Monday, September 8, 2008

Food for Thought: Stretching, Stretching, Stretching!

So tell me. How many of you are being extra-creative with meals these days to stretch your food budget? Until the last couple of months, it was still fairly easy for me--but lately it's been more of an effort.

I'm not one of those people who is comfortable with the same old thing. In our parents' and grandparents' days, it was typical to assign a particular meal to a day of the week.

Monday - Fried Bologna, Boiled Peas, Mashed Potatoes
Tuesday - Meat Loaf, Green Beans, Baked Potatoes
Wednesday - Tuna Casserole
Thursday - Spaghetti and Meat Sauce
Friday - Chicken and Rice

Can you imagine? I remember my ex-husband telling me that he grew up just this way. I was horrified then and am equally horrified now. Not that there's anything wrong with this method, or any of these meals--not at all. It's the routine of it that would send me to an institution. I need variety. I need spice. I need excitement.

As the W household gets a bit leaner, I'm forced to be even more creative. With recent unhappy expenses this week, my budget was even tighter.

I've read a number of suggestions from various frugal living sources. Many suggest meatless days; others sing the virtues of TVP.*

Personally, I find that keeping a close inventory on pantry items and frozen products is a necessity; reviewing weekly ads then give me a guide toward planning a menu.

I plan our menu in two-week increments. I like to keep some flexibility, however--what if we just don't WANT chicken on Tuesday? So I like to move things around according to what my mouth wants, but with an eye toward using things like lettuce before it's ready for the bin.

I also plan in any additional food requirements--for example, a bring-a-dish at Mr.W's job, or a pot luck at church. I also try to work in some of those recipes I want to try, and I annotate any new dishes or meals that I can photograph and share with you.

There are also some items that I've had to drop. My morning affair with soy milk has ended, to be replaced by a morning latte made at home.** No more canisters of fancy prunes for snacking, either, though I've been pouring through recipes in search of snacks that I can make with groceries that I have on-hand.

What do you cook/eat during times like these? What are your grocery budget-maximizing strategies?

Edited Note: I got an email today from The Food Network with this link to some budget-friendly meal videos. I've seen two so far and they look good.

*TVP is Texturized Vegetable Protein, a soy product sold in dry form that, when rehydrated with water or broth has the texture of ground meat. TVP can be mixed into ground meat as a 'stretcher' without detection. I tried it for myself, using beef broth for rehydrating. It was indistinguishable from ground beef in the ragu I created. However I felt very guilty for sneaking this particular element into Mr.W's diet--somehow I felt that I'd gone too far.

**Hello, caffeine! I'm not a big fan of coffee, but a sweet cup of joe with lots of frothed milk is something that I previously enjoyed only occasionally. To froth milk at home, simply heat it in a high-sided container in the microwave 30 seconds at a time until it's hot--do not scald. (Timing depends on the amount you want to froth--for 1 cup whole milk I usually go 1-1/2 minutes.) Then use an immersion blender to froth up the milk. You can flavor your milk foam with vanilla extract, maple syrup, or drink syrups commonly found in the coffee aisle of the grocery store. It's also delicious blended with a strong cup of masala chai tea.


Mary said...

I stretch my budget with dried legumes, weekly menu plans, and making meals like roasted chicken that can be recycled into several meals (chicken salad, chicken soup).
Please be careful about adding TVP to stretch ground meat if you're taking a dish to a potluck. There are a bunch of people like myself who are soy intollerant. Soy protein makes us sick, similar to lactose intollerance.

Michele said...

It's funny how I have one mindset when I am in a bar or a restaurant and one mindset when I am in the grocery store.

In the cafe, 3 bucks for a latte seems like a perfectly reasonable expense. But when I am in the grocery store I am looking at all the different coffees and comparing prices, and then reluctant to spend 7 bucks on a jar of instant coffee...of course, I spend that much in two mornings at the cafe, anyway, but it's like a totally different mentality takes hold.

I stretch my meals by keeping lots of different noodles and broths in the cupboard. And I keep eggs on hand for extra protein. That way I only need a little bit of leftovers from dinner to make soup noodles for lunch.

Amanda said...

Mary--love the legumes recommendation. I, too, use them often. And rest assured, I would NEVER serve hidden soy to guests or bring it to a potluck.

Michele--I think you should do a pictoral tutorial on making good soup noodles. You know, with step-by-step photos & instructions. :P

Lulu said...

Fried bologna? Haha! My dad used to cook that all the time! He has high cholesterol now, so no more fried bologna for him. Hmm...I wonder how he developed high cholesterol?

Amanda said...

You know, lulu, my cholesterol was fine until I moved to Atlanta and started eating more fast food. Then it skyrocketed--mmm, Krystals. And Chick-fil-A. Oh, Lordy, the chick-fil-a. I wish they'd open one up here. My cholesterol doesn't, though.

So it might not have been the fried bologna. I won't accept that it was fried bologna, because I love pacman sandwiches!

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