Last week Jody gave us some helpful tips on using spices in cooking to give food lots of flavor without using too much salt. She also shared which spices we use most in our recipes and how to store them for maximum shelf life. You have probably guessed that we on the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. team really like to cook so experimenting with different flavors and spices is fun for us.
Even though I like to cook and cook at home most of the time, I can still get ahead of myself when it comes to spices. Ground spices (cumin, chili powder, curry powder, etc.) have their maximum flavor for 2-4 years after you open them. Dried herbs (basil, thyme, parsley, etc.) are best used within 1-3 years. Given how quickly some foods perish, this seems like a really long shelf life. Nevertheless, it is easy to have a spice in your cabinet for many years if you only use it on rare occasion. Here are some tips I use to keep my spices in check and avoid wasting money on spices I have to throw out.
- I buy spices in the smallest container I can. This saves space in my cabinet, reduces the risk of waste and allows me to try new spices without committing to buying a large container.
- I mark each container with the date that I open it, so I do not have to guess how long it has been sitting in my cabinet.
- Once a year I go through my spice cabinet and make my own all-purpose seasoning blends with the bits of spices I have left in my cabinet. I like to do this around New Year’s Day when I tend to have a lot of time around the house. I find that I go through the blends faster than individual spices. You can adjust the ratios of these blends based on what you have and what flavors you enjoy most. Some of my favorites include:
- Taco Seasoning: This works well for any Tex Mex dish I am making. It is delicious in taco meat, beans or even soups with a similar flavor profile.
- Dried Onion Soup Mix: I have several recipes I make that call for dried onion soup mix and I would rather use up the seasonings I already have than buy a packet at the store.
- Italian Seasoning Blend: rosemary, thyme, parsley, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, oregano and onion powder. I use this on chicken, steak, vegetables, roasted potatoes and in pasta dishes. It is all of the same ingredients as store-bought Italian seasoning, but it allows me to use what I already have rather than buy another jar.
- Grill Seasoning: garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, red pepper flakes and paprika. This is tasty on meats and veggies that I grill or roast.
- If I find a recipe that calls for a spice I do not already have, I look for one or two other recipes that use it before I buy it. This way I know that I have multiple ideas for using that spice and I will make good use of it.
These are some tips that work for me…how do you keep your spice cabinet from getting out of control? Share with us in the comments or on our social media this week. You’ll hear more about the Taco Seasoning and Dried Onion Soup Mix from Justine next month.
Welcome to the second part of our blog series about on-line grocery shopping. I hope you enjoyed our overview last week. This week I would like to tell you about all of the things I think are great about on-line grocery shopping.
The first thing that I like about on-line grocery shopping is the TIME SAVINGS.
- It only takes me about 30 minutes to select the foods I want and set up my pickup/delivery time.
- I do not need to fight the crowd in the store or in the parking lot.
- I do not have to take my children into the store.
- The grocery store staff load up my car or help me carry my groceries into my house.
The second thing I like about on-line grocery shopping is the MONEY SAVINGS.
- It is easy to stick to my budget because I can see the total price increasing as I add foods to my cart.
- I can easily add or take away food items as needed to fit my budget and my needs.
- There is no temptation to buy the extra things displayed around the store, so I avoid impulse buys.
- I have all of the information on the website to determine unit prices and compare products easily.
The third thing I like about on-line grocery shopping is the KINDNESS of the staff.
- I have had great experiences with the grocery store staff being very kind and helpful.
- The staff do a great job of explaining any substitutions that were made.
- The staff make a point of keeping fragile foods (bread, eggs) safe.
Overall, I think that on-line grocery shopping is a great experience and it is very helpful, especially when I do not have a lot of time. I would recommend on-line grocery shopping to anyone who wants to try it.
Summer is the perfect time to load up the car for a getaway with the family. Regardless of the destination, you’ll need to eat along the way. The highways are lined with fast food restaurants and gas stations, but that’s about it. Not only are the options at these places high in calories and low in nutrients… they can get expensive too!
At the Drive-Thru:
Fast food restaurants may seem like the inexpensive choice at first. But when the whole family is hungry, it can get pricey. Check out what you could end up spending on one trip through the drive-thru.
- 1 Bacon Cheeseburger Meal (fries and drink included) – $6.49
- 1 Fried Chicken Sandwich Meal (fries and drink included) – $6.19
- 2 Kids Meals- $3.19 each
- Total = $19.06 plus tax
In addition to the cost, meals at fast food places are packed with sodium, fat, and calories. One sandwich can have over 500 calories and 1000 milligrams of sodium and a medium fountain drink can contain a quarter of a cup of sugar.
At the Gas Station:
Gas stations and convenience stores may be quick and easy, but it will be hard to find healthy options.
- 2 bags of chips – $1.99 each
- 2 candy bars – $1.39 each
- 2 sodas – $1.79 each
- 2 bottles of juice -$1.99 each
- Total = $14.32 plus tax
You could spend almost $20 for food that isn’t very filling. It won’t be long before hungry stomachs have you pulling over at another exit.
