Making Something Out of Nothing

by Beth · 19 comments

in Frugal Food

My husband and I generally see eye-to-eye when it comes to money, but we have very different ideas about shopping for food.  Since I do the cooking, I find it’s easier for me to grocery shop as well-after all, I’m the one who’s going to be preparing the food, so I have a head start on meal planning if I choose what we buy.

But the fact that I’m responsible for both shopping and cooking means that when my husband comes home and looks in the fridge, he will often say something to the effect of, “I thought you were going to the grocery store.  Why don’t we have anything to eat?”   To him, having done the weekly shop should equal ready-to-munch goodies in the fridge.

For the frugal food shopper, that isn’t usually the case.  We have to look beyond the prepared and convenience foods to see the bigger picture-how to make something healthy and delicious out of less expensive raw ingredients.   And in these times of soaring food prices, we also have to think about how to get the most bang for our grocery buck.

Some of my regular go-to foods are ones that can serve multiple times in the same week of menus.  For example, if I buy a jumbo bag of carrots I can use them for a starter chopped up into sticks, as an add-in for soups and casseroles either sliced or puréed, and as a simple side dish for lunch or dinner.  One item that I use almost every other meal is crème fraîche, which you could substitute with sour cream if it’s not readily available to you.  It’s great for making quick sauces as it adapts to whatever flavors you add to it.  My kids are big fans of beans (especially chick peas and kidney beans) which can be stored for a longer period of time than fresh meats.

And just as I know what foods work for us, I know which ones usually don’t.  This includes things like a head of lettuce, which I’ll use once for salad and let sit until it’s brown and limp in the veggie keeper.  I also have to be careful about things like wheat germ and rolled oats, which I’ll buy with all good intentions of eating on a regular basis and then forget about at the back of a cupboard until they’re out of date.

Of course, it takes thinking like a cook to see the possibilities in the raw materials we bring home from the grocery store.  It’s something I’m getting better at the more I practice, but I’m still learning how to shop frugally for food.  What about you?  What are your go-to frugal foods?  How to you make the most of your food budget dollars?


1 Meg March 28, 2010

My husband and I buy a lot of dry stuff that we keep on hand, stuff like rice, black beans, quinoa, chickpeas, oatmeal, etc. Those things are usually really cheap, especially when we get them from the bulk bins of our local grocery store. Then we add in a lot of fresh fruits and veggies, mostly from the local farmers’ market. It’s not always the absolute cheapest stuff we could eat, but buying local, in-season produce gets us a lot of bang for our buck taste-wise and health-wise.

We do buy some premade/processed stuff, like local bread, tortilla chips, some condiments and some sweet treats, but we’ve been trying to make more stuff ourselves. We also try to snack on fresh fruit and nuts instead of buying a lot of processed snacks.

It’s still a balance, though, and we’ve found it important to keep some stuff on hand that doesn’t need a lot of prep for when we are pressed for time or low on energy. As an occasional option it’s well worth the money and keeps us from making worse decisions when we get hungry.

2 Kelly March 31, 2010

I’m with Meg- we have a lot of dried foods on hand. I also try to cook large batches and freeze when I make things that take a long prep time (like beans), so that I have the convenience factor as well as the frugal factor. But I’m with Beth too- lettuce just rots in my fridge!

We eat a lot of potatoes- I can buy a five pound bag every week, easily. Another favorite around here is sliced ham and cheese- I buy ham on sale and freeze it, and buy big blocks of cheese.

3 Nancy March 31, 2010

I've found that with 2 teenage girls in our house who have very busy schedules, it's important to have a balance between ready-to-eat foods and basics that require a bit of preparation. Ready-to-eat at our house means string cheese, bananas and other easy to grab fruits, baby carrots, yogurt, deli meats and cheese and yes, packaged granola bars. I do make home-baked sweets (cookies, brownies, etc.) that can also be an easy thing to grab for that little bit of sweet as you're on your way out the door.

For foods that require preparation, I always have the following: eggs, salsa, beans (cooked from dried and frozen in 2 c. portions), ground meats and chicken breast, frozen veggies and salad fixings. With salad I have found that if I prepare a large salad as soon as I get home from the grocery store it gets eaten. When the fixings sit in the crisper drawer, they go bad before we have a chance to use them.
.-= Nancy´s last blog plan monday | different schedules version =-.

4 Kelly March 31, 2010

And everyone should take a look at Nancy’s link- speaking of planning meals!

5 Kayla K at Kayla K's Thrifty Ways April 1, 2010

Split pea soup is my go-to frugal food. Carrots and onions have a good shelf life and the soup is quick to make overnight in my slow cooker. 10 minutes of prep on a Sunday night provides me with a week’s worth of lunches.
Peanut butter is my go-to snack. I eat it with celery when I want something salty or apples for something sweet. I don’t bake sweets very often because I have the bad habit of eating them ALL, which destroys the purpose of saving money by baking treats at home. 🙂
.-= Kayla K at Kayla K’s Thrifty Ways´s last blog ..Knitting Washcloths for Self-Help International =-.

