Warm up by eating well at home

his long snap of cold weather has a lot of people feeling a bit stir crazy. Many days it feels just too cold to go out food shopping, so many people have been cocooning and digging deep into pantries and freezers to come up with something good to eat. That may have been fun or frustrating. The people who took the time to stock their pantries and freezers thoughtfully before it got cold out probably found it was much easier to throw together quick, healthy and inexpensive meals.

To eat well on a tight budget, plan ahead before shopping. It saves time and money if you aren’t always running to the store to pick up something you’ve forgotten. While this is wise at any point during the year, it’s particularly smart to fill a grocery cart with items that have long shelf lives when the weather is probably going to be unpleasant. You’ll eat better when it’s so nasty outside that you just can’t face setting foot out the door, much less dragging a full grocery cart through the snow.

Once you look through what you have on hand, you can begin to build cost-conscious, nutritious meals by using less expensive protein sources like dried beans, lentils and peas. These last a long time in a pantry before spoiling. Canned varieties are just as good and can be equally inexpensive, plus they can save precious time. Eggs also have a decent shelf life and can form the basis of all sorts of tasty dishes. Canned or frozen meat or fish can come in handy too.

Once you settle on a protein, make sure meals include plenty of vegetables and fruit.

During the cold winter months it can be wise to use more canned or frozen varieties because they’re often tastier than items in the fresh produce isle. After all, they were processed at the peak of freshness. Plus, the items can be stored so much longer than fresh.

Canned or frozen varieties can really help when digging around for that something special to pull a dish together. Just buy low sodium canned vegetables, or rinse the vegetables in water to remove sodium, and make sure the fruit you buy isn’t packed in syrup.

If you must buy fresh, the fresh vegetables and fruits that are often more reasonably priced this time of year include broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, as well as root vegetables like parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips. Tropical fruit, like lemons, oranges, and grapefruit can be a good buy too.

Check your favorite grocer’s sale flyer and take advantage of sales but take an extra minute to compare the price of fresh to the canned or frozen varieties. You might find the sale price for fresh isn’t as big a bargain as you might think.

To save money, buy baked goods on sale and freeze whatever you can’t eat right away. Freezing increases shelf life without sacrificing the taste or texture of most baked goods.

Save even more money by buying day old bread. Just eat or freeze it right away.

Smart shoppers also walk right by those packaged convenience grain foods. It is much cheaper and healthier to buy their pasta, rice, and oatmeal plain.

Read the labels of convenience items to see how much added sugar, salt and preservatives are in most of them. You can make dishes with these items as quickly by adding your own seasonings. They’ll probably feature fewer calories and taste better too.

Take a little time to think about the foods to keep in the pantry to make the meals your family likes best. Involve everyone in your family in the process. That way you’ll be sure to have everything you need to prepare meals they’ll enjoy on hand.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment. If you have almost everything you need to prepare a favorite dish, minus one ingredient, think about what you could substitute. You might come up with something everyone will like even better. I’ve seen many interchangeable lists of ingredients for dishes like casseroles, stir fries, skillet concoctions or even tacos. Be inventive. Just be sure you’re using safe food. Safety often depends on how you store an item.

While the length of time to store a food before eating varies, there are some basic rules for safety. Before buying any fresh food, make sure it really is fresh. Look for bruises, mold and other indications of age. If the food is packaged, check that packaging. If it’s damaged in any way, don’t buy it.

Before you put anything in your shopping cart, check the date marked on the food.

People often ask, “What’s the difference between the dates manufacturers put on food?”

Some foods list an expiration date, others say “sell by” or “best if used by” and yet others have a “date of manufacture”. Some foods are labeled with more than one of these dates.

Did you know that food manufacturers generally decide how to date their products because, for most foods, product dating isn’t legally required?

So how do these dates help? Most manufacturers wouldn’t stay in business long if they were selling unsafe food, so you can probably trust the dates they put on their products.

A “sell by” date is the last day they think a store should sell a food. Some foods can be safely eaten after that date, like bakery products, but you wouldn’t want to eat them too many days after that date.

If the product lists a “best if used by” date it means you shouldn’t store the food much longer than the date listed if you want the food to retain its best flavor and quality.

If your food lists an expiration date, the producer is telling you that’s the very last day the food will be at its best. Again, you could eat the food after its “best by” or “expiration” date, but it won’t taste as good. Why waste dollars or space in your tummy on food that isn’t top notch?

A food producer puts a date of manufacture on a food to identify it if something goes wrong and they need to recall it. I’ll bet you’ve heard about food recalls in the media. The manufacturer indicates the batch number so consumers can return or throw out bad lots. That’s a very good thing. It keeps more of us safe.

You should write a date on foods that aren’t already marked or that you open and put in a different container, unless you know you’re going to eat them right away. There’s not much worse than opening a food container and finding something really old or moldy inside.

Keep in mind, some foods can be safe to eat, like stale crackers or cereal, but your family will probably turn up their noses and eat something else. That’s a quality issue, not a safety issue.

Sometimes you can see or smell safety issues. If you look at a food or smell it and something doesn’t seem right, don’t eat it. The rule is: when in doubt, throw it out.

The scary part is some dangerous foods can look and smell just fine but still contain a food-borne pathogen. That’s another reason to pay attention to those dates on packages and cans. Food producers put them there for a reason.

That’s also why it’s important to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, as well as to keep rotating the staple foods you keep on hand. You want to be safe and to maintain the quality of the food in your pantry.

When you bring newly purchased foods home, write the date you purchased foods on any that are not already dated. Then take an extra minute to move the older food already in your pantry to the front. Place the freshly purchased foods behind them. This way you won’t waste food by forgetting to use something before it’s too old to eat safely.

Make sure your pantry is not too hot. Staple foods stay good longer in a cool (50-70 degrees), dry, dark place where the temperature ranges from between 50 to70 degrees.

Check your refrigerator and freezer temperatures regularly too. Your fridge should be at or below 40? F and the freezer temperature should be 0? F.

Finally, nobody wants to open the pantry and find it’s been invaded by pests. To keep icky insects and rodents out, keep your pantry clean. Many of us find our flour or other grains infested by pests or bacteria at one time or another.

One way to minimize contamination is to store those things in your refrigerator or freezer. Just make sure they are also clean. You don’t want to start growing any unpleasant science projects in or on your food!

You can find more nutrition information at ChooseMyPlate.gov or visit the Partnership for Food Safety Education at fightbac.org for more food safety information.

And if you’d like more ideas to improve your family’s health, call to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program.

Learn fun new ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money.

The Eat Smart New York Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, a community based educational organization affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

CCE-Chautauqua is part of a network of extension associations, programs and services located across the state and nation. For more information, call 664-9502 ext. 217 or visit the website at www.cce.cornell.edu/chautauqua.

Remember that if you, or people you know, are struggling to make ends meet, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture knows a healthy diet will likely reduce health care costs, it’s putting healthy food within everyone’s reach. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at www.mybenefits.ny.gov/, or contact your local social services office.