A Mom's Guide to Saving on Groceries

 
 

There are few things that have changed the way we cook as a nation more than mixes.  By mixes, I mean those packets in boxes that we as a nation buy to make dinner most nights.  Add to the list of innovations the refrigerator, the microwave, and hydrogenation, and you've got a good start on the list.  What the heck is hydrogenation?  Well, it’s one of the things that you will find in nearly every mix, for starters, and in most prepared foods.


Food chemists found that by adding an extra hydrogen molecule to a fat, it became hard, like butter and lard, and virtually immortal.  Hydrogenated oils lasts just about forever.  This translates to profits for food companies, because the shelf life of products is extended.  Margarine replaced butter: more profits.  When margarine emerged, so did a smear campaign against butter.  The public by and large switched to margarine for health reasons.  It must be said here that Southern cooks were never fooled into giving up their butter.  This is one of the things I love about the South.


You now know this tricky stuff as trans fats (look for hydrogenated oils of any kind), and probably are aware that it is not good to eat.  It has been replaced or eliminated in many processed foods due to public outcry.  However, many manufacturers have simply replaced it with interesterified fat, which studies show is even worse.  So watch out for that.  Manufacturers are in business to make money, not to keep you healthy.  That’s your job.

Look, I know that mixes are convenient and fast.  They became  really popular in the 1970’s, when a great number of mothers joined the workforce and had less time to prepare meals.   Today with all our modern conveniences, whether a caregiver works outside the home or not, we are just as short on time, if not more so.   Worse, America seems to be under the impression that food needs to come from a box.

But what if I told you there isn’t a mix in my cupboard, and I can make a healthy dinner in 30 minutes or less?  And we are talking family-friendly foods, here.  Rachel Ray has made a career out of doing this, and you don’t have to be a chef to do it (she isn’t!), either.   I highly recommend her show, “30 Minute Meals,” on Food Network .

For this blog, I’m going to stick with home-cooking, and comfort foods.  I’ll show you how to make your own “mixes” on the fly, based on simple kitchen chemistry.  Once you know this chemistry, you will be able to invent your own recipes. 



Because the factors that contribute to heart disease begin to accumulate in the body in childhood (yes, you read that correctly), and to stretch that dollar, we are eliminating packaged mixes for the most part.  The focus here is on inexpensive, fast, and mostly healthy.  I want you to be able to save a cartload of money in the stores, and still be able to eat great food. 



My hope is that you will use these recipes creatively and put your own spin on them. 
Some of the things I make all the time, quickly and easily without a mix:

·  pancakes and biscuits

·  macaroni and cheese

·  beefy mac

·  spaghetti

·  tacos

·  bread and bagels

·  pizza (I average 20 minutes start to finish, believe it or not)

·  stroganoff

·  cookies, cakes, baked goods

·  lasagna

·  bagels











 
 

Making something out of nothing (almost!)

If you were to look in my cupboards, the first thing you’d think is that they need to be organized. The second thing you’d think, is that there really isn’t much in there! Oh, but there is….. it’s just not instant. When I can, I do stock some convenience items. I do believe in buying a couple of treats, because they simply make you happy. There is actually a mix or two somewhere (though I can't think of any at the moment). Chocolate is on the list, and I can’t live without coffee and/or tea. But here are the staples you will need in order to create most of the recipes in this blog:

·  Powdered milk, either nonfat, or whole.I LOVE a product you can only find in the Mexican section of your supermarket, called Nido. It is in a can, and it is a powdered whole milk. I use this in baking and cooking to replace the fresh milk so I can save that for drinking. If this is the only tip you take from this blog, take this one. Wonderful to have in emergency situations, too!

·  Self rising flour
·  Regular flour
·  Bread flour (optional, but if you make bread, buy this)
·  Whole wheat flour
·  Sugar, white and brown
·  Eggs
·  Regular milk for drinking- don’t even try to get your kids to drink powdered milk, unless you are going to mix it with chocolate or strawberry syrup. Make sure it’s well-chilled, too.
·  Cheese. I buy 2 lb. bags of shredded (real) cheese for about $8 each. Typically, I buy a Mexican blend, and Mozzarella, and then a couple of smaller bags of Italian blend for about $2 each. If they came bigger, I’d buy ‘em!
·  Pasta, different varieties
·  Butter
·  Canola oil
·  Olive oil (I like extra virgin)

Balsamic vinegar (the cheap one is good for everyday use.  I use it in place of wine in my spaghetti, and pizza sauces.  As we go, I'll give you the rec

· Large (29 oz.) cans of crushed tomatoes. I buy concentrated crushed tomatoes but regular crushed tomatoes work just fine. They get used in lots of recipes, so you will want at least 3 in the cupboard at the beginning of the month.


