Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Challenge Day 6 - Storage

The average family shops for groceries once a week or so, fills the cabinets, eats them down, and fills them again, shoving uneaten items to the back. You can still shop that way on foods stamps, but you are likely to run out of stuff before the end of the month. If you want to eat decently on food stamps you need food storage. You want to buy staples in bulk, at the best price you can, then save the rest of the money for fresh produce and dairy the rest of the month.

Where will you put a month's worth of oatmeal, rice, and beans? What if you score an awesome deal and buy 20 pounds of potatoes, or a case of tuna, or a 50lb bag of sugar? Most houses and apartments don't have pantries anymore, or even room for more than a week or so of food in the cabinets.

I have three kinds of storage: Long-term bulk storage, short-term bulk storage, and everyday-access storage.

Let's look at my storage. But let me get my defensiveness out of the way, first. I am a bit self-conscious about our house. We moved in with my mother, who has dementia and other issues. She is 83, was widowed almost 30 years ago, and had become a hoarder. No house maintenance was done for about 25 years. My kids and I moved here in July of 2009, when the house was still filled from floor-to-ceiling, every room, with a mix of trash, "collectibles," and some useful stuff. We have slowly carved away most of that stuff, with help from many caring friends, on a tight budget. We are finally getting to something closer to a normal suburban 4BR/1bath split level. We are still left with a house that was neglected for 30 years, and there is no money to address most of that right now. So, ignore the shabbiness, and focus on the storage concepts. OK, let's go on tour.

Everyday-access is just what it sounds like - stuff I am likely to use frequently, easily gotten to. My refrigerator and the freezer over it. My kitchen cabinets. My kitchen pantry shelves. For most people that is ALL the food storage space they have.

To have storage, you have to have storage containers. I am extraordinarily fond of glass jars. I said the other day that there are only 4 lid sizes to fool with in my kitchen. Here they are:

Lid 1 and Lid 2: I get heavy duty quart and pint size deli containers from the restaurant supply store, a sleeve of each every few years - they wear out slowly. The same lid fits both. You can write on the lid in Sharpie, and it scrubs off. You could save these from Chinese takeout - but you can't afford takeout. :-)

The blue-lid container is for larger amounts of leftover, and sometimes cheese, if I grate a block. They are the "disposable" kind, but I reuse them.

Inside THAT particular one is roasted squash, a beautiful Red Kuri Squash, a locally-grown organic splurge for $5 from the grower - but tragedy has occurred. It got pushed to the back of the fridge and I didn't make the soup and cake I intended. It has mold on it. Don't let this happen to you! Five bucks wasted! Ugh!

Lid 3 and Lid 4 are the regular and wide-mouth kind, seen here on a variety of new and vintage canning jars. I have the lid-and-ring kind for actual canning, and plastic storage lids for shelf and refrigerator storage. That red funnel is very important - a canning funnel makes it much easier to pack things in jars. You can see some of my other jars in the background, for everyday staples.

I have a bread basket on top of the fridge, and a pretzel-crouton-chip basket.

I save produce bags and plastic bags from cereal and cracker boxes . It saves on plastic wrap an ziplocks. But don't collect too many, or you turn into my mother. Once the basket is full, no more until it starts to empty out.

The cupboard over the stove has boxed cereal, crackers, jars of various hot cereals, peanut butter, tuna, my mother's disgusting instant decaf coffee, DD15's soup, cooking spray. Just what is in active use.

There are only three cupboards. One has cups, bowls, and plates. This third one is almost all tea and storage containers. The green basket is lids - with only 4 sizes, it is easy to find what you want.

This is a small 10'x10' kitchen. Very little counter space, and a big chunk is taken by the dish drainer and sink. As a result, the little table is not often used for eating, but produce storage. In an ideal world, I would replace it with a storage island. But the other main storage feature of the kitchen is a large shelving use that houses all my JARS.

The very top is enamel basins I use during canning season. Then a shelf of baking pans organized into baskets - round, square, loaf pans. Then a section of recipe binders, and large jars of macaroni, rice, salt, beans and other jars for storing the contents of large packages. The next shelf down is turntables for hot spices and baking spices, jars of dried herbs, canning spices. Below that is a tray of condiment bottles, canisters of seasonings, jars of whole grains, jars of preserves, dried milk. Then a shelf of oil, vinegar, nuts, dried fruit, liquor. Starting to be out of the photo is a shelf with a basket of kitchen towels, jars of popcorn, beans, dry milk, bread crumbs. Below that, you will have to imagine a row of flour and sugar bins and storage for mixers and waffle irons. I feel like I can cook anything from these shelves!

Under the table is a 5-gallon bucket of oatmeal, a potato bin, and recycling containers.

Short-term storage is stuff I will go through within a few months. I don't need it in the kitchen. I can go down to the basement to "shop" from this storage. These are things I need to rotate through and replenish all the time. I have sturdy pantry shelves in the basement for canned goods, a chest freezer, and a bunch of plastic buckets and bins. But if you have no basement, you might want to find a closet, put some bins behind the sofa or under the bed, even under a table.

I made a kind of storage cubicle. You can see the freezer on the lower left. The tall white cabinet is storage for empty canning jars. Then a steel shelf with bins for tea, spices, condiments, sealed bins of dried fruit and nuts. My bucket of most-frequently used tools is in there, too.

Against the far wall is part of a large shelving unit. The top has various small appliances and containers. Then, lots of canned goods. Soup, veg, fruit, canned protein. Lots of beans, tomatoes, corn.

The tomatoes come and go as we make big batches of pasta sauce to can in quarts. The beans and corn will be used more in winter when there are fewer fresh veggies and we make more soup.

Butted up to the shelves is a huge wooden cabinet I took off the wall to make better use of the space. It encloses the cubicle and holds filled canning jars, bottles of juice, larger cans, the flour I will use next, egg cartons, and paper towels. On the floor is a purple basket that is a sort of "inbox" for things I need to shelve.

Long-term storage is for things I buy in larger bulk, usually staples like flour, sugar, rolled oats, beans, rice, cooking oil. They go in bins and buckets, but more sealed up. Some of the sealed buckets are in front of the shelving. You can't see it, but there are cases of water jugs in the corner - enough to get us through10 days of emergency drinking and cooking.

On the other side of that cupboard is a wall of storage totes. They hold bulky boxes of cereal, crackers, flour bags, rice bags, boxes of grits. The rest of the shelves are accessible from this side. Canned pumpkin, canned milk, peanut butter, mayo and mustard, cooking wine, a rack of vinegar and oil jugs, bottled lemon juice.

Whew. That was an exhausting tour. That's a lot of food. We have eaten it down in the past, and built it back up, as our fortunes ebb and flow. This is the best is has been since I started serious pantry-building. You would have the best-stocked pantry and freezer now, going into winter. You eat it down until summer, then use the growing season to stock it up again.

This is a heated space, and I would like to add a sort of cold cellar in the unheated garage to store apples, root vegetables, and squash. Since we recently had an earthquake, I would also like to figure out how to secure the shelves against tipping over, and add some kind of barrier to keep things from falling off. Maybe the canned goods should be in bins.

You do not have to have that much storage just to eat decently on food stamps. I do notice that periods of food insecurity through out my life have made me feel like I want to have food "put by" for emergencies and unpleasantness. We live in uncertain times.

But, I may be a little crazy.

Challenge Day 6 - Strategy

If no one eats the ends of bread, I let them dry out in a pan, grind the up in the food processor, and add them to the bread crumb jar. Or, they could be buttered and put in a gratin dish with apple slices and custard for a small batch of bread pudding.

I have so much to say today, that I am dividing it into two posts. Strategy first, and then a post about Storage, and my actual eating report for yesterday.

So many articles about the various Food Stamp Challenges completely miss the point. Yes, it is challenging to feed a family on $4.50 person per day. And even harder if you are trapped by a lack of transportation and faced with shopping at inadequate and over-prided stores. If you are further handicapped by a lack of cooking skills, fundamental nutrition knowledge, or shopping experience - well, you are screwed until you learn more.

The media articles typically feature someone struggling to eat like they normally eat on that budget. They try to reproduce their normal diet, and end up missing meals or choosing a monotonous diet. They often feature someone with a professional job, often with no kids. The majority of food stamp families are families. There is an economy of scale to cooking for several people.

A week-long Food Stamp Challenge is a fallacy. It's not possible to do it well, if you are starting from zero. Which is certainly not to say that eating on Food Stamps would be easy in any case. Just that you are doomed to be hungry with $31.50 and no other money or food resources. In real life, you would visit a food bank, soup kitchen, or eat with family and friends.

This is the secret: You may eat an average of $4.50 per day, but you do not shop with $4.50 per day. You shop with $135 per month. A family of four shops with $540 per month. Try to reserve 10% of that for a bulk purchase that will last for months.

Let's say you find yourself in a financial pickle, and you realize you need help feeding your family. You feel crappy about having to apply, but you go through the process, produce all that documentation, and eventually come out the other end with a brand new EBT card with a month's worth of food stamps - which will depend on your income and family size.

Whew! But your problems are not over. Now you need to figure out how to make that lump of food money last a month. Did you ever try to plan a month of meals? Almost no one does. Maybe your high school Home Economics teacher did, but most people do not live like that.

Here is how I do it.

This is the beginning of the month, so I am thinking about how November will roll. Many people receive benefits like Social Security or pension payments at the beginning of the month. The Food Stamps themselves will arrive the first or second week of the month. We have Thanksgiving to plan for - a major eating holiday.

What would my normal monthly shopping look like?

First, I take inventory of the fridge and freezers. What needs to be eaten? Do I need to make room for new purchases? What do I need to buy flesh out those meals? I clean out the fridge by concentrating on using leftovers that are hanging around. I check the pantry shelves. What is running low, that I should be looking to stock up? I check "The List." The List is on the fridge door, and everyone in the house is trained to write down when they open the last of something - food, household supplies, toiletries. We want to shop for the best deal, so we don't wait until the thing is all gone and becoming an urgent purchase.

I also think about what is going to be on sale in this season. You can look that up here. In November, the sales will include holiday baking supplies, turkeys, butter, oatmeal, dried fruit and nuts. Citrus fruit will start to come down in price, and clementines will come into season - we love clementines. I will need to make room in the freezer for butter and turkey, so we need to eat down the frozen bread - no buying bread this month. Apples and pears, root vegetables, and things in the cabbage family can be stored in the garage, now that is is colder. I go online and consult all the local store flyers.

I will think about protein first. I want to provide enough protein, iron, and calcium for everyone. This is the protein requirement for our family:
Grandma (Age 84, Sedentary) 55g
Me (Age 50, Active) 90g
SO (Age 37, Moderately Active) 105g
DD15: (Age 15, Moderately Active) 70g
I want to make sure we are hitting that, not just filling up on cheap carbs. We all enjoy dairy, so we don't have trouble getting dietary calcium, and my mother and I take calcium citrate supplements. We also take multi-vitamins.

I plan for protein at the start of the month, when I have the most money. That allows me to shop for large pieces of meat at a good price. I can either break it down into smaller portions and freeze it for meals, or cook it and use it for several meals, possibly also freezing cooked portions so we don't get tired of it. I buy meat, poultry, cheese, beans, nuts. I buy eggs, dairy, and produce throughout the month.

This is what I might buy at the beginning of the month. Aldi and Redner's are close enough for me to walk, pulling a wagon, if I did not have a car. Obviously, your list will look different. Ours is tailored to our taste, allergies, cooking skills, and general weirdness.

I will not spend all my money at once. I need a turkey, and I would probably buy it at the farmer's market, where there is a local poultry vendor who takes Food Stamps. He will also have turkey backs and necks for .10-.20/lb, cheaper than any other time of year. I will freeze them for stockmaking. I also need to reserve money for fresh produce and dairy all month.

Aldi discount (2x month)
check clearance bin
check for manager specials on expiring meat
1.99 bag of 6 bagels
1.99 loaf raisin bread
1.99 loaf of whole grain bread
0.99 pkg flour tortillas
oranges, melon in season
bagged spinach
Bottom Dollar discount (weekly for produce and dairy)
check loss leaders
check for manager specials on expiring meat
2 large chunks of protein for the month, beyond turkey
2.77 kielbasi 1-lb
2.49 bacon 1-lb
pork neckbones for soup stock
6.76 4 qts yogurt @ 1.68
3.69 gal milk
2.27 qt half&half
1.19 pt sour cream
2.98 3 doz eggs @ .99
5.44 shredded cheddar (2lb.)
5.44 shredded mozzarella (2lb.)
3.00 2 bunch bananas @ .44/lb
2.39 pound butter
1.39 pkg cream cheese
1.49 8-pk of PB/cheese cracker snacks
1.49 8-pk of cheese-on-cheese cracker snacks
1.96 4 cans chicken noodle soup
3# onions
1# carrots
10# potatoes
sweet potatoes
garlic, ginger root
broccoli, cabbage
apples, pears, pineapple or other seasonal fruit
2 cantaloupes or a watermelon if in season
Giant/Redner's conventional supermarket (once a month)
check loss leaders
box of Giant decaf tea bags
bottle ceasar dressing (unless I went to Walmart) box whole grain cream of wheat bagged frozen pasta on sale (tortellini, ravioli, etc)
check for bread on sale (to freeze)
Walmart Superstore (every few months)
Zillions of food stamp families shop at Walmart, but I find most can be had elsewhere for less. The selection is limited and pedestrian. The produce does not impress. But some walmart-brand items are hard to beat. It is my go-to source for incontinence disposables for my mother.
herbal tea bags, family-size tea bags
hot sauce
smoked Goudam cheese
bags of bulk raw popcorn
refrigerated Caesar dressing
Grocery liquidators - BB's or BRL (monthly)
I don't get all this every month. I look at these kinds of things to find bargains to build my pantry. Liquidator stores have constantly-changing stock. I may find a $1 jar of organic tahini that costs $8 in a regular store. Or quarts of gourmet yogurt that expire in a day for .50 instead of $5. It's a shopping adventure with no list. You just have to know your price-to-beat.
hot cocoa
peanut butter
boxed cereal and granola
salad croutons
gingerbread and bread machine mixes
flour, sugar, raw sugar
spices and seasoning
oatmeal and cream of wheat
olive, sesame, and canola oils
canned tomatoes and beans
mustard, mayo, horseradish sauce
condiments, sauces and dressings
paper and plastic disposables
laundry detergent and dish soap
snack crackers an saltines
rice, beans, split peas, bulk popcorn
sometimes cheese and yogurt
protein shakes/mix
protein and granola bars
discount Pepperidge Farm bread
Trader Joe's (every 2-3 months)
(Is an hour away and I carpool with a Prius-driving friend.)
olive oil
grated parmesan
pine nuts honey 0.99 pizza dough balls 1lb
fluoride-free toothpaste
Dr Bronner's soap
"Shopping" from my own pantry storage (all month)
frozen bread
frozen sausage and chicken - make freezer space
home-canned jam and chutney
Home-canned pizza and pasta sauce
frozen pesto, fruit sauce
frozen homemade chicken, pork, and vegetable stock
frozen homemade soup and refried beans
oatmeal and other cereal
raisins and other dried fruit
sugar, flour, yeast spices, condiments
peanut butter and tahini
crackers and saltines
canned tomatoes dry and canned beans olive and canola oil, vinegar
boxed pasta
basmati, brown, arborio rice

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Challenge Day 5 Report - Hunter-Gathering

I like to get pears to just-ready-to-eat on the counter and then put them in the fridge.

