Pandemic-related layoffs and lost income have driven many people into community pantries for the first time in their lives.
About four in ten people who visited a food bank from March to June last year were first-time visitors, according to Feeding America. As the winter holidays approached, more than 80% of the pantries catered for more people than last year.
Economic concerns have led countless others to become more aware of their expenses – they are more likely to resort to cheap staples than more expensive options in the grocery store.
Retrieving groceries from a pantry and cutting down on grocery expenses can be good for your wallet. However, you may also have to adjust to cooking and preparing meals differently. We spoke to Registered Nutritionist and Nutritionist Wendy Wesley for advice on how to prepare nutritious, tasty meals using ingredients from pantries.
How to turn cheap pantry staples into delicious meals
Canned food shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to making great meals, Wesley said.
“I always have an arsenal of canned beans in my pantry,” she said.
The key to making satisfying dishes from cheap ingredients is to use kitchen staples like onions, garlic, bell peppers, spices, dried herbs, butter, and eggs.
“You get rice and beans from a pantry and then you finish that with your onion, green pepper and garlic and you use chili powder, garlic powder [and] Onion powder, ”Wesley said.
One of her favorite cheapest dishes is the black bean soup with a can of black beans, onions, garlic, and green pepper.
“There is something magical about black beans,” Wesley said. “For a dollar or two in ingredients, you can have this meal that is very hearty, very filling, full of fiber, and will last with you for a long time.”
Another of her inexpensive food ideas: crack some eggs picked up from your neighborhood grocery bank into a pan with onions, peppers, and maybe tomatoes and mushrooms. You can make a big mess for less than a dollar.
Do you think pantries only dispense non-perishable canned food? Think again Many also sell a fair proportion of perishable ingredients such as eggs, dairy products, bread, fresh produce, and more.
When it comes to adding those extra ingredients to your kitchen that will enhance meals, Wesley recommends picking up a few items here and there when you do any grocery shopping.
“If you went to the store and tried to buy everything in a day or a shopping spree, it would be pretty expensive,” she said.
Spices, in particular, can be very expensive. So look for cheaper brands.
“We don’t need very expensive ingredients to have delicious and tasty meals at home,” she said.
How to stretch your ingredients and your dollars
Whether you need to support a family or are just trying to make the food last longer for yourself, stretching your ingredients means more for your money.
Add beans and vegetables to stretch meat dishes.
“I’m going to fill taco meat with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes, so it’s a bit of meat and a lot of vegetables,” said Wesley as an example. “Or I’ll fill it with beans, so it’s a little meat and a lot of beans.”
These additional ingredients also add fiber – something every American needs more of, she said.
Adding a grain – like rice, quinoa, or barley – to a meal can also help make a dish stretch out. Wesley likes to cook a few grains on the weekend so she can add them to meals throughout the week.
Preparing portions in advance can save you time even on busy weekdays – and time saving can be so valuable. No more fast food on days when you don’t have enough energy to cook. The meal is already ready.
Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.