Saving Money in the Kitchen / CM

Introduction

Youíve heard, over the past years, of "30 Minute Meals" (or less), home cooking with nearly-home made style prepackaged and pre-processed foods, and youíve seen the trend toward supermarket delis offering many more pre-prepared take home dinners.

These conveniences can be a great time saver when youíve had a busy day at work and donít want to face the task of putting a good meal on the table for the family and it seems to be a simple choice.

But when you consider the extra expense these take home meals add to the weekly food budget and tally it with the normally smaller food portions, and the unknown ingredients and food additives brought to the table, youíll no doubt sharpen your pencil and red line these purchases as nothing more than the extravagances they always have been.

In the new economy and for the health of our planet, it may be time to reconsider the value of home cooking from scratch, using whole foods and unprocessed ingredients and locally grown fresh produce. Wise cooks have always known that when we have someone else do part or all of the cooking or food preparation, the sacrifice will be either in extra cost or diminished nutritional value; what is gained in time savings may not always outweigh these costs and might not turn out to be a good bargain when all things are considered.

The ideas for economy offered here are not to be considered hard and fast rules suitable for everyoneís schedule, but feel free to pick and choose those which fit your lifestyle; adapting as your days and free time permits. Some of us can devote part of our weekends to cooking meals for the freezer or to refrigerate for the upcoming week; others, without a work schedule, may be able to save the most on the food budget by taking the time to cook from scratch daily, and by shopping often to take advantage of ďManagerís SpecialsĒ and sales at the supermarket.

Those of us who are dedicated to a lifetime of eating foods devoid of chemicals and harmful additives meant to preserve shelf life at the expense of nutrition will adopt the methods of, and relearn the skills and kitchen arts of our grandmothers and great grandmothers. We will learn, as they did, how to choose fresh foods and prepare these foods at home to make tasty, wholesome meals for the family in the most economical ways possible. In this capacity, we have an advantage over cooks of the past; the cook of today has, at her disposal, tools of convenience which can help make cooking from scratch rival the simplicity of preparation offered by many convenience foods. So, even when we are on a tight budget, the biggest savings in the kitchen may be the purchase of some of these tools. And remember, when purchasing kitchen tools, quality is not an option and cheap tools are not a bargain, since they will not stand the test of time and might not even do their job at all.

There are tools which are basic, such as a good quality chefís knife and paring knife, and others which will help save money on food purchases directly.

Tools of the Trade

The Stand Mixer

A stand mixer will aid in the preparation of home baked breads, fruit cakes, soufflťs, muffins, pastas, pancakes, biscuits, scones, waffles, crackers, pastries and so many other bakery staples - all of these (and many more) prepared using a small amount of skill and a bag of flour!

Extra accessories may be purchased for the stand mixer to help prepare purees (such as tomato sauce, pie fillings, jams and jellies, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pies and vegetable soups) and donít forget a meat grinder attachment so that tough roasts and economical meat cuts may be ground into the freshest hamburger possible. Meatloaf, meatballs, home-made sausages, pork patties, ground veal, turkey, fillings for stuffings (raviolis, cabbage leaves, peppers, empanadas, to name a few) can then be made at home with an hour of well-spent time. A meat grinder (or even a food processor) is also wonderful tool for transforming leftovers.

A grain mill is available for the stand mixer which can be an advantage if you enjoy baking from scratch and using whole, fresh grains. It may also be used to grind your own cereals (such as cream of rice or cream of wheat) or grind your own corn meal, corn flour or fresh whole wheat or rye flours. This is the one way youíll know for sure what the ingredients are in that loaf of bread.

A pasta attachment can be obtained for some stand mixers to enable the making of pasta, lasagna and ravioli from scratch. There are rollers for cutting lasagna, angel hair, and fettuccine; or just leave the pasta in wide strips to make ravioli, cannelloni, or manicotti for stuffing.

Pasta Makers

Free standing pasta machines are also available; some have rollers with crank handles and may be bought for under $50; still other, more elaborate machines for extruding pasta shapes by pressing dough through brass or plastic disks and these also work very well.

There is a small learning curve to making pasta at home, but the skill, once learned, will bring you the confidence of knowing that you have the ability to feed a large family with style and nutrition for just pennies!

Money Saving Tips

Here are some easily implemented tips for shaving dollars from the monthly grocery tab.

First, and foremost, keep it fun. Decide at the onset that you are embarking upon a new culinary adventure and that having a smaller budget in the kitchen is not a burden but an opportunity. This will be a new start, and when you emerge at the other side, you will have acquired valuable new skills and expertise which will be useful to your time spent in the kitchen and at the supermarket for a lifetime. Extra time spent in the kitchen will be time well spent when time is what you are rich in.

