As I’m sure you are painfully aware, economic times are tight right now. Food prices are going up, as are the costs of housing, childcare, and almost all commodities. Fantastic. What’s a cook to do? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I have some thoughts when it comes to food affordability.
Food blogs, including Gracious Cooking, can be aspirational as well as practical. I love to scroll through food blogs, look at the beautifully styled photos, and dream about creating a delicious dish. Judging by Pinterest and the popularity of food blogs, I’m not the only one.
My goal with Gracious Cooking is to teach simple culinary techniques that result in maximum flavor and pleasing textures in your home cooking. However, I do not want anyone to look at shiny photos on my site and feel like they can’t make my recipes because of financial restraints. Ingredients can be adjusted. For example, chicken thighs can usually be substituted for more expensive chicken breasts. There are definitely limits to substitutions, but I want you to know that you can be flexible in the kitchen.
I can’t speak for other bloggers, since each one has different goals, but I want my recipes to represent a reasonable ideal. You won’t see super expensive lobster dishes with gold leaf on my site, frankly because I can’t afford to make them either. I want home cooks to be able to make my recipes with reasonable expense. That said, Gracious Cooking is not a budget food blog. My goal is not to make every recipe cost less than $10, for example. I want provide techniques and recipes that help you feed your family comforting, nutritious, homemade meals. I believe that financial awareness is a part of that.
The “Best” Food
There are so many, really too many, voices out there telling you what you “should” eat. Keto, organic, free range, single origin, “clean eating” (whatever that means), vegan, vegetarian, and on and on and on. You want my hot take? A lot of these voices make a lot of money off you making you afraid to eat food. Now, if you have medical dietary needs, then you may really and obviously need to eat specific foods, or in a certain way.
If you are able to feed yourself and your family, guess what? That’s amazing! Eating the food that is affordable and available to you is terrific. If you can afford lobster and gold leaf, great! There’s no shame in that. If you are in a place in your life where you are a vegetarian by financial necessity, there is absolutely no shame in that either. There is no shame in shopping at discount grocery stores or outlets. There is no shame in using the services of a food pantry or religious organization.
There are a lot of techniques and products that can help us all feed ourselves and our families tasty, affordable, and fulfilling food. There is no way I could go over all of them in one post, but let’s talk about a few.
Budget Shortcuts That Are Absolutely Worth It
Here are three of my secret weapons that are both culinary powerhouses and money savers:
Better Than Boullion
Most people feel that homemade chicken stock is the absolute ideal. I have a recipe for chicken stock on my site. However, making chicken stock requires having a chicken carcass, vegetables, and time. Then you have to store and freeze the stock. Since I had my third child, I have not had the time or bandwidth for this. You know what I’ve been using instead? Better Than Bouillon. They are not paying me to say this, by the way. I just really think their products are great. Katie Workman over at Food 52 agrees with me. There are also low sodium versions if you are worried about the salt.
There are all sorts of varieties of Better Than Bouillon, but I use the chicken and beef the most, as I’m sure most home cooks do. I got a big ol’ 21 ounce jar of the roast chicken Better Than Bouillon at Costco that will last me a long time. All you do is add some of the concentrate to hot water, and voila, you have flavorful, affordable stock. For perspective, six quarts of boxed chicken stock costs $13 at Costco, but the 21 ounce jar of Better Than Bouillon makes 25 quarts of stock for just over $10. Don’t pay for the water, get the jar! I’m never going back.
Besides being affordable, I like to use Better Than Bouillon as a flavor booster, too. Add a little of the beef stock concentrate to your Italian meat sauce. You’re welcome.
Roasting a chicken is an excellent technique to master, and I like to roast one myself every once in a while. When you roast a chicken, you can add any flavors you’d like, and you get the satisfaction of mastering a key culinary technique. However, for recipes that require cooked chicken, such as soups or casseroles, I usually just grab a rotisserie chicken.
Roasting a chicken yourself is, paradoxically, not cheap. The whole raw chicken is going to run you $10-$15, at least. It’ll cost way more if you want an organic or heritage breed chicken. Then you need butter, aromatics, and spices to flavor your chicken, not to mention the electricity or gas to run your oven.
Rotisserie chicken, on the other hand, runs about 10 dollars at my local grocery store, or $4.99 at blessed, blessed Costco. I, like many of you, I’m sure, am a huge fan of the Costco rotisserie chicken. They are big, juicy, cheap, and ready to use with no oven required. Per pound, rotisserie chicken is much cheaper per pound then deli meat, or boneless skinless chicken breasts.
Even if you are paying $10 at a grocery store for a rotisserie chicken, that is usually still cheaper than roasting a chicken yourself. A confusing but true reality.
It’s no secret that beans are affordable, nutritious, and delicious. In many parts of the world, beans are a key dietary staple. However, many cooks in my neck of the woods underestimate the humble bean. A can of beans can stretch a pound of ground beef, a pasta dish, or a salad. They are an excellent source of protein and fiber, and canned beans are extremely convenient.
Chickpeas can be used in dips, sandwiches, salads, soups, and much more. Black beans are delicious additions to just about any Tex-Mex dish, and cannellini beans are great in soups and pastas. Fresh beans, such as green peas, snap peas, and green beans, are wonderful steamed, sauteed, and stir-fried.
Beans need not be a food of last resort. They are glorious in their own right, and seasoning and cooking them properly makes them really shine.
I do want to mention that I realize the privilege of this post. I know that many, many people could use all the tricks in the book and still not be able to afford nutritious or plentiful food. I grew up with enough food, and am blessed to have enough now, but there was a year of my life when I was food insecure. I’m grateful it was not more than one year, and I know that far too may people deal with food insecurity for their whole lives.
Food insecurity consumes you. It’s all you can think about. You’re always hungry. You’re possibly losing weight, and always looking for your next chance to eat. During this time, I was always calculating how I could get the most calories per dollar. It only ended when I got a better job and graduated from college. I vividly remember the first time I went to the grocery store after I was making a little more money and didn’t have to calculate exactly how much everything would cost with taxes. Knowing you’ll have enough in your account to pay for your groceries is a huge blessing.
I actually owe a lot of my appreciation for cooking to that difficult period of my life. There is much more to the story, but for now, I just want to acknowledge that buying enough food is an extremely difficult challenge for many people, and that it’s very scary.
Be Generous If You Are Able
My family and I are not wealthy, but we have enough, and I’m very grateful for that. I try to share the wealth when I can, especially by feeding people. I think that generosity is a learned trait. It’s a muscle that anyone can strengthen, and I have been making a more concerted effort lately to practice being more generous. More gracious, if you will. You never know who’s struggling. No one knew that I didn’t have enough to eat, because I hid it. I was so thin, and all I got were compliments (another huge issue for another day). I was underweight. I was hungry, but no one saw, and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.
Unfortunately, during this tough economic period, more people will hide their hunger. A person with a bigger body could have no idea where their next meal is coming from. You can’t always see it from the outside. So if you have extra resources, consider stretching your generosity muscle.
What Do You Think?
Has inflation and higher food prices influenced how you shop and cook? What are some of your favorite money saving food ideas or substitutions? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.