Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thriving At Rock Bottom: Dirt Cheap Meals Part I

     July is not a good month to be planning. 

     Hot weather. It's jaw-droppingly hot around here. Unless we stay inside (thank you, swamp cooler), we're sweating and panting within 30 min. or so. Even the dogs ask to stay inside -- unusual for Charley, especially.
     Neither of us feels particularly ambitious. The Brick has been looking up places to rent in Panama, and scoping out beaches for a possible trip to Ecuador, and a month of language school. (Not that we're headed there yet -- but it's a future possibility.) He also enjoys the latest political harangues, which have been plenty lately. 
     I hang out on 'thrifty' type websites, looking for tips. (Or reading about other people's cinnamon rolls and/or chickens.) I also troll for bargains, both at our local thrift stores (a big Goodwill just opened here), and online. Got some, too. A black cashmere Jos. A Bank sweater from Goodwill:  $4.24.  Big packages of Bob's Red Mill 'Mighty Good'  -- some of the best hot cereal ever made. (My Amazon price was very close to half of this one.) Gumball slot machines - Christmas presents for my piano students and our niece and nephew. An Amazon Warehouse Deal at $2 each, plus free shipping.
     The only problem: buying bargains (or putting down a deposit for vacations -- or language school) means putting out money. Money you may not have at the moment... especially when you have to renew your passports ($120 each - ouch), pay for a root canal (I just had two - both on the same tooth), and the bill envelopes for the month are knocking ominously at the front door. 

You may be in a different situation -- where medical costs or unemployment don't let you even think about luxuries. Heck, you have enough trouble covering your regular expenses. If you could only put aside $20, $50 or $100 every month into an emergency fund, it would make life easier. 

Time to save where you can -- and one of the best areas to do it in is groceries.

If you have to (note that phrase), you can live on less than $1.50 per person a day. (This lady has been doing it for years.) But it means that instead of buying whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it, you'll have to plan. Doing this month by month is easiest.

First:   How much can you spend?

Next:  How many people are you feeding?   
           (Special diets, allergies and food preferences taken into account here, as well)

Finally:  Do you have birthdays or holiday celebrations you need to cover?

For accounting purposes, we'll be figuring at $1.50 daily x 28 days = $42.00 for each person you feed.  The Brick and myself make two, so I'll be factoring at $84.  (Yes, that sounds skimpy -- but remember: you're 'flat broke' this month, so the money can be used somewhere else. More about this in Part II.)

Just don't think about eating ME!


     *Know what you've got.  A regular check of your refrigerator, pantry and freezer shelves keeps food from going bad or freezer-burned. (A lot of 'out-of-date' products are actually still good to eat for some months -- check before you throw them out.)

     *Some foods keep well and cost less.  I always have at least a few packages, jars or cans of:
    --dry beans and peas (especially pinto, Northern, kidney, plus black-eyed peas and split peas)
    --peanut butter
    --flour, sugar and baking supplies
    -- tuna (but only if it's 2 for a buck) or another kind of meat (currently chicken and corned beef)
    --tortilla chips (good for snacking, nachos and padding out soup)
    -- cocoa and chocolate chips (the Brick is a sucker for chocolate chips, brownies and hot chocolate)
    -- rice, spaghetti (usually angel hair, because it cooks faster) and macaroni
    --a box or two of macaroni and cheese, canned beef stew (Dinty Moore, if we're feeling flush, served over rice or biscuits) and corned beef hash  (for camping and hurryup meals)
    -- canned fruit (usually peaches, pears or mandarin oranges)
    -- soup (especially Campbells' chicken noodle, as well as Chunky soups, which can also top rice)
    --canned tomatoes, jarred salsa and/or spaghetti sauce (good for cold dreary winter days)
    --something dessert-y: my staple is chocolate-covered grahams from the dollar store, or multi-packs of small candy bars. The Brick has a sweet tooth. (Okay, me too.)
    -- something exotic, be it Indian curry sauce, Vietnamese chili paste or German lebkuchen (for when you just need Something Different)
    --dried or shelf-stable milk and eggs (or egg whites) --
                                  good for when you run out, or the world ends.

