Lately, it seems that some of the most common New Year’s resolutions seek improvements in matters that deal with two basic life necessities: food and money. Fortunately, it is possible to tackle both at once and save money by eating healthy!
One of the most critical strategies to eating well for less is to cook more. For really busy times, convenience foods such as microwaveable meals, boxed meal “helpers,” and single-serve instant noodles are quick options; however, it is best not to depend on these products all the time. Convenience foods can be high in added salt, sugar, and fats. They are also generally more expensive than homemade meals because the cost of packaging and processing is automatically included in the price.
Homemade meals, on the other hand, are healthier options that cost less than most packaged foods. The home chef has more control over the ingredients that go into the dish, and the end result tends to taste better than a manufactured meal. In most cases, purchasing ingredients is also less expensive than to purchase something ready-made. It is especially gratifying to cook a large quantity of food in order to have enough left over for several days.
One of the first steps to making cooking easier is to keep the kitchen stocked with the ingredients for making healthy meals and snacks. This is especially useful for busy days when you can grab a few essential ingredients and toss something together in a hurry. With fewer trips to the grocery store and less dependence on expensive fast food or convenience foods, you’ll be cooking your way to better health in no time!
Think of a well-stocked kitchen as a work in progress rather than an all-or-nothing kitchen make-over. Careful planning and small adjustments to your grocery list each month will allow you to stock the kitchen according to your own budget and available space.
Try these simple steps to get started:
1) First, look at what you already have in the pantry, fridge, and freezer.
2) Check dates and dispose of any food that is expired, rotten, or moldy. Some foods may still be good past their expiration dates, but when in doubt, throw it out.
3) Follow the FIFO rule: First in, first out. Start the habit of rotating older foods to the front of the shelves so that they will be used before they go bad.
4) Keep a track of items to replenish or replace. Some people like to keep a running grocery list on the fridge or other convenient place so that items are added when needed.
5) Set aside money each month to replenish staples and canned goods.
6) If money is tight, start small. Purchase one extra canned good each month, or save up for an economy-sized bag of flour or rice. Sometimes friends and families split the cost of large bulk purchases.
7) Keep some ready-to-eat packaged foods on hand in case of an emergency or power outage.
Good staples for the pantry include whole grains such as brown rice, whole-grain pasta, and whole grain flours. Dry yeast, sourdough starter, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda are great for making homemade baked goods. A variety of canned and frozen vegetables and fruits are helpful for busy days. Dried fruits and nuts make excellent snacks and can be found in the bulk section of many stores. Dried beans, lentils, and peas are nutritious, economical sources of protein that keep well in the pantry. Canned fish, either store-bought or processed at home, is a vitamin-packed source of lean protein. Powdered dry milk can be an economical solution if milk is not consumed quickly enough in your household. Spices, herbs, and simple condiments are also important additions to delicious dishes.
Remember to keep a variety of food storage containers for storing leftovers. Aluminum foil, plastic recloseable bags, storage containers (plastic, glass, and ceramic), markers, and labels are a few important supplies. I have saved a lot of money on storage containers by reusing large yogurt containers and old glass jars since these vessels are paid for and more useful in my kitchen than in the landfill.
A well-stocked kitchen makes grocery store visits efficient and brief since you will only need to purchase perishable goods such as fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meats, and any other items on that handy list.
Once your kitchen is on its way to being stocked up, avoid food spoilage and keep the food fresh for longer by practicing good food storage habits. Learn the best ways to store different kinds of foods. For instance, while most vegetables need to be stored in the refrigerator, tomatoes retain more nutrients when not refrigerated. Onions should be stored away from potatoes. Shelf-stable foods such as canned goods, cereals, baking mixes, oils, spices, and condiments should all be stored away from the stove and other heat sources. To retain freshness, avoid sprinkling herbs and spices directly over a steaming pot. Instead, use a dry, clean spoon to scoop out the amount needed to add to the recipe.
The Food Keeper: A Consumer Guide to Food Quality and Safe Handling, is an excellent publication from the Food Marketing Institute that provides more detailed information about recommended amounts of time different kinds of food can be stored in the pantry, fridge, and freezer.
The investment of a little time and money into organizing a well-stocked kitchen will pay off in the form of saving money on simple, delicious meals throughout the New Year. Have a happy, healthy 2012!
— For publications and newsletters about eating well on a budget, visit the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service at the UAS Bill Ray Center in downtown Juneau, or visit www.uaf.edu/ces
— A copy of the Food Keeper publication can be found at the Extension office or downloaded at www.fmi.org/consumer/FoodKeeper/Food_Keeper_Brochure.pdf
— Past issues of Food $ense, a local newsletter about eating well on a budget can be found at www.uaf.edu/ces/hhfd
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org