Scrimp & savour

As food prices skyrocket, savvy shoppers aim to balance budget, nutrition and flavour

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/01/2022 (255 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Shop frozen, spend cash, stock up at sales and stick to your list.

These are some of the tips experts share on how to stretch your dollars, without compromising on nutrition, when shopping on a budget.

With this year’s Canada Food Price Report predicting we will spend $14,767 on groceries alone, feeding an average family of four just got more expensive.

That hefty bill of $1,230.58 per month — a seven per cent overall increase from last year — means families will spend at least $966 more than they did in 2021.

Belts will have to be tightened more than ever.

And having to count the pennies can take a toll on mental health, translating into an apathy in the kitchen.

So what do you do when you have mouths to feed but you just cannot bear to cook?

Economizing on ingredients doesn’t mean you have to skimp on flavour

Growing up, there were times when money was tight and meals would have to whipped up from the barest of ingredients.

A packet of dried noodles, a wilted head of lettuce from the back of the fridge and a can of Spam would somehow be magically transformed into a feast for five with the judicious use of spices and seasonings.

My mother’s thrifty ways have served me well as an adult and although times now are easier, I still love looking for ways to stretch my cash.

Here are three meals I often make for my family that come in at under $7 per serving.

Growing up, there were times when money was tight and meals would have to whipped up from the barest of ingredients. A packet of dried noodles, a wilted head of lettuce from the back of the fridge and a can of Spam would somehow be magically transformed into a feast for five with the judicious use of spices and seasonings. My mother’s thrifty ways have served me well as an adult and although times now are easier, I still love looking for ways to stretch my cash.

As well as shopping at major supermarkets, I visit ethnic grocery stores to stock up on ingredients such as noodles, rice, spices and cooking sauces. I always buy a variety of noodles — rice noodles, egg noodles, sweet potato noodles — as they keep well in the pantry.

Fridge and pantry staples: Butter, canola oil, white and black pepper, salt, soy sauce, oyster sauce, mirin, spices, onions, garlic, ginger, rice, noodles. These ingredients can often be used more than once so it’s well worth stocking up.

Here are three meals I often make for my family that come in at under $7 per serving.

• • • 

Meal 1: Sardines in a tomato sauce with chili and onions, steamed spinach, fried egg and rice

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Ingredients: Canned sardines in tomato sauce, onions, soy sauce, chili powder, oil, eggs, frozen chopped spinach, rice

Recipe: Thinly slice 3 red onions and fry in some oil over a gentle heat until they are translucent but not coloured. Add a pinch of chili powder (5 ml/1 tsp if you want it spicy) and soy sauce and cook down for a few minutes. Then decant both cans of sardines to the pan and stir. Let it simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, warming through the sardines. Taste for seasoning. Serve with a fried egg, hot steamed rice and the heated-up spinach. For added calories, stir in butter to the spinach.

Swaps: Use up any leafy greens you have in the fridge if frozen spinach is not to your liking. Green beans cooked with garlic also work as an accompaniment.

Price breakdown:

Two cans sardines: 88 cents a can ($1.76 total)

Onions: $3.47 for 1.36 kg

Soy sauce: $1.87 for 450 ml

Chilli powder: $1.97 for 150 grams

Eggs: $3.38 for 12 eggs

Frozen chopped spinach: $1.98 for 500 g

Rice: $9.97 for 3.62 kg

Total (excluding price of staples such as oil): $24.40

Price per serving: $6.10 ($24.40/4)

• • • 

Meal 2: Ground pork with oyster sauce, served with butternut squash and blanched egg noodles

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Ingredients: Ground pork, onion, garlic, ginger, oyster sauce, carrots, potatoes, frozen butternut squash, cumin powder, oil, egg noodles.

Method: Thinly slice 3 cloves garlic and one onion. Peel and julienne a small knob of ginger. Add all to a pan with some canola oil. Fry on medium heat for 5 minutes, making sure the garlic does not burn. Dice 2 carrots and a medium potato. Add to the pan with a splash of water and lower the heat. Pop a lid on and cook for 5 minutes. Add ground pork and stir thoroughly then add 15 ml/1 tbsp of oyster sauce, a grind of black or white pepper. Taste, then add a splash of soy if needed. Pop the lid back on and cook for 15 minutes.

Toss butternut squash in a bowl with some oil, cumin powder and salt. Place on a pre-heated tray and roast in a 450 F pre-heated oven for 18 to 20 minutes. Make sure to separate the squash so you can place the cubes in one layer.

Cook the noodles according to the package instructions, making sure to not overcook. Serve the noodles topped with the ground pork and some cubes of butternut squash.