·  Ground turkey- this is a sneaky little item that I buy in plastic “chubs” or sleeves for about $1.86 a pound. I use it in place of ground beef in most everything, and I love, love, love, the sausage version. It has the added benefit of being healthier, too!

·  Other meat: buy in bulk on this one, divide up and freeze in 1 lb packages until you need them. I actually tend to use less meat than most- we use it more like a flavoring, and I don't tend to use much red meat as most people do. But there is room in this $300 budget for red meat if you like it.


·  Rice: I like Jasmine, or Basmati, which is a little more expensive but has more complex carbohydrates than other rice, as well as a superior flavor. Do not boil and drain, or you will lose the B vitamins. I will give you a fool-proof way to make it that won’t let you down (It is not my method, credit the Japanese- see the Mount Fuji Method). This is one of those items that cost a bit more, but pay off in the end. Give brown rice a try, too.


·  Ground flax meal (in the baking section): This is extremely good for you and undetectable in baked goods, although the flavor is nice- a mild, nutty taste. A terrific source for Omega-3 fatty acids, and for the money, the best you will find. It’s also a fat substitute, and has the added benefit of keeping your digestive system happy.


·  Wheat germ- strangely, in the cereal section. Wonderful in bread.  Also strange:  it actually tastes pretty darn good.  Who knew?


·  Yogurt- both vanilla and plain.This is another place where I spend more than the minimum. I’m looking for live active cultures, and there is a lowfat brand that is organic, and tastes spectacular. No matter how good for you something is, if you can’t get your kids to eat it, it isn’t going to work. I like Stonyfield Farm’s lowfat versions, and I buy the big 32 oz. containers. This works great for sour cream, and for creaming up sauces. I also mix crispy rice cereal and other cereals with the vanilla yogurt for my two year old, because it makes the cereal stick to her spoon (and everything else...). She gets those great live active cultures to boost her immune system and aid in digestion, and it tastes fantastic. Also: it doesn’t spill like liquid milk!


·  Cereal: Buy the bagged generic versions, and get the large one. I only buy one a month, but you may need more. Skip the branded versions- they cost way too much, and you can get more for less buying generic.


·  Oatmeal: I love stone cut for eating, but will use old fashioned oats too. Quick oats are good for baked goods and sneaking into things for filler. Good in meatloaf, great binder (you can grind it a bit in a magic bullet, blender, or food processor).


·  Juice: Buy the frozen kind that you add water to. Make sure it’s 100% juice…And you can make “soda” by adding carbonated water, too. Very refreshing, and good for kids.


·  Speaking of soda water: I can buy a gallon of regular water for 99 cents. I can buy two liters of soda for 68 cents (though I buy very little). Yet one liter of carbonated water costs me nearly two dollars. Can someone explain this? Meanwhile, check this out: Soda Club USA. I don't have one yet, but all the reviews are VERY favorable. You can make your own soda and soda water! Cost of the unit is about $100 and is very economical to use.

 
·  Applesauce and canned fruits: I usually have bananas around, and whatever fruit is in season, but if you run out, you have this to fall back on. Buy unsweetened versions, or the cans with juice instead of “heavy syrup.”Also, you can make great cobblers from canned peaches. Just buy the generic brands, or catch a sale.


·  Dried fruit, like raisins and apricots. I personally love dried cherries.


·  Tortillas: these, like pasta, can be made with the ingredients on this list, but for the sake of saving time, I buy them. If you are lucky enough to have a Tortilleria around, take advantage. There’s nothing like a fresh tortilla, either flour or corn. And you know those wraps that are popular now? Basically, they are tortillas. Most manufacturers make them without lard now.


·  Frozen vegetables: Buy fresh whenever you can. Many farmer’s markets accept food stamp benefits, too. However, I always like to have frozen vegetables on hand in the freezer because they are instant, and take a lot longer to go bad. Make sure you’ve got frozen spinach: This is one of the few vegetables that is better for you cooked, because it shrinks up and you get more that way. You can sprinkle it into things for a touch of color, and get some vitamins into unsuspectingkids. I add it to soups, and spaghetti sauce, nearly everything- like parsley, only healthier.


·  Instant potato flakes: Yep, I’ve got an instant item in my pantry! Note that this isn’t a mix. Never buy those potato mixes like “garlic and chives,” etc. (Who doesn't have garlic? Yeesh.). I'm talking about simple dried potato flakes, with nothing else added. You can use these for thickening sauces, making soup, an instant meal in a hurry, or even a type of pasta called gnocchi.


