Prairie Fare: Save Money, Avoid Food Waste by Using Food You Have on Hand

North Dakota State University Extension
A stir-fry is a good way to use up whatever vegetables you have on hand.

“Mom, I need to eat more vegetables,” my daughter said as we pushed a cart around a grocery store.

I did not think those words would ever come out of my daughter’s mouth.

“Pick out whatever vegetables you want,” I replied happily.

I was footing the grocery bill for my young adult. She had reminded me that I often took her older brother on grocery shopping missions during his early months of living on his own.

As we walked, she quizzed me about the attributes of various foods, even though I was “off duty” as a nutrition specialist.

“I have some meat in my fridge to use soon. I’d like some peppers. Which are the healthiest peppers?” she asked.

“Red peppers are highest in vitamin C, but green, red, yellow and orange peppers all are good for you,” I said. “They’re on special for $1 each, so how about one of each color?”

“These would be good in stir-fries or fajitas,” I added.

Next, she picked up a red cabbage.

I began to wonder if my real daughter had been abducted by space aliens. Who was this person, anyway?

She picked up a larger cabbage after reading the price. In small print, the 99-cent price was per pound.

“You might want to get the smaller cabbage, unless you have lots of plans for cabbage,” I said.

“I’m figuring out what to do with the food I have on hand. I don’t want to throw it away,” she said.

“You really should try a free app I downloaded,” she added. “You enter the ingredients you have on hand, and then it finds you recipes.”

Now, the “child” was teaching the mother.

I use various mobile applications, or “apps,” on my smart phone, but I had never used an app to inform me what to cook. I just look at what I have and invent a recipe.  

If you have an iPhone, Android or iPad, you might want to explore some of the many free food apps. However, remember that many online recipes are accompanied with advertisements to entice you to buy specific brands of ingredients.

If you click on an ad, you may leave a digital footprint. The ads may follow you to social media. You may not realize why you feel the need for the advertised product.

As examples, “SuperCook” (my daughter’s favorite) allows you to upload your existing ingredients. “AllRecipes Dinner Spinner” provides inspiration for meals with its 50,000 recipes, while “Epicurious” allows you to explore 35,000 recipes. Further, MyPlate has a free app to help you plan a healthier diet.

Be sure to read the small print before you download apps. The apps may track your contact information and other ways to identify you.

The sheer volume of online recipe options can be overwhelming. Like most people, I only make one main dish at a time. Not all recipes are healthful and some require cheflike skills or at least, a lot of experience in the kitchen.

Actually, I kind of like “old school” printed cookbooks.

Hungry for new recipes? I have an opportunity for you. Please enter the drawing for a free 2022 calendar. Go to and fill out this online form to enter. If the link doesn’t work, email me at with a column idea and your full address.

Instead of a recipe, here’s a creative exercise in using what you have on hand, which could include peppers and cabbage that my daughter took home. It is one of the many publications in a series of publications at NDSU Extension. See and click on “Pinchin’ Pennies in the Kitchen” to learn how to use what you have.

7 Steps to Creating a Stir-fry

Choose a protein. For example, choose 1 pound of chicken, beef or pork cut in small, bite-sized pieces, OR one package of firm tofu cut into half-inch cubes. For uniform cooking, cut the protein into similar-sized pieces.

Marinate the protein in one of the following:

3 to 4 tablespoons soy sauce or teriyaki sauce, reduced-sodium

3 to 4 tablespoons chicken broth

3 to 4 tablespoons apple juice

Prepare produce.

1 onion, cut into wedges

1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups fresh vegetables, such as shredded carrots, shredded cabbage, sliced mushrooms, sliced celery, sliced peppers, broccoli, zucchini or yellow squash, or substitute frozen stir-fry vegetables

Make a sauce and a glaze.

Sauce: 1/4 cup chicken broth, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 to 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 to 4 teaspoons vinegar

Glaze: 2 teaspoons cornstarch plus 2 tablespoons water or chicken broth

Cook the protein.

Turn skillet on high, add 1 tablespoon oil and half of the protein. Stir-fry until fully cooked, about two to three minutes. Transfer to bowl and cover. Stir-fry the remaining protein.

Cook the vegetables.

Add 2 tablespoons oil. Stir-fry onion until tender, add garlic and then remaining vegetables. Cook the vegetables to the desired tenderness.

Combine the ingredients.

Return the meat to the pan with the veggies. Add sauce and stir gently until everything is coated evenly.

Stir in “glaze” and stir-fry until the sauce in the pan is glossy and thickened.

Serve immediately over rice or noodles. 

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson