Stretching Food Dollar - Without Deprivation
I have found myself lately trying to stretch my food dollar ever so thinly. Lots of times that means chicken 4 nights in a row. So I have found a renewed sense of artistry in the kitchen to try to make this repetition palatable. Baked, then stir fry, soup then rice salad...
I have also devoted lots of garden space (even among yard plantings) for things that are outrageously priced in my grocery: Herbs, fennel, asian greens, interesting tomatoes, walla wallas and squashes. I also trade with fellow neighbor gardeners (like strawberries for favas).
So I am wondering what you hounds are doing to stretch your food dollar and also if you have any interesting leftover food recipes you might want to share.
Oh yeah; left overs. I'm sorry I don't have any recipes, I just open the frig., grab a bunch of left overs and create something. In my kitchen, that's the height of joy in the cooking experience.
Looks to me like you're pretty well programmed for saving a few bucks around the house with the techniques you describe. The only one I can add is that my wife and I subscribe religiously to weekly adds from local markets, we read them with a view of which on sale items compliment others (or which can be complimented with something we have on hand) and we plan our weekly menu around those decisions. We make a list of the stores we're going to visit and travel in a circle to reduce the number of miles we'll have to drive in visiting each. We enter the store with a list and NEVER stray from the list, no matter how great the temptation, unless we run into something that wasn't advertised and it's an exceptional value. We've been doing this for so long that we (my wife is better at it than I am) can identify which store will have the lowest price on any given shelf item and, of course, when we find a real special deal we tend to purchase in bulk. One exmple of an unadvertised exceptional value, Brisket last week at 59 cents a pound at one place. Can't beat that with a stick.
Someone on another thread used the phrase "meat as a seasoning". This is good way to look at "not chicken" meal days. Get an occasional good cut of beef, pork, lamb, or what ever and just use less of it. You are already doing this to some extent with stir fry, so expand on it. Pasta flavored with beef strips or cubes, Garden stir fry with accents of pork, fried rice with a hint of grilled steak, etc
In the 1990s The Chefs Collaborative had a successful program entitled "Rethinking the center of the plate" which took expensive meat away from the spotlight. By focusing attention on various cuisines from around the world, grain-legume combinations take the place of meat and provide complete protein.
As a gardener, you're already familiar with seasonal availability so you know that what's local and flooding the market will be the best-tasting and least expensive.
We have several meatless meals weekly and neither DH nor I find it deprivation. We choose to think of it as an adventure - travel without the TSA headache! Is this always a cheaper alternative? No, but it could be. If I make a porcini risotto it involves some expensive ingredients (Arborio rice, Parmesan cheese, porcini) but a pot of Soupe au Pistou is equally delicious and dirt cheap. There really is a mindset change at work; look on this as a burden and it will be. Look at it as a challenge and you'll surprise yourself with clever solutions as well as new skills. You are miles ahead by growing some of your own product.
rworange has written exhaustive posts about eating on the cheap and her writing is full of excellent suggestions. There have also been numerous other posts along this same line recently, some including great solutions.
I think the key to delicious meals on a budget is stepping back from what has become "normal" and taking a long look at food in general. "HUNGRY PLANET, What The World Eats" is an interesting book that shows exactly what a particular family eats for one week.
In the U.S. we've become very spoiled with low food prices. Historically, we've paid a smaller percentage of per capita income for our groceries than any other country. I shop in ethnic grocery stores when I make the opportunity because the selection and cost of many items is low. Here in the Phoenix AZ area, I have easy access to Hispanic and Asian markets with excellent products and value.
Sherry, thank you for the ref of rworange. We do have to reallign our thinking in this house about meat being the focus. We have a couple veg nights a week especially in the summer when we are flooded with veggies and my husband always gets a hang dog look on his face when he sees it is "one of those nights"... even when it is something delicious.
I am still trying to get over TODAO's 59 cent brisket find. Food is expensive where I live. They have to truck it out to the boonies.
Anyway, thank you.
re: Sal Vanilla
Where are your boonies? Isn't there something local, abundant and inexpensive???????
Would your husband think spaghetti carbonara a deprivation? I made some the other night using two strips of thick-sliced bacon and it was knockout delicious. A couple of eggs, some cheese and we were home free with a great green salad alongside. I don't think the whole meal came to $2. Would pizza or calzone be an acceptable meal? a delicious curry? how about enchiladas? stir-fry? chicken nicoise?
As I said, mindset is key. If looked on as "deprivation" it will be; self-fufilling prophecy.
On the other hand, if vibrant flavors predominate, there is no deprivation except in the case of the meat-centric.