·  Spices: I can’t live without garlic powder (not garlic salt- salt works good for that :), onions, both powdered and minced, basil, oregano, vanilla, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, poultry seasoning, chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper.Buy the basics, then add as you go- they last a long time.Most of these I buy for 50 cents. There are few times when the expensive version is better.  One word: Smoked paprika.  If I were stuck on a desert island, and could only take one item, it would be this.  Words aren't good enough- you have to try it.

About nutmeg: buy the whole nutmegs.Just suck it up and pay the extra money.They last forever.When you grate a real nutmeg, folks, the taste is nothing like the ground stuff that comes in the shaker bottle.The taste is an epiphany-they are much more delicious and almost delicate when you grate them yourself.


Also, try that Mexican section of the grocery store again, because often you can find packets of spices and shaker jars for very cheap prices. A wonderful place to find things like chipotle and other peppers, both dried and canned. About nutmeg: buy the whole nutmegs.Just suck it up and pay the extra money.They last forever.When you grate a real nutmeg, folks, the taste is nothing like the ground stuff that comes in the shaker bottle.The taste is an epiphany-they are much more delicious and almost delicate when you grate them yourself.

·  Baby food carrots.You need this if you have kids, and think you are going to get them to eat homemade macaroni and cheese.In order to get them to eat this, no matter how wonderful it tastes, you will need to make the stuff fluorescent.This seems to be a universal kid requirement, this fluorescent orange color.Carrots do the trick, and are good for them, too.And they’ll never know unless you tell them, if you don’t add too much.Also wonderful in spaghetti sauce!  If that doesn't work, try annato, in small amounts- look in the Mexican spices.
·  Cocoa, and yes, a generic bottle of chocolate syrup.Used judiciously, this stuff can get your kid drinking milk, or provide a welcome treat.I think it’s unlikely that we can eliminate all preservatives and artificial colors/flavors from our diet.I just try to keep it to the bare minimum.You can also make chocolate syrup from cocoa and keep it in the fridge.
·  Honey, and molasses, which add flavor and color to foods as well as sweetness.Molasses has the added benefit of being the only sweetener with nutritional value, and it’s a powerhouse: you get great amounts of Potassium, Calcium, iron, Choline, Magnesium, and Selenium, as well as other trace vitamins and minerals.When I looked that up and saw the actual nutrient value, I decided to just eat a spoonful every day.
·  Fresh fruits and vegetables in season.Go to the farmer’s market, buy in bulk and can or freeze.Another great option: farmer’s co-ops.This is where you buy a “share” of what is grown, and you get boxes once or twice a month full of fresh vegetables.

Buy in season, no matter where you pick up your produce.Produce from other countries is much less regulated for pesticides than that grown in the United States.And it costs a lot more (this can only get worse as fuel costs go up).In any event, it’s always my favorite thing to take the kids to U-Pick farms, especially for berries.

Also, I love to step onto the porch and snip some fresh herbs.They look pretty, planted with some clover, which helps to add nitrogen back into the soil like a living fertilizer.How cool is that?A little mustard keeps bugs away, and tastes good in salad, too.


I've mentioned before that I shop at my favorite superstore, Walmart. I'm sure there are other stores that have great values as well, but the truth is they get the bulk of my grocery money because I save at least 40% by shopping there. Another store I LOVE, but we don't have one nearby: Trader Joe's. If you have one, go there! Trader Joe's, if you're listening, please come to SC!

My sister has to send me things from CA, because there are some things you can only get at Trader Joe's, and I'm not kidding when I say the prices and the food are incredible. They have lots of other things, too, like gourmet items including wine and cheese: Foodie Heaven.







 
 

Temperature:

Have you ever noticed that no matter the season, the grocery stores are very chilly places? I always have to take a jacket for my two year old when I go shopping. You’d think with energy prices being what they are, stores would lay off on the air conditioning. But there is a reason for this! First, keeping the store cool keeps bacteria counts down. Think about it: hundreds of people walking through the store every day, touching everything, coughing, sneezing, whatever. So it makes sense (when I think of it that way, wrapped produce suddenly holds more appeal!).

But here is the sneaky bit: Cold temperatures also make you hungry. Ever notice that in winter you crave comfort foods, and eat more? Your body is trying to stay warm by adding extra calories it can burn. So a cold grocery store triggers this physiological reaction in your body, no matter what season it is.

Don’t think grocery stores aren’t aware of this! The temperature of a store is calculated to cause you to want to buy more. But don’t blame them. You and the store just happen to be on opposite sides of an equation: Their job is to get your money, while your job is to hang on to some. Both sides need each other- grocery stores typically have profit margin of 1-2%- that’s a nano-profit! So even the score by eating before you shop. And always take a list.  And maybe a sweater?

