When I first started cooking for my family, I used a lot of shortcuts. Packaged convenience meals and sides, like (generic) Hamburger Helper or Rice-A-Roni, were my go-to dinners. I would always add extra onion, garlic and whatever other vegetables I might have on hand to make it seem more like cooking; semi-homemade. Over time, I relied on the shortcut meals less and less, preferring to tackle recipes that used mostly whole foods.
As I made things from scratch, I realized that the boxed meals were not much more than a starch plus flavoring that you can usually get from a starter spice rack. If you compare the amount of pasta in a Hamburger Helper type meal and the cost of buying just the pasta part, you find that is it quite a bit more expensive. You also almost never have leftovers to enjoy the next day, which is a savings of time as well as money.
I learned how to make good soups and casseroles from basic pantry or freezer supplies. I planned ahead to have time to soak dried beans to make hummus or chili. I found recipes to recreate my favorite restaurant meals: Thai basil chicken, fajitas, tomato basil soup. Now, we spend a fraction of what we used to on our grocery bill. I freeze leftovers to use for lunches and emergency meals.
We also adjusted our portion sizes. I started Weight Watchers when my boys were small and I became very mindful about what and how much I was eating. As my portion sizes grew smaller, so did the ones I dished out for the family. Instead of giving the kids too much and wasting it, now they were eating a more proper amount and felt full when done. My husband could always go back for a second helping if he wished. This generally resulted in more leftovers, stretching our food budget further.
Back to the cost of "real" food. When I asked my friend what foods she used to buy that were cheaper, her two examples were both of meat. In the past, she would buy high fat ground beef and chicken drumsticks. Now she chooses leaner meats, like chicken breast but the cost is more.
Ground beef is tricky to compare because it is graded into different fat contents. The cheapest and highest fat content is 70/30, lean is considered to be 85/15 or even lower. When you compare prices, consider that you cook and drain off much of the fat when browning ground beef. A very low fat ground beef might only have 7% fat content, so will have very little to drain off, resulting in more cooked beef. Be sure you are buying the correct grade for your meal, lean ground beef makes dry burgers, for example.
I'm always looking for a sale on roasts or larger cuts of meat, as this is the most expensive part of most everyone's budget. I like to buy a low fat grade of ground beef in bulk at Costco. I freeze it in 1 or 2 pound sections to use for spaghetti sauce, tacos and meatloaf. Sometimes I will use ground turkey instead or a mixture of the two, depending on the price. I also look for marked down meats at the grocery store. Almost any type of meat can be used in stirfries and soups so buy what is on sale and improvise.
As for the chicken drumsticks, they are cheap but also contain a lot of bone and skin in proportion to the nutritious meat. If serving these for dinner, you would need some substantial sides to really satisfy a grown appetite. Drumsticks, and other bony cuts, can be a great resource for making your own homemade chicken broth. My favorite recipe consists of roasting the drumsticks and vegetables before adding them to the stockpot for an added richness. All the excess fat and skin will be removed before any of the broth is made. If you can freeze this, you can avoid buying packaged chicken broth and make the best chicken noodle soup for your family when they need it.
Consider adopting Meatless Mondays to introduce your family to vegetarian options, which tend to be healthier and cheaper. Beans are a particularly good nutritional resource but also try making hearty soups using lentils, quinoa or rice. All of these can be purchased in bulk for a lot cheaper. You can change the soup's consistency by using a blender or potato masher. This can be a good idea if you are trying to hide an unpopular vegetable.
One of my family's favorite soups is called "Spaghetti Soup". It consists of leftover spaghetti sauce, noodles and any vegetables I may have on hand. I sauté some onion and garlic in my soup pot and then just start cleaning my fridge. I may add a can of tomatoes or some frozen veggies if I feel like it. I make a similar "Taco Soup" with leftovers from tacos or fajitas. They always turn out different but are nearly always well received.
If you have any space, try growing some vegetables this summer. You can grow simple herbs and vegetables in containers on a deck or patio. I have always had good luck with lettuce and tomatoes, and strawberries if I can keep the slugs away. You can get deals on bulk produce at farmer's markets or even U-pick farms in your area. This can be fun for the kids and give you lots of material to freeze or can. And if you shop for what is in season, you can often get good deals on even expensive produce.
The last complaint I hear about "real" food is the extra time it takes. It is certainly easier to get fast food or take out but it is not going to be cheaper. Going to someplace like McDonald's will cost over $20 for a family of 4, which is plenty to cover a nice cut of meat and some organic veggies. Packaged or frozen meals usually have excess sodium and fat and they are not usually enough food on their own.
I use my crockpot a lot during the winter and grill up extra food in the summer for quick meals. I try not to waste anything I could use instead. I freeze some food as single servings, others as an entire meal for the family and still other food as prepared ingredients to throw together a quick weeknight dinner. Once you get used to cooking and meal planning, it doesn't really take that much extra time. You need to decide which short cuts are worth the extra money and which are worth the extra time.
For example, I rarely make spaghetti sauce from scratch. I usually buy a jar of tomato spaghetti sauce with as few ingredients as possible. Classico Tomato and Basil has no added sugar and is as tasty as I can make it myself. I add onions, garlic, celery, carrots or mushrooms; whatever I have on hand. Growing up, my mom used to do this and called it her mother's "secret recipe".
It is true that it takes more time to make things from scratch but the nutritional benefits are worth it to me. Start small and make easy changes, like drinking water instead of soda or using frozen veggies instead of canned. When your family is used to that, try adopting another healthy habit. You will be enjoying and affording real food before you know it.
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Thank you for sharing all your wonderful frugal and healthy ideas. I too have changed all my ways of shopping and cooking wisely. It has to be that way these days. Who can afford not to be frugal? I would enjoy your "Spaghetti Soup Recipe, please? Thanks again for sharing... :)
It's more of a dump soup than any actual recipe. I will try to keep track and take pictures the next time I make it. I always start with a sautéed onion and garlic and then add leftover sauce. I would add in carrots, celery, mushroom, tomatoes, some chicken (or veggie) broth and Italian seasonings. I've made it fast or simmered it in the crock pot all day. Cook the pasta in the soup for 20 minutes or so or add leftover cooked pasta right before serving. Yum!
I have almost always cooked from scratch. One thing about it when buy seasoning and spices they last for a good while so you dont have to buy them every time. There are so many recipe for make your own mixes such as the rice-a roni, sloppy joes , etc.
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