Spend Smart and Eat Smart for the Holidays

young girl drinking mugI’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.

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.
    • corn chip chiliFor 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.

Peggy Signature

 

What is the best-selling food at big stores like Wal-Mart?

bananas

Did you guess bananas?  I was surprised when I learned bananas are also the world’s best-selling fruit. Bananas are an excellent source of potassium and magnesium plus they are usually inexpensive. You get about 3 bananas for a pound depending on the size. Here in Iowa bananas have been 44 to 59 cents per pound which means they cost 15 to 20 cents each. Last week at my store you could buy bags of ripe bananas for 19 cents per pound which means they would cost about 8 cents each. That’s a really good deal IF they don’t spoil before you use them.

Since bananas are so popular we created three videos with helpful banana tips and a one page tip sheet to go with each one. Check them out!

1. Choose great bananas  Bananas are a popular fruit. Depending how you use them you may want to choose bananas at various stages of ripeness. To learn more about this topic, download the tip sheet (PDF): here

2. Make the most of your bananas Bananas are the most popular fruit in the United States. Learn new ways to include bananas in your meals and snacks. To learn more about this topic, download the tip sheet (PDF): here

3. Store bananas A ripe banana will last will last less than a week on the counter. So how can you best store bananas? Learn some options so your bananas don’t go to waste. To learn more about this topic, download the tip sheet (PDF): here

Peggy Signature

 

Homemade Baby Food Using Fall Produce – Yum!

baby foodI enjoyed making baby food for both of my children, and I made most of it in the fall – a great time of year to make homemade baby food. Here are some reasons to give homemade baby food a try (especially in the fall):

  • It is inexpensive. This week at my local grocery store, I found squash for $0.59 per pound. That is a bargain!  I found pre-made squash baby food for $1.09 for two servings.
  • It tastes fresh. Both of my children preferred the fresh taste of homemade baby food to pre-made baby food.
  • It is in season. Fruits and vegetables that are in season in the fall make perfect first fruits and vegetables for baby. These include apples, pears, squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and carrots.  No matter when you choose to make baby food, choose produce that is in season for the best price and freshness.
  • It is easy. Homemade baby food can be just as convenient as store bought if you make a few batches at one time and store it in the freezer.
  • It is fun. I enjoy cooking for my family, and making some of the first foods my babies ate is a great memory for me.

If you have a baby, or if you have a friend or family member with a baby, consider using some wonderful fall fruits and vegetables to make some homemade baby food.  Join my daughter, Eliza, and I as we make some homemade sweet potato baby food in this video.

Justine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Frozen Fruit Cups

Frozen Fruit cupsOne of these days the weather is going to turn warm and sunny and we are all going to be busting out of the house to enjoy gardening, walking, biking, soccer, picnics, and much more. When that time comes, I won’t want to spend time in the kitchen. I’m prepared with plans for some 15 minute meals plus meals in the freezer I can just thaw and serve.

A fruit salad, like our Frozen Fruit Cups, is great this time of year because berries are in season. I usually double or triple the Frozen Fruit Cup recipe, serve it for a meal, and freeze what is left in muffin cups. It tastes very fresh plus it’s low in calories.

The only thing tricky about this recipe is remembering when to get it out of the freezer. You want it to be slightly frozen when you serve it.

Frozen Fruit Cups

Serving Size:  ½ cup | Servings:  6

 

IngredientsFoodProSQL PDF File

2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced

1 medium to large banana, sliced (about 6 ounces)

2 kiwi, sliced

2 teaspoons sugar

 

Directions

1. Mix strawberries with sugar in a bowl. Let sit 20-30 minutes while strawberries make juice.

2. Peel and slice banana and kiwi, add to strawberries.

3. Scoop ½ cup of the mixture into each of six muffin cups lined with paper.

4. Freeze. Remove from freezer about 20-30 minutes before serving.

 

Tips:

• 2 cups sliced frozen strawberries can be used and may be less expensive in the winter.
• Freeze ahead. Store fruit cups in a plastic freezer container.  They will keep several weeks in the freezer.
• Use other fruits your family enjoys such as mango or melon.
• Fruit cups can be made in small cups, custard cups, or small bowls.

Peggy Signature

Go Green in the Kitchen

Many of the ways we recycle, reuse, and reduce to save energy can also save us money.  While I don’t think of myself as an extreme recycler, I found that I already do many of the suggestions in the two articles below.  Check them out—you might get an idea that will save you some pennies and reduce your energy use:

Save Green and Go Green in the Kitchen is a list from the Canned Food Alliance and 8 Ways to Go Green in Your Kitchen is from WedMD.

I see people using reusable grocery bags frequently when I shop. Just last week I went to a grocery store in Maryland with a friend. At the stores she shops at you have to pay for plastic or paper sacks, but if you bring your own, you get a discount of 5 to 10 cents. Most people brought sacks with them.

