(This is an update on my previous post: The Food Stamp Challenge.)
I made it! In fact, I had $86 to spare at the end of the month, which covers the cost of the occasional meals we had out. Not only did I make it, but I made it without greatly changing my general eating habits, with a house still full of food, and using inflated prices to calculate my spending.
This surprised me, as I spend substantially more than $$596.24/month at grocery stores, so it seems that I’m losing a lot of money on non-food items.
My favorite frugal tips:
- Mirepoix. I use this stuff for pretty much everything: soups, stews, sauces, gravies, roasts, broth, casseroles, you name it. Pretty much everything tastes better if you start out with this vegetable base, and the lack of it is one of the major reasons why American food tastes so flat. Julia Child used this stuff in everything, which should be enough to recommend it.
I purchase large bags of carrots, onions, and celery; dice them; mix them all up in a big bowl; and then freeze them in 2-cup portions. I mix all the peels and scraps up, as well, and freeze them in 6-cup portions for use in stock (waste not, want not). It takes me about an hour, less if my husband helps me, and it gives me enough of this stuff to last for a month.
Sometimes I add some turnip, rutabaga, or parsnip to the mix if it’s on sale, or I throw in some finely-chopped parsley from our garden. I avoid adding too many root vegetables because they seem to make it taste bitter.
There are other regional versions of this, such as the Holy Trinity for Cajun food (onions, bell peppers, celery) or Suppengruen in Germanic countries (celeriac, carrot, leek), but I stick to the Franco-American flavor since it’s the cheapest here.
- Bacon bits. I usually cook bacon up by the pound and it just gets eaten as a snack. Most of it disappears as quickly as it cools down below tongue-burning temperature. Whatever I can manage to salvage gets chopped up and refrigerated. Tastes great dumped in some simmering beans or used in a stew.
- Planned-overs. One of my favorite things to do is to make a large roast (as roasts tend to be inexpensive), and then eat it for three days. This only ever works if I make sure to cut off the meat I want to save and set it aside before serving it for dinner, otherwise the meat vultures gobble it up.
For example, I serve chicken as a roast the first evening (saving a chicken breast), cut up the breast for chicken salad the next day, and use the carcass to make chicken stock for soup on the third day. With a beef roast I reserve a quarter of it and dice it. Then I serve it in a sauce over matzo balls or egg noodles on the second day, and then water the sauce down and serve it as soup on the third day. Leftover pork roast lends itself well to ragout, and you can put pretty much anything in some rice.
- Frozen vegetables. Most canned vegetables — other than olives, artichokes, and corn — are an inadequate substitute for fresh. My advice is to take the budget-hit and go with frozen. If you don’t overcook it most people won’t be able to tell the difference to fresh, and you’ll often end up dumping it in a sauce or stew, where it won’t matter anyway. I like to buy big bags of green beans, peas, corn on the cob, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and fajita veggies (bell peppers and onions, for using in Cajun or Hungarian dishes), and I serve a portion with every dinner.
- Herbs. Buy bunches of parsley, cilantro, or chives, chop them up, and freeze it in portions for later use. Dropping a bit into hot liquid greatly and easily improves the look and flavor of food for cents per portion, in addition to packing a nutritional punch. Stir the chives into some sour cream for a great baked-potato topping (they defrost quickly), add parsley to your bean stew for some color, or sprinkle some cilantro onto your chili. Yum!
- Dry nonfat milk. I buy a box and use it for baking and for when I’ve run out of fresh. This is more expensive to purchase than fresh milk, but it cuts down on costs indirectly by reducing the frequency of trips to the grocery store, which wastes gasoline and increases impulse buying. It also frees up space in our rather small refrigerator, which encourages cooking ahead and leftover usage. We went from six gallons of milk a week to two gallons, without anyone noticing the difference.
It makes a great biscuit mix, that I keep in a 5 liter container in my freezer and use in place of Bisquick. It’s my base for every form of quick bread: biscuits, coffee cake, pancakes, waffles, muffins, pot pies, cobblers, scones, dumplings, cornbread, etc. You can substitute butter for the shortening, for increased nutrition and improved flavor.
- Dried beans. I got into the habit of cooking up two pounds of dried beans in the slow cooker with a bag of mirepoix and meat (bacon, ham, sausage, or meaty bones). I’d soak the beans overnight, drain and rinse them off, simmer them in fresh water with the flavoring, and then freeze them in serving portions for later. I made baked beans, red beans, hoppin john, lentil stew, and so on. This was usually what we had for lunch, with some rice or cornbread for a complete protein. I also sometimes served it with dinner, if the meal would otherwise be dry.
Once you get used to eating beans daily, you really start to crave them, so they’re a great idea if you’re short on cash. If you are feeding young children or pregnant women, make sure that beans aren’t their only source of protein. Try to also include dairy, eggs, and/or meat, so that you ensure their proper nutrition.
- Eat more meat. Meat is actually a pretty good deal, once you take everything into consideration. Although the cost of the meat itself can be relatively high, you will be satiated for longer and you won’t need snacks. Pork seems the best deal, as poultry isn’t as filling and beef is expensive. Skip steaks and other expensive cuts, and go for roasts, ground, bacon, or country ribs instead. I’ve found I can make any meat edible by slow-cooking it for long enough.
If I were really, really broke, I’d buy only bacon, but I’d buy it in bulk and make sure to use the grease in cooking.
- Eat more fat. Don’t worry as much about “eating a full meal” as about satiation. Concentrate on increasing the fat in your diet so that you don’t become obese from carb-overload. If you do eat carbs make sure to smother them in fat, otherwise you’ll be tempted to gorge. Dip your bread in olive oil, load up your pancakes with butter, fry some potatoes in bacon grease, and drown your oatmeal in cream.
Cabbage braised in bacon grease is so good that the mere thought makes my mouth water. Just saying.