By Catharine L. Kaufman — a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink
I come from a long line of frugal food shoppers. My grandmother fed her six children on one dollar a day during the Depression, leaving my mother with indelible memories of creative meals and budget-stretching tricks. She passed these down to me, along with stories about my great aunt and uncle who lived in post WWI Europe on the equivalent of $5 a week. Every day they met at the factory gate after his shift, and rushed to trade in his pittance for basic food staples before inflation turned the money into worthless paper.
Even now, long after the family’s fortunes improved, I can’t shake the habit of memorizing and comparing food prices and shopping for lost leaders in my favorite grocery stores. The difference is that I no longer have to hide my penny-pinching ways. Not when prices keep climbing to the point where even the once recession-proof pizza is approaching the status of upper-crust pocketbooks.
A large part of the blame for this food inflation belongs to the Government’s misguided ethanol program—or rather to its subsidies and regulations, which have been enticing farmers to grow grains for fuel instead of food. With less land allocated to the latter, it’s no wonder that wheat flour used for pizza dough rose from $3 to $25 a bushel in less than a year. If you add to this the recent price-spike of more than 30% for bulk cheese, a 20% hike in the cost of tomatoes (with more increases anticipated in the wake of the current salmonella contamination of tomato crops), and the daily sticker-shock at the gas pump, how long do you think it will take before a pizza pie is delivered to your door for not nearly the present cost of a lobster dinner?
If even a trained skinflint like me has trouble holding the line against the onslaught of energy-caused food inflation while feeding my family healthy, organically grown foods, I can’t imagine how tough it must be for those who are less practiced in budget-stretching.
The lucky ones among us live in California and other states where farms—even organic ones—surround cities, and foods don’t have far to travel from growers to consumers. Now if I could only break my comparative-shopping habit… It’s costing me more in gas than I am able to save on the dwindling bargains I ferret out in grocery stores.
Still, thanks to my Ten Shopping Commandments, money goes farther—especially since fresh, organic and well-prepared foods are sure to result in cleared the plates, no matter how many finicky people are sitting at your table. Without waste, only the garbage can is left hungry.
1) Scope out your refrigerator and pantry to see what’s running low and needs to be replenished. Organize your list by food categories to make it easier to check off all the items (i.e., produce, canned goods, dairy, etc.) before moving on to the next area and food group.
2) Bring your shopping list along and leave your husband at home to avoid impulsive spending. If the kids are old enough and want to accompany you, have them make their own lists—sans junk foods, of course. Don’t give in to “checkout madness,” no matter how inexpensive and tempting the candy bars, chewing gum, beef jerky and magazines are to the kids. Remember: ‘No’ is a complete sentence. If that doesn’t work, try the “maybe next time…’ ploy.
3) Never, never go to the market hungry. A growling tummy has no conscience, common sense or self-restraint. It tempts you to sample the free offerings hawked at various table stations, and to ‘graze’ from dried fruit and nut bins. Worse, hunger pangs make you crave and buy expensive foods that don’t usually appear on your shopping lists. Ask yourself if you really need that bottle of organic, unrefined macadamia nut oil? Or the black truffle pâté? If you can live without it or them, put the items back where you found them.
4) Don’t be fooled by pricing strategies. If an item is 4 for $10 you needn’t buy four. You’ll get the unit sale price even if you only buy one.
5) If canned, boxed, frozen or jarred foods are on sale, stock up. But only buy as much as will fit into your refrigerator and pantry. However, buy only as much perishable food as you need for the meals you plan on cooking or eating raw (as in salads) during the next 7-10 days (a practical survival tactic for busy people). Buy extra food only if you plan to entertain or cook for a sick neighbor, a community picnic or bring-a-dish part you will be attending. Remember, a bargain is not a bargain if it spoils and you have to toss it.
6) Don’t be shy—be charmingly assertive. If the veggies you want have woody or inedible parts (stalks, leaves, etc.), find a knowledgeable produce manager and ask if the inedibles could be removed before weighing your selections. Supermarkets (such as Whole Foods) are usually glad to accommodate their customers. Also, when the store runs out of items advertised as ‘on sale,’ don’t hesitate to ask for a rain-check—and a slip attesting to it.
7) Be a coupon-clipper. Some of them come with double discounts and can save you a nice chunk of change.
8) Keep your eye on the register screen at the checkout counter. If math is not your strong suit, bring a pocket calculator and tote up the prices as they appear on the screen. Make sure the numbers correspond to your purchase prices. Honest mistakes do occur now and then. Always speak up when you catch an error. Not only does this protect you from overpaying, but believe it or not, sometimes the store apologizes by giving you the item for free. No kidding.
9) Look everything over carefully before you get into the checkout line. It’s best to exchange that dinged can or bruised melon, rather than letting them go to waste—or spending gas money and time on returning them to the store.
10) Remember that grocery shopping is not a hobby, escape, social event or entertainment. When taken seriously and done well, it is a valuable skill—as well as a huge responsibility. Your family’s survival and health depend on the food choices you make. So be a sleuth, agricultural scholar, astute label-reader and hard-nosed selector of the freshest and best quality foods at the most reasonable prices available. While it’s easy to get distracted by the noise, movement and colorful displays in grocery stores, if you get organized before getting there, and stay alert while shopping, you’ll do well.
Now for the fun part: The other day on television, during a pizza cook-off on his “Hell’s Kitchen” program, Gordon Ramsey flaunted a $200 white truffle pie. Here’s my rendition with a wild mushroom medley that’s a helluva lot cheaper than the TV version, and thus more affordable during these cheesy pizza inflation days. Use organic ingredients when possible:
1 ball of pizza dough (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have pre-made dough balls)
½ pound of mozzarella cheese (shredded)
¼ pound of Fontina cheese (shredded)
8 ounces of wild mushrooms (crimini, oyster, shiitake)
1 jar of good quality marinara sauce
1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
Salt, pepper and oregano to taste
Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. In a small pan, heat the oil and seasonings on low and sauté the mushrooms until tender. Roll the dough into an elongated oval and place on an olive oil greased cookie sheet. Spread tomato sauce and mushrooms on the dough, and top with a mixture of the cheeses. Bake for 10 minutes or until bubbly and golden. Cut into strips. Serve immediately – no delivery fee, no tipping. ./.
If you want to chew the fat, talk turkey or beef about something, email me at [email protected], or directly to this blog at [email protected]. Let us know if you’d like your comments to be posted on this FreeRangeClub blog—and the name you want to use. CHEERS !