Cooking healthy meals for your family can be a real challenge sometimes. Food is expensive, especially fresh ingredients like vegetables and quality cuts of meat. And sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy to cook. Plus, some recipes make either more or less food than you need – or they call for you to use appliances or ingredients you don’t have in your kitchen.
I thought it would be fun to share some meal ideas that can be prepared at low cost, and with little to no time for food preparation and cooking. We’re talking good, wholesome food – but meals that anybody can prepare regardless of what they have to work with in their kitchen.
Make a small batch for a family of four, or cook up a huge mess for a big family. Cook these meals up in your dorm or apartment kitchen. Make them up for a new mom or elderly family member. However you choose to prepare them, they aren’t going to set you back too much money. And you’ll be able to prepare these meals in relatively little time.
Fast, Easy, Economical Meals
Most of the simple, inexpensive recipes my family enjoys are one-dish meals that take very little preparation. Most use ingredients we always have on hand, and some can even be made with leftovers from previous meals. My favourites include:
It’s the spring equinox today, and I’m still battling this cold/flu bug. Right now I’m coughing a lot, and it’s not really productive. So it’s a very annoying cough. It makes it really tough to work on food preparation, or anything else for that matter. So I’m delegating most of the work to my junior cooks, the Katydid and MamaOzzy.
I have MamaOzzy cooking beans and chicken breast for our crockpot minestrone, and the Katydid has been chopping zucchini, mincing garlic, and will soon be tasked with preparing fresh spinach for the soup as well. We’ll have lots of spinach stems to put in our soup bag, for the next time we make broth.
Not only are you saving money when you choose dry beans over canned, you are also saving space in your pantry. Buying dried beans is also more environmentally friendly. When beans are shipped at long distances, the canned ones weigh more and take up more space, so more fuel is used in their transport. Choosing dry beans, especially if you bring your own containers and buy from the bulk section, means less packaging too. (And often, the selection of dried legumes in your supermarket bulk section or bulk food store will be far superior to what comes in cans. Check it out!)
When it comes to shelf life, dry beans pretty much last forever as long as you keep them in a well-sealed container. But for best results when you cook them, you should only buy what you can use within a year. That’s about how long you should be keeping canned beans. So no major difference there.
Dry beans are more versatile than canned, and you will find that some types of legumes (e.g. split peas) are not available canned – unless you want to buy pea soup (But I have to tell you, homemade pea soup is so much tastier and it’s more filling than anything you’ll find in a can!) I love to make up dry bean mixes for my soups and stews. Our local Overwaitea store also has a really nice selection of dry beans and other legumes, including a number of mixes for making bean and pea soups, and even chili.
Are canned beans less nutritious than dried? Conservative sources will say not really and when it comes to macronutrients like calories, protein, carbohydrates or fats, that’s probably true. But if you compare amounts of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, you might just find that the difference is significant enough to make you choose home-cooked dry beans over commercially prepared canned beans. This is especially true of the sodium content, which can be significantly higher for the canned beans. And if you are buying a more processed product like refried beans, you’ll have to watch out for added fats and sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS, or “glucose-fructose” in Canada.) And of course, we can’t forget the fact that processed foods are still regularly packaged in cans lined with bisphenol A (BPA) – even in Canada.
Cooking and Freezing Dried Beans
It’s fairly simple to adapt a recipe that calls for canned beans. If your recipe calls for a 15-ounce can of beans, you can use about 1/2 cup of dried beans instead. In the case of most beans, they absorb enough water during cooking to triple their volume. So one cup dried will yield about 3 cups once cooked. A 15-oz can holds about 1-1/2 cups of beans.
If you’re planning to freeze beans so you can add them to soups, stews or chili, the good people of The Kitchn recommend cooking your beans on the lowest possible heat. So try to soak overnight, and allow for a long cook time on the day you are going to prepare them for freezing. We rushed ours way too much today, and they split. They’ll still taste good, but they aren’t going to look pretty in the soup. Let the beans cool before ladling them into
(Note: Let the beans cool before ladling them into freezer-safe container such as canning jars, airtight plastic or ceramic containers, or freezer bags. Covering the beans with their cooking liquid helps to preserve them better. If you package your cooked beans in liquid, allow 1/2″ of headspace. When it comes time to thaw the beans, let them defrost in the fridge for about a day or soak the container in cool water to speed up the process. Legumes that have been frozen without liquid can be added to a recipe without defrosting, though you may find that the taste or texture are not as good if you cook them this way.)
We got a late start on our cooking today, but the soup is almost ready now. So I’m going to get this posted and get ready to eat! What are you eating tonight?
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We have been kind of flying by the seat of our pants, this last few weeks. But now it’s time to get serious and get back to planning and prepping meals ahead of time. With a busy family of six, creating freezer meals that we can pop into the oven or crockpot really helps us stay on top of things. But of course, buying and preparing all of that food ahead of time is quite a commitment!
Last night I was still feeling a bit weak (I’m recovering from a bout of the flu) but I managed to cook a lovely chicken teriyaki dish for supper, and I prepared a second batch to bag up for the freezer. I also chopped all the veggies for a minestrone, which I love to eat in the spring. I chose this recipe for a crockpot copycat of the Olive Garden Minestrone, which I’ve decided to supplement with shredded chicken breast. I chopped all the longer cooking veg last night, but still need to add the broth and diced tomatoes, and fix up separate bags for the zucchini and spinach that are added towards the end of the cooking time. As we don’t usually buy canned beans, I’ll also have to soak and cook the kidney and navy beans the recipe calls for. These can be bagged up and frozen with the chicken, which I also have to cook today.
I haven’t created a full meal plan for the coming weeks, just yet. But I do also want to cook up some Tex Mex chicken. This is usually done as a casserole, but I think I’d prefer to use it as a filling for wheat tortillas. I got the idea from one of the many freezer meals videos I watched on YouTube while I was sick, but sadly I now can’t find the exact video for you. This lady’s recipe included the usual beans, chili peppers and tomatoes, but she also added whole kernel corn and sliced black olives. I love cooking with olives, so I made sure to put them on my shopping list!
I don’t always do it, but this month I am trying to make double batches of most of the meals I’m cooking. Either I cook one and freeze one for later, or I just prepare two freezer meals that can be reheated in the oven or cooked up in the crockpot. This is a huge time saver! I sort of mix up the once a month cooking (OAMC) philosophy, with cooking freezer to crockpot meals that are so trendy right now. We cook on a two-week cycle, though, instead of trying to prep food for the whole month in one shot.
My parents actually gave me some lasagna they had cooked, when they heard I wasn’t feeling well. So that will be our supper tonight. I just have to make some cheesy garlic bread to add to the meal, and throw together a spinach salad similar to the one in the featured image. I don’t have the mandarins on hand this time, but we did buy a cantaloupe yesterday. So I’m thinking I’ll add a few chunks of melon and cucumber to the greens, for a new variation that celebrates the cucurbit family!
What are you cooking in your home this weekend? I’d love to hear all about it! Feel free to drop me a comment below….