If that is your case, loss-leader meat items from the supermarket may be your answer. It's cheaper than divorce (she says tongue firmly planted in cheek).
Oh there are plenty of local and abundant veggies... right in my own back yard. It is a meat makes a meal issue. I could make a lovely veggie lasagna and I watch him inspect for meat. Beans - he loves them! But he wants to see ham or sausage or... it is maddening. I started doing meatless a couple times a week abt. 5 Y ago just for health and he STILL roams around the kitchen later in the evening looking to sate his imaginary hunger (because of no meat or little meat at dinner). You should witness his reaction to tofu or TVP. I long ago gave up on that. I may indeed have to meat him up with some cheap meat... too funny the divorce comment!
Variety does a lot to relieve the feeling of being deprived; if you notice good prices for something you don't usually eat or cook try it out. This can broaden your repertoire as well as your tastes. Low expense end of the food scale is just as varied and interesting as high end. As for recipe suggestions, are you cooking for just one or two or for a crowd?
Bacon. You want to start cooking with bacon. Just a couple slices can add an incredible amount of flavor to a meal and is very cost effective. You can even save the drippings and use them for another dish. For example, I'll cook up a few pieces to crumble and throw on a salad, then fry potatoes in the grease.
We've also been eating more eggs for dinner at our house. Eggs are still pretty cheap and can be made into so many different things.
Barbara Kafka's Roasting cookbook has some great ideas to use up the extras from roasting chickens, etc. I especially like a chicken salad in that book that is julienned red peppers and cucumbers along with some chicken, but the dressing is quite unusual, mayo, lime juice, and ground cumin. I often cook a chicken (or horrors, buy a rotisserie chicken at Costco) just to make one of her salad recipes. Whenever I have a chunk of leftover meat of any kind, I take a look at this book for ideas how to make a great new dinner, rather than think of it as "leftovers".
I like to shred a leftover roast-beef, pork, chicken, whatever and throw it in the skillet with wine, the meat juices, & some broth and slow cook it for awhile, then throw in the carrot & the potatoes if there were any and then put it over egg noodles, cous cous, or rice....yum.
They aren't in Vermont, but there are some groups that aren't affiliated with any religion in Vermont that are working on similar sorts of initiatives. I'll try to find links for Vermont.
Ok, did some research for what I'd read about before. First off, there's food shelf locations in a large numbers of communities in Vermont. You can usually go to a food shelf once a month to pick up a bag of food, your choice, for free or very low cost. And you can spread out where you go so you can go to a shelf in one town this week, or another town next week. The food bank network is not associated with any particular faith, but many church food shelves get their resources from that network. It's a truly community effort. Their website has a lot of information about volunteering and locations for obtaining food: http://www.vtfoodbank.org/
Also there's a new initiative in the center of the state that I thought was really interesting. Salvation Farms (http://www.salvationfarms.org/) Salvation Farms is a cost free resource available to farmers and food sites, providing volunteer crews for salvaging farm surplus and arranging storage and distribution of fresh food donations. They go around to local farms and glean what the first harvest didn't get, then they distribute that produce locally. Though they don't just do farm produce. :) Their website doesn't imply anything about being associated with any particular faith.
While I was looking around, I found a handy reference that lists the local food shelves: http://humanservices.vermont.gov/reso...
I checked to see if we have that in my area (Western WA) but we don't. I wish we had some sort of cooperative where say, I (who has a pile of veggies and fruit could exchange it for meat or something I don't have). Right now, if I cannot exchange for other fruits and veggies and our family cannot eat it all we give it to our foodbank and to the salvation army here who cooks nightly meals for those who need it. I should consider starting an exchange network in my area.
Hmm..you have some good ones.. growing your own herbs is a great habit.
These are a bit die-hard, but they can help get you nice tasting food for a lower price..
1) Make your own breads, pasta, and do things like fry your own tortillas to make chips...
2) Render your own lard from pig fat - a nice tasting ingredient, especially if you bake and want to avoid shortening
3) Move to cheaper cuts of beef or pork and start braising a lot.
4) Milk the flavor - freeze and use the zest of citrus fruits, the leaves of heads of celery, greens from beets, veggie scraps to make broth/stock.. often we throw things away that can enhance some other dish.
I wonder how long rendered pig fat keeps. I actually do the things on your list. Not all the time. My girlfriend and I were just discussing today the virtues of always zesting the citrus whether we need it at the time or not. I am gonna dry it in the oven since I am pretty sure it will get lost in the black hole I call my freezer. People laugh at me for saving back schmaltz. I save, but I could save more.
