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Fast Flavors: Herbs, Spices and Other Speedy Taste Boosters

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I've had lots of experience cooking in the trenches. On a typical weeknight at my house, everyone is hungry after a busy day, so I'm scrambling to prepare a healthy, low-calorie, tasty dinner at lightening speed. As I rummage through the refrigerator, chop vegetables and flip on the stove, I'm simultaneously fielding homework questions from my children and trying to pay attention as my husband tells me about his day.

If you find that you are often preparing dinner on the run, there are some quick ways to add a little zing and variety to those last-minute meals. Herbs and spices, as well as sauces, marinades, flavored sprays, and other ingredients can instantly transform a humdrum meal into a delectable one.

Next time you go to your grocery store, give yourself a little extra time to stock up on herbs and spices and other ingredients, so you'll have them on hand whenever you need to give your cooking a tasty boost. Here are 17 ingredients that will add fast flavor to your meals:

1. Freshly ground pepper. Buy a colorful and flavorful assortment of peppercorns and fill a battery-operated peppermill for fast (one-handed) fresh-ground pepper.
2. Bottled salsa. Salsa adds quick flavor to chicken, quesadillas, egg dishes, and more. In some supermarkets, you can even find flavors like tequila lime, roasted garlic salsa, or mango peach salsa. Two tablespoons of salsa add a lot of flavor for only about 15 calories.
3. Mrs. Dash salt-free seasoning blends. With a flip of the wrist, you can add an assortment of herbs and spices to all sorts of dishes (stir-frys, veggie sautes, egg dishes, casseroles, meat, pasta, potatoes, and more). There are many blends to choose from: garlic and herb, southwest chipotle, onion and herb, and spicy, just to name a few. One-fourth teaspoon contains 0 calories and 0 mg sodium.
4. Taco seasoning packets. These are a fast way to add flavor to beef, chicken, or refried beans for use in Mexican dishes or dips. Check the label; some brands are higher in sodium than others. Two teaspoons contain about 15 calories and 330-430 mg sodium, depending on the brand.
5. Grill Mates Marinade packets (McCormick). Available in several flavors, ranging from black peppercorn to garlic, herb and wine, these packets turn into a marinade when blended with water, oil, and vinegar. Keep in mind that salt is the primary ingredient in some flavors. Also, remember you don't have to use the entire 4 tablespoons of oil the package calls for; you can probably get by with half that amount. Just increase the water by 2 tablespoons. Other brands, like Durkee, also make these packets.
6. Grill Mates rubs. These seasonings are designed to go straight on the meat, no mixing or blending required. They come in different flavors for chicken, pork, and steak. Two teaspoons of the chicken flavor adds 260 mg sodium and only 15 calories.
7. Bottled 30-minute marinades. Open the bottle and pour the marinade over the meat or vegetable of your choice, then bake or grill. What could be easier? One tablespoon of Lawry's brand contains 15-30 calories, 0 gram fat, and around 400 mg sodium, depending on the flavor.

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