Archive | October, 2012

#993 A Small Fridge Wastes Less Food

31 Oct

Keeping the fridge clean, the items fresh and in sight and adjusting shelves helps cut down food waste. Photo via flickr by Morgaine.

I know, I know, everyone wants a massive side-by-side or Sub-Zero ($$$$!). What happens to all the food you cram into your fridge? It rots. It goes bad. It languishes at the back of the fridge. It costs you money.

When we were kids and my mom bought eggplant we would hide it in the back of the fridge and, by the time she found it, the eggplant would be rotting and unusable. She’d be so mad at us. Now I can understand. Wasted food is wasted money. With a big fridge it’s very easy to waste food because you lose track of what’s in there. A small fridge forces you to use up food fast before it goes bad. Otherwise there will be no room for anything in there.

My mother-in-law is always running to the grocery store, but when I open the fridge, it’s crammed to the gills with food. I once tried to make lunch when she was out and my brother-in-law told me to shut the fridge quick and not venture in there. “It’s botulism waiting to happen,” he said emphatically. He was convinced that there were items still left from Christmas – it was July. It’s all the more surprising because my mother-in-law prides herself on her thrift. But there it was – a huge money wasterthe overfull fridge.

More than $250 billion is wasted every year around the world – just on unconsumed food waste. While a large part of it is from the restaurant industry, your personal part is right in your home. A half container of rotted strawberries: $1.50; expired cottage cheese: $1.50; unused leftovers: $2; moldy cheese: $1; funky-smelling deli meat: $2.50. That’s $8.50 right there. I don’t know about you – but I definitely want to save almost $10 off my grocery bill. To do so, make sure you’re not wasting what you buy.

moldy food food waste

Don’t let food and money go to waste in your fridge. Photo via flickr by Bludgeoner86.

No matter what, if I can’t see it in my fridge, I end up wasting food. So if you don’t have a small fridge, then make your behemoth smaller by keeping everything in sight. Eliminate shelves; put a cardboard box or divider to fill up the back space and force you to put everything in the front of the fridge where you can see it while still keeping it cool enough. Don’t use a shelf or drawer that you can’t see or in which you consistently forget items. Don’t throw all your vegetables in the vegetable drawer to leave the ones on the bottom to be forgotten and out-of-sight. Don’t hide small items behind tall ones. Adjust your habits to accommodate less fridge space, like using an open container of dairy product right away or consuming leftovers the next day or inventorying what you have on a regular basis to eliminate double-buying and keep fresh in your mind what you need to use.

Another great idea is to have a dedicated USE UP shelf of all the items that you need to use up in the next few days. Tailor your cooking and lunch around the USE UP shelf. Keep a roll of masking tape and a pen next to the fridge for the very purpose of labeling when you open items or store leftovers like a homemade expiration date reference.

You’d be amazed at how much you don’t have to refrigerate. Put fruits and vegetables on the counter or in the middle of the kitchen table so they’re in view. It makes it easy to remember to eat fruits and vegetables, and you use them up quickly enough that they don’t spoil. I usually end up re-upping on fresh fruits and vegetables on a more regular basis in a more European style of shopping fresh. Use dry powdered milk or UHT milk for cooking and baking so that it can be stored in the cupboard (UHT should be refrigerated once opened).

Admittedly, sometimes our dorm size fridge was packed full of beer the first few years out of college. It was Pennsylvania and they only let you buy beer by the case – what else were we going to do? Photo via flickr by Helen Cook.

If you have a big event like a dinner party, Thanksgiving or Christmas at your house that produces a lot of food – then make sure to freeze or use anything leftover quickly. Items like cranberry sauce can be made well in advanced and canned or frozen. I managed to fit a 12 lb. turkey into an apartment size fridge, so make sure you get something smaller than an enormous 20 pounder and reserve to pick it up the day before or the day of so you’re not sacrificing your fridge for too long. Having a smaller fridge also forces you not to make excess amounts of food, which will help you cut down on overeating and being forced to eat sweet potatoes for a week during the holidays.

Somehow, my husband and I always ended up renting apartments that we loved – but that had tiny fridges – for many years. I learned to love them and realized that more fridge space meant more waste. A couple can easily eat out of a dorm or apartment-size fridge. A family does need a little more space – but not much.

Although you would like to think that smaller fridges are a lot  more energy efficient, they’re only slightly more energy efficient but it will save you money on the electric bill as well. Closing the door as soon as you are done and not holding it open as you decide what to eat saves quite a bit of energy as well.

If you don’t want to commit to a small fridge, at least think about how you use your fridge and what you can do to eliminate food waste, which will save you a lot of money throughout the year.

#994 Be Vegetarian (at least a few nights a week)

30 Oct

Photo via flickr by tarale with my own corny modifications. Yes, meat – red meat especially – is costly.