Swaps: If you have some, five-spice powder is a great addition to the ground pork recipe. Add it in when frying the onions, garlic and ginger.

Price breakdown:

Ground pork: $7.88 for 750 g

Oyster sauce: $2.88 for 510 g

Carrots: $2.99 for 900 g

Garlic: 77 cents for a pack of three bulbs

Potatoes: $4.97 for 5 lbs

Frozen butternut squash: $1.98

Cumin powder: $1.97 for 97 g

Noodles: $2.99 for 454 g

Total (excluding price of ingredients used in other recipes): $26.43

Price per serving: $6.60 ($26.43/4)

• • • 

Meal 3: Cheat’s vegetable sambar with paratha

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Ingredients: 250 g red lentils, 30 ml (2 tbsp) ginger-garlic paste, 2 potatoes quartered, 1 large carrot sliced into thick discs, few blocks frozen spinach, 15 ml (1 tbsp) chili powder (less if you don’t want it spicy), 4 ml (¾ tsp) cumin powder, 5 ml (1 tsp) turmeric, water, salt to taste

Sauté ingredients: 15 ml (1 tbsp) black mustard seeds, 2.5 ml (½ tsp) cumin seeds, 1 thinly sliced onion, small knob ginger cut into thin strips, frozen paratha.

Method: Place red lentils into a pot with 500 ml (2 cups) water, ginger-garlic paste and turmeric. Bring to a boil then simmer until lentils are cooked. This should take around 15 to 20 mins. Add salt, powdered spices and vegetables. Lower heat and cook until vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes. Turn heat off, cover and set aside.

Now heat 30-45 ml (2-3 tbsp) oil. When hot, add mustard seeds. Next, add cumin seeds and leave to splutter for an additional 2 minutes. Add onions and ginger and stir fry for 3-5 minutes. When fragrant, pour onto the cooked lentils and stir well. Cover and leave to infuse a few mins. Cook paratha according to packet instructions and serve with the hot sambar.

Price breakdown:

Red lentils: $2.77 for 900 g

Ginger-garlic paste: $4.98 for 750 g

Turmeric powder: $2.27 for 100 g

Ginger: 75 cents for a small knob

Black mustard seeds: $1.18 for 200 g

Cumin seeds: $3.77 for 400 g

Frozen paratha: $6.49 for 30 pieces

Total (excluding price of staples and ingredients used in previous recipes): $21.46 

Price per serving: $5.36 ($21.46/4)

 

Leftovers? Here’s what you can do with them

Rice: Fried rice with whatever veggies or cooked meat you have. I have been known to thinly slice ham and hotdogs, cooking them with onions before adding my leftover rice to the wok.

Sardines: Smoosh with a fork, spritz with lemon juice and spread over toast for an open-face sandwich.

Cooked ground pork: A scant spoonful to top off instant noodles is a quick lunch. Can also be used in a potato hash.

Sambar: Thin it down with one vegetable stock cube dissolved in water to make a soup. You can poach an egg in the liquid for added sustenance. I top mine with chili oil and crispy fried onions.

* Ingredients sourced from WalMart and Real Canadian Superstore. Prices correct at time of writing.

Is it OK to reach for convenience foods or are these meals really as bad for you as they are made out to be?

Carly Gabler, a registered dietitian based in Portage la Prairie, thinks there are ways to get around it.

Read the nutrition labels. Look for low sodium, more fibre, more whole grains and less saturated fat if you’re shopping for a frozen dinner, she says.

Also be willing to be more creative to increase the nutritional value of convenience food by adding canned tuna to instant noodles or “beef up” mac and cheese with inexpensive proteins such as beans and lentils, she added.

“Any nutrition is better than no nutrition,” Gabler says.

“There is no bad or good food; food doesn’t have morality.”

Winnipeg-based registered dietitian Janine LaForte of Real Life Nutrition agrees, saying there are simple ways to add nutrition to convenience meals.

“For example, choose to serve hotdogs on whole wheat buns with vegetables and dip, and a glass of milk.

“Or add extra vegetables to a frozen pizza and serve with a salad on the side or add some frozen vegetables and an egg to packaged instant noodles.”

Gabler and LaForte both say there are ways to get around a tight budget without compromising on what we serve at the table.

Don’t discount frozen fruit and vegetables, which are nutritionally similar to fresh, and in some cases, higher in value because the produce is picked at its ripeness so nutrition is locked in, Gabler said.

“In Canada a lot of fresh food is shipped in from the States,” she said.

“It’s sat in a truck for weeks sometimes, which means it’s not as nutritionally good as you might think it is.”

