Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Not-So-Rich Kitchen Witch

Kitchen Witchin’ on a Budget

Have you seen the prices in the grocery stores these days?  Holy cow!   This post isn’t just for kitchen witches; it’s for anyone who is astounded at the cost of food and wants to find a way of eating well without breaking the bank.   I’ll throw in a few witchy things here and there, too, of course.

These days, our money does not go as far.  I’m not even earning as much as I did at my previous job, and neither is my boyfriend.  He was out of work for a while, meaning I had to visit the Bank of Mom and Dad a couple of times – not one of my prouder moments as an almost 35-year-old woman.   

While we haven’t gone without food entirely, we have eaten some pretty craptacular meals during those times.   There has been Spam.  There has been instant ramen.  Now, I like those things once in a while, but by “every once in a while”, I mean a couple of times a year.  

I hope this blog post will provide some practical tips for all of us, myself included. 

Number one may seem like a no-brainer : Coupons.  However, I find that most of the things I buy don’t have coupons.  I buy a lot of fresh produce when I got shopping. I have a juicer that I like to use. I like salads in warmer months.  I adore asparagus in season, and I enjoy cooking with fresh herbs whenever possible.   Coupons are usually available for brand-name products that are heavily processed “junk”.  Think Coca-Cola products, snacks, etc.     Therefore, coupons really aren’t practical for me, and they might not be practical for you, either.  Instead, check out the grocery store circular to see if the things you do buy regularly are on sale.  Also, buy the generic stuff. 

Number two:  Buy things in season.  Strawberries in January are not only a bad idea, they are also more expensive as crap, not to mention tasteless and nasty.   Hit up a farmers’ market if you have one.  We have one, but of course the only time it’s open is when I’m at work.   Who has a market on a Wednesday only?  And from 10-2?  Come on! 
Oh, and did you know that avocadoes freeze well?  I use them in smoothies. Yum!  Buy them when they are dirt-cheap, cut the flesh into chunks, and freeze on a lined cookie sheet. Then just pop ‘em into freezer bags.  You can make guac, too.

Number three:  Buy non-perishables at a cheaper store like Aldi or Save a Lot.  Even Big Lots has things like canned beans, bags of rice, and other pantry staples at lower prices.  

That brings me to number four:  Have a well-stocked pantry so you can whip up a meal on the fly and on the cheap.  

Pantry staples:
·         Broth
·         Beans
·         Rice
·         Powdered or evaporated milk
·         Tomato products – diced, crushed, sauce, paste
·         Coconut milk
·         Bread crumbs
·         Pasta
·         Salsa
·         Peanut butter or another nut butter
·         Cocoa powder
·         Baking powder
·         Vinegars – your choice, but apple cider, red wine, and Balsamic are what I normally keep
·         Oils – again, your choice, but I like olive and grape seed (although it might not be the best choice)
·         Flour
·         Corn (I prefer canned corn to frozen, but that’s up to you)
·         Tuna or salmon if you like it (bleah)
·         Oatmeal
·         Preserves/jam/jelly
·         Olives, artichoke hearts, capers
·         Brown and white sugar
·         Unflavored gelatin

Number five:  Stock your freezer as well.  Vegetables, fruit for smoothies, extra butter, meat that you caught on sale.

Number six:  Menu planning is your friend.  I plan my menus before I shop, and then I organize my grocery list by store section so I don’t forget anything.  I try to cook several things on a Sunday for the week ahead.   Cooking on a weekend saves time during the week so you aren’t tempted to hit a drive-thru on the way home.   That’s not tasty, healthy or cheap in the long run.   Of course, we all do it from time to time.  I’m certainly guilty of ordering Chinese or Mexican takeaways when I am too tired to cook at times.    Still, I try to have plenty of options in the fridge or freezer to reheat.

Number seven:  Invest in a slow cooker.   You can buy cheap, tough cuts of meat and the slow cooker will turn them into velvety deliciousness while you’re at work during the day.  There are lots of free slow cooker cookbooks and recipes online, for everything from Chinese dishes to whole roasted chicken!  It’s amazing what you can do in those things. Even desserts.   Plus, a slow cooker can be just $20 or $30, depending on where you shop.  (I love Big Lots.)

Number eight:  Get creative with leftovers.  Leftover meatloaf?  Toss it with some jarred marinara sauce and serve with spaghetti.   Leftover beans?  Refried beans for taco night.  Leftover roast chicken?  Chicken salad, chicken soup, chicken pasta, casseroles… The list can go on and on.  The point is not to waste the food if you can help it.  Leftovers can get boring if it’s the same thing all the time, so use your imagination and turn yesterday’s meal into something different for the next night or the night after.  I prefer to rotate my leftovers so we’re not eating the same thing two nights in a row.

Number nine:  Herbs are very important to the kitchen witch.  Either buy them in bulk, or, if you have space, buy some potted herbs.  You can dry your own, too.   You can buy lots of different seasonings in bulk from health food stores and online.  I like www.spicesinc.com .  Their prices are decent and the quality is good.

