How to cook during a recession

Whether it’s called a Recession or a Depression, the economic conditions around the world are depressing and quite frightening. Since this summer, my hard-earned retirement accounts have lost over 30% of their value while continuing to dive lower. While I try not to stress over it, I am looking for ways to tighten spending around the house.

Tough economic times typically force people to explore cooking as it becomes increasingly difficult to eat out very often. New cooks (and some of us experienced ones) are often uncertain how to cut costs when grocery shopping. Here are a few tips on how to maximize your cooking during hard economic times:

Buy bulk goods: say goodbye to pretty packaging

Look for a store offering common pantry goods in bulk. I don’t mean Costco where you buy goods in quantity, but instead a store like Whole Foods which allows you to buy bulk goods in any quantity. You can find all sorts of flours, cereals, beans, dried fruits and nuts in the bulk section. Bulk spices are a great cost saver and buying in bulk typically lowers the price since you aren’t paying for the cost of packaging. The best part is, you can buy just the amount you need.

Cook in bulk: one-pot meals are your friend

It’s often just as easy to make a pot of chili that feeds 4 people as it is to make a pot of chili that feeds 12 people. Maximize your time and ingredients by cooking one-pot meals which can be easily scaled to make a larger quantity. Soups and stews also lend themselves well to using inexpensive cuts of meat, so they can save you money at the meat counter. Make a big batch and store your leftovers in serving-size freezer containers so you can reheat for lunch or a quick dinner.

Be an opportunist: take advantage of sales

Just last week I found whole chickens on sale. I bought two 4-5lb chickens for a little under $7 total. I rubbed them with olive oil, garlic, and rosemary then roasted for 2-3 hours at 350F. Once the chickens cooled, I pulled skinned them and pulled off all the meat. I packaged the meat into six portions and froze for future use. I placed all of the bones and carcass into a stockpot with a chopped large onion, 2 chopped carrots, 2 chopped celery stalks, a teaspoon of peppercorns, and 2 bay leaves. I filled the pot with water and cooked for 2 hours. The resulting chicken stock is amazing and takes advantage of the wonderfully roasted chicken bones. Allow the stock to cool, then strain. I made nearly six quarts of stock and froze for future use. Between the roasted chicken and stock, I have made the most of my $7 investment!

Freeze & preserve: prepare for your future

Well, it’s clear from my the preceding tips that I’m an advocate of freezing meals and other foods for future use. Look for ways that you can take advantage of foods of sale, especially end of season fruits/vegetables or seasonal goods which are at their peak of production. Preserve the bounty by canning vegetables, making jams or marmalades, drying fruits, herbs or meats.

Flour-power: make your own breads

Many meals are accompanied by some sort of carb-laden bread. Bread can be expensive and is inexpensive to make, albeit a little extra work. But, if you eat it more than a few times a week, it will be cost-effective to spend time learning how to make your own bread. I would also suggest exploring the world of bread as it encompasses so many types, some only taking a half hour to make: cornbread, yeast breads, biscuits, naan, etc.

Rediscover the past: make old-fashioned snacks & drinks

Do you remember snacks and drinks before everything came pre-packaged? Life before juice boxes? There are a host of reasons why you should say no to bags of chips (aka crisps), high prices are a good a reason as any. For a fraction of the cost, you can buy a bag of popping corn which I think is a superior snack anyhow. Get creative and dress up your popped corn to give it a 21st century flavor. Or, freeze some grapes or try roasting chickpeas or microwaving your own potato chips!. Wash it all down with a big glass of water or try making your own freshly squeezed juices. Or, make a spicy syrup of fresh ginger, sugar and water. Add a few tablespoons to a glass of ice water for a delicious ginger drink.

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  1. Great post! I do make my own stock, freeze a lot of herbs from the garden, and cook in bulk, but a lot of these tips I could do better at!

  2. Fabulous post Allen!

    My tip – get creative with leftovers and become an expert at frittata!

    I often make frittata for supper on Sunday night where I throw in bits and pieces lurking in the fridge… leftover cold roast or boiled vegies, pasta, herbs, pesto, ham, olives – whatever!

    Tasty, nutritious, cheap and easy!

