Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to cook well on the cheap

I continue to be without internet, and also without a lot of funds, but this isn't the first time I've been too poor to buy a lot of food. So here are my tips for maximizing your budget.

Seasonings
Seriously, seasonings. Look for the Badia ones at your grocery store's Hispanic isle. All the main ones will be there, plus some best ones specific to Hispanic-country food styles, and they're generally cheaper than the ones in the main spice isle.

Also, look into mixes--I and my sister swear by adobo, I love herbes de provence and 'italian seasoning', and those little packs of sazon make otherwise bland food savory and delicious. There's also recaito and sofrito,  a wet seasoning available in jars and frozen, that kick up almost anything.

Watch out for large amounts of salt though; thats not good for anyone.

Ethnic Groceries
There are all sorts of staples that you can pick up at asian markets our at the local bodega that would cost you a whole lot more at your usual grocery store.

Look into the native foods of places that have simple staples but a lot of variety of preparation--Asia, Mexico, northern and eastern europe. Look into your own heritage and see what the traditional foods and country standards are.

And be adventurous. Pick up something you've never had before and give it a try. Extra points if there's no english on it and you try it anyway. A wider palate is easier to please when funds get low!

Fallback favorites
Keep a list of family favorites, things you can make quickly if you don't have much time, things you can feed everyone on if monger it's really tight, and refer to those lists when you're trying to decide what to make. Because, let me tell you, if you can't afford to shop for a while month, you'll be answering that question a lot. And fallbacks are a good thing to have.

Casseroles
Any time you can throw your veg, protein, starch and dairy into a single pot or dish and serve a whole family is a good time. Learn how to make a filling, crowd-feeding casserole out of anything, and you have a lot of variety without a lot more effort.

Soups
A good way to use up leftover veggies, our ones that will go bad soon. A good way to use bits of meat from other meals. A good way to make cheap things like beans go a long way. A god way to keep eating for two our three days. A good way to make one person's protein feed three people.

Basically, make friends with soups and stews.

More for your buck
If you get a whole chicken instead of boneless bits, you get maybe two meals worth of meat, another meal of meat-shreds for soup or to mix into gravy or to make a salad out of, and you get all those bones (and skin, and fat, and maybe organs) to boil into a very nutritious broth for your next pot of soup!

If you freeze leftovers, that's a free meal later. If you use leftovers again, that's less on your grocery list next week.

Look for things you can get extra food out of for the same funds.

Sale
Find out which grocery store has the best prices, the best selection of things you'll actually use, and the best sales. I miss Winn-Dixie because they had weekly two-for-one deals, effectively making posters of our grocery list twice as productive.

Be flexible
Whatever proteins are on sale, put those in your meal, regardless of what the original recipe called for. Almost any chicken recipe could be used for pork, fish, tofu or beans. Almost any pork recipe could be used for chicken or fish. Most beef recipes could be used for pork or chicken. Almost any neat recipe could bee used for vegetarian proteins.

See what I'm getting at? If you plan on sweet and sour meatballs, but pork our chicken is on sale, our there's a great deal on tofu our fish, our even just that the meatballs our beef are sold out, just sub in something with a better price.

Seasonal
Things in season will be much more abundant, and therefore cheaper. There's also evidence that they're fresher and not forced or brought from far away, and so have more nutrients and cause less damage to the ecosystem. Plus, they taste better!

Do it yourself
Why spend four dollars on a jar of sauce when you can make it yourself? If youre poor, you literally can't afford not to cook at home, so get thee to the used book store our the remainder bin, and find some cook books. Cooking isn't hard, it's just a series of steps. Start easy and get more complex as your skill develops.

If time is the problem, get a slow cooker to do the work for you, or pre-chop everything so you only have to throw it in a pot, or delegate dinner to your spouse, room mate, kid who's big enough, our whatever.

Know when to invest
Sometimes cheap isn't best. Most of the time it is, but once in a while, you might need to spend more. Like, on your cooking utensils--better knives, a heavier cookpot, a slow cooker, a food processor. Look for good-quality second hand stuff, shop on big sales, see if someone had one they don't need, or use layaway.

Buy higher quality oils, healthier-raised meat and eggs, yogurt with less sugar and thickeners and more actual yogurt. Buy trail mix instead of snack cakes. If you're going to spend more on food, buy at least some of it of higher quality.

Find other proteins
In most shopping lists, it's the neat that costs the most. So maybe think about releasing yourself from a meat-centric diet. Get chicken instead of beef. Or use eggs and cheese to get your protein. Or get it from beans. A meal our three a week with no meat saves money, adds healthy nutrients, and expand your options.

Just make sure if you take the meat out of a recipe, you put some other protein back in. we don't need as much as the beef commercials imply, but we do need some!

Stretch it with veg
When things are tight, the inclination of a lot of people I know is to add more starch to make up for the less meat. Instead, stretch it with veggies! Onions, carrots, potatoes or other root veg, and cabbage are all super cheap year round. Just throwing in an onion and two chopped carrots into any sauce will give you a lot more food without a lot more calories. And if things get really tight, those veggies alone can make a meal.

These are my tricks. What are yours?

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