The most expensive things on my shopping list? Meat. Meat cost money. There’s a reason a lot of poor people around the world eat vegetarian – it’s much more economical to be vegetarian. Meat on the menu has been a sign of wealth since the beginning of time. When my mom had a tiny weekly grocery budget to feed a family of four, she found that lentils and rice went a long way. She’s been cooking vegetarian ever since. Technically, I guess she cooks pescatarian, as she does prepare fish, but more importantly, there is no meat on the grocery list, which made it much easier to feed the multitudes on a budget as our family continued to grow.

Having grown up with a vegetarian-cooking mom would make you think that I’d be vegetarian as well. Nope, I love my roast chicken and a good, juicy burger too much. But I do recognize the cost savings of eating vegetarian. I try to make a vegetarian meal at least two to three times a week for dinner, which saves a lot on the grocery bill. Breakfast and lunch should be vegetarian most days of the week. A lot of cuisines began in lean times when cooks had to be creative with flavors and spices so I usually go with ethnic food for vegetarian options – Indian, Italian, Lebanese…it’s never boring and, in my house, never involves tofu.

So what is packed with protein, iron, antioxidants, fiber, is known to help control blood sugar, is good for your heart, fills you up quickly, makes you feel full longer AND is vegetarian? Beans, of course. Meat by comparison has zero fiber, few antioxidants and may contribute to cancer, diabetes and heart disease. If you’re eating a well rounded diet that includes whole grains and other vegetables, getting the full compliment of proteins and iron typically associated with meat is no problem, especially if you’re only going vegetarian a few times a week.

White beans are my favorite to cook with and a mainstay of Italian cooking. But there’s something about black beans that are totally addictive as well – not sure what it is but I love the flavor. Of course soybeans are the powerhouse bean, packing the most protein and the only “complete protein” bean, meaning you don’t have to worry about eating other foods to get the full protein packet that meat offers. Which is why tofu is a good choice if you enjoy it. Edamame beans are green soybeans and probably the most popular form of soybean consumption right now. You can also use dry soybeans just like any other bean.

Oh, and what about chickpeas (or garbanzo beans)? Those delicious beans that are used in hummus and falafel…In fact, there is such a huge range of types, colors, sizes and flavors of beans that eating vegetarian is always interesting. I often end up with an unintentionally vegan meal when cooking with beans.

Of course dairy and eggs have the same full protein profile as meat while still qualifying as vegetarian, so if beans don’t do it for you, try quiche.

The current American obsession with meat that is catching on in other countries as people become wealthier is unjustified. Fruits and vegetables should make up half your plate at dinner and meat only a quarter of the plate, while grains should make up the other quarter for a full plate. Look down at your plate, if you are staring at a huge chunk of meat that takes up most of the plate, then you are eating way more meat than necessary in a single sitting. Not only is eating vegetarian a more budget-friendly option, scientists are just now seeing similar threads among populations that have greater-than-average longevity and a plant-based diet. Seventh Day Adventists in California, Okinawan women in Japan and Greek men on the island of Ikaria all live significantly longer and better lives than the average American. There are many factors that they all have in common – they are active, social and…eat a mostly plant-based diet. The Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarian, the Okinawans eat mostly fish if they eat animal protein and the Ikarians eat mostly home-grown greens, legumes and vegetables and limited amounts of pork. So…eat less meat…save money…live longer.

Easy ways I like to go vegetarian without missing meat (other than cooking with beans) include:

  • Pizza – meat toppings are unnecessary and cheese gives plenty of protein.
  • Soup – you really don’t miss the meat in a good soup like potato-leek soup, black bean soup or French onion soup.
  • Lasagna or other baked pasta dishes – eliminate the meat in the sauce and add any vegetable you want, you really won’t miss the meat.
  • Painting by Van gogh

    Cheese or egg as a main ingredient – you’re getting animal protein without the price of meat, although dairy and eggs come a close second to meat as the priciest items on the grocery list.

  • Potatoes – I have a serious weakness for potatoes. You know van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters painting where a bunch of hungry peasants are eating a plate of potatoes? Yeah, that’s definitely me.

Check out my recipe for baked beans and risotto.

#995 Eat Leftovers For Lunch

29 Oct

Leftovers don’t have to look pretty, but paired with some fresh fruit, it’s a quick and cheap lunch. Photo via flickr by bunches and bits.

Discover the quickest way to save money and eat well…bring your leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day to work. Thrifty saving #1: you don’t pay extra for lunch. Thrifty saving #2: you don’t end up throwing out moldy casseroles and wasting food and money. Thrifty saving #3: leftovers for lunch take less than 5 minutes to prepare: put food in Tupperware or similar containers, bring food to work, heat for a few minutes in microwave or serve cold, eat. Leftovers for lunch involves no driving or walking to a lunch place or waiting for your food. Time saved is always important to the thrifty lifestyle.

