When I married two years ago, I didn't know how to cook. Dinner usually consisted of a few slices of Brie and some whole grain crackers, washed down with a glass of Cabernet. After settling into conjugal life, however, that all changed. A kitchen full of shiny new appliances with names like "Cuisinart" and "KitchenAid" gleamed enticingly from the countertops. Encouraged by the sweet, hungry eyes of my new husband, my meals went from cheese and crackers to Bolognese sauce and arugula salad with red wine vinaigrette.
My infatuation with cooking and culinary gadgets quickly blossomed into a full-on love affair. But, as tends to happen with fickle romance, something came between us: the recession. It took my beloved food budget, an extravagant dollar amount I am still unwilling to print, and tightened it down in its mean little grip while simultaneously inflating grocery prices.
Milk went from $2.99 to somewhere in the $4 range. Bread prices soared to over $4. Butter, chicken, flour and produce prices all rose while my income went the opposite direction. I began taking a second look, this time with a critical eye, at the ingredient list of a given recipe. Hmmm. Maybe six different kinds of hard cheeses weren't exactly a necessity. Maybe that organic cotton tailored apron from Anthropologie could wait until, um, never.
I had to do the impossible: cook delicious, healthy meals for my husband, son and myself for only $100 a week. Given the great fiscal heights at which I had previously spent each week, that seemed impossible. But necessity is the mother of invention, and invent a new tactic I must if I was going to meet this budget challenge.
I contacted Stephanie Nelson, founder of the flourishing website CouponMom.com, for a little help. Nelson has appeared on Oprah, as well as contributing to Good Morning America and CNN, to share her tips on slashing the grocery bill. This girl knows how to pull off a shoestring budget.
"It's all about planning," Nelson says. Planning what? Planning to go to the store and stand weeping in the wine aisle that you can only afford two-buck Chuck? "Collect coupons and store sale fliers and plan your meals around what's on sale," she clarifies. Oh.
Nelson also thankfully says that coupon use is only a small part of what she has deemed "strategic shopping." Strategic shopping has three integral components: meal planning, brand flexibility and store flexibility. Coupons will often be for store brands that are less expensive than name brands, and being true-blue to your local organic boutique might not prove to be the most budget-savvy approach to grocery gathering. "Go where the sales are," Nelson says. And what Nelson says, I do. Her website has grown from 200,000 members last year to 1.4 million this year. Who am I to argue with her?
I took Nelson's advice, and tried some of my own ideas as well, and here's what I learned along the way, presented in a handy numbered list, no less. As with all advice, take this with a grain of (kosher) salt. I'm not a medical expert, and your nutritional needs may differ greatly. I'm just a healthy person trying to make it all happen on a tight budget.
1. Sadly, meal planning is, in fact, crucial. Make peace with that fact. And really, Nelson was right. It does help to plan around coupons or sale fliers. Here's the deal. You have to make a meal plan if you want to only spend $100 a week, and you have to stick to it. Learn to not eat by mood. The proper response (said with a twinkle and a smile, of course) to "I don't feel like lentil stew and cornbread!" is "Well, I don't feel like going into debt to fund your hamburger and french fry addiction, so lentil stew it is."
2. Remember: You are not too good for coupons. Repeat to yourself hourly or as necessary.
3. Realize that, for the time being, your meals will have to be simple. And possibly not organic, farm-raised, grass-fed and drunk upon the pure filtered sunshine that dapples daisies. Try to keep meat to a once-a-week splurge. Rather than preparing to sit down to a hunk on a plate, buy a whole chicken, cut it up and cheat it out to several plates; same with sturdy beef cuts or pork loins. I still remember the day it occurred to me like a flash from heaven that I simply couldn't afford to eat as much wild Pacific salmon as the nutrition gods tell me I should. Ditto for avocadoes.
4. Choose which herbs you will use that week. Each bundle of herbs is exorbitantly expensive, so one week it'll have to be parsley, the next week you can splurge on that precious basil. But ya can't have both. Or grow your own on your cute little sunny windowsill, and have yourself an herb party.
5. Become intimately acquainted with your freezer. Always double or triple your freezable recipes, like soups, stews, sauces and casseroles. If the produce in the fridge is going south, cut it up and freeze it, and pull it out again to use later. Having foods frozen and ready to go is like a Christmas gift to yourself every time you use it.
6. Share. Everything you need to know you did learn in kindergarten, after all! For those not morally opposed to Costco, let it become your new best buddy. Find a friend or relative as depressingly broke (read: wisely frugal) as you, and make a strict list of things you'll share. Good items include produce, eggs, milk, tortillas, bread, cereal, olive oil, chicken sausages, ravioli and toiletry items. Important note: stick to the list when at Costco. You probably do not need sheepskin seat covers or a new gas grill, and you certainly can't use 16 new cookbooks.
7. Make the time to bake your own bread. Warning: family and friends who get one bite of delicious morsels of whole-wheat goodness will never be satisfied with the store stuff again. My husband, who formerly lived on a steady diet of Wonderbread, now incredulously looks at me like I'm ripping shreds off a cardboard box if I hand him anything besides the homemade. Bake your own cookies and cakes. Make a pie. Just think of baking time as an investment in the people you love loving you more.
8. We've been so affluent that we expect our meals to be gourmet. Our darling chef friends at the Food Network channels are always blithely chattering about their Parmesan-Reggiano and organic fennel and entrées with 32 ingredients, making the act of preparing a meal that costs under $10 seem ludicrous. Learn as I did that the Food Network isn't footing your bill—you are. Change your perception of what a meal should be. One of my frequent winter go-tos is a simple shallot spaghetti. I sauté about six shallots and a couple of chopped garlic cloves in a generous splash of olive oil until soft and golden, then add it to a big bunch of cooked whole wheat spaghetti. Splash about a cup of the pasta water in to make a quick sauce, then toss well and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and parsley. This meal is quick, very delicious and, best of all, only about $2 a person.
9. Nutrition knowledge is a good thing. But sometimes it can be oppressive when you know what havoc chemicals and pesticides can do to your body but you can't afford those elusive organic bananas. Tell yourself you're doing the best you can, and move on. Buy organic when you can, but don't beat yourself up when you can't.
10. Your Crockpot is more than a storage bin for Tupperware lids. Crockpots tenderize inexpensive cuts of meats and are the perfect way to let dried beans simmer all day into soft perfection.
11. Say bye-bye to the $4 lattes, hello to dusty Mr. Coffee.
13. Buy the Sunday paper. Nelson says that 75 percent of coupons are found in the Sunday paper, and this is where the real coupon magic can happen. "Buy more than one paper," Nelson says, "and you'll get double the savings." Heck, buy three. Go crazy.
As Nelson says, it just takes planning and a little organization to be on your way to real savings. Your bank account will thank you, and strangely enough, you may just find that you like it.
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