Monday, August 6, 2012

20 Tips for Eating on the Cheap

I'm in the last month of pre-paycheck poverty, and in looking back, there are a lot of things that I've learned since starting college in 1998 (luckily, I lived in what we called the 'Motel 6' - the Delta 6 dorm at the University of South Alabama). I've always had to figure out a way to make it on a budget - whether that means just knowing how much or little I would have for the month, or trying to figure out how to get by on $100 or less for a full month of groceries.

Apart from two and a half years off, I've basically been in school and living off of student loans and (for a short time) low-salary assistantships for half of my life. Below are twenty points of wisdom that I hope will help someone else out.

NOTE - I'm a single female, and have been for the majority of the last ten years. I know that a couple of these tips won't transfer to families. Also, I'm well aware that I've had the luxury of visiting my parents in the summer and canning vegetables from the garden (that I helped plant, weed, grow, pick, etc.), and that this is not always an available plan to everyone. Canned goods are cheapest at dollar stores, whether it be Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, etc. Also, my advice and what pricing I mention is based on life in Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas, where cost of living is low, but so are the salaries. I make no apologies for that.

Now, that being said, here's what I've learned over the years:

1. Learn to roast a chicken and make your own stock.

Whole chickens often go on sale around here for 88c/lb. I simply coat mine with salt and pepper, then roast it until it hits 165 internally (30-60 minutes at 350, depending on the size of the chicken and how accurate your oven is). Once that chicken is roasted, I'll eat each piece individually with a starch and/or vegetables for a meal, which gives me four full meals, plus the wing sections for snacks.

DO NOT THROW AWAY THAT CARCASS. Chicken stock purchased at the store is expensive, and there's no reason for you to have to buy it. Take the leftover chicken bones, fat, etc. and cover them with water and SIMMER it for a long time (you -can- boil it, but that'll make your stock cloudy). Add vegetables if you can afford some carrots, celery, onion and garlic, but really, you can make stock that's perfectly good with the bones alone. Add enough salt and pepper to make it taste good, but not too salty. This stock can be used as the base for soups, pot pies, and as a general flavorin agent.

I bought a 5 pound chicken at Kroger this week on sale, and after four meals (adding in a couple of dollars of veggies), I'll also have nearly a gallon of stock, which will serve as the base for some gumbo. Not bad for less than $5 as a base.

2. Frozen vegetables can be your friend.

Yes, yes, farmer's markets are fantastic, but far too many people either live prohibitively far from a good FM, or live near one that's a bit 'hipstery' and is full of organic, overpriced produce. You can easily supplement your diet with vegetables from your market's freezer section - at the local Kroger, store-brand bags of cut vegetables ranging from 8-16 ozs are $1 apiece. I consider each of those bags to be 3-4 servings per person, so that's a tremendous deal. Those bags include pre-cut mirepoix and mixed onions/peppers, and since I only need to use as much as I need, I'll be able to make things like fajitas and gumbo without feeling the need to make a HUGE batch and having a lot of leftovers.

3. Thou shalt not live on rice, beans, and ramen alone.

Sure, you could, if you absolutely HAD to, but please, try not to do so. Food is a significant part of western culture, and eating the same stuff over and over again is going to do some damage to your psyche. For your own mental well-being, it's best if you mix it up.

4. That said, go heavy on the starches if you're really hurting for cash.

Yes, protein and vegetables are better for you than simple and complex carbohydrates. But if you're trying to stretch your groceries, you'll get more stomach-fill for your buck by putting a bigger pile of rice or mashed potatoes on your plate than you would by adding more vegetables or even legumes.

5. Make your own salad dressings and eat a salad for lunch.

You can usually pick up a head of bibb lettuce ($1), a couple of plum tomatoes (.99/lb), and a red onion (.99/lb) for around $3-4 total. Then, mix some canola/olive oil with some red wine or balsamic vinegar (which I get for around $2.50 a bottle for balsamic, or even cheaper if I age super-discounted red wine from the liquor store), add in some salt, pepper, garlic, and spices, and voila! Homemade salad dressing for far less than it would cost to buy a bottle on clearance. This makes for a super-cheap and filling meal, and someone once told me that eating a salad once in a while was good for you, too.

