Category: Eating Well on a Budget

Cook and bake with what you have

 

Since we’re all trying to stay home and avoid random trips to the store, it can be tough to cook when you don’t have all of the ingredients your favorite recipes call for. The good news is, there are often many ways to swap things out, and you may find alternatives that you like better than the original!

Start off with this list of ideas to keep you cookin’. Keep in mind, all of these swaps can go the other direction too!

 



 

If your recipe calls for… You can use… Things to note
sour cream plain yogurt (or Greek yogurt)
cream 1 c. milk + 2-3 Tbsp melted butter
egg (in baking) 1 Tbsp chia or flax seeds soaked in 3 Tbsp water (1 egg equivalent)

OR

1/2 mashed banana

These alternatives will replace the binding properties of an egg in baking, but not necessarily the flavor of an egg.
baking powder 1 part baking soda + 2 parts cream of tartar This is actually the recipe for baking powder – you can make it at home anytime!
cream of tartar 1 part white vinegar + 1 part lemon juice
cream cheese cottage cheese, pureed until smooth
bacon bacon bits, Canadian bacon, ham to replicate the flavor of bacon only, use liquid smoke
bread crumbs crackers, oats, or stale bread (blend to crumb in food processor), crushed bran cereal for seasoned bread crumbs, add salt and herbs like parsley, oregano, and rosemary
rice pasta, couscous, bulgur, quinoa, barley, potato flakes
syrup for sweetness/flavor applesauce
wine broth add some vinegar for tartness/flavor if desired
raisins dried cranberries, blueberries, or cherries, chopped dried apples, chocolate chips
vinegar white wine, lemon or lime juice, sauerkraut juice (yes, really!)
mayonnaise plain yogurt, sour cream
broth boullion cube/paste/powder
butter shortening, margarine, oil Most oils will not work well to substitute for butter in pastry baking, because it requires the fat to be solid. Coconut oil will sometimes work.
brown sugar 1 c white sugar + 1 Tbsp molasses This is the recipe for brown sugar – you can make it at home anytime!
buttermilk plain yogurt or 1 c. milk + 1 Tbsp lemon juice or white vinegar
dark corn syrup molasses, maple syrup, light corn syrup + brown sugar
light corn syrup honey
tomato sauce 1 part tomato sauce + 1 part water
cinnamon nutmeg
beer apple cider vinegar, beef broth
fresh herbs 1/3 recommended amount of dried herbs
hot sauce 3 parts cayenne pepper + 1 part vinegar, diced jalapeños
salt crushed boullion cube, soy sauce, parmesan
flour (for thickening soups or sauces) 1/4 c. cornstarch + 2 Tbsp cold water, potato flakes
pesto sauteed spinach or kale + garlic + olive oil + salt Add pine nuts and some parmesan cheese if you have them!

 



 

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This fruit-and-nut granola bar recipe is versatile, nutritious, and delicious. Make it with ingredients you already have – clean out that pantry and save money!

 

 

Eating Well on a Budget Recipes

 

We interrupt our regularly scheduled keto feature to bring you “Nutrition in Quarantine!” We are in strange times, folks. Many of us have been in Coronavirus quarantine for at least a few days now and some are struggling to access the foods they typically eat. Now is a great time to complete a pantry or freezer challenge (or both!). These challenges involve “shopping” and meal planning primarily from the foods available in your pantry or freezer. They are typically used to prevent food waste, clean out your cupboards, and save money on food. In this case, the challenge will accomplish these goals as well as help you navigate nutrition throughout your time at home. I’ll take you through the process of a pantry challenge step-by-step. I’ll also be holding a Facebook Live event this Friday, March 20th at 12:30 pm PST for Pantry Challenge Q&A. Mark your calendars to join me on my Dietitian on a Diet Facebook page!

 

advertising Facebook Live pantry challenge

 

So let’s start our pantry/freezer challenge!