My concern about reusable bags is food safety. Researchers at University of Arizona and Loma Linda University asked shoppers going into grocery stores if they washed those reusable bags.  97% reported they do not regularly, if ever, wash the bags.  In addition 75% said they don’t use separate bags for meats and for vegetables, and about a third said they used the bags for carrying and storing all sorts of things like books, clothes, shoes, etc.

The researchers tested 84 of the bags for bacteria and found bacteria in all the bags except for one. The good news is that machine or hand washing reduced bacteria levels to almost nothing.

It’s a good idea to designate a bag for meat and poultry.  When meat or poultry juices touch food that will not be cooked such as fruits and vegetables, you have the potential for cross contamination and foodborne illness. Any type of reusable grocery bag should be hand or machine washed in warm to hot, soapy water at least once a week, and always after a spill. This will keep them clean and reduce the risk of cross contamination.

 

Happy Recyling!

The Basics of Kitchen Organization

In the last few days, I’ve been reading a lot about organizing kitchens and how kitchen organization relates to saving money.  The three common themes I found are listed below:

1. Create “centers” in your kitchen around common activities. Common activities include: food storage, cooking and serving, cleanup, planning/messages, and eating. The idea of centers is that you group all the items that will be used on a task close to each other. For instance silverware, plates, and glasses,  are stored close to the dishwasher or drying area so you can just stand and put them away rather than carrying them across the room. Baking ingredients including flour, sugar,  leavening, and baking tools are grouped together in another location for a baking center.

I thought I was doing pretty well creating “centers” but I made a couple of changes that I think will help my organization. I moved my rolls of foil, plastic wrap, and plastic bags directly across from the refrigerator so I can easily prepare foods for the refrigerator or freezer. I included marking pens to write what is in them plus the date (so as not to have more UFO-unidentified food objects).

I moved my colander and cutting boards under the sink. To make room for them, I moved the vases and plant care items that I won’t use until spring to a box in the garage.

2. Get rid of items you are not using. The old rule about getting rid of clothes you haven’t worn also applies to serving dishes, utensils, and small appliances: If you haven’t used it in a year you probably don’t need it. I was ashamed of my cooking utensil drawer so I decided to do what all the experts say: lay everything out, clean, remove duplicates, remove items you do not use, and remove items that belong somewhere else. I like the results of my work and I think I can keep it in order now that the drawer isn’t so full.

Utensil Drawer Before
Utensil Drawer After
Removed From Drawer

3. Store the items you use the most between your shoulders and knees and in the front where they will be visible.  This way, it is easy to find what you are looking for and quick to put items away.  I moved my flour and sugar canisters to the bottom cupboard instead of using prime space in my top cupboard because I don’t bake every day.  In their place, I put the coffee filters, tea bags, and travel cups that I use often.

I am happy with the changes I made. I think it will make food preparation and clean up faster and less stressful. The key, of course, will be if I can follow through and put things back where they belong.

If you would like to read more on this subject, here are 2 great resources:

Essential Kitchen Tool kit This kit from the Canned Food Alliance has great tips on kitchen organization.

Dealing with Clutter in the Kitchen This page is part of a website that includes ideas for clutter reduction all over the house

Next week: How to organize your pantry and how to tell if food is still good.

How much do YOU spend on food a week?

Last week I showed a group of nutrition professionals features of the SpendSmart.EatSmart web page including the Cost of Food at Home calculator. You put in the number, age, and gender of your family members and the number of meals eaten away from home.  The calculator then tells you how much your family would spend at the grocery store according to the low-cost food plan.

I commented that while people know what they spend for their rent or house payment, car payment, etc. most people don’t know how much they spend on food.  This is because we buy food at many different places and times during the month.  Plus the more people in a family, the more places and more times we buy.    In the discussion that followed, many in the group agreed with me that they did not know what they spent on food….they just bought what they needed.  However, there were 2 or 3 who said that they did know what they spent.   These 2 or 3 had young families and indicated that they were trying to stretch their money for many different priorities.  This confirms my belief that when money is tight we pay attention to what and where we are spending so we can make a plan to reduce expenses.

The discussion prompted me to explore my own food costs.  Since I track my expenses on a computer and I use a debit card for almost all my food buying and eating out I have a pretty good tracking system.  From February 1-May 31 (4 months) I ate meals out 59 times at different restaurants for a total of $334*. I spent $759 on groceries so my food total was $1104.

Figuring I eat out between 3 and 4 times a week, the computer tells me the cost of food at the grocery store should be between$744 and $788.  My cost of $759 means that what I am spending at the grocery store is right in line with the low-cost plan.

