Okay, I’m no culinary genius but I do enjoy cooking. I also enjoy not wasting food (and money) as I seemed to do by the fridge-load in my younger, more frivolous, days. I’ve learned some tricks over the years that have helped me keep my fridge stocked without the danger of things going bad on my non-kitchen days AND ways to save money at the grocery store to save myself from breaking my family-of-(almost)six budget. Some of these ideas were “duh” ideas, meaning when I’d hear them I’d smack myself on the forehead for not doing them before! Others are ones I never would have thought of! So, bear with me, these are not for the super time and money-saving people out there, this is for the regular Joe’s who could use a bump in the right direction.
- Buy bulk. Okay, seems pretty “duh” right? Buying bulk or buying a lot of something that is on sale saves money–lots of it! I have a Sam’s Club membership which I use weekly. The only loophole to saving money at Sam’s (or other discount/bulk chains) is that they often only have “fancy brands” for certain items, brands I wouldn’t usually buy and so am not actually saving as much money. Just use your judgement (and calculator for per lb/oz/unit pricing!). Also, I used to buy bulk then lose half of what I bought because I didn’t know how to store things! Keep reading for my solutions to that problem.
- Freeze your cheese. It was an epiphany for me when I discovered that I could freeze all kinds of cheeses to keep them fresh (and non-moldy, I have a serious problem with mold). So, now I buy the giant bags of mozzarella cheese, something I only use for specific recipes, not every day, and freeze it. I recently had the brilliant notion to separate my pre-frozen mozzarella into quart ziplock bags so I could take out only what I needed instead of half thawing the whole bag every time! I also buy large blocks of cheese and freeze the entire thing or half at a time. It does thaw out a little crumblier (like when you’re grating it) than un-frozen cheese but it’s never really bothered me or my recipes. You can freeze ALL cheeses from parmesan to the soft cheeses like ricotta or cottage cheese. PLUS most dairy will stay fresh for a long time after it’s “good by” date if it is sealed shut (like sour cream with the foil still in tact) so feel free to keep it in the back of the refrigerator for a while (weeks, maybe months but not years), unopened. Use your judgement: if there is something growing on it or it has a bad smell then toss it, otherwise it’s good to go!
- Wrap your block cheese in tinfoil. Not sure why but it staves off the mold but it does. I’ll do ANYTHING to hold back the tide of mold!
- Freeze your rice. What? Rice in the freezer? This is my FAVORITE new trick! I learned it from a friend (who has her own blog: http://dumbblondeinthekitchen.blogspot.com/) I usually hate cooking rice. I takes so long and I used to always manage to burn something to the bottom… Anyway. Now I make a big pot. I pre-mix my rice (white and brown–I still love the consistency of white rice but like the nutrition of brown) and usually make at least 3 cups of rice (to 6 cups of water) at a time then when it’s cooled divide it up between a handful of quart bags (a perfect serving for my family, my husband and kids don’t eat much rice). Then to thaw it all I do is run the bag under hot water for a couple of minutes and then pop it in the microwave for a minute at a time, shaking it up in between heatings. I crack the bag open and it turns into its own little steam bag! The rice comes out as fresh and yummy as the day I cooked it. Oh, it’s also great for tossing in soups, no thawing needed!
- Freeze your milk. Seriously! It was my mother in law who opened my eyes to this one. “Well,” she said, “you freeze your breast milk, don’t you?” At the time I had a freezer full of milk in preparation to head back to work when the twins were still really young. So what is the difference in freezing cow’s milk compared to human milk? Nothing! So, if you buy milk in large quantities and find yourself unable to store it in the fridge after grocery day (we buy 2 gallons at a time so the fridge fills up pretty fast) just take a cup or two out of the jug, replace the top LOOSELY (or not at all) and set in a stable place in your freezer (remember milk will expand).