 

Step 1: Take Inventory

This can be a tedious process, but it’s crucial that you at least have some written representation of what is available to do the challenge most effectively. If it’s been a while since you’ve cleaned out your freezer or pantry, this could take a while but the silver lining is, this challenge will be easier the more you have available! I recommend separating your list into things that need to be used up (usually perishable foods or those nearing expiration), and things that you have available but will keep for a while. To simplify the process, feel free to lump foods you know you have into categories. For example, instead of writing “flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, etc.” it’s fine to write “baking supplies.” Each week it will be easier since you’ll have the list from the week before.

 



 

Here’s my first week pantry challenge inventory for an example:

Need to use up:

Available

Dairy cottage cheese x 2
feta
cream cheese
frozen ricotta cheese
cheddar cheese
1/2 gallon chocolate milk
Veggies asparagus
water chestnuts
pickled beets
onion
cauliflower
mushrooms
baby tomatoes
peas/corn/carrots
mixed veggies
frozen stir-fried veggies
frozen pumpkin puree
frozen diced onions/peppers
canned green beans
Protein hummus 2 links chicken sausage
1 frozen cooked pork chop
1 large frozen swai fillet
2 pcs cooked frozen carnitas
frozen cooked turkey
2 c. frozen ham
frozen ground beef
2 whole turkeys
frozen top round steak
dry beans/lentils
mixed nuts
Grains/Starches red potatoes
MaSeCa
corn meal
3 whole wheat + 8 white hot dog buns
frozen tater tots
6 sesame seed hamburger buns
frozen cheddar jalapeno bagels
1/2 box Cheez-Its
pita bread
tortillas
quinoa/rice/pasta/oats
Ethiopian injera bread
baking supplies
Fruit dried fruits/raisins frozen berries
15 gallons apple cider
frozen plums
canned peaches/pears/applesauce
Miscellaneous beef broth
ground flaxseed
red curry paste
Schezuan seasoning

Step 2: Mix and Match to Make Meal Ideas

Sometimes groups of foods will stand out to you as things that go together well. For example, in my list, I see turkey, tomato, onion, pitas, and hummus that could go together to make gyros. Make a list of possible meal or recipe ideas that you see from the list you have available. For certain rarely-used ingredients, think of the recipe you bought them for in the first place. For me, I buy MaSeCa corn flour to make pupusas (Salvadoran savory corn “pancakes”). I have never actually used it for anything else. Fortunately for me, I see the rest of the ingredients for pupusas on my list, so that’s going to be an option.

A couple of tips for this step:

  • Catch-alls: Curries, stir-fries, soups, scrambles, smoothies, and compotes are all examples of dishes that can be made with a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables. For more info on catch-alls, check out this post.
  • Recipe by ingredient resources: Websites/apps like Supercook or the Diabetes Food Hub (even if you don’t have diabetes!) allow you to search their databases by the ingredients you have available.

You can see my list of possible meal ideas below.

  • turkey dinner w/mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans
  • Thai curry
  • lasagna casserole
  • gyros
  • macaroni and cheese
  • steak, potatoes, and veggies
  • breakfast cookies
  • baked beans w/ham and cornbread
  • masala lentils w/Ethiopian injera bread
  • pupusas
  • fruit & nut granola bars



 

Step 3: Select Your Meals

Decide if your goal is to get through the week without shopping at all, or if you plan to make a small grocery shopping trip. Skim your list to choose meals that use as many of your “need to use up” ingredients as possible, and don’t need ingredients you don’t have or can’t substitute (if you’re aiming not to shop – I’ll have a post coming up soon on making substitutions!). If there are things that you will need, make a shopping list. Here’s my first week’s meal plan:

Monday: steak, potatoes, veggies
Tuesday: leftovers
Wednesday: lasagna casserole
Thursday: Thai turkey red curry
Friday: macaroni and cheese with sausage
Saturday: potluck (bring 2 gallons cider)

Step 4: Shop if Needed

Head to the store and pick up the few things you might need if you’re planning to shop. With my first week, I was able to cut my grocery bill from my usual $100 per week to only $54!

