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Easy Meals with Staple Ingredients: What to Cook

March 20, 2020

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You may have made a few grocery runs while preparing to hunker down as part of your city's effort to keep the coronavirus transmission. Now, your fridge and pantry are loaded with the basics and, hopefully, a few treats. But you’ve got to figure out how to keep those hearty essentials—like rice and beans—exciting for the next few weeks. 

We’ve chosen five basic ingredients: rice, beans, spinach, ground beef, and peanut butter, and explore ways to make flavorful dishes while avoiding expensive add-ons. 

Brighten up your rice 

Rice is a staple across the world for good reasons. It’s inexpensive, fills you up, and is great to have on hand. And by adding a few vegetables or spices, you can quickly transform a somewhat bland grain into the main course. 

One of the most well-known rice centerpieces is paella, and a vegetable-focused twist on the Spanish dish can keep the cost down. You can also use turmeric rather than saffron to add vibrancy and flavor to your paella. For example, here’s a one-pot turmeric and coconut rice recipe that's not quite paella but hits the mark for tasty rice.

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The Simple Veganista has a recipe that specifically calls out the turmeric substitute as an option. While Cookie and Kate’s recipe highlights the variety of vegetables you can use and forgoes both saffron and turmeric. You could follow either, or use one as inspiration for your own creation.

Use beans as your base

Your pantry may be stacked with cans, and at least a few are certain to be filled with beans. There’s a good chance you even grabbed a few extra cans “just because” as you made your way through the grocery store. From dips to chilis, there are dozens of ways to use these protein-packed dry or canned goods.

One option is to start with a southwest bean salad. AllRecipes offers up two varieties, one based on black beans and another on kidney and cannellini beans. Typically the salads also include tomatoes, canned corn, and onions. Plus, a combination of spices, a taco mix packet, or a homemade dressing. 

From here, you can eat it on its own or use it as the base for yet another dish depending on what you have on hand. Add a grain or meat, and the bean salad becomes stuffing for bell peppers. Or, a little hot sauce and a tortilla is all you need for a simple taco. 

Learn to make fresh spinach pasta

Fresh spinach is a healthy leafy green that can, unfortunately, quickly spoil. Its versatility somewhat makes up for that drawback as you can throw it in with your morning scrambled eggs or add it to just about any salad. But if you’re stuck at home with extra time, why not try something a little harder, and likely more rewarding. Use your spinach to make your own pasta. 

While it can be intimidating to those who’ve never tried before, homemade pasta is inexpensive and relatively easy to make. A basic dough only requires flour, eggs, and water, although you’ll want some olive oil on hand and salt for your pasta water. It can also be a fun activity for kids who want to join you in the kitchen. 

The AllRecipe five-ingredient spinach pasta (spinach, flour, eggs, olive oil, and salt) has easy-to-follow instructions but require a pasta machine. If you don’t have one of these specialty machines, you can use a food processor instead (here’s a video tutorial). Or, you can do everything by hand.

Turn ground beef into comfort food

Ground beef is a flexible meat option that doubles as a base or topping.  If you’re trying to navigate various responsibilities at home, a crockpot lasagna could be an easy option. It only requires about 30 minutes of prep. Then you can let your slow cooker do the work and in several hours you’ll have a comfort meal for the whole family. 

The linked recipe calls for ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan, which may require another grocery-store run. So, you can save this one for when you’re ready to make a mid-pandemic outing. Cheese can also quickly become expensive, but to save money you can opt for pecorino romano instead of parmesan and commenters point to using cottage cheese as a substitute for ricotta. 

Go beyond peanut butter and jelly

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a go-to lunch, and apple slices and peanut butter make a great snack. But you can also use this calorie-packed spread as a base for a hearty breakfast by whipping up some chocolate peanut butter pancakes. If that feels too much like dessert, and some bananas to make it “healthy.” 

When mornings tend to be hectic, preparing overnight oats ahead of time may be the better option. Mix your peanut butter with oats, milk or yogurt, and cinnamon in a jar or cup, and let it sit in the fridge overnight. It’s also a great way to use up any berries, nuts, or seeds you have, as you can throw them into the mix. 

Stay safe and nourished

While COVID-19 puts much of the country on edge, it’s especially important to keep yourself and your family well-fed. Partially, you’ll want to turn to your comfort foods, and that’s certainly fitting right now. But you can also spice up your days by finding a new to use an ingredient that’s starting to feel too familiar.

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Louis DeNicola is a freelance personal finance writer and credit enthusiast. You can find him on Twitter @is_lou

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Louis DeNicola

Louis DeNicola

Louis DeNicola is a freelance finance writer based in Oakland, California. He specializes in consumer credit, personal finance, and small business finance, and loves helping people find ways to save money. In addition to Varo, Louis works with a variety of financial services firms, credit bureaus, and educational websites, including Credit Karma, Wirecutter, Funding Circle, and Experian.

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