So lunch took you only a few minutes to get ready, and you have a whole free hour (at least take a half hour!) of lunch break. What to do now? Start checking things off your list that you need or want to get done: pay bills online, read your favorite magazine, start planning your family’s vacation, finagle a lower interest rate on your credit card, read this blog, make a plan to solve world hunger, solve world hunger. There is a lot to do in a free hour – pick something and feel good about it. Use the time in a productive or relaxing manner. If you do something that makes use of the time, you will be less stressed out about everything you have to do after work…or less worried about when you’re going to find time to do something you enjoy. The worst is being stressed about finding time to de-stress.

Make sure you have a good collection of reusable Tupperware-like containers. Photo via flickr by bunches and bits.

Use that bonus lunch hour to relax. Because you’ve saved money and time bringing your leftovers for lunch to work, you’re free to enjoy lunch hour for what it should be – a small break in the day to get your mind off work and refresh yourself for the afternoon. Don’t tell me you don’t have time. I know, I know…everyone is monumentally busy and rushing around trying to get work done. Sometimes it feels like a big “I’m busy,” no “I’m even more busy” contest of who can be the busiest of the busy at work. I’ll let you in on a secret – I always took a lunch break…and I got all my work completed. I was a typical office worker. I always SAID I was busy as that seemed to be the correct thing to say, no matter what, at work. I always met my deadlines, I was good at what I did, I was on track to make six figures before I decided to change careers, and I never got a bad review from a boss. All that while I took my lunch hour. So you can still SAY you’re super busy, but take your lunch hour. The emails can wait, the spreadsheets will get done, the project will move forward, the phone calls will be returned…after lunch.

Oh, one more thing about leftovers for lunch…don’t heat fish up in the microwave. There was a permanent ban on microwaving fish in one of my work places because it would make the whole building stink for hours. It didn’t help that the Big Boss was downwind from the kitchen. He’d come out and root out the person who microwaved fish and make sure it didn’t happen again. You do not want the Big Boss’s face peering around your cubicle as you chow down on baked haddock with your feet kicked up.

#996 Roast Chicken Will Feed You For Days

26 Oct

Chicken – pre and post roasting.

Plains Indians used buffalo in more than 100 different ways. Eskimos did the same with whale. I’ve got chicken. If you’re a math whiz and can scale a whale down to a chicken – I think I have a comparable number of uses. Seriously, a whole chicken is a very good bargain buy because of its multi-use purposes when you cook for yourself.

Let’s review the different uses of a roast chicken:

Use #1

The whole chicken is roasted with vegetables and served for dinner on the first night. I can attest to the awesomeness of roasted chicken through the Converted Vegetarian Test. My sister, a die-hard vegetarian for years, suddenly gave it up and never looked back. The reason? Roast chicken with vegetables. Yes, it is so ridiculously tasty and indescribably good that a radical vegetarian gave it all up to be able to indulge guilt free. So, if you can convert a vegetarian into a meat eater with roast chicken, I think that’s all the proof you need.

Use #2

Enough for sandwiches and soup

Strip the remaining meat from the carcass and save for sandwiches and soup. Think you can’t get some meat out of that thing? Really dig in there and clean out all the nooks and crannies. I have acquired an uncanny ability to take what looks like a stripped carcass and come up with a cup of meat – all you need for chicken soup. Usually it doesn’t come to that as a whole chicken has quite a bit of meat and can feed 4 people with leftovers easily. There’s a lot more you can do with the meat then just sandwiches or soup if you want. Chicken pot pie, fajitas or a salad topping come to mind.

Use #3

Turn the carcass into stock. Don’t you dare throw out that stripped chicken carcass. The most incredible chicken stock can be made from that sad shell. Hopefully you remembered not to throw out the leg bones after your kid stripped them clean barbarian-style. Here’s how to make your own chicken broth that will have you wave goodbye to overly salty bouillon cubes or boxed liquid stock. Throw the chicken carcass and leg bones into a large pot and almost cover with water. The key is in the bones. You don’t want too much skin, so you can throw out any excess skin. Add salt and pepper to taste (you can add more at the end as well). Add a whole onion, garlic clove, celery, parsley, carrot… You can add and subtract any flavor with what you have on hand. I usually throw in a bit of thyme and rosemary for more flavor. Fresh herbs are best, but dried ones do fine. Maybe put in a bay leaf.

Cover, bring to a simmer and allow it to simmer for several hours. You can leave it slowly simmering while you ignore it. If I’m really pressed and need some broth I take some out after 20 minutes to use. It’s better than using straight water but does not have the full flavor of several hours of simmering. After simmering, strain all the big bits and bones out of the hot liquid and throw out the boiled carcass and vegetables. You should be left with at least 8-10 cups of beautiful chicken stock, which you can use right away or freeze or refrigerate for later use. Use refrigerated stock within the week, otherwise throw it in the freezer. I usually throw everything onto the stove and leave it to do its thing while I’m in the middle of something else. Homemade stock is the secret to better tasting home cooking. My husband and I always notice a serious decrement in taste on the rare occasion that I don’t have homemade stock on hand. Bonus: You can control the amount of sodium in the broth, forever avoiding too-salty, store-bought broth.

