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Quick Meals for Everyday

What's for dinner? The answer may be as close as your pantry.

Nashville, Ark. – If you are stuck at home, you may be running out of ideas for meals. Most community activities have stopped. You find yourself with more time on your hands, but you may be challenged with the age-old question, “What’s for dinner?” If you are working from home, your day is a challenge and may be busier than ever. Who wants to spend time cooking, yet provide your family with a delicious meal?

Forty-five years ago, when most moms stayed home, the average family meal took 2 ½ hours to prepare. Today, it takes less than 45 minutes to have a meal on the table, yet 60% of American women would like to shorten that time. Is it possible?

With social distancing and avoiding trips to the grocery store, it is time to turn to the pantry for some quick meals.

You don’t have to have a recipe or even a plan if your pantry, refrigerator and freezer has good food in it, and you understand the techniques of how to put a meal together.

Take inventory of your pantry and see what products you have on hand. As you are going through the items, now is a good time to look at expiration dates. If you have items that are expired, throw them away. Some items may have expirations dates that will expire soon. Move them to the front of the pantry and try to use them up as soon as possible. Some good choices to have in your pantry are spaghetti, macaroni and other pastas (whole grains are great), packaged baking mix, ready-to-eat sauces, soups, rice, beans, potatoes, onions, canned fruits, vegetables, beans, tuna, canned fruit, fruit juices, salsa, seasonings and mixes, cooking oil and non-stick spray.

In the refrigerator and/or freezer you will want to have fresh and frozen vegetables, baby

carrots and prewashed salad greens, fresh and frozen fruit and fruit juices, frozen chopped onion and green pepper, tortillas, ready-to-bake rolls, whole grain bread, cheese, yogurt, milk, eggs and butter, a variety of beef, chicken, pork and fish and precooked sliced meats for sandwiches.

Keeping your pantry stocked with healthy canned and dry foods means always having economical and versatile meal options on hand. Not only do they last a long time, but they also can be just as healthy as fresh options. The same goes for freezer foods. Most will last anywhere from 3 months to 1 year.

Once you have taken stock of what you have, it’s time to create a meal. Casseroles create great meals and are easy to prepare. Start by choosing a starch. Rice, pasta, potatoes, and tortillas are good choices.

Next, add a protein. Protein is beef, chicken, pork, or fish. Choose canned or properly thawed meats for your protein choice. Remember, to properly thaw meat, you will need to allow it to thaw in the refrigerator for two days prior to preparing. You can safely defrost meat in the microwave; however, you must use it immediately. Do not refreeze! For casseroles, you will need to cook the meat ahead of time. Canned meat does this step for you! Another option is to spend a little time cooking meats and then freezing them in one-pound packages. Be sure to label and date the package before placing it in the freezer.

Step three is to add one to two vegetables to the dish. Use different colors of vegetables for variety, when possible. Canned and frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh; however, many canned vegetables do have extra sodium. You may want to rinse them before adding to your casserole.

Add a sauce. You can add premade sauces from bottles or make your own sauce using ingredients on hand. Spaghetti sauce, stir-fry sauce, soups or diced tomatoes are good choices.

Add some flavor. Do you have onion flakes or an onion you can dice? Look to see what seasonings you have on hand. Most homes have salt and pepper, but you may also have garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, basil, or other dried herbs.

Finally, add on a topping. Breadcrumbs or grated cheese are popular choices. Once you have made your choices, and combine all your ingredients, except for the topping, and put in a 9 x 13-inch pan which has been coated with cooking spray. Bake your dish at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. You may want to cook pasta or rice ahead of time; however, if you have adequate liquid in the dish, you may not need to do this. Once your casserole has cooked, remove from oven and add the toppings. Return to the oven for about 10 minutes.

Casseroles are simple to make and are great for using foods you have on hand. Use your imagination and be creative! Most casseroles will serve 4-6 people. Add a side salad and fruit for a complete meal.

If you would like a more complete list of budget-friendly pantry staples, contact the Howard County Extension Office at 870-845-7517 and ask for a copy of the handout “#Quarantine Kitchen – Getting Creative with Budget-Friendly Pantry Staples”. I will be glad to put a copy in the mail. You can also download a copy at

Recipe of the Week

Here is a quick-to-fix recipe using ingredients you probably have on hand. It is budget friendly and serves 6 people. Add a salad and garlic toast. This recipe was shared on a blog site from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach called “Spend Smart. Eat Smart”. Check out their site at for other great recipes and tips.

Chicken Alfredo Pasta


1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 tablespoon oil

2 ½ cups pasta (whole wheat penne or rotini, is preferred)

16 ounces frozen chopped broccoli

1 cup nonfat milk

8 ounces low fat cream cheese, cubes

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper


  1. Remove any visible fat from chicken and cut meat into bite sized pieces on a cutting board. Wash hands.
  2. Begin heating water to boiling in a large pot for pasta.
  3. Heat oil in a large skillet on medium high heat. Add chicken cubes to skillet when oil is hot and stir to coat with oil. Cook the chicken for 20 seconds before stirring again. Cook the chicken for 7 to 9 minutes. Turn the chicken cubes every 20 to 30 seconds.
  4. Remove chicken from skillet when done cooking and is 165⁰F. Cover it to keep it warm.
  5. Cook the pasta using directions on package. Add the frozen broccoli the last 3 minutes of cooking. Drain the water from the pasta and broccoli. Return food to the pot. Do not cover.
  6. Add the milk and cream cheese to the skillet. Stir the mixture constantly over low heat. The mixture will thicken and be smooth.
  7. Add the garlic powder, Parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper. Stir mixture. Then add cooked chicken and heat mixture.
  8. Combine meat mixture with the pasta and broccoli mixture. Serve.

*Note: Use a clean cutting board. Wash your hands before and after handling raw chicken.

Nutrition Information per Serving: (Serving Size: 1 1/3 cups) Calories-340, Fat-12g, Sodium-390mg, Carbohydrates-29g, Fiber-4g

By Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
421 N. Main St, Nashville AR 71852
(870) 845-7517


The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action institution. If you require a reasonable accommodation to participate or need materials in another format, please contact your County Extension office (or other appropriate office) as soon as possible. Dial 711 for Arkansas Relay.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.