Prepare your pantry

The motto, “Be prepared,” just might be the ticket to both happy hosts and houseguests.

A fully and smartly stocked pantry, fridge and freezer can be the key to a well-fed crowd with a minimum of fuss. Take into account the various dietary needs, appetites and palates of individuals – it can help steer you toward the right foods to stock up on.

Your guests may be vegetarians, low-carb eaters, kids and just plain picky eaters. However, you do have to draw the line at how much you are willing to cater to individual food styles. Be fair to yourself by setting some reasonable shopping and preparation limits. Family members should understand that if there are any unusual requirements, that person should bring along some staples. 

Check with parents to avoid argument
When it comes to shopping for the grandkids, be sure to check with the parents as to any dietary restrictions — medical or parental. While some parents may be easygoing, others have definite rules, so get their input and steer clear of any potential conflicts. Checking for favourite foods and brands as well — types of cereals, peanut butter, fruits and vegetables and en cheeses — can make meals more pleasurable for everyone concerned.    

Keep in mind as you put together your shopping list that you’re trying to provide a number of choices. Depending on everyone’s appetites and preferences during the holiday, when the family departs, you may be left with a bare minimum of food or have plenty to eat for the next while. So try to purchase items that will be a welcome addition to your pantry or freezer.

Use the freezer to advantage
Look for items that require a minimum of preparation or do some up front prep work and put some dishes into the freezer in appropriate size portions.

Prepare a few basics, such as tomato sauce, in larger batches that can be used as a foundation for a number of meals. Add meatballs to a hearty prepared tomato or pasta sauce or chick peas for a meat-less selection.

Casseroles are super freezer options. And many can be made with variations to suit the various tastes of your family. For picky youngsters and adults, a macaroni and cheese casserole can contain the basics of the pasta and a cheese sauce with a crumb topping. For the more adventurous, mix some of the casserole with sautéed onions, mushrooms and spinach. Then freeze each in individual servings as an alternative when the rest of the family is dining on something more exotic.

Soups are another make-ahead option. Use vegetable soups as a starter or sandwich accompaniment or try layering the soup, as the Italians do in ribolitta, with bread and cheese in an oven-proof dish. Cover tightly and freeze to bake later for a meatless main course.

Special dishes such tourtière or fruit pies can also be frozen unbaked and ready for the oven.

Next page: Family treasures, and a shopping list

Check old recipe books for family favourites, dishes that have been the centre of many enjoyable meals. There’s nothing like food to bring back pleasant family memories. The recipes may need a little sprucing up — some added seasoning or maybe a little paring down of fat to meet today’s tastes. Then add some new dishes from your repertoire to the planning.

Don’t forget to take advantage of cooking opportunities. For example, when making pasta for dinner, make extra for a pasta salad the next day. The same goes for poultry. Just be sure to set aside the next day’s fixings and refrigerate right after cooking — a wise move as far as food safety goes, but also so it won’t get finished while everyone’s sitting around the table.

Smart Stocks for the Kitchen


· Canned legumes, such as chick peas, kidney bean and lentils for a tasty dip, added to salads or pasta sauces or soups for vegetarians.
· Canned fish (tuna, salmon and crabmeat) for sandwiches, melts, pasta sauces or salads.
· Canned tomatoes for sauces or soups.
· Canned fruit for a quick crisp or pie or as a topping for yogurt
· Pasta. Go for whole wheat or assorted shapes for a taste of the Mediterranean or rice or soba noodles for an Asian touch.
· Lower salt broths as a quick foundation for meals and side dishes.
· Juice boxes. Get a variety of individual juice boxes if there are a number of  kids. This will provide for their different preferences and be less wasteful than large containers of each.  


· Peanut butter. Not for kids alone, this staple can be the basis for an Asian noodle dish or salad.
· Yogurt. Get plain low-fat for dips and dressings or the youngsters’ favourite brand of fruit flavoured varieties.
· Cheese. Depending on family preferences, choose some basics suitable for sandwiches, others for cooking or garnishes, such as Parmesan and cheddar types, cheese strings for the kids and, as a treat, some special selections for serving with wine.
· Assorted condiments. Among the options may be various mustards, chutneys and salsas, depending on how adventurous your family’s palate is.


· Frozen vegetable mixes. Check out the various mixes available and purchase according to your family’s preferences. Try some of the newer stir-fry combinations for their fresh flavour and texture. For a quick salad, microwave your choice of veggie until crisp and toss with your favourite dressing. Refrigerate for later use.
· Meat or poultry strips. Use for quick stir-fries and for salads.
· Mini meatballs. Bake mini meatballs in the oven and then freeze, covered, in a single layer on a plastic wrap-lined baking sheet. Once frozen solid, pack into a labelled container and use as you like. Add a couple of meatballs to a grandchild’s bowl of soup or pasta  for an easy protein option at a meal.
· Breads and alternatives. Keep sliced breads, rolls cut in half [WHY?]and flour tortillas on hand for quick sandwiches and melts.
· Frozen fruit. Berries can be added to sliced apples or pears for a yummy fruit crisp or mixed with cut-up fresh fruit for a fruit salad.
· Crumb toppings. Mix together oats, nuts, brown sugar and cinnamon for fruit crisps and crumbles. Sprinkle on sliced fresh fruit for dessert for one or two people or a family-sized dish for everyone.

Versatile Ratatouille
This vegetable stew is great hot or cold. Enjoy it as a side dish or as a filling for omelettes, topped with melted cheese or mixed with chick peas and rice for a meatless main course. And as a bonus, it can be made ahead and frozen.

4 tsp (20 ml) extra virgin olive oil 
1   large onion, diced  
4   large garlic cloves, chopped  
1   large eggplant (unpeeled), diced (about 1 1/2 lb/750 g)  
3   medium zucchinis, diced (about 1–1/2 lb/750 g)
2   red peppers, diced  
1   can (28 oz/796 ml) Italian plum tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped 
3 tbsp (45 ml)    tomato paste        
1 cup (250 ml) packed fresh parsley sprigs, chopped     
1 tbsp (15 ml) capers, rinsed and drained       
2 tsp (10 ml) granulated sugar          
3 tbsp (45 ml) red wine vinegar           
Salt and freshly ground pepper 

In heavy large Dutch oven, heat half the oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté 4 to 5 minutes or until soft. Add eggplant and sauté for 10 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl. Heat remaining oil in same pot; add zucchini and peppers; sauté for 5 minutes. Add eggplant mixture back to pot along with tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, capers and sugar. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for about 35 minutes or until all vegetables are tender. Stir in vinegar and cook, uncovered, until most of the liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Makes about 10 cups (2.5 l), 10 to 12 servings

PER 12-SERVINGS NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION: calories: 67; protein: 2 g; fat: 2 g; saturated fat: less than 1 g; carbohydrate: 12 g; dietary fibre: 3 g; sodium: 250  mg.