Thrifty Menu Management

It’s important that you assess your recipes to see which are good choices for your meal-planning methods and which may need to be moved to the “only for special occasion” section of the file box. When your budget bottom line is on the line, you may need to break free from long-ingrained recipe ruts.

Beyond choosing specific foods to serve in your meals, other general guidelines of meal management can greatly affect your food costs. Try some of the following ideas:

1. Be open to new ideas. If the recipes you commonly use don’t adapt well to budget-wise cooking, find new recipes. Go to your local library and the Internet for inexpensive recipe ideas.

2. Simplify your meals. Dinners can be greatly simplified by serving less costly food mixtures than the typical, American meat-and-potato meal, such as casseroles or soups. Everyday-fare combination dishes, such as soups, stews, salads, skillet, and slow-cooker meals, will trim you budget and provide good nutrition.

3. Replace expensive ingredients with less-expensive ones. This practice allows you to retain the same nutritive value in a dish for far less money. For example, use chicken legs and thighs instead of chicken breasts, powdered milk instead of fresh milk, broccoli instead of asparagus, and bread in place of rolls.

4. Use less costly food forms. Substituting different food forms requires you to compare the price of canned, frozen, fresh, and dried foods. Although one food form, such as frozen, may normally be cheaper than others, a sale may give a temporary price advantage to a different form. For instance, in-season fresh fruits and vegetables almost always cost less than their frozen or canned counterparts.

5. Be flexible enough to make last-minute changes. If you are at the supermarket and notice an unadvertised special that could be substituted for a more expensive meal you were planning, don’t be afraid to make the switch. However, substituting better priced items as you shop should be carefully distinguished from impulse buying.

Don’t panic over prices when items you need or want are predicted to skyrocket in price. Prices tend to fluctuate.

In the meantime, there are other fruits that supply the same nutrients and taste good. If lettuce is too high, buy cabbage. If hamburger is too high, buy chicken. Do not allow price panic to influence your budget.

6. Don’t be afraid to experiment. A look at your old, standby recipes may reveal that many of them are based on simple patterns of meal preparation. For example, all casseroles include a meat-grain-vegetable combination with a sauce to hold it all together. Which meat, which grain, which vegetable, and which sauce is fairly interchangeable.

If a recipe calls for green beans and you only have peas, try peas. If it calls for rice and you’re running low, throw in egg noodles instead. Observe your recipes closely, comparing recipes for the same types of dishes. Note which ingredients seem to be essential to each recipe in about the same proportions.

7. Trim the use of convenience foods. Time is money, especially in our fast-paced society, and there’s nothing wrong with planning to use convenience foods when they truly give you more time with your family or more time to finish a project with an encroaching deadline—just don’t become accustomed to relying on them entirely.

Expensive Conveniences

Very few people would favor a return to growing and harvesting all their own food, grinding their own grain, and making their own bread. Yet many of today’s convenience would take only a few minutes or even a few seconds for you to perform for yourself.

Turning on the Faucet. Unlike some convenience foods that save a significant amount of time and labor, many ready-to-serve soups and drinks only save you the few seconds it takes to add your own water—purchasing them in condensed form is more economical. You can purchase other foods in dry or concentrated form as well, including salad dressing, sauces, gravies, pudding, juice, and milk.

Spicing Up the Basics. Rice with seasonings added, oatmeal with spices, frozen vegetables in butter sauce, or boil-in-a-bag pasta salad usually cost double the price of purchasing the basic food and adding your own flavorings. Make your own salad seasonings, your own pancake mixes, or even your own pre-frozen meals that can later be pulled out and use at your convenience. Simply double your meals when you cook, and freeze the extra one for another day.

A Little Extra Labor. You can expect to pay more than double the price to buy your vegetables precut into serving-size pieces, or your salad greens washed, cut, and ready to dump into a bowl. You also pay half again as much per pound to have cheese sliced, grated, and individually wrapped in plastic. The time it may take to slice your own meat and cheese, or to prepare broccoli florets at home is worth it when your budget is on the line.

If you can spare more time, you can cut costs even more significantly. Dry cereals are one of the most expensive purchases you can make at the supermarket. Hot cereals and homemade granola, which take minutes to prepare, can beat them in taste as well as price. Homemade baking mix is versatile and so easy to make.

With your meal-management strategies in place and your menu plans made, the buying blueprint is in order to help beat the high cost of eating.

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