 

Hopefully these tips will help you feel more confident in using the food that you already have in your pantry or freezer. Not stressing about food can be a huge comfort in the midst of all of the confusion. I would be remiss if I did not mention that my greatest source of peace and comfort in all of this is knowing that God is in control, that Jesus died for me, and that no matter what happens, I’m in good hands. I hope you know the same peace and comfort, so the stresses of the world shrink in comparison to His goodness and grace. Hang in there, folks – we will get through this!

 



 

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Should I buy organic

 

To wrap up our series on Eating Well on a Budget, we’ll address one of the more common questions I get as a dietitian: is it worth spending more money on organic foods?

The answer is complex and individual. There are so many factors to consider – research, finances, and health concerns to name a few. The answer is a personal choice based on your consideration of all of these factors and how they interact in your own life. In an effort to inform those decisions, we will discuss some of the research surrounding these topics.

What Makes Produce Organic?

 

The USDA allows the use of the term “organic” on produce and products that meet the following criteria:

  • produce or ingredients are “…certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”
  • Do not contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors
  • Not grown or handled using genetically modified organisms”1

 

Is Organic Produce Healthier?

 

Food that meets organic criteria also often touts a higher price tag (49% higher, according to Consumer Reports2). So for the budget- and health-conscious consumer, the question is: does eating organic vs. non-organic foods have a significant impact on my health?

The trickiest part about answering that question is that humans are such complicated critters…it is difficult to tease out the health impacts of something like eating organic produce vs. non-organic produce because in most cases, the effects of that decision would be long-term – some even lifelong. That makes research difficult, because over the course of a lifetime there are so many confounding factors that it is darn near impossible to definitively pinpoint a specific cause or even correlational relationship. For example, since organic produce is more expensive, those who eat organically-grown produce regularly might be more likely to have higher incomes than those who don’t. If there is a difference in health outcomes, could it be due to living in less polluted areas or having better health care? I’m not sure that there will ever be a direct, consistent, and documented difference in many of cases, for that reason.

Instead, what often happens is that research tends to produce a lot of conflicting or confusing results. Here are the findings of a just a handful of different research studies:

  • A study of organic vs. non-organically-grown greens found that organically grown spinach had higher concentrations of iron, zinc, and calcium than non-organically grown spinach, but no difference between organically vs. non-organically grown romaine. Non-organic romaine contained higher concentrations of magnesium than organic romaine.3
  • In a review of the nutritional content of organic vs. non-organic produce, organic foods were “nutritionally superior” (based on an assessment of the content of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, nitrates and protein) in 61% of cases, while non-organic produce was “nutritionally superior” in 37% of cases.4
  • The USDA’s report on pesticide testing in 2016 found that more than 99.5% of foods tested “well below” benchmark safety levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency.” 22% of the samples had no detectable pesticide residue.5
  • Meanwhile, other studies have linked intakes of foods with higher pesticide residues with fertility issues. Non-organic produce with lower pesticide levels had no negative effect on fertility.6, 7

 

Just a little research muddies the water a bit, doesn’t it?

 



 

Is Buying Organic Produce Worth It?

In these cases I keep a mental category of recommendations that I call “common sense” recommendations. These recommendations apply to these complicated situations where research makes things less, rather than more, clear. Common sense would tell us that it is probably best for us to eat in the form in which God provided it to us. Common sense tells us that it is probably best to eat foods that was not grown with chemicals designed to kill other life forms.

That being said, these “common sense” recommendations are not wholeheartedly supported by research, as you saw above. They are not, by any means, hard and fast rules and, as mentioned earlier, there are many factors to consider.

