The kitchen table has always been a place where we nourish not only our bodies, but our souls.
Let’s be real people: Times are tough right now and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get a whole lot easier any time soon. But that doesn’t mean we’re stuck eating McDonald’s and Spaghetti-O’s. It has often been said that necessity is the mother of invention – never has this been more true than in kitchens across the globe and throughout history.
This post is going to explore how we can continue the time honored tradition of making great food for cheap in our current economic and social climate. Lean times have always led cooks to find inventive ways to create dishes that are filling, satisfying, simple and delicious. The best foods from around the world are often so-called ‘peasant dishes’ because they were cobbled together from what people had laying around.
In the Old World, country farmhouses in France brought us the likes of Coq Au Vin, Coq Au Riesling, Chicken Dijonnaise and Beef Bourguignon; Italy exported classic dishes like Spaghetti and Meatballs, Classic Marinara Sauce and Linguine Con Le Vongolé; not to mention many ways to prepare the humble chicken in glorious pan sauces: Piccata, Marsala and Parmesan. Spain gave us Paella and Ireland gave us Corned Beef and Cabbage; Scotland the noble Haggis (okay, maybe forget about that last one).
Lest we forget, in the New World in America, as Westward expansion progressed, the culinary landscape progressed with it; from the chuckwagons of the Great American West came chili – made from both beef and chicken. Meanwhile, deep in the steamy bayous of Louisiana a whole culture emerged – Cajun – and with it unique and delicious foods such as jambalaya and gumbo. And how could we fail to mention Barbecue – tough cuts of meat cooked low and slow over smoldering coals, bathed in smoke for hours on end from the Coast of California in Santa Maria to Texas to Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and Alabama.
All this goes to show that with a little planning and a little extra work, it is still possible to eat well and live well despite the financial and economic hardships afflicting millions of Americans today – I’m one of them. I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that it’s tough out there; sometimes it’s scary and there have been times when I’ve had less than 10 bucks in my checking account with pay-day several days off. But so far, I’ve got a roof over my head and my family and I have eaten well even when funds were nearly non-existent.
People have almost always found ways to feed themselves in tough economic times and 21st century America should be no different. Even though we live in an era where income inequality is a real problem and many Americans barely make enough money to pay rent (and it’s only getting worse) we must remember that we are in good company throughout history – and that the kitchen table has always been a place where we nourish not only our bodies, but our souls.
Without further ado, here are a few tips that I humbly offer to you in hopes that, no matter what you’re going through, you will find the time to cook a few times this week thereby eating a little better and saving a little money in the process.
Number 1: Comparison Shop. Download a few apps and don’t be afraid to hit multiple grocery stores to get the best prices. Going to only one grocery store is a sure-fire way to make sure you’re spending too much on groceries. Most major grocery stores have their own apps these days where you can see what is on sale in any given week. Here in California, price changes happen on Wednesdays. There are also several apps out there that let you compare prices across several grocery stores at once – so far, I’ve found Favado to be the most helpful.
Also – all that junk mail you throw away? Look through it to see if there are coupons or advertisements for what might be on sale near you. Be on special lookout for coupons where you get a dollar discount for spending a certain amount (such as $10 off a minimum purchase of $30).
Number 3: Plan ahead and keep your pantry well stocked. Figure out what you are going to do for each meal this week and plan at least one or two meals to generate some leftovers. Make a list of exactly what you need and stick to it. Certain things I always try to keep on hand are: beef and chicken stock, canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, pasta of several sorts, onions, and garlic. When you begin to run low on a certain pantry essential (say, chicken stock), write that down somewhere – I keep a list on a whiteboard in my kitchen.
Number 4: Buying in bulk can save you money. This doesn’t mean that you have to go to the nearest wholesaler such as Costco or Sam’s Club and buy a bunch of stuff you won’t use (hey, look, a twelve pack of watermelons!), but there are a lot of coupons out there where you get a certain dollar amount or percentage off a minimum purchase amount or a quantity discount for buying multiples of something you WILL use. Keep an eye out for those and utilize them.
Number 5: Remember to live a little. Indulging a little bit on a few simple pleasures can actually save you money and improve your quality of life. Treat yourself to some cheese or some nuts once in a while before dinner as well as a beer or an inexpensive glass of wine; not only is there something very pleasant about having a bit to drink and some light appetizers before dinner (or while making dinner), you won’t come to the table so ravenous that you overeat and spoil any chances of having enough leftovers to form a complete meal later on. Believe it or not, there are many perfectly serviceable table wines out there for less than $5 a bottle, especially at Trader Joe’s and Aldi. Try a few of them and figure out which ones don’t suck. You can also find some pretty decent beers at Trader Joe’s and Aldi.
All in all, remember this: The best food in the world came from places and times of scarcity. It doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive to be good. You are not alone in the world – and sometimes, all it takes to remember that fact is gathering around the kitchen table on a cold night with family or a few friends to share a light pasta dish tossed in a simple sauce, a rustic hunk of bread, a wedge of cheese, and a glass or two of rough red wine.