The Hunger Games Week Three has us sitting pretty much at our "new normal." It's humbling to think that it took us three weeks to get here - to recover a good chunk of my pantry and set myself up in a decent position where we had a good variety of food, enough of every food group to get us comfortably through the week (according to the Canada Food Guide), have some of the treats that my family has requested, and finally actually be below budget.
I played a little loose with my grocery game this week. I went in with virtually no shopping list and no calculator. I wanted to see if I could stay on budget without being obsessively careful. This week, I tried to hit only one grocery store instead of visiting a grocery store and then Costco, and then I realized how much of a penalty that would be to us. More on that later.
Had to shave off a few bucks from last week, so this week's budget was $111.37. Also, fair warning, because I ended up having to go to Costco (but later that week), the photo is short the soy milk and bread. It's also short the maple syrup (which I forgot to put in the photo) and some of the items which were consumed.
The grocery list breakdown (and you'll notice some asterisks on a few items - more on that below):
Pantry Items ($23.40)
Rice (2kg) - $4.44
Flour (5kg) - $5.99
Maple Syrup (250ml) - $4.99
Wowbutter - $4.49
Becel vegan margarine - $3.49 *
Grocery Items ($85.43)
Bread (5 loaves) - $11.05 *
Apples, loose - $1.00 *
Bananas - $2.88
Lunch Meat - $7.00
Cheddar - $4.99
Canned Tomatoes (28oz) - $0.99
Blueberries/Raspberries (3x170ml) - $5
Cheerios (525g) - $4.99
Oreos (300g) - $1.88
Grapes - $4.54
Apples (3lbs) - $2.88
Hashbrowns (bulk split) - $5.00
Potatoes (10lbs) - $3.97
Peppers (4 sm) - $2.97
Broccoli (2 sm head) - $2.47
Cucumber (1) - $0.88 *
Frozen blueberries (2x600g) - $5.76
Carrots (5lbs) - $3.47
Soy Milk (6x980ml) - $7.49
Chips (2 bags) - $6.22
Other: Wendy's Grilled chicken - $2 (MY "act of treason" this time, cause payback - and more on this later).
Total: $110.83 (Under by $0.54)
This week was weird, given that we returned from our excursion on the Victoria Day Monday and were unable to shop. So, I ended up buying a couple items (bread, apples) to see us through Tuesday from the convenience store. I'm sure everyone's well aware how much a convenience store makes you pay for the convenience. I wanted to try to avoid going to Costco this week, but after realizing I would be paying ~45% more for every loaf of the same bread I had been buying and 80% more for milk, I ended up making a run later after all. We're burning through almost 3 loaves per week, which means (assuming I never make my own bread and the prices are roughly consistent) I'd lose the purchasing power of over one loaf of bread per week - $2.68 or more - or about $139.36 a year. That's just in the cost of bread.
Soy milk, I've found, also makes shopping at Costco worth it, and the tetra packs don't have to be refrigerated until opened, which means that I can buy it in larger volume than the bread if and when I'm so inclined. Soy milk is traditionally sold either in the 980ml tetras, or refrigerated 1.89L cartons (equivalent to about 2 tetras). In the grocery store, cartons generally run between $3.50 and $4. Even when the soy milk isn't on sale at Costco, the tetras are about $2.50 for the same volume of soy milk, they travel better, and have a much smaller chance of spoiling before finished.
As far as I can tell, Costco can't be beat by anyone on the price of eggs and spinach... even though I didn't need to buy any this week.
Other than that, I again went to Food Basics, which I've generally found to be the best overall quality for the best overall price in my area.
Friday was a weird day for us because we were on the road. We packed a bunch of sandwiches, soy milk, and other goods that we thought might be allowed across the border, so we probably didn't do a very good job adhering to the Canada Food Guide this day.
Otherwise, breakfasts were much the same all week, but I was able to mix it up a bit on the weekend by offering frozen hash browns as a treat on Saturday.
Lunches consisted mostly of Wowbutter & Jelly, leftovers, and turkey, with fruit and homemade muffins (see Wednesday).
