Stretching your food budget requires planning, but a deliberate focus on thrifty cooking without sacrificing nutrition can provide some peace of mind while and keeps the focus on seasonal cooking.
Here are some tips that might help…
Flyers, flyers, flyers! Make sure that you set out to plan your meals for the week with your local supermarket’s weekly flyer in hand (physically, or online)
The freezer is your friend: buying large packs of meats on sale and freezing what you don’t plan to use immediately not only cuts down on trips to the market, but it can save you a significant amount. One tip: be sure to use freezer bags to store the meat and label each package with a date, noting the recipe, so you will use up the oldest packages first. Remember to portion out each bag so that you aren’t wrestling to split a frozen hunk of meat apart.
Buy seasonally: not only are fruits and produce better when they are in season, they are usually much less expensive. Many fruits freeze well, as do many vegetables.
Many supermarkets have bulk purchasing sections that allow you to economize on rice, beans, grains, etc. Just be sure that you store your staples in an airtight container to keep contents clean and avoid attracting critters (mice love attacking bags of rice and grain and can gnaw through plastic bags in seconds flat).
Avoid convenience foods: not only do they commonly contain lots of salt and fat, but you are paying a premium vs. making your own food.
Are there warehouse stores like Costco near you? If so, consider the potential savings on food and household staples (paper goods, for example); calculate membership costs vs. savings. If it makes sense to join once you factor in food/non-food savings, then incorporate meal planning based on available specials.
If you are lucky enough to have ethnic markets accessible, consider buying your spices there; often they are less expensive and you may find more options than you would in your regular market. Spices are key when trying to keep your food tasty, without breaking the bank.
Consider “Meatless Mondays” — not only is it a healthy step and good for the planet, but the savings can add up!
Look at some of the recipes on this blog; many reheat exceptionally well for lunches.
If you have a pressure cooker, an Instant Pot (or similar), consider incorporating more recipes that use tougher–but cheaper–cuts of meat. The pressure cooker allows you to prepare food in minutes, not hours, and enables economy without sacrificing taste.
Eggs aren’t just for breakfast! Omelettes with leftover veggies and meat make a quick, easy and economical dinner, too. It’s also a great way to use up veggies that are a bit past their prime.
Experiment with vegetarian-based cuisines: South Indian food is a favorite in our house and offers a wealth of tasty, meatless options.
Keep an eye on portion size. If you’re like me, keeping a close eye on my diet is important for health reasons and for my waistline. Recommended portion size for meat is 4oz, about the size of a playing card. Americans routinely serve portions twice that big! Better to fill the bulk of your plate with high-fiber, nutritious vegetables than to focus on overdoing the protein.
If you are a bit shy and don’t enjoy the typical networking event, consider organizing a potluck networking event. Meeting and greeting is always easier over food and your dish can be the start of some interesting conversations. Lived overseas and have a favorite dish from your ex-pat days? Have a passion for an unusual cuisine? Lucky enough to have inherited grandma’s legendary recipe box? It’s all fair game!
A few thoughts to get you started:
Consider simply posting on LinkedIn and asking local connections if there is interest
Reach out to local professional associations and see if they will help to spread the word
Finding a free space if you want to have space for a bigger crowd doesn’t necessarily need to have a cost associated with it…is there a community room at your local library? Does the senior center allow the community to use their space? Is there a professional association with access to donated corporate space? Get creative! If you want to start small, consider polling connections for a suitable host; in this political season, we’ve all seen chatter about fundraising house parties–consider this a twist on that theme.
There are a number of free tools to help coordinate attendance and exchange notes.
Set up a mix of dishes needed and ask registrants to sign-up for a slot; nothing worse than a potluck where everyone brings a dip!
Request that interested parties connect with other attendees on LinkedIn in advance of the potluck; you want folks to come prepared to make real connections of mutual benefit.
Don’t restrict yourself to those who are actively job hunting! Mixing up the attendee list provides for maximum benefit: employed attendees want to expand their networks, too and they may have open roles at their organizations.
Be sure to gather feedback after the event; SurveyMonkey allows for anonymous survey responses and people like to know that their feedback is valued.
After you get an event, or two under your belt, consider setting a calendar that extends out 3-6 months.
If attendees are willing, try to share recipes after the event; you can create a LinkedIn group and facilitate communication and sharing. Everyone enjoys learning new things and a potluck is a great way to pick new “go to” dishes.
LinkedIn is an obvious source of information and job listings, but networking with peers can provide a level of insight that can accelerate your return to work. Below are some resources that may be helpful. And remember: networking doesn’t end once you land the job! Think of it as your career lifeblood.
