Recessionary Times Call For Discretionary Measures

On the back of my post on food stamp spending, I felt it necessary to delve a little deeper into the subject and examine ways one can effectively stretch their food dollars.  I feel like somewhere out there, someone is thinking to themselves, well it’s all fine and good to say it’s possible to live within those restrictions, but does she really do it?  And if so, how?  So, let’s get into the nitty gritty, shall we?

First off, there’s nothing secret about how I manage to live within my means.  Most of the suggestions and ideas are pure common sense, and if you asked anyone who lived through the Great Depression, (like your grandparents), they’d tend to agree with me.  Trust me; in this day and age there are too many people (especially my generation, unfortunately) that are spoiled for choice, but these methods were quite commonplace back then. I often think the reason more people don’t cook is that they take it too seriously.  Cooking is meant to be fun, not a chore, and really, even if you screw it up, (barring incineration) you can almost always eat your mistakes.

One of the easiest methods to adopt is to buy as much of your food as possible in its natural, unadulterated state.  Put simply, that means instead of buying a bagged salad kit, you buy a head of romaine lettuce and toast your own croutons.  Or you put down the baby carrots and pick up a bunch of whole ones (those bagged baby carrots are just normal carrots lathed into a smaller shape, you know)  Or, as previously suggested, buy a whole chicken and break it into the requisite pieces yourself.  One chicken yields 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 2 breasts and a carcass that can be thrown in the freezer and used later to make stock or soup and only runs you $8-10.  It may sound intimidating, but after a few tries it’s manageable. Remember; it’s just food.  At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t perfect, because it’s just going to wind its way through your digestive tract anyhow. Another apt comparison; while experimenting with sausage-making earlier this year, I learned it is cheaper (and more reliable) to buy a piece of whole meat rather than buying it pre-ground.  If you happen to have a food mill or a meat grinder, it’s a no-brainer.  Not only can you control the amount of fat that goes into your ground (which is better for your health) you can save yourself some money.  Ground pork can be anywhere from $3.99 to $4.99 a pound, but a picnic shoulder will set you back only $2.99 a pound.  See what I’m getting at here?  This is the premium that the food industry arbitrarily puts on your time.

Another smart idea would be to invest some effort into growing food.  Don’t let lack of a backyard, patio or balcony be a barrier to success.  As seen here on You Grow Girl, Gayla proves that all it takes is a sunny window and an old salad container to grow a lilliputian basket of micro greens (that in a fancy pants grocery store would be $10 a pound).  It also doesn’t hurt to contact your local parks and recreation office to locate community gardens in your area, because they are great places for people with little in the way of garden know-how and access to dirt to get together and learn to grow.  Having been part of one last year, I can’t say enough about them.  They foster community relationships, provide a wealth of knowledge, and beautify public spaces.  Plus, growing from seed can provide the best value for dollar of any of my suggestions.  A packet of seeds typically ranges between $0.99 and $3.00 (though I’m sure there are more expensive ones out there) but contains anywhere from 30 to several hundred seeds (depending on the variety).  Considering that given the right conditions, each seed is capable of producing a whole plant, a $0.99 investment seems like an ok strategy to me.  As we’re moving into spring, it’s also a very timely suggestion.  If you find it too expensive to buy multiple seeds when all you want to grow is a few different plants, pool your resources with friends and share the seeds amongst yourselves (another bonus of community gardening).  As a plus, gardening also has spiritual benefits, and there’s nothing more soothing than a little toil to get back to the earth and centre yourself.

If you really can’t find a way to garden, shopping the harvest is the next best thing.  Whether it’s a trip to your local farmers market, a stop at a highway fruit stand, or just wandering around your grocery store, you’ll notice the food that’s in season is significantly cheaper than the food that isn’t.  And if you can afford the initial outlay of capital, it’s a great time to stock up on seasonal food to overwinter (in the form of jams, jellies, sauces, canned condiments or preserves).  Food at it’s peak is also better for you because it contains more of its nutrients.  To expand on this further, have you ever noticed how expensive strawberries or asparagus are in the dead of winter compared to the first weeks of June?  That’s because it costs money to fly food in from warmer climes where it grows year round (like Peru or Mexico).  You’ll also notice the food that’s traveled farther tends to have less flavor.  On top of that, the more time between the moment something’s picked and when you eat it, the less nutrients its likely to have left.  Buying in season has the added benefit of usually meaning that your food is local (or closer to it), which is good for the community, good for your health and good for the environment.  It’s a win-win situation all the way.

While it’s another method that requires an initial outlay of cash, buying in bulk can be one of the most beneficial ways to stretch a dollar.  Firstly, when food producers don’t have to pay for individual packaging, it allows them to pass on the savings to the customer.  An excellent example of buying in bulk would be connecting with a farmer to buy a side, half or quarter of a whole animal, which is easier than you think.  Not only does this practice allow for greater levels of customization (as you specify what cuts and sizes you’d like made out of your animal), but the cost per pound significantly drops when purchased this way.  For example, earlier this year the Everyman and I purchased a split side of beef.  Weighing in at just under 120 pounds, the side was natural, grass fed, and contained a little bit of everything for just $3.29 a pound.  As the Everyman’s brother pointed out, it’s a great deal, but you either look at it like you’ve bought really cheap steaks (not quality wise) or really expensive ground beef.  I don’t care how I think about it, to me it’s just good forethought.  We bought our side in January and I don’t think we’ve even worked through 20 pounds yet, so at that rate I’d extrapolate that the beef will last almost a year and a half.  Though BBQ season is coming… so we’ll probably see a sharp spike in burger and steak consumption shortly…

Cooking ethnic is a suggestion that can be a boon for both your wallet and your tastebuds.  For some reason, ethnic foods tend to be cheaper (think dishes with lots of rice. beans, noodles or potatoes), primarily because so many of them concentrate on cooking with staples.  In Naked Chef parlance, they’re cheap as chips.  It’s also been proven that eating heavily spiced cuisine inclines one to eat less, whether it’s hot and spicy or just layered flavors.  In some strange way I guess taste receptors reach a level of satiety as well.  Plus, you get a more varied diet, and don’t feel deprived when the entire globe is showcased on your dinner plate.  There’s no doubt that every cuisine has dishes that aren’t necessarily wallet friendly, but there’s also peasant cuisine (think curries, tostadas, ribbolita, etc).  There are plenty of dishes that came be made with next to nothing, but are delicious, hearty and satisfying.

Something I wish more people would latch onto is the notion of reducing overall meat consumption.  You can come at this one of two ways, really.  If you think you can do it, try to cut meat out of your meals entirely several nights a week.  Not only does this help your wallet, but it will force you to become more creative in your cooking because vegetarian cuisine has nothing to hide behind.  The other (more palatable) option (for most people) is to eat less meat at every meal.  If you’re accustomed to having 6 ounces of meat for dinner, try substituting 3 and see how you feel.  Chances are you’ll savour what you do have more and not miss the rest, plus have gotten healthier in the process.  The key here is to stop thinking of meat as the primary component of a meal, and start considering it as the flavoring agent.  There have been studies that say a person’s maximum satiety of food occurs within the first few bites, so everything else you’re eating afterward is not going to seem quite as delicious as those first few morsels.  If that’s the case, why waste the time, effort and calories on a large meal?  Instead, eating smaller portions of numerous flavors sounds like an optimal solution, allowing your tastebuds to constantly be challenged.

Combined with the previous point, shopping for the off cuts can also be financially rewarding.  Cuts like organ meats, trotters, hocks, bellies and flank steaks may require a little tender loving care, but the flavor punch they pack is well worth the effort.  It may seem a bit odd, but what would you rather have… the $20 filet mignon that is super tender but has next to know flavor (which is why it’s often wrapped with bacon) or the $6 texturally satisfying and juicy flank steak?  At first, trying to cook with off cuts can be a bit scary (let’s be honest, some of them are really gruesome) but restaurants like The Black Hoof and Cowbell (and many others) have proven that it is possible to make the “weird” cuts not only palatable, but incredibly good.  Perhaps it’s time you gave it a try too…

Lastly, the only other pearl of wisdom I have to offer on the subject is to consider every purchase.  There is absolutely no virtue in being frivolous, despite what our capitalistic, consumer-driven society might have you believe.  I use this advice on everything from chocolate bars, to gourmet foods to fancy bottled waters.  Nothing is too big, or ever too small to continue asking these questions of my purchases.  The overall refrain would be do I need this?  And most of the time, if you pause for just a little bit, the answer that chimes back is no.  There are many things that would be nice to have, but nice to haves don’t drastically improve my quality of life or level of nutrition, so except for the occasional treat I leave them out.  Which saves my money for the things I really enjoy, like dining out (and not having to cook occasionally).

Until next time…

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