6 Kelly April 2, 2010

I love split pea soup! And unlike dishes with beans or lentils, for example, it doesn’t really take that long to make.

7 FindSavings April 1, 2010

Dried foods and larger meals that I can freeze or eat for multiple days. Luckily my 14 month old doesn't voice an opinion either way, but give her time and eventually I will hear "again?"
.-= FindSavings´s last blog ..Aerie – $10 off Aerie convertible bras.. =-.

8 Meg April 1, 2010

Kathy, do you refrigerate your bread? My husband had a hard time eating ours in time until we started refrigerating it. Now it lasts long enough and I haven’t noticed any great difference in quality. Some people freeze their bread, too, but we haven’t needed to.

9 Kelly April 2, 2010

My mom swears by refridgerating her bread. And it’s true, it makes it last longer, but we go through it so quickly there’s almost no point! Plus I think the taste changes, but that could be just me.

10 Kathy W April 1, 2010

My go-to frugal foods are dry goods like couscous, which with a small amount you could feed an army, and whole wheat pastas, which I stock up on every time they're on sale. I've started making my own pasta and pizza sauces, which I make in quantity and then freeze in 1 or 2 cup batches. Lots of my pasta dishes are served with only fresh steamed or grilled veggies on top, so I shop for fresh local produce each week. We also eat a lot of eggs in place of meat, and eggs are fairly inexpensive.

I don't have a problem with lettuce going bad because I eat a salad every day, for lunch or for dinner. My problem is buying too much bread and having it mold or get stale before I've used it all. In the States the grocery stores have started selling half loaves of bread for the same price as whole loaves, which is a perfect solution for our family of two.

11 Lauren April 1, 2010

Beth, great article. My fiance and I have the same problem with buying food.
My go to food, as many others on here have said, is a bag of dried pinto beans. These are extremely versatile and are fine just cooked up with some chicken bouillon and celery as a simple bean soup.

Canned tuna. For snacks, we make homemade microwave popcorn in a brown paper lunch bag. Dust with salt and olive oil and there is a cheap and healthy snack.

12 Rachelle April 4, 2010

Lots of dried beans, grains and pasta. Cheap vegetables like carrots, squash, turnips, cabbage, onions, beets, frozen peas. Lot of homemade stuff: bread, desserts, yogurt, muesli, dressings, sauces, condiments.

Something I’m still working on is meat. I’ve been vegetarian for nearly 25 years, so I’m used to eating REALLY cheap. My new hubby eats meat, and I love cooking it for him (I’m a cooking geek, so it’s a new adventure for me). My go-to meat dishes so far are whole roast chicken and pork tenderloin. He has a bit of a steak habit but is happy with cheaper cuts (like sirloin tip) that I marinate. I would really really like to splurge on animals raised in a more humane and ecological way, but we’re not quite there yet.

A key to inexpensive food, for me, if getting familiar with the seasoning profiles of many world cuisines. Using dried spices bought in bulk makes it very cheap to turn out a wide variety without spending a lot of money.

13 AMD @ Make Do, LIve Well April 5, 2010

Like Kathy, we eat an awful lot of couscous. Please don’t tell me it’s unhealthy! It’s very quick and easy to cook, can take on a lot of different flavors, and is versatile in that it can play a variety of different roles in a meal: entree (especially with scrambled eggs) or side.

We also like to always have apples and bananas. I know of no cheaper fruit, and they’re the ultimate convenience foods.
.-= AMD @ Make Do, LIve Well´s last blog ..Desk Lamp =-.

14 Meg April 5, 2010

@AMD, Kathy

Couscous is just a kind of pasta, so it’s processed wheat. Not the healthiest thing, but not the worst, either.

What I prefer is quinoa. It’s actually small seeds that are treated a bit like grains and it’s almost always a great substitute for couscous. It has a slightly more complex taste, imho, and it’s much healthier. Very good source of protein, among other things. Only takes about 15-20 minutes to cook, too.

It does tend to be a bit pricier, but if you can find some place that sells it in a bulk bin then it’s very reasonable.

My husband and I add it to a lot of our meals. We use it by itself (sometimes sweetened like we make our oatmeal, sometimes seasoned with veggie broth or even just ketchup), we add it to pasta, we add it to our vegan BBQ mix, we eat it with stir-fried veggies, we add it to salads…it’s VERY versatile!

