Wednesday, June 30, 2010

You can grow your own way~

The best way to get exactly what you want is to do it yourself. Agreed? Why not get the best and freshest produce every week? It's all too easy. Grow your own.

It might as well be free food!

But I'm a busy person! Where could I find the time to start gardening!? Well, do you have enough time to watch CSI? There's an hour at least once a week. It really doesn't even take that long to check on your plants and give them some water. And who knows, you might enjoy the time outside.

Set aside some ground space in your backyard, or make some square-foot gardens and get a-growing. It takes a lot less effort than you might think, if you get started right. The easiest and most useful plants to have around are, in my opinion, lettuce. With enough plants, (probably about 3 square feet,) you might be able to harvest fresh salads for two every day, in season! Tell me THAT won't have an impact on your food budget.

Be careful to water and tend to the plants daily to get them started, and use some plant food to help establish roots. Check on your seed packages to see how far apart to space the seeds, how big the plants get, and when to harvest (and in the case of lettuce, how much to harvest.)

Once you're comfortable with how easy it is to let the veggies carry on by themselves most of the time, you can start trying other things like tomatoes and radishes, strawberries, carrots, squash, beans; almost anything you can possibly eat from the ground could be yours. And the price is right, to boot!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sharing is caring

Where did all the money go for this week's groceries?

Nowhere. We still have most of it. This week's bill was $35.00.

This is slightly lower than our average because of a deal we have going on with our friends down the street. We cook a regular meal one night (for four people), and they cook a regular meal for us the next night (four people again). The primary reason is because we see them so rarely, and we want to have an outlet to display our culinary prowess.

A few more of our friends have joined in this "dinner club", meaning another night a week we don't have to cook. This has a noticable impact on our grocery bill, by way of us only having to make lunches (a pittance) and one big dinner instead of a lot of little dinners, meaning fewer specialized ingredients.

For example, we made custom pizzas this week. Some Grands biscuits (which are basically premixed dough in a can, you can do a lot with those things), a tomato, a pack of pepperoni, and some mozz on sale. We already had some tomato sauce in the pantry, so theres a save right there. Add a quick salad and the meal is complete. Now, we don't have to cook for the next two days. Leftovers from this meal may or may not have covered one dinner, so there's at least ONE meal taken out of the week, price-wise.

And, of course, this is a great excuse for me to try to get people to play Scrabble.

More info as data accumulates.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Planning your menus

Let's go a little in-depth about menu-planning for the week. Say for example that you want to have quesadillas one night. Excellent choice! A bag of shredded cheese, tortillas, some onions you have lying around, maybe a bit of ground round, an avocado and a thing of sour cream. Easy peasy.

Now think about which part of that you are going to throw away at the end of the week. I'm sure you will be able to use up all the tortillas, heck you can even eat the rest of the avocado by itself (with a little balsamic vinegar), but what in the world will you do with all of that sour cream?

Here's a tip: Plan your menus with coincidental ingredients.

What that means is making sure you are able to use all the fresh ingredients you are paying for each week. So, along with this recipe, you might also want to add tacos to this weeks list. If that's too much Mexican for you to handle in one week, maybe some slow cooker chili (good thing you keep beans in the pantry all the time), or mashed potatoes (with chives! mm), or even a sour cream pound cake. Anything you can do to use up all that sour cream so it doesn't have to go to waste before expiring.

Now do that with all the other things you have to buy in relatively large quantities that go bad quickly. Blocks of cheese, tubs of yogurt, heads of lettuce, and so forth. Keep in mind also the things you buy in large quantities that go bad no-so-quickly, like onions, bags of potatoes, what have you. Basically, if you know you're going to have it on hand, use it up. Eat what you got!

The flip side of this is omitting or changing optional ingredients if there's no way you could ever eat it all, or see it as a waste of money. Do you really need sour cream on those quesadillas? I would vehemently say yes, but you may not think that it is truly necessary, and that a jar of salsa would get used up quicker. Why buy an expensive block of parmesan cheese when you know that pre-shredded is more economical, and can last a lot longer?

Have fun paring down your list!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Slow Cookers Unite

I bet you're running out of time on the weekdays too, and can't really be bothered to start a lasagna when you get home, only to start eating at about 7:30. Here's a great tip: Pull out that hand-me-down slow cooker (or get one for yourself if you are not acquainted with the phenomenon), and find a lamp timer at a yard sale or thrift store. By their powers combined, you can now cook from work. Here's a recipe to get you started.

Slow Cooker Corn Chowder
  • 1 can creamed corn
  • 1 can whole kernel corn
  • 1/2 lb frozen hash browns (or 3-4 potatoes, grated)
  • 1/2c milk
  1. Dump everything into slow cooker. Stir. Cook on low for 6h or high for 4h.

