Saturday, September 12, 2009

0 Some Creative Ways to Generate Easy,Thrifty, & (Shock, Shock! Yes, It's True!) Healthy Meal Ideas

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I wanted to share a very simple but creative way to save money & generate meal ideas in these budget-conscious times: Base your meals around coupons.

Now, that doesn't mean I'm suggesting that you create a dinner based around "Little Debbies." :) Or whatever happens to be on sale at the moment. You don't have to be at the mercy of grocery store flyers, coupon mailers, or the advertising & coupon inserts in your Sunday paper to create healthy meals on a budget. :)

There's been a lot of media coverage about the "high cost of cheap food." But I'm not talking about funnel cakes and fast-food here. I'm talking about fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, and other basic food staples which can be used very inexpensively to make healthy, fresh meals.

What I'm suggesting is this: Find some coupons for a food item with high nutritional value, and use them to jumpstart your brainstorming process. Perhaps the meal will center around this ingredient as the "main event" or perhaps it will be used as a background element. The point is that this method is a tool to help you generate ideas and focus in on a solution.

A lot of times I find that it's easier to come with meal ideas if one has something in mind or at least some kind of tool or resource to help narrow down the vast array of selections, as opposed to asking the open-ended question, "What the heck should I make for dinner?!" :) Such questions have been known to strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced cooks, especially when one is short on time & overwhelmed with the many things one must do in a day.

Most creative souls know that if they wait for inspiration to strike, that there are those days when they might be waiting for quite a while. :) A more proactive approach is to look at the situation like a jigsaw puzzle where one can best solve it by working the outer edges and corners first. :) Either that, or one can start by assembling the pieces with the instantly recognizable images! This is a much better way to go about finding a "solution" versus dumping the entire 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle out onto the table, crossing one's fingers, & hoping for the best. :)

Either way, you get the metaphor. Formulate a strategy. Narrow down the number of variables you have to simultaneously contend with and then take the step-by-step approach, as a means of solving the "problem." [OK, this isn't the same thing as a calculus exam; no one will be grading you on your ability to come up with "creative dinner solutions." :) ]

The reason for why this method is so effective is really quite simple: You don't just pull creative ideas out of a hat. Really, creativity doesn't work like that. Yeah, yeah, I know there are some people who say that they don't have any idea where such-and-such idea came from, but if we really analyze the creative process, there is a lot of evidence to support that creative ideas are actually formed over a long period of time; they come from a long, slow mulling-over of thoughts, both consciously and subconsciously. It is a "percolation" of the mind, if you will. And a lot of that occurs in the unconscious mind -- in both waking & sleep states. There is also a certain "ebb and flow" of the creative process itself, in which the ebb isn't actually an inactive period in the mind; the mind is still processing information, but to the naked eye of the conscious observer, it might just simply look that way. Anyhow, this isn't a discourse in psychology or the biological sciences.

My larger point is this: When it comes to generating ideas, limitations can actually be a good thing. As the expression goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention." And nowhere is that more true than in the kitchen. I find that my most creative ideas come from having to work within a limitation of some sort. This is not stifling; it's actually liberating, because it forces a person to "find solutions," often in an unorthodox way that one would not have thought of otherwise (i.e., under "normal" circumstances).

Anyhow, here's an example of how you can put "coupon-based, meal-idea brainstorming" to work for you: The other day I had a coupon for 2 half-gallon cartons of grapefruit juice. Now how the heck can I get a meal idea out of something like this, you might ask?! Well, grapefruit juice can be used in some surprising ways, let me tell you. :)

One of the more obvious ideas would be to use the juice for breakfast or freeze the juice & turn them into juice popsicles & eat them as snacks. But that's not really a meal, now is it? A much more interesting idea would be to use the juice for a smoothie for either breakfast or lunch. This is especially useful for a meal-on-the-go. I even happen to have an original recipe for that. Grapefruit apricot smoothie, anyone? ;)

And then we can get even more creative with ways to incorporate grapefruit juice into recipes. Some ideas: Grapefruit juice can be used as an ingredient in glazed chicken, fish, beets, and various other dishes. It can also be incorporated into a vinaigrette for a salad. And so on & so forth.

This exercise can be rather fun. Just recently, I looked through my coupons and challenged myself to create meal ideas from multiple coupons. Now, THAT can be a real flexing of one's creative muscles. LOL!

Often, I'll look through my fridge and cupboards, and see what I can make from what's lying around the house. Even if my supplies are dwindling, I can usually come up with something. Or, if not, I consult online resources for additional help.

One site that I highly recommend for generating meal ideas is RecipePuppy. This site will search for recipe ideas based on the ingredients you plug into its search engine. I tell you, this site rocks! Not only that, but they are on both Twitter (@RecipePuppy) and Facebook, & even happen to have their very own Twitter search bot, where you can tweet some ingredients to RecipePuppy's @recipebot, and you'll get some recipe ideas tweeted back to you using the ingredients you specified. Pretty cool, eh?!

RecipePuppy also has a site called CookThing, which has a similar function.

So next time you're struggling for meal ideas, try following some of the above suggestions. Hope these ideas help you!


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