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Starting fresh Before you begin meal planning, take stock of what you already have, what you want, and what's on sale

"People have food in their cupboards, but they've made no special plans to use it," says Christine Rivera, nutrition manager of the Food Bank of Western New York.

That explains the all-too-common phenomenon of people opening the fridge and pantry doors and staring blankly. Then they usually retreat, shaking their heads sadly and saying, "There's nothing to eat."

We've all done that.

Rivera, who teaches courses on cooking within a budget, says her No. 1 tip for saving money is planning ahead. When you buy the food in the first place, she says, you should have a pretty good idea of what you're going to do with it. "Otherwise, budgeting goes out the window."

Planning, of course, means different things to different people. It could involve, as Rivera suggests, holding a weekly family meeting to check everyone's schedules and actually writing down a nightly menu -- taking into account individual tastes. Also, checking on weekly specials. (Use a blank calendar to help you do this.)

That weekly planning might even involve clipping coupons, as Barbara Roberts does, before she plans meals made from the specials. Roberts, who lives alone, does it just about every Sunday and says she can save as much as $15.

"I only buy the items I'm going to use," she says. "And I do it because prices are so outrageous."

No matter what techniques you use, however, Rivera suggests a second step: Go to your cupboards and freezer and check the items and ingredients you have on hand already. That can also help with original menu planning, and it will help you avoid expensive duplication, as well.

It might also involve cleaning out the fridge, freezer and pantry in advance so you can actually gauge their contents, not to mention getting rid of the past due stuff. (If necessary and the packaging permits, you might even decide to make more room by eliminating the outer cardboard containers, using only the inner plastic storage bag instead. Don't forget to label though.)

While you're making menu plans and cooking from them, Rivera suggests you try to change your whole way of thinking about eating. Traditionally, Americans have always thought about meat and dairy first, then planning vegetables and grains around them. But meat and dairy are the most expensive food items you can buy.

Instead, plan meals around whole grains and seasonal fruit and vegetables. "Meat does not have to be the center of the plate." In fact, the dietitian even suggests planning two or three meatless meals a week. (Sample recipes are given below.)

And there are other ways to be clever in the kitchen without requesting a federal bailout. Here are a few:

* If you're cooking a favorite meal and/or if you're able to buy some of the ingredients at a good price, cook double and freeze. It's no more trouble to make two pans of lasagna than one, for instance, and lasagana freezes beautifully. (Parbake it, cool and freeze, then bring to room temperature when you're ready to eat and finish the job.)

* Make your own snacks instead of purchasing the prepackaged items so heavily marketed in grocery stores. Homemade party mix is delicious and uses up odds and ends of cereal.

* Avoid buying those 100-calorie packs of snacks; bake a bunch of cookies and brownies and freeze them in sandwich bags, pulling them out when you are ready for them.

Not only does that save money, the goodies taste better, too.

* Make use of your slow cooker to cook less-tender, less-expensive cuts of meat.

* Waste is expensive. Utilize leftovers. Examples: Use leftover roast chicken to make chicken enchiladas -- buy enough at the beginning to be sure you will have leftovers.

* Use a small piece of leftover steak over greens to make main dish salads; day-old rice and vegetables can make a great stir-fry. Or utilize leftover vegetables to make soup.

* Other ways to avoid waste: Stockpile chicken necks and giblets in the freezer and eventually make soup from them. Save the rinds from Parmesan and other hard cheese and use it to flavor soups and stews. Use stale bread to make bread crumbs or croutons.

Or make a main dish bread pudding by adding eggs, leftover meat and veggies. Top with cheese if you like.

* Try to recrisp aging salad greens instead of throwing them out. Use cool to room temperature (not cold water; it shocks the greens), add 1 tablespoon of salt for every 1 1/2 quarts of water used.

Let the greens sit in them for no more than five minutes and then spin or towel dry.

* Make your own salad dressing. Commercial salad dressings are expensive and full of unwholesome ingredients. Standard measure: 3 or 4 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Add seasonings to suit.

* Cook with chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. It takes a little longer to prepare thighs, but it will save money.


>Meals without meat

Christine Rivera's meatless recipes follow. Feel free to change the kind of pasta, beans or vegetable at will.

>Vegetable Bean Chili

Canola oil for cooking
1 large onion, diced
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1 1/2 cups dried beans (any variety) or canned beans
1 can (15-ounce) diced tomatoes
1 can (30 ounce) tomato puree
4 teaspoons chili powder
4 cups water
2 carrots, chopped
2 cups asparagus, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced

Mushrooms, if desired

If using dried beans, place them in a bowl with water to cover overnight. Then drain water and cook beans in fresh water for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until tender. If using canned beans, drain and rinse.

Saute onions, celery, garlic and green pepper in the oil until soft. Place all ingredients into a crock pot. Cook on high heat for 5 to 6 hours or low heat for 8 hours. The chili should be considered done when everything is tender. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


>Bean Goulash

1/2 box (1 pound box) elbow macaroni
1 jar (16 ounce) tomato sauce
1 can (15-ounce) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
Romano or Parmesan grated cheese, sprinkled as desired

Place macaroni in boiling water; cook just until tender. Drain water; place macaroni in a pan with tomato sauce and beans. Heat on low for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve warm with grated cheese on top. Makes 4 servings.


>One Pot Tomato Cheese Rotini

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 cups milk
2 cups water
12 ounces whole wheat rotini or spirals
2 cups small broccoli florets
1 can Italian style stewed tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

In a large pot, whisk flour, salt, seasoning and pepper into milk and water; heat over medium high heat just until steaming, stirring twice.

Stir in rotini, cover, reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring often for 10 minutes.

Stir in broccoli, cover and simmer about 2 minutes longer or until rotini is almost tender.

Add tomatoes and cook, stirring gently, breaking tomatoes up with a spoon. Add cheese. Serve, sprinkled with basil. Makes 4 servings.


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