I meant to tell you about Sunday's shopping. Weis Markets was having a Grand Re-Opening of their store on Rockland Avenue. I used to go there, mostly lured by the 1/2-price day-old bakery goods. But they started donating the day-old bread to food banks instead of discounting it - good for food banks, bad for my bread pudding habit. I moved to the other side of town, so it dropped off my list of regularly-visited stores. I had a lunch with a friend near the store on Sunday, so I stopped by to look.

The draw for me was .99 bags of sugar and flour. I am picky about sugar. Most white sugar comes from sugar beets, and they are almost all GMO (genetically-modified) in the US. And, there are no labeling requirements, so you can't tell. But if the bag says "cane sugar" it cannot legally be beet sugar. Happily, the Weis store brand is cane sugar. But you are only allowed one bag at that price, and one bag of .99 bleached flour. I prefer unbleached or white whole wheat four from King Arthur, but Christmas cookie season is coming.

I also found on sale: cat food, cat litter, hoisin sauce, pretzels, imitation crab. In the produce department, they had ginger root for only .99/lb, asparagus 1.49, pears .99, red grapes 1.49. Got deli ham for SO's sandwiches, splurged on 4 Honeycrisp apples at 2.49/lb. They had DD15's preferred whole wheat Italian bread buy-one-get-one, so I got some for the freezer.

Then, I spotted a big bargain! 42-oz canisters of store-brand rolled oats at 2/$3. Only two left and I snatched them. But when I checked out, they rang at 3.59. I was distracted by the bag boy's confusion about my reusable bags, so didn't notice until I looked at the register tape - the total seemed too high. I went to the service desk, and it turns out someone put the canisters in the wrong place, and it was at floor level, so I couldn't read the shelf tag. If the item itself had been mis-priced in the computer, most stores will give you one free, but this was just a shelving error. Rats. I returned them, since I know that Aldi has the 42-oz oats for $1.99 every day. I am down to my last 5-gallon bucket of oats, so I have oatmeal high on my stock-up list.

Overall, nothing really made me want to come back to Weis, unless something else takes me in that direction. I am really pretty "over" shopping in regular grocery stores - I am spoiled by the discounters and liquidators. I do shop the loss leaders, but it's not worth the gas for a few sale items unless they let you buy a lot of it. What is a "loss leader?" It's an item that a store prices at less than it cost them, to get you to come to the store. The things on the front of the store flyer in the largest type are usually the loss leaders. They take a "loss" on a few items in order to "lead" you into the store, where you will also buy other things.

The point to this was that even though there was a lot of stuff on sale, I know my "price to beat" list and there was not much that was cheaper than anywhere else. My strategy is to wait for deeper discounts. I only "needed" the ham and the produce. I did notice that grocery prices are up. You used to find those smaller oatmeal boxes for .99 on sale in the fall - now they are $1.50. That's a big increase, and I noticed others.

On the way back, I stopped at Price-Rite, which was also being remodeled. I used to shop there more when I lived in town. They have cheap produce and I got broccoli for .99, romaine .99, cabbage .49, yams .59, butternut .69, bananas .49, and limes 5/$1. Also got lite sour cream, bagels, and tortillas. On the way back through that neighborhood around 9th and Oley, I saw a bunch of newer discount food stores I have not checked out. A new Save-A-Lot, a "Meat Outlet" and something else new about to open. I will need to come back soon and explore. They already have the Price-Rite and a C-Town, so this looks to be developing into a "destination for discount food sshopping. Ironic and appropriate, since it used to be center of the outlet-shopping district that made Reading famous in the 70s.

All-in-all, I spent less than $50. i will need milk and yogurt this week, but that would be enough food, otherwise. A friend and I are planning a trip to Trader Joe's and a grocery liquidator, but that is more for pantry-building than immediate need. I try not to run out of things and "need" them, so I can always wait for a good price.

But, see what happens when you begin to live the food stamp lifestyle? It's all about price. The most food for the money. Not quality. Not about where and how it was produced, or who suffered to produce it. Not about whether the food dollars are going to local farmers, or even if the money stays in our region. Its about where I can get the most food, for the least expenditure of money and gasoline.

I live in the middle of some of the most productive agricultural counties in the state and the country. And I am buying almost nothing that I can identify as having come from here.

Breakfast $1.49
SO banana (.20)
DD15 nothing
Grandma- oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and pear (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), tea (.04) Me - oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and pear (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), hot cocoa (.25)

Lunch $4.54
SO - packed ham (1.25) and swiss (.40) sandwich (.25), PB crackers (.20)
DD15 - at school
Grandma - PB (.15) and homemade jelly (.20) on raisin toast (.25), Honeycrisp apple (1.25) and worth it), tea (.04) me - chicken noodle soup (.50), crackers (.20), tea (.10), grapes (.75)

Dinner $2.80
SO, Grandma, Me: Chicken in sage gravy (.20), over mashed (.55), with broccoli (.65) Grandma: bagel (.20) with butter (.18), tea (.04), grapes (.50)
DD15 - I have no idea. She did not appear to eat anything. Me - 3 pretzel rods (.25), milk (.23) for snack

Rachel Ray did not invent the 30-minute meal. I peeled and cubed a pound of potatoes and put them on to boil. Then I turned half a head of broccoli into florets and put it in a steamer basket on the stove.

Meanwhile, I picked the meat off the rest of those leftover chicken legs and put about half in a bag in the fridge. Got out the jar of pan drippings from when I roasted the chicken - it had separated into a thick layer of fat over a jellied jar-shaped chunk of pure chicken goodness. I took off the fat and put it in a baggie in the freezer. I collect chicken fat to render into "schmaltz" periodically. I have been collecting the skin and bones in a bowl in the fridge as we use the chicken meat; I put all that into a pot of water with an onion, some aging celery stalks, a carrot, some bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme I ran out into the cold backyard to snip off in the dark. It simmered on the back of the stove for 6 hours, and then I put it in a pitcher to cool before going into the fridge overnight. I will collect the fat from that, too, and will be left with lovely stock to freeze in quart containers.

I get a lot of mileage out of $4 worth of cheap chicken. This will be the third meal from that chicken, plus schmaltz and stock. And there is still a bag of chicken meat in the fridge, and a jar of leftover chicken-in-gravy.

I melted the pan juice in a saucepan, and made roux from butter and flour in another pan. When the juices were almost boiling, I added the roux and whisk it around. Got out my jar of sage dried from my garden, and rubbed a lot of it into the pot. Add lots of fresh-cracked pepper, a little milk. A little garlic powder, a little salt. The intensity of chicken flavor was almost shocking, but the mashed potatoes will mellow that. I added a pile of picked chicken to the pot, leaving it in big chunks. That pan came off the heat and got a lid while I tossed the steamed broccoli in a hot skillet with a shot of sesame oil and a sprinkle of house seasoning.

