Think your food dollar doesn't go as far as it used to? You're right. In fact, for many people, rising food costs are creating a significant household hardship. It would be one thing if skyrocketing costs meant that we needed to forgo extravagant delicacies at the family dinner table. Unfortunately, staples like bread, milk, cereal, meat, poultry, and eggs are hardest hit.
There are a number of reasons for the crunch, including oil prices that cause the cost of food production and transportation to rise significantly. It's also a factor that corn prices have more than doubled and soybean prices nearly tripled recently, thanks in part to the boost in ethanol and biodiesel. Weather disasters have devastated some crops, and a weak U.S. dollar and high global demand for food all figure into the higher bottom line.
The outlook for food prices isn't promising, but that doesn't mean you need to sacrifice at the dinner table. While you may need to make some minor adjustments in your menu planning, shopping, and cooking habits, there's no need to forgo either flavor or health while tightening your food budget. In fact, by stocking up on some basic staples, seasonal produce, and spices, you can serve your family meals that are delicious, healthful, and frugal.
* Stock and season those staples! Not only are basic, natural foods—like whole grains and beans—inexpensive, they're versatile. Take rice, for example: flavor with basil, garlic, and ginger, and serve as a bed for in-season veggies. Or cook leftover rice with black pepper, chives, carrots, peas, an egg and soy sauce for quick and easy fried rice. Use it as the basis of a vegetable, meat, seafood, or poultry casserole, seasoned liberally with a favorite spice, like marjoram, or gently with a more pungent spice like cilantro or cayenne. Make rice burgers by combining the cooked rice with shredded cheese, an egg, garlic andoregano. Toss small amounts in your cup of soup or stew, along with a pinch of cumin, or make a lively tarragon rice salad. And stir up some aromatic rice pudding, flavored withcinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla extract.
Experiment with other grains (like millet, quinoa, and barley), and take a similar approach with beans. Make a big batch of a favorite bean and use it to make casseroles, soups and stews, stir-fries, veggie burgers and loaves. Toss on salads and blend to make dips and spreads—all liberally seasoned with spices for maximum flavor.
* Enhance your standard fare. You may already be serving the most economical foods but be feeling less than inspired by the same-old, same-old. If that's the case, turn to your spice rack. Become a "seasoned chef" by learning which spices go best with which foods—from produce to grains and beans, from sandwiches to side salads and from soups and casseroles to hot breakfast cereals and desserts.
A simply stir fry, for example —made with seasonal produce and a favorite, inexpensive grain—is easily transformed into a special dish with a variety of spices. Serve it seasoned with Thai seasonings like coriander and cloves, for example, or with a Mexican mix of chili powder and garlic, oregano and cumin. Or use Indian seasonings, like garam masala, and you've transformed the dish once again. Even ordinary omelets and whole-grain pasta dishes (both healthful and inexpensive choices) can easily be enlivened with an array of spices. And don't forget leftovers! Re-seasoned and served when the clock is ticking too quickly, leftovers can prevent costly (and often unhealthful) food expenditures.