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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Eating Well Without Spending a Fortune


A friend of mine is on a mission to get her financial house in order. I am totally on board with this plan, and I think that while it's somewhat painful in terms of cutting back now, it's the right move for her future. It got me to thinking about food budgeting and how to eat well without spending a ton of money, so I figured I'd share my ideas here and then you can chime in with yours. mmmkay?


Eat Seasonally
I've talked about eating seasonally before in terms of eating the best tasting fruits and vegetables, but it's also usually the most economical way to eat as well. Happy coincidence, no? When you stop and think, it makes perfect sense that in January, a 6 ounce clamshell of raspberries can cost $5, while in the height of summer it's often more like $2. In January, raspberries are shipped halfway around the world before appearing on the shelves, but in August, not only are they coming from the next town or county over, but the plants are producing gazillions of fragile, perishable fruit that the farmers need to sell, like, now. Have a summer fruit craving in February that you just can't ignore? Visit your grocer's freezer section, and use frozen berries, mangoes, or pineapple to make a smoothie. Frozen fruit is reliably affordable.


Pea Pesto, up close and personal

Use Your Freezer
Your freezer is your friend. It's one of the best tools you have to reduce food waste and save your money. Here at Chez Sweets, we don't normally go through bread very quickly, so I keep a sliced loaf in the freezer and just pull a few slices out at a time as needed. Cakes, cookies, waffles, muffins all freeze well. I also took advantage of it last year to save some of summer's bounty. This checklist and these blanching guidelines allowed me to put up fresh corn, zucchini, jalapenos, and bell peppers. I got a box of overripe tomatoes at the farmer's market, made tomato paste and sauce, and froze them in portions. In addition, I made basil pesto, pea pesto, and parsley pesto and froze them. Those bursts of spring and summer flavor were (and still are!) welcome during the winter months. Furthermore, I use the freezer throughout the year to save produce I have from going bad before we can eat it. For example, if I buy too many strawberries one week, I know that I can hull and freeze them before they actually get moldy or too mushy. I can use them later in smoothies or oatmeal. The same is true of lots of other fruits and vegetables. Chili, risotto, pot pies, sauces, and stews don't care if you use frozen vegetables. Juicing citrus? First zest the fruit and use it or save it in the freezer. You can also freeze cooked rice and other whole grains to save them or to save time later.

Have an Exit Program
An exit program is what we call using day-old product at the bakery. In some cases, your freezer is your exit program. But consider making new things as well. For example, day old or stale bread can be turned into garlic bread, bread crumbs, stuffing, croutons, or bread pudding (either sweet or savory). Roasted vegetables can go into risotto. Marinade can (in some cases) be reused or turned into sauce. Obviously, if you marinate raw meat, you can't reuse that. Overripe fruit can go in smoothies or cakes. Always think before you toss and try to figure out a new use.

Chocolate Chunk Banana Bread

Pack a Lunch
This is a no-brainer, but I have to include it. Packing your lunch (or breakfast or dinner) will save you lots and lots of moolah. Say you work 5 days a week. If you buy lunch each of those days, for an average of $7/day, you're spending $35/week or $140/month or $1680/year. And I think $7 is low balling it. It's cheaper to wrap up leftovers, make a sandwich, or start some oatmeal the night before. Try these links from The Kitchn for some inspiration. If you regularly go to lunch with friends during the week, those lunches are probably pretty important to your social life/mental well-being, so maybe try a compromise and only eat out 2 or 3 days/week. Or convince your friends to brown bag it with you and sit together somewhere (ideally with a pretty view or even outside).

Buying in Bulk is Not Always Better
The allure of warehouse club stores like Costco is that you can get Such A Deal. Even at regular grocery stores, the more you buy, the less per unit you pay. Sometimes, that's perfect. Especially if you have a kids, I imagine that buying large quantities of food is helpful both in terms of economics and in taking fewer trips to the store. But if it's just you, or just you and your person, buying perishables in large quantities may not be Such A Deal if you end up having to toss half the container of baby spinach because it got slimy before you could eat it all. So pick and choose what you buy in large quanities. If you won't eat it before it goes bad, it's a lot less of a good deal. Non-perishables, however, are a pretty safe bet (as long as you have storage space!).

Cranberry Almond Muffins

The Bulk Aisle is Your Friend
Wait, what? Didn't I just say the opposite? Not quite. Many grocery stores have a bulk aisle comprised of bins. In these bins you can find everything from granola to coffee beans to dried fruit to flour to nuts to seeds to dry beans (the list goes on). The reason these bins are your friends is because they allow you to buy as much or as little as you need. This is especially helpful for expensive items like pine nuts because you only have to pay for the 1/4 cup you'll use for your recipe. Sometimes, the ingredients in the bins cost less per pound than the packaged version a few aisles over. I always buy the rolled oats for my morning oatmeal from the bulk aisle, and I stock up when they go on sale.


Now it's your turn. What strategies do you use to eat well without spending a lot?