One thing we absolutely know for sure is that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables every day is significantly beneficial for cancer prevention, heart health, reducing inflammation, and so many other health conditions.2 Those benefits exist regardless of whether those fruits and vegetables are organic or not. I can say with certainty that eating several servings per day of non-organic produce is much more beneficial than no produce at all! So that’s where it ultimately comes down to personal choice. You need to balance your own personal health goals with your own personal budget. For those who feel that they would like to limit their exposure to pesticide residues but simply find it beyond what their grocery budget allows, there are a few options:

  • Prioritize your purchases: Each year, the Environmental Working Group produces a list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen. These are the produce items with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue, respectively. If you can’t afford to buy all organically-grown produce, you can prioritize the dirty dozen items as organic to reduce your pesticide exposure.
  • Look for a cropshare or a wonky produce subscription: Small family farms and waste prevention programs have created subscription services to purchase local organic produce. Some of these programs feature fruits and vegetables of unusual size or shape that grocery stores don’t want to sell. These programs offer these items at reduced cost to consumers to prevent food waste. Check out Imperfect Produce to see if they provide these services in your area!
  • Grown your own: This can certainly be a commitment, but the benefits are so delicious! You’ll enjoy fresh, tasty food grown in your own yard, containers, or window boxes. You can even use SNAP/EBT benefits to purchase seeds for growing. If you’re a total newbie, ask Google or a local librarian to help you find info on growing your own crops of delicious (and very low cost) produce.

 



 

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References

  1. McEvoy, M. “Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Really Means.” U. S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means.
  2. “Eat the Peach, Not the Pesticide: Our new produce guidelines show you how to make the best choices for your health and for the environment.” Consumer Reportshttps://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health/natural-health/pesticides/index.htm.
  3. Rose, S. B. et al. “Mineral Content of Organic and Conventionally Grown Spinach and Lettuce.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. September 2011. 111:9S. p A45. https://jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(11)00868-6/pdf.
  4. Benbrook, C. et al. “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods.” The Organic Center. March 2008. https://www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/5367_Nutrient_Content_SSR_FINAL_V2.pdf.
  5. “USDA Releases 2016 Annual Pesticide Data Program Summary.” United States Department of Agriculture. February 2018. https://www.ams.usda.gov/press-release/usda-releases-2016-annual-pesticide-data-program-summary.
  6. Chiu, Y. et al. “Association Between Pesticide Residue Intake and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Women Undergoing Fertility Treatment With Assisted Reproductive Technology.” Journal of the American Medical Association. January 2018. 178:1. p 17-26. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2659557?alert=1
  7. Chiu, Y. et al. “Fruit and vegetable intake and their pesticide residues in relation to semen quality among men from a fertility clinic. Human Reproduction. June 2015. 30:6. p. 1342-1351. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25824023.

Eating Well on a Budget

Saving money on food

 

So far in this Eating Well on a Budget series, we’ve already covered several ways you can save money on groceries right away – meal planning, buying in bulk, effective couponing, and preventing food wasteToday I’ll share about one of the things I do throughout the year to save money in the future: food preservation. 

This is one of the ways I am able to keep our grocery budget at $100 per week for a family of four. When you preserve delicious in-season produce purchased at rock-bottom prices, you aren’t going to be paying absurdly high prices for sub-par flavorless produce the rest of the year. Each year I spend about $250 on produce to preserve, which would add $4.80 to each week’s budget, though I hope to reduce that by growing a garden next summer. Even without the garden, it’s definitely cheaper than buying fresh (and not as tasty) produce throughout the year.

Start with this post to help you know when to buy the cheapest and most delicious produce en masse. Buy them in boxes from a local farm stand. Start small – you can always adjust the amount next year. Then, decide how you’d like to preserve all that tasty nutrition. We’re going to talk about three easy methods of food preservation: freezing, drying, and canning.

