With the US economy still in the doldrums and unemployment high, many Americans are struggling to stretch every dollar as far as possible, and that includes their food dollars. It is in times like these that imagination and creativity in the kitchen become especially important. With the right amounts of thought and planning, it is possible to create wholesome and delicious low-cost meals. And if the need to spend money more carefully leads to more nutritious, home-cooked meals in American households, there may be a silver lining in the cloud, after all.
Of course, many cooks, past and present, have had to economize over the years. They’ve done it by comparison shopping, buying produce in season, and adding more vegetables and less meat to the pot. Frugal cooks also bypass convenience items such as fruits and vegetables that are prewashed and precut in favor of doing their own preparation. And some buy extra produce when the price is right and can or freeze it for later use.
Many of us, understandably, have culinary habits that only faintly resemble these. Hectic schedules and the ready availability of convenience foods have paved the way to less-healthful eating habits. In much of the United States, it is just as easy — or easier — to order out or pick something up for the evening meal as it is to prepare the meal at home. But this is not true everywhere in the world.
In a recent visit to my other home in a rural town of 2500 in northeastern Italy, I was amazed to see that in the few months since my last visit, economic difficulty had really tightened its grip on the people living there. Just as in the United States, many people in all sectors of the economy have lost their jobs or had their hours cut. More people are riding their bicycles to work or to go shopping. And many are now inviting relatives or friends over for a home-cooked meal instead of meeting them in a restaurant. Just like Americans, Italians are tightening their belts.
But other than fewer restaurant meals, how has the economic crisis affected Italians’ eating habits? I cannot speak for the whole country, but in my town, not much has changed at all. People are still shopping daily for the freshest seasonal ingredients and cooking their traditional local recipes. Fresh foods are of very high quality (no one buys them otherwise), locally grown, and relatively inexpensive. Meals are therefore delicious without being costly. Having observed this, I began to think about how we Americans might take a frugal approach to meal planning based on the Italian example of eating well at low cost.
Focus on fresh
One way for Americans to spend less money on food is to choose unprocessed (or less-processed) foods with few added ingredients as the basis of meals. To find such foods at a grocery store, focus on the products stocked along the perimeter of the store. This is where wholesome foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, meat, and fish are usually located.
To see how less handling and fewer added ingredients keep the costs down, here are a few examples I noticed during a visit to my local supermarket here in New Jersey: A six-ounce container of low-fat yogurt costs 99 cents, while a six-ounce container of the same yogurt with a separate plastic container of granola costs $1.09. And if you decide to buy the same yogurt with chocolate chip cookie pieces in 100-calorie packs, it will cost $1.52 for the same six ounces. You can purchase a chicken breast for $5.49 per pound, but if you buy it thinly sliced, it will cost $6.99 per pound. Organic carrots sell for $1.95 per pound; organic carrot sticks are $3.19 per pound. Gala apples cost $1.70 per pound, but the same pound of cut-up Gala apple wedges costs $3.99.
Buy in season
Another basic rule of Italian cooking is to buy local produce that is in season. Since vegetables and fruits are prominent ingredients in Italian meals, keeping choices local and seasonal can significantly hold down costs. Except in supermarkets in some large cities, açai berries or tomatillos are nonexistent in Italy; this is certainly so for small-town people like my neighbors. You will not find watermelons or peaches in any store in town during the winter months. Nor will you see broccoli or spinach in the summer. People in my Italian town choose or modify their recipes based on the season.
In American supermarkets, it is not uncommon to find certain items, such as broccoli, cucumbers, and apples, on produce shelves year-round. But unless these items are in season in your area, they are being shipped from somewhere else or are being pulled from cold storage. When fresh produce is shipped long distances, it tends to lose some nutrients along the way, and flavor often suffers, as well. It also tends to be more expensive than the same product in season locally.
Foods kept in cold storage, however, are not all bad. When stored properly, fruits and vegetables such as apples, winter squash, onions, and potatoes taste perfectly fine for several months after picking. The “season” for such foods, therefore, goes beyond the week or month they were harvested. Frozen fruits and vegetables can also taste fresh and provide high amounts of nutrients if they were processed immediately after picking. In the winter, especially, frozen fruits and vegetables may be a nutritious and economical option.
Buy locally — sometimes
Buying fresh, in-season, locally grown produce can often be economical, but it isn’t always. If the farms in your area grow mostly organic produce or specialty items, for example, it may be more expensive than conventionally grown produce in the supermarket. Farmers who sell at farmers markets may also charge a premium for produce that was picked that morning. And small farmers have higher overhead costs, relatively speaking, than the large farming businesses that supply most grocery stores, so they make a profit only if they charge more for their produce.
There are some other reasons that produce at the grocery store may be cheaper than produce at the farmers market. One is that the grocery store (or, more likely, grocery store chain) buys such huge amounts of a product that they get it at a discount. Another is that grocery stores may sell a particular product at a very low price (called a “loss leader”) to lure customers into the store. Once there, the store hopes these customers will buy not just the inexpensive item but also more expensive items, ultimately giving the store a profit.
To keep your food costs down while enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables, educate yourself about what is grown in your area and when to expect to see it in stores. Also pay attention to when certain foods, such as citrus fruits or peaches, are in season in other parts of the country. One rather obvious clue that a fruit or vegetable is in season is that your store will have a large quantity of good-looking produce at a relatively low price. (Fruits and vegetables in season should look plump and fresh, while produce that has been in storage for too long may start to look dry and shriveled.) Learn to enjoy foods from all seasons of the year. That way, when you see fresh-looking produce being sold at a good price, you can take advantage of the savings and have a delicious meal to boot.
As I always do when I am in my Italian home, on my last trip, I spent some time cooking with my friend Vanda. Since she has diabetes and prefers vegetables to meat, we tend to concoct vegetable-based recipes that are diabetes-friendly. At the following three links are three of our most recent inventions. You will find them to be simple main dishes, constructed from humble, natural, inexpensive ingredients. They are easy to make and not very time-consuming. After all, Italians have only 24 hours in their day, too! The recipes are nutritious, and Vanda and I hope you agree that they are also delicious. Of course, you can add spices, different herbs, or an additional source of protein to the recipes to suit your personal taste. Buon appetito!