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Time-saving meals for busy families

We asked chef Tony Mancini how he’d cook for today’s hectic farm lifestyles

Despite all our time-saving technology, we all seem to be busier than ever, cramming ever more things into our days. Farm work, off-farm jobs, kids’ sports, volunteer commitments plus, hopefully, at least a little time for some fun social activities and exercise for ourselves mean it can be a challenge to eat healthily.

Don’t despair. By keeping a well-stocked pantry and freezer, and with a little planning, Montreal chef and cooking instructor Tony Mancini says we can put healthy dinners on the table night after night.

Mancini offers basic recipes for soup and a meat base that can be changed up in many ways to help us save time while avoiding the monotony of eating the same meals night after night.

He also provides suggestions on what essential equipment and basic supplies you should keep on hand to make whipping up dinner a snap.

You need

In the Pantry

  • Chicken and beef broth
  • Canned tuna in olive oil
  • Canned beans such as cannellini (white kidney beans) and chick peas
  • Panko bread crumbs
  • Pasta like penne and rigatoni (a lot easier to serve than spaghetti)
  • Good quality olive oil (I do not compromise on the olive oil — I prefer the Spanish ones)
  • Canned artichoke hearts
  • Ready-made polenta (sold in the shape of a salami, it is a great time saver and could be sliced, brushed with olive oil, covered with grated parmesan cheese and grilled under the broiler for a quick appetizer)
  • Passata (strained tomato sauce) or good-quality canned tomatoes
  • A variety of salts (A great way to change up flavours is to have different flavoured salts such as hickory smoked, Himalayan and fleur de sel.)

In the Freezer

  • Provided you have a chest freezer, stock up on frozen vegetables like spinach which are great in soups. Specially marked vegetables designated for pasta sauces, stews, and soups can save hours of prep and shopping time if you keep a few packages on hand in the freezer.

In the Kitchen

  • An immersion blender (safer than a regular blender and a lot quicker to clean)
  • A food processor for grinding or puréeing foods other than liquid ones
  • A stainless steel chef’s knife and a paring knife
  • Kitchen scissors (ones from the Dollar Store are actually fine)
  • An instant-read thermometer
  • Good-quality non-stick pan set (Good quality ones are usually associated with a well-known chef. Stay away from just stainless steel ones.)

Tony Mancini’s

Base Recipe

fresh cut leekThis is a simple rustic soup. Add salt and pepper according to your own tastes.


  • 4 cups (1,000 ml) sliced, cleaned leeks (you can use some of the green part of the leeks)
  • 4 cups (1,000 ml) diced potatoes
  • 8 cups (2 l) commercial chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) butter

Serves 8.


Melt butter in a large sauce pan. Sauté leeks until translucent. (Optional — You can deglaze with 1/2 cup (125 ml) dry white wine.) Add chicken broth and potatoes. Simmer for 20-30 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

Note: The leeks can be purchased already cut and you can leave the potato skins on to save time.


  • Omit butter and render 8 oz. (200 g) of bulk pork sausage with the wine and fry leeks in rendered fat. Continue with recipe.
  • You can purée the soup and serve with chopped crisp bacon as garnish.
  • You can reduce the chicken broth by a cup and add a cup (250 ml) of 15 per cent cream after you have puréed the soup. Serve hot or cold. (Cold is called a vichyssoise; serve with chopped chives as a garnish.)
  • You can add a bunch of chopped watercress or spinach in the last five minutes of cooking, then purée.
  • This soup also lends itself well to the addition of any leftover vegetables you may have in the fridge.

Note: My personal favourite is to use bulk pork Italian spicy sausage, fried with the leeks, and add a can of cannellini beans, cooked for 3 minutes.Then add the broth and the potatoes. Add frozen chopped spinach during the last five minutes.

Tony Mancini’s
Base Recipe

spaghetti and meat sauce on a forkThis is a very versatile recipe with many variations. You can buy bulk pork sausage (sausage without the casings) that you like, sweet or spicy, or have your butcher suggest some. The flavour of this base is dependent on the quality of the sausage used. You can omit the turkey or chicken if you wish, but I use them to balance the flavours.

Once you have made it you can make more variations depending on your inspiration. You can add frozen vegetables, already cut up, to add more nutrition and to save prep time.

Yield: 8 cups


  • 1 lb. (0.5 kg) each of lean ground beef (chuck steak), bulk pork sausage (sweet or spicy) and mixed ground turkey or chicken
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 1 large green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 tsp. (5 ml) minced garlic
  • 1 28-ounce (796 ml) can of good-quality diced or whole tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. (5 ml) salt
  • ½ tsp. (2 ml) pepper
  • Fresh oregano and basil


Cook the pork in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat with a little water and cover (this will render the fat). Once the fat is rendered, uncover and add the onions, peppers and garlic. Then add the rest of the meats. Stir and cook until crumbled and no longer pink. Drain fat.

Stir in tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Spoon about 4 cups (1,000 ml) of mixture into two heavy-duty zip top plastic bags, flatten, and freeze until ready to use.


Spaghetti with Meat Sauce: Heat one package (4 cups or 1,000 ml) meat base, thawed, in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in 1 14-1/2 ounce (540 ml) can whole tomatoes or passata (tomatoes sold in a glass jar already puréed and sieved to remove seeds and lumps) with oregano and fresh basil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Cook pasta al dente and place in a sauce pan. Drizzle with olive oil and some of the cooking water.

Cover with meat sauce and toss. Simmer for a minute.

Makes 6 servings.

Sloppy Joes: Heat 1 package (4 cups or 1,000 ml) meat base, thawed, in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in 2 teaspoons (10 ml) chili powder and 1 teaspoon (5 ml) brown sugar. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve on hamburger buns or on baked potatoes. Makes 6 servings.

Easy Beef and Macaroni Casserole: Heat 1 package (4 cups or 1,000 ml) meat base, thawed, in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in 1 14-1/2 ounce (540 ml) can diced tomatoes, 2 teaspoons (10 ml) chili powder, 2 teaspoons (10 ml) paprika and 1 bay leaf. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Stir in 4 cups (1,000 ml) hot cooked elbow macaroni. Cover with grated cheese. Bake in preheated oven at 350° F for 10 more minutes. Makes 6 servings.

Chili Con Carne: Heat 1 package (4 cups or 1,000 ml) meat base, thawed, in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add one 28-oz. (796 ml) can rinsed red kidney beans with one teaspoon (5 ml) ground cumin, 2 teaspoons (10 ml) chili powder and one 28-oz. (796 ml) can of tomatoes or a jar of passata. Simmer for 15 minutes. One teaspoon (5 ml) smoked paprika would also add a nice earthy taste.

Tips for Planning Healthy Meals

Healthy EatingHave a meal plan based on store sales and your preferences. This way you will avoid buying on impulse and most likely save money.

Buy fresh as much as possible but frozen fruits and veggies can be lifesavers and are sometimes cheaper. Nutritionally, they may be better for you.

Roasting vegetables reduces the amount of fat used and adds a sweet caramelization to them while preserving nutrients that otherwise would be leached out into the cooking water. Roasted beets are an amazing taste sensation.

Buy packaged slaws, add chopped apples and season with cider vinegar and mayonnaise.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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