Bulletproof Your Career — Pat Romboletti is a renowned career coach and TED speaker. (Her book is free via Audible, or available on Amazon.) She offers free, weekly webinars on a variety of job hunting topics.
Amazon offers just about every career-focused book under the sun.
In addition to the job resources listed above, meditation and other relaxation strategies provide peace of mind. Consider regular exercise, as well. Exercise releases endorphins which help to improve mood and can actually help with cognitive function.
“Cheat meals” are a go-to for busy professionals. If you are working long hours, or have a second job and you come home tired, how do you manage to put tasty, healthy food on the table with minimal effort? Here are some tips about how you can shortcut dinner prep without shorting yourself on taste and nutrition.
Core “Cheat Ingredients”:
Rotisserie chicken is a go-to “cheat” ingredient. You can use this chicken in entrees, stir frys, soups and salads. Inexpensive, easily available and tasty.
“Steam in bag” veggies are a great foundation; look in the produce section of your supermarket for a variety of options.
Stir-fry beef options; this thin-sliced option is great for stir fry, saute, quick ramen-style soups and more.
Make a batch of soup and you’ll have lunch for days! Vegetable soups and chili reheat well; you can add pre-cooked meats to fortify leftovers for a hearty lunch. Your freezer is your friend: when you make batches of chili, soups, etc. — you can stockpile a reserve of great food that is ready to be reheated!
Eggs are often overlooked as a dinner-time option. They are versatile, a great source of protein and cook in minutes.
Have a microwave? Potatoes are a quick, microwave-friendly option. Topped with leftover meat, cheese or veggies, you can make a quick meal in minutes. Sweet potatoes are a great alternative to white potatoes and add beta carotene to your diet.
Pre-made meatballs are available in many grocery stores; broiling these and topping with cheese and fresh tomato slices over fresh pasta delivers a fabulous meal in 15 minutes.
Pizza dough is available in many grocery stores; top it with leftovers, or quick “adds” for a tasty, hearty meal in minutes! You can also use store-made dough to create easy calzones; filling them with veggies is a healthy, lower-calorie alternative. You can usually find pre-cut vegetables in the produce section of your grocery store.
Edible flowers can add a surprising spicy note to food. They certainly add visual interest!
Edibles are versatile, too. Use them in cooking, salads, as garnishes, frozen into cubes and when candied to decorate cakes and pastries will elicit “oooohs” and “aaaahs” from your guests!
What flowers are edible?
There are many edible flowers, but let’s focus on varieties that are common and readily available.
Violets A long-time cottage garden favorite, violets are often employed — crystallized in sugar, or “candied”, as charming garnishes on cakes and pastries.
As the blossoms are smaller, they add great visual interest when frozen into ice cubes to garnish summer drinks, or sprinkled on a fresh salad. “Odorata” varieties also have a captivating scent.
PotMarigolds Pot Marigolds, or calendula, not only have culinary applications, but have long been used for medicinal purposes. Used in salads, scrambled eggs, quiche and even compound butter (mixed with herbs).
Roses Not only are roses beautiful, often with a heady perfume, but they are surprisingly versatile in cooking. In Persian cuisine, rose petals are used both fresh and dried and the buds are also utilized. Rose hip tea is very high in Vitamin C and the perfect treat on a cold winter’s day!
Squash Blossoms Squash blossoms are delicate and aren’t always easy to find in the supermarket–but when you can find some, grab them! Roam your local farmers market in spring with an eye out for the stunning yellow color. Stuffed with mild goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes, they bring a freshness and beauty to the plate that is hard to beat. Blossoms may also be used in pasta, on flatbreads and even sauteed.
Borage Borage has been employed as a culinary and medicinal plant since Roman times and is a magnet for bees. (Pollinators need our help!) It is also a very attractive garden plant and self-seeds once established.
Even if you live in the city and have limited outdoor access, you can find space to nurture some key herbs. Parsley, thyme, chives, basil and rosemary are just a few of the easy to grow herbs that can add dimension and freshness to your cooking!
If you have a small porch, or some flat roof space that has good sun exposure, you can grow a core group of herbs with little fuss. I recommend using “grow bags” — reinforced canvas-type, tub-shaped pots that are easily filled with soil, once placed in the desired spot. They come with handles, so can be moved, although they are heavy once filled with soil, so best to place them where they will stay. Amazon has a number of good options that are inexpensive. You can buy them in various sizes — from 3 to 10 gallons. It’s important to keep in mind that you will need to water quite regularly, especially if the pots are in full sun six, or more hours each day. In order to promote optimal growth, use a container potting mix–not top soil, as that will compact and may impair root growth. Keep in mind that you can get creative when growing herbs! Using beach pails arranged on a grid can work if you are really crunched on space!
