Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cut Your Food Budget & Convenience Foods

There are small ways to save money that add up to quite a lot if you have several children, if you have a big credit card bill, or if you have trouble living within your budget. It's obvious that spending has to be cut back, but if you are already careful with your spending, sometimes the only thing left to cut back is your food budget. How?

First, as I've continually encouraged, buy as much as you can on sale. That's why I talk about the great deals in local grocery stores and encourage you to buy by the case when possible, or at least to buy as many cans/boxes as you can afford of non-perishables or perishables that store well. If you can save about half the price of an item, as butter was last week in two grocery stores, then you can afford to eat well on a budget all year.

Second, eating a lot of convenience foods is costly, both to our wallets and our health. Make as much as you can from scratch:  there are ways, though, to make your "from Scratch" foods be convenient and fast, which I will explain. Perhaps the biggest and easiest  saving for a big family would be to seldom buy cold cereal. Think how many boxes you use a week and how much it costs. What is the alternative if you are a busy family? Short-term planning. Here are some examples of  inexpensive breakfasts:
  • Make a double or triple batch of pancakes, waffles, or french toast, feed your family and freeze the rest in freezer bags. We often just reheat a pancake or a waffle in the toaster, which takes just a minute on a busy morning.
  • Cook oatmeal, cream of wheat, or another hot cereal. Oatmeal is great with chopped apples and cinnamon. Here, too, it can become a convenience food if you plan: one of the first issues of our blog has a recipe for instant oatmeal.  Cold cream of wheat is a solid mass, but if you put a little water in the pot and break up the cream of wheat as it heats (adding water when needed), you can use a wisk and end up with creamy cereal a second day.
  • If you really want to save, buy the hot cereal in bulk. If you live where you can buy bulk grains, you've seen the larger sizes of oatmeal or steel-cut oats. Cream of wheat is also known as "farina", and you can buy a big bag of farina in most places that sell bulk grains -- I think I bought my last bag from Leland Mills in Spanish Fork. One bag lasts years in our house.
  • Wheat and other whole grains can be cooked overnight in a crockpot and be ready to eat in the morning as a hot cereal. Cooked whole wheat is very chewy and filling. If you have a rice cooker that turns itself to warm when done, you can cook brown rice or basmati brown rice (which we prefer for flavor) and it will be warm when you get up in the morning (just add about a cup more water than the rice cooker shows to add for white rice). You can even toss in some dried raisins, craisins, or another dried fruit while cooking to sweeten the rice.
  • More time consuming, but definitely a savings, is to make your own bread, but did you know homemade bread freezes very well? You can't beat french toast made with homemade bread, as it soaks up more of the egg mixture -- yum!  Because one of my children had a milk allergy as a child, we don't even use milk in french toast: just egg, water, a little vanilla, and cinnamon. You'd never miss the milk.
The best way to save money, ever, is to simply take a few minutes a day or so ahead and plan. Planning takes the stress out and helps us be less apt to spend a lot eating out or ordering a pizza. :)

Back to convenience foods in general. Most of them are really expensive for the quantity you get. Most of the convenience foods you really enjoy can be made from scratch, and the dry ingredients can be put in jars to use as a homemade convenience food. Take "Hamburger Helper", as one example. Just look for recipes in a Google search. 
Yes, I know that some of the things going into these online recipes are also convenience foods, but you get to decide if you want to make it all from scratch or not, as there will be recipes that do it both ways --  I, for one, don't use Hamburger Helper, but I will probably not be giving up canned cream of mushroom soup any time soon. There are whole websites and books devoted to making your own mixes, and you'll save a bundle that way over buying convenience foods.

Just keep in mind that convenience foods (as produced by manufacturers) are not necessarily good for our health. Here are two very similar quotes from LDS President Ezra Taft Benson, who was also the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under both terms of the Eisenhower administration:
"In general, the more food we eat in its natural state and the less it is refined without additives, the healthier it will be for us. Food can affect the mind, and deficiencies in certain elements in the body can promote mental depression."  [Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign Nov 1974, Do Not Despair]
"To a great extent we are physically what we eat. Most of us are acquainted with some of the prohibitions, such as no tea, coffee, tobacco, or alcohol. What need additional emphasis are the positive aspects--the need for vegetables, fruits, and grains, particularly wheat. In most cases, the closer these can be, when eaten, to their natural state-- without overrefinement and processing--the healthier we will be. To a significant degree, we are an overfed and undernourished nation digging an early grave with our teeth, and lacking the energy that could be ours because we overindulge in junk foods."[Ezra Taft Benson, Fireside Address at BYU March 1979, In His Steps]
Back in 1990, when I mentioned these quotes in a meeting as a way to encourage whole grains, I got a lot of negative feedback, and that was in the days when families were not eating much convenience food. Why? People didn't catch Pres. Benson's vision then and they felt stressed to think of making changes.  It is interesting that over the last 20 plus years, in addition to some of the public turning almost exclusively to convenience foods, we also have seen huge popular movements that head in exactly the opposite direction. People use other words to describe it than President Benson did, including "Real Foods", "Whole Foods", "Clean Foods", "Organic Foods", and so on.  The goals, though, (and most of the food choices) are exactly the same -- a healthy mind and body and loads of energy.

