutions – like steamed broccoli for French fries or brown rice for heavy pasta – can make your diet much healthier, without drastic change.
Don't be a robot in the grocery store, either. Deliberately think about what you are eating and buying, look at labels and plan out your meals for a few weeks prior to shopping.
In the long run you'll be happier eating and cooking in your kitchen this year.
Twinkle's Homemade Veggie Stock
Makes about 2 gallons of stock
- 2-Gallon freezer bags full of vegetable "leftovers"
- 1 large stock pot
- 3 tbs. cracked black pepper
Put all the veggies in your stock pot and cover with water.
Cook on medium low on your stovetop, occasionally peeping in to stir and add more water if necessary.
After five or six hours, the stock should be a rich red-orange color.
Strain the juice from the pot into a large bowl or pan and cool.
Throw away the cooked down veggies or recycle in the compost.
Link to build a compost
Once your liquid has cooled, freeze or store in the refrigerator.
You can freeze the stock in muffin tins for easier measurement.
Twinkle VanWinkle was born in a small town in Mississippi. A life-long lover of music, media and food, she grew up following those three things along her path. She has almost 20 years of professional cooking under her apron strings, feeding thousands of friends, family and other folks while working in restaurants and bakeries in Oxford, Miss. She baked 300 apple pies for the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and appeared on "The Best Of..." in the same year. Along with producing dynamic entertainment content for LIN Media, she is a mother, musician and social media fanatic.
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