We did some really good dinners this week. Tuesday I used a can of tomatoes and my last strained tomato jar and made some slowcooker spaghetti sauce with a little ground beef and some of my cayenne. I used only a half of a pound of ground beef; it would have been a better Bolognese with a full pound, but it was still pretty good. Since it needs more work (I'm used to the old Italian method of having it simmer on the stove all day, tasting as I go), I will work on the recipe more before sharing.
Wednesday shaped up to be such a nice day that I gave the trusty slowcooker a break and made some packets of potatoes, carrots, and a half of a chopped up red pepper. I tossed them in a bowl with some olive oil, salt, pepper, dried thyme, garlic and onion powder, then packed them up in a double layer of foil and baked them on the grill for about 20 minutes, and then made pork chops with the store-bought BBQ sauce from last week on. We made a side salad using the last head of the romaine lettuce, cucumber, and the other half pepper and had a little mini-feast. I also felt motivated enough to make a dozen muffins with the cocoa powder and some of the raspberries and blueberries.
Thursday, I was tired, so hubs volunteered to make supper of grilled cheese for us and we finished off the salad. Kidlet ate scrambled eggs and corn and proclaimed he had a "yellow dinner."
Friday we all foraged of leftovers and random items. This is the day I was the bad one. I was out with my Costco-shopping friend, and she was hungry and wanted to stop to eat. We went to Wendy's and I ordered a grilled chicken wrap off their $1.89 value menu. Here's a photo of what about 36% of your daily budget looks like in convenience food for posterity. I even added the receipt for scale.
Saturday I felt motivated enough again to try a yeastless quickbread (mostly) veggie pizza (the dough came together and with kneading and rolling out was ready in 10 minutes) with one of the remaining roma tomatoes and some leftover onion. I can't say it was fully veggie because the sauce was my leftover Bolognese, and there was a very small amount of hamburger in it. It turned out pretty good, although I still like my yeast grilled pizza dough better, but given that I was able to make this in a hurry with just baking soda on hand, definitely it merits saving (so recipe coming soon). I don't remember what kid ate... he declined my offer to make him a cheese-less pizza, but he's been fussing over his tooth and asking for sandwiches at practically every meal, so it may have been a sandwich.
Sunday was a real helter-skelter day, so meals all day were random and consisted of rice with more leftover Bolognese, toast, Wowbutter, eggs, fruit, etc. But I did get a good breakfast on the table first with blueberry pancakes from scratch. Kidlet finally got his maple syrup sugar on, and he proceeded to bounce around the house all day.
Monday (today) I will probably make spaghetti again, just to use up the Bolognese (apparently the recipe made more than I thought) because wasting food on this budget is a big no-no.
You've probably noticed that I've had to start buying some of our pantry goods again: Cheerios, Rice, Wowbutter, flour, margarine. I used up the last of the 2.5kg of flour early in the week, and I haven't even been baking that much. It didn't go very far. I finished off the first jar of Wowbutter today (the Monday). Margarine's nearly entirely gone too. The small amount of spices I've bought has been pretty severely depleted. The small amount of baking powder I bought is gone now, and I will have to budget for more on next week's grocery bill. I've also got about 25% of my oil left. We have just enough apple sauce snacks to get us through the next week.
I didn't have to buy meat this week, but I will next week to extend the supply again. All I have left is a half of a pound of hamburger left, six pork chops, and a half a pound of stewing pork, and I've got a request for chicken.
I have lots of lentils, lots of barley, lots of rice and flour now, and enough eggs to see me through the end of next week. Lots of potatoes and carrots. Due to my grocery shopping, fresh (green) vegetable supply was toast pretty early on, leaving us mostly with peppers, frozen vegetables, and vegetable cocktail.
It's taken over two weeks, but I'm finally getting concrete benefits from making food from scratch in payback in the budget. Generally I'm feeling pretty good about where we're at right now. Week three looks like a veritable feast compared to Week 1 and Week 2, and I can celebrate knowing that I've balanced the budget.