Not all of these steps may be practical in your own situation and so we encourage you to read through this list and adopt only those elements of the plan which you feel might be helpful. Some ways to save money at the checkout require extra preparation time in the kitchen; if time is what you are rich in, then these extra minutes spent in food preparation may prove to be a boon to your budget (and often a beneficial upgrade to your diet and nutrition). Otherwise, skip past the fresh groceries aisle; we trust you will still find a few tips here you can use to save on your next shopping trip.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Clean as you work; be considerate of the dishwasher (often yourself!) and try to use fewer dishes. Put dirty dishes in the dishwasher as you work, or wash up small items while waiting for the various stages in the cooking process to complete. Measure ingredients over the sink or a sheet of wax paper to avoid having to clean up the inevitable spills. Rinse and re-use the same measuring cups and bowls, food processor and blender.

Save time by cooking several meals at once when you have an afternoon free. Prepare large meals on weekends and freeze or refrigerate well-labeled portions. Weekends are also a great time to prepare lunch box meals and snacks for the upcoming week, freezing in tightly wrapped individual serving sizes, ready to pack. Whenever possible, cook double batches and freeze half.

At The Supermarket

The first thing and most important thing to remember when shopping is: Convenience Costs. For every step of food preparation that you can do for yourself, you will usually save money, gain nutritional value, and benefit from improved freshness and flavor. When trimming the food budget is important, it helps to steer clear of the prepared foods sections (both frozen and fresh) and the deli. When purchasing items from these sections of the store, your grocery budget is being spent not only on food, but on food preparation and an extra profit margin for the store. You can easily prepare food at home and serve fresher, more flavorful and nutritious meals for a far better price than can be found pre-made at the supermarket.

Read the supermarket flyer before your shopping trip. Schedule trips to local supermarkets during sales and plan, whenever possible, to shape the general menu around foods that are in season.

Make a list of whatís on sale and for the meals youíre planning, but keep it flexible. Donít feel as though itís imperative to stick to the list. If you see a good buy that you didnít expect when consulting the sales flyer, donít hesitate to take advantage of the deal and adapt your menu. As in any plan, be flexible and allow for variability. If, while at the supermarket, you come upon Managerís Specials, markdowns, or other unexpected opportunities to cut costs for items you can use but which are not on your list, feel free to modify your menu and your shopping list on the spot.

Purchase the local newspaper on those days when food sections are published (Sundays and Wednesdays in some areas). Clip coupons for items normally used and keep them handy at the store. Find local stores which allow for doubling and/or tripling of coupon values. If you use products which frequently offer rebates (such as disposable diapers), save boxtops, UPC codes, points and labels for those products and keep them filed away. The next time a rebate comes up, youíll already have what you need!

Take advantage of seasonal values. Foods that are in season (many of which are locally grown) are often the best value.

Buy the foods you use most often in larger quantity. Some foods store well; others donít. Let that be your guide. For example, potatoes, which can be purchased most economically in 50 pound bags can be stored for many months under the right conditions (a cool dark cellar). Onions, apples, and eggs can also be stored for longer periods of time. Rice, grains, white flour and dried beans can be kept indefinitely in a cool, dry environment in tightly sealed plastic storage bins. These easily stored goods are a much better value whenever they are purchased in bulk.

Plan to make more frequent trips to the local supermarket to pick up highly perishable items such as fresh fruit and vegetables, but limit yourself to the outer aisles (usually the meat, fruit, and vegetables are located there). When at the local supermarket, avoid the center aisles containing the processed foods whenever possible; youíll save money and add nutrition to your diet whenever you choose fresh fruits and vegetables instead.

Frozen vegetables are the best value in 5 (or more) pound bags if youíve got the freezer space. The added convenience of having the vegetables ready to prepare is usually not had at extra cost since freezing vegetables for transportation is a convenience for the packer (they absorb the extra cost in order to be able to ship in quantity over a wide area), so take advantage of this ďConvenience CostsĒ rule breaker. If you have the time for the extra preparation required using fresh vegetables, they are always a good value and a great nutritional choice.

Donít shop hungry. Shopping hungry leads to impulse buys and the purchase of foods which are generally not a good value. Donít let your purchases be influenced by hunger, so eat a good meal before heading out to the supermarket. Shop early and shop often to take advantage of Managerís Specials. Check out the dented and surplus can sections - avoid cans with sharp dents because corners may be a place where leakage can occur, but slight and rounded dents and corner pings can be a good deal. Use dented cans right away.

Be Your Own Butcher

Cut up your own chicken and turkey and youíll often find that youíll be paying just for the breast portions, while all the other parts are had (for free) for the equivalent price of the ďboneless-skinless-breastĒ version at the supermarket or butcher shop. Even if you donít particularly care for the rest of the chicken, since they are yours at little extra cost, it pays to use them to make a flavorful broth that will be the starter of the gravy to serve alongside the chicken breast dish youíve planned.

