As summer nears an end and schedules get busy, it's tempting to grab a boxed dinner solution at the grocer. You know the kind: a ground meat skillet meal or a boxed rice and pasta dish.
Before you toss the box into your cart, take a deep breath and do the math. In most cases, these dinner helpers aren't a great value, and they almost certainly won't taste as good as something you could prepare at home in about the same time.
Skillet meals, in which ground beef, chicken or tuna are added to noodles and a flavor packet, usually cost more than $2 each, not counting the meat. A comparable amount of boxed pasta can cost as little as 50 cents, and flavoring mixes are easily made from common pantry items.
For example, a simple seasoning mix that's enough for three or four skillet meals can be made by whisking together 2 cups of powdered milk, 1/2 cup dehydrated onion, 3 tablespoons beef or chicken bouillon granules, 2 tablespoons garlic powder, 2 tablespoons onion powder, 2 tablespoons dried parsley, 2 teaspoons cornstarch, 11/2 teaspoons salt and 11/2 teaspoons ground black pepper. Store the mix in an airtight container.
When you want to use the mix, just brown a pound of meat, then add 11/2 cups of water, a cup of egg noodles, 1/2 cup of the seasoning mix and whatever else you would like to add for flavor, such as canned tomatoes, mushrooms or shredded cheese. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the pasta is cooked.
Similar do-it-yourself versions of rice and pasta blends (think the San Francisco treat) are just as easy. Buying these mixes can cost as much as $2 for three side-dish servings.
Here's a brown rice, pasta and white bean pilaf that makes six servings for about 80 cents each and takes less than 30 minutes to prepare.
The dish calls for thin spaghetti, such as angel hair or vermicelli, which is broken into short pieces, then toasted in butter. Fresh onions and carrots add flavor and instant brown rice is used as a healthy time saver.
A can of chicken broth is used as part of the cooking liquid, but if you like you can substitute vegetable broth to make the dish vegetarian.
Because the recipe includes protein-packed beans, this tasty pilaf also can be served as an entree along with a cooked vegetable or mixed salad on the side.
BROWN RICE, PASTA AND WHITE BEAN PILAF
Start to finish: 40 minutes
1 tablespoon butter
2 ounces thin spaghetti broken into 2-inch lengths (1 cup)
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1/2 cup diced carrots
14-ounce can chicken broth
2 cups instant brown rice
15-ounce can Great Northern or white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3/4 cup water
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the spaghetti and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and carrots and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft, about 4 minutes.
Stir in chicken broth, rice, beans, almonds, soy sauce and water. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan and cook until the pasta and rice are tender and the broth has been absorbed, about 20 to 25 minutes.
NUTRITION PER SERVING: 384 calories, 78 calories from fat, 9 grams fat (2 grams saturated, no trans fats), 8 milligrams cholesterol, 64 grams carbohydrate, 12 grams protein, 8 grams fiber, and 812 milligrams sodium.