Still, I'm faced with the sobering reality that if we continue eating with our set of rules and restrictions (allergies, no chest freezer, Canada Food Guide), this is probably as good as it gets... give or take a few bucks. It's true, I wasted some money by not being careful and having to shop at a convenience store. I also "invested" in some junk food to prevent mutiny on the home front. But on the whole, we're talking about under $10 this week that might have been better (or even just otherwise) spent.
$10 might be saved up towards giving us a family night out once a month (or let us order in a pizza), but hubs and I have concluded it's not really worth it. You saw my value menu meal). It's more satisfying to buy something like Oreos and chips for a regular occasional treat than to be lazy about making dinner. And at least going forward I probably don't have to have my six year-old son be grumpy anymore about not having lunch meat and and maple syrup to the point where I'm in tears.
This is if I continue to exert ironclad control over the budget, and I don't happen to get screwed by circumstances. This can happen more easily than you might think. Case in point: four items I bought this week (cucumber, margarine, grapes and carrots) went on sale a mere 24 hours later, and I could have saved about $5.
You can see based on what I have left that over the next few weeks, I would have to top up the dwindling items, eating more into the weekly budget again. Hopefully, though, I could begin to get them staggered out and in larger supply, to begin to gradually "get ahead" a little further. But it's a process that would take weeks and months, and I would be continuously handicapped by the inability to lay food away in larger storage. Without a chest freezer, I can't really buy a lot of extra meat when it's on sale. I don't have enough padding in the budget to buy and make the kinds of things that I can cook all in one day and stockpile for using through the week (what I used to do when I worked full-time outside the home). I don't have room to make a month's worth of freezer dinners, so I would continue to be forced to cook most weeknights (even if it is just in the slowcooker or a grilled cheese). This feels a bit like a grueling marathon on some long days.
I've had a few people question some of the purchasing choices I've made, and I welcome your questions. When you see wine (which I've been using for cooking) or lunchmeat on my grocery bill, you don't see the things I've sacrificed instead. So I'll let you know some of the things that we're missing from our fridge/pantry this month that you probably wouldn't have noticed unless I specifically itemized them:
You also don't see things like a serving for us was a half of a porkchop (yes, we ate pork chops by the halves this week).
It also doesn't cover any of the cravings that we want but can't really afford. Right now, I would wash your windows for a meal I don't have to make myself. I might consider indenturing my son, too, if it was a risotto loaded down with grilled chicken breast, pecorino cheese, fresh roasted in-season veggies and a nice glass of wine. Pardon me while I go cry/drool in the corner.
As you can see, there's no real right or wrong way to buy groceries when you're on a limited budget. You have to decide what's important to you: what your nutritional goals are, what your limitations are, and what you can live without. Part of the "without" includes lots of leftovers or seconds, a good variety in meat and greens vegetables, large quantities of the healthiest foods, foods that require little effort or time on your part, and certain foods in their entirety. Meals are mostly humble to strike a balance between plenty and nutrition.
But can it be done? Yes. Can it be done relatively well and delicious? Sure. Can it be done without some careful planning and sacrifice? Nope. But that's another story.
I've got 2/3 of a bottle of wine left. I think I'm going to indulge in a glass and say cheers: we've made it through week three together. (Plus it's scurvy protection.)
Read back to the start of Anne's Hunger Games Challenge: Could you Feed Your Family on a Strict Budget
Follow Anne's Budget Eating Challenge from the start:
Most people wouldn't consider using their slow cooker to cook a whole chicken. What if I told you that it was not only EASY, but also a great way to save the day when you wake up in the morning and realize that you've forgotten to defrost anything for supper? You can cook a chicken straight from frozen in the slow cooker, safely ,and without stress.
If that hasn't given you enough reason to consider using your slow cooker to bake a chicken, if you've ever lamented that you don't have a rotisserie to help you get a moist, juicy bird, then you've GOT to try this out. Chicken in the crockpot will stay moist and come out incredibly tender. In fact, if you want to be able to take the chicken out whole to carve it, you had better bake it in a scrap of cheesecloth!
