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Budget shopping – without the budget

September 12, 2009

I am a bargain hunter, but I don’t usually have a budget planned. If I want something expensive, I save for it. For everyday stuff I know I’m going to have to pay for anyway (like groceries), I bargain shop for. Some basic rules:

1) Don’t buy produce out of season. Tempting as those April cherries might be, they are $8 a pound and probably don’t taste all that good. Produce available in season is fresher, riper, and cheaper.

2) If there are coupons or a store savings card, use them. They can save you a lot. For instance, the Price Chopper Advantedge card sometimes gets prices down to 50% off.

3) When cupboard staples are on sale, stock up (especially if you have room): things like sugar, canned goods, cooking oils, honey, peanut butter, jellies and jams, root vegetables, and apples can last quite some time if stored properly. Unless you bake bread at least weekly, however, I would suggest against buying 6 bags of on-sale flour as it won’t keep as well as other staples. I’m particularly fond of stores that have big sales on canned tomatoes, which I use a lot.

4) Use your freezer. When things like bread (especially the denser, whole grain kind), butter, and meat are on sale, they can be frozen for future use. This is especially useful since often times meat that is nearing or on its expiration date can get really cheap and freezing it immediately can keep it in stasis. Just make sure that when you are ready to use it, you use it within 24 hours and thaw it in the refrigerator. If you’re really ambitious, you can freeze seasonal fruit (berries work especially well) in single layers on cookie sheets, then transfer to freezer bags once frozen.

5) Look at the price before you buy and exercise restraint. I think a lot of people struggle with this because they don’t pay attention to the price, just the brightly colored sign that says “SALE!” Sometimes, grocery stores use those signs even though the difference in price may only be a few cents. Don’t let the signs fool you into buying a bunch of things you only kind of needed and racking up a big bill.

6) Check the labels. Look at the weight of what you’re buying. In order to deal with the recession, some companies are sneakily reducing the amount of product in packaging while keeping the price the same. Particularly with store brands, make sure to check the country of origin. Personally, any food item made in China or Turkey (common ones) is suspect.

7) Buy store brands. Particularly with dry goods, store brands are just as good as name brands. However, it has been my personal experience that store brand frozen vegetables are not as good as name brand. Cereal, however, is just as good and sometimes half the price.

8 ) Know what is a good bargain. This is especially true of meat and fresh produce, which can get expensive if you’re not careful. Here’s a list of some common foods and good sale prices for them:

  • Fresh fruit – stonefruit, apples, and pears normally range from $1.50-3 per pound. If it’s $0.99 or less per pound on sale, it’s a good bargain. For grapes, $1.99 or less is usually quite good. Cherries in season can be had for as little as $2 per pound (instead of $8 out of season), but $3-4 is also a decent price. Berries are normally $4-5 per pint, so $2.50 or less is a good sale price (hint: 2/$5 is the same and many stores will let you buy just one for $2.50).
  • Potatoes – $3 for a 5 lb. bag is a good bargain for reds. Russets can sometimes be had for as little as $0.99 per 5 lb. bag. Loose potatoes should never be bought for more than $1/lb.
  • Bread – specialty pre-sliced breads (12 grain, oat, cracked wheat, etc.) are generally around $5, so $2-3 is a bargain. For in-store bakery bread, $1-2 is a good deal.
  • Fresh vegetables – for me, if it is less than $1/lb. it’s a good deal. Two-for-one is also a good deal (often used with things like zucchini, green onions, etc.).
  • Frozen vegetables – never pay more than $2 for a 12 oz. bag.
  • Canned tomatoes – brand names usually run $1.50-2. Off-brand can be had for less than $1 sometimes. If tomatoes are on sale for $1 or less per can, it’s a decent deal.
  • Canned beans – Again, less than $1 per 16 oz. can is a decent deal.
  • Jams and jellies – never pay more than $2.50 for a 12 oz. jar.

9) Know your cupboards. It is easy to buy one or two extra ingredients to complete a meal if you keep tabs on what is available in your cupboards, fridge, and freezer. This will help prevent you from wasting food (ex: buying green beans for dinner and discovering a big bag of them already in the crisper drawer) and money.

10) Have a plan before you buy. Check out what you need before you leave and write it down. You may add or subtract things from the list, but this will help you ward against impulse bargain buying. Check the local weekly circulars for coupons and sales before you go as well. Many grocery stores, especially local and regional ones, post their circulars online – useful if you do not subscribe to a local newspaper. Also, when purchasing fresh produce (root veggies and apples are mainly exempt), you should have an idea of what to do with it before you buy. Don’t buy green beans because they are on sale and then proceed to not cook for a week and discover they are moldy. If you see something on sale and don’t have a recipe in your head for it, you can’t buy the other ingredients you may need and therefore will not make it.

Okay! That’s ten! That’s a good place to stop, right? I am assuming through all of this, of course, that you know how to cook creatively from scratch and with fresh ingredients. It’s really not as hard as it looks. Here are a few more cooking tips/cheater’s hints, in case you need them:

Cooking meat is easy. Most meats can be baked at 375 F for 20-50 minutes. They should, however, have some kind of liquid or fat on them to keep them moist (unless they come pre-marinated), particularly if they are being cooked for longer. Meat can also be cooked on the stovetop with oil in a skillet. Moderate heat is the key here, so that the outside doesn’t burn while the inside is raw. If you want a crispy outside, turn up the heat at the end. Not sure if your meat is done? Here is a good way to check all meats for doneness: take a knife and cut into the thickest part. Poultry should be completely white and the meat should be firm, not squishy (though juices are a good thing). Pork should be fully grey/white or just the tiniest bit pink. Beef depends on your preference, but for saftey’s sake, the pink on the inside should probably be at least warm to the touch. Like many Americans, I prefer my beef medium-well, which means just a little pink on the inside that is hot to the touch.

Cooking vegetables is even easier. On the stovetop, green vegetables (broccoli, green beans, peas, etc.) should be dropped in boiling water and boiled for only a few minutes or they will lose their color and start to get mushy. Cabbage and spinach may be treated similarly, but should be boiled for slightly longer or until tender. Potatoes should be in similar sizes (whole or cut) and should be place in cold water to cover, then brought to a boil and boiled for around 5 minutes or until they easily slide off when pierced with a fork. Other root vegetables like carrots can be treated similarly. Vegetables may also be stir-fried or fat-fried. Remember that dense vegetables (potatoes, carrots, etc.) take longer to cook than juicy ones (radishes, baby greens, celery) and that they should be cooked in that order. The great thing about vegetables is that you won’t get sick if they are a little underdone. Better a little crunchy than mushy, in my opinion. Add oil nearly to cover the bottom of a skillet for frying and watch for spatters – don’t heat until smoking or it will splash! Use less of a high-heat oil (like sesame or peanut) and a little soy or hoisin or fish or hot sauce for stir-frying.

Roasting or baking vegetables is another quick and easy way to prepare them. For dense veggies such as root vegetables, cut them all similar sizes or some will cook before others. For roasting, toss veggies lightly in oil and whatever spices you want and place on a lipped cookie sheet and bake around 400 F for 15-20 minutes for cruciferous veggies, 20-40 for root veggies, depending on size and thickness. For baking or braising, place in an oven proof dish (glass is nicely non-reactive) that is greased and/or that contains some kind of fat or liquid and bake at 350-400 F. If you have an ovenproof lid that fits the dish, all the better. Again, if you are not sure when or if the veggies are done, pierce the thickest one with a fork – if it pierces easily and/or slides off easily, they are done.

Cooking rice, pasta, and grains is also easy. Pasta should be dropped into boiling salted water and boiled at a medium-speed (not boiling over, but not simmering) until desired tenderness is reached, which should take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, but test to make sure. A good rule of thumb for cooking rice and grains is 2 parts liquid to one part grain, but always check the package for cooking instructions. Any rice or grain can be made into risotto by stirring frequently to bring out creaminess instead of letting stand to steam off the liquid and make a fluffy grain. A risotto-style dish will need frequent infusions of liquid, however.

Cooking canned goods is ridiculously easy. All they really need is to be heated up. Canned tomatoes and vegetables and beans are already cooked, which is why they are such easy additions to skillet meals and soups (though I tend to avoid canned veggies other than tomatoes and beans as a personal preference).

Cooking fruits is best done gently. You do not generally want to boil fruits, unless you want fruit soup. Poaching in liquid (basically simmering in something other than water, such as syrup or wine) is nice for a dessert to be topped with liquid or whipped cream or ice cream. Baking is especially nice for apples and pears. You can make chutneys and sweet sauces by coarsely chopping the fruit and cooking down with just a little liquid (1/4 cup should suffice for 1-2 cups fruit), sweetening if necessary, and various spices. Garlic and honey go well with fruit for sweet/savory sauces. Apple cider vinegar and a little brown sugar is nice for fruits and vegetables.

Making sauces is a little trickier. A good white sauce should be a 1:1:4 ratio of fat and flour and milk (1/4 c. each of butter and flour and 1 c. milk is a good recipe). Let the butter melt over medium heat until it bubbles. Whisk flour gradually in to make a thick but smooth paste. Gradually whisk in milk. Add salt, pepper, shredded cheese, spices, etc. Tomato sauces are easily had from a jar and a can of diced tomatoes makes a lovely addition, as do sauteed onions and/or garlic. Cream cheese and a tablespoon or two of dijon mustard added to a white sauce gives it a  lovely, tangy taste. Fruit sauces simply require cooking fruit over low heat until mush and adding desired spice and sweetening. Cooked pears and mustard make a lovely sauce. Vinaigrettes are also nice when hot – 3:2:1 is a nice ratio for olive oil, white wine vinegar, and dijon mustard (3 tablespoons olive oil, 2-3 tablespoons vinegar, 1 tablespoon mustard) and are great for topping green vegetables, onions, potatoes, and pastas.

Okay, so this probably should have been two separate posts, but hey, it’s all written down now, so I’m not going to change it. This is pretty much how I operate my kitchen and it’s worked out quite well. I’m always trying new things (within reason) and keeping an eye out for bargains. And really, eating in season is becoming quite fun!

Any tips or tricks of your own you’d like to add? Please comment! I’m always interested to hear how other people run their kitchens. You probably do the dishes every night and don’t ever let your green beans go moldy because you forgot about them. Unlike me. : D

2 Comments leave one →
  1. GarlicMan76458 permalink
    September 25, 2009 8:40 AM

    Found you thru Civil Eats blog.

    Always ask for a senior discount, especially at the big groceries. Here in Texas, I casually (jokingly) asked for my senior discount at the cash register and one of the assistant mgrs overheard my request to the cashier and he came over and pushed a few buttons on the register and now I get an ADDITIONAL 10% discount on all store brand items even if they are on sale!!!

    They didn’t card me and most places will not asd for age id… just ask and you shall receive!

    That’s my two cents worth, spend it wisely.

  2. vintagejenta permalink*
    September 26, 2009 9:01 AM

    Haha! That would probably work, except that I’m only 24. But I will have to try that someday!

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