Guest Blog By: Chef Valarie Carter, MPH – OU/TU Culinary Medicine

Although January can be cold and gray and the winter holidays are waning, there’s no reason to hibernate until spring! Right now, lots of people are thinking about getting healthier, sticking to a budget, and maybe getting a head start on spring cleaning.

Using these tips, you can not only improve your diet and save money, but also do a little pantry make-over to help organize your kitchen. January is the perfect time of the year to assess your pantry and freezer situation and decide how you can make the most of what you already have.  Maybe you stocked up on some items in the spring of 2020 preparing for COVID-19 quarantine? Do you have any dried beans, intact grains or whole-grain pasta in your pantry? (Intact grains are whole grains that are still in their kernel form and that have not been ground into a flour or meal.) How about excess frozen fruits and vegetables in your freezer? Using these items can help you incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet, save money, and save time.

Post-Holiday Soups (Week 1):

Take this week to identify what excess dried or canned beans, whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and/or frozen vegetables you have in your pantry and freezer. Then, make a list — and who doesn’t love a good list to check off? Once you know what you have, look at the recipes below for ways to utilize these foods to their fullest. Then make a shopping list for the items that you don’t have on hand.

For this week, a broth-based vegetable soup makes a perfect post-holiday meal. This style of soup is delicious, inexpensive and oh, so easy to make. Plus, it’s perfect for a chilly January day. This one uses dried or canned beans and canned tomatoes, along with a few fresh vegetable staples.

Pro tip: Bulk-up your soups with the addition of whole grain pastas and whole grains like brown rice.

Winter Bowling (Week 2):

The key to eating healthier and saving money? Planning ahead! When you have MREs – that’s Meals Ready to Eat – you are less likely to make an impulse purchase of expensive, unhealthy meals like fast food. Instead, consider batch cooking and preparing “bowl meals” to keep in your refrigerator or freezer until you need them. Bowl meals consist of a whole grain, sautéed greens, canned beans and a roasted vegetable. They’re an extremely low-cost meal that will save you tons of money by using items you likely already have in your pantry and freezer.

The best part? Bowl meals are super healthy and high in fiber. Oh, and the BEST part? Assembling these bowls takes no time all. You probably already have all the necessary ingredients!

Pro tip: Purchase a few BPA-free plastic or glass storage containers with lids to store the bowl meals in your freezer until you are ready to eat them.

Pilaf Party (Week 3):

By this point, you may have already used whole grains to make bowls or added them to soups or salads. This week, you might think about using those whole grains to make a pilaf. A pilaf is just a grain dish prepared with sautéed onion and/or garlic, a little oil, and stock (broth or water). You can make a pilaf out of any whole or intact grain including rice, barley, wheat berries, quinoa or bulgur wheat. Try using a pilaf as a base for the bowl recipes above or as a base for roasted or grilled veggies. It can also be the base for greens and/or sautéed or grilled proteins like tofu, chicken or fish.

Smoothie Moves (Week 4):

Do you have leftover frozen fruit like berries, peaches, pineapple or mango and/or frozen greens like kale or spinach in your freezer?  Maybe you have some overripe bananas too? All these ingredients can be used to make smoothies — which are great for sneaking more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Divide out, then freeze smoothie ingredients in baggies or storage containers for a quick meal or snack when you’re in a rush. Try this ratio: one banana, 1 cup frozen fruit and one cup frozen greens. Defrost the ingredients in the refrigerator the night before or use hot water with the frozen ingredients to give your smoothie the perfect icy blend. Check the recipe here.

Pro tip: Add almond or oat milk to your smoothie for a creamier consistency! Some of my personal smoothie favorites include peaches, mango, kale and fresh ginger.

Comfy, Healthy, Tasty! (Week 5):

Another way to incorporate more vegetables, grains and beans into your diet? A healthy pasta bake. Using whole-grain pasta, a jar of tomato pasta sauce, frozen veggies and canned beans, you can create a healthy, high-fiber comfort food meal for just a few dollars and minimal effort. Plus, you may have several of these ingredients already stocked in your freezer or pantry. Check the recipe here. Feel free to experiment with different shapes of pasta, different types of beans and various veggies.

Pro tip: Pasta sauces can have added fats and sugars, so look for options with 50 calories or less per serving and choose the lowest sodium option.

About the Shape Your Future Healthy Kitchen:

Shape Your Future, the OU Culinary Medicine Program and KJRH-TV (Channel 2, Tulsa) are joining forces to bring easy, healthy recipes to life for Oklahoma families. The Shape Your Future Healthy Kitchen strives to teach Oklahomans how to eat better, get creative in the kitchen and fill half their plate with fruits and veggies. Join in as Chef Valarie Carter prepares healthy recipes every Sunday during the 8 a.m. news hour and again on Monday at noon.

Click here to learn more about this partnership.

Click here to find more tasty and healthy recipes for 2021.