If you’re trying to cut your family’s grocery budget, there’s a target as big as a barn:
Meat. We Americans tend to eat a lot of it, and the price isn’t going down anytime soon. According to the federal government beef and pork prices in 2011 and 2012 were up as much as 8 to 10 percent over 2010.
With summer cookout season starting, you might want to step away from that case full of steaks. Even hamburger is starting to look pricy at 4 bucks a pound.
So how do you trim the budget? Turn back to the basics: Shop sales, buy in bulk and figure out ways to use it all.
As a chef-instructor who teaches meat-cutting at Johnson & Wales University, Paul Malcolm is used to slicing up prime cuts. But at home, it’s a little different: He’s got three kids, ages 5, 7 and 9, and a wife who is working on her doctorate.
“My wife is a super coupon user,” he says. “She is awesome. She finds what’s good (on sale), she brings it home and I turn it into something else.”
They like to cook large batches and then find a way to turn it into other meals, he says.
“I might grill a bunch of chicken, and one night it’s chicken tacos and one night it’s chicken salad. There’s always a bargain on two, if you buy two packages.”
Diane Mitchiner’s job is helping people stretch really tight budgets. As a mentor-advocate for Pan-Lutheran Ministries Families Together, a Raleigh program that helps homeless people get into housing, she counsels people on how to get the most from their food dollars.
She starts with three things: Coupons, sales and buying in bulk. The first two are easy, she says, but it’s harder to get the message across on buying in bigger quantities.
With people who are struggling to make ends meet, the cost can be scary, she says.
“They’re going to see that until you sit down and say, ‘Let’s look at this – look at the number of meals you’re going to get.’ But once they get it, they got it,” she says.
Mitchiner grew up in a family where they stretched everything. Her grandmother would add a little ground-up bread and an egg to ground beef.
“You’ve got 10 burgers instead of six and you couldn’t tell it was in there. Bread never got old enough to throw out in our house.”
One trick to buying in bulk is making the most of the storage space. Paul Malcolm cuts up chickens and puts them in plastic freezer bags, then dunks the bag in a pot of water. The pressure of the water squeezes out any air in the bag.
Mitchiner’s clients often live in apartments without room for a stand-alone freezer. So she teaches them to use quart-size freezer bags and roll them out flat after filling them, to press out all the air.
“You can get more use out of your freezer if you get organized on what you have in there,” she says.
Versatile pot roast
Just because you’re looking for buys doesn’t mean you can’t get good-quality meat, says Malcolm. Just look for things other people may not use in summer. For instance, people stop buying chuck roast when it isn’t pot roast season.
He rubs it with a barbecue dry rub and then smokes it slowly over indirect heat on the grill for 4 to 6 hours. Then he wraps it in plastic wrap and foil and puts it in a 300-degree oven for 4 hours.
“Until it is what I call spoon tender. And that I can freeze in batches.”
Malcolm teaches students to look at beef itself rather than the grade of meat.
“Look for the marbling,” he says. “The marbling is going to be finely disseminated lines. Not chunks of fat, you want nice lines. The more even that is, the more quality it has.”
Harriet Baucom of Union County would agree with branching out to use other cuts of beef. Her ranch, Baucom’s Best, raises cattle and chickens they sell at farmers markets.
In the summer, she likes to branch out, too. She’ll slow-cook a brisket, which can feed a lot of people, or she’ll use less-tender sirloin for kebabs. Chicken legs are easy to grill and they’re usually half the cost of chicken breasts.
Even a rancher can appreciate the need to do without so much meat, she says.
“More vegetables, less protein. Instead of an 8-ounce burger, make a 6-ounce burger and put more lettuce and tomato on it.
“You don’t need to have a big, honking burger.”
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