If changing your cooking habits or dietary habits is your goal, then take a look at where you are and where you want to be and then take baby steps toward it -- that's the way to be successful in any such changes. I appreciate those sites, like some of the links above, that support us in making changes in ways that we can still eat what tastes good to us while making healthier choices.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Oh, Beans!

Do creativity and beans go together?  Of course! I'm talking food, too, not gluing beans on a turkey, a popular Thanksgiving craft in elementary school.  Have you ever tried grinding dry beans in the wheat grinder?  You can add this highly nutritious "bean flour" to your recipes — even deserts and breads— usually without changing the flavor of the food. Beans tend to take on the flavor of the ingredients used with them.  Rita Bingham, a food storage expert, uses this bean flour to make delicious sauces and gravies and instant refried beans, among other things. (Natural Meals in Minutes, Book Four, Rita's Beans", Rita Bingham, Natural Meals in Minutes, Provo, UT.)  If  you’ve ever forgotten to add the onions and ham hock or other seasonings to your beans, you know how bland beans can be sans seasoning.

Mostly, we need to change our attitude about where and how we use beans and get more creative We can put some white bean flour in our bread and get a complete protein--plus the extra calcium found in white beans.  (See "Do You Know Beans about Beans?", Ensign, June 1991, p.66)  We can even bottle beans in our own jars (following USDA guidelines and using a pressure canner, please!) to have them on hand for quick, economical meals.  We can make our own tofu with soybeans.  We can crack beans as we would wheat,  and we can sprout beans, both which considerably lessen cooking time.  Our imagination is our only limit.
Another reason many of us limit our legume consumption is that we have flatulence (gas) when we eat legumes.  Our bodies have lost the necessary enzymes that aid in digesting legumes because we eat so many highly refined foods.  Here are several options to help, if not conquer, this problem: 

  1. Sprouting beans ahead of time considerably reduces gas. "Dry Beans & Peas", Georgia Lauritzen, Cooperative Extension Service, Logan, UT. [This method requires several rinses of the beans each day so that they do not sour. Just put the beans in a colander and run water over them. I put a dishtowel over the top to keep them moist.)
  2. Discarding the soak water, even with a quick soak, and then rinsing the beans thoroughly is helpful to reduce gas. 
  3. Start soaking your dry beans the night before you plan to eat them. Long soaks reduce gas. Then rinse well and use new water to cook the beans.
  4. Best and simplest is to regularly include in your diet small amounts of beans (at least 2-3 times a week).  Gradually increasing your intake from very small amounts allows your body to get used to the legumes and grow the friendly bacteria needed to digest them.   
Legumes do get harder as time passes and thus take longer to cook after several years' storage.  However, I have found that even 20-year-old legumes, when stored properly in a cool and dark place, do well if sprouted or cooked in a pressure cooker.

We so often think of beans as a lowly alternative to meat, but then most of our experience in the west is with pinto or kidney beans in bean dip and burritos, plus navy beans in white bean soup. There truly is a whole world out there of beans to experience, with different flavors. Do a Google search to find out more about beans like Adzuki (from East Asia and the Himalayas), Flageolet (from France), Jacob’s Cattle (a spotted heirloom bean), Scarlet runner, Apaloosa, and Cannellini (from Italy).  One of my favorite easy things with dry beans is to buy a bag with a variety of beans of different colors (a bean stew mix from the store) and follow the recipe on the bag. The stew is so pretty and tasty.

If you are a true beginner with dried beans, a great set of instructions is linked here.

The biggest secret to having success with dry beans? Simply plan in advance and try a few recipes from trusted sources like the Idaho Bean Commission, which has recipes for dry beans as well as canned beans. In fact, my first forays into dry beans, when I was first married, were with a recipe in hand from the Idaho Bean Council. Now, all their recipes are online and linked  here.  Enjoy!