15 Patt Colucy April 8, 2010

One of my go to frugal foods is apples. Apples are only 22 cents a pound at an orchard nearby (seconds by the 1/2 bushel which are usually small or misshaped) Not all of the 1/2 bushel fits into my fridge so when I take what does not fit and make apple crisp,

which freezes very well in individual containers. Apples are very versatile and keep

better than most other fruits. My second go to frugal food is home made bread. Amy

of the Tight Wad Gazette said any humble meal can be made special when served with home made bread. Using 5 # of King Authur flour and yeast from the bulk

food store I can make 4 large loaves of the best tasting bread for about $1.00 a loaf. So get out those bread makers and bake your little heart out.

16 Kelly April 8, 2010

I love apples too- and I love how portable they are- it's the best on the run snack food! Plus, my kids take so long to eat a whole apple that it's an activity ina nd of itself when I need them to be quiet when we're out and about!

17 Chris lynn April 25, 2010

I find there is a misnomer in the general quality of bulk products. While it is cheaper, it is often misunderstood how long a dry pack good has been sitting in storage with a silicate by-product intended to preserve food by leeching the moisture from it.

Additionally if taking into considering the real cost versus use, most people tend to let “rot” as it were. Again going back to the little packages of silicate by products used to preserve rice, beans, grains, flour, peas. Understanding that the food being used is probably around 1 year to 4 year old, people don’t store it properly and sitting around in an publicly open barrel doesn’t help any either. The goods themselves are intended to be stored with silicate gel packs. Most people just leave them in the bags with twist ties.

The bulk food industry is a commodity just like any food industry. It’s marketed, packaged and sold just like a can of coke. Unless you are growing your own beans/peas/rice or buying directly from the grower, it’s more than likely the total savings is roughly 10-15% of off shelf price mainly due to the lack of a box or a bottle.

Strange thing is most Walmarts now carry a large assortment of gluten free, allergy sensitive, sugarless/free foods for around 5% less than bulk food shops because Walmart operates like a hammer fist in the retail space in pricing and they sincerely want your money in their publicly traded market equities. I know it’s a dirty word, Walmart that is, but it’s pretty hard to find a can of Chick peas over .79 at a Walmart. If I did the same thing at a dry weight (bulk) store, in wet weight, I’ve found I’m paying more.

Try an experiment with me. Cheapest at Walmart of typical dry weight goods dry reconstituted back into wet and the weight of the goods in the can. You’ll find a can is handier to store, use than soaking dry weight overnight.

Quickest way I have found to make affordable meals is to just get up earlier. It’s pretty hard to make money from nothing, making time is a lot easier. That and freezing dough on sunday during the cook up day for the week. A pita takes 10 minutes in the oven to make.
.-= Chris lynn´s last blog ..Making Pita Bread…or any bread for that matter. =-.

18 Meg April 26, 2010

I’ve never been disappointed with the bulk section of my local grocery store. It has very high turnover so I’m not concerned about freshness, especially when so many of the things I buy there are dry goods that last months if not years. Nothing is left open. All bins have lids that used when not scooping and some bins have pull levers that let the contents fall down out of the bin into a bag.

And yes, I have checked the prices on many of the items, including chick peas. They easily beat Walmart when I checked. Some of items were about a penny more than at Sam’s Club. However, that was comparing to, say, 20 pound bags of sugar and flour. At that size, the storage and quality issues outweigh the itty bitty savings.

But of course, your mileage may vary.

But even IF it was more expensive, I also value the reduction in packaging, both from an environmental perspective and from a “I like paying for the smallest/cheapest garbage can I can get from the city and still not having to bother taking it out except every other week” perspective. Also, my family is trying to avoid BPA as much as possible and that’s used in can liners. So, I prefer not to buy a lot of canned stuff. And, if that wasn’t enough, my husband and I actually prefer the taste and texture of beans that we cook versus canned. In other words, bulk bins rock my world.

19 Chris lynn April 27, 2010

I don’t know about that. We don’t have Sam’s club up here. Maybe in Toronto but definitely not in a small Canuck town.

For bulk barns, I generally avoid them.I ended up picking up a 20 pound bag of flour for 7.35 at Food Basics yesterday. Well 2 actually. If I head to the local bulk barn the cost is .65 a pound. For 20 pounds of flour it would end up costing a small fortune.

It think it might also have to do with location as well. In Canada, even with the food production to the world, food in general is insanely overpriced. If I drive over the border for example, I can usually find a nice sized turkey for under ten bucks. Here a ten pound bird runs in the 35 buck range. If picking up stuff on US shopping runs I can usually pick up eight bags of food stuffs for the $25 versus 3 in Canada. Plus milk, is around 65% cheaper across the border. Milk is a big no-no btw, border services don’t like people buying milk over the border. I think people get into less trouble for smuggling crack.
.-= Chris lynn´s last blog ..Making Pita Bread…or any bread for that matter. =-.

Previous post:

Next post: