There is a television commercial advertising a food storage product that claims "... the average U.S. family throws away over $500.00 worth of food each year." I don't know how accurate this estimate is, but from my personal observations, I certainly find it believable. Even within our own extended family I've watched relatives throw multiple plates of food into the trash because too much was cooked and "we don't eat leftovers, we like our food fresh."Coming from a place of poverty where government assistance was not accepted, watching entire containers of food being scraped into the trash is literally like watching money being carelessly thrown away. If the T.V. commercial is accurate, $500.00 per year is more than an entire month out of my family's annual food budget.
For more than a decade we've been listening to public service campaigns telling us to Reduce, Reuse & Recycle. These campaigns are aimed at reducing pollution and conserving natural resources. Our nation's Builder Generation came of age during the Great Depression & Dust Bowl of the 1930's. They made the phrase "waste not, want not" popular and by applying today's "reduce, reuse & recycle" concept to every aspect of daily life, and survived one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history.
There are several avenues we can take to reduce the amount of food we are preparing and often times wasting. First and foremost, if you find you are consistently throwing food away because you simply cooked too much and don't like leftovers, reduce the recipe(s) by half and serve smaller portions. Not only will this save money but it will also reduce your family's caloric intake - something many of us need to do anyway.
Meat and dairy are some of the most expensive food items we purchase. Research shows that Americans consume far more meat and dairy than our counterparts in other developed countries. By reducing the amount of meat we consume, not only will we be healthier as a nation, but it is also a simple and easy way to reduce our grocery budget. Preparing a soup, main dish salad, casserole and two meatless meals each week will reduce the average U.S. family's weekly meat consumption by 50%. If one reduces the amount of meat used in casseroles, soups & stews by 25%-50%, even more savings will be found. Also keep in mind that less expensive cuts of meats are perfect for use in soups and casseroles.
When attempting to reduce the cost of dairy, reconstituted powdered milk is often half the cost of a regular gallon and an excellent option for cooking. I've found that puddings, baked goods, gravies, basically any cooked recipe that calls for milk, has the same flavor and texture as milk from gallon jugs purchased from the dairy case. Substituting reconstituted milk in cooked recipes has reduced our family's milk costs by a 1/2 gallon per week and at $4.68/gallon that's $121.68 annually - more than an entire week's worth of groceries. Also, stronger cheeses are more flavorful than milder ones. Do you realize that by substituting sharp cheddar for mild cheddar in recipes, you can achieve the same flavor by reducing the amount used by up to 1/2? Not only is that budget friendly, but it's also friendly for the waist line.
By replacing cold cereals, instant hot cereals, toaster pastries and pre-prepared frozen waffles & pancakes with high nutrition old fashioned oats and homemade pancakes, waffles & egg sandwiches, one can save more than 50% on breakfast foods. We must stop buying into the myth that "cooking", especially in the morning, takes too much time. Old fashioned oats are cooked and ready in less than 10 minutes, farina (aka cream of wheat, malt-o-meal, etc.) cooks in only 5 minutes. Prepare waffles, pancakes and/ or homemade egg on English muffin sandwiches on the weekend and freeze them for quick breakfasts later in the week. If you are looking for something lighter, a slice of toast with a smear of peanut butter or sprinkling of cinnamon sugar and a banana or apple takes less than 3 minutes to prepare and is a fraction of the cost of pre-prepared breakfast foods, not to mention packed with improved nutritional benefits.
After school snacks can blow any family's grocery budget faster than one can say "licitly split". Homemade snack options are far more healthy and, in many instances, up to 75% less expensive than their copycat store bought versions. By focusing on high protein & high fiber snacks youngsters will eat less and stay satisfied longer than if they consume all pre-prepared snack foods. Some ideas include: a hard boiled or deviled egg, celery w/ peanut butter or cream cheese, saltine crackers w/ peanut butter or thinly sliced cheese, graham cracker "sandwich" made with peanut butter & jelly, sliced apples or other fruit, 1/2 c. of yogurt from the less expensive per ounce family size container, etc.. Keep in mind that a snack should be a SNACK: a small serving of food intended to tie one over until meal time.