Did I mention the list???

ALWAYS have a list with you, and stick to it. When I was going through some very tough times financially, I even went so far as to create a spreadsheet for my nearby superstore... dare I say it? I'm gonna... I shop at Walmart, among other stores.  I used my receipts from previous visits, and estimated where I didn't have information.  I knew what I was going to spend, +/- $10, before I ever walked into the store.  I'm working out how to make this function available to you- if you know of an online list that has local prices based on store location, let me know. Ahem... Walmart, are you listening?

End caps and checkout stands:

The end cap is the end of every aisle. This is where you find new items, “specials,” and sale items. This is where, in short, the store manager puts items he or she wants you to buy. These items, more often than not, spell profit for the store, and loss for you. Stick to your list. If you see an item for sale on an end cap, take the time to look in the section where the item is usually kept. Odds are, you will find it cheaper. And did I mention the list?

Toddler Treats:

We’ve all done it at least once if we have a toddler: Opened a box of crackers or cookies right in the store and handed one to our screaming child. I think this is one of those gray areas in life and as long as it gets paid for the stores usually look past it. However, if you bring along your own treat, you can be sure it is something you approve of, not an impulse item to save your sanity. Keep a juice cup handy, and some toys if you can. See if you can find a hook or lanyard you can clip on the toy and the cart to avoid losing them.  You can use a Cinchi, a wonder-gadget that turns anything into a bib, to attach things too.  They are great little multi-taskers!

Buying in Bulk:

This is a tricky area. I do buy some things in bulk, but very few. This is because even if the end result is that I'm saving money, if I'm buying more than I'm going to use in 1-3 months, I don't do it. Why? Because even if I'm saving in the end, the money's still gone, and I might need it (like, for gas?). So I reserve bulk purchases for things that get used up quickly. And I pay attention to the unit price. It doesn't matter what the brand name is as long as it's a quality product, and it's the least expensive. Just ask yourself this question: Are you really going to use up 9 pounds of oatmeal in a month? If not, would you rather see a movie, or get the tapenade? It all depends on what's important to you.

Frozen Vegetables and Canned Goods:

Well, I prefer fresh, but I always have lots of frozen and canned products. They are cheaper, if it's the off-season (more about this later), because they have a longer shelf-life.  Spoiled food is an expense that stores have to plan for by increasing the price of perishable foods.

Also, frozen vegetables and canned goods are ready when you need them, and already cut up for you. When you are in a hurry, they are perfect. Personally, I prefer frozen vegetables to canned, with the exception of tomato products and some root vegetables like carrots. And I really think it's all in the way you cook them.   All the same, I love to can my own vegetables, because they look beautiful, and they will last without refrigeration, and because I can make custom blends.

Farmer's Markets and Buying in Season:
Always buy produce that's in season and locally grown if at all possible. One exception is bananas, which are an import with low to no pesticide residue that is a great staple to have.
I love supporting local farmers, and like to buy crates of vegetables and can them. If you do this, you may not have to buy vegetables at all in the winter, and you'll know what's in those beautiful Ball jars lined up on your shelves. Even better: Grow your own!

I'm sure there's more, and welcome posts with other ways to shop successfully in the supermarket.


 
 

What my mother taught me, from a very early age, was how to cook. From scratch. And why you did things a certain way, and how to get dough off your fingers. She put love into everything and you knew it. My love of food began very young- the picture you see is me at probably around age three or four, making cookies.

On Saturdays, when other kids were watching cartoons, I was tuning in to Julia Child, who, after my mother, is my single greatest influence in the kitchen. She taught me “kitchen chemistry.” Later, it was Martin Yan and Jacques Pepin, who teamed up with my favorite chef Julia Child in later years so I could watch her again.   It's Food Network, these days- if you haven't taken a look, you definitely should. 

Now, as a mom myself, I'm using these techniques and more, learned from a life that has included cooking (lots!), college courses in clinical dietetics, restaurant ownership, and lots of life lessons learned the hard way. I hope you find some of them useful, and since I know you are wanting to get to the heart of the matter, here is my list of upcoming posts:

Grocery Store Survival Tactics
A Word About Mixes and Processed Foods
Stocking Up: Pantry Staples that will Save You Money
Kitchen Magic: Simple Kitchen Chemistry that will Change the way You Cook Forever

Equipment

Organization is Key
Dinner in a Hurry: Recipes to bypass those dinner-in-a-box mixes. Make more food just as quickly and easily for less money with no additives and better flavor!
Showing You the Dough: Did you know that making bread is a piece of cake? My sure-fire recipe that really is foolproof and ready when you are.
...More on the way!