Monday, September 8, 2008

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

None of you need me to tell you about the high cost of food these days, since we as moms are probably the ones going to the grocery store every week to stock up on food for our families. I think that most families are feeling pinched in terms of their grocery budgets, since the same amount of money buys a significantly smaller amount of food right now. A recent article from the Boston Globe gives some interesting facts and figures regarding grocery costs, for example, milk costs have risen 26% over the past year, egg prices have risen 40%, beef prices 50%, and the list goes on and on. The author paints a grim picture, talking about the weak US dollar, the high price of commodities such as corn and soybeans, and the probability that these high prices will be sustained; basically, we won't be getting a break anytime soon.

 It would be easy to become discouraged after reading such an article. Not that the author is saying anything that we don't already know, but it can be depressing to read the news and listen to the politicians and have it constantly hammered home to us that the cost of living is rising in America. So what are we to do?

Practically speaking, there are plenty of ways to save money: using more beans and less meat, buying mostly sale items, having a shopping list and sticking to it, etc. All of us have our own strategies for stretching the buck, and what works for one family may not work well for another family. Let's remember that even though food prices are high, we have many options at our disposal and it can be fun to get creative and try something new for our family. I'm sure that all of us have memories of what our parents did to save money while we were growing up, and their parents did the same before them, and so on. While budgets may be tight, our situation is not new and we can use it as an opportunity to sacrifice, unite our sacrifices to those of millions of people around the world, and offer up our sacrifices for those who are truly destitute. I believe that doing so will help us all to keep a positive attitude and remind us to be grateful for what we do have!

On that note, here are a couple of my favorite "budget-friendly" meal ideas:

-Mexican casserole: Basically, this consists of layers of flour tortilla shells, salsa, red beans and rice, cheese, and left-over shredded chicken. Easy to make, great for leftovers!

-Pasta and meatballs (usually frozen turkey meatballs)

-Stir-fry: Lots of frozen broccoli, corn, and peas, whatever kind of meat or shrimp was on sale, and a combination of soy sauce/plum sauce/cornstarch/water over rice.

-Tomato soup and tuna melts

Have a great day!


j stark said...

My husband and I agree on several things. Prices are fixed by big corporations and the oil companies. We get too much to eat and the poor people do not get enough. There is so much explotation of the poor.

Take the famine in Ethiopia in in 80s. They were exporting beans to Europe. Take it from there and consider the source.

Careful when you vote.

B-Mama said...

It always amazes me how far a bag of dried beans/peas goes for a meal. A bag of lentils will *easily* serve up a hearty soup that costs very little, has a ton of flavor, and lasts for days (and beyond if you choose to freeze some). Soups, overall, appear to be really budget friendly!! Maybe we need to all do a recipe swap??

Mary Alice said...

Kat, these are good tips. I also admit to throwing away alot of food, so rising costs may make me more likely to be judicious about what I buy, how much I cook and what I do with leftovers -- that single serving of pasta left in the bowl would be a fine lunch for me while the kids have their PB&J.

Oh, and I am going to start introducing a "ploughman's lunch" this fall where I serve chunks of homemade bread, cheddar cheese, apples and carrots for lunch.

I have just read In Defense of Food, but Michael Pollan, and there is lots to talk about in there, but one idea he has, which is revolutionary and shocking and yet makes so much sense, will also help us save money on food -- EAT LESS! Our portion expectations in the US are totally out of control, and Pollan argues that high food prices in the 1970's (also a time when fuel costs were playing a role) were a leading factor in the government initiatives to switch our farm production to high yield/low nutrition foods (mostly corn and soy).

By the way, in defense of your Tofu, Pollan also discusses that a traditional soy preparation, Tofu, is more nutritionally worthwhile then the Western soy products (oils, soy derivatives) that we find in our markets, so those who were concerned that Tofu is still part of the soy chain might be able to relax -- it is a soy product that has stood the test of time as nutritionally valuable, and is part of a healthful traditional Asian diet. It is funny to apply another of Pollan's rules to Tofu -- he says don't eat anything that your great grandmother would not have recognized as food, and I point out that MY great grandmother would not have recognized Tofu, but an Asian person's great grandmother would!

"H" said...