If you can choose only three herbs in your urban garden, I would suggest:
Parsley — There are two common types of parsley: Flat Leaf, or Curly. I find the flat leaf to be more versatile; it has more tender leaves that work well both for cooking and garnish. Parsley benefits from being cut, but be sure not to cut more than one third of the stems off of any individual plant. At the end of the season, you can clip all of the leaves and place them in a freezer bag; while not as good as fresh, the frozen parsley will still be great in soups and stews!
Basil— There are lots of readily available types of basil. Sweet, or “Genovese” basil is the type commonly used in mediterranean cooking and has tender, bright green leaves. Other well-known options include Thai basil, which has a strong, pungent taste and is wonderful in Asian cuisine; cinnamon, lemon and purple varieties can add an herbaceous note to many different dishes. Basil is a tropical plant, so you will have to start anew each spring, or try overwintering in a smaller pot. Basil is readily available in the spring–you can even buy small plants at home stores for a few dollars.
Chives — In the springtime chives produce charming, globe-shaped flowers. The blossoms are edible and add visual interest to salads and pasta dishes. Chives grow quickly and can be snipped throughout the growing season, as needed. They do well in containers and should come back year after year.
Often, co-op farms — where people buy “shares” in the farm’s produce — have plant sales in the spring and give you access to a greater variety than you might find in the typical home improvement, or small garden center. (It’s also a great way to support open space initiatives and these co-ops are frequently organic farms and so are good for the environment.)
Have more space and ambition? As a suburban gardener, you can grow an impressive herb garden in very little space. I have two 4′ x 4′ raised beds and have eight different types of herbs growing happily. I use raised beds as they minimize the amount of weeding required and help to discourage pests like rabbits with the placement of some simple chicken wire fencing staked around the perimeter. Having a 30″ chicken wire barrier still allows for easy access while keep the bunnies at bay! While you can buy raised beds in many styles–including models that are 3′ tall, which is great for those with mobility issues, configurable kits that allow you to construct a bed to meet your needs to other choices that do not require any hardware.
If you are lucky enough to have space for a couple of raised beds, consider adding the following selections to the three noted above:
Thyme — I use thyme in most of my dishes and it adds a wonderful aroma and taste. Like basil, there are many varieties of thyme, including many citrus-themed plants. Tough, perennial and easy to grow.
Sage — This attractive herb has a fuzzy “bunny ear” quality about it. Sage is great with poultry and in stuffing. Sage also adds a nice note to soup, especially vegetable soups. This is an easy-to-grow plant that has a long season. Leaves freeze well for use over the winter.
Marjoram — Wonderful fresh, but nearly as good dried! Marjoram is reminiscent of oregano, but less pungent. This herb has an incredible aroma and adds real depth to your cooking.
Lemon Balm — In the spring and summer, when truly gorgeous produce is readily available, there is nothing better than a simply-dressed salad with a fresh vinaigrette. Adding lemon balm to your dressing provides a wonderful citrus note! Lemon balm is also wonderful steeped as a tea and even in cookies!
Rosemary — This mediterranean native is attractive, aromatic and versatile! In fresh form its leaves look like pine needles, which allows it to stand up to long cooking times in soups and stews. Rosemary is also wonderful when used in grilling and adds a nice note when used to flavor cooking oils.
While there are many terrific seed vendors out there, SeedSavers.org is one of my favorites, I would suggest buying young plants. You will get a jump on the season and you can lay out your beds more easily.
Remember to wait until the danger of frost has passed when planting tender herbs like basil and water consistently to ensure that the plants get well established. Some herbs will require more water on a routine basis (think basil and parsley,) while others are less fussy (think thyme and sage).
If you are like me, you are challenged to find quick, tasty and kid-friendly options for family gatherings. When I am designated as the “apps person” here are some quick go-to items that I’ve made over the years–with happy faces all-around!
Nourishing yourself, finding new ways to create thrifty and nutritious meals while fostering creativity can be a great exercise in self-love–especially with the stress of a job hunt! Even better: once you have a go-to roster of great dishes, life is less stressful when you jump into that new role!
Happy cooking and happy hunting to each of you that are on the journey to the next gig. For those who simply want to try some new food options, enjoy!