Even if you find healthy options on the road, you can count on spending more than if you bring food from home. A banana at a gas station costs about $1.00, you could bring 4 bananas from home for the same price.
From Your Cooler:
Take control of your road trip! Fill up a cooler with snacks before you leave. You can choose healthy options, and you’ll save money that you can use for other fun adventures on your trip. Check out this meal:
- 4 turkey sandwiches on whole wheat bread – $5.44
- 2 apples- $1.58
- 2 bananas- $0.38
- 4 low fat cheese sticks- $1.42
- 1 package of baby carrots- $1.28
- Ice water in reusable bottles – FREE
- Total = $10.10
Just like that, you’ve made a meal that keeps everyone full and happy for half the price. You can rest easy on your trip knowing that your family got the nutrition they needed. Now, bring on the open road!
Yes, grocery prices have gone up. Do you wonder if you could eat nutritiously and spend less on food for your family?
If so, our online calculator provides the weekly and monthly amount your family needs to spend for nutritious meals on USDA’s Low-cost Plan. To use the calculator you will need the age, gender, and number of meals eaten away from home for each member of your household. You can also get information about the other three USDA food plans: Thrifty, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal.
How does this amount compare with what you spend? Sometimes it is hard to monitor how much you spend on food each month because we purchase food at numerous places and times throughout the month. Our page about tracking your food expenses can help. This includes some helpful suggestions and questions to ask yourself about your spending habits.
If you decide to you want to spend less on food our website SpendSmart EatSmart is devoted to eating nutritiously on a budget.
I’m all for increasing the amount of vegetables in the diet. Vegetables provide nutrients we can’t get from other foods plus they are low in calories and high in fiber. I also think frozen vegetables are a great value. They are usually flash frozen right after they are picked so they may have more nutrients than fresh vegetables that have spent a long time traveling across the country. Sometimes they are less expensive than fresh vegetables, and they are already cleaned and prepared.
A few years ago manufacturers began selling frozen vegetables that can be microwaved in the bag they are sold in. Microwave steam bag vegetables are supposed to be a healthy solution for those who want to increase their vegetable intake without sacrificing convenience. These “steamers” have gotten so popular that it is hard to find frozen bags of vegetables that are not “steamers”.
I just don’t get why these are so popular!
1) They are more expensive. An ounce of frozen mixed vegetables in the steamer bags in central Iowa cost between $.10 to $.14 an ounce. While the same food in plain plastic bag cost $.08-.09 ounce. (Sometimes the bags cost the same, but the “steamer” bags had only ¾ as much as the plain bags).
2) I can’t see that they save much time or save washing dishes.
a. The advantage of frozen bags of vegetables has always been that you could take out just what you need and put the rest back in the freezer. With “steamer” bags you have to cook the whole bag to get the steamer effect. I think this leads to wasted leftover vegetables.
b. Unless you serve the vegetables in the plastic bag you still have to get a container dirty.
I cook frozen vegetables without the aid of this specialized packaging. All it takes is a microwave safe serving bowl and some ordinary plastic wrap or a lidded microwave-safe container. I put about a cup of vegetables per person in the bowl, add about 1 tablespoon of water, cover and cook on high 2-5 minutes, depending on how much is in the bowl. If you’re unsure how much time is needed, start at two minutes. Keep cooking the vegetables for an additional one minute at a time until hot.
Before you jump on the steaming bag trend, make sure you compare the price per ounce and think about whether it will really save you time.
Whether you are a Broncos fan, Seahawks fan or just watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, you might be pondering what to serve while the big game is on. Consider our Make Your Own Tostadas. They are super economical (about .40 each) and easy. If you prepare the toppings and bake the tostadas the day before or during the pregame you won’t have to be in the kitchen while everyone else is watching the game.
For special occasions like this I like to set up a buffet table so everyone can help themselves. In addition to the tostadas, I would add a big platter of fruit and tray of brownies/cookies. To keep the refried beans warm I would put them in a slow cooker on low. If they get dry, add a little water or tomato juice and stir.
Make Your Own Tostadas
Serving Size: 1 tostada Serves: 10 Cost Per Serving: $.36
- 10 corn tortillas (6-inch)
- Cooking spray
- 1 can (16 ounces) fat free refried beans
- 1/2 cup onion, chopped
- 1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
- Nonfat sour cream
- 1 cup tomato, chopped
- 1/2 cup low fat cheddar cheese, shredded
- 3 cups lettuce, shredded
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Place tortillas in a single layer on baking sheets. Lightly spray with cooking spray. Bake for 5-7 minutes, flip over, and bake 5-7 minutes more until crisp.
- Put refried beans in microwave safe bowl and heat in microwave while tortillas bake. Stir beans so they heat evenly.
- Spread a thin layer of hot beans on baked tortillas.
- Serve with your choice of toppings.
Options Cut tortillas into snack size servings before baking. Use as dippers.
- Wear plastic gloves to handle hot peppers. No gloves? Wash hands with soap and water before touching your face, your cooking utensils, or another person.
- Save extra baked tortillas in an airtight container.