16 comments:

  1. Such great tips! I especially like using the supermarket bulk bins-so much cheaper than prepackaged, especially when you can find bulk spices. And my freezer is always packed with all kinds of staples for future instant application! :)

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    1. oh yeah, good call on the bulk spices. Those are fantastic!

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  2. In the summer, cold brew coffee. Cold brewing allows you to spend less because it is concentrated and can be diluted. You also don't need to buy top of the line beans for it. A $2 brick of so-so espresso can produce a week's worth of coffee

    Mix and match your veggies, especially for stir fry. This way you don't blow through a container of mushrooms in one night, but can instead use 3 mushrooms in conjunction with half a pepper, a few green onions, and a handful of spinach. Do this with thinly sliced meat (stick your beef in the freezer for half hour or so to firm it up. Slice with your carving knife for thin strips) and you end up being able to use all your veggies and meat over several days.

    Speaking of meat, you can make cheap cuts of meat taste better by tenderizing them yourself. A tough top round becomes a tender london broil if you score the top (in a grid pattern) to break up the tough tendons and tissue. Bargain chicken breasts break down to melt in your mouth chicken cutlets if you flatten them by butterflying them and firmly "ironing" them flat. This takes some pressure and elbow grease, but it is worth it.

    Use your fermented products and vinegars. Soy sauce, Worcestershire Sauce, miso paste, Fish sauce, vinegar, Siracha etc are all pungent flavor agents where a little provides a lot of taste.

    Speaking of siracha, add some kick to your dishes so that they are harder to inhale. A little bit of pain intensifies the experience. We gorge on bland food because it takes longer to satisfy our endorphin rush, spicy food makes you feel like you worked through your meal.

    Understand flavors and flavor profiles. This allows you to substitute expensive ingredients for cheaper more readily available ingredients. Don't have wine on hand? If you're using it just as an acid or a marinade, then you can experiment with acids. I'm a big fan of lime juice, especially for marinading chicken or pork. Remember, a marinade is just a meat, an oil, and an acid. Once you remember that, your creativity can run wild.

    Brine. Water, salt, and sugar.

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    1. Brian, I am shocked, *shocked*, that you have a lot to say :) But I'm glad you chimed in.

      We don't cook or eat any meat or fish at home (with the exception of a turkey at Christmas, though that may disappear this year too), so thanks for adding those tips.

      I like using multiple kinds of veggies like you suggest mainly because dinner is more interesting that way. I hadn't thought of it as a way to stretch them, but it makes sense. I'm also totally pro-substitution, whether it's for a less expensive ingredient or simply something you already have.

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    2. Thanks for adding the sauces, vinegars, and spices comment. This is how it went for me: living on a budget meant cooking at home, but I wasn't a very good cook if I strayed from the narrow lines of a recipe, so I often turned to fatty ways to make food taste better (cheese, for example). It felt like I could eat lower-fat things if I ate out, which was a trade-off in which I lose either way. Zoooom! Hot sauce to the rescue. Hello, cumin! Mmmm, lime juice. I still need to work on my cooking, but these allies have helped me eat more cheaply and healthfully.

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    3. garlic! lemon zest! hear, hear :)

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  3. I'm very much in favour of the ideas you noted. I am very good at Costco shopping now, but it took me a while to get there! There are aisles I won't even let myself go down because I know what's going to happen.

    I would like to add, if omnivorous, cutting down or eliminating meat where possible. With a little time and using the freezer strategy, dried beans are practically free per serving. Quinoa is an awesome source of protein that can be purchased... at Costco (or bulk stores) on the cheap too. Even subbing tofu for chicken can save around $5 (using western Canadian grocery store prices) per dish.

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    1. haha it's true! There are some aisles I avoid too :)

      You make a good point about omnivores cutting back on meat. I try and rotate grains to keep things more interesting, and quinoa is definitely in that rotation. Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Such wonderful tips! I love your blog -- so glad to have discovered it!

    Kimber@ fivetdsister.blogspot.com

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    1. aww thanks, Kimber! happy weekend :)

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  5. Your Photos are So awesome looking!

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    1. thank you so much! I've worked to improve my photography, so I really appreciate it :)

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  6. Something I'll add which I learned from the thrifty smarties in AmeriCorps: eggs and rice are your friends. Eggs and veggies (quiche, scramble, burrito) can be a hearty and cheap no-meat dinner.

    Kate, you made a really good point about deciding which eating-out meals are actually contributing to your social life/self-care and which are not helping you so much. I also try to stretch restaurant meals beyond the one meal (more bang for the buck without missing the party!).

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    1. oh, I will second the eggs and rice thing. And the restaurant doggie bag. Also, a runny egg on top of (re)fried leftover potatoes is a fabulous breakfast. Especially if you have half an avocado around :)

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  7. I'm the friend you speak of! Thanks for all the advice :)

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    1. and thanks for reading during your valuable vacation :)

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