Thursday, June 20, 2013
I’d been feeling quite virtuous until I reached the dairy aisle in the supermarket. The can of Italian pizza sauce was less than a dollar. I had yeast, flour and sugar at home. A pepper and a dozen mushrooms cost about a buck-fifty. This was a thrifty meal, and I was proud.
Until, that is, I saw that the eight-ounce bag of store-brand mozzarella was $4. At the risk of sounding like an old codger, it seemed like only yesterday it was $2.50.
My hand wavered in front of the refrigerated case. A plain cheese pizza at Little Caesar’s is $5. Why, exactly, did I want to spend an hour making a pizza that was going to cost me $7.50, not including the ingredients I already had on hand?
If I added in the $15 per hour I think my kitchen skills are worth, this was one expensive supper.
OK -- my pizza would be more nutritious, and would go farther. Since my dish would last at least two meals, the total cost per pie would be more like $11. Still, I was shocked that one of my time-honored methods for saving money on food was suddenly on shaky ground.
For a moment I thought, "If I can't cut costs by slaving away in the kitchen, I don't know what I'm going to do."
A little dramatic, that. I'm not desperate, after all. I have a few other tricks up my sleeve for saving money. I just resent the fact that food prices are exploding.
The fact that they are is not in doubt. A spate of news stories have detailed rising costs, which are due mostly to higher prices on commodities. The price of bacon, for example, has nearly doubled in recent months.
Some shoppers have reacted by refusing to buy exorbitantly priced items; in reaction, some manufacturers have created smaller packages that cost less.
That ploy makes sense only for shoppers with very limited resources. It's usually smarter to buy in bulk -- the upfront cost may be high, but the per-unit price is low. I say usually because in these Wild West days of grocery shopping, bigger is not always better.
Meanwhile, the shrinking packages are not just annoying. They make food preparation more difficult. Cans of tuna used to provide enough for three, or generous servings for two. Now they are down to one and a half. I usually make do with that amount, unless I am making a single sandwich for my husband, Paul. Then he gets the whole can. That's probably what the manufacturers bank on.
I don't play their games too often, though. One good and healthy way to save food bucks is to go lightly with meat and fish. A typical meat-and-potatoes meal, thrifty-style, looks skimpy, with half the expected serving of flesh. That same amount of meat in a salad, soup or casserole is plentiful, with veggies making up the rest of the dish.
Going vegetarian saves even more, as long as cooks don't overdo it with the cheese to make up for the missing meat. I do have a few caveats about fruit and vegetables. Purchasing in season is essential to keep costs down. Purists would say that seasonal refers to your home region, but in the financial sense, when the citrus harvest is in full season in Florida, we in New England save. Surely there is no greater antidote to the grayness of winter than the arrival of the blood orange.
Besides, we can't grow them here. I won't buy berries out of season because not only are Maine blueberries the best, but I grow my own raspberries and strawberries. Our raspberry plants have paid for themselves several times over, so we now enjoy them for free each summer. Food doesn't get any cheaper than that.
We still have a few potatoes stored away from our harvest, as well as garlic. A huge bag of carrots I bought at the farmers' market last fall lasted until January. I grow green beans, peas and leafy greens in the summer and, when I want them in the winter, I buy them frozen.
Still, with all these strategies, I am spending more at the supermarket than I ever have. Worse, I suspect that with gas prices steadily rising ($4 a gallon predicted for the coming weeks), this situation is going to get even worse.
I know how to operate on a bare-bones food budget. But I don't want to. Good food is essential to a healthy body and a happy soul.
So I'm facing reality, and reassessing my options. Stay tuned. As Bullwinkle J. Moose liked to say, "Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat."
Liz Soares welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org.