Six Ways to Combat Soaring Food Prices

posted in: Ruminations | 23

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.

Bake bread

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).

[Related recipes: Peppercorn Potato No-Knead Bread, Cinnamon Raisin No-Knead Bread French Toast]

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.)

Grow stuff

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.

[Related recipes: Honey Mustard Dressing, Sesame Vinaigrette, Foraged Herbs Soy Vinaigrette, Roasted Garlic Aioli]

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?

23 Responses

  1. Colloquial Cook

    I haven’t gotten round to growing my own herbs (- but I will!!), otherwise I agree entirely on the bread making, the ugly-vegetabling and other seasoning issues. You only really need to try it once to see how easy and fast it all is. And yey for free range eggs!

  2. […] Six Ways to Combat Soaring Food Prices […]

  3. Kate

    Once I get into my new apartment, I’ll be growing herbs as fast as I can, and I’ll get most of my veggies from a friend of mine that grows locally (I want to start canning/pickling this season, too!). However, I have a two questions for you:

    1) How do YOU grow herbs in a small space? Window box? Hanging pot? Regular pot? I want to know!
    2) Any particular favorite dressing recipes (or tips on dressing-making)?


  4. JustNancy

    The “not perfect but perfectly good” section of Key Food is my first stop in the grocery store. I’ve gotten everything from cartons of organic baby spinach to endive & parsnips for a buck a package. It’s a total treasure chest!

  5. wynk

    If you’re a fan of the No-Knead Bread, let me pimp out Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I don’t remember the last time I bought bread (crusty boule, wheat, white sandwich, brioche, rye, etc.), donuts, pita…so many wonderful easy recipes that take very little time and effort to make.

  6. wynk

    Oh, for Kate:

    Herbs are really well-suited to being grown in small spaces. I grow all of mine in a used whiskey barrel all crowded together. My mom grows hers individually in small pots. They really don’t need a lot of room. I would recommend, if your new apartment has a balcony/patio, to get a small rectangular planter or two, or a large round shallow pot. The main thing is to have good dirt and make sure that they’re watered and harvested regularly.

    (and I would buy already established plants if you can, some of them can be a pain to start from seed)

  7. cathy

    Hi Kate: Just added a photo of my windowsill basil plant, in its lowly coffee can “planter.” (I really need to get real planters, but so far, so good.) I’ve added chives and Italian parsley to this windowsill, and they seem to get enough sun. For dressings, I just added a few recipes above, but I recommend trying out any number of variations once you have the basic vinaigrette technique down (vinegar or sour citrus juice whisked while drizzling in oil until emulsified). And it’s not really dressing, but I also included a recipe for aioli, which I’ve been making to put in just about everything lately.

    Wynk: How did I miss this Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes recipe?? Thanks so much, I can’t wait to try.

  8. Joanna

    This is a great list! And it reminds me that I need to try baking my own bread. I have all the ingredients, I just need to get over the fear that I’ll waste time and energy and (expensive) flour on an inedible mush or a burnt lump.

    For salad dressings, since drizzling and whisking seems to require more coordination than I have, what I’ve been doing recently is putting all the ingredients in a small ziploc container. Then I just put the lid on and shake-shake-shake. It’s great because if I make more dressing than I need, I can put the lid back on and pop it in the fridge.

  9. loulou

    I like this list!
    We’re losing a ton of money converting from the $ to the €, so I had to implement most of these ideas a couple of years ago.
    Beans are so versatile and delicious! We save buying meat for special times and eat mainly fresh produce, cheese (this is France after all), bread and bean/lentil/rice or pasta based dishes.
    I wish more people would make their own salad dressing. The flavor is better and you can really it to your taste. And as you stated, it saves all the waste of those little bottles.

  10. michelle @ TNS

    i’m all over the homemade bread, home-grown food and homemade salad dressing. it boggles my mind how many people still buy salad dressing

  11. rene

    I grew up in a thriftier era,when this kind of money-saving was natural. Such as: using leftovers for the next day’s lunch and always bringing your own to work.

  12. becca

    This is my favorite entry that you’ve ever posted!!

    Well done, dear-

  13. Janel

    Hi there! I just came across your blog and think it is fantastic. My sister just moved back to Brooklyn, where she claims it just isn’t cool to stay in and cook, and “if you don’t go out for lunch, you don’t get a lunch break.” As a dietitian, I’m ALWAYS promoting people eat from home while sporadically eating out as a treat. I will definitely promote your blog, and am adding it as a link on my blog page. Please check it out and I invite you to add my link as well if you’re interested. Keep up the good work!

  14. gail

    Aloha Cathy –

    I love your site and read it often but haven’t ever commented until now. I just had to compliment your food savvy-ness and say that I couldn’t agree with you more – this list is fantastic. Embracing a DIY philosophy will not only help lower cost and increase health, but I think it will increase your overall eating satisfaction.


  15. Constance

    Like you, I almost swooned when I saw the price of my favorite King Arthur flour ($5.00 in Philadelphia). Non bleached is my flour of choice and it’s not easy to find it in the big name (Pillsbury, etc.) so I ended up buying Heckers for the time being.

    Wonderful list and blog.

  16. Jennifer

    Great list…

    I have one to add… make your own soup stock from your vegetable peelings and those farmer’s market veggies.

    I’ve been baking my own bread for the past few months; I use a slightly different no-knead recipe that doesn’t need an overnight rise. I’ll have to try yours to see how they taste different!

  17. Mallory

    Have to say, Homemade Soft Pretzels! My favorite snack, and it adds up. I now make my own – quick, easy, and cheap.

    You can find a good recipe on sugarlaws website.

  18. geek+nerd

    Great post!

  19. cathy

    I just wanted to say how much I appreciate everyone’s thoughts, encouragements, and suggestions! I realize not too many of my posts are necessarily “helpful” in their main goal, but I will definitely try harder to be in future ones! And whoa, Mallory, I am totally trying out your soft pretzels… yum.

  20. Catey

    I couldn’t agree more about salad dressings. I have been making my own since I was a child (3:1 spoonfuls of olive oil to flavored vinegar poured over the greens, plus s & p; my secret weapon is cider vinegar, delicious with Granny Smith apples in the salad) and cannot stand bottled dressings. What is that creepy chemical substance that makes things like poppy seeds and Italian herbs float? It also makes ALL dressing regardless of price and/or Paul Newman’s face on the bottle all taste the same – gak!

  21. Whitley Taki

    Is there any express diet that you might advocate for someone that is 220 and 6’4? I’ve a hard time losing weight as well .

  22. denise

    I was wondering how long you can keep the bread dough before it goes bad. Should I keep it in the fridge or leave it out? I live in SF, where the room temperature is typically around 60ish degrees.

  23. …Upside Down world from Stranger Things in Photoshop

    […] What web host are you the usage of? Can I get affiliate hyperlink to your host? I would like to host my site with pro image tools for photographers on a fast one like this […]

Leave a Reply