 



 

Freezing

 

how to freeze foods to save money

 

Freezing is the simplest method of food preservation, as it does not require special equipment and takes the least amount of time and preparation. Often, all you need is a freezer bag and a permanent marker. Personally, I choose to freeze berries, jams, corn, and meat. I like the way these foods come out when frozen much better than when they are canned or dried. Applesauce and stock are great frozen as well. For most foods, you can simply place them in a zip-close freezer bag with the date and description written on it until you are ready to use them, though it is much easier if you take a little time to prep them first.

 

  • Berries: Wash berries and remove stem, if there is one. Spread berries one layer thick on baking sheets and freeze for two hours. Remove from sheets and place into labeled freezer bags. Freezing on sheets makes them much easier to separate and use throughout the year.
  • Jams: Prepare according to freezer jam pectin instructions (or try a chia jam recipe like this one – I haven’t done this myself yet, but I plan  to try it…let me know if you have experience with chia jam!) and pour into a labeled freezer-safe container (leave 1” of space for expansion).
  • Corn: Carefully remove corn kernels from cobs with a sharp knife (hold the cob vertically and shave down and away from you). Place kernels in labeled freezer bags.
  • Meat: Place meat in a labeled freezer bag. If you want, you can trim and cut it first, but you don’t need to.
  • Applesauce/stock: Follow the instructions on your favorite applesauce or stock recipe. Pour cooled applesauce/stock into labeled freezer-safe containers (leave 1” of space for expansion).

 

Keep tabs on what’s in your freezer – don’t let perfectly good food sink and sink and sink into the deep-freeze abyss, only to be tossed due to years-old freezerburn. This process is about saving money, not tossing it! Taking quick stock during your budget-driven meal planning is a great way to make sure you’re cycling through things and saving money!

 

Tip: You certainly don’t need one, but a vacuum sealer is a handy tool for freezing, as it removes all of the air from the bags your food is preserved in, saving space and preserving freshness even more!

 



 

Drying/Dehydrating

Also very simple, drying/dehydrating foods can be a great way to preserve nutritious food for meals and snacks 

throughout the year. You can dehydrate some foods in your oven, or you can use a dehydrator. They are about $30-40 online or in most kitchen or home goods stores.

Instructions for dehydration times vary depending on the food and recipe you are using. In general, the steps involve preparing the food you’d like to dehydrate, popping it in your oven or dehydrator, and waiting. It’s pretty much that simple.

For some example recipes, check out how you can make your own banana chips, raisins, beef jerky, or dehydrated meals for backpacking or an emergency kit. The dried food possibilities are pretty endless.

 

Tip: If you’re drying onions or garlic in a dehydrator, place it outside while it’s working. Trust me. Your house will smell like a sulfurous vegetable for days.

 



 

Canning

 

how to can fruit to save money

 

Canning is the most seemingly intimidating method of food preservation, and while it is a little more labor-intensive, it’s typically much easier than most people think! The simplest method is water bath canning, which can be used for high-acid fruits. For water bath canning, all you’ll need are prepared fruit, water or extra-light simple syrup, canning jars with matching rings and lids, a jar lifter, a canning rack,  and a very large stock pot. No pressure gauges, no fancy equipment (though if you can spend a tiny bit on a canning kit like this one it will definitely make it more convenient).

 

Basic steps for water bath canning

These steps are an overview – please check out more detailed instructions before canning to ensure safe results. 🙂

 

  1. While completing remaining steps, heat enough water to boiling in your stock pot to cover all of your canning jars when full.
  2. Place prepared fruit (in most cases, this means removing pits, stems, and peels, but check out the recommendations here) in hot, clean jars, leaving 1/2”-1” space at the top.
  3. Ladle hot syrup over top of fruit, leaving 1/2”-1” space at the top.
  4. Wipe the top rim of the jar with a clean rag to remove any debris or syrup. Place a hot lid on the jar and tighten a ring on top of it.
  5. Place jar gently in stock pot. When all jars are placed in stock pot, cover and bring to a boil. Boil for the recommended processing time for your specific fruit and size of jar.
  6. When processing is complete, gently remove the jars from the pot with your jar lifter. Place on a cooling rack in a non-drafty area and avoiding touching them as they cool. Over the course of the next hour or two, you should hear the satisfying sounds of the jars popping sealed. Congratulations!

