Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dinners & Lunches Ready in a Flash, First Installment: Beef & Pasta Goulash

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends sent me a message asking for help. She wanted to (primarily) save money by cooking at home instead of eating out and (secondarily) she also is worried about what all those restaurant meals might be doing to her health. There is a really easy solution; it just takes a bit of planning and she will be saving money and eating healthier in no time.

The simple way to cook for one person is to cook a regular meal for 4-6 people and divide it up into single servings. That is what I do as a personal chef for my clients, and it's what I did for myself before my surgery so that I would have fast and easy meals to just pop in the microwave when I'm dining solo. You can do it, too.

First, plan a menu for a week's worth of dinners. Choose the recipes you want to use, make your grocery list, and gather all the ingredients together. You can make all the meals in one day, or split the cooking up into two days. You might do this on a Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, for example, or whenever you have two days off.

I prepared 7 different meals; some stews, some protein/veg/starch. I tried to stick to about 500 calories or fewer for each serving. You can figure that out for your own needs. Out of those 7 meals, I packaged a total of 35 individual servings. Then I stocked my freezer with the "Steamers" bags of frozen vegetables because, well, I just really like extra vegetables.

To save money, I purchased most frozen, canned, and dry goods at Wal-Mart, and meats and fresh vegetables at Bi-Lo or Harris Teeter because the quality and selection are better there than at Wal-Mart (that will be a future blog topic). I spent about $150 for 35 nutrient-packed and low fat meals cooked just to my taste. That's about $4.27 for each meal. Don't forget to supplement your meals with fresh fruit, whole grain snacks, or proteins such as 1/4 cup of dry roasted nuts, throughout the day so you won't be tempted to buy that huge peanut butter cookie for an afternoon snack that you'll probably and justifiably regret later. Go ahead and plan to go out with your friends to your favorite restaurant once a week. You've been so smart about how you're managing your budget and nutrition!

Not everything freezes well, and there are tricks to freezing many foods so that when they are heated you get a good tasting meal with good texture. I'm going to share some of my favorites with you, and this comfort food many of you may remember from childhood is my first installment. You can use any pasta for this Beef & Pasta Goulash recipe, but if you use a whole grain, or "smart" pasta, you'll be packing a lot more nutrients into every calorie, which is our goal. For packaging, you don't have to use professional containers (as I do for my clients). You can use the Rubbermaid "Take-Along" sandwich containers to pack your meals, then be sure to label and freeze them. That is what I use for myself at home.

When you're ready for a meal, just thaw one in the microwave at the "defrost" setting for 2-3 minutes or so, crack the lid, and finish heating it at 50% power, one minute at a time, until your food is as hot as you want. If you don't want to heat your food in the containers, then spoon it out onto a dinner plate to heat. You can wash and re-use your containers. I bought these containers at Wal-Mart in packages of 5 or 6 for less than $3.00. It might not look like much when you're packing the food in the container, but when you spread it out on your dinner plate, it makes a gracious helping.

Beef & Pasta Goulash

1 pound extra-lean ground beef (You can substitute turkey if you like, but I like the taste of beef in this.)
1 cup onion, coarsely chopped
1 large green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 (28-oz.) can good quality diced tomatoes (such as Hunts or Furmano's)
2 (8-oz.) cans tomato sauce (low sodium if possible)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups whole grain dry pasta of your choice, cooked, drained (do not rinse), and returned to pot

-In a large saute pan sprayed with canola oil spray, combine beef, onion, and bell pepper. Stir and break up the beef as it browns and the vegetables soften.
-Stir in the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, sugar, and salt. Simmer for a few minutes, then pour the beef/tomato mixture into the pot with the drained pasta. Stir to combine, then spoon into 5-6 of the small 2.9 cup size Rubbermaid Take-Along sandwich containers. (Each container will hold 2 servings of this.) Cool, cover, and freeze.

Nutrition:Your servings will be about 550 calories each, with only 10g of fat, but a big 24g of fiber and 30g of protein. Serve with a low carb veg for a side, such as the celery in this photo, broccoli, or green beans.

Variations: Add garlic and dried Italian herbs to the onion, bell pepper, and beef when sauteeing, then toss in fresh chopped basil or parsley at the end for an Italian pasta dish. For Southwestern flavor, add a 4-oz. can of chopped green chiles, some chili powder, and hot sauce to taste.

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