The potatoes were ready to drain and mash with my favorite vintage cast-iron masher. Added a lump of butter, salt and pepper, a splash of milk, and the last of the lite sour cream. Divided the potatoes into three plates, ladled chicken and sauce over it, added broccoli. On our old thick ironstone plates, it looked like good diner food. I got the camera for a picture, but DD15 had run out the battery not charged it. Damn kids.

That dish for all three of us was $1.40. The chicken and pan juice were leftovers, "paid for" by other meals. The costs came from broccoli and the bits of dairy, butter, seasoning. It took about half an hour. When you get into the habit of stashing away ingredients, it's actually fast and easy to cook from scratch.

Mom ate all the taters and broccoli, but would not eat most of the chicken. Damn dementia. She wanted tea and a bagel an hour later. She only wants to eat carbs. I will get her to drink some protein shake at breakfast.

Why didn't DD15 eat? Because there is "nothing in the house to eat." She would not touch gravy if I held a gun to her head. I thawed pizza dough for her, got her favorite bread, there are potato smilies in the freezer, and Honeycrisp apples in the fruit dish. She was annoyed that I didn't bring her a Coke Slushie. ::shrug::

Total for the Day: $8.83

Monday, October 31, 2011

Challenge Day 4 Report - Cooking

I mentioned yesterday that I would talk more about how to figure out what to cook and eat.

We didn't always eat like we do now. I used to cook in restaurants, I have always liked to cook, but it was a process to get to this point. I cook like this even when we have more money - I just buy more seafood, better meat, produce from local growers. I am frugal by nature and enjoy "the hunt" for food bargains and new recipes. You do not need to be on food stamps to cook better food for less money.

When my DD18 was younger, one of her favorite meals was chicken breasts cooked in canned Campbell's Cream of Chicken soup, over rice. As we started cooking as a family, she later learned to make better sauces from scratch, and is famous for her sage-flavored chicken gravy. We ate more processed food, more take-out, baked more sweets. I didn't know how to cook cabbage, and didn't think I liked onions or potatoes very much. We ate a lot more beef and chicken breast, fewer veggies. Comfort food from my childhood was Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Chef Boy-Ar-Dee canned ravioli.

When SO went back to college, and then grad school, it became my job to figure out how we could live on less money. I switched from flower gardening to vegetable gardening. I started cooking from scratch more, learning to grow some, learning to can, exploring new places to shop. I started reading about building a pantry, trying to eat more whole food, and looking for more local food. I joined the "prepper" movement. When we had to move in with my ailing mother, it become even more important.

When you need to cook frugally, you (and a lot of nutrition experts) wish that you could plan a cheap, nutritious, easy-to-prepare meal and have the whole family eat it. I laugh! At one point, I had a child with an OCD eating disorder, a teen that suddenly became vegetarian, a meat-and-potato man that wanted to eat later than everyone else, a dementia patient who forgot what she like to eat. And me - I have my own strong food likes and dislikes, too. That's what families are like.

If you are not already an experienced frugal cook, there is a process to becoming one.

Think about your needs. Who do you need to feed, when, and what are their special needs? What foods will everyone eat? What favorite foods does each person need in order to feel OK? We all drink tea, for instance. What foods and beverages do you eat now that you will not able to afford on food stamps? What can you substitute? We stopped buying tea in dairy jugs and brewed our own. If you have family members with serious fast food habits, or who are picky about brand names - they will need to make some changes. Try asking them to cut down to one fast food visit per week. See if the brand-eater will help you evaluate different store brand foods.

Keep a shopping and cooking diary for a week or two. Look for clues. What do you already eat that is cheap, filling, and at least somewhat healthy. Build on it. What consumes the most money? Work on replacing those things. If you eat a lot of snack food, find less expensive sources, learn to make some of your own, find new things that cost less. If you buy a lot of bottled beverages, start carrying a reusable water bottle. We only beverage we regularly buy in bottles is milk. If you are fond of name brands, shop the private-label discount stores and try their brands - they are often made by the brand-name manufacturers. If you normally prepare packaged food, choice a favorite and learn to make it from scratch. You never need to buy Hamburger Helper once you figure out a few things.

Assess your cooking skills. You need to get some basic scratch cooking skills to make this work. There is plenty of help online. Plenty of basic cookbooks at book sales and in libraries. Try Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Or find a friend to show you some basic techniques. Anyone can make oatmeal, fry potatoes, bake chicken. Involve all the family members. Maybe it becomes one person's job to bake, someone else makes soup on a regular basis. SO makes big batches of pasta sauce, and I can it. He also makes good meatloaf and brownies. DD15 is a competent baker and pizza maker. DD18 makes great curries, roast vegetable pasta dishes, pan gravy.

Gather resources. Start bookmarking websites with a focus on frugal cooking. Figure out how to get all the local grocery store ads online. Start a family recipe collection. I use the recipe website, where I have over 800 recipes, and I have more than a 1000 more bookmarks saved to review and add. Collect your cookbooks onto a shelf.

I have a binder in my kitchen, where I have printed out my most frequently used recipes and put them in plastic sheet protectors. If my power goes out, if I can't pay my internet bill - I can still get to my recipes. This is a great family project. Collect recipes from your parents and grandparents. Encourage your kids to find recipes on TV, in magazines - have them learn to politely ask for a recipe if they eat something they like at a friend's house.

Experiment with various food trends. You don't have to feel like Food Stamps control your eating all the time. You can learn to make bread or pizza dough because it's relaxing. Or feel good about mastering a new cooking technique from Food Network. Or enjoy the "hunt" for the best deals when you go shopping. If you add something new, especially as a family activity, there is less focus on what you can no longer afford to eat. Try Fondue Night. Try Family Cooking night where each person makes part of the meal. Bake you own Cheez-its. Learn to make jam.

I also can jam, pickles, chutney, and no-extra-sugar fruit sauces in the summer, to use on yogurt, oatmeal, and ice cream. I grow basil and make pesto to freeze into cubes, grow mint for tea. I grow and dry herbs: thyme, sage, rosemary. But that stuff is not required to make it on food stamps. Not everyone gardens or cans stuff. I just like it.

You need to start identifying go-to meals that you can afford, cook easily, and that most people will eat all or some of the food. Some of our go-to meals:

hot cereal with fruit and yogurt
eggs, fried potatoes, toast, piece of fruit omelets with ham chunks, thyme, and cheese
homemade waffles, pancakes, or french toast bread pudding from day-old bread
cereal and milk with a banana a bagel with cream cheese and a piece of fruit
a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread
on weekends we make bacon or sausage, if we have it
dinner leftovers
homemade soup grilled cheese
sandwiches out of leftover meat homemade pizza canned chicken noodle soup for DD15 PB and homemade jam on raisin bread toast for Grandma DD15 makes pizza from dough we buy, homemade sauce
Dinner - the meal your family is most likely to eat together.

Master the protein, veggie, starch combo with go-to recipes
protein - eggs, roast chicken/turkey, pulled pork, seared shrimp, sausage, pork chops
veggies - steamed broccoli, sauteed cabbage/onions, cauliflower, brussels
starch - mashed or fried potatoes, sauced pasta, beans, stuffing, potato
chicken, shrimp, or pork on a bed of ceasar salad with potato or pasta side
Pasta hash of leftover meat, red sauce, vegetables, pesto, cheese
Asian thing with leftover meat, vegetables, rice and favorite Asian sauces
Texmex with refried beans, meat, cheese, toppings in burritos or over tortilla chips Country pork ribs in crockpot with spicy BBQ bean sauce over mashed
curried meat and veg over rice
Spanish potato tortilla
Quesadillas, Burritos, Enchiladas - you can put anything in there
pasta with sauce and sausage or chicken
potato soup with kielbasi
pasta bake full of chicken bits, spinach or broccoli, pesto Alfredo sauce
meat with tortellini and pesto sauce
summer melon and sweet corn with anything grilled
chili, sometimes over fried potatoes or rice, with corn bread
SO's meatloaf with baked mac-n-cheese
I often make batches of staple foods we can have on hand and combine in a lot of ways. If I make rice or pasta, I cook extra and out it in the fridge for another meal. I make my own hummus, pizza sauce, pasta sauce, alfredo sauce, chicken or pork stock, taco seasoning mix, baking mix, house seasoning. In the crockpot, I make refried beans, bean soup, pea soup, pulled pork, whole chickens.