Number ten:  If you eat meat, don’t focus so much on animal protein at every meal.  A few vegetarian meals a week will save you money and improve your health.   Grab some frozen vegetables, canned coconut milk, and some spices and whip up some delicious curry or korma one night.  Add some rice to complete the meal.   One of my favorite Indian dishes is aloo gobi, which is a potato-cauliflower curry.  I wrote a post a while ago about a way of using up those leftovers by making them into something like a frittata.  Delicious!  

Number eleven:  Save room in the freezer for those leftovers that you don’t use right away.  Lasagna freezes beautifully.  Chili and other soups and stews also freeze well.  Just make sure you have good containers and some heavy-duty foil to avoid freezer burn.  Try to use the leftovers within a couple of weeks just to be sure.

Number twelve:  Why buy what you can make?  Salad dressing is easy to whip up using pantry staples.  If you have some free time on the weekend, make and freeze your own marinara sauce.  I haven’t used a cake mix in I don’t know how many years.  Flour is cheap, and so are eggs and sugar.  Plus, if you make it at home, you’re not going to be ingesting weird preservatives and chemical flavor enhancers.  I make my own marinades, dry rubs, salad dressings, etc.

Number thirteen: Think internationally but eat locally.  There are so many cuisines that use flavorful spices and little to no meat.  My favorite is Indian.

Number fourteen:  SET A BUDGET!  Use a calculator to help you keep on track.  Check out those store circulars before you go so you have a rough idea of what you’re going to need and how much it’s going to cost.  See menu planning.

Some of my favorite cheap meals are:

·         Vegetable curry (or chicken if I have some in the freezer) with rice
·         Refried bean tacos
·         Not Quite Falafel – I pulverize chickpeas, cumin, and sauteed garlic and onion in the food processor and serve it in pita.
·         Chili – you can use meat, beans, meat substitute, or some combination.  Chili recipes usually make a ton.  It gets better over the next day or two, and you can freeze it.  It can be eaten with corn bread, turned into taco salad, or made into nachos.
·         Beans and cornbread – I make some black or pinto beans in the slow cooker.
·         Pizza – yes, pizza!  I make my own crust.  Again, flour is cheap, and so is yeast.  I make it on a weekend and top it with whatever sounds good at the time. 
·         Fried rice – This is one way that I use leftover chicken or pork, plus stuff like frozen peas and carrots.  
·         Frittata – Eggs and whatever you have.  You can do omelets or quiche as well.  I use frozen broccoli and/or spinach, cheese, mushrooms, bacon, onions…They’re good for any meal, really.

Chicken thighs are under-utilized by many people, eschewed for the breast meat.  Thighs are cheap, flavorful, and you can do anything with them that you would with chicken breast.  I make things like chicken paprikash to serve over egg noodles.  I make spicy drumsticks instead of wings, too.
Flank steak and skirt steak are usually decently-priced.  If you marinate and use your slow cooker, you can take those tough cuts and make great things.   Crock pot fajitas or tacos are one good example.
Bone-in cuts are usually cheaper. They also taste better.

Ground beef and pork make great meatloaf, meatballs, chili, Bolognese sauce...

Use those cheap cuts, people!  Cook ‘em nice and slow. Marinate them first.  You’ll be rewarded with a lower-priced meal than if you’d used a fancier cut.  Once in a while I will splurge on a nice steak that my boyfriend and I will split over salad, but I tend to gravitate toward the tougher, less expensive bits and pieces when I’m shopping.

In summary, although food prices may be going up and we’re still making the same amount of money (or less), you can still eat well without giving your hard-earned money to Taco Hell or McDooDoo’s.   This is something that I have to remember as well.  My money will go a lot further at the grocery store than at a restaurant, plus there will be leftovers for future meals. 

A lot of these tips are common sense things that you’ve probably read a thousand times before,  yet I think they bear repeating.  I just spent entirely too much money at Kroger, but I have pantry staples, frozen staples and quick meals for work, and enough cooked meals for the week when I’m tired after work and don’t feel like cooking.

Helpful Links:

There are also a bunch of websites that have recipes for budget meals.  Many of these are for four people.  I don’t know about you, but I’m only cooking for two, but that means I can eat at least twice if I cook something once. 

Keep it simple. Keep it versatile.  Use your imagination and make some magic, and maybe you’ll magically see your dollars stretch!


Rob Houston said...

Great ideas, many of which my wife and I have adopted over these last few months. Money has been a bit ore tight than it normally would, so we've adapted our eating and cooking habits to match how much we have to work with. Also, now that she is a full time student AND working 4 days a week I find myself doing the bulk of the cooking so the slow cooker has become my best friend!

Sissy Witch said...

I am going to have to try your avocado trick! I always crave them in the dead of winter when they are no where to be found (or half rotten).

In addition, I hope you don't mind if I share a trick of my own...When I get home from the grocery store I clean and chop all my veggies before storing to make them easier to cook with or snack on. I then take all the scraps (with the exclusion of broccoli) and toss them in the crockpot with all the onion peels and ends I've saved from the previous week. Then I add a water and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and let it all cook for about 18 hours, keeping an eye on the water level. When it's all done, I strain it off and have a beautiful stock to cook with.

Nar said...

That's a fantastic idea!