The finest steel, has to go through the hottest fire.
~John N. Mitchell~
The other day I was reading some blogs and as what usually happens, I came across some blogs from the younger generation. They were discussing how frightened they were by the rising costs of groceries. I know, I spend a good part of my blog discussing how to make food from basic pantry staples, believe me, I know I could get a bigger audience if I was featuring recipes for gooey chocolates and cheesy casseroles, let's face it oatmeal and beans are not sexy. But the reason I do write about these things is because groceries are one of the few places in the budget when we have some control. There's not much you can do if the heating cost rises,and you've already set the thermostat to it's lowest notch, or when your salary has been frozen.
For any new readers out there, I'll give you a brief sketch of my life story, so that you know that I know what it is like to go to bed with an empty stomach, that is, empty except for the knot in my stomach from fear about how I'm going to make it through the next few days, let alone months, financially. You see, my husband and I came from families that believed once you graduated from high school, you were on your own. We married young, because we were in love and besides we had to be grown-ups and support ourselves, why not do it together? It was in the late 1970s and the country was going through high inflation, jobs were scarce and the pool of eligible workers was large. I remember applying for a job as a cashier at a gardening center, and they asked if I had a degree in horticulture! Ridiculous, but that's how it was. The only job I could find was as a cocktail waitress at a bowling alley. As you can imagine, the pay was not great and bowlers are lousy tippers. Our rent was $325 a month and our take home pay was $500. We allotted $70 a month for groceries (which included all toiletries and cleaning products). The rest of the money went for car upkeep and insurance, gasoline, and school. My husband was still in college. We really struggled the final year when the gasoline prices jumped from 65 cents a gallon to 99 cents. So you see, I got a degree in home economics from the school of hard knocks.
So here's how we tackled grocery shopping. First we only carried cash. We calculated everything that went into the cart, and if it was a penny over our set amount, we put something back on the shelf. We viewed shopping as a challenging game, to see how much nutritious food we could get without paying much.
First stop was the grocery store's flyer to see what sales items we could incorporate into our budget. Many so-called experts say you should make up a menu and stick to it, but that doesn't allow for unexpected "finds". I prefer to shop by knowing I have X amount of money and have to make a week's or two meals from what I have in the cart. Only shop once every two weeks, except for milk and bread (and you can always buy those in one fell swoop and freeze them for later). The more often you visit the grocery store, the more you'll spend.
Now on to the actual shopping. First stop, the produce section. We always bought a bag of carrots, the cheap regular carrots, not the cute, little pre-peeled carrots. These were used for soups, grated into salads, and peeled and sliced by or own little hands for snacking on. Ditto for celery. Potatoes are good and cheap. A baked potato really can stave off the hunger pangs. And don't forget the onions. They add a lot of bang for the buck in the flavor department. A head of lettuce will last longer, and is cheaper than those easy-to use bags. A bag of apples are usually the cheapest fruit, but sometimes oranges can be had for a good price. Also buy your fruit in season. While we were in the produce section, we would check out the reduced-for-quick-sale produce. Depending on the store, you can sometimes get wonderful deals there. I always buy my bananas there, because I like yellow bananas, and besides you can use them for muffins and bread. Check it out, you might be surprised by what you find. I often find green peppers at my store. When my son Erik worked at a grocery store, we arrived to pick him up just as the store was closing, we often caught the green grocer as he was taking the fruits and vegetables from the regular bins and putting them in the reduced bin. Just a couple of minutes earlier, they were regular price. The wonderful pies,and cobblers, we made from those apples, peaches and pears. Plus a lot of good fruit that was eaten out of hand If you live in a more urban area than I, there's probably a fruit market that has better prices than the grocers.
In the meat department, look for soup bones and smoked ham hocks. They add a lot of flavor to soups. And we all know that a big batch of homemade soup is nutritional and economical. Chicken legs and thighs are usually the cheapest. Yesterday I checked out the prices and they were $1.09 a pound. If you learn how to prepare them, you won't miss the more expensive cuts of meat. You can also boil them up to make a good soup stock. The meat can be made into a chicken salad for sandwiches. Half a sandwich and a bowl of homemade soup is very good! Again, while your in this section, look for the reduced-for-a-quick-sale items. They're ok if you take them home and prepare them that day. For instance, the store I was checking the prices out at, had hamburger reduced, if I ate meat, I would have taken it home, browned it up and added taco seasoning, and froze it for chili and burritos. Our little meat market/deli sells the ends of the deli meats cheap (about $1 a pound). The ham makes great scalloped potatoes, flavoring for soups, and a nice ham sandwich spread, when chopped and added to some mustard, mayo, and relish. Meat was used as a flavor enhancer, rather than the main focus of a meal.
We never waste too much time in the regular aisles. Most of the foods there are made for convenience. But we do buy a nice large container of oatmeal. We find that canned tomatoes are more flavorful and cheaper than out-of-season "fresh" tomatoes. To use them in a salad, just drain them in a sieve. A bag of those mixed dried beans, makes a wonderful soup, with the addition of the aforementioned carrots, onions, potatoes, and soup bone or ham hock. The spaghetti sauce that is found on the bottom shelf (you know, the one in the can) makes a good meatless meal, especially with the addition of mushrooms, onions and peppers. And as much as I love my own homemade spaghetti sauce, this is a lot cheaper.
In the dairy section, eggs are a cheap source of protein. A simple lunch of an egg and toast is often all you need to keep your stomach satisfied. As much as I prefer butter to margarine in baking, let's face it, margarine is a lot cheaper. If you eat yogurt, buy the big container of plain yogurt and stir in your own fruit or jam.
In the freezer section, we buy those cans of orange juice and reconstitute it ourselves. And a bag of frozen spinach can substitute for your green leafy vegetable, once the lettuce has run out. Once it thaws, put it in a saute pan and saute it a while to get all the water out. Add it to soups or how about an omelet?
While your in the store why not check out the day-old baked goods. Often I find nice loaves of French bread, that can be made into garlic bread, or croutons, or French toast. Or how about a bread pudding with the milk that must be used up before it goes bad?
Now in the past, when I wrote articles about this, people would leave comments about the couldn't eat so much starch. or that they only eat organic goods. My reply is this; you are not at your end of the rope and you do not know what it means to be truly hungry. This article is not meant for you. You don't have to worry about gaining weight from too much starch from something like a potato, I've seen some foolish behavior on the part of those "no-carbers", such as shunning a tomato in their salad, but loading it up with bacon bits. Refusing to eat a nice baked potato with no butter or sour cream, but eating a big slab of greasy meat. Use some common sense! I think those Atkins-type diets work is because you can't have sweets, chips or alcohol on them. Things that are most people's weaknesses.