Monday, 31 January 2011

Saving money in the kitchen

By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

The spectre of food price inflation has reared its head once again in the last few months, which can be a daunting prospect for those managing already tight budgets. Most of us do not stand completely defenceless however. The kitchen is a place where an awful lot of fat can be trimmed, so to speak. In the process of writing this post I have begun to twig the full scope of this subject and the scale of the adjustments that we have made over time to cut our food budget down to size; this is a list of starting points that each warrant a post in themselves.

Over the last few years we have begun to:

Cook from scratch - using quality, nutrient dense raw ingredients. It is much cheaper to invest in some basic ingredients than processed foods. Processed foods may look cheap gram for gram, but they certainly won’t be in terms of nutritional value.

Stock a basic pantry – impulse food purchases often stem from feeling that you have nothing in for dinner, or that you fancy something sweet and toothsome. Making sure that your pantry includes ingredients to rustle up a quick meal or baked goodies will lessen the urge to go shopping. Your pantry will probably change with the seasons, but some basics will always stand you in good stead. Draw up a list of what you have now, what you use regularly and what seem to run out of most frequently; and plan your shopping from that.
Ask ‘Could I live without that?’ - Some people are born gourmets; but novelty doesn’t always come cheap. A food budget is a lot easier to manage if you can be creative with a few versatile staple ingredients and seasonings. Rosewater, whole tamarinds, dried apricots and bottled sour cherries are just some of the things that seemed like a good idea at the time but will never grace our shelves again. That said, a willingness to try new foods is a good thing, meaning that you can capitalise on special offers and gluts. If you are willing to try new flavours and textures you will be able to make the most of the food that comes your way. Now is the time to get over any food prejudices that you may have.

Plan meals – planning helps you to use food when it is freshest. It also allows you to make the most of leftovers; the remains of a Sunday roast can stretch to several meals through the week and a big pot of soup will cover a few lunches. Knowing which days you need to soak beans on, defrost meats, prepare packed lunches or buy fresh vegetables will save a lot of time and money. This is one area where I am disappointed with our progress, as when we have managed it for a week or more we have saved a lot of time and money.

Control portions – many people don’t know what a healthy portion of pasta or cheese or vegetables looks like and may consume far more than they need, or leave it on their plates. This can turn into quite an expensive (and unhealthy) habit.

Plan our shop – my own method is to ‘stockpile’ a few months worth of basics which we buy online (where I am less likely to impulse buy); and to buy perishables from local shops as we need them. The general advice to never shop on an empty stomach, to wise up to the marketing tactics of retailers and to stick to a shopping list is all golden, too.

Eat less meat – not necessarily give it up, unless you are that way inclined, but eat it less frequently. I have friends that barely go a meal without including meat (they feel that it wouldn't actually be a meal without it); an expensive rut to be stuck in. Learning to cook with pulses, tofu, dairy and eggs will lead to many satisfying, frugal meals.

'Bulk out' meals – adding lentils, grains or extra vegetables to meat dishes such as lasagne; and pairing expensive ingredients with complementary cheaper ones will stretch your resources further.

Learn how to store food – Everyone at one time or the other has let lettuce turn to mush at the bottom of the fridge or left half open packets of grain to attract mites. You do not need expensive kilner jars and Tupperware. Old food jars, plastic milk cartons, old crockery and ice cream tubs will all work fine. 
Watch our fuel consumption – some methods of cooking and food storage are fuel intensive. Cook one-pot dishes, or several foods in one pan, as much as possible. Lids, or even dinner plates balanced on top, save a lot of energy and mean  that you can use a lower flame. If you use the oven, fill it with several dishes to optimise energy use. The more adventurous might want to consider fuel-less cooking methods such as hay boxes and solar ovens, or eschewing electric 'labour savers' or even fridges altogether. In addition, consult your appliance manuals for optimizing energy usage. My own freezer apparently works best when stuffed full, but my fridge is better left with space for air to circulate.