If you are going to be cooking away from home, I recommend setting the cooker to low. So, if you get home at 5:30, make sure that the cooker starts up at about noon or so using the timer, so you can check it for the last half hour. As you can see, this is too easy to not make. If you're adventurous, can add whatever you may have laying around, including bacon, peas, minced onions, etc., to punch it up. It's your meal, not mine.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tactics: Shop Without Dropping

Here we are again on our monthly trip to the grocery store. What do we need? How should I know? We'll just pick out what looks good, right?


Smart shopping is the number one way to save money. People say coupons, but to be perfectly honest, we really don't use any, because coupons are mostly for high end name brand products. You must shop with a vendetta. Shop with no mercy. Do not succumb to the fancy labels or extravagant impulse purchases. You are an anti-establishment non-consumer-oriented nonconforming anti-capitalist i-get-only-what-i-need-and-you-can't-stop-me grocery-buying machine.

It's not hard. I'll help. Step number one is making a list.

Never walk into a grocery store without a very, very good idea of what it is you want to buy. Otherwise you will be subject to every marketing ploy ever invented. With a list, you can say "When will I have time to eat that this week?" or "I already have enough breakfast planned out, I don't need these." And it's too ridiculously easy to make a list. Think of 4 or 5 meals that you want to eat this week. Write them down. Write down the fresh ingredients you need and the staples you don't already have. That took 3 minutes. You can even do this on the way to the store if you have a good idea of what you have on hand.

Step number two is shopping around.

Do you go to Aldi? Have you even heard of Aldi? Know where your farmer's market is? How about that local produce store? Chances are you do your one stop shopping at Wal-Mart and head home, right? Sam Walton is counting on that, and he marks his prices at a seemingly good deal. But if you are cautious and know where the good deals REALLY are, you can save a lot more. Acquaint yourself with the local stores. We have a lovely produce market in Lansing called "Horrock's" that sells fresh local produce in season, a full meat counter, coffee from local distributors, bulk foods, wines, fresh baked breads, flowers, ethnic foods, and so on. Everything except prepared and packaged food, basically. We can grab all our produce for the week for usually less than $4, where it might cost almost double that at the bigger store. At Aldi, I know that I can get a pack of 12 off-brand kool-aid packets for 89 cents, where that would cost me $3 anywhere else. Keep a mental list of which items are usually cheaper where, and go there first when those things are on your list. Which leads me to...

Step number three is look for the deals.

When the paper comes on Sunday, skip the funnies and go for the good stuff: the circulars. Kroger is having a 10 for $10 sale again, and the 11th item is free!! Time to stock up on soups and crackers. Be aware of what's on sale each week, and plan that into your menus. If cauliflower is 99 cents per head, then plan on having Pasta and Cauliflower this week. If you don't see pork chops on the circular, change that pork chop meal to a slow cooker recipe and use a cheaper cut of meat. Eat what's on sale and save. If you notice that Meijer brand black beans are 30 cents less than Old El Paso brand, grab the Meijer brand. The beans most likely came from the same place, the company putting them away is the only thing that changed.

Step number four is stick to the list.

At the grocery store, you will be tempted by everything including the deviled ham to make an impulse buy. Especially around candies and cakes. No matter what, you must stick to the list. You have already spent all this time figuring out exactly what it is that you want to purchase and eat for the week, and there's no reason to throw all that out the window now. Granted, if you forgot something that you know you need and will actually use this week, by all means add it and save a trip. But if you are stuck lusting next to that time-saving ready-to-eat pizza on a stick, please avert your eyes. If you see on your list that you need chips, and you notice in the store that if you buy a bag and a jar of salsa, you get a free bag of chips, do ignore it. They are conning you into buying salsa that you do not need and will not eat. If the deal, however, will lower the price you will pay, or increase your bounty for free (such as buy two get one when two are already on your list), kudos to you.

Step number five is get the right amount.

When you find yourself throwing food away when you are finished cooking, you have bought too much. If you know that a recipe calls for 1/4lb of some kind of vegetable but you go ahead and grab a pound anyway, keep in mind that that extra will not really go anywhere. You don't have to buy the big package because it's a good deal, especially if you know that you won't use it before it goes bad. Americans usually throw away 25% of whatever they buy grocery-wise; try buying 25% less instead, and pocketing the difference. It can't be helped for packaged foods like sour cream, but for bulk purchases like ground round, get only what you need. If the butcher tosses up .62 lb when you asked for half, interject and have him remove some. You can't change your mind at the checkout on this one.

If you keep these steps in mind every week, you should be able to fit in the nice ingredients you want to use for some of your meals: grilled tuna steaks one summer evening, potato gnocchi, chicken satay, even lobster or scallops. Just remember that you have a budget for the whole month, and if you might have to have two extra-regular meals to make up for that fancy one.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Recently we decided to have a simple spaghetti. We had ricotta left over, so we invented a sauce to go on top of it. Using up perishable leftovers is a great idea! This will be so awesome. In goes the cheese... a bit too heavy. This doesn't taste any good at all! Dinner is ruined! For now...

We thankfully decided to save the mistake and reuse it for tomorrows dinner. This time we added a little tomato sauce on top and sprinkled it with shredded cheese. After 20 minutes in the oven, voila! Spaghetti Lasagna Bake!

