Pandemic-related layoffs and income loss have driven many people to community food pantries for the first time in their lives.
According to Feeding America, about four out of every 10 people who visited a food bank from March through June of last year were first-time visitors. As the winter holidays approached, more than 80% of food pantries were serving more people than the year prior.
Economic concerns have caused countless others to become more conscious of their spending — resorting to cheap staples rather than more expensive options at the grocery store.
Getting groceries from a food pantry and reducing food spending can be great on the wallet, but you may also need to adjust to cooking and preparing meals differently. We spoke to registered dietitian and nutritionist Wendy Wesley for advice on how to make nutritious, tasty meals using ingredients from food pantries.
How to Turn Cheap Pantry Staples Into Delicious Meals
Canned goods should not be overlooked when it comes to creating great meals, Wesley said.
“I keep an arsenal of canned beans in my pantry at all times,” she said.
The key to making satisfying dishes from cheap ingredients is to incorporate kitchen staples like onion, garlic, peppers, spices, dried herbs, butter and eggs.
“You get rice and beans from a food pantry and then you doctor that up with your onion, your green pepper and your garlic and you use chili powder, garlic powder [and] onion powder,” Wesley said.
One of her favorite cheap meals to make is black bean soup, using a can of black beans along with onion, garlic and green pepper.
“There is something magical about black beans,” Wesley said. “For maybe a dollar or two in ingredients, you have this meal that is very hearty, very filling, full of fiber and is going to stay with you for a long time.”
Another of her inexpensive meal ideas: Crack some eggs you pick up from your neighborhood food bank into a pan with onions, peppers and maybe tomatoes and mushrooms. You can make a big scramble for less than a dollar.
Think food pantries only give out non-perishable canned foods? Think again. Many also distribute a good share of perishable ingredients like eggs, dairy products, bread, fresh produce and more.
When it comes to keeping your kitchen stocked with those supplementary meal-enhancing ingredients, Wesley recommends picking up a few items here and there when you grocery shop.
“If you went to the store and tried to buy it all in one day or one shopping trip it would be quite expensive,” she said.
Spices, in particular, can be pretty pricey, so look for less expensive brands.
“We don’t need very expensive ingredients to have delightful and tasty meals at home,” she said.
How to Stretch Your Ingredients and Your Dollars
Whether you’ve got a family to feed or you’re just trying to make food last longer for yourself, making your ingredients stretch means more bang for your buck.
Add beans and veggies to stretch meat dishes.
“I’ll bulk up taco meat with onions and green peppers and tomatoes, so it’s a little bit of meat and a lot of vegetables,” Wesley said, as an example. “Or I’ll bulk it up with beans, so it’s a little bit of meat and a lot of beans.”
Those extra 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. Wesley likes cooking a bunch of one grain over the weekend so she has it ready to add to meals throughout the week.
Preparing servings in advance can also save you time on busy weekdays — and saving time can be so valuable. No more grabbing fast food on those days when you have no energy to cook. The food is already ready.
Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.