Warning: You will also never be able to use store-bought broth again – no matter how fancy a brand.

Use #4 (For the next three suggestions, you’ll have to be able to correctly ID what’s what, ask someone who knows or photo ID them)

Cook the liver up and use in gravy. Those chicken innards that are stuck inside in a paper bag – use them. Liver cooks up nicely and can be mashed and added to gravy if you are making pan-scrapping gravy with your roast chicken. Liver has a wealth of vitamin A and other alphabet vitamins and adds a nice depth to gravy flavor.

Use #5

Treat your dog or cat to the heart and gizzards. If you don’t like to cook them up and eat them yourself, your pet certainly will. A quick pan fry to cook through does the job for your pooch. You can feed it to them raw but run the same risk of food poisoning that you would if you ate raw meat.

Use #6

Save the neck for later. Lastly, zip that chicken neck up into a freezer bag. Keep adding your chicken necks to the pile and when you have 4 or more, make stock out of them the same way you made them from the carcass. No need to defrost.

At the outset, because of the weight, a whole chicken might seem more expensive than say a pack of wings, but the use value is much greater. So, now you have it: buffalo, whale, chicken.

#997 Cook for Yourself And Prepare Your Own Meals

25 Oct

Most of the kitchen stuff I use is inherited, gifted or found at yard sales.

I’ve really gotten myself into a tough spot with this one…I’ve become such a good cook that my husband and I can’t ever eat out. If we go out to eat, we think of how much better and cheaper we could have done it ourselves. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, the only kitchen tools we started out with were a square skillet that was warped from heat, one spatula and a couple pots. We started with spaghetti Bolognese – boil pasta, sauté hamburger and vegetables and add to bottled sauce – and we made enough to last a week or more. Spaghetti for breakfast, lunch and dinner! So it’s a relief that our “problem” is now that we eat so well at home that we have a hard time spending the money to eat out. It’s a good “problem” – one that saves a lot of money. And you can have the same “problem” too…just start cooking for yourself and see how much cheaper and tastier it is than eating out.

Food is a basic human need that all of us have to fulfill every day. In order to sustain healthy life – it has to be healthy food. Why have we gotten so lazy about this basic block of survival? And compromised our health and happiness along with it? It’s hard not to eat healthy if you are preparing your own food. And, I’m not going to lie, it takes time to make food. Dinner is usually the biggest meal, so it takes the most time. But cooking for yourself is tastier, cheaper and healthier than the alternatives. And, if you timed it on average, you probably spend less time making a meal yourself than waiting in line or at the drive-thru at fast-food places during meal rushes. Going out to eat at a restaurant is always a lengthy ordeal of waiting for your name to be called, being seated, having the waiter take your order….

If you cook for yourself, you won’t ever have to ingest unreal amounts of sodium, sweeteners and additives (why do they put corn syrup in EVERYTHING?) Anything pre-packed (usually frozen) that offers a meal shortcut is pricey, tasteless, loaded with sugar, sodium – or both – and doesn’t make sense if you are trying to save money on groceries to buy packaged meals like frozen pizzas and dinners. If you cook for yourself, you have complete control over when, what and how you eat. In fact, the advantages of cooking for yourself so far outweigh any other option that once you start, you won’t go back. To save time, it’s easy to do double duty with dinner – it also becomes tomorrow’s lunch. I started making breakfast, lunch and dinner when I was a typical, young professional working 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. with a ½ hr. commute both ways, so cooking for yourself and family is not just for stay-at-home moms or dads.

Bake your own birthday cake for a fraction of the cost of a bakery. You control how much sugar and frosting the cake has and can use Neufchatel cheese instead of cream cheese for lower fat deliciousness.

Another truth is that cooking takes practice, and knowledge is built over time. My husband had to be subjected to any number of “experiments” gone wrong that turned out to be what we were having for dinner. In fact, he started to dread “experiment night,” which meant I would try something off of the usual menu. Luckily, as I got to be a better cook, those terrifying “experiment nights” seemed to become few and far between. He’s come up with quite a few dishes himself. As I enjoy it more, I do most of the cooking, but it’s nice to trade off with your partner when most of your meals are prepared at home. Neither of us started out being good cooks. We had to eat a lot of questionable meals to figure out what we were doing.

It’s more fun to cook for or with someone else, so if you’re a single person, find a friend who’s interested in saving money and cooking at home as well and trade off who hosts dinner or split the cooking evenly (and the bill). You’ll both learn together and enjoy a good time.

It seems like a lot of people are put off by preparing food and taking the time to do it (unless you’re French and celebrate it every day). So here’s an example to get started cooking for yourself that shows it’s easy, way cheaper than running to McDonald’s and doesn’t involve eating spaghetti for a week straight.

