Dinner ideas — cooking “flexipe” style to save money

I've been cooking for years. Although, if you ask my husband, I've been screwing up fried eggs for just as long. (His secret: Fry them on low to avoid cooking the egg too quickly.) So I am no genius in the kitchen, but I am getting better.

Flexible Cooking

I used to follow recipes exactly, afraid to deviate at all. (Didn't have all the ingredients? Find another recipe!) But then I discovered a recipe in a cookbook that had the same basic ingredients (meat, pasta, diced tomatoes), but the recipe authors gave suggestions on how to use different spices (chili powder or Italian seasoning) and cheeses (mozzarella vs. sharp cheddar) to totally change the taste of the dish.

Since then, I have been trying my hand at doing a little kitchen experimentation. And I came up with “Flexipes” or flexible recipes. (Uh, at least I thought I coined the phrase. I guess not.) Flexipes are recipes that allow you the flexibility to create delicious, delicious dishes while using up what you have in your pantry.

And how does cleaning out your pantry help you from cleaning out your wallet? Wasting less food, fewer last-minute trips to the grocery store, maybe even relying less on eating at restaurants. Because once you gain confidence in your own meal creation skills, you may prefer the challenge of creating a delicious meal out of random parts, so to speak.

I often rely on skillet dinners (dinners that can be cooked entirely in one pot) to feed my family. And sometimes this means I give myself points for fewer dishes to wash later.

If you're just starting out with flexipes, a skillet dinner is an easy place to start. Much like a universal muffin recipe from Amy Dacyczyn's “The Complete Tightwad Gazette,” here is one of mine.

Lisa's universal skillet recipe:

Around one pound of meat and/or beans Because I'm trying to cut down our meat consumption, I will usually use half a pound of ground beef, along with a cup or two of beans (black, cannellini, and pinto beans are favorites).

Vegetables If I have onions (which I usually have since they're cheap and store well), I use them in all my skillet creations. Diced tomatoes (or a can of salsa), celery, frozen corn, garlic, sliced cabbage, bell peppers, green chiles, and greens have all had their turn. Denser items like carrots and potatoes may need to be chopped into small pieces and precooked or added at the beginning.

Pasta/grains While I haven't branched out too much beyond macaroni and brown rice, I see no reason why quinoa, couscous, or other grains wouldn't work. Another original recipe called for Minute Rice, which cooked right in the pan. Dried macaroni also can cook in the pan if enough liquid (water or tomato juice) is present. However, if I am using something that takes longer to cook (like brown rice), I cook the rice separately (creating another dish to wash) and add it at the end.

Extras Depending on the flavor I'm going for (and what I want to use up), I may add some sliced olives, green chiles, or cheese — but it's usually cheese.

Herbs/spices Chili powder, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, salt and black pepper are just to get you started; but the sky's the limit when it comes to spices, as long as they're complementary (which is not to be confused with complimentary: My, paprika, you're looking good today.)

A Flexipe Example

Here's how a recent meal went down.

I had about half a pound of a ground-beef-and-black-bean mixture left over from another meal. To that, I added some brown rice, chopped up a very ripe tomato, added another can of diced tomatoes and green chilis, some Mexican blend cheese, salt, pepper, chili powder, and a couple of diced bacon strips (because bacon makes everything better). I served this with corn tortillas and it didn't taste at all like leftovers. Sophisticated? No. But it was good, gave us some fiber, protein, and veggies for a quick and easy meal.

Other dishes that make excellent flexipes are soups. Vegetables can easily be swapped in soups, along with the liquid base and different types of proteins.

Egg dishes like quiches and frittatas can easily be manipulated, depending on what you have on hand. Use a basic quiche recipe and then create a spinach and artichoke version. Have tomatoes to use up? How about a tomato and basil quiche? Stratas use bread, eggs, milk, cheese and, sometimes, vegetables to make a delicious meal.

Meeting Flexipe Challenges

One of the challenges with flexipe cooking is finding flavors that do complement each other. Since I discovered Leanne Brown's Eat Well on $4/day cookbook through one of April's recent articles, I have been (literally) devouring it. Her recipes lend themselves to flexible cooking, and she also gives tips on adapting the recipes.

When you're just starting out, you can also look for inspiration in the restaurants and recipes around you. This is a very simple example, but I see mushroom and Swiss burgers everywhere. So this morning, when I sauteed some mushrooms and added some scrambled eggs, Swiss cheese was thrown in, too. Simple and delicious.

And that's the thing. These meals probably won't bring gushes of admiration from your dinner table diners, but if simple and delicious peasant fare (check out the comments on this excellent article) is what you're going for, this will probably be enough.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a refrigerator to raid…

My ideas are undoubtedly influenced by my farming/Midwestern background, so I am interested to see how this is received in other areas. Can you create meals from your pantry, fridge, and freezer that don't follow a recipe? What are some of your favorite flexipes?

