You may not think that sixteen dollars can get you very far at the grocery store, but you'd be surprised what a difference a little elbow grease can make. My Mom grew up in Winterport, Maine, a cold little town on the Penobscot River where fortunes could be scarce, and ingenuity was not optional. As a result of her upbringing, and natural, god given creativity, my Mother is one of those people that can make something out of nothing. You can give her a few dollars and a nearly empty pantry, and she can make you a meal that will leave you stuffed to the brim. When The Austin Food Blogger Alliance decided to take on a Hunger Awareness Project, focusing on making the most out of the $16 minimum food assistance benefit in Central Texas, I knew just who to call for advice.
When these items are on sale, they can be bought very cheaply, and be used to make up the foundation for a wide range of foods you can make at home on a tight budget. While most of these things are available at a wide range of grocery stores, your best bet is to buy them at the least expensive place you can. In Austin, we are blessed with a huge variety of ethnic grocery stores that often carry staples in bulk, and at unbelievable prices. A favorite if mine is El Rancho Supermarcado on Research Boulevard. Bulk dried beans can be bought for less than $0.50 per pound! While their produce may not be as pretty as the carefully selected specimens in the higher end grocery stores, they are plenty edible. When you are living off of a small income every penny counts.
- Bisquick (You can easily make your own Bisquick style baking mix by combining combining a few simple pantry ingredients, but if you buy the store brand, using Bisquick can help simplify a lot of cheap, easy recipes such as pancakes or biscuits.
- Eggs (There are a lot of choices when it comes to eggs, and it is mostly a quantity versus quality issue. While it would be nice to live only on organic, free range, locally raised eggs, buying the generic brand is OK when money is tight. Just make sure you cook them thoroughly, and keep surfaces and cookware well sanitized to avoid salmonella, as the risk can be higher with factory farmed eggs.)
- Dried Beans (They may seem a little scary, but it's actually very easy to work with dried beans. Here's a quick guide to softening them up for cooking.)
- Canned Tomatoes (While any kind of canned tomato can be useful, I stock up on diced, petite diced, and plain tomato sauce whenever it goes on sale. These types of canned tomatoes can be used in countless recipes to make chili, soups, sauces, or casseroles.)
- Rolled Oats (Make oatmeal, cookies, or beef up your bread with this amazingly cheap grain.)
- Canned Tuna (Definitely wait for sales to stock up on tuna, as this can be a very pricey item. However, when a good sale is running, tuna makes a good choice for a budget pantry, being a relatively cheap protein that stores well.)
- Pasta / Egg Noodles (Pasta and Egg Noodles can keep you full when the going gets tough. Try to keep a variety of soup shaped noodles, spaghetti, and versatile pastas like ziti and penne stocked in your pantry.)
- Broth/Bullion (Whether you buy cubed, boxed, or canned, having broth on hand allows you to make up soups, flavored rices, and gravies when there is nothing else to eat.)
- Frozen Veggies (Another great sale item, frozen veggies are much more nutritious than canned, and often much cheaper than fresh.)
- Canned Condensed Soups (These go on mega-sales every now and then, so keep your eyes peeled. When they start selling for 3 or more for a dollar, buy as many as you can that week to stock up for later.)
- Rice (Buy rice in bulk, and on sale if possible, to get the best bang for your buck.)
- Deli Ends (Most grocery stores sell off the end pieces of their sliced meats and cheeses at considerable discounts. The ends are easily chopped, sliced or grated, making them great for family meals.)
So, even if you are, as my Mom would say, "as poor as a church mouse", you can make a whole lot out of nearly nothing.
Next, I asked my Mom what kinds of meals she would throw together when money was especially tight. While my parents did a pretty great job of providing for us, I know that there must have been times when feeding six people while waiting for the next paycheck to come in was no easy task. Her own mother must have struggled to put food on the table now and then, but according to my Mom, not only did she and her brother never go hungry, my Grandmother always had room at her table for whoever popped in for dinner. Imagine feeding a horde of hungry fisherman, cousins, and kids on an empty pantry. Apparently, working miracles is in our blood.
