15 Items That Could be Breaking your Food Budget

Sunday, February 13, 2011

frugal living ideas

Rumor has it that an inflationary period is headed our way, sometime in 2011. That means higher prices on food and other necessary items. Early planning could smooth out some of the ripples, like cooking more from scratch, eating at home and buying fewer pre-packaged items.

Many food items that have become commonplace in our society claim convenience and portability as their selling point; but, what manufacturers don’t want you to know is that convenience is costing you big bucks. Not to mention the waste (in packaging) it produces. Check out our list of 15 commonly purchased items that could be dipping into your wallet and learn how you can make homemade substitutes for pennies on the dollar.

Not only will the homemade versions save you money they will taste better too, because they can be made with fresh organic ingredients, either homegrown or purchased from a Farmers’ Market.

1. Frozen ‘Gourmet’ vegetables.

Oh sure, it may be easier to buy a package of frozen corn in butter or broccoli in a cheese sauce, but why would you when you can make your own? Just cook the corn, add a tablespoon or so of butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. The same goes for broccoli. Simply steam the florets, and while steaming, melt some butter, stir in flour, warm the milk, add cheese, salt and pepper to taste and there you have it – veggies everyone will devour.

2. Heat and Eat Sandwiches.

When you buy a pre-made sandwich, what you are really paying for is the elaborate packaging — plus a whole lot of salt, fat, and unnecessary additives. For the average cost of one of these babies ($2.50 to $3.00 per sandwich), you could make a bigger, better, and more nutritious version yourself.

3. Premium Frozen Fruit Bars.

At nearly $5 per box, frozen ‘all fruit’ or ‘fruit and juice’ bars may be low in calories, but they are certainly are not low in price. Using simple equipment like a blender, plastic reusable ice-pop molds (on sale at discount stores for about 99 cents each), or small paper cups and pop sticks or wooden skewers, you can make your own at home and get the flavors your family likes best.

Check out our In The Kitchen section for articles on making your own frozen treats.

4. Fancy Boxed Rice.

Boxed rice is basically rice, salt, and spices — yet you pay way more than if you bought the ingredients individually. It’s true there are a few flavorings included, but they’re probably ones you have in your pantry already. Buy a bag of rice (under $3 at Smart & Final for a 10 pound bag), measure out what you need, add your own herbs, flavored broth and other seasonings, and cook the rice according to package directions.

5. Energy or Protein Bars.

These bars are usually displayed at the checkout counter because stores depend on impulse buyers who grab them, thinking they are more wholesome than a candy bar. But, buyer beware, they can have very high fat and sugar contents and often times have more calories then a regular candy bar. They’re also two to three times more expensive than a candy bar at $2 to $3 a bar. If you need a boost, grab a fiber and vitamin-rich piece of fruit, a yogurt with granola and fruit, or a small handful of nuts, which is more satisfying and less expensive!

6. Spice mixes.

Spice mixes like grill seasoning and rib rubs might seem like a good buy because they contain a lot of spices that you would have to buy individually. Check the label first, though, before you buy. Predictable the first ingredient you will see is salt followed by a few vague ‘herbs and spices’, then a raft of preservatives and artificial stuff. You’ll probably be surprised to discover how many herbs you already have in your pantry. Many cookbooks include recipes for mixes, and of course there is always the internet. The best thing about making your own, aside from saving a fortune, is that you can customize each mix to fit your own tastes.

7. Powdered Iced Tea Mixes or Prepared Flavored Iced Tea.

Powdered and gourmet iced teas are a total rip-off! It’s much cheaper to make your own iced tea from actual (inexpensive) tea bags and keep a jug in the fridge. Plus, many tea mixes are loaded with high fructose corn syrup and other sugars, along with artificial flavors and chemicals. Who wants that!

Making your own allows you to be as creative as you want. From mint to fruity to herbal, the skies the limit, so make your own, and get creative! To make 32 ounces of iced tea, it usually takes 8 bags of black tea or 10 bags of herbal, green, or white tea. To add a mint or fruity flavor, simple reduce the number of black tea bags and replace them with flavored teas like peach or berry.

Check out our Masonades article In The Kitchen for more ideas on homemade refreshment.

8. Bottled Water.

Bottled water is a huge waste in so many ways. It’s expensive compared to what’s coming out of the tap, the environmental cost is high (it takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce and ship all those bottles), and it’s not even better for your health than what’s running down your drain! If you take into account the cost of filters, water from home is still much cheaper than bottled water, which can set you back $1 to $3 per bottle.