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Marsha
Marsha
5 years ago

I never follow a recipe exactly. Cookbooks are for inspiration, not for precise instructions. One of my favorite “flexipes” is pot pie. Two 9″ pie crusts, a can of cream-of-whatever condensed soup or leftover gravy, a cup of diced leftover meat, about two cups of vegetables, spices or herbs as desired. Mix the soup or gravy with the chopped meat and vegetables, bake between the pie crusts in a deep-dish pie pan for about an hour at 350. Cheaper if you make your pie crusts from scratch and use leftovers to stuff them. Can also be frozen, but will take… Read more »

Robb @ Top Financial Advisor
Robb @ Top Financial Advisor
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Haven’t tried pot pie — great idea.

My standard flexipes are rice and pasta mixes, like mentioned, and tortillas. You can throw about anything into a tortilla. Add some cumin, maybe some salsa (or whatever you want, really) and presto! Mexican food.

Danielle
Danielle
5 years ago

As mentioned above I do this with pot pie, frittatas and pasta dishes. I’ve also just begun doing it with risotto, because I’ll often cook a whole chicken then make stock, and it’s a great way to use up the stock and whatever is left in the fridge!

Cookster
Cookster
5 years ago

My favorite is 2 cups of vegies (I like onions, peppers, squash, tomatoes, peas, frozen mixed vegies)along with any kind of frozen potatoes and two eggs. Depending on the ingredients I can top with cheese or bacon bits. I serve with either seasoned salt or chili seasoning–whatever on hand. It’s tasty and filling.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

Interesting post! I rarely use recipes for everyday cooking because I’ve learned techniques such as stir fry, roasting vegetables, soups, salads, and fruit crumble. Recipes are great for trying something new, and I’ve found recipe blogs to be really useful because there are extra tips and suggestions (such as substitutions) that the author has personally tried. (Especially with food allergies or special diets!)

Aldo@MDN
5 years ago

Whenever I have to cook, I have to follow a recipe to the “T” If I don’t have a particular ingredient, I just can’t make anything. My fiancee just says, “so, use this instead.” But that’s not part of the recipe. “It doesn’t matter, this taste almost the same.” How much do I add? “Add some and taste it” Taste it? It’s not cooked yet. “Oh jeez, move over I’ll do it!”

That happens a lot in my house.

Emma
Emma
5 years ago

Google is my best friend in the kitchen. It’s really easy to find out what to substitute for a particular ingredient, or how to boost flavor while cutting back on salt or sugar.

I also Google various cooking mistakes to find out why my muffins didn’t rise or whatever. Live and learn, right?

Jen
Jen
5 years ago

Let me suggest a book called “How to cook without a book” by Pam Anderson, which explains a bunch of basic techniques AND gives AMOUNTS for things to add. She has basic directions for, say, steam-sauteing vegetables, plus how much oil, etc. and then a bunch of examples.
I’m not much of a recipe-follower, but this was a great book of instructions.

Anne
Anne
5 years ago

I am on the Paleo diet, so using up fresh produce while being flexible is a must (also, seeking out inexpensive options is a definite must!). One of my favorite things to dress up easily is salad: I usually have romaine, spring greens or spinach on hand, and I add any leftover meat (grilled chicken, bacon, prosciutto, etc.) with at least two veggies (often it’s shredded carrots, diced tomatoes or cucumbers, or mushrooms), maybe some fruit (berries or figs) and maybe a sprinkling of nuts (walnuts, slivered almonds, pine nuts). Homemade dressing is easy with olive oil, seasonings, and lemon… Read more »

Pau
Pau
5 years ago

My wife alters recipes all the time. To her, a recipe is a suggestion. When cooking, she never makes the exact same dish twice. She says that recipes are for baking. Cooking is more about what you have available and she experiments quite often.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago

Recipes are for skimming through and throwing away 😀 — This weekend I cleaned the fridge & pantry and the following foods & snacks occurred: – oatmeal with greek yogurt and mango preserves – sangría with 2 wines. still have OJ left. – popcorn with olive oil + yeast + soy sauce -pumpkin seeds with lime and chile – grilled beef – instant kimchi (add green onions, chile, etc., to pre-existing sauerkraut) – pasta with pesto (annoying alliteration, but tasty). had 2 different bits of pasta so i threw them in at different times. monday morning i still have 14… Read more »

Juli
Juli
5 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Can I be nosy and ask why you added yeast to popcorn? I’ve never heard of using yeast for anything other than making bread rise.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  Juli

Not baker’s yeast– the edible, hippie, “nutritional” yeast vegans eat for their B12. It adds a great umami taste and with soy sauce it’s just awesome.