We all know that eating out costs more than eating at home.  After all, we are paying for someone else to select, prepare, serve and clean up. My records show this is true for me.  If I would have eaten all my food at home the Cost of Food at Home calculator tells me that I could have purchased all the food I need for good health for $230 per month or $924 for the 4 months.  I spent $180 more than that ($1104-$924 = $180).   That $180 is money I could spend somewhere else if I wanted to give up eating out.

The first step in cutting food costs is to know how much and where you are spending your money now.  Learn how to track your spending on the SpendSmart.EatSmart web site in the Planning section under What you Spend Now.

*this does not count the times I paid for guest’s meals or work meals that were reimbursed

June Featured Recipe-Vegetable Fried Rice

I’m ready for some sunshine and warm weather so I can work and play outside.  This means that meals have to be extra quick and easy.  Vegetable Fried Rice is one of my “Go To” recipes.  It’s super easy, costs about $.70 a serving, very versatile and I almost always have everything I need.

The recipe calls for thawed frozen vegetables.  But if you have fresh vegetables on hand they will work great.  Just cut them in to small pieces and cook them with the onions and garlic until they are tender.  Then add the rice and soy sauce.  The eggs in this dish provide the protein, but if you have some left over grilled meat you can substitute it for the eggs.

Soy sauce is high in sodium.  Brands do vary, but a tablespoon is around 900 mg.  I buy only low-sodium soy sauce now and use it sparingly because it is still around 600 mg a tablespoon.  To lower the sodium in regular soy sauce just dilute it half and half with water.

A glass of milk and a piece of fruit and you’ve got all the food groups.

Vegetable Fried Rice

Ingredients

  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion (about 1/2 onion)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3 cups cooked brown rice (instant or regular)
  • 2 cups frozen vegetables, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
  • Pepper (optional)

Instructions

  1. Spray a deep 12-inch skillet with cooking oil spray and place over medium heat.
  2. Pour the lightly beaten eggs into the skillet; cook without stirring until eggs are completely cooked, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the eggs to a plate and cut into strips; set aside.
  3. Return the skillet to the burner and add the oil. Heat to medium high and add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened.
  4. Stir in the rice, vegetables, and soy sauce. Heat through, stirring occasionally.
  5. Add the egg strips and heat through. Sprinkle with pepper, if desired, before serving.

 

Feed 50 People for $50!

Need recipes that will feed a crowd (e.g. a club, relatives, or a post-event gathering) for $50 or under?

Stacia Sanny and our nutrition staff in Polk County used the menu below to serve 50 people at a get acquainted activity.  We wanted to recruit families and show volunteers at the First Assembly of God Church in Des Moines about EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program).

The recipes are on the SpendSmart EatSmart recipe page except for the Garden Salad.  You could substitute carrot/celery sticks for that.  The recipes are easy to multiply to match your group size.

  • 3 Can Chili.  Cans of beans, corn and tomatoes with chili powder.  Reduce the sodium by using frozen corn if you like. To go really inexpensive, cook dry beans instead of using canned.
  • Splendid Fruit Salad.  For 50 people you would probably use 25-30 fruits.
  • Garden Salad (lettuce mix out of a bag, chopped tomatoes and carrots, dressing)
  • Pumpkin Apple Cake.   Two cakes will do it.  Sprinkle with powdered sugar if you want. 

Here’s what Stacia reported after the event.
We received wonderful comments. They loved the cake . . . and couldn’t believe that it was considered a healthy snack. We multiplied the recipes about 13 times (chili and fruit salad). We actually had leftovers. The chili was so easy — and the fact that you could see vegetables in it already made it different than normal chili. The recipe uses corn besides the usual tomatoes and meat.

We had a number of people ask for the recipes so they could make them at home!

pointers from Peggy

Can a Vegetable Garden Save You Money?

That’s the title of an article by Cindy Haynes, Extension Horticulturalist. Her answer was “yes” if done correctly. She goes on to quote a book about $64 tomatoes. 

We laugh in my family about the “$10,000” garden that my sisters and Dad share. It has high fences to keep out the deer, cement borders, table and benches, and a shed for storing equipmentplus it is connected to the yard irrigation system. We grow several varieties of tomatoes and peppers as well as peas, green beans, zucchini, onions, radishes, cucumbers, rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries, and lettuce in the garden. We have grown white and sweet potatoes, winter squash, melons, broccoli, and eggplant. I don’t think anyone keeps track of what they spend on the garden, but I do know that the garden supplies all of us (and many friends) with loads of fresh, delicious fruits and veggies. Besides enjoying “the fruit of our labors,” the garden provides hours of discussion and shared activity.

If you are new to gardening, I strongly recommend that you start small as Cindy recommends. I had container gardens for years and enjoyed tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, et cetera which grew on the patio. Cindy’s article includes a list of ISU publications you can get at your county ISU Extension office, or you may download a pdf version from the ISU Extension Online Store.

-pointers from Peggy

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