I often look for a good deal on a large piece of meat: a whole chicken or turkey, bulk chicken thighs, a pork roast, a ham. Then I cook it, and we eat part for the first meal. I turn the rest into smaller bits and make 2-3 more meals from it. Combine it with veggies, some sort of starch (rice, pasta, beans, potatoes, grits) and some kind of sauce (asian, italian, texmex, etc). Or put it in pan sauce and ladle it over mashed taters. Add salad if there is not enough green in it. Divide a whole cantalope between four of us, if it is in season. The leftover meat can also become sandwiches, quesadillas, or burrito filling.

After I am done with the busy blogging of the Food Challenge I will assemble a list of links to my go-to recipes.


Sunday was another day where people ate separately. I woke up late, made a pan of gingerbread to take to lunch at a friend's house, and spent most of the afternoon grocery shopping. My mother had her usual late morning oatmeal, and then my brother took her to his house until after dinner. DD15 ate cereal and went to work. SO was the only one home all day, and he made his own breakfast and lunch.

I will try to find time to talk about the grocery shopping, and some of the shopping decisions I made. But it's hard to find time to blog your cooking and eating in such detail!

I made us dinner. It only took about 15 minutes, and would not have taken much more time to make it for more people. Took apart one of those leftover chicken legs and heated the pulled meat in a pan with a bit of onion gravy, some taco seasoning, a little salsa. I made quesadillas (photo at the top) by putting fajita-size flour tortillas in a dry pan, sprinkling with grated cheddar, putting some of that saucy meat on one side, and heating until the cheese melts - then you fold over the tortilla. Each one takes only a few minutes, and there is soon a little pile of them. I served them with sour cream. Made a Caesar salad. Refrigerated Caesar dressing is one of the things I splurge on. I get Marie's or Marzetti on sale, or Walmart's version. I buy croutons at the liquidator for .50-.75 a bag. I usually add a little extra Parmesan and cracked black pepper. Makes a great bed for grilled meat or shrimp, or an appetizer/side.

I used the last of the taco seasoning, so I mixed up a new batch. I used this recipe, x4, to make two jars that will last a few months. I also frequently mix house seasoning: 4 parts kosher salt, one part ground black pepper, one part granulated garlic. I sprinkle that on potatoes and veggies when I saute, on meat before I roast or bake. I also regularly mix sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on hot cereal and toast.

SO $2.50 = cream of wheat (.22), fried rice with egg (.08), greek yogurt (.75), chicken quesadillas with sour cream (.80), ceasar salad (.55)

DD15 $3.97 = cereal and milk (.33), fast food at work (3.14), pretzels (.50)

Grandma $0.62 = oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and banana (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), tea x3 (.12)

Me $1.20 = hot cocoa (.25), pan of gingerbread (.30), quesadilla (.20), frozen yogurt cup (.45)

Total for the Day: $6.29

Notice, half of that was DD15's fast food. And two of us had meals that other people cooked. You aren't supposed to do that during challenge week, but it's artificial. Everyone sees other people, and entertains other people.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Challenge Day 3 Report - Shopping

Today's post is something of a how-to for food stamp living. But there is a little ranting in here, too, just to warn you.

Food stamps are technically called SNAP benefits - Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. It is intended to supplement your food budget. Applicants are expected to use other sources of income to buy some food and any non-food supplies. When you apply, they look at your income and take into account certain costs of living - allowances for housing and utilities, insurance, transportation to work, medical expenses. The rest you are supposed to spend on food, first.

But many people rely on food stamps alone, because they have commitments and expenses that the Dept. of Welfare does not take into account. Or they miss work for illness and don't get paid. Or have some small crisis that becomes an emergency. Or they are feeding someone that isn't considered part of the household, but needs feeding.

Eating exclusively on food stamps takes practice and lifestyle changes. You have to go against the flow of a lot of cultural messages. It can be hard on children and teens, who are surrounded by peers that want to do things food stamps do not cover. You can't go out for pizza, or get snacks at school, or get ice cream with everyone else after soccer. You may argue that kids should not be eating trashy food like that to start with. That may be true, but our culture, and all of our mainstream media tell them it's wonderful and normal. Watch TV for an evening and count the food ads. None of that can be eaten on food stamps.

To be really successful with food stamp eating, you might want to work on these things, as you are able:

Think about how you cook and eat - We have done this, and continue to tweak as needed. I will talk more about how to do that later in the Challenge Week. Today I want to focus on shopping.

Investigate all of the food sources that take food stamps - Generally, farmer's markets and farmers do not take food stamps. But investigate your market stands. The larger the city you live in, the more likely they are to do so. More vendors are staring to realize the families with food stamps each have hundreds of dollars of real money to spend every month. Look at specialty stores, warehouse clubs, grocery liquidators. Trendy markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's do take food stamps, but be careful to compare prices and focus on loss-leaders. Visit neighborhoods poorer than yours. Visit rural supermarkets. I found a pick-your-own orchard that takes food stamps. You will want to develop a circuit of stores that you visit every few weeks or months.

People on food stamps have to take into consideration the cost of transportation. If you don't have a car, you have limits. It's tough to shop by bus. Cabs cost cash. Rides with friends mean you are likely to shop where they shop, when they shop. When I did not have a car for 6 months, I regularly shopped at Aldi and Redner's with a wagon - both are less than a mile away. Friends kindly took me on larger shopping trips. I am happy to have a car again, but gas is expensive - I still shop very carefully, in as few trips as possible, and I am happy to shop with others.

Make an eating plan and a written shopping list. Don't shop hungry, or in a rush. Don't take children if they whine for unaffordable treats. Be prepared with lists, coupons, reusable bags, etc. Read coupons carefully. Know what is already in your cupboard, so you can take advantage of managers special's and other unexpected opportunities. You can afford a few indulgences, but avoid the temptation to buy too much at the beginning of the month - reserve some for the end as a buffer and to be able to snap up super-bargains you might find later. It's a shopping adventure!

Comparison shop to develop a "price to beat" list. Develop, over time, a list of the best regular price for the staples you buy all the time. Never buy them for less than that price, and buy extra if you find a better deal. I never pay more than $3/pound for cheese, $1.38 for a quart of yogurt, $2 for premium bread, etc. I know to buy my whole grain cream of wheat and bulk popcorn at Walmart, my pine nuts at Trader Joe, my boxed cereal at BRL liquidator. I have a list of the best place to buy about 200 items. If I see a 42-oz box of rolled oats for less than 1.49, I buy them all.

I shop regularly at 8 stores: Bottom Dollar, Aldi, Giant, Redner's, Walmart, BB's Liquidator, BRL Liquidator, and Trader Joe's. I know what to buy in each, from a list. Bottom Dollar has better prices on veggies, dairy, cheap meat, and a very good weekly loss leader, so I go there weekly. Redner's and Aldi are close to my house and good for bread, milk, eggs, produce specials. I visit the liquidators once a month. Walmart and Trader Joe every few months for specific items. I know where there is a produce outlet that takes food stamps, and a produce auction (which does not), if I want to do large-volume canning.