Baking the chicken with slices of lemon on top does wonderful things. First, you don't have to worry about the fact that your frozen chicken will come out tasty. All you really need is a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper, plus the lemons, and you're good to go! Feel free, however, to add other complimentary herbs like a pinch of dried thyme or rosemary, and season to your taste. Secondly, when slow-roasted, the sugars in the lemon begin to caramelize, giving a sweet, mellow taste unlike anything you've probably ever associated with a lemon.
The chicken's skin will not become brown and crispy as it would in the oven, but trust me: nobody will care.
Cut up the potatoes, celery, and chunk-cut the carrots into large pieces sufficient to elevate the chicken off the bottom of the crock pot and keep from going mushy, and use them to line the bottom of the crock.
Spread the cheesecloth (if using it), over the top of the vegetables and up over the edges of the crock pot, trimming it if it is a large cheesecloth.
Place the chicken on top of the cheesecloth, sprinkling it generously with salt & pepper, garlic & onion powder, and the thyme. Line the top of the chicken and legs with the slices of lemon, and fold the cheesecloth over the top of the chicken to help hold them in place.
Add water and wine to the bottom of the crockpot, cover, and bake on low for about 6-7 hours (if frozen) or 4-5 hours (if thawed). When chicken begins to split at the thigh and knee, and the chest cavity begins to collapse, it is done. Use the cheesecloth to remove the chicken from the crock, and preserve the liquid from the bottom to make gravy. Serve with the roasted vegetables from the bottom.
Follow Anne on her Hunger Games Challenge: Feeding Your Family on a Strict Budget
I was hobnobbing on a PR trip when the topic of preservation of foods came up, and it wasn't long before everyone admitted that they really wanted to learn canning, but were afraid of that dreaded b-word: Botulism. Botulism is no joke, and it can have deadly consequences. I admit, I'm one of those people who knows just enough about it to know I don't want to mess around. I detoured firmly into the realm of preservation by freezing, and I've been happily ensconced there since.
It's true, I may not be preparing well for the apocalypse by failing to have a bunker full of shelves lined with shelf-stable preserves. Nevertheless, freezer preservation, especially in jam, has a lot of things to recommend it:
1. You don't need any special equipment. Besides, you know, a jar.
2. You're not obligated to stick to anybody's recipes. You don't mess much with a recipe meant for standard canning - not unless you want to chance spoilage and that b-word. In fact, if you're a smart cookie when you're canning, you're using a recipe that's been passed down from your grandma's grandma - one you know works and is safe. When you use the freezer? You can put all sorts of awesome and unusual things in your jams and fruit preserves, like herbs, chocolate and wine.
3. Food tastes better. You aren't obligated to boil it to death and load it up with a pile of sugar if you don't want. One of my favourite preserves? Frozen oven-roasted tomatoes. I just used the last of last year's, and I'm getting a bit drool-y thinking about it.
4. You can make exactly as much as you feel bothered to make. One jar or a dozen? Up to nobody but you.
5. EVERYONE can do it. Yup, even you can do it, even if you've never made a jam before.
Everyone's heard of small batch canning. But maybe you don't want to even be saddled with as many as a dozen jars. Maybe you don't want to buy and process 10 lbs of strawberries. Maybe you want a dozen jars, each with a different recipe, and you don't have a dozen friends on board who feel the same way.
MAYbe... you just want to get cray cray and fool around with pepping up a recipe with something wild and unusual like cocoa powder, pepper, or liqueur without being stuck with a dozen jars of a horrible mistake that you have to decide whether to eat or throw away.
Allow me to introduce: the microbatch. It makes just one 500ml jar, and still at an amazing economic price.
I'm serious. You may have seen that I'm participating all month long in a Hunger Game challenge, and I've refused to cut my family off from all the things that they love just to make the budget. Well, this past weekend, I made jam while I was prepping some other foods. Costco had 2lb tubs of strawberries on for $3.89, and I calculated the price at roughly $1.51 a jar. You can't get prices that good even at No Frills.
