I'm going to start this thread by listing some things you should have in your pantry at all times. The items may seem costly, but are used in such small amounts that the purchased items will often last you months, even years.
Dried herbs & spices: If kept in a cool and dark place, dried herbs and spices will allow you to add flavor, and often times, valuable nutrition to cheap foods. Make sure to purchase these items in the amounts you can use in a reasonable amount of time as they can lose their potency if kept too long. But, if at all possible, purchase your herbs and spices at places like Costco, restaurant suplly warehouses, Price Club, and similar discount warehouse establishments.
Fresh live herb and spice plants: These include such things as globe oregano, indoor potted peppers, certain types of tomatoes, basil, thyme, green onions, chives, garlic, etc. If used properly, and taken care of, these plants will cut your food bills by giving you fresh and wholesome ingredients in your home.
Generic canned and boxed products: These are usually as good as their name-brand cousins, but as they are not name brand, are siginificantly cheaper. But be careful here. Try out a particular item, a can or box at a time. Sometines, the generic just doesn't measure up. So a little trial and error is required. Also, store brand items are usually less expensive. But again, test a product before purchasing en masse.
Aged and Sharp Cheeses: There are many who just don't like sharp cheeses. But when cooking with them, aged, full-bodied cheese give you the same flavor as the milder cheeses of the same variety, but with less product. For example, you may have to use a full cup of grated mild cheddar cheese to make your mac 'n cheese the way you like it. But if you use a three-year aged cheddar, you can probably get away with using only a quarter cup.
Remember the golden rule of seasoning; add only a little of any seasoning, or flavoring at a time and let it cook in the sauce, or soup, or mashed potatoes for at least 15 minutes, then stir. This will allow the seasoning/flavoring to give up the volatile oils or compounds that flavor the food. If you taste too early, then you will invariably add more seasoning/flavoring to the dish, and end up with overpowering herbs or spices. You can always add more of something if there isn't enough, but once it's in the food, it can't be removed. This rule will save you many costly mistakes and ruined meals.
Water has no flavor. If a broth is too weak, let some of the moisture evaporate away, to intesify the flavor, rather than adding more flavoings.
Use the skins, bones, and giblets of poultry to make your broths and stocks. They will add flavor and nutrition without leeching the flavors from the meat. Cook the meat seperately, just until done, and add to the completed sauce, soup, stew, or stir-fry at the plate to insure that all of the ingredients are as flavorful as possible. Also, roasting bones from poultry, pork, beef, lamb, etc. will add extra flavor to the broth after the carcass is added. So when you are roasting, broiling, or even barbecuing a boneless anything, place the bones in a seperate cooking cooking container and cook them at the same time to prepare them for later use.
Bland foods such as beets can be enhanced by adding a small amount of good vinager, a bit of sweetener, and a shake of cloves to the pot. Then, thicken the resultant juices with a little cornstarch slurry to create a flavorful sauce that will stick to the beets.
You can dress up canned veggies such as spinach, or green beans by shaking on a bit of dill weed, tarragon, garlic, or whatever herbs and spices strikes you fancy without having to add extra salt or butter.
Three bean salad doesn't have to have oil in it. Just open three cans of different beans, maybe some dark-red kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and green beans. Pour the can contents, including the can liquor into a large bowl. Add chopped onion, sliced celery, dill weed, vinager, and sweetener to tate. Place all in a covered container and refridgerat for the next day's meal.
I know that the microwave oven isn't so great at cooking, say, a hamburger. But it will save you time and stove space when preparing corn on the cob, or most vegetables. Just make sure the corn is clean, in the husk, and throw a few pieces in the oven at a time. Cook on the highest setting for about three minutes. The corn will be steaming hot, crisp, sweet, with full flavor. You won't even need to butter it, but you can if you want. Fresh, raw green beans are amazing when steamed in the micorwave. It also saves energy.
I used to think that products like Hamburger Helper were the answer to a quick and tasty meal, until I learned to cook that is. Now, by cmparison, I really don't know how I could stomach the taste of those products. And I've found that except for special meals, I can put supper on the table, from start to finish, in about an hour. Except for heating something like a can of prok and beans, you can't really make a good meal in much less time, unless you're Rachel Ray of course
Meals prepared fresh, and properly, taste way better, are generally healthier, and give you great creativity, and variety. Plus, you get to hone your cooking skills. Just make sure the kids and husband/wife/SO hone their dishwashing skills. The cook shouldn't have to wash dishes!
You can turn something like a can of pork and beans into something special bu simply adding a tbs. of brown sugar, a half tsp. of granulated onion powder (or freshly chopped onion), and a tbs. of mollases to the pot. Thow in a couple slices of cooked bacon, or a bit of cooked pork, and you have transformed that inexpensive can of pork and beans into something worth shouting about, and much cheaper than the name brand canned "baked beans".
Brown some ground beef, about a pound, add an eight ounce can of tomato sauce, 2 tbs. brown sugar, 2 tsp. sweet pickle relish, a dash of cloves, a dash of garlic, and a bit of yellow mustard. You now have some pretty good sloppy joes.
Anybody can make great food, with a bit of help from their freinds. And with a bit of imagination, and the info you can gather from your freinds here at D.C., an inexpensive meal doesn't have to be a bad meal, or lacking in nutritional value.
Seeeeeeya; Goodweed of the North