Giant used to be my regular grocery store. I might only go once every 3 months now - for their store brand decaf tea bags. I also like the bulk food aisle. I can buy just a few pieces of chocolate - 40 cents of chocolate-covered pretzels, 60 cents of licorice all-sorts, a half-pound of sesame snack sticks. Those are affordable indulgences.

Buy staples in bulk, on sale, each from the best sources. This is a key practice. Build a pantry over time. Have more than one back-up of an item. When you use the next-to-last, put it on your shopping list. You never want to "have to" buy something that is not on sale. Inventory management, in your own home. A deep pantry buffers you from the ups and downs of living in poverty. You can make it through little spells of pennilessness, or afford fancier holiday food, or to cook for a birthday party.

Where does the pantry money come from? It comes from the days you do not eat the whole allowance. I spent $8.61, not $16.50 yesterday - that $7.89 is pantry-building money. Each week, you stock up on one, two, or three items - whatever is on sale-of-the-year, in season. Examples:

  • Bottom Dollar had a grand opening price on canned tuna - 25 cents a can! But, you could only buy 8 at a time. I stopped there every for 5 days, with both kids, and we each bought 8 cans - $30 for 120 cans of tuna. We have enough tuna for almost three years. That kind of deal fits into a monthly shopping plan.

  • The grocery liquidators are fabulous for pantry-building. I got 10 boxes of Betty Crocker Gingerbread mix for .25 each when they were clearing them out. I can't buy bulk ingredientss cheaper. Boxes of name-brand cereal for $1.50. Canned pumpkin, beans, organic tomatoes, exotic sauces and condiments. I never pay full price for mayo, mustard, salad dressing. I am going there this coming Wednesday, so I can give you more examples.

  • Bottom Dollar periodically mails out coupons worth $10 on a $20 purchase - that's half price. I will go buy $20 worth of canola oil, or oatmeal, or raisins - half price.

  • Weis market has a Grand Re-Opening sale on 5-pound bags of sugar and flour for 99 cents. I am all over that. Holiday baking approaches.
Be able to cook and store that food safely. Food waste is your enemy! You have to be able to safely store and rotate your pantry inventory. Use the oldest stuff before it spoils. Keep bugs, mice, pets, and children out of it. I have a chest freezer, sturdy pantry shelves in the basement, plastic tubs and sealable buckets, a ton of glass jars.

If you are new to scratch cooking, you may need to reorganize your kitchen, or acquire new cooking skills. there are PLENTY of resources for that on the internet. I will round up some links in a later post. I have streamlined my kitchen storage system. We use standardized quart and pint containers from the restaurant supply store, and glass canning jars. Almost no tupperware - who wants to match up all those lids? There are only 4 lids sizes/shapes in our kitchen, ever.

And here is the final thing you need: thick skin. When you shop, you will be insulted on a regular basis. No matter why you get food stamps - no matter how many sick and handicapped people you care for, or foster children you raise, or how long you have been desperately looking for a job - when you hand over an EBT card, people feel entitled to examine your food, your clothing, your car, the behavior of your kids. They will look over the food on the conveyor belt and make comments out loud. Over and over, you will hear someone say, "Get a job," and not always under their breath. Despite the fact that 40% of food stamp households have at least one employed adult.

Resist the urge to lecture those folks in the grocery store, or to defend yourself by justifying why you are on food stamps. Especially in front of your children. Do discuss it with them later in the car, so they do not internalize the things they hear. The other people are NOT your problem - feeding your family is your problem. You can't start dreading the shopping, or end up with high blood pressure. Let it roll off your back. You are doing what you need to do to feed your kids. And doing it well!

What will you hear?

Do you look too put-together? You must be committing welfare fraud. Do you look a hot mess? Evidence that you are too lazy and stupid to hold a job. Did you buy junk food? You are wasting their tax dollar. Did you buy organic food? You should only be allowed to buy cheap junk food. Are you fat? You should not be buying cheap junk food. Are you thin? Must be the drugs you abuse. Do you have any children with you? You should not have had them, if you can't feed them now. Are you white? Then you should not need welfare. Are you any other color? No wonder you get welfare. Do you have an accent? You are an illegal alien stealing food from the mouths of decent Americans. There is a sense that you should not be able to afford a home, car, teeth, or shoes in order to "deserve" food.

God help you if you smoke! I quit years ago, but I have seldom discussed food stamps without someone telling me they are certain they saw someone buy cigarettes with food stamps. What they see is someone pay the food part of their order with an EBT card, and then use some other form of payment for non-food items. You simply cannot use food stamps for cigarettes, alcohol, or even toilet paper and tampons - it is a common mistaken belief that you can. Apparently, many people feel that when you lose your job/house/health/spouse, you should immediately have quit smoking, at that most-stressful moment of your life. If you smoke, many people believe your children do not deserve to eat. Seriously.

I feel bad for some of those angry, frightened, self-righteous folks. In this economy, some of them have lost or will lose their retirement funds, health, marriages, houses, or jobs. They may be on the other end of the grocery conveyor belt at some point, and feel far more shame than necessary.

I was commenting on a friend's surprised observation about the level of hate that people display toward the unemployed in the "99% " news coverage. I believe some of it might just be fear. They see someone who used to have a job just like theirs, and now they live in a car. They could be next, and they just push that away, angrily. "No! That other person must have been lazy or something, and I am not! It will not happen to me!" It is unimaginable that life isn't "fair" to someone that works hard. We were all raised on platitudes about working hard to earn a good life."

OK - enough of the negative. But if you end up needing to use food stamps at some point in your life, I thought you should be forewarned.

Today's food will look very odd. On Saturdays, everyone gets up at different times, goes different places, and often fends for themselves foodwise (except Grandma). We were out doing a lot of errands in a slushy snowstorm, and DD15 went to work. We were sucked in by McDonald's, and then seemed immobilized by the weird too-early layer of snow snapping off tree limbs all over the region.

SO: $9.66 = eggs with cheese (.40) and toast (.30), McRib (2.99), McHotCocoa (2.65), seafood salad (3.00), one pancake (.12) pack of PB crackers (.20)

DD15: $2.96 = bowl of cereal with milk (.32), meal at work (2.64 employee discount)
Grandma: $1.54 = oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and banana (.20), yogurt with honey (.17), tea x3 (.12), stack of pancakes with syrup (.37), bagel (.37) with butter (.18)

Me: $4.36 = banana (.20) w/PB (.15), hot cocoa (.25), McFishFilet (2.79), flaxseed crackers (.07) with cream cheese (.15) and homemade chutney (.10), leftover mac-n-cheese with hot sauce, PB crackers (.25), can of peaches I dropped and dented (.40)

How did Grandma get pancakes? I keep a jar of homemade whole wheat baking mix than can be turned into waffles, pancakes, or muffins. Recipe here.

