Thursday 10 July 2014

How To Provide Variety In Your Menus While On A Tight Budget

A Facebook friend wrote to me recently, asking how I provide variety in our menus while sticking to a tight budget.  It's the kind of question I love to answer.  I thought you might like to read the reply I sent her (with a little added information) so here it is:

I work hard to add variety to our diet but it's taken a long time both to establish the stockpile of home canned and frozen foods that allow me to do so, and to find a way to do it affordably. With food prices going up the way they are, it's a ever-greater challenge too! 

Here are a few things that work for me: 

We shop for produce seasonally, buying what's available when it's at its best price. This applies to fresh vegetables and fruit for our table and to produce for my home canning.  

I participate in the Good Food Box program, a co-ooperative bulk buying program.  The price of the box ($10.00 here) is paid in advance each month and the money collected is pooled to purchase produce either directy from local growers or - if that's not possible - direct from a wholesaler.  The bulk purchases are then divided, packed and distributed by volunteers.  Because there is no retail mark up and there are no labour costs involved, the money spent goes a lot further than it would in a grocery store.  The photo above displays the contents of one box, purchased in December.

If I do splurge on pricey produce, I buy a small quantity and use it to accent the flavour to a dish rather than using it as the main feature in a meal.

I put away at least $75 each month into a designated account I use specifically for purchasing extra produce when it's in season. I put that food by for the long months between October and July when local produce is not so readily available and vegetables and fruit are more costly.  When our budget is tight it can be a real stretch for us to come up with the extra money needed for the preserving account, but it's important enough to us that we're willing do without other things in order to do so.

We have at least three, and more often four or five days each week, when we don't eat meat. It's a big ticket item in our grocery stores. Even when they're pricey, vegetables and fruit are almost always a less expensive alternative than meat. Our meatless meals do still contain proteins: either plant based (beans, nuts, seeds, and pulses), or eggs and - in moderate amounts - cheese.

I try to buy the meat we do eat on sale, and to discount the purchase further by using coupons. Meat coupons are almost never available here but I buy the gas needed for my commute to work at the gas bar of a local grocery store. They issue $0.05 in coupons for every litre of gas purchased.  I use those coupons towards my meat purchases.

I forage for wild food regularly, even during the winter months. This area has an abundance of edible plants and I gather clams, oysters, mussels, and limpets from the shore. Depending upon the time of year and where I'm foraging, I can also gather kelp and other edible sea plants. 

It often costs less to cook in larger quanitites so, even though there are only two of us in our household, I usually cook more than I need for a single meal.  I freeze or can the leftovers for future meals, or use them as ingredients in new dishes over the following days.

My gardening options are limited because I live in an apartment, but I do grow herbs, salad greens, carrots, radishes, beans, and tomatoes on my balcony and windowsills. During the winter months I also grow sprouts to use in place of expensive out-of-season salad greens.

I prepare almost all of our baked goods at home and, 
to help keep the costs down, I buy my flour, sugar, and yeast in large quantities at Costco or from a bakery wholesaler.

We are blessed to have family and friends who hunt and fish. Sometimes I trade home baking for a portion of their catch.

Perhaps most important to keeping our budget in line, I'm an absolute bear about waste. 
In order to reduce the possibility of spoilage, I buy produce for our table in small quantities as we need it. I label and date everything that goes in the freezer and pantry, and I keep an inventory so that what we have on hand is used in a timely fashion. Leftovers are treated as an opportunity to make new dishes. Our lunches are planned around leftovers and many of our main dishes too. We work very hard to use up every bit of food we have. If you're discarding food, you might just as well thow your money directly into the bin and save yourself the effort of shopping. 

I hope this is of some help to you. Many smart, frugal cooks participate in the "what's for supper" string on my Facebook page too. They share lots of helpful ideas.  Do stop by for some inspiration, and to share ideas of your own.  We love it when new voices join the conversation.