Nutrition, On the Cheap

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By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Eating healthfully is easy to do when you have the money to dine on wild Alaskan salmon, arugula and fresh raspberries. But is it is possible to eat well on a tight budget?

That's a question that often surfaces in Lean Plate Club Web chats. Fast-food restaurants provide plenty of choices that are easy on your wallet, but it's rare to find nutritional bargains there.

You can stretch your dollars a lot further if you're willing to cook at home. Just ask Mark Erickson, a certified master chef and vice president for continuing education at the Culinary Institute of America. Though he helps train chefs for some of the finest restaurants in the world, Erickson is quick to note that "dining at home is a lot less expensive than dining out every night."

Trouble is, who has the time to cook?

That's something that Erickson struggles with, too. Each week, he commutes between his family home in suburban Atlanta and the two Culinary Institute campuses, in California's Napa Valley and Hyde Park, N.Y. He has a dormitory room at one, an efficiency apartment at the other. Despite the peripatetic lifestyle and cramped quarters, he makes it a habit to cook most nights for himself or his family, which he views "as a form of recreation, not a chore."

Those of us who aren't trained as chefs might not see it the same way. But Erickson says he's just like the rest of us and often faces nights when he feels too tired to cook. To cope, he has developed some easy -- and inexpensive--shortcuts that can help cut your grocery bills, lure you back into the kitchen and make you more efficient once you get there:

· Invest in a few basic tools. Erickson can cut, slice and dice fast with two very sharp, moderately priced knives: a paring knife and a chef's knife. Both are made of stainless steel and carbon. Keep them sharp with a steel sharpening tool. Other kitchen essentials include: a vegetable peeler, colander, sheet pan and a solid cutting board that fits comfortably on your kitchen counter.

· Make "planned-overs." Restaurants survive on the strategy of "cook once, use twice," Erickson says. You can, too. So the Sunday night roast chicken can become the Monday night soup, stir-fry or chicken taco. No need to limit this strategy to dinner. Thin slices of leftover chicken or other roast meats are cheaper than deli cold cuts for lunch.

Erickson loves oatmeal. So while cooking dinner, he sticks a pot of steel-cut oatmeal on the stove, then divides it into individual portions. Reheated in the microwave, each is a fast breakfast served with fruit, cinnamon and a little milk. Or saute them in a pan with some prosciutto, mushrooms, herbs and a little Parmesan cheese, and they become oatcakes for dinner. The trick, Erickson says, is to have a plan. Find a template to help create a week's worth of meals at http://www.leanplateclub.com.


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