Gabler said making soups, stews and casseroles are a great way to use up vegetables that are not as fresh, and also advised cutting down on meat consumption to save money.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Janine LaForte preps frozen veggies; the Winnipeg-based registered dietitian says shopping frozen is one way to save money on grocery shopping without sacrificing nutrition.

“It’s no surprise that a large portion of the grocery budget goes to animal protein. Meat alternatives such as beans, lentils and tofu provide iron and protein like meat but cost a lot less.”

But what if you just must have meat for dinner?

With three teenagers at home, LaForte has figured out ways to make the most of her dollars when purchasing meat.

She suggests buying it on sale and freezing it, and buying whole cuts of meat, such as whole chicken, whole joint of beef or a pork loin, which are cheaper than buying smaller cuts.

“Ground meat can sometimes be less expensive. One thing I actually do at home a lot is to add lentils or beans to the meat. A 50:50 ratio will help stretch it further,” LaForte said.

“Also, buy what’s on sale. Fresh berries will break the bank in the winter months. And be aware of waste — unfortunately, a lot of our food dollars are thrown in the trash.”

One good way to avoid waste is to make a plan.

“It takes planning to eat well on a budget. Take the time to make a list before grocery shopping. It’s not easy but when you don’t do it, you end up relying on foods which are not balanced. Utilizing click-and-collect services at stores will also help you stick to your list,” Gabler said.

Another simple way to avoid over-spending is to ensure you’ve used up what you already have.

Anne Arbour, education manager at non-profit credit counselling agency CCS advises clearing out your fridge and cupboards before heading to the grocery store.

Secrets to save

Anne Arbour from credit counselling agency CCS shares her money-saving secrets.

Request coupons from manufacturers

Virtually every packaged product you buy, from toothpaste to tuna, will likely have a customer-service phone number printed somewhere on its label. It takes only a few minutes to call the manufacturer to pay them a compliment or to ask a question about the product — and then to ask for some coupons. The worst they can say is no, but more than likely, you will receive something for your efforts.

Similarly, you can go to the websites of the products you like or their manufacturers and look for an opportunity to sign up for coupons, samples and special offers. Procter and Gamble, for example, does a great job at this.

Pro-tip: Take note of the coupon expiry dates and be sure to use them up before they are no longer valid. Use your coupon for an item that’s already on sale to maximize savings.

Price match

There are many grocery stores that will match or beat a competitor’s advertised price for certain items. It’s important to note that not everything can be price matched; it needs to be exactly the same item and the competitor needs to be local.

This comes down to doing your homework, confirming your preferred store’s policies, and ensuring that you are using current flyers.

Pro-tip: Ask for a rain check if a particular item you want to purchase on sale is not in stock. Most stores will give you, in writing, an opportunity to buy the item at its current sale price when it is back in stock at a later date and no longer on sale.

Like coupons, these rain checks will have expiry dates, so keep note and be sure to use them before they are no longer valid.

“Shop your pantry — what do you already have in the back of the cupboard that you should use up before it expires and you’d have to throw it out? Using up what we already have, what we’ve already spent money on, can help us save money today,” she says.

“Just because something is on sale or seems like a good deal, doesn’t mean it is if you won’t actually end up eating it. Be honest and realistic, and stick to your list,” she adds.

Arbour also suggests leaving credit cards at home when grocery shopping.

“Shop with cash,” she says. “Studies have shown that people who shop with credit tend to spend 20 to 25 per cent more than they intended, largely because it’s easy to. There is no ‘fence’ to stop you, other than your credit limit. When you shop with cash, however, you have a fixed amount to use. You have no choice but to stay within that budget.”

Shopping apps are another useful money-saving tool.

Apps such as Flipp, Reebee and Save.ca allow you to scan the various weekly flyers for your local area, to see what’s on sale, to price match, to access certain coupons or offers, Arbour says. Flashfood focuses on connecting consumers to heavily discounted unsold food surplus at stores or restaurants, or food nearing its best-before dates at grocery stores, respectively, and apps such as Checkout51, Caddle and Rakuten offer the ability to earn cashback rewards for certain products purchased or retailers accessed.

“So while you might not be purchasing something on sale, you are earning what can be considered a commission or rebate in return,” Arbour said.

AV KITCHING / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sardines in tomato sauce with chili and onions, steamed spinach, fried egg and rice
AV KITCHING / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ground pork with oyster sauce, served with butternut squash and blanched egg noodles
AV KITCHING / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Cheat’s vegetable sambar with paratha
JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg-based registered dietitian Janine LaForte preps a smoothie using frozen fruit, which is cheaper than fresh in winter.
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