The Frugal Kitchen

It may be true that there is nothing new under the sun, but maybe there are things that you haven’t thought about it when it comes to grocery shopping and eating on a budget. As a new mom adjusting to all of the expenses associated with a baby (as well as being down my income while on unpaid maternity leave) we’ve had to rethink how we’re spending our food dollars. No more $40.00 bottles of ten year old balsamico in our house (at least for the moment). But we’re still eating extremely well. Here are a few of our tricks for how we pull it off.

– Dried beans. Yeah, I can hear you groaning. And this is the tip everyone says first, and most people automatically dismiss. It’s too much work! You have to soak the beans overnight and then cook them all day – how are you supposed to plan two days in advance what you’re going to eat? I used to be in this camp – I’ll just never be one of those monthly meal planning people. I like to cook spontaneously in the kitchen and cater to the tastes my husband and I have that day. But once in awhile, I can take five minutes and deal with some dried beans. Pull out your crockpot. Soak a whole bag of beans in the crockpot insert overnight (make sure the crockpot is turned off). In the morning, change the water on the beans and put the crockpot on low for eight hours. Walk away and forget about it. At the end of the day, your beans are done. Let them cool, and portion them out into freezer containers. You now have ready to use beans whenever you want them, just as conveniently as the overpriced cans. And no extra junk or preservatives, so they’re even healthier! I like to do white beans for use in soups and pastas, as well as a kidney bean/pinto bean mix for chili. Could it be any simpler?

Make your own stock. Doing this yourself is frugal in two ways – it saves you from having to buy it at the store, and you’re getting a second use out of bones and scrap that would otherwise be thrown away. Buy bone-in meat whenever possible – it’s often cheaper anyway. Save your chicken bones (especially if you do a crockpot roasted chicken) in a large freezer bag until you have enough to make a batch. For the veggies you need in stock, save the ends/trim from your onions/shallots/leek, carrots and celery in a freezer bag until you have a good quantity as well. You can make beef and fish stocks this way too – be sure to save your shellfish shells for seafood stocks.

Stretch your rice mixes. If you use prepared rice mixes (like Zatarains) you’ve probably noticed that they’re often way too salty and barely serve two. While I do prefer to cook from scratch, we do have a few of these mixes on hand for quick lunches and dinners. First of all, never buy them full price. They often go on sale for 10 for $10, and if you’ve got a coupon you can get an even better price. When they’re on sale, stock up. But you can really stretch the mix and temper the excess saltiness by adding 3/4-1 cup of plain white rice when you cook it. We really think it improves the flavor, and then we have enough for second helpings and often for leftovers for lunch. If you use prepared dry soup or couscous mixes that you find to be overseasoned, you could do the same thing.

Do selective bulk shopping. This is only worth it if you pay attention to the unit price of what you’re purchasing. For example, at the store recently I saw a six pack of Jiffy cornbread mix and reached to put it in my cart thinking that was automatically the best deal. But I thought twice and checked the unit price on the shelf tag for the six pack against the individual box price, and lo and behold, the individual boxes were actually cheaper. On the other hand, a gallon can of baked beans is cheaper than the smaller standard size cans – those run almost $3.00 a piece, while the gallon can was only $6.00. And here’s the age old dilemma of buying food in bulk – how do you eat it all before it spoils? We’re certainly not going through a gallon of baked beans before it goes bad! But we do have a chest freezer at our house! When opening a bulk size container, take out what you need for a meal and then freeze the rest in portion sizes. This saves you both time and money. Household goods are excellent candidates for bulk shopping, if you’ve got the storage space for them, especially since coupons for toilet paper and cleaning products are available on a fairly regular basis. And regarding bulk club stores like Costco – I’d avoid the expenditure of the annual dues if I were you. Try to find a store that offers bulk goods in their regular lineup and without a membership. We have a great local store chain here in Illinois (and southern Wisconsin) called Woodmans and they’re my favorite bigger store by far. They’ve got a great selection of regular products, bulk items, and local/organic goods. And the prices are killer.

– Make your own baked goods, candy and desserts. Frugal eating doesn’t have to exclude treats! But it’s going to save you so much money to make it yourself. If you think you don’t have to the time to bake, take an afternoon every month or two and whip up some dry mixes – you can make pancake mix, biscuit mix, cake mix, etc. by putting all the dry ingredients into baggies or mason jars. Then all you have to do is add the liquid (just like with a commercial mix) and pop it on the oven. Instead of paying $4.00 for a boxed cake mix, you can spend the $4.00 on flour, sugar, baking soda and a few spices and have ten times the amount of cake! Sounds like a better deal to me. Take a Saturday afternoon and mix up half a dozen batches of cookie dough, roll into logs in wax paper and stick it in the freezer. Cookies on demand, with the same cost and time savings. Don’t discount candy – just google your favorite candy bar with the word “recipe” and you’ll come up with tons of options. Did you know that you can make your own Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with peanut butter, powdered sugar and chocolate chips? Easy, cheap and tasty.

Make your own drinks. From coffee drinks to flavored liquers, it’s much more cost effective to make your own. You can mix up flavored simple syrups that will store in the fridge for a few weeks, and you just add a shot to your coffee or tea in the morning. Getting coffee out every day is a huge expense – you can drop $20.00 a week before you even know it. There are tons of syrup recipes on the internet, just google away until you find one that sounds good to you.

– Save your bacon fat. Yes, I know that in some circles out there, there’s a war on bacon and lard. Granted, you don’t want to be eating vats of the stuff every day. But when you fry up some bacon, strain the fat into a mason jar. A little goes a long way, and it’s great for frying eggs or breakfast potatoes or sauteeing some onions every once in awhile. It’s a free second use of the bacon you paid for, and it saves you from having to use butter or oil, which can be expensive. And it just tastes good. Occasional use in the kitchen is going to be worth it and not really detrimental to your health. Everything in moderation.

– Preserve as much as you can in the summer and fall. The farmers markets and you pick farms are the place to go – you’re going to get excellent quality product and your hard earned dollars are going directly into the hands of the family that grew your food. And deals can be had – ask for “seconds” – the less than pristine looking (but still perfectly good and delicious) fruits and veg that your farmer can’t get retail prices for. Think of it as the scratch and dent bin of food. We got bulk seconds tomatoes for only $1.00 a pound this summer for canning, which is a huge savings. Think about what your family likes to eat, and put up as much of that item as you possibly can, in the most basic form possible so you get the most versatility from your time canning. In our house, we eat a lot of pasta, chili, casseroles and soups that use tomatoes, so we can tomatoes with no added liquid (instead of pasta sauce, chili, etc.). It minimizes our processing time, and we can use a jar of tomatoes in any dish that calls for them, whereas if we had jars upon jars of only pasta sauce, we’d only be eating – well, pasta.

– Spend all the money in your grocery budget (most of the time). This may sound counter intuitive, but say you budget $100.00 per week for groceries, but you only end up spending $75.00 to get what you need in a given week. Take that leftover $25.00 and use it to stock up on a staple that’s on sale that week – pasta, rice, meat, etc. In my opinion, food in the pantry is better than money in the bank. You can’t eat your checkbook. Don’t be frivolous with your “extra” money – no checkout stand impulse buys. Really consider the deals, the coupons you might have and the staples that you use up quickly and always need on hand. As you’re able to do this every once in awhile, you’ll find that your pantry and freezer are full. If you get to a week where you’ve got extra money in your grocery budget and also nowhere extra to stash more goods, take that extra bit and stick in your savings account (the next best thing to a full pantry).