- Prepare things that you use often in bulk and store until needed. Recently I saw a recipe for chili seasoning that you could store in the cupboard and just toss into your chili (and save yourself the money and salt added to the store-bought packets)! There are a ton of other things you can prep ahead of time to make your life much, much easier. Depending on what you make a lot of your ideas may differ but one example I did a lot was pizza sauce. I had a run of making at least one homemade pizza a week for me and the kids. I would use those tiny cans of sauce and still have leftover which I would put in the fridge to mold… it always seemed to! Instead of allowing mold into my home I started making a bigger batch (plain tomato sauce, garlic–the kind in a jar–and onions sautéed in olive oil, and some italian seasoning) and once it cooled transferring it to snack-sized ziplock bags. I discovered that was the exact right amount for one pizza! That, along with my frozen dough (store-bought though I now make my own) and frozen cheese meant I had frozen HOMEMADE pizzas at my disposal every day!
- Buy bulk meats, trim, separate into bags and season before freezing. Ah, this is one of my favorites. We buy the giant chicken breast packages and, since I HATE preparing raw meat, I have my husband trim and filet all of them at once (we filet because they cook faster later on). Then I am free to store them in meal-sized portions with whatever sauce or seasonings I want! Some favorites: Balsamic vinaigrette, plain chicken broth (making sure not to pack the bag too tightly due to liquid expansion), olive oil (especially when I know I’ll be frying it up, sometimes I even cube the chicken when I know I’ll be using it for stir-fry or chicken pot pie). Then, on cooking day you soak in lukewarm water for a while and then just dump the entire contents of your bag into your chosen cooking vessel! When you’ve got little kids by the hundreds running around at your feet as you cook there is no time to wash up “chicken hands” which makes this a perfect option for busy moms! We also do this with ground beef (seasoned for meatloaf or meatballs or even seasoned and shaped into burgers!), pork and beef. You can also cook your meats ahead of time and freeze them precooked. I find this most useful for ground meats I’m going to add to chili or meat pies (if you’re not French Canadian that may sound weird, just go with it, it’s a delicious pie full of meats!). **Remember when freezing to get as much air as possible out of the bags to avoid freezer burn AND lay it as flat and thin as possible to make defrosting go quicker! You could invest in a vacuum sealer (my mother in law uses hers all the time for meats and they thaw out beautifully) but I’ve never felt the need.
- Frozen veggies and fruits. Okay, I like fresh stuff as much as the next person but fresh goes bad in the fridge or on the counter too often at my house (it’s been a tumultuous couple years with the twin pregnancy and then arrival of the twins, I might have slacked on the kitchen upkeep too many days). I have a lot of frozen bags of veggies (store-bought) in my freezer at all times, especially: peas, spinach, corn and blueberries. However, there is not reason you can’t have fresh stuff (without preservatives and sugars added) all year round either. Blueberries are super easy to freeze! Put them on a cookie tray DRY (if you wash them make sure they are dry before you freeze them), pop them in the freezer and once they’re frozen transfer them to ziplock bags! Strawberries can be frozen easily too: chop, wash and while wet put in ziplock bags with sugar (you can use Splenda, it works just as well and it makes diabetics–like my husband–happier). Let them sit for a while, the sugar and strawberries kinda blend together and make a smooshy mess. You can then get the air out of the bags before sealing. I haven’t tried it yet (I will be after my harvest this summer!) but you can freeze green beans the same way as blueberries.
- Make your own baby food. I’ve seen people cringe in fear when I’ve said this. Why, I don’t get it? I can buy a bag of peas that costs under two dollars and make 30 servings of pureed peas instead of paying about a dollar for EACH serving of canned peas (and I don’t add preservatives to mine!). Seriously, I almost cried when we took an extended vacation with my son and I had nowhere to store frozen baby food so I had to buy jars–oh the price almost killed me! Is making baby food time-consuming? Not really, it does take some time but I always found the price:time ratio to be a no-brainer. When I made food for my son we were living with a tiny little freezer and that made it hard to store lots of different foods at time so I was cooking multiple things each week. With the twins I had a big freezer so it wasn’t really time-consuming at all (and yes, I was working during both times). How do you make baby food? Super easy. Cook it. Puree it (I have a food processor but when I make more than one thing at a time I’ll often break out my blender which works almost as well). Freeze it in ice-cube trays with plastic wrap over. Transfer frozen cubes (conveniently one-ounce servings each!) into ziplock bags or other storage containers. I brought bags at the beginning of each week to my daycare providers and had some at home. Just pop in the microwave and VOILA a meal! Add baby cereal or eat “plain”. I’ll admit I “cheated” a bit and used canned pumpking (frozen into cubes) and I often pureed canned fruit like peaches and pears (always the ones packaged in pear juice instead of syrup) and jarred applesauce. A great website for baby food making is http://wholesomebabyfood.momtastic.com/ It gives great information on what to prepare for what ages, how to prepare each food (like you don’t puree carrots with the same juice you boiled them in–you could always just steam them–because the water gets all the released nitrates or something… things I’d never have known!). They also give info on starting “table food” and recipes for baby foods. Oh, and as baby gets bigger it’s super easy just to reserve whatever you’re making for dinner and puree that! Babies love variety and, honestly, wouldn’t you think exposing them to seasoning and combined flavors early would help them develop a more distinguished palate later in life? (Have you TASTED those jars of food… most of them are EW!).
