In Defense of Bean Night: Save Big and Eat Well (Plus 6 Ways to Get Started)

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Photo by: Tara Donne ©FOOD NETWORK : 2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

Tara Donne, FOOD NETWORK : 2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

Every budget shopper knows that dried beans are downright cheap. So when I'm thinking about inexpensive, but healthful, meals to feed my family (and let’s face it, I spend a lot of time thinking about just that), it’s impossible not to place this versatile little nutritional gem front and center on the menu. Thus, I created “Bean Night.”

It started 10 years ago when Philippe went back to graduate school and we transitioned from having two steady incomes to having suddenly none (plus a very expensive tuition bill and a baby on the way). I watched every penny, so I created a handful of uber-cheap dinners that I could feel good about eating — meals that cost about $5 to make. My plan was to rotate these extra-cheap meals into our weekly menu plan to save money.

It worked.

Philippe got his MBA, we ate well and we sailed off into the sunset, and it was all thanks to Bean Night. The end. (Just kidding.) But Bean Night did help us stay on budget so we could minimize student loans (for Philippe and for our four daughters, who will undoubtedly need them when they head off to college).

What makes Bean Night such a compelling money-saving strategy is that savings are automatic. You don't have to think about saving; just plan to have one of your thrifty Bean Night meals each week. To illustrate: If you spend an average of, say, $12 on a dinner (may I be so bold to suggest you watch Ten Dollar Dinners Mondays through Thursdays at 1:30|12:30c?), but your Bean Night meal costs only $6, then right there you would save more than $300 a year, nearly effortlessly. If you are imagining a world in which you are stuck drowning in a pot of beans every Thursday in the name of savings, let me share some exciting news: Bean Night isn’t just about beans. You can serve any inexpensive protein to realize the savings: eggs, whole-grain pasta, canned salmon (don’t freak) and more. The possibilities are endless. So why do I call it "Bean Night" if it’s not just about beans? Because it’s fun to say.

Here are 6 ideas to get you started on planning a weekly Bean Night in your house:

1. Serve Eggs — At pennies an egg (even the organic ones), this is a protein that is too often overlooked for dinner. When I lived in Paris, I found the French served eggs frequently for an easy dinner, even to company. Pair a simple omelet with a green salad and a tangy mustard vinaigrette (try my Cafe Green Salad). Or maybe serve a quiche (crustless will save even more money). Even super-soft scrambled eggs with some cheese and a handful of sauteed mushrooms can be an easy, inexpensive dinner (the trick is really low heat and adding a splash of milk just at the end — see my Velvet Scrambled Eggs recipe).

2. Go Meatless — You can skip meat altogether any day of the week, not just Mondays. Try using whole-grain pasta (read the label to see there’s lots of protein in there) to make my Pasta with Salsa Cruda, an easy no-cook tomato-caper sauce with a few surprise ingredients. Or pick up whole-grain pizza dough (you can even ask at your local pizza restaurant if they’ll sell you some for a buck or two) and make your own pizza — like my Grilled Mixed-Mushroom Pizza — and serve it with a salad.

3. Open a Can of Fish — Don’t shy away from this option. Think tuna is for only mayo and bread? Think again. Make my Tuna Bread Salad, or saute up onions, garlic, red pepper flakes, tuna and capers to add to spaghetti sauce for pasta. Pick up a large can of canned salmon (full of Omega-3s and lots of calcium) at the drugstore (my secret source for inexpensive canned salmon) and make my Salmon Cakes. Really.

4. Make a Quick Tarte and a Salad — Buy a package of frozen puff pastry on sale (a worthy splurge that will turn almost anything elegant) and keep it in your freezer. Brush thawed pastry with some Dijon mustard, top with sauteed or roasted veggies, a sprinkle of cheese, ham cubes or chopped bacon, and some fresh herbs, then bake until golden. Serve with a salad (remember my 2014 Salad a Day resolution), and you’ve got a perfect Bean Night dinner.

5. Stretch Small Quantities of Meat — Cut up a leftover pork chop, a few ounces of rotisserie chicken or a single sausage and bulk them up with less-pricey ingredients to make a salad or pasta dish. (Use leftovers for topping my Winter Kale Salad or tossing with pasta, fresh herbs, lemon zest and olive oil.)

6. Serve Beans — Yes, you can even serve beans for Bean Night. A classic go-to would be a kettle of warming chili (see my blog post about winter comfort foods). But you could also make black bean burgers (check out the Black Bean Nacho Burgers in my cookbook for inspiration). You can even go old-school and whip up some creamy herbed white beans (see my Sauteed White Beans). Serve them alongside some brown rice for a tasty take on rice and beans.

Bonus tip: Wondering how to easily cook up dried beans at home? Here’s my easy how-to with the details, plus even more recipe ideas.

What are some of your favorite Bean Night meals?
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