Ok, I think we can all agree that food media and culture as a whole has changed in the past 20 years. We now have easy access to blogs, recipes, information, and research. Meanwhile, Michael Pollan and other researched-based advocates opened our eyes to the less-than-desirable aspects of processed foods and ingredients. We get to be seasoned foodies without ever having attended culinary school.
But the reality is that many people do not have the luxury to be selective about ingredients and methods, pandemic or not. They may live in food deserts with no access to fresh products (what would you do if the only store you could reach was Dollar General?), they may have inadequate funds, limited equipment, and lack the basics we take for granted, like reliable internet access for help.
When I first got married, I had recently birthed the Demon-Baby. My husband worked endless hours of overtime to keep us afloat, and I stretched our meager budget as far as it would go. And you know how I did that? Lots of processed products, canned products, protein stretching, and shortcuts. No shame in my game.
Those meals represented my efforts to provide us some semblance of “homecooked” meals, even if it was just a medley of frozen and canned ingredients hastily tossed together. Even before we got married, our college garage apartment produced many memorable bargain meals that we still recall with fondness: Bisquick cinnamon rolls and casseroles, sautéed chicken with Rice-a-Roni pasta, cheese omelets, and that time my husband and one of his best friends learned that splattering hot oil next to boiling liquid was a very, very, very bad idea.
As we all face uncertain weeks ahead, I thought I would dust off some of those meals and ideas. They are not really recipes per se, but ideas based on how I stretched our budget, made the most of processed foods, fresh food, and managed not to kill any of us.
- Easy and Cheap Chicken Pot Pie: Stir together 2 cups cooked chicken (I often only used one chicken breast), 1 can cream of celery soup, 1 cup milk or half-and-half, 1 tsp. seasoned salt, 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 1 can drained peas, and 1 can drained corn. Using a box of refrigerated pie curst, line the bottom of pie plate with 1 roll of the crust. Pour in chicken mixture, top with the other roll of crust, crimping edges. Cut a hole or two in the top to vent. Bake at 400 F 35-40 minutes until top begins to brown. Rest 5-10 minutes before serving. (Or use any combo of canned veg you have).
- Under $5 Corn Chowder: Stir together 1-1/2 cups milk or half-and-half with one can of cream-style corn into a saucepan over low heat. (The regular size can of corn, not the 7-oz baby size). Add 4 slices chopped ham from the deli (or 1/2 cup chopped diced and browned smoked sausage, or some cooked bacon), 1 can of sliced or diced potatoes, drained, 1 can whole kernel corn, drained, and salt and pepper to taste. Heat about 10-15 minutes, and stir in 1 cup grated cheddar until melted. Serve with bread or rolls if you can.
- Chicken Squares: Combine 6-oz of room temperature cream cheese with 6-oz of room temperature margarine, 4 TBS milk, 2 chopped green onions and add 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. black pepper. Add 3 cups shredded cooked chicken, mixing well. Separate two tubes of crescent roll dough into eight squares (which is two of triangles still together for each). Press the perforated seam of each square together firmly to create a solid square of dough. Place a spoonful of the chicken mixture into the center of each square. Bring the dough corners to the center, pinching all the edges to seal. Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
- Pantry Spicy Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: For the soup, combine 3 cups Spicy V-8 juice, 1 can condensed tomato soup, 1 can condensed cheddar cheese soup, and 1 tsp. dried basil in a saucepan. Heat on medium, whisking occasionally until hot and combined. For the sandwiches: Combine one can of condensed nacho cheese soup with 1-1/2 cups fiesta blend shredded cheese. Spread a couple of TBS of cheese mix between two slices of bread, and brush outside of sandwiches with melted margarine or butter. Cook the sandwiches grilled cheese-style until golden. Slice on the diagonal and serve with the soup. *If you can get your hands on a baguette or sausage buns, make mini sandwiches for optimal dipping, which makes picky eaters happier. They like to dip stuff*
- My Spaghetti Casserole was a staple and continues to be a go-to. I would serve it with frozen or canned green beans that I seasoned with what I had on hand. You can make garlic bread using the ends of a bread loaf or sandwish bread you need to use up. Brush bread with a couple of TBS of butter mixed with a 1/4 tsp. garlic powder and 1/2 tsp. dried parsley. Toast in the oven.
- Chicken Fajita Chowder relies on mostly pantry-ready ingredients and you can reduce the chicken to stretch it further (the beans add plenty of protein). If you don’t have chips, cornbread is a good side, or even crackers.
- You don’t get any more affordable than Salmon Croquettes. We would serve this with boxed mac and cheese and canned peas.
- When I Was in a Bind: I often would throw together a couple of diced, cooked chicken breasts with sautéed diced onion and minced garlic, add a can of cream of celery soup, 2 TBS. lemon juice, 1 TBS Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 cup of milk, 1 tsp. seasoned salt and one 1 tsp. paprika. If I had any dried parsley or thyme, I added some. I’d simmer it for a bit and serve over wedges of cornbread.
- Top Some Potatoes: Potatoes are affordable, and last if you store them properly. If you can bake potatoes, you can top them endlessly, like with shredded chicken or beef, BBQ sauce, and cheese (maybe chopped onion or even slaw for the adults). How about cooked chicken, broccoli, and cheese sauce (maybe with some bacon bits)? Cook frozen breaded chicken strips, dice them, toss with ranch dressing, top potatoes, and drizzle with hot sauce (and sprinkle of blue cheese if you can find it). Try potato tacos, with all the usual ground beef and taco fixings on top. Potatoes are the ultimate affordable canvas to stretch protein.
- Bisquick and other pre-made mixes are often very cheap, and versatile for pantry cooking, especially if you are short on time. I’ve made many a casserole from on-hand cans and a mix.
- Combo meals that combine proteins with starches and/or veggies allow you to stretch ingredients further. Think pot pies, Shephards Pie, casseroles, breakfast scrambles, hashes, stews, soups, etc. Eggs are the often least expensive per-serving protein there is.
- Nearly anything can be transformed into hand pies/meat pies. If you need to clean out the fridge of leftovers, use refrigerated pie dough or frozen bread dough to create a “sweep the kitchen” hand pie night. Use leftover protein, starches, and vegetables, and convince your kids it’s like personal pizza night, but better. Same goes for grilled sandwiches/panini.
- Ask yourself if what a recipe calls for is TRULY necessary. It may call for three cups of shredded chicken, but you could probably fake it with two. Out of fresh ginger? You could probably scrape by with a fraction of that amount of ginger powder. Will it be just like the recipe? No, obviously, but it could help you try and hit closer to the flavor profile than nothing at all. I frequently substitute fresh herbs with dried (decreasing the amount by half). Some skipping and substitutions can get you by, but remember, don’t be that butthole who goes onto a website and gives terrible recipe reviews after you do so. While being a pantry MacGyver can keep your family well-fed, it’s not fair to compare a hacked recipe to what the writer intended.
- The good-looking chicken breasts in the refridgerated case are going to be the most expensive. For now, I’d go for the frozen bags (which are often smaller and less-than-neatly cut), or if you have the time, grab the cheap cuts like legs or leg quarters and cook and shred the meat for later.
- When in doubt, trust dishes like Red Beans and Rice, Jambalaya, Stewed Chicken and Rice, Beef Tips, Meatloaf, etc. They are classics for a reason.
So, these are just some basics from the early days extreme budget eating that I hope inspire anyone struggling under quarantine frustration or scarcity. If you have questions about this post or how to stretch what you have, leave a comment, or if you prefer to ask a question privately, drop me an email (check my profile for the address).
Keep calm and drink on, my friends.