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Stretching Food Dollars by Cooking Creatively

By: Celia Webb

You can make your food budget go further by cooking creatively. Having a variety of cooking techniques and ideas readily available helps in three ways. First, you avoid additional trips to the grocery store. Studies show that the more times you visit the store, the more you will spend overall. Grocery stores know this and base their marketing on getting you to the store as often as possible. Secondly, you are more likely to use the food you have already purchased, thereby avoiding one of the biggest food budget drains there is - waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans waste between 20 to 25% of food purchased of which about 50% is still in its original packaging. So instead of throwing your hard-earned money into the trashcan, use the food you purchase. Thirdly, you will save on gas money. Here are ways to create delicious meals without much money.

1. Shop your pantry first. Look through your stores to see what you have on hand. To provide a nutritionally balanced meal you will need a starch (rice, potatoes, bread, cereal grains, or noodles), two servings per person worth of vegetables which could be a single type if you have an abundance of something or a mix, protein (meat, fish, beans, eggs, nuts, dairy), and a fruit.

2. Start with basic dishes and use what you have. Using what you have, can you make a soup, casserole, robust chef's salad, stir-fry, paella, or dress up some pasta? Be resourceful and imagine new ways to craft dishes that are family favorites.

3. Make a substitution. If you run across a recipe you would like to use, but you do not have all the ingredients on hand, search your refrigerator and cupboards for an alternate ingredient that fills the same role as the original. For instance, if the recipe calls for cooking wine, substitute water or stock. If the recipe calls for green beans, but you only have peas, use the peas. Trade meats, use pork instead of beef or ground turkey for ground bison. The flavor may be slightly different but the meal will still be nutritious and tasty. Also consider foods preserved by different methods. As an example, if the recipe calls for fresh fruit, can you use dried, canned or frozen fruit instead? Sometimes making a substitution calls for using an additional or alternate cooking method. If you decide to use a dried product, you may need to soak it prior to use. In addition to thawing a frozen product, you may need to incorporate the previously frozen food deeper into the dish. Some frozen fruits, for example, do not look like their fresh counterparts once thawed. So instead of using them in a place of prominence, like at the top of a parfait, fold them into the whipped cream or use them with a little bit of sugar to braise meat.

4. Use less expensive ingredients. You can make your food dollars go further by choosing less expensive ingredients. The least expensive proteins are typically beans and eggs. Combine beans with rice or noodles to get a complete protein. Rice is often the best value in the starch category. Fruits and vegetables values change with the season if you are buying fresh. Compare different sources of each category of food to find the lowest cost per pound and then base your menus around those ingredients. You want variety so you get a full spectrum of nutritional input, but you can plan to use on-sale items and the best buy for a category (i.e. starch, protein, vegetable, and fruit) when developing your weekly menu.

5. Use recipes that stretch the expensive ingredients. Protein is usually the most expensive ingredient in a meal. Pay attention to serving sizes on packaging and provide an appropriate amount per person. As a general guideline, those trying to maintain a weight of 150 pounds or less need a single serving of protein, while those maintaining a weight over that amount could have two servings of protein at a meal. Serving meals that feature all the food categories in their proper proportions is not only cost-saving, it is also the healthiest thing to do.

So there you have it; cooking inventively can save you money and keep your tummy full with scrumptious meals.

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