CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jamie Oliver and his production team pulled out of Huntington last month, after filming the final episode of his "Food Revolution" television show in which he exhorted overweight Americans to change their unhealthy ways.
His tactics struck some as dramatic and preachy, but his message rang true for conscientious Americans concerned about obesity and poor eating habits. There's no denying our unfortunate dependence on processed, chemical-laden foods and the effect that diet has on mushrooming waistlines and health-care costs.
Whether he was teaching 1,000 people to make a healthy stir-fry or reasoning with Alice Gue, the reluctant school cafeteria manager whose menus feature frozen chicken nuggets and french fries, Oliver had trouble convincing people that they could cook healthy meals from fresh ingredients for a reasonable cost.
In her defense, Gue and other school cafeteria managers are strictly limited by government-mandated food guidelines that don't seem to emphasize reasonable nutrition. The rest of us face no such guidelines, but some argue that the cost of his recommended fresh food menu is prohibitive for families with a limited food budget.
Not so, says April Hamilton, a cooking instructor, caterer and producer of "April's Kitchen" soups available at Charleston Bread. With careful planning and shopping, modest food budgets can accommodate Oliver's recommended diet.
To get started, sit down with the weekly grocery store fliers in the Sunday newspaper and base your meal plan around seasonal produce (usually less expensive) and meats and other higher priced items that are on sale. Usually, at least one lean meat such as turkey, chicken or pork loin is on sale. Less expensive, but tougher, cuts of meat are ideal candidates for Crock-Pot dishes.
Study the ingredient lists for the dishes you choose, and make your shopping list. Try not to deviate from the list while you're in the store. If it's not on the list, you probably don't need it.
Shun individual serving packs in favor of bulk items. Grate your own cheese instead of buying the pre-shredded packages. Instead of bagged salad blends, purchase heads of lettuce, rinse and spin them, then bag for quick salads.
If you're not going to use "family sized" economic packages of meat immediately, repackage in smaller plastic containers and freeze for later use.
Plan to get extra mileage out of meats by preparing once, serving twice. Make a double batch of meatballs and have pasta and meatballs one night, and meatball hoagies another night. Grill extra chicken or fish to serve later on salads.
"Get in the habit of preparing dinner," Hamilton said. "The effort is rewarding and appreciated by all who are included in the dining experience."
Although oatmeal is a healthy breakfast, the sweetened individual servings of instant oats are expensive and too sugary for good nutrition. "Save money by buying a large container of oats and lightly sweeten with honey or a little sugar," Hamilton said. "Add nuts and dried fruits."
Other quick, healthy breakfasts are eggs in any form, whole-grain toast spread with peanut butter, whole-wheat pancakes, low-sugar cereal with skim- or low-fat milk, plain or vanilla yogurt purchased in quart containers and served with fruit, granola or nuts and homemade smoothies made with yogurt and frozen fruit. "Sam's has a 5-pound bag of frozen, sliced strawberries for about $8," Hamilton said. "That's enough for a lot of smoothies."
Because many people aren't home for lunch, Hamilton suggests make-ahead, portable lunches. Planning is crucial here, as most of us have trouble just getting out the door on time in the mornings. Use the relatively relaxed dinner prep time to make and stow lunch for the next day.
If salad's on the dinner menu, chop enough ingredients for a lunch salad as well.
Boil eggs while dinner's cooking to make devilled eggs or egg salad for lunch.
Make extra pasta or rice to mix with vegetables and dressing for a lunch salad.
Bake an extra potato and top with healthy ingredients for lunch.
Liven whole-wheat sandwiches and wraps with leftover grilled vegetables, chicken or beef. Or fill with tuna, chicken or salmon salad and add nutrients and crunch with sprouts, celery, carrots, lettuce, green pepper, red onion and cucumber.
Typically the most costly portion of every day's meal budget, dinner also offers the biggest opportunity for savings. Buy meats and seafood on sale, stock up on pantry staples while they're on sale, and work inexpensive, but nutritious foods such as beans and whole-wheat pasta into the menu.
Use a Crock-Pot to simmer pot roasts and other comfort food. A few minutes of prep time in the morning pays big dividends at the dinner table.
Make your own oven fries out of unskinned fresh potatoes or sweet potatoes.
Add canned beans, tuna or grilled chicken breasts to salad to make a healthy entrée.
Ramp up the nutritional value of a marinara sauce with cooked white beans and spinach. Add the spinach to the pasta pot for the last few minutes of cooking. Drain beans in a colander, then pour the cooked pasta spinach over the beans. Toss the mixture with marinara sauce.
Popcorn popped on the stovetop has less cost and fat than microwave popcorn.
Make your own snack mixes of almonds, walnuts, dried fruits, cereal, dark chocolate chips or other favorites to control both the cost and nutrition.
"Making a weekly menu and shopping once saves time and money. That midweek trip to the store always results in impulse purchases -- for me, anyway," Hamilton said. "Reward yourself with a night off now and then. Before you know it, you'll find yourself cooking every night for the love of it."
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.
Asian Pork with Noodles
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound angel hair pasta
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons dry sherry
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3/4 cup sliced green onions
COOK pasta according to package instructions, omitting salt. Drain and return to pot.
WHILE pasta is cooking, mix together chicken broth with soy sauce, sherry, and cornstarch. Whisk sauce until smooth.
HEAT a large skillet or wok over medium high heat. Stir-fry pork with ginger, garlic, and crushed red pepper, breaking up pork with wooden spoon. Cook until pork is no longer pink, stirring frequently. Add green onions and stir-fry 1 minute.
ADD soy sauce mixture to skillet and stir until mixture boils and thickens slightly.
POUR pork mixture over noodles in pot; toss to combine.
1 pint grape tomatoes
16 Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
3 tablespoons drained capers, rinsed
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
HEAT oven to 325 degrees. Toss tomatoes, olives, capers, and 2 tablespoons oil together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
RINSE chicken, and pat dry. Season both sides with salt and pepper.
HEAT a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add remaining tablespoon oil; heat until hot but not smoking. Place chicken in skillet, skinned-sides down; cook until deep golden brown, about 4 minutes. Turn chicken over.
ADD tomato mixture to skillet, gently shaking skillet to distribute.
TRANSFER skillet to oven. Roast until chicken is cooked through and tomatoes have softened, about 30 minutes.
The name alone will make the kids love this. This is an easy one-pot meal that you can whip up at a moment's notice.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4 -inch pieces
2 bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (alternatively, you can use 2 cups "frozen bell peppers and onions for stir-fry" for the big hurry nights)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 cup diced tomato (canned is fine)
1 pound cheese tortellini (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmesan (2 ounces)
HEAT the oil in a medium Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant, bell peppers, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, 6 to 8 minutes.
ADD the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
ADD the broth, tomato, and tortellini. Cover and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the tortellini are cooked through and most of the broth is absorbed, 12 to 15 minutes.
FOLD in the parsley and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup of Parmesan.
THE GOOD NEWS: With the skin on, one 10.5-ounce potato supplies about a third of the daily requirement of vitamin C. These fries are baked, not fried, so they're low in fat.
2 pounds baking potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/3-inch-wide fries