Slice chicken or turkey cutlets from the breast portion, use them for breading or stuffing and keep the rest for soups or chicken salad or to stuff ravioli, pierogi or empanada. Use the sausage stuffing attachment of your meat grinder to make chicken or turkey sausages, or season it well with herbs and spices and make meatballs or patties.

Pork, beef and veal may be combined when making meatballs, meatloaf and meat fillings. If you are running short on meat for the number of people you are feeding, the budget may sometimes be stretched (depending upon the dish youíre making) by adding eggs, bread crumbs, crushed cracker crumbs, oatmeal (whole or ground in a processor), grated cheese, cooked rice, herbs, spinach, chopped onions, mushrooms, or peppers, or even TVP (texturized vegetable protein - a soy extender and meat substitute).

Learn Knife Skills

A butcher knows how to wield a knife, but you donít need to be your own butcher to have a need for knife skills. The first rule of saving money in the kitchen is to buy the best knife that your money can afford. And the second rule is to spend time learning how to use it. The more comfortable you become in using a knife in the kitchen, the more food youíll be able to prepare in less time, while saving on costs associated with ready-made and processed foods. In order to be proficient in preparing fresh produce and meats for different dishes, knife skills are a necessity.

Start with one 6-8 inch chef or Santuko knife, one 3-4 inch paring knife (ceramic works well as a paring knife). For cutting up meat youíll need a longer slicing knife; for chicken, use an old knife to slice between joints in separating pieces. A flexible fillet knife will help make boning chicken and filleting fish easier but is not absolutely required. A sharpening steel will help keep an edge on these tools, so that youíll always be working with the sharpest knife in the drawer. A sharpening stone can put a new edge on your knife after the sharpening steel is no longer enough.

To some extent, a food processor may be used to supplant knife skills, but a good cook will often prefer the use of a sharp knife, even if it takes a little longer to get the job done, just to avoid the extra dishes after the meal preparation is complete.

Be Your Own Food Processor

If you have the proper canning equipment and the time, put foods by. Youíll need a pressure cooker to can meats, broths, and low-acid vegetables, but a very large water pot can be used for making tomato sauces and salsas, pie fillings, applesauce and fruit butters, jams and jellies, pickles and relishes, flavored vinegars and other gourmet treats with bushels of fresh local harvest.

As an alternative to canning jellies, there are natural products available that make it possible to prepare your own jelly using fruit juice. Some specially marketed pectins donít require processing in a boiling water bath because they are stored in the refrigerator or freezer. These products have their place when preparing small batches of jellies and provide an exceptionally fresh fruit flavor. Pectins of all types may be found in the canning section of your local supermarket. (Of course, jelly may be made without any pectin, but that is a subject for another article!).

When shopping for canning jars, be aware than some canning jars (usually straight-sided) may also be used in the freezer. Canning jars are also good for storing dry items such as beans or even coffee and can be used with some vacuum attachments for sealing out air without canning.

This is an excellent way to store dry beans, coffee, nuts and grains and other items that need to be stored in a dry environment.

We also use the smaller 1/2 pint straight sided freezer-type jelly jars for preparing individual puddings to take along on picnics and for baking small cakes to pack in a lunch. These jars are also good for making yogurt for easy storage.

One of the most valuable skills you can acquire for kitchen economy is how to bake. If youíve had your share of fallen cakes and tough cookies, remember that in the past there were no alternative ready-mades easily available (Grandma didnít often run out to buy a bag of cookies or box of brownies). This meant that Grandma would try and try again until she had reached her goal of edible perfection. And thus, the skill of baking was learned. The same holds true in baking as it does in the acquisition of all other culinary skills: "Practice Makes Perfect".

Have patience with your failures and donít be set back by them. Soon, and with practice, your baked creations will be a great improvement, and so much fresher and more nutritious than their store-bought counterparts. We will explore creative ways to re-purpose failures and discover what causes them below and on TalkFood.com

Be Your Own Bakery

Practice Makes Perfect! Here are a few Quick Tips for dealing with baking failures: Process dry or stale cookies in the food processor to make no-bake pie crusts or the bottom layer of bars.

For years, bakeries crumbled yesterdayís cakes and tossed them into todayís cake. Crumbled brownies, cakes and cookies make great ice cream and other dessert toppings, too (nobody will know those were cookies that didnít turn out). Crumble a fallen cake and bake it at the bottom of a pudding, refrigerator cake or Apple Betty. Process day-old bread along with fresh herbs in the food processor to make stuffings for stuffed peppers, stuffed artichokes and cabbage leaves, Shakiní and Bakiní (shake and bake) breadings for cutlets and buttered toppings for casseroles and baked mac and cheese.

Did you prepare a cake but the right size pan wasn't available, leaving you with too much batter? Add a little milk or buttermilk to thin it out and use it to make pancakes or waffles! Or pour it into foil or silicone cupcake liners or aluminum mini loaf pans and bake for packing in a lunch or to wrap up for freezer storage.

Go Back

There were times, when fast food places were not on every corner, when it was common to pack a lunch, take along a thermos filled with steaming coffee, hot soup or pasta, or just pack up the kids and go on a picnic. Thermosí have come a long way since those times, and now there are even versions which will cook your meal in a few hours (similar to using a slow cooker but without the electricity). This is a great energy saver, and is a convenient way to pack a lunch for a picnic (it will be ready in time if you pack it in the morning). It can even be used for cooking pasta. The long, slow, cooking tenderizes lean, tough cuts of meat and makes for wonderful soups with that long-cooked goodness.

Go back to your motherís old recipe file (or to ours!). Many older, and authentic recipes which have been handed down from generation to generation were borne of the necessity to conserve tight financial resources in tough times. A good number of recipes from the Great Depression still survive as family favorites today. Numerous dishes with ethnic roots make frugal use of meats, substituting and supplementing quality proteins such as eggs, grains and beans in order to stretch the meat budget. These long-time favorite recipes are big on flavor and easy on the pocketbook and thus have remained popular with cooks and their families over the years.

To stave off sudden fits of hunger before the days of fast food and pizza deliveries, Grandpa often kept a hearty soup or pot of beans simmering on the back burner of an old black stove. When the need arose, a handful of rice or a pot of pasta could be conjured up and the soup stirred in for a quick meal. Then came the era of canned soup. When canned soup was introduced to the market, it was a novel and economical way to put food on the table in record time. At only 10 cents a can when introduced, canned soup became an affordable staple found in every pantry, ready to dress-up casseroles, gravies and stews. At todayís price which sometimes approaches $3.00 and up, it will pay now, more than ever, to acquire the knack of the art of creating home made soup and broth.

Go Ahead

Grandma didnít have a lot of gadgets and would have been amazed at all those new-fangled small kitchen appliances. But if you have these sitting in the attic, take them down and learn to use them for those quick lunches and snacks which tempt you to run out to the fast food joint or supermarket deli. If youíve lost the manual and the recipes for these gizmos, have heart; many can be Googled and found with a few minutes of searching. Or, be brave and invent your own recipes (and share your inspirations with us at Cooks.com). These appliances can help bring the fun back into the preparation of a quick lunch or snack. Itís an easy way to incorporate leftovers and keep meal making fresh, using real ingredients without additives (and as an extra benefit, save gas and time by staying home).

Donít hesitate to plan a meal around your food processor, blender, stand mixer or other time-saving appliance. Plan to process foods that can be simply rinsed out of the processor bowl first (without using soap) and line up the appliance for a second and third use, keeping the messier foods to process for last. For example, in a food processor with a slicing blade, slice vegetables first, then blend the ingredients for the sauce by removing the slicing disc and fitting in the chopping blade. Rinse out the bowl and process a batch of cookies or a one-bowl snack cake.

And, speaking of easy clean-up, make use of aluminum foil or parchment paper for lining baking pans to save on cleanup costs (use less hot water and soap). Aluminum foil packets make flavorful, moist fish and poultry dishes packed before baking with a few sprigs of fresh herbs and chopped vegetables as a side (cooked right in the same packet). Cleanup is a breeze - just eat right out of the packet and dispose when done. This is a streamlined solution for take-along lunches, picnics and barbeque cooking (cook right in the packet).

Parchment muffin liners can be purchased in larger quantities at restaurant supply stores for great savings and easy cleanup. Sometimes, a bargain will be had when disposable aluminum pans are purchased by the case. Some disposable foil pans may be reused if they can be easily washed, but discarded if scrubbing is required. Silicone bakeware makes for easy cleanup when baking. Single silicone cupcake cups make it easy to prepare one muffin at a time in the microwave (you can make up a batch and refrigerate or freeze them until ready to use).

Buy in Bulk

Whenever possible, buy foods which store well in bulk, or larger quantities. Find a wholesale food club or restaurant supply outlet in your area, and plan a monthly trip to save on staples which can be purchased and stored in bulk such as rice, potatoes, butter, onions, eggs, flour, dry beans and grains, pasta, beverages, cases of canned foods, etc. If you have a large freezer, frozen foods may also be purchased in 3-5 lb bags for great savings. (Be careful, however, in dividing them into smaller freezer bags for storage as this can become expensive and your savings will be lost). Pack frozen vegetables in a cooler (with ice, if possible) to keep them from thawing on the trip home.

For comments and more discussion, see TalkFood.com

-- CM



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