Love the ideas here.
re: Sal Vanilla
Does the flavour of the zest keep well after being dried in the oven? I'm asking because I thought there is volatile stuff like lemon oil in there.
BTW when people joke about me making all this extra effort for saving so little, I tell them it is not about how many cents you save -- it is simply a matter of principle not to waste when you don't have to :)
I can pat myself on the back for having done most of these, on and off! At some point, when I had more time, I used to even make my own tortillas from the masa harina -- using the back of a heavy pan for pressing -- and the smell of cooking them fresh was heavenly too!
I freeze the rendered pork and duck fat (separately, of course). I also store the excess fatty bits of ham and bacon, for adding some meat flavour when cooking those meatless dishes and soups.
I collect the peels of all the citrus fruits (organic, to be pesticide-free) in a big ziplock in the freezer, and when I get a huge bag, I cut everything into strips and cook them in a huge pot of sugar with water to make a poor man's version of marmalade.
Speaking of citrus. There is a Chinese dish that actually uses the very thick pith of the pomelo fruit, as the main ingredient. I happen to like it a lot.
On Citrus peel: here's a place to buy organic. I believe the USDA says you can put anything you want on the outside of an orange, lemon, etc. because it's intended to be peeled with the peel discarded (crazy of course). So I buy organic citrus if I'm going to use the peel (which is almost always). I make my own candied orange and lemon peel and keep it for when I make fruit/nut breads and florentine cookies. Homemade candied peel is actually the secret to making fruitcake that people like. Something nasty and over-bitter and fakey-flavored about the prepared candied fruit.
we were inspired by the cooking reality shows, especially top chef. A common challenge they do is to give the cooks a small budget with instructions to cook a meal. On one episode they only had $10, and the food was suprisingly diverse. So we do the same thing as a little game for ourselves, the "$10 challenge". For us, making a game out of it is a fun way to test our own creativity, discover new ingredients, and eliminate the feeling we're being deprived. We of course rely on a decently stocked pantry. We start with a cheaper cut of meat and then tailor the rest of the meal around that. But it's not always meat centric. Some of our hits have been Stromboli, pizza, stir fry, coq au vin, and braised shanks. This game forces us to keep portions small and healthier. And it makes us buy just what we need, so we buy and eat fresher, which is typicallly cheaper. Lastly, we buy whole chicken and portion it ourselves reserving the scrap to make stock, which helps flavor other dishes.
The more I cook at home, the more I'm careful to use everything, and meals generate new meals, and the less I eat out. So my strategy is not to plan too much, don't make shopping lists, buy what's in season, fresh, plentiful and generally not too expensive, but when a more expensive ingredient will inspire me to cook at home instead of going out, I don't skimp. In New York, it's fairly easy to go out and have a good-but-nothing-special-$45 meal for two in a restaurant, when I could make some really nice meals for four days on that.
One thing I've done recently is to go in with some friends on purchasing beef by the side. It works out pretty economically for high quality beef, and you usually get some cuts you might not otherwise buy that can challenge your creativity. There was recently an article about this in the _Washington Post_, and I posted a bit about my first bulk beef experience on our family food blog--
Making my own stock usually generates lots of related meals. The way our cooperative beef purchase works, you pay for a fraction of the regular cuts from a side, but organ meats and bones are free to whomever wants them. So I had a nice bag of maybe 8 lbs of bones from the split and a heart, which I don't particularly care for, but it adds a lot of richness to the stock. I also used up a bag of vegetable peels and clippings that I had saved up in the freezer for stock. This time I didn't make boiled beef in the stock, but if I hadn't had the heart, I would normally do that before clarifying, and then at the end I've usually got about 6 quarts of very rich, reduced stock for soups, sauces, and other dishes. I also rendered about a quart of beef tallow for serious french fries.
Likewise if I make a chicken stock, I'll start with about 8 lbs of backs and necks, which go for around 50 cents a lb around here unless it's a holiday season when demand is higher, then I'll remove the bones and boil a chicken in the stock to make it stronger, and I'll have a boiled chicken for lots of chicken salad or pot pie or whatever else I want to make with it, along with plenty of frozen stock and chicken fat--the best carmelized onions are made with chicken fat.
re: David A. Goldfarb
David, Thank you for the post and the useful blog link. I have been toying with the idea of buying a side (or portion ) of beef. I am going to have to seriously look into that instead of simply toying with the notion.
About your veggie peels - put them into a compost pile. I save $250 a year by not having to buy compost for the garden and yard.
