Food: The Budget Buster

Jars of Jam

 

There’s no shortage of tips and advice about saving money on food.

We all know that eating out is one of the biggest budget busters around, but we still do it. I was reading one website that offered the advice: cook at home one to two times per week to save money. (Sorry, I didn’t bookmark this one.) Really? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? How much would someone save if eating out was limited to one to two times per week?

I know how busy life can get and why it’s so tempting to pick up something to go. It’s also common knowledge that cooking at home is truly the least expensive way to eat. It’s much better to save eating out for a treat instead of a regular occurrence.

Of course, there is information about what families spend on food. The US Department of Agriculture publishes a schedule of average food expenditures in America. It’s updated regularly to accommodate changes in the economy.

There are four food plans:

  • Thrifty
  • Low-cost
  • Moderate-cost
  • Liberal

I was curious about where we were in spending, so I saved grocery receipts for a few weeks, added up all expenditures for food, and then calculated a per week average. Our average spending fell in the Low-cost plan, which is approximately $109 per week. Sometimes I spent more and sometimes less, but the average came pretty close to that figure.

This was done before my husband retired from his job. While he was working, we bought some convenience foods that he took for his lunch everyday. Yes, convenience foods are expensive compared to making it at home, but eating out for lunch is much more expensive than a few packaged foods every week. Now, that we are no longer buying that type of product, our spending is probably trending downward toward the Thrifty plan. Of course, I only counted what we spent at the grocery store. We don’t eat out often enough to make much of a difference in our budget.

Knowing what you spend is important and enlightening. Haven’t we all worked with someone who bought something from the vending machine everyday or had lunch delivered to work most days? If you add up just the snacks from the machine, it could total quite a bit. A study for the vending industry found that the average cash vending machine sale is $1.16. If the purchase is cashless, then that average rises to $1.71. It is just too easy to spend small amounts of money and then forget about it. After all, it was just a dollar or two. Someone who puts five days a week in at work will spend $5.80 cash or $8.55 without cash per week . That’s $290 per year and $427.50 per year respectively. If two people from the same household hit the machines every day, we’re starting to talk about some real money.

If you have not analyzed you spending yet, give it a try. It might show that there is at least one area where you can save without it hurting. A bit of planning may save money in another area and you won’t notice that you aren’t spending as much because you’ve planned a substitute. It’s much like dieting—eat this but not that. Spend this but not that to save on food.

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What’s for Dinner?

Menu

Monday:
Sweet Chicken/Bacon Wraps
Green salad

Tuesday:
Stuffed Peppers
Cucumber slices

Wednesday:
Enchiladas
Refried beans

Thursday:
Sausage and Peppers
Hard rolls

Friday:
Chef Salad

Saturday:
Oven-baked Chicken
Mixed vegetable hash

Sunday:
Salisbury Steak
Rice
Seasoned vegetables

I have found, over the years, that it’s much easier to get dinner on the table when I know what to cook each day. It was necessary when I was working. I never wanted to come home and stare at the kitchen, wondering what I could fix. With a plan, I just look at my written, weekly menu and problem solved. My list is so much a part of my routine that without one, even with a full pantry and freezer, I become the deer in the headlights when the “what’s for dinner” question comes up.

Before I go to the grocery store, I plan a week’s worth of dinners. If I want to switch them around, no problem. I did that last week. When I first planned the Chef Salad, it was for the weekend. On Friday, I didn’t feel like cooking, so I made the salad instead. The plan is top secret. No one knows what’s on it but me so changing it doesn’t cause ripples in family unity.

There’s also the opportunity to try new recipes each week and not just fall back on my tried and true meals. For me, that’s the fun part of planning. I’ll sit down with a cookbook and look over all the tantalizing recipes. OK, some aren’t that tantalizing. I skip those. I should mark the recipes in the cookbooks that I want to try, but I’m not that organized. Maybe it’s because I really do like to thumb through cookbooks.

Menu plans help you use up what you have on hand. When I’m planning, I take a quick inventory of the refrigerator and pantry. If there are things that need to be used, like produce before it goes bad, I can add that to my menu. It helps me prevent food waste which saves us some money. I can’t say that I always get to the produce before it’s spoiled. Menu planning makes me look into the refrigerator with a critical eye and I’m more likely to rescue produce on the edge of rotten.

Menu planning is one habit that’s actually good for me. Too bad I can’t say that about other things I do, but that’s for another blog post.

5 Reasons to Scratch It

brownie and coffee

 

Why do I cook from scratch? The stores are full of wonderful ready-to-eat products, why make my own?

1) I have time
Cooking from scratch does take more time, though often not a lot more time. In the case of homemade yogurt, the time is spent on waiting. Heating the milk takes only a few minutes, but the rest of the process takes more than 6 hours. Of course, I don’t have to stand there and wait for it, I just have to not forget about it.

2) I can control my ingredients
Packaged foods contain a few ingredients that help to preserve the contents and provide a longer shelf-life for the product. I don’t have to eat those. I’m sure none of them will prolong my shelf-life.

3) Things taste better
I had a package of seasoned coating mix in the pantry. (I think it was there for a while.) It tasted like salt. There were many other ingredients listed, but all I could taste was the salt. If I want my chicken to taste like salt, I can do that myself. I can add more or cut back on one or more ingredients to make it taste like I want it to taste, even if what I want is salty.

6) It’s usually cheaper
I did a cost comparison for baking mix here. While it may not prove to be true every time, overall it is cheaper to make your own.

5) I can’t go back.
Since I started cooking more things from scratch, packaged foods just don’t taste good to me anymore. I prefer what I make.