6. If you can, grow your own herbs and vegetables.

I live in an apartment these days, and so I can't grow vegetables as much as I used to. I DO, however, have plenty of space on my balcony and windowsills to grow basil, oregano, and maybe even some tomatoes, if I had better sun. If you don't have a bunch of deer that are going to eat your crops, grow okra, because it freezes very well, plus fried okra is high in fiber and tastes awesome. Incidentally, if you're going to grow your own tomatoes, I suggest going with a plum variety like San Marzanos instead of beefsteak tomatoes - they can better. Which leads me to my next point...

7. Can or freeze your own vegetables in the summertime and make jellies when you can.

Anything that's got a relatively high acidity content doesn't even need a pressure cooker - you can can them in a hot water bath in a large pot. There's plenty of good advice on /r/canning, so I won't go into too much detail here, but I WILL take a moment to say that it is absolutely worth investing in new jars - Ball or Kerr. Wal-Mart now has its own Mainstays line of jars, but they're new enough that we just don't know how well they hold up. A dozen jars, no matter the size, should run between $7-10. If you're growing your own tomatoes, peel them and can them, and you'll have that all winter long. Green beans also can well, but they require a pressure cooker - or, you can freeze them. A great guide for food preservation can be found here:

8. Buy in bulk when it makes sense.

I'm sure you're thinking "well, duh!", but bear with me here. You can buy a full pork tenderloin at a membership club (borrow a friend's membership and bring cash or a debit card) for around $1.50-$1.70/lb. This tenderloin can be split into about 16 portions, as a rough estimate, possibly more. When I purchase one, I'll save some for pork roasts, and split the rest into boneless pork chops. Compare this to the $3-4/lb that you'll pay full retail on at the grocery store, and it's a great way to stretch your money.

Other things that I prefer to buy at membership clubs are butter (4 pounds at Costco is usually around what I'd pay for 3 pounds at the grocery store), heavy cream, certain cheeses, and frozen seafood. Also - quinoa. Quinoa is ONLY a good deal when you buy it in bulk. Don't ever buy it in a small box from the 'gluten-free' section of your local groccery, because the price is WAY too high. For what I paid for 12 ozs the first time I cooked it, I could've spent $2 more on a 5-lb bag at Costco.

9. When you buy in bulk, use a vacuum sealer to store it all.

Google Shopper can help you out on this one, as can Woot. I purchased a Rival sealer for $15, versus the $45 it's running on Amazon right now. Yes, the bags are expensive, but if you're buying a large quantity of meat at once, it's definitely worth it to prevent freezer burn. This is another one of those cases where you can share one with a friend - one person gets a pressure cooker for canning, one person gets a vacuum sealer, one person gets a Costco or Sam's membership. Nobody's out more than $60 and you can all share in the investments (and the next year, you can split that membership club fee). If you've ever eaten freezer burnt meat that's been in the freezer for a couple of years, including power outages, you know what I'm talking about.

10. Learn to break down beef roasts into smaller portions.

Before I moved, I picked up a top sirloin roast for $3/lb. That's not too bad for Sunday dinner for 8, but when it's just you, that's a lot of meat. I actually managed to cut STEAKS from my roast (just pay attention to the meat's grain and you'll be fine), plus chunks of beef for tacos, stew meat, and whatever else I want. I got all the servings I wanted from my roast, including a really awesome sirloin steak that I had for dinner - at half the price of what I would've paid for a proper sirloin steak cut at the butcher's case.

11. Quinoa is very filling and great for you, but rinse it like mad or you'll get heartburn.

I learned this one the hard way. Even McGhee's On Food and Cooking didn't have this tip, and I just learned it for myself last week. Wow.

Seriously though, if you can buy quinoa in bulk, give it a try. Yes, it looks funny, but you can simmer it in that awesome chicken stock I told you to make, and you won't go hungry. It also has virtually every amino acid you can.

12. If you can go somewhere that chanterelle mushrooms grow, go pick them in the summers on a day after a good rain.

This is the perfect time of year to head up to the Georgia mountains and pick chanterelles. I ONLY recommend picking these because they are very easy to distinguish from ANY other type of mushroom - they have a hollowed-out flute and are bright orange. They grow in forests that have little to no pine growth - if you're in GA, check out Unicoi State Park (sp?) and other areas. I've even seen them in the park near Athens. I know they grow elsewhere, but that's the only practical experience I have. Make sure you know how to tell the difference between those and Jack O' Lantern mushrooms, which look like they have a flute but don't have a hollow center. These mushrooms are impressive in that they have ALL of the amino acids you need, and can be sauteed in butter and then frozen to save for year-round use. If you're picking them fresh, you might even be able to sell them to a high-end restaurant for $25-30/lb. Just make sure you use woven baskets, because that lets the spores fall back to the ground so they can repopulate.

