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Nobody ever went broke underestimating consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for convenience.
Spending extra to get on the plane before everyone else. Picking up milk and bread at the 7-Eleven to dodge the supermarket hordes. Ordering takeout because they’re too tired to cook.
Convenience food does have its place, especially if a $5.99 rotisserie chicken keeps you from ordering $40 worth of Thai food. (Or if a strategic pizza allows you to spend time with family or take better care of yourself.)
But if you keep certain frugal convenience foods on hand, you won’t have to resort to takeout as often (if ever).
No. 1 on my personal hit parade is grated cheese. Growing up, my daughter ate a lot of quesadillas for breakfast (easy, palatable). A sprinkle of Monterey Jack adds a little interest to a lunch salad. Cheese + leftover spaghetti sauce + pita or French bread = pizza bread for supper.
If you want a snack, a few bits of cheese on crackers could do it. Friends dropping by? Melt the cheese on tortillas and open a jar of salsa.
Speaking of tortillas – they’re second on the list. Those quesadillas become lunch when served with tomato soup. Add bits of leftover rotisserie chicken and a little barbecue sauce and you have a decent light supper, especially when paired with a salad and/or fruit. (Additional frugal tip: Tortillas are much cheaper at the bakery outlet.)
Fast foods and make-aheads
3. Hard-boiled eggs. Overslept? Put a slice of whole wheat or an English muffin in the toaster while you dress, then peel a hard-boiled egg while the butter melts on the breadstuffs. Slice an egg into your luncheon salad along with the grated cheese; if you’re feeling really hungry, add some drained tuna. Out of peanut butter? Make egg salad for the kids’ lunches. Hungry between meals, or in the hour it takes for your supper to cook? A hard-cooked huevo will tide you over.
4. Broth. A can in the pantry or a homemade batch in the freezer can become a very fast soup or stew with the addition of seasonings, vegetables, potatoes or pasta. This can be as simple as chicken noodle or as elaborate and rib-sticking (but still fast) as minestrone.
5. Canned tomatoes. You need these for that minestrone, or for a fast batch of spaghetti sauce or chili (I relied on Marian Burros’ 20-minute version). Cookbook author Tamar Adler suggests draining a can of whole tomatoes, coating them with olive oil, tucking in a few garlic cloves and roasting the whole mess at 400 degrees, “until they’re glossy and jamlike and completely collapsed.” The result can be eaten on rice or garlic toasts, tossed with pasta or just enjoyed as a side dish.
6. Beans. A can of black or pinto beans belongs in every pantry. But canned is your fallback position. Dried beans are much cheaper, so cook a couple of cups and freeze in meal-sized containers. Use them for that chili or minestrone, or add a cup to homemade or canned soup for heft. Mash with a fork and then fry in a skillet in which onions and peppers have already been caramelized, then turn them into burritos with those tortillas and some of that grated cheese. Or make whole-bean burritos or tostadas, or beans and rice. Note: Adler’s book also has recipes that make canned chickpeas into the food of the gods.
A few more options
7. Lentils. I’ve never tried cooking and freezing these because they cook so quickly. In as little as 20 to 25 minutes you’ll have a dish of one of the most malleable proteins around. Turn them into curry, or make patties and fry them, or flash-chill them (the Alaska outdoors can be good for that) and then add diced vegetables, seasonings and a bit of olive oil and vinegar. Or do an online search for “easy lentil recipes” while they’re cooking. Hint: Save the cooking water in the freezer for your next batch of homemade broth or garbage soup.
8. Precooked meat. A container of cooked ground beef, chicken or turkey in the freezer can add oomph to a jar of spaghetti sauce or a fast homemade sauce or chili. Thawing a container in the microwave while you open cans of tomatoes and beans seems a lot less onerous than having to start browning meat when you’re workday-whipped.
9. Rice. You can buy precooked cups that you microwave until they’re hot. The cost? Nearly $5 per pound. You can also buy frozen precooked rice – but why would you? Just as with beans, cook a big batch and freeze in you-sized amounts. I don’t freeze it myself, because the Super Lucky Elephant Rice that my life partner buys in bulk cooks in about 15 minutes in a pan on the stove.
While it’s cooking I can figure out what I want to eat with it. As Adler puts it, “A lot of rice turns any amount of anything else into a meal … not just because rice is filling, but because rice has a knack for making any small thing you top it with seem like what you’re tasting the whole time.” That could be beans, eggs, leftover roasted vegetables, shreds of cold meat or whatever you have handy.
Or do what my grandparents did when they didn’t feel like making big meals: Have a bowl of hot rice with milk and a little sugar. Frugal zealot Amy Dacyczyn touted rice and milk as one of the cheapest breakfasts out there, too.
Readers, what are your favorite “convenience” foods?
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