- Make your own chicken/vegetable stock. I make a lot of soups in the winter and use recipes that call for chicken stock. I was buying the cheap stock at the grocery store and eating soup almost every day for lunch at work… I started to get horrible headaches and couldn’t figure out why. Until I read the ingredients on the stock box: MSG, i.e. Monosodium Glutomate. Basically salt but it effects many people by giving them headaches… maybe just the overabundance of salt did it, I don’t know. The organic stock at my store does not contain MSG and in a pinch I will use that but making my own stock was so much easier than I imagined! Start by saving the trimmings of your vegetables (ends of onions, carrots, celery etc. and any fresh herbs you may use), stick them in a ziplock bag and toss them in the freezer until you’re ready. If you don’t already compost these things you can feel good that you’re using every part of your veggies without any waste. I often make chicken stock with a whole rotiserrie chicken from the store which has added seasonings built right in (though it works just as well without as many “foreign” additives if you make your own roast chicken at home). Take all the meat off the bones and put the carcass (ew, I know, gross word) in a pot full of water. Add your veggies and any seasonings you desire (I don’t add much, I wait until later when I use the stock). Boil. Obviously if you’re making vegetable stock omit the chicken 🙂 I eventually bought a stock/pasta pot for this which has an inner strainer that you can lift right out of the pot, taking all the chunks with it. Before the stock pot I just used a slotted spoon and fished everything out, more time-consuming but just as effective. I make about a gallon of stock at a time (or more, it’s a big stock pot!) and I was having trouble storing it all, even in my giant freezer until my genius of a husband made a brilliant suggestion: boil it down. Duh, why didnt’ I think of that? Boil it down (reducing it) so you have a very concentrated stock which doesn’t take up as much space in fridge or freezer then when you’re ready to use the stock just remember to add water! I don’t recommend storing stock, or any other super liquidy substance, in ziplock bags (shocker, I know, everything else I make goes in them!) because it’s too easy for the corners to get bumped and cause a leak when you thaw. I like the Ziplock brand round containers with the screw on lids. As always remember to leave a little room for expansion (about a half-inch per cup is plenty) and freeze with the top off or loose then seal it once the stock is completely frozen.
- Make your own bread. Okay, making bread is cathartic but exhausting so I’m not suggesting you knead and let rise and knead again on a regular basis (see my blog post about the therapeutic value of bread making: Simplifying Life and De-stressing Through Bread). Instead, consider investing in a bread maker. I can make a loaf of bread for under a dollar with about five minutes prep work. You also get to enjoy the smell of fresh baking bread filling your home and the way butter melts on still-warm bread… mmmmmm! I got my yeast on sale: 1.29/package of 3 and I use half of each package for one loaf of bread! Dont’ forget to refrigerate your yeast! Apparently, according to my friend Kim you can successfully freeze bread (without that soggy after-thaw that seems to plague my bread-freezing endeavors) by wrapping it in tinfoil. Who knew? I haven’t had the chance to try it yet but I’m going to. Especially for things like hamburger and hot dog rolls that we never use all of at once.