Since it was cleanup weekend we scraped the bottom of the jar. Anything that was running low got eaten! Getting ready for a resupply.

Hoping to Adopt
Hoping to Adopt
5 years ago
Reply to  Juli

It is “nutritional yeast,” which is different than bread-making yeast. I have never used it, but I hear that it gives a “cheesy” flavor when put on popcorn.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  Juli

Yes! I should add that eaten by itself it’s very sticky and rather vile-tasting, but when moistened with soy sauce and lubricated with olive oil it’s just a perfect combination of salty and funky goodness. As with everything, you have to experiment.

Dianecy
Dianecy
5 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Same as Brewer’s Yeast? I think so.

My favorite popcorn combo is Brewer’s Yeast + grated fresh Parmesan + green Tabasco. No salt, no butter. Popcorn can be air-popped or stove top, but no micro junk. Sounds gross, but tastes surprisingly good.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

@ Dianecy – yes, Brewer’s Yeast, that’s the one– there are various kinds but my hippie store only carries one kind. Your recipe sounds great– yeast + parmesan = double the umami; the tabasco provides salt. Air poppers all the way! Easy and no burns. We get our popcorn from the hippies also–tastes amazing. Microwaved is nasty.

zambian lady
zambian lady
5 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Allrecipes.com – that is the site I used to learn to cook ‘western’ dishes. I actually also used it to do a delicious stir-fry yesterday.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
5 years ago
Reply to  zambian lady

@Zambian Lady – yes, the internet is great for that. I ended up making that egg salad but without yellow mustard, and lots more paprika (I like paprika). It was pretty great.

Charlotte
Charlotte
5 years ago

So Aldo — can you tell me more about not feeling you can deviate from a recipe? I find this fascinating (since I can’t follow one to save my life). Is it because you can’t really envision in your head how something will taste, so you prefer someone to lead you exactly? For instance, I don’t have a great color sense, so I can kind of understand how someone might not be able to think in flavors. Also, do you *want* to be able to cook without recipes? This is one of my real areas of interest — I’ve written… Read more »

gizmosdad
gizmosdad
5 years ago
Reply to  Charlotte

I used to feel the same way. The recipe is THE RECIPE, and you don’t ever challenge it. As in, if I add too much flour, then what I’m baking will be too dry. If I add too much salt, well, then it’s too salty. The recipe is written by the recipe gods, and you don’t challenge the gods. I’ve gotten over that phase, and now I go radical on things, always wanting to try something new, always tweaking. It drives my wife crazy that I can’t eat a bowl of cereal — I have to mix up ingredients from… Read more »

A.J.
A.J.
5 years ago

Pasta dishes are another versatile way to use up other foods. Dry pasta is a cheap pantry staple, and tastes good tossed with just about any vegetable(s) sauteed in olive oil and garlic and sprinkled with a little cheese. It’s also really easy to make sauce in the food processor with fresh or canned tomatoes, whatever vegetables you have on hand, and some seasoning. Add some protein (meat, canned beans, cooked lentils) and you have a filling, easy meal.

Ellen Cannon
5 years ago

From reader Sherri M via email:

I totally agree with you Lisa and I think I have become a better cook too.

If I don’t have any tomatoes for a salad I now use oranges, apples, or strawberries. My soups are always different & usually quite good..we laugh & say that it can’t be replicated.

I also love the one pan method & often add veggies to steam on top of rice during last few minutes of cooking. Thanks for sharing!

mary w
mary w
5 years ago

Pizza is a great way to use up ingredients. You need to follow a recipe for the dough but toppings and sauce can be whatever you want. Through trial and error you figure out how much sauce and fillings are too much.

Sautéed chicken breasts is another great flexipe…you need an allium (onion, garlic, leeks or shallot), an acid (wine, lemon juice, vinegar), some additions (veggies, cooked beans, whatever) and appropriate spices.

Big-D
Big-D
5 years ago

I am big on this. My lady friend calls it Bachelor Gruel as it is what ever I want thrown in a pot and mixed. I use a lot of rice and quinoa instead of pasta now days, usually lots of spices and cheese as well. I use a lot of chicken, seafood (shrimp, fish, etc.) as well as beef, buffalo, bratwursts, chicken, and turkey. The best is pre-made meatballs from Costco. Man I am getting hungry at the moment.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

I only use recipes when baking (not much room to experiment) or when making a dish that’s more “ethnic” such as Thai or Indian cuisine. My diet is somewhat strict and unfortunately many of the cheaper foods are forbidden in my body so I make the best financially of what I can consume.