You are an ambitious and worthy cook with a giant stock pot!!
re: David A. Goldfarb
Interesting post! I find, ironically, that I spend less on food when I adopt the exact opposite strategy: plan very carefully so that if I want to make something that requires an ingredient that can only be bought in fixed-size units (a can or jar, a quart of buttermilk, or whatever), I plan other meals around in to use the remainder, in some logical order, kind of like a tetris game. I usually think of what's in season or on sale, let that inspire a couple dishes, see what ingredients will be left over or could be prepped simultaneously, plan other dishes, etc., until I have series of meals planned. That way I know that everything I buy is needed for a specific use, and will get used promptly.
That also tends to reduce the urge to stop and pick up something quick or pre-prepared (and thus more expensive) out of lazy tiredness on the way home from work, since there's already a plan and maybe something that needs using in the fridge, and future meals will depend on sticking with the plan. :) When I was in college, we managed to make dinner for 5 guys 7 nights a week for $30-$50/week total this way (this was in the mid-90's, we're not talking 60's or anything)
Definitely also agree with cooking various things when you're at home on a weekend (cook some beans, make stock, roast some veggies, put together a lasagna, etc.) so that it's just about as easy to throw together the homemade meal as to grab something pre-made....
Also, though it's kind of a trivial point, I like to keep things in clear containers in the fridge-- a lot easier to be inspired by combinations of things that need using if you can see them all together!
We live in the Boondocks.
We do have land and allow hunting and are ususally gifted with at least a side of venison, butchered and frozen (they ask what cuts I like) each fall. Also wild turkey (we have a lot), some goose (the non-migratory Canadians that are pests) and trout from the river.
The boondocks could be even more bountiful if I'd learn to smoke woodchuck and do rabbits and squirrels.
Beans: from New Orleans, our favorite red beans and rice is not a deprivation. Black Beans cuban style.
Home made bread.
And so on.
Boondocks can be a real bargain, but you have to plant your fruit trees now to harvest in three to five years. My early apples are just starting.
We have been on an economy kick trying to save money for a summer vacation. While I consider myself the "Queen" of saving, I scour the local grocery store online ads every week before making my grocery list while evaluating where to shop and what's on sale, we also have switched things around a little. I love to cook with fresh herbs, and if it isn't too late, consider planting some baskets with basil, chives, rosemary, thyme and some others. You will save a ton over the course of the summer. At the end of the season, I make pesto in quantity and freeze it in ice cube trays for use on pasta/rice in the winter.
We also have limited our beef consumption, for reasons not only of cost but health. In order not to get so bored with chicken, we are using turkey meat (breast and thighs) and duck breast (not so cheap, but we get from farm source). Some of our favorite summer menus are turkey tonnato - slices of roasted turkey breast dressed with an anchovy/tuna mayonnaise or sauteed duck breast salad. Last night we made chicken piccata.
We are planning to use some leftover skirt steak from Sunday and make steak fajitas tonight with whole wheat tortillas, sour cream, grated cheese, sauteed onions, black olives and salsa. The meat was marinated and broiled and we will serve it at room temp, rather than re-heating it.
Have also been making rice pudding with leftover cooked white rice, very thrifty and convenient and a good way to incorporate berries, cherries, or other fruit in them.
I'm trying to use more of my leftovers before making something new...like pulling together the night before's chicken & cooked broccoli with an egg and rice to make fried rice. Or as mentioned below 1 or 2 slices of bacon chopped simmered with a can of tomatoes & a few herbs for pasta sauces. Leftover chicken becomes soup or tacos. Also I am staying out of the fancy stores where I might buy a bunch of expensive vinegars, oils, & who knows what else I might never use or use only a drop or two & being flexible with a recipe & use up the assorted vinegars I have acumulated. Old bread becomes bread crumbs, extra bacons crumbled onto a salad, subistuting the cheese I have instead of buying a new one the recipe calls for, same with pasta shapes. A random handful of veggies, pasta, & a good leftover fancy vinegar with pasta makes a great little dinner...throw the bread crumbs on top and bake for a minute...yum
I’ve really had to stretch my dollar lately. I notice a lot of things I’m doing now to cut costs. Perhaps these things are old hat for some folks, but not me. Aside from actually enjoying it, it is cost saving. I don't really feel any deprivation either because I'm learning so many new things I should have been doing a long time ago.
- Buying whole chicken and cutting it up myself. Then make my own broth when I have enough backs and necks.
- Braising with less expensive meats.
- Eating a veggie only dish (unheard of for me – I love meat). Veggie only dishes are very good with the produce I’m getting now.