 

See? Not so bad! In fact, it’s pretty darn fun, especially if you can with a friend or family member. Many hands makes light work! You can enjoy your home-canned goodies all year round.

You can also can lower-acid foods through a method called pressure canning. This is slightly more involved, but not by a lot. Follow these instructions for safe and simple pressure canning.

Tip: Home-canned fruits and vegetables will ruin you for the store-bought versions. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

 



 

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Eating Well on a Budget

eating well on a budget

 

While some sales come and go without warning, stores discount certain items on predictable sale cycles. These usually line up with holidays, seasons, or annual events (think back to school, etc). One way to lower your grocery (and overall household) budget is to work with the sale cycles as much as possible. Whenever a food or item is on sale, stock up! Buy as much as you can fit your budget and pantry and will reasonably use in the following year.

Produce, of course, also goes in and out of season. In-season produce is cheaper, more delicious, and more nutritious than out-of-season produce (which is usually picked before it is ripe and transported long distances to get to you). If your budget allows, purchase in-season produce in large volumes to preserve for the rest of the year. Food preservation is much simpler than you might think! Stay tuned, because I’ll be talking more about how to preserve foods to save money and boost nutrition in a future post.

Meanwhile, use this handy list to help guide you to a stockpile of useful items and nutritious foods, all purchased at rock-bottom prices. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars each year (and simultaneously upped the nutrition factor of our food) by following these sale cycles.

Click here for a free printable version of the list.

 



Sale Cycles

January

Food: broccoli*, cabbage*, tangerines/mandarins*, oatmeal, yogurt, chips, soda, Christmas candy

Household: exercise and fitness equipment, supplements, electronics, winter clothes, wrapping paper, Christmas decorations

February

Food: oranges*, kale*, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, canned goods, chocolate

Household: televisions, toothpaste/toothbrush, contraceptives, perfume

March

Food: avocados*, spinach*, frozen foods

Household: cleaning supplies, bleach

April

Food: bananas*, ham, eggs, Easter candy

Household: kitchenware, vacuums, cleaning supplies

 



 

May

Food: condiments, pickles, chips, hamburger patties/hot dogs and buns

Household: sunscreen, towels, paper/plastic plates and utensils

June

Food: strawberries*, watermelon*, milk, yogurt, condiments, pickles, chips, hamburger patties/hot dogs and buns

Household: sunscreen, paper/plastic plates and utensils, tools

July

Food: raspberries*, blackberries*, marionberries*

Household: sunscreen, aloe, paper/plastic plates and utensils, outdoor furniture

August

Food: cherries*, blueberries*, zucchini*, corn*, tomatoes*, cereal, lunch meat, cheese

Household: school/office supplies, clothes (including socks and underwear), tissues, bleach wipes, camping equipment, linens, pillows, towels

September

Food: peaches*, pears*, apples*, green beans*, live herbs

Household: school/office supplies, lawn mowers, barbecues, cellphones

 



 

October

Food: pumpkin (fresh* or canned), acorn or butternut squash*, potatoes (including sweet potatoes)*, candy, baking ingredients

Household: muffin cups, kitchen/baking utensils, tires

November

Food: turkey, boxed stuffing, baking ingredients, gelatin, marshmallows, gravy, broth, canned soup, canned green beans, Halloween candy

Household: toys, aluminum foil, electronics

December

Food: candy, baking ingredients, sweetened condensed milk

Household: wrapping paper, toys, batteries

 

*Produce seasonality varies by location. Click here to find a seasonal produce chart for your state.

 



 

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How to Meal Plan to Save Time and Money (with free printable meal-planning template)

 

Eating Well on a Budget Wellness Tips