06 May 2011

Budgeting for food

Being charged with a family's food budget may be one of the biggest jobs of running a household. We can wear dirty socks if we must; a bath will be given, no matter when the last time it was scrubbed, and the floors will indeed still make perfect paths for our feet even when dotted with dust bunnies and toast crumbs.

But without those key items in our pantry, we simply cannot cook. For one month I gave it my best shot to spend as little as possible on groceries. I aimed for a $25-a-week budget and missed the mark on all but the first week. What I discovered was that food isn't cheap, and the whole thing just ticked me off. A stop in the dairy aisle alone could easily account for $25 worth of groceries.

I firmly believe I can help cut costs by changing the way I cook and shop, but I'm not willing to do it at the expense of my family's well-being. And that's where I drew the line. Next time I see someone stacking 20 boxes $2 pizzas in their grocery cart, I'm not going to assume they can't cook. Perhaps they can't, but, what I now know is that even though a homemade pizza is more cost effective than the traditional carry-out variety, it isn't cheap to stock a pantry with flour, yeast, cheeses, sauce, meats and veggies.

My revised goal, and one I hope can be more long-term is to spend $75 or less a week. Our family only eats a meal from a restaurant once a week, if at all, and we eat very few prepackaged, processed foods. I think this is doable and still quite frugal when I consider that even if my family ate some of the cheapest fast food for nearly every meal, we'd likely spend more than that in a week.

If you're interested in learning more about building a pantry for this type of cooking, here are a few tips. And I'd love to hear some of yours!
  • If you have a minimally-stocked pantry, try to pick up one or two items a week to add to it. For example, buy a 10-pound bag of flour one week and a few pounds of pasta. You likely won't burn through all of those items in one week, so you will gradually build your stock without spending $100 alone on one trip for pantry basics.
  • Teach yourself to turn to your pantry first instead of cookbooks. It's so frustrating to pick out a recipe only to learn that you are fresh out of the main ingredient. Open the pantry and pick an item to start with. Lots of eggs? Make a scramble, a quiche, egg salad. Pasta a plenty? Toss it into a tomato-based soup, make it a casserole, serve it up with red sauce, toss with mayo and tuna for a quick salad, make a pasta bar for a family full of picky eaters.
  • Be realistic when you shop. You probably have less time than you think to prepare meals, so take shortcuts when you can. If the pre-sliced mushrooms mean the difference of getting dinner on the table without a meltdown or not, and your budget can handle the increased cost, do it. There's no medal of honor out there for slicing all of your own veggies.
  • At the same time, be smart, though. If you buy whole carrots instead of the baby carrots, you could easily shred them, cut them into sticks, slice them for stir-fries, etc. Take your shortcuts elsewhere such as skip the step of peeling carrots and just give them a rinse.
  • Unlike Rachel Ray, my food doesn't come home from the grocery store prepped. But I do find that taking a few minutes to prep things at home when I'm not pressed against the clock for a meal, saves me time later. I shred an entire 2-pound block of cheese and store in an airtight container. I rinse and dry salad greens and store them in an airtight container lined with paper towels. I portion out raw meats and freeze individually, so I'm not forced to use an entire package of pork chops at once.
  • If you really get the hang of this prep business and do much baking, you can easily make up your own mixes of dry ingredients for items such as muffins, quick breads, pancakes, etc. This can save some time and make the task of baking less daunting. I always do this if I have overnight guests or early-morning entertaining.


ellen said...

My must have for using a bunch of random ingredients to make a meal is a cookbook with a legit cross-referenced index. My current fave is The Essential New York Times cookbook. It's the only way to make it through all the random veggies from the CSA.

The cook in her kitchen said...

A CSA bag can be a mishmash of veggies, but what fun it can be to try new things. Great tip about checking out cookbook indexes. Thanks!