It includes a work week’s worth of meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner plus snacks.

Shopping list

Bread (I prefer an unsliced loaf of good bread that can be used for sandwiches as well, but a whole-grain sliced loaf is fine)

Eggs (1 dozen)

Milk (1 gallon)

Cheese (a good hard one like Parmesan (8 oz.) and a softer one like Cheddar or Monterrey Jack (1 lb.))

Yogurt (plain or vanilla) (32 oz.)

Butter (Pack of 4 sticks)

4-6 Fresh vegetables of your choosing (I’m going with onions, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, broccoli and celery)

3-4 Fresh fruits of your choosing (I’m going with bananas, strawberries, melon and apples)

Whole chicken (5 lb.)

Bacon (12 oz.)

Pasta (1 lb.)

Rice (1 lb.)

Lentils (1 lb.)

Tuna or other canned fish (2 cans)

Coffee or tea

Nuts of your choosing (14 oz.) (I’m going with cashews)

Scale the amounts you buy to the size of your family from single person to large households to last the week. I’ve made the list assuming you have things like salt, pepper, oils, condiments, baking staples (flour, sugar) and spices in your cupboard.

Now you get home and wondering what to do with it all. Here’s a work week’s worth of meals to cook for yourself.

How to eat for a week – simply, healthfully and thriftily:

Day 1

Breakfast: Eggs – scrambled, fried, poached, over-easy (this is the traditional domain of bachelors so obviously very easy); Toast; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Prep/cook time: 10 min.

Lunch: Salad – lettuce tossed with vegetables and some tuna on the side. Drizzle on some olive oil; Strawberries; Water (tap)

Prep time: 15 min.

Dinner: Roast the chicken with some onions and carrots; Mash up some potatoes; Fruit salad with bananas, strawberries and melon; Water/milk

Prep time: 30-45 min. (dinner always takes the longest but you gain leftovers!)

Roast time: 1 ½ – 2 hrs.

Day 2

Breakfast: Yogurt with some fruit; Toast; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Prep time: 5 min.

Lunch: Leftover chicken tossed with some mayo for a chicken salad sandwich; Couple of slices of cheese and some carrot sticks; Apple; Water

Prep time: 10 min.

Dinner: Lentil curry with rice; Green salad; Strawberry-banana shake; Water/milk

Prep/cook time: 1 hr.

Day 3

Breakfast: French toast (Bread dipped in egg and milk mix, skillet-fried and topped with cinnamon and sugar, maple syrup or fresh fruit); Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Prep/cook time: 15 min.

Lunch: Tuna sandwich; Couple of slices of cheese and some carrot sticks; Apple; Water

Prep time: 10 min.

Dinner: Chicken soup (left over chicken with carrots, onions, celery and pasta or rice); Grilled cheese; Steamed Broccoli; Melon; Water/milk

Prep/cook time: 40 min.

Day 4

Breakfast: Eggs; Bacon; Hash browns(skillet-fried grated potato); Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Do not deep fry.

Prep/cook time: 20 min.

Lunch: Leftover chicken soup; Banana; Water

Prep time: 1 min.

Dinner: Lentil soup with bacon; Apple crumble; Water/milk

Prep/cook time: 1 hr.

Day 5

Breakfast: Melon slices; Yogurt with banana and honey; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Prep time: 5 min.

Lunch: Leftover lentil soup; Banana; Water

Prep time: 1 min.

Dinner: Baked pasta and cheese; Green salad; Parfait (Yogurt layered with fruit/oats/granola); Water/milk

Prep/cook time: 1 hr.

Snacks (mid-morning and mid-afternoon):



Vegetable sticks

Hard boiled egg

Prep time: 1-8 min.

Wow – that was not only so easy, but also included at least 5 fruits and vegetables every day (counting ones in soups), protein, grains, legumes, dairy… and little to no sugar, sodium, processed food or any other food evil. And it’s not a diet – in the South Beach sense of the word – it’s a diet in the humans-eat-food sense of the word.

Total cost (estimated for one person: can easily feed two): $78.63 (includes both coffee and tea)

Bread: Whole-wheat loaf $2.50

Eggs: 1 dozen, large Grade A $1.88

Milk: 1 gallon: $3.54

Cheese: Parmesan 8 oz. block $4.50; 1 lb. cheddar $5.00

Yogurt: 32 oz. $2.50

Butter: 4 sticks $1.99

Onions: 5 lbs. $2.99

Carrots: 2 lbs. $0.99

Potatoes: $0.65/lb 5 lbs $3.25

Lettuce: $1.50/lb 1.5 lbs $2.25

Broccoli: $1.50/bunch

Celery: 1 lb. $0.99

Bananas: $0.57/lb. 3 lbs. $1.71

Strawberries: 1 lb. $2.99

Melon: $2.50 per

Apples: $1.50/lb. 3 lbs $4.50

Whole chicken: $1.43/lb, 5-lb chicken $7.15

Bacon: $4.60/lb, 12 oz. $3.45

Pasta: 1 lb. $1

Rice: 1 lb. $1

Lentils: 1 lb. $1

Tuna or other canned fish: Chicken of the Sea Chunk Light in Water 5 oz. can $1.50 (2)