Don’t Fear the Egg

 

My mother made cookies. At Christmas, there were plates full of cookies of all shapes and kinds. Throughout the year though, it was often chocolate chip cookies for dessert and after-school snacks. It’s still a favorite.

Sometimes I was around when she was baking, though I think that wasn’t her favorite time to bake. She knew I was waiting to eat the last bits of dough out of the bowl. I would beg her to leave a chocolate chip or two in the batter, but she rarely would.

eggs

We weren’t afraid back then. We ate raw eggs without worry. Then came the concern about Salmonella enteritidis, the scourge of bowl-lickers everywhere.

Food-borne illness are a fact of life. I have no data to support this, but I believe that everyone will be a victim sometime. Bacteria happens.

In the case of infected eggs, I think I’ll take the risk. According to a study done in the 1990s by the Center for Disease Control, only 1 egg in 20,000 was internally infected with Salmonella enteritidis. During the years of 2009-2010, the CDC reported that there were 2231 cases of illness caused by contaminated eggs. There are more than 316 million people in the US, so 7 people per million became ill from eating raw or undercooked eggs.

Fear of a raw egg would put the brakes on trying freshly made mayonnaise and nothing should prevent that. Once you have made your own, it will be hard to return to anything from a jar.

mayo3
It’s not difficult to make mayonnaise and it requires only a few ingredients. Here are a couple of basic recipes to try:
Basic Mayonnaise from Martha Stewart

Alton Brown’s Recipe

Pork Chops for Two

Another effort to combat the problem of leftovers is to repackage items that you buy into smaller sizes. In this case, I wrapped pork chops from a larger package individually. When it’s time to cook, I can take out what I need.

This is an easy, inexpensive recipe for two that is quick to prepare.
porkchops

Pork Chops for Two

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pork chops
Salt and pepper to taste
1 green pepper, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 teaspoon dry basil

Heat oil in a small skillet over medium high heat. Season pork on both sides with salt and pepper. Cook pork chops until browned on both sides.
Top chops with green pepper, onion and basil. Cover skillet, reduce heat and cook until vegetables are tender and pork is cooked through.

Yo, Yogurt

Being an adult requires that you do things you would rather not do. My father used to say that he ate his vegetables so the kids would eat theirs. He had a life-long dislike of most vegetables, but he also knew that his kids would mimic his disdain, even if we didn’t dislike vegetables.

For me, one of the things I do because I should is eat yogurt. I don’t really like it, but there are rewards that are hard to duplicate.
WebMD.com lists six yogurt benefits:

  • Yogurt with active cultures may help the gut
  • Some probiotic strains may boost the immune system
  • Yogurt with active cultures may discourage vaginal infections
  • Yogurt may help prevent osteoporosis
  • Yogurt may reduce the risk of high blood pressure
  • Yogurt may help you feel fuller

When I started eating yogurt daily, I reached into the refrigerator for the individual cups that I bought each week. I made sure I had several flavors to keep it interesting. Once I tried Greek yogurt, I was hooked, but the cost of those little cups was a concern.
Making yogurt at home isn’t difficult but what about Greek yogurt? What is the secret to that? Not much of a secret really. Greek yogurt has been drained of whey. That’s it. No magical process. No special ingredients.
So, what does it take to make yogurt? There are a number of recipes to choose from online, but this is what I use:

yogurtingredients

  1. 1 quart milk
  2. ½ cup dry milk powder
  3. 2 tablespoons plain yogurt

I bought a large container of plain yogurt to use as the starter culture. I froze individual portions to save them. Now, when I make a batch of yogurt, I take one cube out and allow it to thaw while the milk is heating and cooling.
It doesn’t matter what kind of milk. Use skim, 2% or whole milk. All kinds will work. The milk powder adds more milk solids to the mix and produces a thicker yogurt.
When it’s done, flavor your yogurt in any way that suits you. I put in a spoonful of jam. Honey would be good, as well. Put in nothing, if you can stand it.
I have to admit, I like my home-made yogurt better than anything I can buy at the store.

Homemade Yogurt


1 quart milk
½ cup dry milk powder
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
Mix powdered milk into the milk in a sauce pan. Using a candy thermometer, heat the milk mixture until the temperature reaches 180 degrees. Remove from heat and allow to cool to 115 degrees. Spoon out approximately ½ cup of the warm milk and whisk it with the yogurt starter. Add this mixture back into the milk and mix throughly. Incubate from 4 to 12 hours until thickened.

The yogurt can be left in the same pan to incubate or put into a jar or bowl. I leave mine in the same pan I used to heat the milk and it works just fine.
To incubate, I heat up the oven to the lowest setting and then turn it off.

yogurtoven

The pan is wrapped in a towel before I put it into the oven and I leave it in place for about 6 hours.

 

yogurtcheesecloth

When the yogurt is thick, I put the batch in a colander, lined with cheesecloth, to separate the whey. Now, it’s Greek!

What to do with the whey is a work in progress. I’ll get back to you on that.

 

Crockpot Chicken Tetrazzini for Two

This is a simple recipe that can be dressed up any way you like. Add some carrots, celery or bell peppers for a different taste. Use turkey or pork instead of the chicken. Experiment a bit with herbs. It’s a blank canvas.

CrockpotTetrazziniforTwo

Crockpot Chicken Tetrazzini for Two

1½ cups cubed, cooked chicken
1 can (14½ ounce) chicken broth
½ cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup sliced mushrooms
¼ cup cream
1 tablespoon sherry (optional)
4 ounces dry spaghetti
Grated Parmesan cheese

Place first 5 ingredients into slow cooker. Cook on low for 4 to 5 hours.

Turn to high. Add spaghetti, cream and sherry, if using. Stir until mixed. Continue to cook for 30 minutes to 1 hour, or until spaghetti is tender.

Serve with Parmesan.