- I’m freezing a lot of things for use later. Green onions, jalapenos, some fruit, homemade pasta sauces, etc.
- I’m baking things now. I’ve done a pie, yeast bread, quick bread, pizza dough, cinnamon rolls, etc.
- I’m shopping at a small farmers market now and buying real familiar things but having to learn to cook different things I’ve never thought of with cabbage, all types of squash, radishes, cucumbers, even fruit.
There’s probably a lot more I’m doing too.
Chicken or pork adobo is a great inexpensive but tasty meal! You don’t need an expensive cut of meat. Just serve over rice with a little steamed cabbage and you’ve got a very inexpensive and tasty meal. The best part about this dish is it actually tastes better the next day for lunch! I figured out the cost of it once. It’s like $4.50 per plate and half that if you take into account the lunch the next day. I’m a little dorky, I know.
I find the comfort foods the most cost effective. Plus, I’ve been looking at other country’s comfort foods (such as the adobo), and learning those dishes too. They’re quite tasty, inexpensive, and are a good mix with the tried and true.
I crack up every time I see your name and reminds me of the Seinfeld episodes..
Also, using coupons that double and get the sale items for the week and work around that..I saved over $2,500 in coupon savings last year..that's a trip to Paris!
Costco is great..especially if you have a food saver..it frigging rocks..
I buy the slabs of salmon and then air tight those bad boys up and freeze them with steamed veggies and a rice or pasta..works out to around $1.80pp..
A lot of very good ideas here, a lot I am sure you can use.
In the 50's there was a craze you might want to think about. We would take the leftover "green" salad we had for dinner and refrigerate it over night. Next day the droopy, wilted mess was put into the blender and some chicken broth added. After it became an unrecognizable puree, into a pan and heated for soup.
This might not work with a cheesey salad dressing, but the others work well. (Middle Europeans often add a little vinegar to spike up their soups.) Almost anything you put in your salad will work here. Lettuce, cukes, tomatoes, celery, carrots, beets, onions. I have never tried it with a bleu cheese, but, it might.
Serving a light soup at the beginning of a meal will not only save the salad leftovers, but it will also tell the stomach to stop eating earlier than it would otherwise. It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to start reacting to the food put in there, and so the soup will register before the meat gets there.
One other suggestion. I suggest you look in stores or on line for an old book, Cutting up in the Kitchen by Merle Ellis. This is a book on cutting up meat. I have used it for years. The very best thing I got from it was how to cut up a 7-bone chuck roast. From a thick chuck roast you can get a couple of smallish, very tender steaks; coulotte steaks (sold on the east coast) and some pot roast, or stew meat.
Once you know where the meat you are looking for might be hiding in the cheaper cuts you can eat a lot better, for a lot less.
A couple years ago I was in a sever cash crunch and the first thing I did was make my own bread. I developed a recipe I liked, gave me more fiber, and was a lot cheaper than what I had been paying. I have continued now that my cash is flowing again. However, now that the global warming people have raised the price of flour into the stratosphere, I am not so sure how long this will last. we are all going to be looking for ideas soon.
ps: asparagus ends as well as the stems of artichokes, each make a good base for soup. Did you ever add the greens from carrots to soup. I am sure you use the greens on the beets for green vegetable.
You might want to read Mark Bittman's recent article in the Times about changing the way we think about meat. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/11/din...
I found the article inspiring. Lately, I have also been cutting back on meat but less because of budget than because of the horrible toll that factory farmed meats are taking on all of us. The reccs for richer pork products are excellent. High quality bacon (Niman Ranch for example) is delicious, sustainable, and ends up costing very little per serving when used in moderation. Similarly, why not look up some traditional Italian ragu recipes. They use small amounts of less expensive cuts (short ribs, duck thighs, chicken legs, etc) and are amazing when prepared well. My friend has been making his own pasta too and while it's more work than I am willing to put in, all you bakers out there should have no trouble with the dough.
Good luck. I don't believe that you have to settle for anything less than spectacular food, even if on a tight budget. Most of the world has done just that for a very long time.
Don't overlook store brands and mark-downs. Today at Shaw's I found a big container of Wild Harvest Baby Spinach for 62 cents, a bag of bigger spinach for 46 cents, a jar of Rapunzel organic chocolate hazelnut spread for $2 and both my favorite stonyfield yogurt and echo farms puddings were 50% off. I steamed the spinach and froze half of it for later. There was a piece on the local news the other night about which national brands make store brand food. I buy all of my milk, and most other dairy items as store brands, then I can splurge on some really good cheese.