Beans and rice instead of meat? That's a sure recipie for poor nutrition and getting fat. If that's really all you can afford to eat, and that is the case for many in 3rd world countries, then that's life. But it's hardly something to be recommended as healthy for a family that has any alternative options for cutting expenses.

Juris Mater said...

Kat, great topic... I learn so much from other moms on the cooking and budgeting front.

Portion control is huge, MaryAlice. I totally agree. I loved "In Defense of Food".

A couple more things:

Buying meat in bulk: I think it's totally possible to wait until boneless skinless chicken breasts and good pork are $1.99/lb, then buy like 12 lbs at once. I freeze most of it, then cook it in approx 3 lb portions, for example sautee 3 full lbs in curry powder and garlic salt for interesting Indian/stir fry recipes, then freeze at least 2 lbs of the seasoned cooked meat for later, then defrost in the microwave when ready to use. Non-mad-cow ground beef (grass fed, no antibiotics, etc) can be purchased deeply discounted--I find out when my grocery store puts out the clearance beef that is "sell by" the next day, then stock up on the happy cow beef and freeze it immediately. Mad Cow, I never thought I'd require hormone- and antibiotic-free beef. You've changed my life.

Also, way way way less packaged/canned stuff. It's amazing how low in nutritional value and high in cost this stuff is, relatively speaking. Avoiding this and buying more real foods doesn't put a dent in the budget. It seems to be basically an even trade money-wise. We feel more full when we eat whole foods (and I don't mean Whole Foods whole foods).

Also from In Defense of Food: seasonal vegetables (= cheap) and whole grains should be center-stage in a meal, with meat alongside. I can't stand beans, but I find that we don't need as much meat to fill up if there are plenty of veggies on the plate, and plenty of water with the meal.

Mary Alice said...

I think that eating less meat is a good way to save money in general, and while a steady diet of rice and beans may not be great, cutting meat out of a few meals a week seems like a perfectly healthy alternative -- a veggie lasagna or an eggplant parm with cheese are other options. I make my own hummus with a can of chickpeas, some olive oil and chopped garlic, and that, carrot sticks, grapes and pita bread is a nice lunch for the kids and I and costs very little.

Has anyone else found that canned tuna has gotten really nasty lately? I found bones in my last can (rech) and in general the consistency has changed, gotten more mushy and watery, even though I was buying a name brand? I don't plan to use canned tuna anymore.

We have been doing egg salad, instead.

I completely agree with JM about using whole foods when possible. We have cut out snacking entirely, and when we are going to have treats like dessert, usually only on the weekends, we either have homemade cookies or small cones of high quality ice cream.

It is apple season now, hurray hurray, so we will be eating those in abundance. A tip from a bag of local apples I bought this morning encouraged apples with every meal -- sauteed with chicken or pork for dinner, apple sauce with pancakes or french toast for breakfast, apples on a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. I love apples, and I love to be able to buy a great bag of macs and just have them around all fall, make pies, go crazy.

JM, also, about buying meat in bulk, I like to buy chicken breasts and then freeze them four at a time with different kinds of seasonings, so that I have a bag ready to go for curry, italian, taco, etc, you just add what you would use to marinate or season into the freezer bag, and then take it out the night before you want to eat it and it marinates as it defrosts.

Also, anytime I cook with my slow cooker I make several meals worth and freeze some, chili, spaghetti sauce, beef stew.

With ground beef, you can season it for meatloaf or meatballs and then flatten the bag to freeze it, it defrosts faster that way. I add the breadcrumbs, eggs, everything.

Mad Cow: did you hear about the meat packing plant busted this week for child labor issues?

Oh, one last thought from In Defense of Food -, and to agree with "h" - perhaps spending less on food is not something we should be so worried about, and instead we should be spending less on other things -- entertainment comes to mind, even clothes and cosmetics (hair dye?!), car use -- what we save in order to eat poorly will be spent on health care costs in our future...

texas mommy said...

Buying whole chickens as opposed to just the breasts is another way to save $$. I happen to like the dark meat better, too. You can cook the whole thing and freeze the leftovers.

I have not done so yet, but you can also make your own chicken stock with the bones and freeze that. If I use the bones, I just add them into soup.