Pasta and Sauce
My Mom said that no matter how bad things got she could always find enough to make a pound of pasta and some kind of sauce. Spaghetti was a go-to when we were growing up. Not only is it relatively cheap to make, it's easily improvised on, and palatable to even the pickiest kid. Jarred sauce, however, can break the bank, so you are better off stocking up on canned tomatoes to make your own sauce. Try throwing in an onion or two, some herbs, a little garlic, and cooking down the tomatoes on the stove top. If you have access to produce, toss your pasta with a quick stiry fry of your favorite veggies, seasoned with a little butter, garlic, and salt & pepper. A shake of parmesan won't hurt either. To beef up the nutritional value of Pasta and Sauce, try adding some white beans. Whether you use canned or dried, beans are an inexpensive protein that can help square off a meal.
Cheetums is a definite kid pleaser, but is also really easy on the wallet. Mix up a simple dough, yeasted if possible, and fry it up until it is golden brown. Top the fried dough with whatever you have on hand. Try pasta sauce, brown sugar and banana, peanut butter, maple syrup, cinnamon and sugar, or garlic butter. This is something that my Grandmother would feed my Mom and Uncle when they were kids. It isn't the best dinner, but it keeps bellies full when times are tough. There are about a million ways to make up a simple dough for frying. Check out this index for recipes that range from simple to gourmet.
Breakfast for Dinner
Whipping up a batch of scrambled eggs, pancakes, or biscuits and gravy is a very inexpensive way to feed a whole family. Most kids love the idea of breakfast for dinner, and if you can afford a carton of eggs, and a package of bisquick you could feed a small army.
Knowing how to soak dry beans must have saved my Mother an extraordinary amount of money over the years. When I was a kid there was almost always a boatload of beans soaking in the refrigerator. She made baked beans, bean chili, franks & beans, beans beans beans. You can't ask for a cheaper protein, and with a little patience, you can save quite the dime by choosing the dry stuff over canned. Combine two parts beans and two parts tomatoes in a pot and you have almost everything you need for a hearty meal. If you have an onion handy, slice it in half and toss it in the pot too. Season with chili powder, salt, pepper, cayenne, and a pinch of cumin, then simmer that pot for an hour or so, until the tomatoes have reduced, and the flavors have melded nicely. You can serve this over rice, along with chips, covered in cheese, or just as it is for a hearty, stick to your ribs kind of dinner.
According to my Mom, all it takes to feed a hungry family, really, is a pack of egg noodles and a can of condensed soup. (Cream of Mushroom, Cream of Chicken, or Cream of Celery are her favorites.) Boil and drain the noodles, mix them together with the soup, and pop them into a casserole dish. If you have bread crumbs, sprinkle some on top with a little salt and pepper to give the casserole a tasty and crunchy crust, then bake that bad boy at 350 degrees until the crumbs have browned up. If you have anything on hand to mix in, it can make the casserole even better. Try adding canned tuna, crumbled tofu, chopped ham, sliced hot dogs, bacon, sausage, veggies, chopped spinach, or, of course, beans.
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Bread is pretty cheap, but my Mom often took things a step further and just made it herself. A simple white or wheat sandwich bread is surprisingly easy to concoct, but even if you spring for the store brand sandwich bread you are not looking at a huge investment. Cheese can also be a cheap way to sneak protein into your meals, provided you shop smart. Ask your grocery deli for "ends", and look out for sales to get the best price. Remember, American Cheese is not the only cheese that melts. Cheddar, mozzarella and swiss also make great grilled cheese sandwiches.
This entry is all my own. I am a strong believer in the power of stone soup. Start with a broth, add a starch, be it rice, noodles, pasta, dumplings, or barley. Add some veggies, and a protein if you have it. Soup can be made from whatever is left in the house, making it a perfect meal when money is tight, and the cupboards are getting bare. You don't need a recipe for soup. Just put things in the pot and season SLOWLY, bit by bit, using your common sense and taste buds as guides. Keep on tasting until it tastes good, then serve it up to your family. Chances are, they will think it tastes good too. If you can spring for some saltines, oyster crackers, or some bread and butter on the side, they will be even happier.
The secret, you see, to keeping you and your loved ones fed on a small budget is to make due with what you have. This becomes easier when you learn to stock your cupboards well. Like so many things in life, it's all about planning. Sixteen dollars can be used to its greatest advantage when it helps to buy building blocks for meals all month long.
By the way, if you are reading this, Happy Mother's Day, Mom!
P.S. For more great articles from the Austin Food Blogger Alliance's Hunger Awareness Project, check out this list of links on the Capitol Area Food Bank's Web Site.