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When inflation causes food prices to increase, what do we do? Here at the Almanac, we’ve been through the Great Depression, wars, and various ups and downs. Here are 10 helpful rules to get you through this time—as well as 10 bang-for-your-buck recipes!
It Started With Covid … .
Many Americans, especially younger adults, learned to cook during the first year or two of the Covid-19 pandemic—with meal kits, subscription services that deliver pre-proportioned fresh foods and instructions for how to prepare them.
Many others of all ages with time on their hands during lockdowns, school closures, and work-from-home options started cooking from scratch, often sharing photos or descriptions of their hilarious failures on social media.
A lot of folks seeking to make do with less sought out depression-era recipes online, from old cookbooks (and from old people delighted to have been consulted).
Still others among us (raising hand) slogged along as we always have, growing/preserving as much as we could, and cooking from scratch because we live too far for any delivery service to travel, and equally far from restaurants we can’t afford to eat at anyway. See my 10 easy recipes to cook during Covid.
And Today, Inflation Challenges …
But here we are today: Our economy is “open.” Many people have returned to the office after a long spell of working from home. But now we now face supply-chain backlogs, along with major shortages of labor, from farm workers, to workers in food processing facilities, to truck drivers who deliver to retail outlets, to workers who stack the shelves and work the checkout counters at supermarkets.
All of which have combined to cause record-breaking inflation in food prices—with no end in sight.
What Are the Solutions?
The solutions aren’t that different from what households have always done when budgets tighten, food becomes scarce, or people choose to live more frugally. I’ve written about it often throughout my decades-long writing career, including here. The information never grows stale, but it’s always worth repeating. We can:
Choose inexpensive, nutritious, readily available basic ingredients. For example, for breakfast, go back to oatmeal! It’s filling, cheap, and nutritious. Add bananas! See 10 more creative ways to use oatmeal.
For lunch, eat at home or go back to browning-bag your lunches and carrying home-brewed coffee in thermoses.
Eat less meat and mix in more beans and eggs and vegetables, which are less inflation-sensitive. Stock up on cans of tuna, white beans, and anchovies.
Cook from scratch, focusing on ways to avoid waste. Once you commit to learning to cook from scratch, you’ll find that it doesn’t take that much more time. See how to make flatbread from scratch.
Repurpose the famous World War II slogan to make it specific to food: Use it up, stretch it out, make it do, or do without.
Go ahead: Choose any two or more edible ingredients, add the word “soup,” and plug them into your search engine. You’ll likely find half a dozen recipes or more that incorporate your ingredients.
My point? You can mastermind a unique, nutritious, delicious soup with almost any mix of ingredients you have on hand, including leftovers and bits of this and that. You don’t need a recipe.
Most good soups begin with a flavorful stock or broth: Make your own from boiled bones left over from roasted meat or poultry, a bag of various vegetable scraps, e.g., chopped broccoli stems, onion skins, celery leaves, carrot or potato peelings. If you have freezer space, store a couple of concentrated broths.
Many soups require only a single cooking pot and one stove burner.
Many of them take only a few minutes to prepare.
Once you’ve tossed everything into the pot, you can set your soup on to simmer over a low flame or in a slow cooker while you get on with other tasks.
You can save time and fuel by making enough for several meals. (Food safety tip: Fill a couple of empty plastic soda bottles with water and freeze them; drop the frozen bottles into your leftover soup or other hot dish to cool it rapidly before decanting into smaller containers to refrigerate or freeze.)
2. Invest some time and a little money collecting a supply of seasonings
The right herbs, spices, and condiments make the difference between okay and aha! in lunch, dinner, salads, and desserts. I’ve slowly accumulated containers of dried garlic, dehydrated onion, cumin powder, rosemary, oregano, fennel, smoked paprika, ingredients for curry, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, clove, allspice and more. I’ve made a lot of spice blends to help transform an otherwise bland bean, lentil, or noodle dish.