I enjoy cooking a great deal, even in my postage stamp sized kitchen and Easy Bake Oven sized stove. Most nights is pretty easy for me to make a satisfying, healthy and delicious meal for my husband and I.

Hoping to Adopt
Hoping to Adopt
5 years ago

Here in Min-e-sota, this is called “hotdish.” A pound of ground meat (from a cow, pig, deer, it doesn’t matter), some noodles (it’s noodles here, not pasta), a can of vegetables (or frozen vegetables) and usually a can of something – cream of . . .soup, or tomato soup. That there is some good stuff, you betcha! 🙂

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
5 years ago
Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
5 years ago

I like to call these: unrecipes!

Another Beth
Another Beth
5 years ago

I love soup for using up odds and ends. The entire POINT of soup (and stir fry, too!), IMO, is to cook whatever is starting to look a bit off. The downside is that I can never replicate what I’ve made; what I had on hand for soup three weeks ago might be completely different from what’s going in the pot tonight. Here’s something else we do from time to time. When the leftovers start to accumulate in the fridge, but we don’t have enough of any one meal to go around for everyone, we just set all the containers… Read more »

Mysticaltyger
Mysticaltyger
5 years ago

I do this style of cooking all the time. I also found having a good wok is even better than a skillet. I find a wok is easier to use and You can get more food in there and possibly have leftovers for lunch the next day.

I also LOVE couscous. It cooks a lot faster than brown rice does.

AZ Joe
AZ Joe
5 years ago

One of my favorite clean-out-the-fridge recipes is Amy Dacyczyn’s (Tightwad Gazette) “Real Tightwads Eat Quiche.” A pastry crust can be used if desired, but her rice based crust is super easy and tastes great. Even though it is almost 3 pages long I recommend the recipe (it is so long due to the extreme flexibility of the recipe). My family was initially dubious to find black beans and spaghetti pasta in their Quiche but decided it is probably O.K if it tastes good – and it did!

melanie
melanie
5 years ago

I can’t believe no one has mentioned “Recipe Key.” It takes the things you have in your “pantry” and finds a matching recipe. It’s genius! Here’s other ways I use up leftovers: http://love-library.com/2014/01/09/8-ways-save-money-reusing-leftovers/

Eric T
Eric T
5 years ago

Woohoo! You (re-)discovered hamburger helper. Who knew there was ever a market for this!?!?!?!?

Millionaires Giving Money
Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

Nice exciting recipes here. In the past I’ve saved a lot of money by cooking with rice, peas, and onions but these recipes listed here have given me some ideas, thanks for sharing.

MoneyMiniBlog
MoneyMiniBlog
5 years ago

This is a great way to save money and eliminate waste. I love the feeling of cleaning out the cabinets by using the things we have instead of buying each specific thing for a recipe. Never heard the term flexipe before though, I’ll have to start using that!

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago

I honestly didn’t know there were people out there who follow cooking recipes step-by step (baking I understand, since the results are much more dependent on exact ratios of ingredients). Instead of building up cooking to be this rigorous by-the-book exercise, I find that it’s much easier to use published recipes as a guideline and deviate based on what I’m feeling like and what I may have left over.

Lola
Lola
5 years ago

My brother and I both grew up watching our mom cook but we are total opposites in the kitchen. He does all the cooking for his family and is a VERY intuitive cook and I am a slave to recipes (and we both are pretty good cooks!). I am trying to be more intuitive and experiment; and my brother likes to look at recipes for inspiration and technique but always goes his own way in the end. I am good at mixing things into eggs or throwing something a tortilla but don’t make very complex dishes without a recipe for… Read more »

Heather
Heather
5 years ago

Not getting take out or going to restaurants is a great way to save money. Even better is to make sure that as you’re cooking dinners throughout the week that stuff doesn’t get thrown out because it didn’t get eaten before it went bad. I’ve been making menu plans this month and when I put it together, I keep in mind what we have going on those nights, as well as what we have in the fridge and freezer already. We are currently working on eating through our freezer as well as ensuring all leftovers and produce get used.

Kara
Kara
5 years ago

I drive my husband a wee bit crazy because I almost never follow recipes (unless it’s something entirely new to me.) This means that there’s very little I make the same way twice, which kind of stinks because when I find a ‘winner’, by the time it’s eaten and enjoyed, I’ve often forgotten exactly what/how much of things I used to make it. It is also why I am probably a poor baker. Measuring EXACT amounts instead of eyeballing has never been my thing. But a little flexibility and creativity in the kitchen does indeed help stretch the budget. Don’t… Read more »

Kellie
Kellie
5 years ago

Frugal cooking absolutely DEMANDS flexibility. One thing I’m trying to work past is making the same things all the time — this keeps the family happy. Great article! Thanks 🙂

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