As the new chef at the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa, Don Nolan takes low-cost produce and donated dry goods and spins them into culinary gold: delicious, prepared meals for the food bank’s clients, who also receive a box of free food each month.
The innovative Kitchen Collective program, which launched in mid-April, allows the chef to provide healthy, high-protein meals that come frozen and ready to be heated up in the microwave or the oven. It’s a win-win for both the food bank and its many clients who, like the rest of us, are busy juggling multiple jobs and family responsibilities.
While cooking the mostly vegetarian meals, Nolan uses the same, low-cost ingredients that many of the food bank clients who are seniors receive once a month in a box as part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP).
These relatively affordable ingredients include a wide range of products, from quick oats and peanut butter to rice and beans, from canned tuna and salmon to butter and milk, fresh cheese and yogurt. The fresh produce ranges from sweet potatoes, onions, carrots and cabbage to oranges, apples and nectarines.
For the busy home cook who’s also trying to make ends meet with the food budget, we asked Nolan to provide some inspiration for breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes that are affordable, easy to make and meet a wide array of tastes.
For breakfast, Nolan suggested a simple granola made from healthy ingredients like rolled oats, shredded carrot, maple syrup or honey, brown sugar, cinnamon, dried fruit and toasted nuts.
“We are working on making the granola and putting it into bags,” he said. “It’s good to snack on and great with milk or yogurt.”
For a heartier breakfast, he suggests a savory casserole known as a “strata,” made by whipping together some eggs and cream and pouring it over slices of multigrain bread and kale.
For a snack between meals, Nolan suggested a no-cook Peanut Butter Oat Bar. These refrigerator cookies are made with a crunchy combination of peanut butter, honey, rolled oats, dried fruit and nuts, which are pressed into a casserole dish, then refrigerated.
“Anybody can make it, and it doesn’t make a huge mess,” he said. “You can give them to the kids for a snack, and it has oats and fiber, so it fills you up.”
At home, Nolan likes to add protein powder and healthy seeds like flax and pumpkin seeds to the bar, for added nutrition. You could also add some homemade granola or your favorite breakfast cereal.
“The fun thing about it is you can mix things in with it, like Rice Krispies, to add crunch,” he said. “They’re really good.”
For lunch, Nolan suggested building a protein-rich salad he recently demonstrated in cooking class for veterans. The classic French salad makes use of low-budget ingredients such as canned tuna or salmon, fresh tomatoes and green beans, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, garbanzo beans and lettuce.
“We made the Salade Nicoise with a Mason jar dressing of olive oil, lemon and shallots,” he said. “It’s a complete meal.”
Dinner entrées, similar to the prepared meals he makes for the Redwood Empire Food Bank clients, may draw from a wide range of fresh vegetables, rice and beans, plus ethnic spices.