Coffee: 16 oz. ground roast $5.70 or Tea: 50 ct. English Breakfast $4.95

Nuts: 14 oz. cashews $5.80

I’m not being very budget conscious here – you could pick cheaper nuts, get pre-grated Parmesan in the bottle instead of fresh, pick cheaper fruit than strawberries or get frozen fruit that costs less…I picked a pretty moderate example of what to buy, which leaves room for a lot of trimming in the budget area.

Here’s the McDonald’s version. I consciously tried to pick the equivalent to the do-it-yourself menu, which does not include soda or ordering a “meal deal.” A meal order only gives you a deal if you order soda, which is equivalent to empty calories, even diet soda is bad for you.

Day 1

Breakfast: Egg McMuffin; Water/ Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Premium Caesar salad with grilled chicken; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Chicken McNuggets; Fries; Fruit & walnuts; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min. (No leftovers here)

Day 2

Image via flickr by theimpulsivebuy

Breakfast: Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait; Hash Brown; Water/Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Premium grilled chicken classic sandwich; Fruit & walnuts; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Premium crispy chicken classic sandwich; Fruit & walnuts; Strawberry sundae; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Day 3

Breakfast: Hotcakes; Water/Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Premium Southwest salad with grilled chicken; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Quarter pounder with cheese; Side salad; Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Day 4

Breakfast: Big Breakfast; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Filet-O-Fish; Fruit & walnuts; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Premium grilled chicken ranch BLT sandwich; Baked apple pie; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Day 5

Breakfast: Fruit & Maple Oatmeal; Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Filet-O-Fish; Fries; Side salad; Strawberry shake; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Snacks (mid-morning and mid-afternoon):

Fruit & walnuts

Snack wraps

Apple slices

Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait

Order, pay and wait time: 5 min.

Total cost (estimated for one person): $112.43

Egg McMuffin $2.99

Fruit & Walnuts (6) $1.99

Apple Slices (7) $1

Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait (4) $1

Coffee (5) $1

Premium Southwest salad with grilled chicken $4.79

Water (5) $1.69

Chicken McNuggets (10 pc.) $3.19

Fries (2) (S)  $1.19

Hash brown $1

Premium grilled chicken classic sandwich $4.29

Premium Caesar salad with grilled chicken $4.59

Premium crispy chicken classic sandwich $4.29

Strawberry sundae (S) $1.99

Milk (5) $1.29

Hotcakes $2.29

Quarter pounder with cheese $3.99

Side salad (2) $1

Big Breakfast $3.99

Filet-O-Fish (2) $3.79

Premium grilled chicken ranch BLT sandwich $4.69

Baked Apple Pie $1

Fruit & Maple Oatmeal $1.99

Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken $4.59

Strawberry Shake (S) $1.99

Snack wraps (3) $1.99

Save your money – cook for yourself.

That’s a whopping $33.80 difference for ONE person. And the grocery shop when cooking for yourself would easily feed two people plus have a lot leftover. Staples like tea you would not need to buy for more than a month depending on your rate of consumption. The cook for yourself options for families would only get more expensive incrementally, but feeding two people would double the cost at McDonald’s, triple for three people, ect. So McDonald’s gets more expensive exponentially because what you pay for is only a single serving. There’s no way the McDonald’s version I quoted would feed two people, much less have any leftover. Cold fries, anyone?

So for limited fruit, no vegetables besides fries/salads and no variety to speak of, you would end up paying a lot more to get an equivalent meal. Sure you can order only off the dollar menu or get the free water instead of the bottled to knock down your costs, but you would not get anywhere near the same nutrition, and the dollar menu is even more limited than the larger menu. Like I said before, the meals aren’t a deal because it’s cheaper to buy the sandwich and a small or medium fry. Getting a soda in the “deal” is not adding anything but sugar and empty calories. And the estimated time of 5 minutes is ideal – you can sit for 20 minutes or more in the drive thru or waiting in line during peak times. In 20 minutes, you could make your own breakfast or lunch and be on your way. Or be well into whipping up dinner. Bottom line: it’s so much cheaper to cook for yourself.

Here are more simple suggestions that I use all the time for ideas from one of my favorite cooking and eating columnists:


Quick meals

Few ingredients

#998 Pickles and Jams: Can And Preserve Nature’s Bounty

24 Oct

So you’ve foraged or picked a huge mess of fruits or vegetables and can’t possibly eat them all before they go bad. What to do? It’s easier than you think to throw fresh produce into jars or in the freezer to enjoy all year long. Canning and preserving your own food will knock frozen berries, jam, applesauce, pickles or anything that comes in a can, bag or jar off your grocery list.

