Face it, food can get expensive, especially when you try to go organic as much as possible. Then add the now and then treats of eating out, and you might have totally blown your budget. So, today's post is all about stretching a buck and making the most of your freezer and pantry ingredients.
When I got the phone call that today was going to be yet another snow day, I decided to pull out the crock pot and make some chicken stock to freeze, as well as having the chicken already shredded for a casserole later on. So, I loaded the crock pot with three frozen chicken thighs I had on hand, two stalks of celery, some onion, and salt and pepper... oh, and a bay leaf. (Check out the picture.) Then I cranked that little workaholic (the crockpot) to low and let it cook all day (it makes the house smell great). This afternoon, I turned it off to allow the stock to cool a bit and pulled the chicken out, along with the celery stalks and onion pieces. I shredded the chicken using a fork and tongs and put it into freezer containers. The chicken stock will refrigerate overnight and I'll skim the fat off tomorrow afternoon. Now, I'm all set to go for a number of soup recipes (I got about 8 cups of stock) and a casserole or two, all for about $3, which is how much the chicken was when I bought it on sale. When you consider how much just the canned stock costs at the store, this is way cheaper, and I like knowing that my stock and casseroles aren't loaded with the preservatives and sodium that are in the canned stuff.
A few days ago, I made some veggie stock in a similar fashion, using the veggie scraps I had accumulated in a freezer bag. Then, I just strained the stock, allowed it to cool, and froze it for soups and sauces to be made later. I've included pictures of this also. You can use pretty much any veggie scraps, although cabbage, broccoli stems, and cauliflower pieces can make it bitter, so I wouldn't use those. It turns out a little different each time, based on the veggies I've used, but it's always a welcome addition to soups, and I can also use it to cook rice (when I remember) to add extra nutrients.
Soups and casseroles are a great way to stretch your grocery budget, as are pastas and sauces. We often add additional veggies to pasta sauce to create a one dish meal, which is great because it makes for easy clean up. You can also stretch meats by scattering them (cooked, of course) over salads or on a sandwich with some homemade bread and a slice of cheese. A while back, we discovered the heaven that is homemade mac and cheese, and will never go back. It's fantastic with smoked cheeses (we had a bunch of cheese cubes leftover from our wedding a few years ago and had some of the best mac and cheese with those cheeses that we had in the freezer!), and we love to throw veggies or sliced kielbasa into it at the end. We also use dried beans and legumes quite a bit, and with a little planning, they're great in the crock pot, as long as you soak them enough the night before. If I make a big batch, I'll freeze the beans in one or two cup portions with their liquid, and then pull them out when I want to add them to soup or make refried beans. (I generally just put them in the crock pot the night before after dinner with water to cover about an inch, no heat, and drain and recover them in the morning to cook on low all day.) If you're looking for good soup and casserole recipes, check out Cheap, Fast, Good or More with Less, two of my favorite cook books.
As for eating out, we rarely eat out, unless we have a coupon and/or gift certificate. When we can, we try to "stack" these so that we get more mileage out of our gift card by using the coupon. We order water, since drinks are outrageously priced, and we generally try to keep what we order to $7 or less. This is really easy in our favorite Mexican restaurant, but a little more difficult at chain restaurants, which is where the coupons come in. Ruby Tuesday's is currently sending out mailers with coupons, provided the first meal is a certain dollar amount. (One rule with coupons, always weigh your options... sometimes, we find that there's a cheaper way to eat without the coupon than to buy a meal that is more expensive to get the deal by using the coupon.) You can always check out Restaurants.com for inexpensive gift cards to restaurants. (We've found that this generally works for larger cities, but not as well for our small town.) For more tips on eating out, My Frugal Lifestyle has great ideas at this post.
One of the most important things for us is to treat ourselves every once in a while, so we don't become resentful of the budget we've imposed on ourselves. (Have I mentioned how much we LOVE to eat... and cook?!) This sometimes means buying specialty ingredients at the grocery store to try a new recipe, or deciding to have a date night at our favorite restaurant, even if we don't have a coupon or gift card (we do try to go in with a set amount in mind of what we'll spend). Ultimately, it's these special meals and treats that help us make memories and enjoy life, which is what it's all about, right?
So, how do you save a buck on food? What are the treats you allow yourself once in a while to make sticking to the budget manageable? I'd love to hear from you!
Sharin' the green love and savings!