The economy has become a topic of idle conversation like never before. No longer do acquaintances need to begin with the weather or weekend plans when there are major market fluctuations to discuss.
Though dinner planning typically centers around other markets, the economy is having an increasingly wide-spread affect on people’s food choices.
It can take a little time to re-orient your food thinking and planning, but these tips make you more creative without limit you too much at all. Here are five characteristics of dollar-saving dinners to incorporate into meal planning:
1. In stock
When taking the time to re-organize (or even just riffle through) kitchen cabinets, you might be shocked at how much food there is. Some could probably get by for at least a month or two on what is already in their kitchen – even longer if you add in a farm share. When you plan out menus for dinner, force yourself to base what you're cooking around what you already have. Not only is this saving dollars, but tons of time on shopping and menu-planning.
2. From scratch
Forbes magazine recently put out an article on the cost of laziness. Buying prepared or pre-packaged food in the grocery store or from a restaurant is probably one of the most clear ways that most Americans are letting go of large chunks of unnecessary change. You can put together a tasty and exotic Indian dinner using rice lentils from the pantry and some vegetables from the freezer without spending ANY money. With mixes from the grocery store or prepared items for a nearly restaurant, that same meal would have easily come to $25 – $60 dollars.
3. In season
“In season” also means “in abundance.” For the month or so when strawberries and blueberries are ready, they crowd the shelves and bins of New England groceries at almost half the regular price, and lucky folks return from berry picking with huge flats of berries for only ten or twenty dollars (that same amount would probably run your $40+ at the store). Even just driving along major routes outside the city (not route 2 or 95, but roads like route 9 or 20) will turn up innumerable road-side produce stands hawking freshly picked berries, corn, squash and even home-baked pies! Knowing what produce, mushrooms, and even which fish and meat are in season will help you take advantage of the increased supply that is flooding the market and lowering prices.
4. In bulk
Though it can be very artful and satisfying to make beautiful individual portions of garnished soups or fish cooked in parchment, it clearly takes more time. Somewhat surprisingly, these individualized dishes also cost more money. It is much cheaper and faster to get a large cut of meat or fish (on sale or from the nearest store), than individual, equally-sized portions, and you save on those fancier garnish items. The extra bonus: yummy leftovers will save you from buying lunch or dinner out the next day.
No, this is not because Oprah just profiled the meat industry in Food, Inc. Meat is a luxury and it is expensive. It has been since the dawn of hunting and currency (respectively). However, we as a society have become so used to eating meat every day, sometimes with several meals, that we has largely lost consciousness of this concept. As far as proteins go, you can make an equal sized portion of lentil for pennies on the dollar compared with meat. Even eggs are a much more economical option. You may gasp at the thought of preparing a vegetarian meal or think that your guests might grumble at the lack of a meat dish. But when the food is elegantly and deliciously prepared, you’ll be surprised how likely it is that they won’t even notice.
A version of this article originally appeared on The 30 Minute Dinner Party.