While it is impossible to do something wrong while cooking, there are times where something remotely inedible might come up. Instead of trashing it and ordering a pizza, think of some other way you can reuse the ingredients already combined. A little too much curry seasoning in your lentil stew? Stir in some rice and serve with bread to take the heat off. Don't know why you started to sweat so many onions while you were only using them to flavor the pan? Think about tossing in some canned spinach and mushrooms to make a quick side dish. Keeping a good stock of common items in your pantry helps you be inventive on the fly.

If you waste only a minimal amount of food, that much more will go into your tummy, and that much less will get re-added to your next grocery bill! That's a good save.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tactics: Stock Up

I confess that I sometimes stare at the fridge thinking, "What am I going to eat tonight?" Thankfully, I have prepared for just these situations. The mantra of chefs the world over, more or less, is that a stocked pantry helps prepare meals in no time at all. Having the right ingredients on hand to add flair to your meals is indispensable for having a chic dinner.

But what exactly do you put into that well-stocked pantry? Well, I won't disclose a full list here, because my good friend and webhost Google would definately be able to help you out in that department. I do, however, have a few important additions to most lists that will not only give you flair, but add full meals to your instantly available repitoire.

  • Canned beans. Beans can easily and cheaply be the heart of a meal, and can often replace meats in many recipes for much less, including things like fajitas and stroganoff. Dried beans may be more economical, but you cannot beat the speed of a can opener.
  • Flour. This is possibly the best food investment you can make. Making your own bread, muffins, cookies, pancake batter, breadding, PIZZA, etc., is very rewarding, and it allows you to edit the taste of the dough before it is cooked, after which point it is very hard to get new ingredients inside. I buy 10lb sacks at a time and keep them in airtight containers (i can't store THAT much).
  • Sugar. Same deal. Indispensible for quick breads like pound cake when your friends stop by for a few board games. Get the big bag.
  • Baking Powder. Yes, you DO need to add this when you cook things. You can't skip it just becaause you don't have it.
  • Boullion. There is no reason anyone should not have bullion in their pantry. With a vegetarian in the house, we keep "Better than Boullion" brand vegetable boullion and also mushroom boullion on hand. Cubes are definately the cheapest, and pre-portioned. If someone finds a place to get veggie stock cubes, let me know. Cash reward.
  • Spices. For spicing things up. Please don't waste your money on spices you have never heard of and will never use. Keep basic things like oregano, basil, onion powder, garlic salt, and chili powder. If you need a specific spice for something, consider replacing it and changing the recipe, going out and getting a small size, or borrowing it from a neighbor. Spices go bad much quicker than you think.
  • Tinned Tomatoes. We use so many tomatoes we have started growing our own to save money. More on that later. Get cans of whole tomatoes and dice them yourself if you need to. You can always make them smaller.
  • Yeast. Good ol' yeast farts make the best bread. Active dry yeast is the best for most recipes. If you don't made your own bread every week, get a few packets instead of the jar, it will keep better.
  • Peanut Butter. A quick meal in itself.
  • Nuts. They go on everything from casseroles to ice cream. A wide variety is great for making your own snack mix or muffins.

This is NOT an exhaustive list. I keep a lot more things that I use frequently on hand, like dried lentils, canned corn, white rice, nori (seaweed), soy sauce, and so forth. If you don't know what you personally need all the time, start making a list of the staples you go through the quickest, and think of the ingredients for the meals you like to make the most. Then, put those on your list. You may not use as many tomatoes as you think, or you may go through a lot more ketchup and mustard. Thusly, a list you find on Google will probably not work for you without a little editing.

Now that you have a list of the things you need on hand, go get some! But not today. No, go when the sales start and they have flour for $4 or chicken breasts for $1.88 per pound. More on shopping tactics in a minute.

Well now how much of this stuff should you keep on hand? Depends. I have a jar of peanut butter that I bought last year and it's still going strong, so I don't really need to buy them 10 at a time. Conversely, I have run out of sugar again. better buy 2 bags next trip. Tape a list of what you keep in your pantry and how much to keep inside the cupboard door. Also list the shelf lives for each of these items, so you know that the pure lemon extracts you got on that trip to Florida are only best until December, but the artificial vanilla from Kroger will be good after World War Three.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Table for two

You would be amazed at what you can do with a very tight grocery budget. For my family of two, we spend a little under $40 per week for everything.

Thats right, under $160 per month feeds two people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And usually also dessert.

Hopefully this is a shocker for you. More likely, its a little less than what you think you can even survive on, seeing as the average monthly amount for two people hovers way over $300 dollars. I know people that spend as much as $500 per month for only two people! And now, of course, the question comes: Mac and cheese 24/7, right? Not so much.

Most of the lovliest things you can make are suprisingly the easiest, sometimes the cheapest, and usually also the healthiest. This blog is intended to show you how you can make really nice things to eat on a tight budget. True, we won't be making extravagant meals every day, but I can guarantee that you will like what you make.