Food occupies a unique position in our lives at the confluence of health, comfort, culture, social relationships, geography, and family budget.
In tough economic times, the question becomes how to eat within a tight budget without sacrificing superior nutrition, cultural tradition, great taste, variety, ease of preparation, and deep-down satisfaction.
Incessant food advertising in an aggressive consumer culture makes it especially difficult to stay away from the trendy new food innovations. After all, the latest product promises to make you healthier, smarter, thinner, younger, better-looking, hipper, more loveable, a better parent. It’ll save time, give you a break, show your sophistication. And it will cost a lot more, often without offering much nutritional value.
But frugal households can latch onto one burgeoning trend, the movement towards “artisanal” foods, edibles supposedly made from scratch by human hands, rather than cranked out in industrial facilities.
Even if you can afford expensive food, go “frugal-artisanal” for the health, the flavor, and the sheer adventure of it. To get started:
Make everything from scratch: bread (including flatbreads and pizza doughs, biscuits, soups. You can add your own healthy ingredients and experiment with herbs and spices. Scratch cooking takes more organizing and learning, but once you commit to it, you’ll find it doesn’t take that much more time.
Make and store your own “mixes.” Next time you’re making biscuits, bread, or pancakes, make extra, minus the wet ingredients. Mix the dry ingredients together, add one batch to a sealable bag, label, and freeze. When you’re ready to bake, add eggs, oil, milk or other wet ingredients to a bag of mix, then bake as usual. For soups, store the dry ingredients, including herbs and spices, in glass or metal containers.
Don’t skimp on fruits and vegetables. Find ways to sneak them into every meal. Use them as snacks. People who eat the most produce have more energy, fewer illnesses and less chronic disease. They manage their weight more easily.
Learn to use the cheap, nutritious, and suddenly trendy vegetables: kale, collards, cabbage, Swiss chard, carrots, onions, winter squash. Buy fruits in season.
Sneak more whole grains into your diet. Add a handful of rolled oats into that recipe for meatloaf or fish cakes (rather than bread or cracker crumbs). Toss a handful of brown rice or barley into a long-simmering soup. Microwave a rice pudding for breakfast with leftover brown rice.
Eat more legumes: lentils, dry beans, and dried peas. Cheap, incredibly versatile, and nutritious.
When the price is right, stock up on nutrient-dense foods that keep well without refrigeration and don’t take much storage space: dry beans, lentils, whole grains, sunflower seeds, unprocessed nuts, peanut butter, onions, garlic, dried fruit. Store these staples in glass or metal containers out of direct sunlight.
- Save nutrients by making savory broths from vegetable scraps and leftovers you’d ordinarily throw out. Freeze or use immediately in soups or for cooking rice or other grains.
Frugal with fuel, too
When you have the oven on, fill it up. Cooking a turkey or a roast? Bake bread, biscuits, and/or a casserole at the same time. Roast a pan of vegetables or try an oven-braised cabbage.
Soak rice, lentils, beans overnight before cooking.
When you make a broth or a big soup, half fill a knee-high sock or nylon stocking with brown rice, barley, or pinto beans; tie it loosely and toss it in the pot to use in another meal.
- Investigate pressure-cooker and crockpot cooking. More about these energy savers in later posts.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.