  3. Some great tips. I know I have certainly seen my food bills rise over the last few months. Having soup one or two nights a week for dinner is another way to save some extra pennies, plus it is healthy and if you bake a loaf of fresh bread to go with it a very satisfying and dirt cheap meal!

  4. Great post Allen. There are a couple of things there that I need to start doing, like freezing food. My freezer is the mysterious part of my fridge that I only use for ice cream. Hehe. I would also add to hunt for coupons. I don’t use them very often because most coupons are for foods I never buy, but every once in a while I find some for food I buy all the time.

  5. Making our own bread has been a huge cost saver.

    The other thing is to make a weekly menu & shopping list. That way we can plan to use ingredients in more than one dish so there is no waste. The list also keeps us from buying a lot of extras while we are at the store. Plus having the food to cook dinner each night on hand means we are less likely to eat out.

  6. Peter G: Thank you!

    Kalyn: I haven’t tried freezing herbs but will have to give it a try. Planting your own herbs is a great tip though — mine somehow survive even though I don’t have a green thumb!

    Christie@Fig&Cherry: Great tip! Frittata is a perfect way to use up odd bits of food to make a delicious meal.

    Sylvie: Soup is a great way to stretch a dollar!

    Ben: Only ice cream in your freezer? Hmmm, I think we need to clean out that freezer and stock it with all sorts of healthy goodies :-)

    Christie: Packing your own lunch is one of the best ways to save money.

    Kat: Ahhh, yes — planning! Every week when I see your menu I am so impressed with your planning skills :-) You are so right though, planning for the week ahead will help you to make sure you don’t buy too much and won’t buy things that you won’t use to their fullest.

    Great tips everyone, keep ’em coming!

  7. We do the same thing with chickens, plus some of the meat scraps end up in the dog’s dish, so that saves a few pennies more.

    We are definitely the kings of leftovers. With a little creativity and flair, there’s practically nothing that can’t be converted into a pasta sauce, salad or soup. Just last week I made empty-the-fridge salad, as we had a random assortment of vegetables that needed to be used up. And good it was!

  8. Wonderful start! To continue:

    Read some of the cookbooks from the 30’s & 40’s when they were really strapped for cash. There are some very inventive ways to stretch your food:

    1. put fillers in ground meat (sausage, hamburg, ground anything). You can use bread crumbs (save stale bread, dry it and crumb it in your food processor or blender), crumbs from any cereal (again, make the crumbs in the processor or blender), etc. If the resulting combination is too dry, add an egg.

    2. Use pasta, dried beans, barley, rice, etc. Carbs fill people up, are relatively cheap, and these are good for you. Like chili? Oops – sis & family just dropped in? Add elbow macaroni to the chili and you can double the servings without losing taste.

    3. Gravy. Come on – it’s not that hard! Learn how to make a basic cream sauce and you can make any kind of gravy you want. Use the same basic cream sauce for macaroni & cheese or scalloped potatoes.

    In short – if you can make it with staples from the kitchen, don’t even think of buying it! That goes for everything from seasoning mixes to biscuits to frozen entrees. The only things I buy frozen are plain (not sauced or seasoned) vegetables and fruit, as well as whipped topping & ice cream.

  9. Those are great tips! I just need to use them more often.

    One thing I am working on doing is clipping coupons for items we always use, then I wait for them to go on sale to get them at the lowest price possible… somtimes you can get staples for next to nothing if you watch closely.

    Also, if you have more than one grocery store within a short distance it’s worth it to check each store’s sales and shop more than one store. Of course, if they are too far away the gas cost will outweigh the savings.

  10. I have become a big fan of the food saver… That little machine is amazing – I buy in bulk split it up and use my food savor and off to the freezer stuff goes.

    Great tips thanks for taking the time to put these ideas out to the peoples :)

  11. i allow myself ONE grocery shopping day and i buy my stuff then and no other time. so this forces me to make a list of must haves, i also figure out which store/grocery will have the majority of the things i have on the list. if i can consolidate on location, then it will alleviate the gas/mileage thing. i also try to do the farmer’s market because the produce are fresher, and much cheaper. i bought a massive butternut squash once for $1 whereas at Safeway, it would’ve cost 3x that.

  12. 1. you mentioned sales, but look for manager specials – the meats that will be past their due date “tomorrow” – freeze ’em and use them later.