13. If you know how to bake, get at it (just don't skimp on the flour).

I picked up a full pound of yeast at the DeKalb Farmer's Market last time I was in Atlanta for something like $3. That's almost as much as I would pay for six packets of Fleishmann's yeast, and it's the SAME THING! A packet of yeast is just shy of a tablespoon, so buying in bulk makes a lot of sense if you can use it. Get started making your own bread - this is a good starter recipe: /r/breadit can give lots of advice and other recipes to help you along.

Also, yeast rolls and breakfast rolls aren't hard to make at all, just a little time consuming. You can make large batches and freeze them  before they're iced. My mother found this recipe in Southern Living over 20 years ago, and it's still the best recipe I've ever used: Also, don't forget to check out /r/baking. Those folks know their stuff.

Finally, when I say don't skimp on the flour, I mean it. If you're from the southern US, you're probably used to baking with White Lily - there's a reason for this. White Lily is a soft wheat flour, which cooks and bakes differently than hard wheat flours. No, you won't have to adjust your recipes from Southern Living too much if you get a hard wheat flour from a store brand, but why risk it? I'll spend an extra dollar on a 5lb bag of White Lily instead of trying to use a store brand flour that I haven't figured out the hardness or gluten content of. Granulated, powdered, and brown sugars should all be the same, btw - though if you buy that Domino 'brownulated' brown sugar, just stay aware that it needs some moisture to fall back to its original brown sugar state.

14. You don't need a ton of fancy kitchen gadgets. If you're just starting out, you CAN live with just a few things.

I laugh at people who swear by their garlic presses. Why? Because I can get equally good results by mincing the hell out of a clove of garlic with my Victorinox chef's knife, or if I'm doing a lot at once, by throwing it in the one-cup processor attachment of my immersion blender. Speaking of, here are the three things I think you really need, apart from utensils, a few spoons (you can get a pack of plastic cooking utensils at most big box stores for $1), some tongs, and a cutting board:

  • Victorinox chef's knife (8 or 10 inch) - This is highly rated by Cook's Illustrated, and retails on Amazon for $40. I bought mine at a restaurant supply for $25. If you have a honing steel, that's all you need to keep it going.
  • Cheap (under $40) immersion blender. This does triple duty as a one-cup food processor AND a motorized whisk. It also purees sauces, smoothies, and anything else you want to deal with. Want to make mashed potatoes? Cream them with a touch of milk and butter with the stick blender. Want to make homemade tomato soup? Use whole plum tomatoes, roast them at 350 for an hour, then cook them down with some broth, stock, or water, plus whatever seasonings you like, then blend it up.
  • A Tramontina double boiler/steamer ($36ish at Wal-Mart). This is my soup pot, stock pot, steamer pot, chocolatiering pot. I use this puppy for EVERYTHING, because it's so well made. Yes, there are some things I still use my commercial-grade cookware for, and there's still a few things that I use my grandmother's old Amway cookware for (it's lasted 40 years, why stop now?!). Still, 75% of the cooking that I do involves this small set of cookware, for good reason.

15. Can you find pork bellies for $6/lb or less? Got access to a smoker? Cure and smoke your own bacon instead of paying retail.

Refer to my previous blog posts for my own experiences, but I will NEVER pay $6 for a pack of 12 ozs of commercially processed bacon ever again. You get more out of the quantity, not to mention the quality. I would gladly eat a single slice of my homemade bacon over the crap that they spray liquid smoke and nitrates on any day of the week - and all it takes to make is salt, pepper, celery salt, and whatever other seasonings you like.

16. Get to know the patterns of your local grocery store's weekly circulars.

My dad was always a grocery store circular hound, and after a while, I realized why that was. Stores tend to have patterns - every few weeks, chicken would go on sale. The next week, it'd be pork, then beef, and so on. If you get to know the patterns, you can properly time your purchases.