I also second Mary Alice's comment about tofu. It is not the same as eating an isolated soy protein "nutrition" bar. It is real food, even if Mr. Incredible would disagree.

AWOL Mommy said...

Thank you for addressing my, previously unadressed, panic that this post would mean I couldn't have dessert. Good tips, Ladies. Anyone freeze in anything other than Ziplocs? That is a product we don't really buy, but I love all this pre-marinating of meats.

Since you are too cool to let us comment on your pretzel recipe -- I will commence usurping you now. I make a variation of these during the holidays and give them to neighbors, priest, mailman, etc. The only differences are that 1) I use the full size rods 2) I dip half in white choc and half in dark 3) I use Christmas colored M & Ms and coconut flakes that look like snow. As a PS, you could use an extra 15 lbs. - it will distract everyone from your silvery mane.

Kat said...

I have a quick question about freezing meats...Has anyone noticed recently that sometimes the chicken in the refrigerated section is actually defrosting, meaning that it has already been frozen and is now defrosting in the refrigerated section? I've also seen this a bit with ground beef recently, as well as some fish. It's hard to tell if they've just had the temps up too high in the refrigerated section or if it really has been frozen previously. My point in all of this is that I'm wondering if I can re-freeze meat that has already been frozen once. I remember being told that I should NOT freeze something that has previously been frozen and defrosted, mostly for health/safety reasons (bacteria growth or something), but maybe you ladies know something I don't? Also, JM, I do the same as you - buy meats that are about to expire and then freeze them - but I'm wondering if this is okay? Does freezing really stop whatever is happening to the meat until you defrost it again? I hope so, but does anyone have any more information on this?

H, just to address your comment, I definitely agree - I would never substitute beans and rice entirely for meat - I was just suggesting that we can STRETCH our meat by adding some beans to certain dishes, like casseroles. But I don't think that beans and rice make you fat, if, as in all things, they are eaten in moderation.

mad cow said...

Faithful readers,

Mad Cow is back after a brief sabbatical. The wireless connection on my laptop went down, and I couldn’t use the computer at the meat packing plant because the keyboard was too small - I require hoof-sized keys (not easy to find, by the way). Even if I could use the plant’s keyboard, I don’t think the workers would have let me in, given the stench and all.

Anyway, MA, I did not hear about the plant bust. Tell us more. I used to do some freelance writing myself, before the whole “Mad Cow” thing. Now I just stick to blogging.

Happy dining,
Mad Cow

PS: Is B-Mama ever going to acknowledge me, or has she fallen prey to the modern prejudice against animals with neurodegenerative diseases? What would St. Francis do?

Len said...

Here is an article about the child labor issues:

Kate E. said...

In terms of the rice and beans, I say think outside the box, as mentioned "beans" in book mean lentils, black, kidney, chickpeas, etc you can have a lot of fun and variety there. "Rice" in our house means grain, so it can be barley, couscous, quinoa, kasha, etc.

I make mushroom risotto with barley instead, creamy and delish just like arborrio rice.

Real Simple this month has a whole thing on other grains which was cool to see and some great recipes (great recipes in general this month, so quick and easy).

Also in terms of the freezing/refreezing question, the fish guy at my grocery store just told me to buy frozen shrimp if I'm not using them today because his shrimp were frozen for transport anyway. We do have a fish store we love that we go to for most things, but this was good to remember.

I'd love a soup recipe swap b-mama, my little guy is anti-vegetable (sad but true) but will eat almost any kind of soup, so I can even make mine & brendan's chunky and immersion blend his!

Juris Mater said...

Mad Cow,

Thank goodness you're back. I was deeply afraid that your day had come. At least I know I won't be eating you when that day does come. $4.39/lb for organic ground beef today at Costco (I was desperate to cook 7 layer dip tonight and only-beans will not do). This kind of price is why we only eat beef once a week.


What a great idea for Christmas gifts!! Much better than our cut-out cookies last year (I almost dabbled in child abuse while trying to pull that off with my kids' "help".) How do you wrap them up to give? Anyway, more on Christmas gift ideas when the season nears. As if the stores don't get us thinking about every holiday WAY too early in the first place. We've been bombarded by Halloween witches and vampires in stores since July 5. How I hate commercial Halloween.