     I also keep on hand:
    -- milk (whole milk, thinned with water 50/50)
    --eggs and cheese (cheddar and mozzarella -- swiss when I can find it cheap)
    --butter (taste is superior - use less if need be)
    --corn and flour tortillas (cheaper than bread here in Colorado, and just as good)
    --bread  (homemade, free from our local thrift shop, or marked down from the discount outlet)
    -- jam (for the Brick, but in baked goods -- especially tarts and Sachertorte)
    -- onions, garlic or leeks (onions dried, or in a large bag -- leeks sliced, in the freezer)
    --any produce or fruit currently in season

    I was storing potatoes, but have held back lately because of the carbs issue -- we're trying to stick more to protein, veggies and fruit. (That was before I heard about the all-potato diet. Hmmm.)
    Here's another person's list for added inspiration. Now make up your own!
         Stock up when these items are on sale; replenish sparingly until then.

     *What's cheap locally?  In our neck of the woods, it's trout, potatoes -- and in the summer, sweet corn, green beans, peaches and Rocky Ford melons. In the fall, it's potatoes, pumpkins and green chilies. (Hatch green chilies, imported from New Mexico) The Brick still fantasizes about the buckets of shrimp his mom bought at water's edge in North Carolina, and the crabs they caught off the dock, using chicken necks. Alas, those times are gone here in the High Desert, as well as the Great Lakes salmon I used to gorge on in Michigan.
      Whatever's plentiful in your area should be plentiful on your menu, too. 
      For one thing, it will cost less -- but it will also be fresher.

     *Cook it yourself.  Readymade food is easy...but rarely cheap. That also means baking your own bread and birthday cakes. (No doubt I'll be doing a Sachertorte or two for a girlie: Daughters #1 and #2 have early August birthdays within five days of each other.) Grill outdoors (cook double what you need), or use the crockpot. Double your recipes -- you'll have extra for the freezer or refrigerator. It's no fun to cook in hot weather.  (Iced coffee and smoothies come in handy too, use leftovers and take only a minute or two to make.)

     *Include dishes that make good use of bits and pieces. Pasta primavera -- spaghetti with cheese and every vegetable you can think of, chopped fine. (Add a handful of chopped bacon or ham, stir in an egg and you've got pasta carbonara, instead.) Even canned soups benefit from that last spoonful of peas or corn -- and homemade soups shine. A little cheese or chopped spinach on scrambled eggs, or even sprinkled inside a simple baked potato, gives it added class -- and flavor. (Not to mention staying power in your stomach. Protein is a good thing, in this case.) Stews, soups, pizza and casseroles are all excellent candidates for saving: search for recipes, using the specific items you have available. (Or check out my companion blog, Holiday Goodies -- you'll find plenty of budget recipes, especially around April Tax Day. I wonder why??)

     *Don't waste a thing. Bread going stale is just fine for French toast, bread pudding or grilled cheese sandwiches. Leftovers can be stirred into the dishes above, used for quick lunches, or featured at a 'dinner buffet.' Besides their other uses, bits and pieces can rev up a salad or be used as an accent. You shouldn't be throwing away a thing.
     Unless you've got chickens, that is.

I resemble that remark!
     *Buy (or use) just a little.  A few mushrooms, sliced thin on a pizza, or a tomato layered into a sandwich give your food a less 'make do' feeling, and make it more substantial.
Two surprising items for us:  spray whipped cream (lasts months longer than whipped topping tubs) and shelf-stable cooked bacon. (Hormel's from Sam's Club, so far.) A bit of these 'luxuries' keeps us from feeling deprived.
    Remember: you're not economizing because you have to -- you're doing it because it's smart. 

     *Eat seasonally.  When veggies or fruit are in season and sale-priced, your family should be feasting on them. If you can, buy a little extra and slice them up for the freezer -- even a few bags will help in fall and winter meals. (Yes, you should grow your own garden -- but it's too late to consider that now in most areas, unless you're planting greens. Maybe next year.)

    *Take advantage of discount opportunities.  Dollar stores, discount outlets (like our beloved Friday/Saturday store) international markets (Hispanic, Chinese and Vietnamese, primarily, in Denver) and discount groceries (Aldi's, for example) all fall into this category.

     *Pay close attention to sale ads, and stock up only when you see a GREAT price.  Our local Safeway and King Soopers ads have been pretty barren for the past few weeks -- until magically, both boneless chicken breasts and boneless pork loin are $1.49/pound.  I haven't seen chicken at that price for a few years, and it's close to the lowest for pork loin, as well. I'd be a fool not to buy five pounds or so, grill some (see above) and stash the rest in the freezer.
     Tortilla chips (Doritos, at $1.49) and strawberries ($1.25/lb, probably the last of the season) are also on sale. They'll go into the cart, along with whatever looks good in the marked-down bins.

Tomorrow:  Dirt Cheap Meals  Part II   (Update: it's up! Come on over.)
    Now you've got it -- What do you do with it?

UPDATE:  Part III's up, too -- stop by here.

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