Total for Day 3: $19.52

Uh oh! We are over-budget. The less spendy days will even it out, but it eats into the pantry surplus I was talking about. That $8-something would buy a LOT of pantry. It's hard not to succumb to the childhood taste of McDonald's. Hard not to sometimes have such a sense of deprivation and exhaustion that you say "f**k it!" and waste money on over-priced junk.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Challenge Day 2 Report - Protein

I have a chest freezer in the basement, so the over-the-fridge one has only things I use regularly, or things I plan to use soon. Upper left has containers of frozen stock, bags of pesto and mint cubes. The basket corrals opened bag of veggies and such. Bottom shelf has a bag of chicken legs, a whole roaster, an an ice bin. On the door is a can for bacon fat, bags to store bones for stock-making.
We had our first cold snap Thursday night and it was very chilly in the morning when I drove SO to the station. I needed some hot cocoa when got back. And a banana. Then I went back to sleep for another hour or so. I am not ready for the cold, so I am comfort-seeking.

Breakfast : $1.80
SO: Banana (.20)
DD15: Nothing
My Pre-Breakfast: hot cocoa (.25), banana (.20)
Me: Whole grain cream of wheat (.30) cooked in skim milk (.45), with mashed banana (.40) and sprinkle of cinnamon

Lunch: $.89
SO - on his own
DD15 - school lunch
Grandma: oatmeal (.06) with raisins (.07) and fresh pear (.45), yogurt with honey (.17), tea (.04)
Me: pasta Florentine casserole ("free" leftovers), tea (.10)

I didn't charge for the leftovers, because the cost would have been attributed to last week's cooking. It was a skillet casserole of ground beef and onion, with pasta sauce and elbow macaroni, punched up with spinach, garlic, pesto, a handful of mozzarella. If will cost out the price of a whole recipe, not per-portion. So, if I generate leftovers this week (like the quart of rice from Wed night), they will be "free" to use in the food stamp budget later.

Afternoon Snacks: $1.12
Me: PB crackers (.20) and more hot chocolate (.20)
Grandma: baked sweet potato with butter and cinnamon-sugar sprinkle (.40)
DD15: Bowl of cereal (.32)

Mom slept late today, and didn't come downstairs until after noontime. I listed her breakfast in the lunch slot. She will get only two meals today, so I gave her a solid afternoon snack. I roasted a huge sweet potato that I grew this summer. I think it cost more to put the butter on it than it did to grow it. It would have been .79-.99/lb in the store. I watch for them to go on sale for Thanksgiving and buy a lot at .49/lb, to last for a few months in a cool part of the cellar.

To prepare for dinner, I put that bag of frozen chicken legs into a sink full of water to thaw. That 10-pound bag cost $3.90 at Bottom Dollar - .39 per pound! This is probably a good place to talk about protein.

That's 10 lbs of chicken legs for $3.90. How can I say 'no' to at least 4 meals worth of meal for less than 4 dollars? I will roast the legs, pick the meat from the bones, and scrape up the pan drippings for sauce-making, save the skin and bones for stock. But I know this is the lowest quality chicken. The legs have appearance issues that do not affect the eating - they are damaged. And they came from the biggest processor, supplied by terrible factory farms owned by families that are virtually enslaved by the processors. "Gold Leaf" is Tyson's private label brand and these are Tyson's "seconds".

People on food stamps buy cheap meat. Certainly, you can be a vegetarian on food stamps, but most people are not. And, you could carefully pare down the cost of other foods to support the purchase of organic meat. But it will be very expensive "high volume commercial" organic meat at a grocery store, and many people argue that is just another form of factory meat.

You can almost never get locally-pastured meat with food stamps. It is rare to find a small farm or butcher that can accept food stamps. Most farmer's markets do not, either. Where I live, there is one country butcher, one farmer's market butcher, and one farmer's market poultry stand that take food stamps. All have only conventionally-raised meat, but I can at least comfort myself that the money stays in our local economy. You could use your food stamps to buy all your other food, and use cash to buy pastured meat, but not if you depend exclusively on food stamps to eat.

That country butcher that takes food stamps also stares at you when you produce an EBT card. They probably don't mean to, but it's a small store, in a small agricultural community - I am an outsider "on welfare"buying $50 worth of meat. I know that some of them are resentfully thinking, "Look at her spending my tax money." I get their email newsletter with the week's sale items. They make their own lard, which I like for baking, so I go there every few months. Great source for a big ham bone to make split pea soup.

I buy cheap meat and do a lot of braising. Most of it comes from "soft-discount" or private-label grocery chains. We eat a lot of chicken, pork, sausage, ground turkey, a little beef. I get meat at Bottom Dollar, a discount US grocery chain owned by a Belgian company that also owns FoodLion. Aldi is a discount chain owned by a German company. Price-Rite is at least owned by Wakefern, a US company. But none of those food dollars go back into my local foodshed, except as wages to store clerks.

I do buy bags of local organic chicken backs and necks from a butcher for cash, to make good chicken stock. They cost $2 for a 5-pound ziplock, and that produces about 8 quarts of excellent stock for the freezer. The best meaty pork neckbones for pork stock have been coming from Bottom Dollar - I think they are Smithfield seconds, and Smithfield is the Evil Empire of pork. I try not to think about it.

There are other sources of protein, of course. We eat a lot of eggs (try not to pay more than .99/doz), cheese (no more than $3/lb), and dairy. The price of milk is controlled by the state of Pennsylvania, in every store, so no comparison shopping. I do keep nonfat dry milk in the pantry for baking and emergencies. We occasionally buy raw milk (with cash - no direct dairy takes food stamps). I love raw whole milk for making yogurt and hot cereal. But when money is very tight, we buy skim milk and commercial yogurt. Plain nonfat yogurt is $1.38 a quart at Bottom Dollar. I can't make it cheaper, and we go through at least two quarts a week.

We also eat canned tuna and whole grains. Occasional frozen shrimp on sale, occasional frozen fish filets. That seafood comes from the fish factories that supply discount grocers. Good salmon (not excellent, just good) can cost a whole day's food stamps for a single pound.

Beans and peas are protein. I love beans. Bean soup, baked beans, bean casserole, chili with beans, refried beans, beans and rice, hummus, dal. But my mother has become irrationally afraid to eat beans. And we try to avoid weeknight foods that might put my SO in a business meeting the next day with "digestive disturbance." I make batches and freeze portions.

One of the traps of food stamp living is that you become almost completely focused on price. It's not the quality, or the ethical considerations - it's all about making it through the month.

Above is a 3/4-poun piece of genuine Government Cheese. My mother is signed up for a food supplement program for senior citizens, through the local food bank system. One a month I pick up bags of commodity food. Dried or canned milk, canned meat, canned vegetables and fruit, juice, whole grain cereal, and a 3-lb block of Land O' Lakes 2% American Cheese Product. Way to much like Velveeta for my taste, but it makes good macaroni and cheese. I use a recipe (cut in half) from Ina Garten, substituting whatever cheese I have on hand. In case, I grated the weird Government Cheese, threw in a handful of grated Parmesan and end of bag of grated cheddar. For the milk, I reconstituted enough nonfat dry milk to make 2 cups.

Costing the mac-n-cheese was awkward. The Mac was leftover, the cheese and milk were free. Only the butter cost "counted."

Grandma wouldn't eat the chicken, as sometimes happens, so I gave her a bottle of Boost. And what's with the DONUT HOLES?? I ran a bunch of errands, and they had Dunkin' Donut Munchkins in the gas station where I paid for gas. I spent a dollar on 4 chocolate glazed. I know, I could feed 4 people lunch with that dollar. But they accept EBT cards, so if I had food stamps, I could well have succumbed to the temptation to use it there. Lots of places that carry only soda and snack food accept EBT cards. To be fair, I could also have purchased a nutritious bottle of organic fruit and vegetable smoothie -a nd I love that stuff. But it's more than $4.

That's a food stamp-driven choice. I may want that smoothie, but no way does it fit in the budget. I don't want to waste $4 on just one person. But I had a busy day and I want that treat. So it's donut holes.

