You’ve been seeing it all over the news, but there was probably one moment in the last month when you felt the reality of it the most: Food prices are at their worst inflation in 17 years. For me, this occurred when I was comparing flour in a grocery store aisle. Peeking at the pricetag on a five-pound bag of King Arthur brand all-purpose flour and seeing that it cost almost $6, I nearly jumped back in fright. That’s more than $1 a pound for… flour.
But, everyone’s got to eat. And though I may be in the minority here for staving off restaurant food, soaring food prices have been trickling into the cost of nearly every menu item, from pizza to specialty foods, as poor Steve Tarpin can attest to in the article here. I’m not here to say you have to commit yourself to cooking at home every day, too, or stick to a diet of non-luxury. But as someone who’s been navigating food markets pretty regularly, here’s my two cents on how to cut down that shopping bill.
It’s one of the most indispensable tricks I’ve learned in life, period. You don’t need any special equipment for it if you already have a cast-iron pot or Dutch oven, nor very much time. Gruntwork also not required, following the recipe devised by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery; I am a devout follower of the No-Knead Bread creed. (I make a loaf on average once a week, ever since the article came out.) The cost of wheat overall may have been rising like a sure-footed rock climber, but baking bread still beats buying it store-bought, any day. And if you’re fond of fresh-baked, crusty bread, that holds true in more ways than one.
Just don’t go crazy here and think the same reasoning applies to making pasta… fresh pasta, which requires a cumbersome and often pricey pasta crank, uses not only wheat flour but lots of fresh eggs, too, so it’s probably not the wisest idea for cutting down on expenses (and cholesterol).
Buy the squashed tomatoes
Most farmers’ market stands will have a barrel full of on-their-way-out produce. These are great for cooking with, especially in sauces, soups or stews, since you won’t mind the mushiness. Sometimes all these veggies or fruits need is a bruise cut off. Remember, the people who’ve separated them from the prime produce have a conscience – they’re not trying to sell you something completely fetid and crawling with diseases. So dig in.
Many grocery stores, like KeyFoods and Associated Market in New York for instance, will sell old produce at marked-down prices, too, but I have yet to come across it in higher-end, more “atmospheric” ones like WholeFoods. (However, if you’re up for it, you can always dive into their trash bags to find this type of produce and hoards of other perfectly good foods discarded by the store. Seriously. Much more on this topic coming up in The Book.)
I’m not much of a gardener, and I don’t have any plot of land to call my own. But I’m great at watering pots of herbs now and then! If you’re like me and short on space and time to grow fruits and vegetables, a few herbs is a rewarding compromise. Some herbs can be grown all year round, like rosemary. Not only will you benefit from not having to buy bunches of herbs every time you want a little garnish, but you’ll be more likely to use them much more in your cooking –- which is great. Fresh herbs are healthy, full of toxin-fighting chemicals found in most leafy greens, and you can never have too many of these in your food especially if living in a smog-clogged city. And if you start smothering your food with tons of fresh herbs, it’s like getting a whole serving of veggies.
Forget bottled dressing
Do not buy bottled dressing, ever. Ever. It’s a foolish expense if you have oil, vinegar and a few seasonings, which you do. What you don’t have and what many bottled dressings do, however, is lots of high fructose corn syrup, preservatives and MSG. And if you ask me, they taste ten times worse than freshly whisked-together dressings that you made just sized to proportion, on the spot. Even if you get some high-end, all-natural, health-conscious salad dressing, you’ll probably have to pay handsomely for it. Plus, all the little glass bottles create enormous amounts of waste.
Promote beans from side to main dish
Beans are not something you should really be serving on the side of your tacos, or brisket. Beans are fellow proteins in a legume’s body. So why not instead try stuff the tacos with beans, or mash them up and make a chickpea burger or something like that? They’re super-versatile, easy to toss into soups, salads, pastas, dips and are pretty tasty on their own, too.
[See also: Mark Bittman’s tips for eating less meat.]
Splurge for good reason
You don’t really need those fresh cherries imported from Argentina in the middle of winter, do you? At over $5 a pound, most likely, that’s a splurge gone wrong. But you do want to buy the cage-free eggs now, since the cost of generic, packed-chickens-in-a-warehouse eggs have risen so drastically that it’s not even enough of a difference in price anymore: splurge gone right.
This theory might not be exactly a way of combatting high food prices, if that’s the end-all be-all. But it’s a good compromise if you already agree with the values of cage-free, organic, non-hormone, free-range, etc. food producers. Perhaps you always wanted to opt for the more environmentally-sound or humane products but were too afraid to before because of their higher price. It’s been my personal obvervation through food shopping that the organic prices of staples like eggs and milk have not risen as sharply as their generic shelf neighbors. Or not yet, at least. So why not splurge for a good cause every now and then?