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Cooking outside the box

Perk up frozen dinners by adding fresh ingredients

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Dinner can be just a few minutes away, with help from your friends — those boxes of single-serve frozen dinners.

Throw in a few ingredients from your fridge or pantry, and you can stretch it into a healthy meal for two, long before pizza delivery could show up.

"You can turn a frozen dinner into a nutrient-packed meal in very little time," said Pauline Williams, home economist for Utah State University Extension in Salt Lake County. She explored the idea after attending an International Congress of Dietetics where Nestle, the parent company of Lean Cuisine frozen dinners, did a presentation. She and Alyssa Anderson, a student intern with USU Dietetics, have given local workshops called "Cooking Outside the Box," which offers creative ways to use convenience foods.

In many of these heat 'n' eat entrees, components — such as the sauce, meat and starch — are already present, but they're lacking in vegetables. Anderson added 1 1/2 cups of stir-fry veggies to a Lean Cuisine Asian-style beef dinner, which contained mainly noodles, sauce and beef.

"There's definitely not a full serving of vegetables in a lot of the frozen meals," said Anderson. "The veggies add flavor and texture, plus all the vitamins and good nutrition. Vegetables are also cheaper than meat, and they will stretch the meal to serve two adults."

Dividing the dinner in two portions cuts the amount of rice, pasta or other starch in half, a boon if you're watching carbs. Adding veggies also dilutes the fat and sodium content. (And if you've got a big appetite, you can eat both servings without much damage to your diet.)

Fresh veggies, such as carrots and snow peas, can be bought already washed and prepped for cooking. Frozen veggies are also quick, or you can throw in the leftover broccoli from last night's dinner.

Some frozen entrees can be beefed up with a little protein as well. Anderson added diced ham and frozen peas to a macaroni 'n' cheese dinner.

Frozen dinners can cost up to $3 each, but Williams advised waiting until they go on sale to stock up. "I won't pay more than $1.50 for one. And there are several different brands out there, so look for what's on sale." (Many of these companies offer cents-off coupons — check your supermarket and newspaper ads.)

OK, so these pseudo-recipes aren't from scratch, but they beat most fast-food alternatives. The idea may not be practical for a family of six, but it's a healthy dinner solution for empty-nesters and singles. One small inconvenience: You'll have to take the dinner out of its disposable serving dish and dirty a bigger pan or microwaveable bowl. But, once it's cooked, you can serve one of the portions in the disposable dish.

As another nod to convenience foods, Anderson demonstrated a salad pizza made with a ready-made pizza crust and bagged salad greens, and a pie that uses a ready-made crust and flavored yogurt.

As Americans are spending less time cooking, they are embracing shortcuts. In fact, a new spate of books tells cooks how to capitalize on convenience foods, such as "The Dinner Doctor," "Almost From Scratch" and "Semi-Homemade Desserts." A novel idea for the cooking-impaired, perhaps, but not that much different from Mom's casseroles using cream of mushroom soup.

One improvement, however, is in the quality of the myriad convenience products on the market — pre-cooked chicken or beef strips, ready-to-eat salads, jarred sauces and frozen stir-fry veggies.

Creativity isn't limited just to frozen meals. Savvy cooks are adding vegetables or a can of beans to canned soups to make them heartier. Or they can pour canned beef stew in a casserole dish, doctor it up with a little frozen peas and corn, top with refrigerated biscuit dough and bake in the oven until the biscuits are done.

In the Deseret Morning News test kitchen, we expanded on Williams' concept and embellished other entrees into a meal for two. Here's what we found:

It works best with casserole-type dishes that already have lots of flavorful sauce to bind the added ingredients, rather than a meat-and-potatoes entree. Avoid the dinners that skimp on sauces.

Look for meals that have a definite component missing — usually veggies or protein. Plain fettuccine Alfredo can be enhanced with chicken and broccoli florets. If it's a low-carb meal, you can often stretch it out by adding pasta or rice (unless you're trying to cut down on carbs, which would defeat the purpose).

For add-ins, first look at the leftovers in your refrigerator — you might find a lone grilled chicken breast or a slice of roast beef that could quickly be diced up and thrown in, or a cup of peas or carrots. You can also keep a bag of frozen mixed veggies on hand and shake out what you need, or keep canned veggies in the pantry. Supermarkets now carry a variety of ready-to-use fresh veggies or pre-cooked meats — they cost more but save time.


