There I was, standing in the checkout line, mentally calculating my groceries. It was back-to-school week, and though I felt I had completed a financially successful month, there was not enough comfort in my checking account. Sound familiar?
The return to school is full of hidden expenses and parents everywhere feel the squeeze. This year we have the bonus of a third child, a miracle of an expense we welcome with open arms, but an expense nonetheless. It isn’t fair we get used to our relaxed summer schedules for no more than a couple of months and then late August comes to bash the lightened attitudes of summer eating, where we barely considered how early, late, heavy or light we chowed down.
Now you are back to the grind with your beautiful ingrates donning their new fancy shoes, uniforms and belts that should have lasted more than a year but didn’t (I’m certain I have belts that have lasted over a decade and more than 6 inches of waist sizes), while the added pressure of cooking a decent meal before the new bedtime weighs heavy on you. Hypothetical, of course. If I hit the nail on the head, consider it a lucky guess. My little angels have me running to three different schools, but shower me with appreciation along every mile.
So it’s time to buckle down, mom and pop, and make the most of your grocery budget. Even if you’re paying exorbitant tuition, there is another fundraiser just ahead. Football, volleyball, band, cheerleading and PTA aren’t included in those normal dues for which you sacrificed a newish car note that would have at least kept you in a ride that is younger than your fourth grader.
You’re about to buy coupon books, candles, cookie dough tubs, popcorn, high-thread-count sheets and, with any luck, World’s Finest Chocolate bars. (In the old days, when there was a pizza coupon on the wrapper, they practically paid for themselves.) You’d better mind your pocketbook at the supermarket. We are making some grocery budget cuts, but I’m going to tell you how to do it without sacrificing flavor.
If you want to cut down on food cost but don’t want to look like it, you can eat like a king if you’re careful. Step one, buy a pork loin. No, not a pork tenderloin, a pork loin. The loin is a large piece of meat from the pig’s back, lean and rectangular, often 5 inches wide. The tenderloin is a muscle from underneath the backbone of the pig, just a couple inches wide.
I’ve purchased a sizable boneless pork loin for less than two bucks per pound. Easy to trim, the fat is all on the outside. As lean as it is, you’d better cook it fairly slowly. But definitely drop a 10 spot on one and turn it into a few meals.
If it’s big enough for your family, cut your own chops. I go 2 inches thick and put them in a marinade. Grilling is best at this thickness, and I’m a little braver than I used to be with pork. To be safe, at least reach an internal temp of 140 degrees followed by a four-to-five minute rest. You don’t want to dry it out, but you also don’t want trichinosis, which possibly killed Mozart, do you?
The rest of the loin is still up for grabs. Use it as a pork roast, or save a piece for the crock pot. A chunk of this cut of pork and a bottle of Crystal or Louisiana Hot Sauce cooked over a few hours produces brilliant pulled pork. Trust it will be fork-tender despite the lack of fat.
If you’re low on food, go high on carbs. Yes, some diets tell you carbs are the worst. Plenty of skinny people eat bread and pasta. It costs next to nothing and can be prepared so many ways. My wife does an excellent dish with olive oil, garlic and cherry tomatoes cooked until they pop. Fresh basil churches it up, and all the “pasta sugar” you can handle will put smiles on the younger faces.
This can be a great vegetarian dish, but if you crave meat (and I do), a package of hot Italian sausage could grease the pan, especially if you cut the raw links into mock meatballs.
Pasta goes a long way. Think of sauces paired with proteins. Pesto goes with shrimp or salmon at our house. White sauces like alfredo usually call for chicken. Tomato-based sauces get some love from beef or pork. Pasta with no sauce is paired with morons.
Baked potatoes, au gratin, mashed, hash browns scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, topped and diced. Every word of that fragmented sentence had me salivating. Anytime I’ve gone low-carb, I’ve missed the potato the most. She is second to the onion as my favorite of the non-animal kingdom, and other countries have survived or nearly died because of her existence or scarcity.
From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, this tuber is not the vegetable of a king, though if I were king, I would grant it higher status. Potatoes and other root vegetables are great stand-ins when meat is unavailable, but excel at filling in the space when the meat is small. If I hit the lottery, I’d still make a pot of ham, potatoes and a can of cheese soup after the first cold snap.
Incredible edible egg
If jerky is the most expensive protein, then eggs may be the cheapest. A dozen medium-sized can be less than a dollar. Omelets, frittatas, egg salad, over easy or raw, I wish I could calculate how many eggs I’ve eaten. Probably in the hundreds this year.
With so much you can do, go for the grand slam by making a carbonara mixed with seasoned pork and Parmesan with raw eggs over hot pasta and a side of fries. Grand total: $8. Serves 20.
I’m not what you’d call cheap; I’m just looking for values. I’m also not ashamed to make use of canned goods and frozen vegetables, but box-cooking doesn’t exist in this house. Stay cheap, stay delicious and save these ideas. Girl Scout Cookies arrive in January!
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