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Quick and easy: budget-stretching mixes and meals

Published: Wednesday, April 29 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Healthy recipes such as Polynesian Skillet can be modified by adding vegetables that the family enjoys.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

On the third Wednesday of every month, you'll find these Utah State University instructors dispensing tips on how to eat healthy, stretch the budget or get creative in the kitchen.

The USU extension office hosts free classes on a variety of health-related topics that are open to the public. Each class features a lesson on the month's topic, a cooking demonstration and a sample of the food.

On a recent Wednesday, Penny Ramey and Julia Maddox taught about quick and easy meals, both those that can be tossed into a skillet and those that can be made from homemade mixes.

After making sure that every class member had a packet of recipes, a list of time-saving tips and a copy of the food pyramid, Ramey kicked off the class explaining why cooking at home is so important.

"Getting dinner on the table fast is a huge priority, and it's even better if I've cooked it myself and I know what's in it," she said.

Ramey offered a variety of time-saving tips such as planning meals in advance and making an effort to plan meals that can easily incorporate leftovers.

"Look for budget stretchers, like soups," she said. "And find things you know you can make into leftovers. Instead of just having leftovers, plan your leftovers."

Maddox said that one way to speed up the cooking process is by enlisting the help of others. With children, it can serve a dual purpose of teaching them different tasks around the kitchen.

"Get help," Maddox said, "especially for cleanup, but also for pulling ingredients, chopping etc. Rotate chores so everyone can learn to do all the different things."

Ramey also suggested having children help with grocery shopping, which will make trips to the grocery store faster while keeping the kids busy.

"While shopping with children can be difficult, you can entertain them by involving them," she said. "Have them look for specific items or bargains. When they help they will feel like they are part of the household."

The two instructors also emphasized the importance of eating healthy, explaining the importance of fruits, vegetables and exercise. As they went through their recipes, they gave suggestions to increase their healthfulness.

As Maddox demonstrated a Polynesian Skillet meal, she explained how one could eliminate the use of oil in cooking, as the recipe called for one tablespoon to brown the chicken.

"You don't even have to use a ton of oil," Maddox said. "With chicken you can just use a little cooking spray and then the chicken will release its own juices that you can cook in."

Another way to make sure that healthy ingredients get used is by experimenting with recipes to suit your own tastes. Many recipes that feature vegetables allow for spontaneity, which Maddox demonstrated by adding carrots and celery to the Polynesian Skillet recipe.

"You can improvise with these recipes," Maddox said. "Add whatever vegetables you and your family enjoy."

Ramey demonstrated mix recipes for both homemade instant oatmeal and a "quick mix" that can be used as an alternative to Bisquick baking mix. These were just a couple of the many mix recipes from the class, which were emphasized for making a bulk amount of the base ingredients that can be stored and then used in a variety of recipes as needed.

Quick Mix

(equivalent to Bisquick)

5 cups flour

3½ cups whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 ½ cups instant nonfat dry milk

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

In a large bowl, sift together all dry ingredients and blend well.

Put in a large, airtight container.

Label.

Store in a cool, dry place and use within 10 to 12 weeks.

Makes about 13 cups.

Hot Fudge Pudding CAKE

1½ cups quick mix

¼ cup canola oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa

¾ cup chopped nuts

½ cup milk

¾ cup brown sugar, firmly packed

¼ cup cocoa

1½ cups boiling water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In an unbuttered, 8-by-8-inch pan, combine quick mix, oil, vanilla, sugar, 2 tablespoons cocoa, nuts and milk and blend well.

Combine brown sugar and ¼ cup cocoa in a small bowl.

Add to water and bring to a boil.

Gently pour over the top of the cake mixture, and do not stir.

Bake 35-40 minutes, until the edges separate from the pan. Cool in pan 15 minutes before serving.

Makes one 8-inch square cake.

Instant Oatmeal Mix

4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not quick-cooking oats)

½ tsp salt

Grind oats and salt in a blender or a food processor (in two or more batches if necessary) to the consistency of wheat germ.

Scoop half-cup portions into separate, resealable bags.

Flavor each portion using mix-ins below.

Apple-Cranberry: 1 teaspoon packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon chopped dried apples

1 tablespoon cranberries.

(You can also leave out the cranberries and use 2 tablespoons of apples)

Brown Sugar and Spices: 1 teaspoon packed brown sugar

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg.

Cinnamon Raisin:

1 teaspoon of sugar

1 tablespoon of raisins

¼ teaspoon of cinnamon.

Pecan Delight:

1 teaspoon packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon chopped pecans

Blueberry

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon of blueberries

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Cooking instructions: Add 1 cup water to packet (1/2 cup oatmeal and mix-ins) in a microwaveable bowl. Microwave for 2-2½ minutes. If a creamier oatmeal is desired, use 1 cup milk instead of water or add 1?3 cup instant non-fat dry milk to the cup of water.

Polynesian Skillet

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/4-inch strips

1 tablespoon oil

1 medium onion, sliced

1 green pepper, chopped

1 15-ounce can pineapple chunks

2 teaspoons, or two cubes of chicken bouillon granules

1 cup water

¼ cup vinegar, any type

½ cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 11-ounce can mandarin oranges, drained

In a large skillet, saute chicken in oil until chicken is lightly browned. If you prefer not to use oil, just spray some cooking spray on the skillet and use the chicken's natural juices to cook.

Add onion and green pepper. Stir fry until vegetables are tender.

Add ½ cup pineapple juice from the can of pineapple chunks, bouillon, water, vinegar and brown sugar to the skillet and stir.

In a small bowl, off to the side, combine soy sauce and cornstarch. Mix well to smooth out any clumps. Stir the cornstarch mixture in to the chicken, vegetables and sauce in the skillet.

Simmer until mixture thickens, stirring constantly. This should take 5 to 10 minutes, and the mixture will turn more transparent as it thickens.

Add pineapple and mandarin oranges.

Serve over rice. Serves 6-8.

Other tips for quick meal preparation:

1. Planning menus is key to quick meals. There's no real secret to this, just select some family favorites and go from there.

2. Make a list before you go to the grocery store, know what you need to get before you get there and go after you've eaten so you're less likely to buy things that just look good in the moment.

3. Use coupons, but try to get them for things you either know you'll use or have wanted to try for a while.

4. Go to the grocery store at a time when the grocery store isn't busy, so you have time to think and everything isn't picked over. Keep in mind that Wednesdays are the days that the ad promotions kick in.

5. Get the right tools in your kitchen. Good equipment makes your time in the kitchen easier. Organize, shop, think things through, get it in the kitchen, get it done and get out.

7. Have kitchen stocked with staple ingredients. When buying these look at the price per ounce. It is sometimes more cost-effective to buy the larger items, though it may cost more initially.

8. With produce, follow the "First In, First Out" method, which means the first items to be put in the cupboards, refrigerator and freezer, should be the first ones pulled out to make sure they are used before they go bad.

Wash fruit, such as apples, and vegetables, such as broccoli, right when you get home. With the broccoli, take the extra step and cut it as well so it is all washed and ready when you want it.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com