Prepare meals from basic ingredients. Supermarkets charge a lot of money for convenience. Small amounts of food are packaged in large containers. Buy basic foods — meats, dairy, vegetables, grains, beans, etc. — instead of packaged and frozen meals and prepared products. If your grandmother doesn’t recognize the ingredients, it’s not food.
Plan your meals and your snacks. Don’t leave anything to chance. Plan every meal and every snack for whatever shopping cycle you are on. By planning meals, you can avoid unnecessary expenses associated with too much eating out.
Plan your meals around vegetables, grains/beans, and dairy. Get to the meat last. Most people start their meal planning by deciding on the meat. This ends up making a more expensive meal. Go meatless two days a week – Fridays were always the traditional meatless day, and lately people have been talking about “Meatless Monday”.
Soups, stews, casseroles, and other “one pot meals” are frugal savory treats that your family will love. The combination of textures, tastes, and aromas will create meals packed with nutrition that people will want to eat. For example, when I make a spaghetti sauce, I don’t just add meat. I add shredded vegetables of all kinds. Carrots and summer squash are particularly great additions. I even do a spaghetti sauce with all veggies and no meat. People are often surprised to find there is no meat in the sauce, because the shredded vegetables have a texture similar to meat and the long-simmering process melds the flavors and adds a hint of smokiness that can only be found on the tables of villages in rural Italy. The finest restaurants in Oklahoma City won’t have a spaghetti sauce of this quality.
It is better to eat less meat, but to eat better meat, than it is to eat more meat, that isn’t so good, because it costs less money. Over the long term, you will pay more money because of the health problems caused by the poor food. Just one little stent in an artery could cost somebody tens of thousands of dollars.
Portion control is critical! The more food is on the table, the more people will eat so be smart about how much food you put on the table. If your food money is limited, no meat portion should be more than four ounces. Even if it’s not limited, stick with the four ounce portion except perhaps for major feasts/holidays. With many “one pot” or stir-fried meals, one or two ounces of meat per person is plenty. For example, most recipes for Shepherd’s Pie would say “One pound of hamburger.” But if you are feeding four, a half pound is plenty. I think you’d find that a quarter pound of hamburger would make a very tasty Shepherd’s Pie, if combined with some home-made beef stock as the basis of the gravy. How does this work out in practice? Four ounces of meat, five days per week, for a family of four, would be about 20 pounds of meat per month. If it was all ground meat, that would be about $140(including sales tax and coop charges), or $1.75/person per “meat eating day”. Whole chickens start at about $3.19/pound, tax and coop charge included, so it is less expensive. Chicken thighs, legs, and wings start at around $2.16/pound, tax and coop charge included. If you ate half beef and half chicken, you would need 10 pounds of ground meat and 10 pounds of chicken, maybe three chickens. That would result in an average cost per meat day of $1.25/person or $5/day.
Debone chicken before serving. Don’t serve individual pieces like breasts and thighs except I suppose for the wings. Local chicken costs more than the supermarket birds because the local farms humanely treat their flocks. Use it wisely. Allow for a two to four ounce portion. Use all of the meat, including the skin. (I am one of those who say “the skin is the best part”.) Fried chicken is fine, but fry deboned chicken portions instead of whole pieces. Return the bones to a pot and make stock with it.
Make your own stock with soup bones. This flavored broth will add a lot of taste, nutrition, and quality to your meals.Soup bones start at about $1.16 in the coop, including tax and coop charges. You can make four quarts of stock with 2 pounds of soup bones, 3/4 pound of onions, and a quarter pound each of celery and carrots. It will cost you about a quarter a cup, even if you shop the Coop for the bones and get the onions, carrots, and celery from the organic department at Homeland (regionally owned at least) or Buy for Less. Make more than you need and freeze it for future use. A pint of broth, thickened with corn starch or flour, makes a very tasty gravy. After you make stock, save the meat for casseroles or make “deviled beef” for sandwiches.
Save all fat from local meats. When I finish cooking meat from local farmers, there may be some fat left in the pan. If I am not using that to make a gravy or sauce, or to fry veggies, then I pour it into a mason jar, which I keep in the refrigerator. I mixed different kinds of fats, mostly beef and pork, in the jar. Then, if I need a bit of flavor and fat, I have it right there in the refrigerator. Biscuits and gravy for breakfast, but you are out of sausage and have no bacon? Not a problem, dip into the fat jar in the refrigerator for two tablespoons of fat per cup of gravy
Freeze cooked meats in meal-sized portions. When I started the long and still-not-finished-process of de-plasticizing my kitchen, I quit using baggies in the freezer and began using wide mouth half pint, pint, and quart jars. Be sure to label anything that goes in the freezer!
Don’t waste food. Work less, eat better, by planning to use leftovers. Keep an eye on your refrigerator. If you don’t use leftovers within a day, scoop ’em into a jar, put the lid on and freeze them. Don’t use our glorious local foods to conduct any unauthorized scientific experiments featuring bright colored molds in your family refrigerator! If you decide to eat it the next day, fine, defrost it. But don’t let leftovers get old in your refrigerator.
Make your own convenience foods. Pizza pockets and breakfast pockets are great foods but they are quite expensive. They are easy and inexpensive to make, bake, and then freeze for eating later. If you’re making beans, cook more than you need for the next meal, and freeze the rest in meal sized portions for use later. I often have a cook day, where I fry multiple pounds of hamburger, cook multiple chickens, dice and slice veggies, and then store in the refrigerator for eating later that week or freeze for meals further in the future.
Store bought convenience can be expensive. I am a busy guy. I have a full time job, I am president of this Cooperative, in charge of a food charity, do some gardening, and have a life. I don’t always want to spend hours in the kitchen when I get home after a long day of this and that. In such cases, I am happy that I can often just reach in the freezer for this and that and make a quick meal out of what I have prepared to later eating. Store-bought convenience is more expensive than the grass fed beef in the Coop! The quality isn’t so good, and many of the ingredients are not pronounceable by normal people. Home-made convenience, on the other hand, is a value priced activity that makes you money in the form of money you no longer have to spend for cheap trash pesticide and herbicide drenched GMO’d food from the supermarket.
Work, Skills, Practice. Yes, all this takes some work and it takes skills and practice. Your first pie crust will take a lot more time to make than your 100th pie crust. You may have watched your grandmother make biscuits without measuring ingredients. If you bake biscuits as often as she baked biscuits, you’ll get there too, but in the meantime, use the measuring utensils. A learning curve will kick in and you will get better and more efficient at preparing good meals from quality ingredients that fit within your frugal budget.