More and more Americans are facing financial hardship and even food insecurity. Saving money on everyday expenses has sure become a primary focus in my life. I now spend half of what I used to spend on groceries 10 years ago, even though food prices have gone up and I have four instead of two children to feed. There is practically no limit to how much a family can spend on food, but as long as you have something, you can nearly always get by on what you have, especially with a little creativity.
Meeting your family’s basic needs on a limited budget is an art and a science. Not only does it generally involve cooking from scratch, but careful shopping.
One of the hardest thing about being an adult is the incredible burden of knowing that if you don’t make the effort, the little people will not eat. If you don’t feel like shopping, they will run out of milk. If their only protein source is milk they will become anemic. Every doctor’s visit is like a parental report card. Is my child within the normal weight range?
My first advice for new brides is to have patience with yourself. It probably takes a full decade for most homemakers to get used to being the family cook. Before I married, I used to dream of all the wonderful family warmth and togetherness I was going to create with my womanly talents.
Well, cooking with children underfoot is a totally different experience than cooking while single. I used to find the smell of sauce cooking for hours while I slowly stirred in the herbs very relaxing in my youth. Cooking is rarely relaxing with small children underfoot, in fact it can be downright infuriating sometimes. When they get older they will be able to help with many things though, including keeping the younger ones out of the veggie chopping zone and even sometimes helping with the chopping. Ready-made foods that you warm in the oven are something children can prepare themselves, and has the pleasant side effect of heating the home. When my eldest turned 11, I finally pulled out my dream chest of recipes I had copied down and saved, starting when I was 11. As soon as children acquire basic math and reading skills, they really enjoy following recipes together with their mother and alone.
Yet when scarcity strikes, how do we make sure our kids have enough good food? Lentils and dried split peas are the cheapest iron, protein and fiber sources you can buy. Varying carbohydrates like bread, rice, pasta and couscous makes the same old things seem different. When cooking meat, mix it with other things like beans and vegetables. Homemade soups can be a meal in themselves. Ice cream is absolutely the cheapest source of healthy calories, containing both calcium and protein. When things are discounted, stock up. Try to reserve money for this because you never know when paper goods will be on sale, which are some of the more expensive items on the list. Frequent dollar stores. Their inventory often fluctuates, but they nearly always have things you need. Asian groceries often have the best prices for produce and spices.
Learn from people who have lived in war-torn countries. I knew a Palestinian woman who had dedicated an entire room in her home for shelves filled with canned and dried goods. By combining coupons with sale prices, she was often able to fill up her grocery cart for a fraction of the normal cost.
Plan ahead for emergencies. There will be times when you are too tired or stressed to cook, or you are having a hypoglycemic attack. These situations might cause you to order take out food. One restaurant meal could equal an entire week’s worth of the cost of groceries. So don’t get too crazy in your cost-saving at the supermarket, and if you do go to a restaurant, go alone. Make sure you have some frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, hot dogs, mixed nuts or hommos on hand when possible. Even though these things can cost $5 or more an item, that is still less than what you would pay at a restaurant after you have run out of food at home and everyone is crying. Dinner entrees can be frozen for later use like lasagna, pesto or haleem. Many working mothers have a day in the week set aside for cooking and freezing food.
The Lipton/Knorr broccoli alfredo mix, which is always under $2, is my family’s favorite default food. You can add some fresh broccoli and a toddler will actually eat it. Not only that but you can teach an 8 year old to make it. I also try to add dried parsley to nearly everything, as it is a ready source of protein and vitamin C that little kids don’t notice. Incorporating the cheaper vegetables and fruits into ones diet on a regular basis like chopped celery, carrots and potatoes can add bulk to nearly every dish. Radishes and apples can be added to salads. Don’t skimp on fruit juice despite the cost, because the lack of it nearly always leads to colds and flu in my home.
When we are facing scarcity, we often need to try to live our lives completely within a circle nearby. We can save a lot of money on gas when we do our business and socialize locally. Whenever people are getting run down, it’s time to slow down on the activities. We have to make sure we are well rested and wearing lots of layers so we don’t get sick in the winter cold, despite the food situation.
Most of these things I have mentioned are pretty intuitive to most people, but probably the most important thing is to remind ourselves of what we already know. All the requirements for basic human living is ingrained in our true nature.
Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based freelance writer. Visit karinfriedemann.blogspot.com.