We all find those fantastic recipes we can’t wait to try…but have to wait to try because we can’t afford some or all of the ingredients. It wasn’t always that way for most of us, so being in the position where our food budget is so tight that a trip to a fast food restaurant for a quick lunch does more than blow our diet–it means an even slimmer food budget for cooking at home.
We can gripe about the economy, but no matter what, we all want to eat, and our families expect meals to arrive with a frightening regularity. Like several times a day.
Creative cooking when you have to choose between that herb or spice being replaced or a pound of ground turkey for that casserole gets pretty tough. Looking at the price of fresh fruit and vegetables just adds to the dismay on grocery shopping day. Inflation or not, food is taking a bigger bite out of an already small portion of money we have to trade for it.
Certain foods remain cheap, or relatively so, like potatoes, rice, pasta, grits, cornmeal, onions, and canned tomatoes. Even ground turkey, once purchased consistently under $1 per pound, doesn’t appear in that neighborhood anymore, although it usually is still fairly inexpensive. Whole turkey and turkey breast are among the hold outs, usually offered regularly at about $1 per pound, and chicken leg quarters are another bargain meat.
Cheese was once an inexpensive addition to meals, now it’s an expensive ingredient–most “real” cheese comes to about $4 per pound, just like gasoline gallons. Milk too has skyrocketed in cost, and rumors of it containing radioactive material are running rampant. Butter is rather like cheese, you are lucky if it is cheaper than a gallon of gasoline. Whipping cream or half and half alike are also much more expensive than they were.
Margarine and processed cheese food used to be cheap ingredients…but today? Not so cheap anymore, and we’re all being more conscious of the kinds of fats and additives we are consuming.
To make us feel even worse, there’s the news that the same foods that are cheap are the foods having the strongest links to obesity. Great, now we’re not only stuck at the supermarket, we’re stuck with “fat lady” clothes and trips to the doctor, as well as trying to figure out where in our busy days we can fit exercise to help combat the abdominal fat our cheap diet is contributing to.
Most of us have a very limited repertoire of “cheap meals.” That means that they end up on a regular rotation, and we start getting tired of seeing the same old meals arrive on the dinner table each week. We want one of those new recipes, we want to have an enjoyable meal, we want something that makes us feel like we’re eating something healthy instead of (as my Granddad used to put it) eating “gut wadding.”
Its summer now on the Gulf Coast. Hunt out those farmers markets, flea markets, roadside stands, U Pick farms, and other alternative venues for shopping for local fruits and vegetables. It’s good for your budget, waistline, both the national and local economy, it’s greener, and it just makes SENSE. Plan your meals around those offerings. In a pinch, don’t forget Four Seasons Produce in Moss Point–their prices are great, their stuff is fresh, and they always have a pretty good variety too.
Search online for recipes for salads and desserts featuring the inexpensive and delicious melons we have locally. They are tasty, refreshing, local, and one of the cheapest fruits you can find to enjoy. Cantaloupe sherbert is something I’ve made without an ice cream freezer–and it was absolutely delicious. Try topping a bowl of chunked cantaloupe with a scoop of ice cream. I’ve made spiced cantaloupe preserves too, and they are to die for. I bet that cantaloupe could be put into a delicious cobbler or pie with those same spices! (Cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, etc.) I’d cook the filling on top of the stove, and thicken it before adding it to the pie crust or topping it with your favorite cobbler or crisp topping. As an alternative, I think it would be delicious just served over a slice of plain yellow or white cake…with or without ice cream or a dollop of vanilla yogurt.
Vanilla yogurt is one of my favorite anti-ice cream toppings for fruit, pies, and many other desserts. Unlike ice cream, it doesn’t occupy freezer space or melt–so it’s better for its portability, easily traveling to a picnic, barbecue or camp out.
How about a fruit “taco” for dessert? Make your pancake batter a bit thinner than usual, and add a touch of vanilla to it. Make 6″ pancakes and set them aside to cool. When completely cool, store in a plastic bag or container until serving time. Then, with your favorite in-season combination of lightly sugared raw fruit or cooked fruit–put a couple of tablespoons of fruit into the center of the pancake, dissecting the circle in half. Add a teaspoon of vanilla yogurt in the center, with a sprinkle, if desired, of cinnamon or shaved chocolate or even a pinch of brown sugar. Fold in half, and serve tacos immediately. Kids love them! (For smaller kids and toddlers, you can make smaller tacos, closer to hand sized for them.)
On the entrée side of budget friendly creative cooking, reducing the amount of meat isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can lead to some really creative meals when we’re in the mood too! Try adding angel hair coleslaw mix to your meatloaf recipes. It’s delicious, most people never realize that its nearly as much cabbage as it is meat either. It’s incredibly moist too.
Try different versions of your meatloaf. We loved Greek style meatloaf, which included feta cheese, oregano, cumin, peppers, spinach, and onion in its ingredients. How about Italian style to include shredded zucchini, onions, oregano, thyme, basil, garlic, and anise seed, topped with spaghetti sauce, and served alongside spaghetti tossed with roasted garlic and olive oil and a green salad with Italian dressing. Alter the shapes too–it’s a great way to change that basic into something interesting.
Don’t forget our seafood either. While it’s not cheap, it’s certainly cheaper here than say, Iowa! In addition, incorporating the family fisherman’s catch into the menu is a great way to help keep meal costs down. Many recipes originally written for other fish will work just as well for our local white trout, catfish or bream too!
Reduce your waste and that reduces your costs. Don’t buy more than you can use, even when its cheap. The single exception to this is when buying in bulk is cheaper than buying a normal sized container at the grocery store. Even so, help out a family member or friend by sharing your excess, whether you bought it or it comes from your own garden or as a gift from still another friend!
Cutting out junk food should always be the first budget cut. We don’t need it, it doesn’t increase our health in any way, and per serving, it’s EXPENSIVE! By eliminating it, we’re doing ourselves a huge health favor and our budget gets a bit of breathing room without as much pain as it would if we cut elsewhere. Save the soda pop for special occasions and drink less expensive iced tea, water, etc. Use popcorn made at home in a pop corn popper (air poppers are always fun) as a healthier choice than chips and cookies–just lay off the butter!
Try and save enough to have those occasional treats, whether its a new recipe, a familiar favorite, or even a meal out. Look for inexpensive desserts that aren’t incredibly high calorie too. Those treats will keep everyone from feeling deprived. Share recipes with family members and friends–find those inexpensive recipes that were used by our grandmothers during the Depression era–they work now too!