Depending on your tastes, a dash of balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, miso, fish sauce, or sriracha will perk up a dish. A good lug of smooth or chunky peanut butter can add a je ne sais quoi taste surprise and a protein boost to a spicy vegetable soup or stew.
Every summer I make a year’s supply of pesto using my own basil and garlic. Once it’s blended with some walnuts, grated parmesan, and olive oil, I pour it into ice cube trays to freeze, then pop the frozen pesto cubes into a storage container. Two or three of them dropped into a pot of soup…mmmm. See how to make pesto.
3. Buy in bulk
Go for the bulk bins of beans, lentils, split peas, rolled oats, and whole grains, or order online. Dry legumes will store for months in glass jars or heavy food-grade plastic containers.
Keep flours and whole grains frozen or refrigerated. Buy long-storage vegetables and fruits (potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, winter squash, apples) when the price is right, and keep them in a cool, dark place.
4. Avoid “cheap”
Most cheap/cheaper packaged and processed foods contain added sweeteners, fats, and/or refined carbohydrates, along with a list of artificial ingredients, none of which contribute to your well being, and some of which may cause harm.
Yes, they’re engineered to taste good and save time. And yes, scratch cooking takes more learning, planning, and organizing, but once you commit to it, you’ll find it’s nowhere near as time-consuming and difficult as you’ve imagined.
5. Make and store your own mixes
If you eat a lot of baked products, it’s really simple to make your own bread, biscuit, pancake, cornbread, cookie or brownie mixes. Simply measure up the dry ingredients for a single batch, add to a sealable bag, label, and freeze. When you’re ready to bake, add eggs, oil, milk, or other wet ingredients to your premade mix, stir, and bake as usual.
6. Eat more fruits and vegetables
Only 10 percent of Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables to supply the nutrients and fiber our bodies need for strong immune systems and to help prevent chronic illnesses.
If you can’t grow your own, buy what’s in season for the best price. Choose an array of dark green and deeply colored vegetables for maximum nutrition.
Eat the skins and peels whenever possible. Plants produce protective compounds in and just under their outer coverings to protect against environmental assaults. When we eat apple, potato, peach and tomato skins we expropriate those benefits for our own health.
Don’t throw out the “greens.” If you buy radishes, beets, rutabagas, or celery in bunches, clean and chop their greens to add to a salad, stir-fry or soup. Same goes for the leaves clinging to broccoli and cauliflower heads.
Learn to forage! If you live near fields or recently logged forestland, scout the prospects for wild greens, berries, and tree fruits. In my area, wild blackberries, blueberries, apples, and cranberries grow in abundance.
Note: Make sure you know what you’re picking before you taste or harvest any wild plant for food. Ask permission if you want to pick them on private land.
7. Always worth repeating: Eat more legumes
Dry beans, lentils, chickpeas, and whole or split peas are cheap, incredibly versatile, and nutritious. Bought in bulk, stored in a cool, dark place in tightly closed glass or food-grade plastic containers, they’ll keep for many months. Soak them overnight to reduce cooking time. Boil beans for a few minutes and drain the water to remove flatulence-causing compounds.
8. Consider eating less.
A 2017 study showed the average American chows down 3600 calories per day, when the recommended needs hover around 2000. Indulge in the occasional treat, but otherwise look for places to cut the least-nutritious items from your regular menus.
9. Use your freezer! Do not throw out food.
Most food (even butter and cheese) can be frozen. Cut well-washed vegetables into uniform-sized pieces, blanch in boiling water for two or three minutes, drain and cool immediately, then package and freeze. Don’t fuss over which containers to use: washed yogurt, cottage cheese, or butter containers with covers, doubled up plastic storage bags. Also don’t worry about the precise blanching times; just add your frozen veggies to your next soup or casserole.
More than 40 million Americans, including 13 million children, don’t get enough food, or enough nutritious food, to eat.
State and regional food banks, neighborhood food pantries, meal programs, and emergency housing operations are always in need of funds. Give if you can, and give money rather than canned and packaged goods, since the emergency providers can consolidate their funds to buy more at less expensive prices than individual donors can do.