There are thousands of resources out there on this topic, not least many of the kitchen and budgeting posts here at the Coop. One of the best UK sites on food waste, Love Food Hate Waste gives useful information on portion sizes, using leftovers and storing foods optimally. I suspect that most of the best information however will not be on the web, but in old home economics books from more austere eras, ready to be retrieved in the nick of time as domestic budgeting becomes an important skill once again. I know that readers here will have many hints, methods and reading lists of their own to share, so please leave a comment if you have something to add.


    africanaussie said...

    How true all of your statements are, and after going shopping this weekend I went straight home and planted some seeds! I am at the moment reading a vegetarian cookbook by charmaine solomon - very good recipes so I plan on having meatless mondays and more this year.

    David said...

    I've learned that the chinese have it right by using meat as basically a seasoning. I am a soup, caserole, stew kind of a guy. It doesn't take much meat to give the dish a good meaty flavor. So for those that just have to have meat but want to cut back it's a good way to start toward meatless meals. Quite frankly I could live on beans and rice and all the variations there of.

    Have a great kitchen food saving day.

    Treasures Evermore said...

    Wow, this was a great much for me to glean.

    Thank you!


    Super Mom said...

    Food prices are on the rise here in Canada too and the sales are getting a little thin so it is getting more difficult to keep to my weekly budget but doing even more cooking from scratch than I was seems to be helping.

    Thanks for reminding me of some other ways to save. I will have to start tweaking a bit myself.

    I am getting ready to put in my seed order for this spring. I will definitely be adding some more gardens this year.

    The Improbable Farmer said...

    I started doing meatless monday last year and a local food challenge. Since then our meat consumption has dramatically decreased, even with my husband! When we pay more for local meat, we savor it more as well. As my husband says, "I would rather have two pieces of bacon from the local butcher than 10 pieces of Oscar Meyer"

    And yes.. he used to eat 10 pieces of Oscar Meyer LOL

    Zephyr Hill said...

    On the other hand, I find that having ethnic ingredients like rosewater, dried apricots, tahini, and many spices available in my pantry (and they keep almost forever) helps me be more creative with common, ordinary ingredients like vegetables. We love ethnic foods and rarely eat "plain" American food. It doesn't have to be expensive or complicated to eat ethnic. We appreciate the richness of the earth's cultures--many of which have very frugal types of meals that don't use much meat!

    Stacy said...

    Great post. Thanks!

    I've been meal planning for years but every once in a while I let it slip and always end up spending more money on food during that time -- whether it's unnecessary trips to the store or buying fast food to put a meal on the table.

    Aurora said...

    Meatless Mondays (or Tuesdays or Wednesdays :) ) would be a great way to start cutting down on meat. Also, as David said, using meat sparingly to add a hint of flavour to something as opposed to making it the centerpiece of a dish.

    I was going to recommend growing your own food if you can, but then that can become a very expensive pastime if you don't budget well! A few salad leaves and herbs on a windowsill for starters are unlikely to break any budgets however.

    I still do use spices and unusual ingredients, but make an effort to use them up ASAP after opening them. Which usually means a month of Middle Eastern flavours followed by a month of Mexican flavours, and so on. When I buy them, I make sure I have several uses in mind for them too.

    ramtops said...

    I write a blog on (mostly) using up food at Reactive Cooking. I'm both appalled and astonished at how much food people waste - I simply couldn't afford to do it!

    Linda said...

    I like all of your tips but the one I think is the most successful for saving money is to eat less meat. We go for weeks as vegetarians around here. What I have started doing in general is that I am trying to make meat a special cake. I'd rather go completely vegetarian but I'd have an interfamily uprising if I did that:)

    John Property Investment Advice said...

    Wow this is a very informative post. I am on the process of savings and this is very helpful. Thanks for sharing.

    tdls17 said...

    Very nice article. It's so important to save money with grocery shopping. It seems to be so easy to over spend.

    Planning ahead and sticking to your grocery list is important. frugal shopping saves big dollars.

    Anonymous said...

    I like your article very much and thought your tips, save one, were very helpful. However, you should NEVER store food or drinking water in used plastic milk jugs. The are not meant to be used again and the plastic is not safe.