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Quarantine cooking: How to stretch meals when times are tough

Samantha Christmann

Being at home with the kids during the shutdown has brought me right back to my childhood.

Back then, it was a lot of toast, a lot of rice and a lot of soup. I vividly remember my mom walking to the stove for a hot cup of tea several times a day, reusing each Salada tea bag at least once. Those warm memories are comforting now that I'm home making the same foods for my kids (and drinking just as much tea).

As Western New Yorkers try to stay healthy and out of the path of coronavirus, many are going as long as possible between trips to the store. Many other Western New Yorkers are forced to go longer between shopping trips because they've lost their jobs or had their hours cut down dramatically. Still others are making do with what they can cobble together from food pantries.

If this is your first rodeo, you might need some help learning how to stretch meals and make your food budget go further.

Here are a few tricks I've picked up over the years.

Nothing stretches further than soup. The main ingredient is water, the other ingredients are whatever you want. It doesn't get much easier or cheaper than that.

You can reuse bones and meat from another dinner to make your broth, or use store-bought bouillon. You can add vegetables that are not their freshest and inexpensive ingredients such as pasta, beans and rice. Your meat will go further, since you use small portions. Together with the broth, everything is more filling in the bowl than it would be on a plate.

Add rice. You know that soup you just made? Serve it over rice. There, you've just doubled your yield.

Add a side of rice with every meal, or add veggies and protein and make it the entree. In addition to being inexpensive and filling, rice can be seasoned to taste sweet or savory.

Beans are a magical fruit. Speaking of inexpensive and filling, beans are very nutritious. If sides could be superheroes, beans would be the Super Side.

Use meat as a side dish or condiment. It used to be that a big hunk of beef or chicken made up half of our dinner plate. Today's Harvard Medical School guidelines recommend filling a quarter of your plate with "healthy proteins," which can mean beans and nuts in addition to fish, meat and poultry.

Instead of being the main attraction, consider using meat in a recipe to add flavor. In fact, save your bacon grease. You can use it to saute veggies, fry rice and even make flavorful dressings and sauces.

Potatoes are a powerhouse. Potatoes are filling, inexpensive and delicious. Sweet potatoes are very nutritious. Both kinds of potatoes make for versatile sides that can baked, mashed or fried. Growing up Polish, you learn that as long as you've got potatoes and onions, dinner is going to be just fine.

Pasta, too. You already know mac and cheese is a winner. Spaghetti is another old standby. But did you realize you can throw pasta into a casserole dish with almost anything and have a substantial meal? And all those different shapes and varieties keep this inexpensive delight from getting too boring.

Forget "expiration" dates. Ignore what the dates stamped on your canned goods say. Sell-by and best-by dates are a manufacturer's best guess at the last date a food will be at its peak flavor and consistency. You can even go a little past the expiration date on things like milk and yogurt as long as you let your nose be your guide.

Use a recipe generator. The good ones will let you put in a list of the ingredients you have on hand, then give you a list of recipes you can make with just those ingredients. Out of curiosity, I typed "rice, celery and sugar" into and it gave me 137 recipes including Baked Rice and Toasted Sugar.

The results also returned a list of recommended ingredients that I could add to the list if I had them, which would open up more possibilities. I clicked on "coconut" and ended up with an additional 35 recipes including Purple Rice Balls and Coconut Candy.

Remember, not all recipe generators are created equal. When I typed the same "rice, celery and sugar" into, it gave me recipes for things like Shrimp Cakes with Watermelon Hot Sauce and Cashew Chicken Ding with Jicama. Not so helpful.

If you need help with food, call 2-1-1. The hotline can you hook you up with community and government programs.

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