- Shop at multiple stores. Okay, I’m well aware that as a stay at home mom I have the flexibility that many working people don’t and this allows me to shop at 3 different stores a week. We actually took this into account when figuring out our budget comparisons for staying home vs. working–it makes that much of a difference! I first shop at Aldi, a discount grocery (they only sell their own brands, very small store which makes for a quick shopping trip!), then I make my way to Sam’s Club to get some specifics, then whatever is left on the list gets taken care of at our regular grocery chain. I have one master list but I often highlight or separate the things I’ll be buying at each store. When I compare my Aldi bill to my Stop ‘n’ Shop bill it blows me out of the water. The weeks where I just “don’t have time to shop at 2 or 3 stores” always come and bite me in the butt financially (I put that in quotes because I can make time I am just either too stressed or haven’t planned the week well or unexpected things have just come up!). If you have an Aldi near you check it out, what it has is amazingly cheap and it’s pretty amazing what you can do without when your not innundated with fifty choices for the same item. I can hit Aldi and SnS in approximately 1 hr 20 min (in and out) if I have a good list. Not bad with three kids in tow (that’s a lot of carseat buckling and unbuckling)! I do not attempt all three stores in one day, I usually shop two or occasionally three days a week instead. While I was working I’d stop on my way home at one or the other (I usually saved Sam’s for the weekend just because it’s out-of-town). It’s doable even if you work full-time, it’s just one of those things you have to prioritize. But seriously it’s worth it–77 items for $66 once on a normal shopping trip at Aldi and that included meats and cheeses! Shop around for local grocery stores and “specialty” stores (like the ones that only sell bulk produce) in your area until you find ones that meet your needs.
- Stop buying name brand. Suck it up. There are very few things that you REALLY need that are name brand. I’ve slowly made the switch and there are only a couple of things I really need in a specific brand: Diapers (though we’re switching from Huggies to the Sam’s Club brand after a sample run next purchase) and yogurt (I buy the big tubs of Stoneyfield Farm– Organic and oh so delicious! Haven’t found a generic that can replace it for me yet and I’ve tried them all!), and some beauty products. We use Suave mostly for shampoo/conditioners but I still treat myself to name brand face wash and face lotion. I’ve tried the generics and I could make due but it’s a personal splurge I’m okay with at this point.
- Get a Sodastream. My husband got one for Christmas a year ago and it’s been WONDERFUL! If you’re a soda drinker it’s a must. My husband loved seltzer but I would find half empty cans of flat seltzer all over the house! It was ridiculous both in the amount of soda wasted and the number of cans I had to deal with. I like soda but if I buy myself a case I’ll drink it all at once. The soda stream is GREAT because we can make exactly what we want at the moment and not waste anything. I also really like diet that the flavor-additions are all made with Splenda (one of the only sugar substitutes approved for pregnant/nursing women which makes it okay in my book!).
A couple of things I’ve realized while writing this blog: I use a lot of ziplock bags. I’d love it if I didn’t (the environment doesn’t like ziplock) and I’m working on some other storage methods but darn it all if those bags aren’t super convenient for freezing without all the AIR touching my food! Also, I love my freezer. My last apartment had a tiny fridge and freezer but I still made all my own baby food and froze it… every week (it took up a lot of space!). Now, in our own home, we have a giant chest freezer and I keep it full! And I love saving time and money. Both have become much more imperative in the last few years and continue to be more and more so since I am now officially not an employed teacher and have another little mouth to feed on the way.
I’m pretty proud of all the stuff I’ve learned over the years, even if they are “duh” things to you. I’m proud that I now, with a 5.5 person household, spend probably half what I did when it was just my husband and I alone and I waste almost nothing! I like that I can give my family more nutritious (less processed) homemade food without spending tons of time each day preparing meals. It’s good to feel proud of these little accomplishments.
Okay, I’m also writing a disclaimer here. My husband read the blog (which he rarely does) and commented that I was making myself sound better than I really am… what? He pointed out that we don’t always do all the things on the list. He said the blog made it sound like “I’m so amazing, look at everything I do, you should do it too!” Seriously, those were his words. I certainly hope I haven’t come off that way because, as any busy mom will tell you–nothing gets done perfectly all the time! I have done all these things at one point or another and most of them on a semi-regular basis even though I have weeks (or, I’ll be honest, months!) when things just don’t get done anything like the way I know they should! So, take it under advisement: I don’t always do everything on the list… and that’s okay 🙂