Monday, May 11, 2009

Food on the cheap

Although there are some indicators that say we may have hit bottom on the recession, for many of us who are no longer in our careers of a year or two ago, there's no time like the present to explore ways to save on our food costs, especially if we enjoy good food and don't want to sink into the malaise of manufactured mishmash. I once had a relative who used to justify every bad food purchase she made with "Well, it was only $2," without stopping to think what the total cost of all those $2 purchases were.

To eat well on a budget, here are a few basics to keep in mind:
  • Meat and processed foods are the most expensive things in most peoples' carts, excluding alcohol, tobacco and nonfood items. Cut out the latter and learn to make those items you like. Make them in bulk and freeze them if you need to save time. On the meat front, figure out what you like the most and what's best for you, and don't eat more than 4 ounces of it (about the size of a pack of cards). Even filet mignon, at about $20 a pound, comes out to about $5 per person with those guidelines. A whole chicken, at 89 cents a pound, isn't a real bargain if you only like the breast and don't like soup; better to look for frozen tenderloins on sale. Learn all you can about cuts of meat. A book that has helped me a lot on this is Emilie Taylor's "Inflation-Fighter Meat Book," which got me into beef shanks (lots of good beef flavor, low in fat, and tender as can be when slow-cooked all day with a base of root vegetables) and showed how to get a rib steak and stew or chili meat from certain chuck steaks. 
  • Protein isn't just meat, as your vegetarian friends can tell you. Rice and beans, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter on toast or bagel are all fine substitutes, as is tofu. If you don't like the texture of the stuff out of a box, wrap it in a towel and put a weight on it in the fridge overnight. The towel will be sopping wet by the morning, and the tofu will be drier and will readily soak up any sauce you want to use to flavor it.
  • Have a pasta night. Experiment with different kinds and different sauces. Try to make your own; it's not hard and you'll have a satisfaction that is worth more that what you would have paid for fresh pasta at the grocery store.
  • Grow a herb garden. Even if herbs are more than $2 per pot, they will grow and yield many times the amount you'd have to pay for in a store, and you can snip only as much as you need. Some even come back year after year.
  • Other good substitutes to try: polenta, chilled overnight then grilled or fried, with pesto or spaghetti sauce; jalapeno cheese grits; whole wheat pizza (unlike bread, pizza crust is almost foolproof to make yourself). 
Do you need recipes for any of these? Drop me a line and I'll try to publish as many as I can in the next few days.

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