Restricting desserts to once per month and holidays is another easy step in reducing the grocery budget. Pre-made store bought desserts are especially expensive, and if your income level is "average" they are certainly too expensive for the 10%-13% recommended budget. Since ingredients such as sugars, nuts, candy pieces, exotic spices, etc. are very costly, even homemade desserts are a splurge for today's median household income and from a financial perspective should be restricted. Restricting desserts to once per month and/or holidays only, increases the value and enjoyment of the desserts. During the Great Depression, children looked especially forward to birthdays and holidays because that is when desserts would most often be served. I've met many a senior citizen who fondly recalls the peppermint sticks of Christmas, the fruit pies of July 4th, and fluffy birthday cakes.
Leftovers are a food source that many families overlook. Cleaning the "science experiments" out of the refrigerator has become a regular monthly task in many American homes. When we do have leftover foods it is vital that we do not throw them away no matter how small the portions may be. There are several ways to reuse them. Such as:
** Planning a leftover buffet for the busiest evening of the week is a budget and time saver.
** In our home we save the smallest of leftovers, usually less than a serving size, in the freezer. We have three freezer bags that store leftover beef, chicken and vegetables. When enough food has collected in the freezer bags, we thaw it and by adding beef broth to beef or chicken broth to chicken we make a soup or stew out of the leftovers. We often refer to this as Sunday soup because it is most often placed in the crock pot with a few seasonings to cook and simmer while we attend Sunday morning church service. It is wonderful to come home to a delicious and satisfying pot of soup.
** When consuming leftovers it is vital to get the most out of what you have. Example: 2-3 cups of leftover beef stew could be two lunch servings the following day. However, by adding some thickening and making a double pie crust that same leftover stew becomes beef pot pie and with an added salad it will feed 6 people supper.
** For those who just can't seem to stomach "leftovers", I challenge them to become creative and turn the leftovers into make-overs. The above stew to pot pie example comes to mind. Leftover roasted chicken can also be de-boned and turned into chicken & rice casserole, chicken noodle soup or chicken salad sandwiches. Leftover meatloaf can be crumbled and converted to homemade sloppy Joes, shepherd's pie or added to homemade Italian meat sauce for spaghetti or lasagna.
The art of reusing foods is a huge budget stretcher. In our home spoiled leftovers, or "refrigerator science experiments", is a sin.
There are many food resources that most Americans simply toss into the trash. Recycling foods is a concept that most modern American families have never considered. A few resources include:
** Simmering meat bones in lightly salted water for a couple hours or overnight in a crockpot will make homemade chicken, beef or pork broths. In turn boiled beef and pork bones are terrific teeth cleaners for the family dog or cat & they will reward you with lots of tail wagging and purrs of love. (note: do not feed chicken bones to dogs or cats).
** Substituting soured milk for buttermilk in pancakes, waffles or baked goods is a budget saving tip I learned from growing up with my grandmother.
** Saving the pulp in 1 cup increments from the juicing machine can and should be substituted for whole fruits in muffins and other baked goods. Leftover juicing pulp can also be cooked down with sugar making homemade fruit butters.
** By straining and freezing the juice from canned fruits until enough is collected one can make homemade jellies and syrups.
** Using a nylon brush to thoroughly clean the outside skins of vegetables before peeling them and placing the peelings in a pot of lightly salted simmering water for 1 - 2 hours will create homemade vegetable broth. If you have any, feed the strained vegetable peels to your livestock or add to your garden composting bin(s).
** If you have any hunters, trappers and fishermen in your family, save the usually discarded innards in the freezer. A few days before a planned trapping or fishing excursion "sink it" and use it as bait.
** Any antlers or small bones from harvested meat sources can also become hours of hobby time for young boys. Allow them to use a hand saw to cut the antlers or bones into button sized rounds. They can use a manual crank drill to drill holes in the buttons. With a little research the boys can sell their handmade buttons to various craftsmen.
** Finally, if you do find that food must be thrown out don't put it in the trash. Fruit and vegetable scraps can be composted for your gardens and meat & dairy products are great sources of extra protein for omnivore livestock such as chickens or pigs.
I was fortunate to live with my impoverished depression era grandmother until I was aged 12. Her daily life was an educational experience in making the most out of what we had and never allowing anything to go to waste. My life experiences have taught me that with planning and creativity every family can eat well. I also know it is not always the amount or extravagance of food served, but the hidden ingredient of love that genuinely nourishes our families. I pray this Stewardship in the Kitchen series has equipped you with the knowledge and desire to plan and create daily family meal times with your loved ones. I am confident the time spent around the meal table will become some of your family's most cherished memories.