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Stay calm and cook: 10 steps to cooking like a pro from your pantry

09 April 2020

Stay calm and cook: 10 steps to cooking like a pro from your pantry

If you can’t get to the shops or if the groceries you normally buy aren’t available, then you’ll need to get a bit more creative with your weekly meal planning.

We’ve done some of the leg work for you, and can report it’s quite possible to make healthy and tasty meals from your pantry or freezer - subject of course to some in-demand ingredients being available.

According to the Dietitians Association of Australia, you can still produce nutritious, balanced meals from food with a long shelf life.

Here are our 10 steps to cooking like a pro from your pantry.

1. Balance your meals and add lots of veg

The key, according to accredited practising dietitian Simone Austin, is to eat a variety of foods, use long-life ingredients and add lots of veg.

Austin says there are three key components to every meal - carbohydrates, protein and vegetables.

She recommends balancing meals with these three elements, and steering clear of too many carbohydrates, like rice and pasta.

“Try to include plenty of vegetables in your meals,” she says. “Fresh, frozen or from your garden, it doesn’t matter.”  Buy fresh vegies as you need them and when they’re available, and then freeze them. These are still available, in abundance, from supermarkets.

And try to include protein in every meal too, she says.

2. Use canned foods for nutrition and convenience

We all know fresh is best, but it’s also perfectly ok health-wise to bulk up meals with canned foods.

“This allows you to eat foods when they’re not in season or available,” Austin says.

Canned food is a great time-saver and a good way to add things like legumes, for example, to your diet, by eliminating the need to soak lentils and beans overnight.

And unless you live near a seafood supplier, canned fish makes it easier to add fish to your diet.

However, check the amount of salt in canned foods, and use low-salt options when available. If a can contains lots of salt, like some beans or corn for example, then just rinse them before use.

3. Boost nutrients with frozen fruit and veg

Frozen vegetables should be high on everyone’s long-life shopping list, which is why it’s been so popular lately.

Frozen vegetables are snap frozen when they’re packaged, so they retain nutrients over a longer period.

Always try to buy Australian-grown frozen vegetables where you can – as you’ll be supporting local farmers and the product will have been in transit less.

And if you grow fruit or vegetables at home, make sure you freeze some to use later. Some produce - like zucchinis, tomatoes and some fruits - always seems to arrive in a glut, so make the most of them.

If you’ve got heaps of strawberries for example, freeze them all spaced out on a tray, then when they’re frozen put them in a container. That way they don't get squashed together from throwing them all into a container at once.

You can also buy a batch of mangoes when they’re in season, cut them up and freeze them for later.

And why not stew some fruit and add it to breakfast cereals when you don’t have fresh fruit on hand? Stewed fruit can easily be put in the freezer too.

4. Buy long-lasting fresh produce

Look to buy fresh produce with a long shelf life, such as potatoes, onions and carrots.

Potatoes and onions like to be kept in a dark, dry spot so they last longer. Carrots, wrapped up well in the fridge, and pumpkin will keep well too.

“To make sure carrots last longer, put them in either a beeswax wrap, in a plastic container or in your crisper, otherwise they'll go limp.

“And if you buy extra corn cobs in season, take the husk off and put the cobs in the freezer,” Austin says.

5. Add zest and flavour with herbs and store them well

An easy way to have a constant supply of herbs is to grow them in pots near the kitchen, so you always have them on hand and can just pick what you need.

If the herbs are already picked, store them wrapped in a damp piece of paper towel in a container in the fridge to make them last longer. The only exception is basil, which will go brown in the fridge (like frost-bite). So store basil in a cup of water like a bunch of flowers.

And if you have a chilli plant that gives you a whole lot of chilli at once, put them in a plastic container in the freezer for when you need them.

6. Cook and freeze big batches of food

As we know, having meals in the freezer saves time, and is much easier than cooking every day.

Make a big batch of soup or bolognese sauce and freeze it in containers to eat later.

“That way, if you're sick or can’t be bothered cooking, you’ll always have a nutritious meal on hand,” Austin says.

7. Get creative with protein

Protein is an important addition to every meal, and can be added from a range of different sources.

Legumes are good source of protein if you're not able to get fresh meat or fish, Austin says.

“Lentils, canned fish, long-life milk or cheese, are all good sources of protein as an alternative to meat,.”

To make eggs last longer, store them somewhere cool like in the fridge. That way they’ll last for about a month.

8. Switch to nutritious carbs

If you’re sick of white rice or want a more nutritious alternative, Austin recommends switching to other grains that have more nutrition – such as brown rice, wholemeal pasta, freekeh, rolled oats, barley and quinoa.

Try making porridge from quinoa or barley instead of the usual oats, she says.

Wholegrain dry biscuits and crispbread are also good alternatives if you don’t have fresh bread.

9. Have instant meals, snacks and treats on hand

Austin recommends having healthy, instant meal options on hand in your fridge and pantry.

Soup in cans or foil packs are easy meals that store well for a long time. “Soups in foil packs are really tasty, and most don’t have preservatives. she says. “Jars of pasta sauces and curries are good options too, but just watch the salt content.”

And for the millions working from home now, we’ll need a few snacks and treats too.

She says popcorn made from dried corn kernels is a quick, easy snack. Nuts and seeds are packed with nutrition and easy to have on hand. Chocolate keeps for a long time too – as long as you don’t eat it too quickly.

10. Be food safe

If you’re freezing foods or meals, make sure you date the containers to cut the risk of food poisoning and rotate food in the fridge or freezer.

“Date things so you know how long it's been in there. Even if you've got more than one of something in the pantry, check your use-by date or best before date so you’re using your oldest stock first.”

Stay calm and cook good food

Most importantly, get creative and enjoy yourself in the kitchen. Try to think and cook like your parents or grandparents did in times gone by, when ingredients and shopping options weren’t so plentiful. Get creative, get cooking and enjoy.

Simone Austin is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. Her book Eat Like An Athlete shows how to increase your energy through diet and maintain performance for everyday life.

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