Getting Thrifty: Reader Tips and Tricks
It's pretty hard not to notice that the cost of food is all jacked up, and the prices are climbing faster than a cockroach fleeing for safety. Between February 2007 and February 2008, the Consumer Price Index for all food increased by 4.6 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture' s Economic Research Service. The price increases are even higher for specific food items; cereal is up by 6.6 percent, milk is up by 16.8 percent and eggs are 25 percent more expensive than one year ago.
The bean counters at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the ongoing consumer price indices, have reported that the food index for the first quarter of 2008 jumped at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.3 percent, already higher than the 4.9 percent increase for all of 2007.
As harsh as the sticker shock may feel in your neck of the woods, it's nothing compared to what's going on in the developing world, where food costs have exceeded wages and have been the cause of recent riots in Haiti and Bangladesh.
Needless to say, it's tough all over, and we're feeling the squeeze big time both at the supermarket and at the stove. In light of the current crunch, I asked What's Cooking readers last week what they are doing to stretch their food budgets. Below, a sampler of their tips, tricks and techniques for cutting costs while still eating well.
Vanessa, a self-described "wife of a Ph.D candidate" in Denton, Tex., ("at the northern end of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex") shares her love for the egg, despite its continual rise in price.
"My top candidates are egg-based dishes," she writes. "Even with the climb in the price of eggs, you can still buy 18 for $3-$4, and that is enough for three souffles."
At her local supermarket, "a spinach and parmesan souffle made with a ten-ounce package of frozen spinach, regular grated parmesan, milk, butter, flour and eggs comes in at about $4 and serves 3 to 4, for about $1 per serving," she reports.
One of Vanessa's brunch favorites is "a skillet classic I call 'A Glorious Mess.' It contains eggs, a little milk, cheddar cheese, sauteed onion, potatoes, and a little canola oil. A nice addition is diced ham or crumbled bacon, although that raises the cost. Without the meat, it's about $1.25-1.50/serving."
Amanda, who writes from Arlington, Va., where she shares an apartment with her husband, reports that her weekly budget is based on "what's on sale that week, what I already have in the house, and what I can purchase for a good price at Costco."
"I stock up on pantry items when they go on sale (cans of beans and crushed tomatoes, whole wheat pasta, spaghetti sauce, etc.)," she writes. "I also buy some items frozen as they are cheaper than fresh (fish fillets and chicken breasts in big frozen bags at Costco, and frozen veggies when they go on sale at the supermarket). I also stock up on bags of shredded cheese when they go on sale and keep a few in the freezer."
But before closing her note, she throws in a rant: "I know you advocate shopping at farmers markets, and the big bags of frozen items I mentioned are probably making you shudder! I will say, the stuff we eat tastes good. I know it's not enviro-friendly, but it's really expensive to shop at farmers markets or places like Whole Foods or to buy products labeled organic. If the enviro advocates really want us to start eating in a more enviro-friendly manner, they've got to work with the producers of these products or the government or both to find a way to make it more affordable!"
Nina, of Columbia, Md., who describes herself as
"the Queen of thrifty meals," shares her tips for feeding her family of three, plus a "90-pound canine who often eats human food."
Unlike Amanda, Nina says that the majority of her food is organic, but working under the following set of rules:
1. "Waste nothing. Extra tomato sauce gets re-used into another dish (often pizza, which can use up other random pieces of meats and veggies as toppings.) "
2. "Eat in season. Farmer's markets are just opening up. But if you eat with the seasons, you pay very, very little for your food. "
3. "Beans! Especially dried - I love MOMs (My Organic Market) bulk section. Black-eyed peas are a family favorite. In a time pinch, I go for canned."
4. "The everything soup. No real recipe, but you basically take something tomato-ish or something mushroom-ish and go from there. Choose your base (I'm a mushroom girl myself, though my family prefers tomato), add veggies, beans/pulses if you like, simmer away, add grains or pasta (I try to use as little pasta as possible, for health reasons). Crock pots are great."
5. "Frozen fish. Saves me a ton!"
Ed in Rockville, Md., who's got a family of three to feed, swears by a food saver vacuum seal.
"While the initial outlay of many may not be thrifty," he writes, "it will pay for itself before you know it. A few examples: I buy skinless chicken breast from Giant. They are normally $3.99 per pound, but about once every six weeks they put it on sale for $1.79, when I buy enough for a month and freeze it. The money I have saved just on chicken breast alone has more than paid for the machine."
Nadia, in Rockville, Md., who's cooking for four, swears by the thrifty tricks she learned growing up in Trinidad. "We ate a lot of rice and beans or lentils accompanied by local vegetables or salad," she writes. "I have a pressure cooker and buy dried beans which are cheaper. When I buy meat, I buy a whole chicken or stew beef or goat and make curries and stews with vegetables to bulk up the dish."
She also mentions going the DYI route to save money on family staples. "I make my own yogurt (I got a quart size yogurt maker on Amazon.com for $12.99 on sale). I also make most of my own bread (bread prices for whole-grain loaves especially are outrageous). This takes time but it is cheaper and tastes better. "
Over in Baltimore, Md., Melissa shares her love for farro, an ancient variety of wheat also known as emmer, which I'm having a hard time getting my hands on, so I may need to hightail it up the highway!
"I get it at Mastellone's here in Baltimore," she writes. "It is cheap, nutritious and lends itself well to all sort of additions from zucchini to green beans to feta cheese to almonds (we get 'em in bulk from the Punjab market). A little pomegranate molasses and olive oil makes a great dressing for the grains too."
She and her husband have also come to appreciate the lesser-traveled parts of the animal - at least in this country. "We're eating more offal," she writes. "My husband made a stew of lamb's tongues from Fergus Henderson's "Nose to Tail Eating." We got a duck from Wegman's which was roasted for dinner #1, then the kidneys and liver were sauteed and served over greens for dinner #2, and finally the carcass was made into soup for dinner #3. We've gotten to like lamb breast and other cuts that are less popular and less expensive."
Are you as thrifty as this group of six? Show us what kind of thriftiness you've got cooking in the comments area below.
And while you're putting those saved pennies in the piggy bank, check out Bonnie Benwick's Food story about local chef Peter Smith, who pulls off a very thrifty challenge: dinner for four for $11.22.
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