    2. buy whole chickens and cut them up instead of buying them cut and (gasp!) buying them deboned and deskinned. this will cost you about $4 more a pound!

    3. don’t be afraid to cook whole pork shoulders or boston butts – a great cut of pork that requires low and slow cooking. it’s cheap and it’s worth the time (with little effort).

    4. pasta is still cheap! well, cheaper than many other things.

    5. make things with dried beans/lentils – dried beans are about $1 per pound. there is so much you can do with them.

    6. don’t be afraid to eat dirt and drink urine! that one was a joke, folks. just a joke!

  13. I’m probably the worst person to chime into this discussion…especially as I’m getting into cheese making (not very cost-effective without your own barnyard animals), but here’s what I think is important as costs continue to rise:

    Buy in season. If you have the opportunity to shop at farmers’ markets, the vendors need to sell fresh produce immediately or it goes to waste. Ask if they’ll give you a discount if you buy a larger quantity. You could then split the take home with neighbors or, if you have the time and inclination, preserve the produce for winter and early spring.

    Buy quality. There’s no sense in buying a tomato in January with diminished nutritional qualities and no taste. It goes hand in hand with buying in season.

    Cook with lots of love and flavor. Taking time to make something from scratch in many cases is cheaper and tastes better than a boxed/canned variety. You control what goes in. I’m starting to find that the more flavor a dish has, the more I savor what I’m eating and the less I need of it. Sometimes anyway.

    I’m cutting back on the restaurant spending and making my lunches more often, not only as a way to cut my food costs, but I’m also finding this helps keep my heartburn under control. Plus, I have at least a thousand (no joke) recipes I keep meaning to try.

  14. These are great tips. The way we save money is to rarely eat out. I do a lot of one pot meals like you mentioned.

    I love your suggestion to rediscover the past. There are so many basic, healthy recipes out there that we often don’t use anymore. We also set a pretty strict grocery budget each month and stick to it. Knowing how much I have to spend keeps me from making unnecessary purchases.

  15. I’m lucky enough to have an elderly neighbour who spends all his time either fishing for trout or growing fresh vegetables. So I get all the benefits! Aside from receiving regular food parcels, I also organise the contents of our fridge so that everything that needs eating first sits on the top shelf, while newly bought food sits on the second shelf. I check everything regularly and make the husband cook things in the right order, so nothing ever goes to waste. Bit obsessive, but it works…

  16. Great tips. My only suggestion is to try to use all the parts of the food. Make homemade chicken stock from that leftover chicken. It’s amazing how far food can go when you focus on reducing waste.

  17. I’m a gardner in the city, our back yard backs up to a major highway. I’m saying this because if I can garden anyone can. My best crop the last two years has been butternut squash. It last for months on the counter. I’ve been canning and freezing all summer. Soups are great for using all my goodies that I’ve preserved and by adding rice I can really bulk them up.

  18. We think a lot alike when eating on a tight budget and I’ve invested in a quality juicer and food dehydrater. With the juicer you can make your own fresh nut butters, like pistachio butter, raw or toasted. You can’t get that at Trader Joe’s. You also use it in conjuntion with the drier, making snacks, dried tomatoes, fruit leather and soup ingredient and since the drier is temperature controlled, all the enzymes and vitamin are stil in your homemade crackers. Check out ” Green Star 3000″
    And ” Excalibur” Food Dehydrater. Plus one more thing . I save all my clean veggie ends and peels and make excellent vegetable broth. I keep all the bits in the freezer until the bag is big enough for a pot of broth. With asparagus ends ,Broccoli stalks and carrot ends it fills up fast. I used to throw all that away. Those waxed quarts of broth aren’t as good. Just like using the bones and skin the way you did. I agree with everything else. Bravo! for bringing it up. Hope my suggestions help. Oh! and remember to grow sprouts and herbs too.Luv, Courtney

  19. The other thing I should mention is that this spring I planted 3 heirloom tomato plants in a very small, sunny area – I think I paid $3/plant. I’ve been enjoying freshly picked, vine ripened, heirloom tomatoes and not paying the $6/pound.

  20. Great ideas. I make all of my own bread and have saved tons of money and it is good, too. If you are afraid to make bread, check out the NY Times 10/8/08 for the quick no knead recipe. It is sooo easy and very good.