If your water really doesn’t taste good, even when using a filter, and purchasing is your only option, buy in large jugs. A gallon jug usually costs about 99 cents, and the empty jugs can be used to store homemade lemonade or teas.

9. Bagged Salads and Salad kits.

Pre-washed and cut bagged greens can be a time-saver, but they can cost three times more than buying the same amount of lettuce from the produce section. ‘Salad Kits’, where you get the greens, dressing and a small bag of croutons or other toppings are even more expensive. Skipping these altogether will save you a bundle.

If you want to bypass all that chopping when you are rushed making a meal, wash and chop the lettuce as soon as you return from the market. Store it in a lidded container or a zip lock bag and you’ll have chopped lettuce handy anytime.

Check out our In The Kitchen section for some of our favorite salads and salad dressing recipes.

10. Individual Servings of Anything.

It’s become a trend to package small quantities of almost anything, from cookies to carrots to chips and other snacks, as a way for food manufacturers to get unsuspecting consumers to spend more money. Don’t fall for it! The cost per unit on these items is far greater than just buying a bigger package and bagging your own. This is exactly what you should do. Buy the big box or package, then parcel out single servings and store them in small, reusable storage bags.

11. Trail Mix.

Check out the price of small bags of trail mix and you’ll soon discover it’s the equivalent of paying $10 a pound! Making your own will not only cost less, but allows you to include the things you like best. Simply take a 1-pound can of dry roasted peanuts, 1 cup of raisins, a handful of almonds (or other favorite nut), dried fruit and M&M’s, or your favorite combinations. Keep the mixture in a plastic or glass container with a tight lid for up to 3 weeks.

12. ‘Snack’ or ‘Lunch’ Packs.

These ‘all-inclusive’ food trays might seem reasonably priced (from $2.50 to $4.00), but you’re actually paying for the highly designed label, wrapper, and specially molded tray. They only contain a few crackers and small pieces of cheese and lunchmeat. The actual edible ingredients are worth just pennies and are filled with salt and chemical preservatives.

For less than the price of one lunch you can buy a divided food storage container at a discount store and slice your own meat, cheese and crackers. Plus you can add a few extras like veggies and fruit to make a truly well rounded kid’s lunch.

13. Gourmet ice cream.

It pains me to watch someone pay $6 for a gallon of designer brand ice cream. Don’t bother. There’s usually at least one brand or other on sale and you can easily dress up store brands with your own additives like chunky bits of chocolate, crushed cookies or nuts. If you do like the premium brands, wait for that 3-week sales cycle to kick in and stock up when your favorite flavor is half price.

To save even more money, try the Blender Ice Cream or Berries and Cream recipes from our In The Kitchen section.

14. Pre-formed Meat Patties.

Frozen burgers or sausage patties, are more expensive than buying the ground meat in bulk and making the patties yourself. We timed it — it takes less than 10 seconds to form a flat circle and throw it on the grill! Making your own also gives you the chance to add in your favorite ingredients and seasonings. Sausage patties can be formed, then wrapped and frozen individually for later use.

Plus, there’s some evidence that pre-formed meat patties might contain more e. coli than regular ground meat. In fact, most of the recent beef recalls have involved pre-made frozen beef patties. Fresh is definitely better!

15. Tomato-based pasta sauces.

A jar of spaghetti sauce can run anywhere from $2 to $6. The same amount of canned tomatoes is often under $1. Our suggestion: Make your own sauces from canned crushed tomatoes or fresh tomatoes — particularly in the summer, when they are plentiful, tasty, and cheap. The easiest method is to put crushed tomatoes (canned or fresh) into a skillet, stir in some wine or wine vinegar, a little sugar, your favorite herbs, and whatever chopped vegetables you like in your sauce — peppers, onions, mushrooms, even carrots — and let simmer for an hour. Adjust the flavorings and serve. Even better: Coat fresh tomatoes and the top of a cooking sheet with olive oil and roast the tomatoes for 20 to 30 minutes at 425˚F before making your stovetop sauce. Delicioso!

With a few changes to the way we think and the way we shop and cook, we can all manage the coming inflationary period with a full, and healthy, stomach.

Creative Commons License photo credit: indrarado

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