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MEALS

Delicious, healthy, budget-friendly meals are easy to make.

Cooking and eating healthy, budget-friendly meals takes a little planning, but it's well worth the effort. Once you've made a weekly meal plan and gone shopping for the ingredients, it's time to roll up your sleeves in the kitchen. You can save money in this department, too; get familiar with the best cooking techniques for inexpensive ingredients. Be prepared with clever ways to use leftovers or foods that are a bit past their prime. And, of course, know how to properly store leftovers and extra ingredients to avoid waste. Here are some tips to help you save money in the kitchen.

1. Cook and serve the right portions.

If you're eating meat for dinner, aim for it to take up no more than one-quarter of your plate. Fill half the plate with vegetables and the final quarter with a whole grain. Eating less meat is better for your health and your budget.

2. Cook 'em low and slow.

Tougher cuts of beef and pork are a lot cheaper than steaks and chops. The best way to cook tough cuts of meat: cook them low and slow, usually for three or more hours, often in liquid, to make them melt-in-your-mouth tender.

3. Add pasta or rice.

Got a few vegetables or a little leftover meat? Pasta and rice are cheap, healthy pantry items that let you turn a few leftovers into a meal. Try quickly sautéing peppers and onions and tossing them with noodles, herbs and a little cheese, or add rice into a vegetable soup to make it more satisfying.

4. Make stir-fry for dinner.

Stir-frying with plenty of vegetables and just a little bit of meat is an obvious choice when you want to make a quick and healthy dinner.

5. Cook once, eat twice.

Try doubling recipes so that you can get ahead on cooking and have a dinner or lunch ready for later. Recipes that freeze well are great ones to double. Also, consider cooking an extra chicken or more meat than you need. The leftovers are great in soups, salads, quesadillas or hash later in the week.

6. Pack a lunch.

If you're making a salad for dinner, make a little extra and put it in a container, undressed, for lunch the next day. Packing lunch is a great way to make sure you're not wasting any leftovers -- and to help you eat healthy, save money and save time throughout the day.

7. Feed yourself (not the birds) with stale bread.

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Turn stale bread into croutons for salads or soups. Just toss cubes with oil and some seasonings and bake them. Or make breadcrumbs to use in recipes that call for breadcrumbs.

8. Hold onto brown bananas.

Peel and freeze overripe bananas if you don't have time to use them immediately. Throw them into smoothies or defrost them when you want to make some banana bread or muffins.

9. Seal it up with vacuum-packed options.

Vacuum-sealing tools are truly revolutionary when it comes to preserving food in the freezer. They ensure that your food -- leftovers, meats, fruits, vegetables or extra stuff you bought in bulk -- stays delicious, without freezer burn, for months.

10. Plug in the slow cooker.

A slow cooker will make tough, inexpensive cuts of meat meltingly tender, and you can plug it in, leave for the day and come home to dinner.

(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)

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