The TIPS of the iceberg lettuce

Shiitake-mushroom-dried

We’re thankful that Challengers are willing to reflect on their experience and derive helpful tips that apply to this week and beyond. Check out some of this Challenger’s tips for leftovers, DIY breadcrumbs and perusing different stores for the best deals.  

This week my family is participating in the CalFresh Challenge, where folks like me who care about food and  issues of hunger and food justice restrict themselves to the $4.91 per person, per day budget allotted by the great state of California to food stamp recipients. There are many lessons anyone can learn from this exercise, I'm sure: I've become more aware of how lazy I am in my shopping habits, how fortunate I am to have the time, energy, and expertise to manage the week with enough food for my houseful of boys, and how easily one misstep--such as buying prepared foods or eating out--can set back the budget for days to come.

Some people believe that food stamp programs in our country are misused, and that the adults receiving the benefits aren't using them for healthy meals, so some of you may be interested to read this recent study indicating otherwise. Regardless, I don't feel that it's my place to tell a struggling family how to spend their meager food dollars, and it literally brings to tears to my eyes every time I look at my children and remember that 1 in 5 American children are food insecure. It's something we should all keep in mind before deciding not to eat that tub of leftover chicken for lunch, or throwing away the bruised fruit: food isn't a luxury item for so many of our neighbors.

Okay, enough with the Debbie Downer portion of this post! In strategizing for the week, I've come up with a few tips I wanted to pass along in case any of you are interested in taking on this challenge in your own households:

•  Anything already packaged at the grocery store is likely to be more expensive--I was shocked to find that even the prebagged onions cost more than if I'd thrown the same weight into a bag myself. And the difference between bagged salad mix and a head of actual lettuce is INSANE.

•  In-season fruits and vegetables are obviously cheaper (and tastier!) than the stuff you thrown into your cart every week out of habit. We bought twice as many servings of bananas, grapes, and apples for probably half of what we normally spend on mangoes and berries and stonefruits.

•  If you're making a dish with a new spice and don't want to commit to that $5 jar you may never use again, try your local health food store--they often have bulk bins that allow you to buy a spoonful for a few pennies. I recently used this strategy when I needed xanthan gum for a cold soup, and it saved me $12!

•  You will never buy breadcrumbs again if you save the heels from all of your loaves of bread (in an airtight container or bag) in the freezer. It doesn't matter of half of them are wheat and half are white, just chuck 'em in there and prepare yourself for some excellent meatballs a few weeks (or months) down the road.

•  Some proteins are cheaper than others (duh). Personally, I like chicken thighs better than breasts, so it's a nice bonus for me that they're also way less expensive, especially in the bulk pack. It's easy to soak a big pot of beans, too, for use throughout the week. Eggs are quick to cook any time of day, and you get a dozen for just a couple of dollars. And if you're really craving something more expensive, think of a way to streeeetch it out: this week we're having short ribs one night, but I diced them up into a stir fry that's otherwise veggies and noodles.

•  A surprise in the world of canned tomatoes: at my store, the big (28 oz) can of diced was far cheaper than the "whole peeled" or "crushed" varieties--this was true across the brands--and organic tomatoes were only a tiny bit more than Hunt's.

•  Shopping in a "foreign" market is guaranteed to net you some great deals. My local Asian supermarket sells huge bags of shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, and exotic greens for just a couple of dollars. The meat and seafood selection is all beautifully prepared, fresh, and affordable. And those huge bags of rice could see you through an ice age!

•  If you have a meal that's likely to give you leftovers, cook it early in the week. A few days later, when you get home late and in no mood to cook, there's a lot less temptation to order takeout if there's something homemade and healthy waiting for you in the fridge.

I hope some of you will take on the challenge in your own homes, and post your tips on how to eat well on a budget. I know I still have a lot to learn!

-Submitted by: CalFresh Challenger