TERIYAKI STIR-FRY WITH VEGETABLES

1 single-serve box frozen teriyaki chicken with noodles dinner (Lean Cuisine)

1 to 1 1/2 cups pre-cut stir-fry vegetables

1 teaspoon olive oil

Stir-fry vegetables in olive oil until tender but still crisp. Take frozen dinner from package; add to vegetables in pan and cook until heated through.

Variation: You can also use a teriyaki beef dinner, or other Asian-flavored dinner. Serves 2.

— USU Extension


LASAGNA WITH ROASTED VEGETABLES

1 single-serve box frozen lasagna dinner (Lean Cuisine)

1 cup summer squash, zucchini, red pepper and green pepper strips

1 teaspoon olive oil

Cut vegetables lengthwise into thin strips. Coat with olive oil. Place on baking pan and roast at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Cook lasagna according to package directions. Place roasted vegetables on serving tray in a circular fashion. Top with lasagna. Garnish with mozzarella cheese. Serves 2.

— USU Extension


CHICKEN-BACON FETTUCCINE

1 cup chopped cooked chicken

2 tablespoons jarred real bacon bits

1 cup broccoli florets

1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms (or 1 small can, drained)

1 package fettuccine Alfredo (Michelina's)

1/4 cup milk

Place chicken, bacon, florets and mushrooms on bottom of a microwaveable dish. Top with frozen entree. Cover and microwave on high about 3 minutes. Stir in milk and microwave 2 more minutes, uncovered. Let stand 1 minute before serving. Divide into 2 servings.

Variation 1: If using a chicken fettuccine Alfredo dinner (such as Healthy Choice), omit chicken.

Variation 2: Instead of chicken, use canned crab or tuna, drained (both now come in foil pouches).

—Valerie Phillips


SANTA FE-STYLE DINNER

1 cup chopped cooked chicken, turkey or beef

1/2 cup canned or frozen corn

1/4 cup chopped red or green pepper

1 package Santa Fe-Style Rice & Beans (Weight Watchers or Lean Cuisine)

Place chicken and corn in the bottom of a microwaveable dish. Top with frozen entree. Cover and microwave on high about 4 to 5 minutes. Stir to combine ingredients. Let stand 1 minute before serving. Divide into 2 servings.

— Valerie Phillips


CHEDDAR HAM & POTATO BAKE

1/4 cup chopped red or green peppers

3/4 cup diced ham or chicken

3/4 cup frozen peas

1 Cheddar Potato Bake dinner (Stouffer's)

Place peppers, ham and peas on the bottom of a microwaveable dish. Top with frozen entree, making sure crumb topping side is up. Cover and microwave for about 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Let stand 1 minute before dividing into two servings.

—Valerie Phillips


THAI-STYLE CHICKEN & RICE NOODLES

1 package Thai Style Chicken & Rice Noodles (Weight Watchers)

3/4 cup sugar snap peas

1/4 cup chopped red or green peppers

1/2 cup fresh sliced mushrooms (or 1 small can, drained)

Place frozen dinner in a microwaveable dish. Cook, covered, on high about 3 minutes, until meal is thawed and slightly warm. Stir in snap peas and peppers. Microwave an additional 2-3 minutes. Allow to stand 1 minute before dividing into two servings.

—Valerie Phillips


NOODLES ROMANOFF

1 single-serve box frozen macaroni 'n' cheese dinner (Lean Cuisine)

1/2 cup diced ham

1/2 cup frozen green peas

1/4 to 1/2 cup skim milk

Take dinner from package and combine with all ingredients except milk in large skillet. Cook over medium heat until warm. Add milk as needed to create a smooth, creamy sauce. (You can also cook this in a microwave.)

— USU Extension


SALAD PIZZA

1 prepared pizza crust (such as Boboli)

3-4 cups packaged Caesar salad, with dressing packet

1 tomato, diced

1/2 red onion, sliced thin

Heat crust in 350-degree oven until warm. Spread crust with Caesar dressing. Top with lettuce, tomato and onion.

— USU Extension


CHERRY CHOCOLATE TARTS

6 mini-graham cracker pie shells (or 1 large)

2/3 cup chocolate chips

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 6-8 ounce containers nonfat cherry yogurt

2 cups whipped topping, lite or fat-free if preferred

Combine chocolate chips and oil in a medium bowl. Microwave on high 1 minute. Stir until smooth. Do not overcook chips. Coat bottom and sides of tart shells with melted chocolate, Place yogurt in separate bowl. Fold in whipped topping. Spoon about 1/2 cup yogurt mixture into each shell. Garnish with maraschino cherry.

— USU Extension


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com