You might turn to celebrity chefs Barefoot Contessa, Giada de Laurentiis, or Mario Batali when searching for inspired meal ideas, but did you know that the federal government, along with public universities, is also working hard to test and develop frugal and healthy recipes? In fact, because these public resources hold food to different standards—prioritizing savings and nutrition over taste and glamour—they are, in many ways, a better resource than the latest celebrity chef. Plus, as a taxpayer, you've already paid for them.
[In Pictures: 10 Kitchen Tools That Will Save You Money]
You won't find crème fraiche or truffle oil in these recipes. Instead, you'll get strategies for planning meals to avoid pricey takeout, reusing leftovers, and beefing up recipes with hearty (but cheap) grains such as pasta and oatmeal. The University of Georgia, for example, recommends increasing fiber in meals by replacing half of the white flour with whole wheat flour, and topping meatloaf with crushed whole grain cereal. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department reminds people to use slow cookers and to cook a lot at once, so they can save leftovers in the freezer.
A review of these offerings reveals these six themes, as well as some tempting recipes:
1. Build your meals around rice, noodles, or other grains, advises the Agriculture Department's recipe book. A casserole, for example, should be heavy on rice and vegetables. The feds offer a beef-noodle casserole along with stir-fried pork and vegetables with rice that demonstrate this technique. The University of Wyoming's cookbook suggests heavy use of oatmeal, and includes an oatmeal cookie recipe that incorporates applesauce. Kansas State University describes "mom's breaded tomatoes," which mixes bread and flour into cooked tomatoes to make the vegetable dish more filling.
2. Make use of leftovers, and your freezer. The Agriculture Department's recipe book urges users to make a beef pot roast according to its relatively simple recipe, then to freeze half of it. It recommends the same technique with baked meatballs and turkey chili. The University of Wyoming suggests using canned peaches for pancakes, then freezing the unused juice in ice cube trays for future ice teas.
3. Bake "fried" chicken. A variation of "baked" fried chicken occurred over and over again in university cookbooks. The basic recipe: Coat chicken pieces in breading and parmesan cheese along with spices, then bake in the oven. That way, you avoid the grease of fried chicken takeout.
4. Avoid prepackaged items. Instead of buying hummus, grated cheese packages, or frozen meals, make these items yourself to save money as well as cut down on sodium.
5. Go meatless. The university recipe books don't say this explicitly—probably because they want to avoid alienating farmers—but avoiding meat, or even just cutting back on it, saves a lot of money. Instead of beef or chicken, substitute beans and eggs.
6. Stop wasting. The Agriculture Department recommends stocking up on food that keeps well, such as canned orange juice or dry goods. But be careful with fruits and vegetables, even if they're on sale, to prevent waste. Home cooks stuck with extra eggplant or flounder can avoid wasting food by using websites such as Allrecipes.com and the FoodNetwork.com to search for dishes based on the ingredients they have at home.
[In pictures: 10 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2011.]
Ready to get cooking? Here are two frugal recipes, courtesy of the Agriculture Department:
Beef noodle casserole: Brown one pound of ground beef with onions in a skillet. Drain, and then add cooked noodles. Meanwhile, mix a can of tomato soup with water and ground pepper and add that to the beef. Pour it all into a baking pan, sprinkle with bread crumbs, then bake for half an hour at 300 degrees.
Baked chicken nuggets: Cut raw chicken pieces into bite-size pieces. In a plastic bag, crush cornflakes and add paprika, herb seasoning, and garlic and onion powder. Add the chicken and shake the bag until the chicken pieces are fully coated. Place on a baking sheet and put into a preheated oven for 12 to 14 minutes at 400 degrees.