Cut Your Food Budget & Save on Delicious Family Meals
Nixing restaurant and fast food meals for dinners prepared at home is one way to slash your food budget and save money. But if you trade the drive-through for a frozen dinner or quick-fix meal that comes out of a box, you likely aren’t bolstering your budget or boosting the quality of your family’s meals. To get the most from your food dollar without sacrificing taste, quality or time, consider the following practical tips.
The Food Network’s Melissa d’Arabian, host of Ten Dollar Dinners, argues that home-cooked meals need not be time-consuming and expensive to taste good. With the help of d’Arabian, a professional chef and penny-pinching blogger, you can devise a recipe for saving both time and money in the kitchen.
D’Arabian, a mother of four preschool-aged daughters, knows firsthand the demands of being a working mother. Since winning season five of The Next Food Network Star, the former-corporate-executive-turned-stay-at-home mom has re-entered the workplace as a television celebrity. While her new job is much different from her previous position in merchandise finance, the challenges of balancing family and career remain the same.
“Some days I need something I can get on the table rather quickly, and some days I can braise pork shoulders in the oven for a couple of hours,” d’Arabian explains. “That being said, I can relate to needing to put food on my table that is nutritious, but also not very expensive, that still feels good to eat. The magic is when you can find creative ways to stretch your dollar.”
To meet those goals, d’Arabian suggests the following:
* Incorporate “bean night” into weekly menu planning. No actual beans needed! In the d’Arabian household, it means an inexpensive protein is the centerpiece of the meal. Quiche, omelets or whole-grain pasta dishes are among d’Arabian’s repertoire of “bean night” recipes.
* Track the cost of your “go-to” recipes and family favorites. Then you know when you are getting a deal on items you use most often. By knowing when frequently used items are a good price and purchasing them when they are on sale, you will not overpay.
* Stock up on loss leaders. One cut of meat typically will be on sale each week at 50 to 70 percent off to draw customers into the store. “If you do nothing else, you should buy meat when it is the loss leader,” d’Arabian says. “Meats rotate. Chicken breasts go on loss leader sale about every six weeks.”
* Get a “free” pound of ground beef. Repackage a five-pound package of ground beef into six almost-one-pound portions. “Each pound is a little bit shy, but no one ever notices and I get one free pound of ground beef,” d’Arabian says.
Blogger Jana Madsen became “Mrs. Practical” when she abandoned her 60-hour-per-week career because it was extracting too much of a toll on her family life. When the recession made finding another full-time job difficult, she and her husband decided to “live as lean as we possibly could.” Madsen periodically blogs about ways to spend less and enjoy life more at www.mrspracticalsguide.blogspot.com.
“It was a matter of wanting to save money but not really living like we were poor,” Madsen says. “Life became an experiment to see where we could cut costs without diminishing the quality of our lives together and the lives of our children,” she says.
Madsen offers tips for making the most of your food dollars:
* Take advantage of price matching. Madsen says many grocery stores will honor other retailer’s print advertised prices by matching the price at check-out or at the customer service counter. “A lot of people will try to shop at three or four stores to get the best deals,” she says. “I don’t have the time to be running all over town, and I don’t feel that is a wise use of my gas either.”
* Turn off your oven. “If you are making five chicken nuggets for your preschooler, don’t fire up your oven. Use your toaster oven,” Madsen says.
* Buy your juice in the freezer section. “You can save 40 or 50 cents every time you shop by switching to frozen concentrate,” she says.
* Extend the life of perishable items. Sandwich bread, hoagie buns and hamburger rolls freeze beautifully. Rolling herbs in a damp paper towel before placing them in a zippered plastic bag dramatically extends their refrigerator shelf life.
* Use foods past their prime. Turn stale bread into breadcrumbs for baked chicken; bake banana bread with overly ripe bananas.
Chef Tom Douglas owns five Seattle restaurants, a retail bakery and a catering business, and is the author of three cookbooks. He advises home chefs to take a page out of the professional chef’s playbook.
“I think some people shop with the ‘If it costs more, it must be better’ attitude; and vice versa: It must be cheaper if it costs less,” Douglas says. “That’s the wrong way to start at the grocery store. It’s certainly not how we start in the restaurant. For the home cook, it is more about getting the most flavor, the most tenderness for your buck.”
Here’s what Douglas recommends to get the most flavor at the best value:
* Rethink the cuts of meat you purchase. Baby back ribs cost between $4 and $7 per pound, but Douglas says pork shoulder or pork butt is more flavorful and costs 99 cents to $1.50 per pound. “If you were to buy pork shoulder or pork butt, you get all the things that were between those nice baby backs, but you are not paying for the bone.”
* Learn how to braise meats. Skirt steaks and hanger steaks are inexpensive cuts of beef that can be made tender by searing the meat and then slowly cooking it in moist heat. “Braising is a beautiful technique that allows you to buy cheaper cuts,” Douglas says.
* Discover individually quick frozen foods. Berries, peaches and grilled corn on the cob all can be bought in season when the produce is at its cheapest and best, and individually quick-frozen. “At the height of the corn season, we buy extra corn. We grill it and take it off the stalk, and now we’ve got a bag of cut corn in the freezer that is nice and smoky and delicious and sweet,” Douglas says. “When you get out the Jiffy corn bread mix because you want something quick, add four tablespoons of this charcoal grilled cut corn and the muffins are transformed.”
* Search for No. 2-rated produce at food stands. No. 2 rated produce has equal taste but a less attractive appearance. “A No. 1 shiitake mushroom, while it looks beautiful, can range anywhere from $12.99 to $15.99 at any grocery in the city,” he says. “A No. 2 shiitake mushroom is $3.95. It’s the same mushroom. Once I’ve cut them up and cooked them, you couldn’t tell it was a No. 1 or No. 2.”
Andrea Downing Peck is a freelance writer who never likes to pay full price for anything. She writes frequently about personal finance and military family life.