A Mom's Guide to Saving on Groceries

Equipment 07/02/2008

 When I first began writing this, it was after a year of having only the barest minimum of standard equipment.  At the time, I’d had to start completely over, with just a few items.  I thought this would be difficult, but really, what I discovered was that most of the gadgets we keep in our kitchens are just fluff.  I bought one knife: a medium chef’s knife with a serrated edge- it was enough!  I use it for everything.  Now I’ve adopted the following rule: With very little exception, EVERY piece of equipment must multitask.

 With this in mind, I have compiled this equipment list for you.  Most of it is probably in your kitchen right now!  If you don’t have something, try to improvise before you go out and buy it.  Here’s what you will probably need: 

·   Small and medium to large frying pan (mine are non-stick, but any will do)

·   Small and medium pots with lids (or use foil if necessary, or even a plate)

·   One great big stock/soup pot (wonderful if it has the steamer/strainer insert)

·   Cookie sheets- I have some large, heavy aluminum ones that managed to survive my move to the new kitchen.  I bought them at a restaurant supply store a zillion years ago, and they last forever. P.S… I got them for a song, and they are much better than dept. store and grocery store cookie sheets.

·    Roaster pan, pie pans, bread pans, etc.  If you don’t have these, get the foil kind and try to use them a few times before you give up on them.  That’s what I had to do, and it works fine.  When you get really tired of doing that, start gradually adding the real thing.

·   Foil, and plastic wrap, regular and sticky.  Plastic bags are an optional item I don’t buy for environmental reasons, most of the time.

·   Bar towels, which you buy in bulk.  This is an optional item that I picked up on after having that restaurant I mentioned earlier. First, when there is a real mess, paper towels frustrate me when it takes half a roll to get the job done.  One real towel, and poof- mess gone.  They are reuseable, (trust me, just throw them in with the whites as you go about your week, and besides the folding, you will see no difference) and save me a fortune in paper towels. 

We go through about one or two rolls of paper towels/month.  If you have children, do yourself a favor and pick up a pack of bar towels.  This might be a great item to pick up at a restaurant supply, too, but discount stores carry them as well.  After a while, they become car towels or pet towels, then they get used for ugly messes on a throwaway basis. I use two or three/day in the kitchen, and it takes a really long time and many washings for them to become so threadbare they need to be thrown out.

·   You will need at least one wooden spoon or silicone (heat-proof) spatula/spoon for cooking, and I like the spatulas that work like spoons because they… multitask.  Look for models that are all one piece if possible, so bacteria don't find their way into the space between the spatula and the handle.

 ·  An ice cream scoop, average sized.  They come in lots of sizes, incidentally, but start wtih the average size.  This is another restaurant trick:  for perfect, quick, mess-free cookies and drop biscuits, there is no better way to scoop your dough.  And kids love the look of scooped mashed potatoes. 

·   A whisk, at least one, medium sized.  This is not a pricey item, but if you don’t have one, in most cases you can use a fork.

·   Stand mixer: This is an expensive item, but worth its weight in gold.  If you are going to really use the principles in this blog, this is an invaluable tool.  Mine is about 18 years old, and still cranking.  One of the very few items in life I’d put on a credit card if necessary.  However, you can get by without it, kneading dough by hand, or using a regular electric mixer, or even a wisk.

·   Food processor:  Those Magic Bullets are a pretty good stand in if you don’t have one.  In any case, it’s another optional item that makes life a LOT easier.

·   Blender or stick blender.  Again, that Magic Bullet blender thing is a good stand-in.  I personally like those, because they… multitask!  Stick blenders are made so that you can put them right into your pot and blend.  Kind of wonderful for milkshakes, too.

·   Parchment- Coolest stuff ever.  Makes any pan non-stick, and you can even cook in it by itself, by making it into a “pocket.”  That’s a classic French technique that you can use for more than fish or chicken.  It’s microwave safe, as well as reusable, if you are just using it to bake cookies on. Who needs expensive silicone mats when you have parchment?

·   Foil, which I’m sure you’ve probably got. 

·   Measuring cups and spoons

·   Knife. At least one good sharp one.  Mine is a medium chef’s knife, with a serrated edge, and I use it for everything.  I’d like to have a couple more, in different sizes, though.  However, I'm holding out for some outstanding knives, so I can make do for a while yet.

·   Colander and at least one wire mesh strainer.  If you only pick one, get a larger size.  They have myriad uses.


Think about it: that mix in the box looks appealing because “it’s all in there.”  The perception is that it’s easier because the ingredients are all in one place.  And this is a fact that actually does make all the difference in the world when it comes to making food the quick and easy way.  I think there is also the perception that there is something magical in that box, too.  Something that will make everything work just right, with just the right consistency.  Who cares how it’s done, we just want it to work. 


Some of those things we shouldn’t be eating, others we just don’t need, and most of those things are sitting in your pantry right now.  I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I NEVER use a mix.  Sometimes it makes sense! 


 I have a packet of coleslaw seasoning in the fridge (I only used a bit of it) right now.  This is because the seasonings are some that I very rarely use, and didn’t see spending a fortune to buy when they’d sit until going bad.  I made the coleslaw, and then liked the blend so much, though, that I might just add those spices to the rack anyway.  It’s a good way to try something for the first time.  I can’t think of any other mix that I use right now, but I’m sure there’s something somewhere.


Placing all my ingredients together in one place in the kitchen and organizing it for efficiency was something I had done unwittingly, and mostly it was out of necessity. It was my sister, the one who thinks in terms of efficiency, that pointed this out. The kitchen I am working in as I write is probably about 12 x 12. There was very little in the way of natural storage space, so a small “pantry” (really a large cupboard typically found in a garage) was added.   


Most experienced cooks naturally gravitate towards a triangular setup in the kitchen, with everything within reach.  Stove, refrigerator, sink, typically.  If you don’t have such a setup, try to create one.  A kitchen island is wonderful, too.  For those of you without one and on a budget, you might need to think outside the box on this one. 


Revamp an old changing table with paint and some hooks. Remove the front railing and lay down butcher block (or another appropriate salvaged material) for the top.  Use anything that will work!  Add wheels if space is at a premium, and you can move the island out of the way when you are not cooking.  The point is, you want everything within reach.  Even a fold-out table would be great for a small space.


Scope out your work space, and try to figure out how to bring your most commonly used items close to where you are working.  This includes not only utensils and pots and pans, but common foodstuffs, as well.  This is the secondary use for that kitchen island- EVERYTHING should be multifunctional.  Your island should work as storage as well as counter space, and offer hooks for hanging more.  A magnetic spice rack attached to one end is a great idea. 


Another way to streamline your workspace is to have a large bowl or tray, and use it to assemble all your ingredients before you begin to cook.  If you’ve ever watched Rachel Ray’s cooking show, you might have noticed the way she does that.  Hey, she’s only got 30 minutes, and that’s for real, not just for TV.  The all the cooking you see happens in a half hour. And you rarely see her use a mix! 


On other shows, the chef might tip all of his ingredients out of little bowls that are prepared in advance.  Well, that guy has a staff of helpers!  Until we have staff of our own, let’s ditch those containers, but keep the idea of having things handy, and prepping (chopping, etc.) in advance if you feel so inclined.  If you have all your ingredients to hand, you can just gather what you need before starting, and move right along. 


I’m telling you, the only stuff you need to make anything you can find in a mix, you can find right in your own cupboard.  I promise you’ll be able to make more food with less money, in just as short a time.  And that is what this book is all about.  Saving money, and leading a better life with the savings.  Who doesn’t need that?




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.