Not only will you be saving money, but canning and preserving your food will ensure that it will all be more fresh and healthy than what you get in the store. First off, you can control the amount of sodium and sugar in the fruits and vegetables you preserve. Second, you most likely will not be using additives, dyes or corn syrup, three things that are pervasive in store-bought, pre-prepared food, which lower the quality and freshness of the food. I personally hate the gooey, fakeness of corn syrup. Dyes make all sorts of foods unnatural colors that we now think of as natural. And additives make canned good last longer but not taste any better.

Best applesauce device ever – put whole cooked apples in the top, crank handle, applesauce comes down chute and peel/seeds comes out the side. Sing the Sweeney Todd meat pies song as you crank.

It might seem oh-so-1950s, but putting up your own food by canning and preserving is the old standby of self-sustaining farmers and generations past that couldn’t just run to the grocery store for every little item. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to reach into your freezer or cupboard and pop open a jar or bag of your own preserved produce.

First things first, it’s not hard to can or preserve produce, and you don’t need special equipment to can most produce. When reading up on canning, I’m sure you’ll come across a lot of stuff to buy or suggestions for products, but don’t be daunted or worry about running out to buy special equipment. Canning is a simple process that should result in beautifully impressive jars of strawberry jam or dill pickles.

I’ve canned for years with little more than some reused glass canning jars and tops (who doesn’t have a grandmother with a basement full of Mason jars) and a large stock pot. For pickles, jams and fruit, a large pot can serve the purpose of a “canner,” really only something that is large enough to hold your jars with at least one inch of water above them. You need a folded towel or rack at the bottom of the pot to keep the jars off the bottom. Grill tongs or any other kitchen tongs that allow you to grab the jars without burning yourself work fine, or I just dump the water out and grab the jars with an oven mitt if I only have one batch. Remember, being thrifty means use what you have.

Unless you’re giving the end result as gifts, you really don’t need new jars or screw rings. If you don’t have a grandma with a basement full of jars, any yard sale usually has a good collection. Once you have your stock of canning jars, you can reuse them for a lifetime. Lids are recommended to be one use, although admittedly I am not much of a stickler on that one, but use your own judgment.

Freezing your berries is another option that is even quicker than canning, it usually involves putting the fruit into a solution to prevent browning or just throwing them in a zip lock bag and freezing.

The same site I use for pick your own has tons of information on freezing and canning to get you started. You’re mostly paying with your time here if you’re using items you already have on hand for canning and freezing. I estimate a good morning or afternoon’s worth of time depending on the amount of produce you have – very little cost for a well-stocked pantry.

P.S. I was doing things like canning and pick your own well before the “mom” stage of my life, so it’s not a strictly domestic, married life activity as often portrayed in popular media and television. I just like to do things myself – it’s so much better that way.

Here are some suggestions for canning and preserving that always come out tasting better than anything you buy in a store. So next time you see a jar of all-natural pickles for $9 at the farmer’s market, you can rest assured that the ones you made cost far less.

Great items to can or preserve with fresh fruits or vegetables:

  • Pumpkin puree. For pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffin or pumpkin soup lovers, making your own pumpkin puree is quick and easy. It’s even cheaper if you wait until after Halloween for discount pumpkins. Homemade pumpkin puree freezes well and is nothing like what you get in a can – so much more delicious and flavorful!
  • Strawberry jam. Jam like strawberry jam is ridiculously easy to make. And ridiculously tasty. Throw in rhubarb for strawberry-rhubarb jam. Or go straight rhubarb to get the awesomest, tartest jam you’ll never find in a store.
  • Apple sauce. Fresh apple sauce never stays in the house long enough to warrant canning. Even huge vats of it disappear in no time at all. The best thing is that no sugar is needed. And I hate that I can’t find cinnamon apple sauce in the store that doesn’t have corn syrup or Splenda in it. You don’t need either. Apples cooked up with a few cinnamon sticks and made into sauce is divine with nothing else. Plus it’s kick-ass warm… as an ice cream topping.
  • Pickles. I like to make dill pickles. My mom used to make great bread and butter pickles. The hardest part is finding good, pickling cucumbers.

Here’s a recipe for pickled beets, something you would have a hard time finding in the store.

#999 Visit A Pick Your Own Farm

23 Oct

O.k., so you want it to be easy to find the perfect fruit with out fighting the insects and thorns when foraging. Pick your own farms are the next best thing to foraging. Like foraging, it’s a nice weekend activity that costs less than going to the movies and saves you money off the retail price of produce. One of  my favorite memories as a kid was going to a pick your own apple farm and picking apples. The farm also had a cider press where you could watch cider being made and drink it fresh…I think they served fresh apple cider in heaven. Now that I’m all grown up, I still love a good pick your own farm deal.

