Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cooking at Home: How to Feed A Family Well on $___ a Month

The cost of essentials just keeps rising. To keep up a good standard of living even during tough times we often change our approach. Food prices are expected to climb during the rest of this year. How to avoid an empty larder and keep the pantry full when money is tight? How to keep those boys with hollow legs filled up and keep the lights on at the same time? One way is by stocking up and cooking at home. Make it an adventure! Think of economizing as "vintage living".

During the 1990's, we fed our family of 5 plus the assorted houseguests and friends that three teenaged sons brought home for around $300 per month. I think that would be about $450 a month in today's food dollars. We didn't have a garden, and we didn't receive food stamps. If one does have food stamps and/or a local food bank, there is still a need to make those resources stretch further.

Angel Food Ministries didn't exist at that time, but it is a neat way to save on your food budget and still buy high quality food. AFM is a Christian food ministry that operates on the order of a co-op: everyone qualifies, no applications or limits, and anyone can buy groceries through Angel Food Ministries for about half the usual cost of the items in each month's box.

What we DID have that "saved our bacon" in the food budget, then and now, were:
(1) a commitment to stocking up & eagerness to watch for bargains
(2) a Freezer
(3) a willingness to cook from scratch & eat only homemade meals
(4) a willingness to forego chips, sodas, cookies & other packaged foods

I love to grocery shop. Since I first married, that has been my favorite household task. So I go to all the stores and go up and down every aisle, just looking at things. If I see a bargain on something we use, I buy a lot of it - depending on how well it keeps & where you can store it, sometimes you can buy enough to last a year. I once bought a 50 lb bag of rice. That was a little much. I think I stumped my toes on the cans we stored it in for a couple of years. Ooops.

It's not good to overbuy, but you'll get to a point where you're always nicely stocked up and only have to buy when it's on sale.

For example, Alco recently had canned wild Alaska Salmon with an expiration date of July 2015. We don't use salmon that much so I only bought 5 cans. Had it been canned tuna, I probably would have asked for a whole case. On the other hand, canned evaporated milk does not keep well past its due-date, so I only buy a few cans at a time so that we can be sure to use it up before it expires.

One thing we do use a lot in our cooking is canned mushrooms. We buy the least expensive "stems and pieces" because there is absolutely no difference in the flavor. Big Lots has them right now at 50 cents a can (a savings of about 69 cents each over regular price in the grocery store), with an expiration of April 2012. I bought 20 cans! We're assured of mushrooms til March.

I don't know how families with children survive without a freezer. Ours has always made such a difference for us. I never have to buy meat that isn't an excellent bargain. Tonight, we had a lovely Boston Butt Pork Roast that I bought in July for $1.49 a pound. More than 4 pounds of meat for a little over $6.00. Paul cooked it in the crock pot and it is so tender! The two of us will get 3 or 4 meals from this - & we could stretch it further if needed. Over the next few days, we'll have easy Moo Shu Pork, a catch-all pork fried rice or stir fry, Mexican style in adobo sauce... 

Because we have a freezer, I was able to buy several roasts and put them away. If I had bought one today, not on sale, it would have cost twice as much. I wouldn't've bought a roast at that price, so it's not that I "saved" money so much as that we are able to eat better quality food while staying on a small budget. Here's a link to the USDA's website on safe food freezing practices, including how to save frozen food in case of a power outage. When our freezer is not full of food, we use bags of ice to take up the remaining space & help it operate most efficiently - this reduces electricity use & helps protect against loss in case the power went out.

Eating out is very costly over home cooking, but it is so hard to get off work and still put a meal on the table every night. The freezer saved us during those years because we could cook up meals in advance to pull out and reheat after working all day and having no time to cook. Beans ( I love pintos) freeze great and taste far better than canned. Sauces for pasta, chicken & egg noodles, enchiladas, meat loaf, casseroles, soups and stews...all will make you smile when you pull them out of the freezer for supper. has a special category with hundreds of "Make Ahead" recipes.

Even cooked hamburger patties, grilled chicken, and other chopped cooked meats in the freezer can make it easier to put a casserole or skillet dinner together than to fight traffic getting to & from the fast food joint. With sauces made up in advance, we could have pasta at the drop of a hat. German sausage was also a mainstay for nights we forgot to thaw something.

We also froze things for the boys to nuke in the morning for breakfast.  Paul used to make huge batches of pancakes, sausage patties or bacon, then put portions into baggies for the freezer. Ethan could heat them up and have his breakfast while waiting his turn in the shower.  Ditto with sausage biscuits, banana nut muffins, german sausage tortilla wraps, breakfast tacos ...

Our current freezer is a small, 7.2 cubic feet chest type Frigidaire. These cost between $250-$300. For more encouragement about how a freezer can help your food budget, read the reviews on the small freezers at the Frigidaire site. Lots of ideas for where to keep the freezer and stories about how people use them.

Cooking at home made a difference in more than our budget. We noticed that our tastes changed, and our sons became adventurous eaters. They liked eating healthy. They liked eating at home. Nicolas would make a salad for his after school snack. Ethan was on the swim team, and made ramen noodles when he came in - essential carbs and fats for energy. Canned tuna (in water, they requested), peanut butter sandwiches (no jelly), scrambled eggs in the microwave (lower in fat, they said) gave them protein between meals.

Now that they are adults, they all still cook for themselves and their families. And we all have a lot of nice memories to share about the shopping and cooking and eating we did together when they were growing up.

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