I know it’s time to make soup when my refrigerator, pantry and freezer are getting full of small bags of rice, pasta, meat, beans, and vegetables. I make soup using the ingredients I have on hand without a specific recipe.
This weekend I made ham soup. Saturday I simmered a ham bone with a chopped onion and some celery. I covered the bone and veggies with water, put a lid on the pot and it cooked away for a few hours. Then I removed the bone and vegetables and let the broth cool in the fridge overnight.
On Sunday I spooned off the hardened fat from the top of the broth and started reheating the broth. Then I pulled together a lot of odds and ends to give the soup great flavor and texture:
- A cup of leftover cooked kidney beans
- A cup of leftover ham
- A cup of chopped chicken from the freezer
- Some chopped vegetables (one onion, a cup of baby carrots and 3 small potatoes)
- For seasoning I used one of the spice packets that come with Ramen noodles (leftover from coleslaw when I used the noodles but not the spice).
The friend I had over for dinner loved the soup. She wanted the recipe. Uh-oh. Should I admit she was eating leftovers? Instead I told her I created the soup. I found a great handout from Utah State University Food Sense, Create a Soup which shows how you can make soup from what you have on hand.
Utah also has similar cheat sheets for making casseroles, pizza and fruity desserts from what you have on hand. To see a list of what’s available and links check out the Spend Smart. Eat Smart web page.
Most adults have no idea how many calories they burn in a day, so they don’t realize that a piece of pecan pie that has 500 calories is probably 25% of all the calories they need for a day.
Calories are just a measurement tool, like inches or ounces. They measure the energy a food or beverage provides. Most women burn about 1600 to 2000 calories a day. A pound is equal to 3500 calories. If you consistently eat more calories than you burn through daily living and exercise, you gain weight. Studies show a pound or two gained over the holidays sometimes never comes off again.
If you’d like to get an estimate of how many calories you use in a day based on your age, gender, and activity, check out Super Tracker from USDA. You can also set goals and track activities and calories at this site.
I don’t want to be surprised by the calories in my holiday treats. Below is a chart of some treats and their nutrition information along with links to the restaurants’ nutrition pages. An extra treat like these added to your usual diet, could add a pound in just a week. The cost of these treats varies based on where you live, but each represents extra expense for me during a time of year when I need to keep a careful eye on my budget. When I consider the cost and know the calories, my self-control to make healthy choices is boosted and I can choose the treats I really love and pass by the ones that aren’t that special to me. Many restaurants have incredibly detailed nutrition information online so you can know the facts about your holiday favorites!
White Chocolate Mocha Grande Latte
Raspberry and Cream Muffin
Cranberry walnut Bagel and cream cheese
500 calories per cup add another 100 calories if you add alcohol
Red Velvet Drizzle Donut
I’ve just returned from vacation in North Carolina. One of the things I am grateful for is food prices here in Iowa. We don’t appreciate how good we have it until we shop on either coast for groceries. Since my cupboard was bare, I needed to make a trip to the grocery store. Big surprise, my store finished a renovation while I was gone which includes a much larger produce section, which is great. However, they have also devoted half of an aisle to holiday candy. Halloween candy is hardly gone when the Christmas candy moves in. Add in all the holiday baking and no wonder budgets and weights get out of control at this time of year
We can take different approaches to spending smart and eating smart this time of year. Some sticklers would say “I’m going to diet and make a strict list of how much to spend on every gift” while others pledge to “enjoy the season and eat and spend what I want”. I have used both approaches over the years with insignificant success.
Here’s my list of strategies to enjoy the holidays while keeping my budget and health in check.
1. Keep it simple. We eat and spend more when we have multiple entrees, side dishes and desserts. Let the flavor of the food shine instead of adding lots of ingredients, calories and cost. Serve fresh green beans instead of green bean casserole, roasted sweet potatoes instead of mashed with marshmallows and butter, and fresh vegetable platters instead of rich appetizers.
2. Eat the dishes you want, but take half a portion. You get to enjoy festive holiday flavors with half the calories.
3. Limit eating out. Entertain with a theme such as game/card night; movie night, skating or sledding. Serve soup, crusty bread, and holiday cookies or another simple menu.
4. Make it from scratch. You can make lots of cookies, rolls or quick breads for the same price as a pound of purchased chocolates. Plus you can make your goodies healthier.
- You can alter most recipes by cutting the fat, sugar and salt a little and no one will notice a difference in taste. You can reduce a cup of fat or sugar to 2/3 cup and you can cut the salt by half.
- If you are interested in more ideas for substitutions check out this free publication from Texas A&M Extension, (Altering Recipes for Good Health).
5. Give gifts of food. It’s not too late to make cocoa, tea, or soup mix. I like to give prepared meals that I put in freezer containers.
- I put a whole meal (entrée and sides) in the container for friends and relatives who live alone.
- For young families I make family size entrees and put them in larger containers.
- You can buy inexpensive containers and add a kitchen towel or mixing spoon to complete the gift. I remember years ago I kept this gift going for several months by taking the container home and refilling it for my grandpa.
- Check our post Food Gifts: Give of your time and talent, save dollars for more ideas.