More tart and fruity than the standard variety, this jam makes a great strawberry vinaigrette for spinach salads when mixed with a little bit of oil and a few drops of vinegar. It also tops pancakes, toast, and wowbutter sandwiches with the greatest of ease. I can't prove to you it's so worth the effort of making your own without sticking a spoon in your mouth, but rest assured: because this jam has just a wee bit of chocolate flavour to it, plain boiled jam will taste like sadness by comparison.
2/3 LB Strawberries (about 10 medium-size ones)
1 slightly rounded cup of sugar, divided
4 teaspoons of lemon juice (about 1/4 large lemon, juiced)
1/4 tsp dutch process cocoa powder
1 tsp lemon seeds (optional)*
* For a firmer set, use a real lemon, and tie about 1 tsp of the lemon seeds into a scrap of cheesecloth to boil with the jam. Lemon seeds naturally contain a high amount of pectin, and you won't have to make yourself crazy figuring out how much powdered pectin to use. Yes, it really works!
If you don't have a cheesecloth, you can soak the lemon seeds overnight in a tablespoon of water, pouring off the pectin water (it will feel slimy to the touch, and that's exactly the way it should be!) into the jam at the start. If you don't use the lemon seeds, you may have to add a couple tablespoons more sugar to achieve a satisfactory loose set.
Hull and halve the strawberries. Put them in a bowl, and sprinkle about 1/4 cup of sugar over the top. Allow them to macerate for at least 30 minutes, but you can cover them and leave them overnight.
If you want a smooth-textured jam, pour the macerated strawberries into a blender, pulse a few times, and blend until pureed.
In a tall-sided saucepan over medium low heat, combine the puree, the lemon juice, remaining sugar, and lemon seeds if you decide to use them. Bring the jam to a simmer, and let it boil down for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring regularly. Towards the end of that period, begin to skim the foam off the surface of the jam with a spoon.
Before jam is finished, set a clean and sterile 500ml jar (or two 250ml jars) in a saucepan with enough water to be halfway up the jars (jars should not be buoyant, and insides should remain dry). Set the pot and jars on the stove and then turn the heat on medium. Bring the water to almost a simmer to heat up the jars enough to keep the jam from cracking them.
If you have a candy thermometer, you want to bring the jam to about 225-230F. If you don't have a candy thermometer, use the cold plate test (see below). When the jam is done, remove from heat and turn off the heat under the jar(s). Remove the cheesecloth with the seeds (if you have it in there), and spoon just a spoonful of hot jam into a sturdy mug with the cocoa powder. Mix the cocoa powder thoroughly to prevent clumping, and then scrape the jam and cocoa powder into the pot with the rest of the jam, stirring to disperse the cocoa. If you would like a stronger cocoa taste, repeat the process with a pinch of cocoa at a time (a little goes a long way!).
Carefully pour the hot jam into the jar up to just below the thread line to leave some head space. You can save and store any extra little bit of jam in another container (ceramic or glass) in the fridge for near-future use after it cools down a little bit.
Place the lid on the jar, and screw the ring over top of it loosely - you don't want the jar to seal. You may either carefully remove the jar and set on a tea towel to cool, or allow to cool in the pot of water. If the jar seals itself, make sure you break the seal. Once the jar has cooled to room-temperature, you may set it in the freezer to finish setting.
When you become proficient in making jam, you'll be able to identify the signs of sheeting from the spoon when you stir it: when you hold a spoon horizontally, it will drip from the spoon in more of a sheet than a liquid drizzle. It's far easier for a novice to use the chilled plate test, however.
When you begin making your jam, set a plate into the freezer to chill. When you suspect your jam may be nearly finished, retrieve the plate and drip a little jam onto the surface. Observe the surface for a high, glisten-y sheen.
If present, run your finger through the jam to make a furrow. If the furrow mostly remains without filling in, jam is ready to set, though you can simmer it for a little longer if it is still fairly loose and you prefer a firmer set.
Not ready for a big batch? You can make this small batch Strawberry Jam that will last up to two weeks in your fridge.