  21. What a wonderful post this is, Allen. I would add to shop seasonally. Food is generally fresher, and you can catch some good sales. I also see what’s on sale each week and try to plans some meals around those ingredients. I always have a shopping list with me to prevent any impulse buys. I make my own salsas and salad dressings, which are really expensive bottled.

  22. Now and again it’s a fact we get bored even with our own excellent dishes and cuisine. Tap into a friend or neighbor who does cook for their own family. Plan to swap food now and again. Meaning make a pot of delicious soup and give your friend or family a huge portion of it ~ for their meal. They too can make a stew or chili or soup and give you a nice portion of it. That way you are trying new things ~ and don’t have to cook that night. Your friends will savor your Navy Bean soup because it’s something perhaps they just don’t ever make. You will love the Polynesian chicken casserole because you would never think to make it, nor perhaps know how. I always somehow think a salad tastes better when someone else makes it ~ so swap salads perhaps. Same with baking ~ make a double batch of cookies or some bar treat……….give an entire batch to your friends………in turn accept the whole fruit pie they made for you. It can start as just a once a week thing ~ and you can teach children how to cook and the joy of giving and receiving as well. Don’t like to eat leftovers? It’s not a leftover to your food swap buddies ~ and you may just enjoy the spaghetti sauce they’ve “oops” made too much of. Good food needn’t go to waste when you work with friends who appreciate your love expressed as cooking.

  23. Excellent points, Allen.

    I’d also emphasize the importance of menu planning. If done right, it can drastically cut down how much you spend on food.

  24. Great tips! Nutritious, delicious, and you save $$$! I would just add how important it is to shop locally during these hard economic times. It supports your community, it’s environmentally more sustainable, and it encourages diversity.

  25. I try to catch ground meat and pork butts on sale. I take about eight or ten lbs of hamburger and fry it down with some onions, then I add some chicken stock and cook it way down until it is mostly just the meat and onions left. This has a nice intense flavor. I freeze it in one lb bags so when I want to make chili, or sloppy joe’s, tacos, fried rice, spaghetti sauce, etc..I have my meat already to go. This is a great time saver for me and saves us money too.
    With the pork butts, I just cook them until tender, pull it apart into pulled pork and freeze it in meal size containers. When I am ready to make Pulled pork sandwiches, Bar b Q sandwiches, pork and rice, or pork and noodles, etc,,I have the job half done. I can catch these on sale for eighty eight cents a lb sometimes and this saves a lot of money and a lot of time. It is just so comforting to know I have this meat all ready to go. .

  26. All great ideas. Be frugal and we’ll all survive this economy.

    Reward yourself once in a while for your all you’re saving. If you cook at home, you can afford to spoil yourself now and then. Enjoy.

  27. Eat a meatless meal a couple times a week. Meat is what costs the most in meals. Growing your own vegies, fruits n herbs worked well for me.

  28. My mom is QUEEN of budget food, even though she has no more need.She still challenges herself to make dinner for less than a dollar per person. Some tips I got from her :
    If your cheese has dried out at the end, cut off the piece and put it in a freezer bag in the freezer. When you’ve collected enough make mac and cheese – once you melt it you can’t tell.
    Steal a Tbsp of veggies that you’ve cooked for dinner every day. Place it in a freezer bag. You won’t notice the 1 Tbsp missing. At the end of the week you have enough for veggie soup.
    Save all the things like ends of celery, onion skins (give beautiful colour), that you normally discard when preparing vegetables. Freeze and use them to flavour stock when you have chicken or turkey bones. They give a rich, complex flavour to stock. You can also make veggie stock.
    Stale bread can be used for croutons and breadcrumbs.Also for bread pudding and breakfast puddings.
    Dried up, soggy or broken cookies can be ground up and used to line bottom of fruit pies to keep crust from getting soggy.
    Leftover cake can be used in cake pudding.
    Dried out chocolates can be melted and used as ice cream topping.
    Leftover gravy is a good addition to soups, stews and sauces.
    Leftover wine can be used in sauces or Jeannette Seaver’s incredible wine tart.
    If fruit has a spot, just cut around it and use the good pieces in crumbles, cobblers, muffins or stuffings.
    If a banana is overripe use in banana bread or muffins or freeze in chunks and use to make smoothies. It acts like ice cream.
    Hope some of this makes you rethink what you throw out!

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