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.
More Fast Flavors From Your Grocery Store
8. Bottled barbecue sauce. Add flavor to your ground beef when making burgers; jazz up your chicken sandwich; or make a quick barbecue pork or beef sandwich by mixing the shredded meat with some barbecue sauce. Two tablespoons of your basic barbecue sauce adds around 60 calories, 0 grams fat, and 240 mg sodium.
9. Fancy mustard. A little mustard adds fast flavor to your tuna or chicken salad, meatloaf, sandwiches, and baked chicken or pork. French's honey dijon has 10 calories, 0 grams fat, and 40 mg sodium per teaspoon, while a teaspoon of Spicy Brown Mustard adds 5 calories, 0 grams fat, and 50 mg sodium.
10. Flavored, marinated tuna. It's a bit pricy, but you can buy already flavored tuna in varieties such as zesty lemon pepper, hickory smoked, and sweet and spicy. A 2-ounce serving has 70 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 250 mg sodium.
11. Cream-style horseradish. Use this high-flavor jarred condiment in sandwiches, meats, sauces, and more. One teaspoon only adds 10 calories, 0.5 grams fat, and around 20 mg sodium.
12. Bottled Asian sauces. These add flavor to stir-fry and meat dishes and can also be used as a quick dipping sauce for appetizers. Several types are available, but the two that will probably be most useful are spicy kung pao sauce and hoisin sauce. Two tablespoons contribute around 45 calories, 1 gram fat, and 450 mg sodium.
13. Balsamic vinegar. This is a VERY flavorful vinegar, and it stands alone better than most other types. You can use it in recipes without having to balance the acid taste with oil. Add balsamic to salads, sauces, marinades, dips, etc. I like to drizzle some over fresh mozzarella layered with tomato slices and fresh basil (served on bread).
14. Molly McButter butter sprinkles. Usually found in the spice section, these come in two flavors -- regular and cheese -- to use on veggies, potatoes, and other dishes. One teaspoon of the regular has 5 calories and 180 mg sodium; cheese contains 5 calories and 125 mg sodium. Butter Buds is another brand of butter sprinkles.
15. Bottled minced garlic and ginger. Garlic is one of my favorite fast flavors, probably because I cook Italian-style dishes a lot. It's fast because I use minced garlic from the bottle. Just spoon out a teaspoon or two and off you go; no presses, no garlic skin, no smelly fingers. Minced ginger in jars makes cooking Asian dishes easy too.
16. Creole and Cajun seasoning. These seasonings add a lot of taste, but they can add a lot of salt, too, so be sure to check the labels. One-fourth of a teaspoon can contain as much as 310 milligrams of sodium.
17. I Can't Believe It's Not Butter sprays. These are found in the margarine section and come in original and garlic and herb flavors. If you use it as a topping, it adds 0 grams of fat and 15 mg sodium. Some people use it to flavor vegetables and potatoes. While we're on the subject of flavor sprays, a new line of these is being sold on the Flavor Spray Diet web site (and possibly other locations). You won't believe the flavors they carry: Parmesan cheese, smoked bacon, cookies and cream, birthday cake, and many more. The company says the sprays have 0 calories and 0 grams of fat. Each 2-ounce bottle costs around $6. My guess is that either you are a "flavor spray" type of person or you're not. If you are, you might want to check these out.