Spring through fall there are farms open offering pick your own strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples, pumpkins… you name it. I use this website to find out what’s selling. Of course local farms are affected by weather and a bad year, so call ahead to find out any updated information on the harvest before heading out to pick your own. Strawberries were rained out this year, so we had to wait until the fall for apples.

As you are usually paying per pound for produce at a pick your own farm – you can pick as much or as little as you want. We paid $0.45 cents per pound for apples, well below the price I saw when I strolled into the grocery store and saw the same Macintosh and Cortland apples for $0.89 per pound on special, normally $1.49 per pound. My small family ended up with 47 pounds of apples after visiting a pick your own orchard. I’m sure the people weighing it up were thinking, “What are they going to do with 47 pounds of apples?” This is where being thrifty really kicks in – the best way to be thrifty is to put in the time to use your bargain buy effectively. In the case of getting a ton of pick your own apples, it means making applesauce for the baby, freezing slices to use throughout the year and using some immediately for apple pie, apple crumble, apple pancakes …or canning apple butter, apple chutney… I could go on like the shrimp guy in Forrest Gump.

After two large batches of applesauce, several lunches of German apple pancake (a large popover-like pancake with apple filling), many apple crumble desserts (faster than pie), I still have a cold storage drawer in the fridge full of apples that will keep for a long time as long as they are cold.

It’s important to spend the time to put up the harvest for the winter so to say. What you trade off in cost-saving usually means you pay with a little of your own time – a common thrifty theme. And things like canning really aren’t difficult or super-time consuming, but afterward the cupboard is full. I’ll get into canning and preserving in the next post…but for now, before the season is over, go out and pick your own!

Here’s my quick apple crumble recipe, which is made quicker with a peel and slice device for apples.

#1,000 Learn How To Forage

22 Oct

Walnuts. Apples. Figs. Persimmons. Chestnuts. Clams. Mussels. Berries. These are just a few of the things I’ve foraged over the years. What better way to be thrifty then to not spend any money at all yet get something in return? Foraging falls into multiple thrifty categories; a fun day out with the kids or a quirky date idea while saving you money and putting food on the table. Not bad for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Foraging means going out into glorious nature and finding wild edibles, which you gather and bring back to prepare for breakfast, lunch or dinner or eat right then and there. Man has been foraging since hunter-gatherer times when humans were much less evolved than we are today, so it’s really a no-brainer activity that anyone can do. Man see berry, man pick berry, man eat berry. Simple.

Suburban and city landscapes are just as promising as country ones. My grandmother lived with us when she had early stages of Alzheimer’s and would wander off through our suburban neighborhood and come back laden with apples. She was shocked that the people down the street were letting the apples go to waste. She would cook them up into apple compote and chow down. I thought she was a crazy old bat at the time, but it’s true – why should suburban fruit trees go unpicked now that farmers no longer work the land?

Chanterelle mushrooms or poisonous? Find out from someone who knows. Chanterelles go for $40-$50 per pound!

Of course you don’t want to poison or kill yourself, so stick to things you know or go with a guide to learn how to forage the first few times. In the Northeast, “Wildman” Steve Brill, gives tours on a donation basis.

I grew up in the country, so it’s one of those things you learn – what’s edible and what’s not. Fruit – berries especially – are usually easy to identify and find, and a traditional foraging item.

Mushrooms are another traditional food to forage. But mushrooms are definitely one of those things that you want to be absolutely sure of what you’re eating, so learning from someone who knows is your best bet. All the books in the world can’t replace someone actually showing you which mushrooms are safe to forage and which ones will make you ill or worse, die.

Websites like Neighborhood Fruit can help you find fruit trees in your area that are on public land or people willing to share to get you started in suburban or urban foraging. Before you start picking away, make sure you have permission of the land owner. Public land is free game for foraging. If you’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t seem to find anyone around to ask if you can pick a massive patch of blackberries – go for it. As the efforts of the Lemon Lady and the Concrete Jungle attest, so much fresh produce goes to waste. Foragers do great work feeding the hungry and homeless.

Once you get good at foraging, you can delve in way past apples and blueberries. There are a wealth of plants out there waiting to be foraged and eaten. A bonus is that the food you forage is organic and super-fresh. I picked several pints of blackberries in August during a casual stroll around with my husband and daughter and thought, how much would one pint of organic, sun-ripened blackberries be in a grocery store or farmer’s market? $4.99? $5.99?

I never buy them in the store because they’re always tasteless or super mushy. So here I am with a basketful of tasty berries after a nice weekend afternoon foraging in the sun. Total cost – $0. That’s thrifty. Try it out – you’ll probably find that you get what I call my “squirrel gathering nuts” fever – you just can’t stop yourself from foraging more and more and more, ending up as happy as a pig hunting truffles.

Check out  my recipes for Lemonade and Sticky Buns, two results of my foraging forays.