17. Sometimes, it's worth splurging.

This goes back to the psychology of food. I'm not talking about letting yourself indulge in the McDonald's dollar menu, either - I mean, sometimes, you need to just buy yourself a ribeye or a pound of shrimp when it's on sale, cook it up beautifully, and remind yourself that you're a human being. I occasionally see ribeyes on sale for $6-7 a pound, and 30-40 ct shrimp for $5/lb - so go for it if you can! The pound of shrimp I recently bought will be used with the chicken stock I'm making this week, plus roux, some of that frozen mirepoix, cajun spices, tomatoes, and okra, to become a delicious shrimp gumbo. Yes, it will be more than my usual daily budget allows, but sometimes it's worth going a couple of dollars over budget to remember the things you love. My gumbo won't be packed full of oysters, alligator, or andouille, but it will still be delicious.

18. Learn to make pie crusts from scratch.

Pot pies, dessert pies, fried pies - the sky's the limit! Get yourself a rolling pin, an empty wine bottle, or just a heavy glass, and roll out a pie crust. You can make enough crust for a pot pie in a casserole with around half a stick to a full stick of butter, and with just some basic roux, stock, a little of that roasted chicken, and frozen or canned vegetables, you can make a wonderful dinner that freezes well.

My pie crusts usually involve whipping some cold butter with a bit of flour in a food processor (use that one-cup from the stick blender!), then adding a tiny bit of water until it comes together. It'll be warm by this point, so you can knead it well. Then, if I'm not using it immediately, I just put it in a plastic bag and freeze it until the time comes. Otherwise, roll it out (or roll out the thawed dough at room temp). Yes, there are better methods for making pie crusts using vodka, but this will get you more than satisfactory results and you'll likely still be very pleased with the outcome.

19. I don't care how cheap something is, don't buy it just because it's on sale.

I'm looking at you, brussels sprouts in my freezer. Actually, I'm sort of kidding - I LOVE brussels sprouts, and with a little salt and a tiny bit of my homemade bacon, they'll be fantastic, and I got this package with the $1 frozen veggies deal at Kroger. But let's be serious here, we don't all love them as much as I love those baby cabbages. so why on earth would you buy them? This reminds me of when I bought some yuca after a friend cooked some and I thought it was decent. I saw it on sale at Publix, so I said why not? Well, five years passed and I never used it. I didn't even bring it with me on this last move - I think it's still in my parents' freezer somewhere, waiting to be put out of its misery.

20. Just because something has been historically cheap doesn't mean it's cheap now.

Seriously Spam, WTF? I know you're popular in Hawaii, but just because that's the case doesn't mean that you're worth $2.50 a can for potted meat products. As I mentioned earlier, I can get pork tenderloin for $1.50-1.70/lb, as opposed to the $2-2.50 for an 8-12oz can of prepackaged, over-salted meat. Yes, I know that my friend got you on discount for 50 cents at a scratch and dent sale, and yes, I know that you were the most fantastic thing I ever ate at her house the night after I defended my dissertation prospectus, but let's be clear here - you are no longer cheap meat product. The same thing goes for flank steak, hanger steak, and every single thing that Alton Brown ever mentioned on his show. This is why my steaks now are cut from top sirloin roasts, because the famous TV cooks haven't gotten to that yet.

Bonus tip #21: Pay attention to long-term weather patterns and news from the agriculture world, and know where your food comes from.

I am dead serious on this. A couple of years ago, there was a drought in Georgia and a bacterial outbreak at a peanut factory. The result? Peanut butter went through the roof. $8 for a large jar of JIF? That's why I stocked up early. This year, corn is really hurting - be prepared for it to be far more expensive in the coming times than it's ever been. In fact, anything that's growing in the midwest is being killed by one of the worst droughts we've seen since the dust bowl era... so if you can afford to, stock up now. Cornmeal, Karo syrup, flour, beef - all of it is going to be much more expensive in the months to come, and if the weather isn't any better next year, it's only going to get worse.

...I really hope that this has been helpful to you guys. If it saves even one person a few bucks in the long run, it'll be worth it, but my honest hope is that it will give the everyday budgeter something to think on.

Much love and hope for a better future!

It's been a while, but I'm back!

After defending my dissertation, graduating, and then waiting tables for a few months to get moving money together (which really takes the creative blogging energy out of you when it's mostly outdoors and it's 100+ degrees out), I'm finally settled into my new place in Little Rock, and ready to get at it again.

I'm entering my last month before getting a real paycheck, and I'm super-excited about what I might do when I can really buy groceries. In the meantime, I'm working up a post to share all of my lessons learned with the budgetfood crowd. Of course, this doesn't mean that I'm going to be eating foie gras every meal, but it does mean that I can afford some duck or a nice steak on occasion.

Anyway, it's nice to be back to posting!