Dinner: $4:30
All 4 of us ate: Roast Chicken (3.90), baked mac-n-cheese (.40)
Grandma: Boost supplement (.25)
Me: 4 donut holes (.99)

Total for the Day: $8.12
Now we are talking cheap-ass food!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Challenge Report for Day 1

Grandma's breakfast was the most expensive, at $1.35.

Yesterday went well, but it took a lot of time to figure out the cost of things I bought in bulk. Calculating meal costs will go faster as the days go by and I get to know the portion costs for more things.

Breakfast: $2.71
SO: Banana (.20)
DD15: Nothing
Grandma: Eggs, fried potatoes, toasted roll, applesauce, tea (1.35)
Me and a guest: oatmeal (.95) and tea (.21)
I drive my SO to the bus station downtown each morning at 5:30. About 2-3 days a week, I also pack him a lunch and make breakfast to-go. This morning, there was only time to grab a banana. We go through 4-6 bananas every day. Happily, they are cheap.

I get back by 6am to supervise DD15 getting ready to go to school. Sometimes she eats something, but often not. I would have at least made her toast, but she needed me to print out the homework she left to the last minute. She gets on the bus at 6:50.

Hmm, I can see that this Challenge is going to reveal all of my little failures as a parent. Two people left without food, so far.

A friend came for breakfast at 7:30, so I had a chance to redeem myself. I made us oatmeal. Hot cereal with seasonal fruit is a staple here, and I keep jars of oatmeal, raisins, whole grain cream of wheat. One serving of oatmeal, all dressed up, still costs less than 50 cents.
Oatmeal - 1 cup dry (2 servings) (.12)
raisins 1/4 cup (.14)
salt, sprinkle of cinnamon sugar
1/2 cup homemade chunky applesauce (.25)
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt (.34)
drizzle of honey (.10)
My mother showers and dresses very slowly, so she did not appear until almost 10am. She usually has oatmeal, but today she asked for eggs and potatoes. It is unusual for her to be able tell me what she wants to eat these days, so I usually try to give her what she wants if she does ask. She does not have diabetes or heart disease, so her dietary limits are only the ones imposed by her dementia - she forgets what she likes to eat, asks for the same things, and fears eating too much. I give her a protein supplement like Boost or Ensure, with increasing frequency. I get them at the grocery liquidator for .25-.50 instead of several dollars at the store.

I am working through a 20-lb sack of Kennebeck potatoes I got from a farmer in Lancaster county for $7 (.35/lb), when I had to drive in that direction for a dentist. I also have 3lb bags of onions I got for .99 each. I buy day-old bread and rolls from the local grocery to make crusty toast. I buy eggs for .88-.99/dozen at Bottom Dollar or Aldi. Potatoes, onions, and eggs are big staples for us, and can appear at breakfast, lunch or dinner in various forms.
a half-pound potato (.18)
bit of caramelized onion from the fridge (.02)
house seasoning (salt, peppper, granulated garlic)
tbl canola oil (.01)
2 eggs (.15)
tbl butter (.18)
day-old roll (.25)
2 tbl homemade white peach and lime jam (.25)
2 tbl ketchup (.02)
1/2 cup warm homemade applesauce (.25)
decaf tea (.04)
A word about tea. All of us are decaffeinated. We favor Giant-brand decaf tea, which costs $2.99 for 72 bags - I buy 10 boxes if it is on sale. So, that's about 4 cents a cup. I also like fancier herbal teas, which average 2.19 on sale for 20 bags - but I also get those deeply discounted at the liquidators. And, I brew pitchers of iced tea with family-size bags that cost about $2.50 for 24 - about 10 cents per pitcher.

Lunch: $2.30
SO: On his own - brewed him a pitcher of tea for later (.10)
DD15: School lunch
Grandma: PB crackers (.19), tea (.04), raisin bagel (.37) butter (.18) banana (.20)
Me: tuna (.49), Miracle Whip (.03), 12 Triscuits (.40) banana (.20) tea (.10)
My mother and I eat at different times, because she comes down late and naps off and on in front of the TV all day. I get things done when she is asleep. The stove has the knobs taken off, so she will be puzzled about how to turn it on if she wakes up and comes into the kitchen when I am elsewhere in the house. She is no longer safe with hot or sharp things.

Time to start thinking about dinner. Let's look in the fridge! I am always patrolling the fridge to make sure we use leftover bits of food. Food waste is your enemy. You want to use every bit. You keep an eye on what is going to get old soon, and use it.

On the door of the fridge are eggs, butter, milk. More important are the condiments. I don't quite know how I will cost out the use of these, but I will give it a shot as I go along. The "rules" of the Challenge say you don't have to count spice and condiments. But, gee, people on actual food stamps do!

The bottom of the fridge has a chunk of cabbage, a few Brussels sprouts, some carrots and celery. The drawer on the right isn't "mine" - I am storing condiments for someone that is moving. The meat drawer has a bag of shredded cheddar, a few links of chiorizo, and some sliced Swiss. The messy-looking shelf has a bag of pizza dough, a bag of pulled pork from last week's roast, some cooked hot Italian sausage, and the pickle jars. There is normally more produce in there, but I didn't get to the store yet.

The top left shelf is homemade jelly, chutney, pesto, a jar of cooking wine, containers of things like yeast and wheat germ. Below it is the "use me now" shelf with a container of cooked macaroni, homemade pizza sauce, jars of stock and sauces. On the top right are several large chunks of cheese, some soy milk, mayo, yogurt, and leftover pasta Florentine. Below it is a chunk of Government Cheese, a container of roasted squash, and some sour cream.

Need to keep using that pork or freeze it. I got a great deal on a 9-lb boston butt, and it was almost all meat, with little bone or fat. I think I got 7 lbs of cooked meat for $10.21. We have gotten at least 4 meals and have a lot left. The hot sausage, I sliced and froze for future pizza.

So, I think Pork Fried Rice for dinner. I made a 6-cup batch of Basmati cooked in chicken stock. The leftover rice will be used later in the week. Cooking a big batch for now-n-later is a time-saver when you do a lot of scratch cooking.

Dinner: $6.67
SO, Grandma, Me: Pork Fried Rice (3.75)
DD15: Coke Slushie, bag of popcorn, bag of Cheetos (2.92)

Whaaa? Did you just read that DD15 had popcorn and a Slushie for dinner?? Yes, with her own money. But I am counting the cost for the Challenge. She came home from school and said she had eaten enough lunch. Food is not a battle I fight with her, most days. I buy her ingredients, she makes food, or not. She has a weekend job at a fast food restaurant, and decides how to spend her earnings.

I stopped at Aldi when I picked up SO from the bus station at 6:30. (Yes, he had a 13 hour day. Most days.) I spent $8.92 on broccoli, yogurt, black pepper, hot cocoa mix, bananas, and eggs. I will include their cost as I use them.

This is how the Pork Fried Rice broke down:
2 cups basmati (.80)
4 cups chicken stock (leftover from other cooking)
1 lb cooked pork (1.35)
1/2 lb cabbage (.30)
6 brussels sprouts (.45)
med. onion (.15)
2 eggs (.15)
assorted seasonings and condiments.
Total for the Day: $12.22 (surplus: $4.28)
Breakfast: 2.71
Lunch 2.30
Dinner 6.67
Misc tea and snacks (.44)
The average daily budget is $16.50. (You might remember that we have $115.50 for the week.) I am happy with this day. I would have liked to come in under $10, but Cheetos happen.