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Creative cooking with fewer ingredients

Making fewer trips to the grocery store does not have to mean boring meals or the same meal every night. Cooking with five ingredients or less is a money saver, takes less time to prepare the meal, and uses less equipment resulting in fewer dishes. “Cooking with fewer ingredients can be intimidating at first, but it’s an opportunity to tap into your creative side,” Lisa Peterson, Nutrition & Wellness Educator with University of Illinois Extension explains. When purchasing a whole chicken, think about using the whole chicken, even the bones to create a chicken stock to use later. Fresh stocks can be more flavorful than store bought and less ingredients will need to be added for flavor.

Keep recipe staples in the pantry such as no salt added canned vegetables, canned tuna, peanut butter, oatmeal, rice or pasta, spices, eggs, and yogurt. Go through your cabinets, freezer, and refrigerator to see what is available to use. Dried herbs and spices do not go bad, but they will lose their flavor over time. It is safe to do a smell and taste test before use. Look for items that can take the place of several ingredients like salsa, spaghetti sauces, low fat salad dressings, or granola.

Think about different ways to use the same ingredient. For example, rice could be used in soup, pudding, sushi rolls, a casserole, or as a side dish. Consider creating convenience foods by dividing food into servings for easy use. For example, try purchasing five pounds of chicken. Cut a pound into strips for stir-fries or fajitas, flatten a pound for fillets, and cube the rest for soups, or salads. Although using fewer ingredients can be handy, it can also lower the nutritional value with higher amounts of sodium, sugar, calories, and fat. “Add low-fat or skim milk, leave out the butter or cut it in half, swap the fat in baked goods for apple sauce, or if a recipe calls for salt switch it out for an Italian seasoning, ground pepper, or an herb blend,” Peterson suggests.

When working with fewer ingredients, focus on an intense flavor such as mustard, lemon, onions, garlic, vinegar, nuts, or sharp cheddar. Refrigerating food with herbs and spices for an hour can also intensify flavors. Additionally, cooking, roasting or browning meat can help bring out more flavor. Get the whole family involved in creating recipes with fewer ingredients and see how creative they can be! Looking for recipes for five ingredients or less? Contact the local extension office, and we are happy to send recipes your way.

Beef Stir Fry

Makes 4 Servings

1-pound lean ground beef or flank steak

1 (12 oz.) bag frozen diced vegetables or stir fry

1 cup reduced-sodium stir-fry sauce

1 cup brown rice

1. Wash hands with soap and water.  If using flank steak, cut against the grain into 1-inch pieces. 

2. Cook beef in skillet until lightly browned. Drain off fat—Cook to 145F for steak and 160F for ground beef.

3. Stir in remaining ingredients, except rice. Bring to boil.

4. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

5. Cook rice according to directions. Serve with stir-fry.

Nutrition Facts (per serving): 200 calories, 4 g fat, 650 mg sodium, 24 g total carbohydrate, 8 g fiber


Questions about food safety, nutrition, food preservation, or looking for recipes? Contact the local University of Illinois Extension office.

Source: Lisa Peterson, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness