Organics

One of the issues that often comes up for personal chefs is how to get the most bang for the buck on food. And, of course, it’s just as true for clients and cooking class students. As a food writer, I get asked this question all the time, so I thought I’d pull together some ideas that may resound with you and that you can share with clients. Even if you do the lion’s share of cooking for them, it can’t hurt for those who are interested to have some tips for how to spend food money wisely–and reduce waste. While this can entail a healthy dose of frugality, we’re not talking coupon clipping here–and it doesn’t mean there isn’t room to splurge. It’s just a matter of knowing how to make the best decisions based on eating habits, budget, and health concerns. Sometimes a little splurging is actually good for you and not reckless, especially if you’re balancing it with cost-savings in other places.

Some of these ideas are really obvious (especially if you’re a chef) but are things we tend to forget or let slide, so I’ve included them here for you or to share with clients and students. And, if you have suggestions of your own, let’s hear them with a comment below! Share your knowledge so we can all benefit!

Olive oils

Where to Splurge:

  1. Buy good cuts of meat, only in smaller portions. I like to go to Whole Foods and buy a small piece of Wagyu skirt steak to grill. It doesn’t cost much but it’s delicious. When it comes to pork, I enjoy the richness of Berkshire pork, which you can find at a quality butcher.
  2. Buy good quality olive oil for finishing, sauces, and dressings. When heat is involved–sautéing, frying, etc., less expensive vegetable oil is fine–often preferable–but use good quality olive oil for the flavor. Also try avocado oil for flavor finishes, too. Remember to store oil in a dark, cool place to maintain quality, but don’t hoard it since it will go rancid or just lose the intensity of its flavor.
  3. Buy roasted chickens and use them to help you make other meals faster–like tacos or soup. Save the bones and unused meat for making stock.
  4. Buy organic produce, but if you have to prioritize, go with produce without a thick peel you don’t eat – lettuce, berries, etc. as opposed to avocados. Here’s a list of the “dirty dozen”–produce you should spend those organic dollars on.
  5. Buy vanilla beans, but only to use when the vanilla flavor is the star in the dessert. Store the beans in vanilla extract to impart more flavor to the extract, or store the beans in a bowl of sugar.
  6. Buy small pieces of good cheese. Buy chunks of parmesan or cheddar or mozarella, not pre-grated. If you have a food processor you can easily grate the cheese if you need large quantities.
  7. Invest in good basic kitchen tools: knives, graters, peelers, and salad spinners. It makes cooking much easier and may encourage you to do more if you’re not fighting your ingredients. And take care of them. Make sure your knives are well sharpened.

Parmegiano Reggiano

Where to Budget:

  1. Buy whole chickens instead of parts and cut them up yourself. Double wrap and store pieces in freezer. Be sure to mark the package with what the item is and the date so you can use it before it gets freezer burn. Also, dark meat is less expensive and has more flavor. Save parts like the back, wings, drumsticks and use them to make stock.
  2. Don’t buy skinless, boneless chicken packages. If you’re not going to buy a whole chicken, it is cheaper to buy the whole parts and remove the skin and bones yourself. If you see bulk packages of chicken parts (skin and bones intact), buy them and divide into meal-sized portions and freeze.
  3. Buy cheaper cuts of meat, like lamb shoulder instead of loin for chops, or pork butt–basically cuts in which you’re talking about muscle. The meat will be tougher but you can do a nice slow cook or braise to make the meat more tender and flavorful. These cheap cuts are the best for stews and soups as well. And don’t buy pre-cut “stewing meat.” Buy the whole piece and cut it yourself so that you have pieces that are the same size and will cook evenly. You’ll save money and get a better result in your dish.
  4. Eliminate meat from your diet two or three times a week and instead make dishes with beans, rice, lentils, and other grains or legumes. Experiment with quinoa, couscous, farro, wheat berries, polenta and other grains. Try using whole wheat pasta. Use meat to flavor dishes, not as the centerpiece of the meal.
  5. Don’t buy pre-packaged produce. Peel your own carrots, wash and chop your own lettuce. The only exception may be spinach, which is a real pain to clean.
  6. Buy bags of popcorn kernels instead of packaged flavored popcorn and pop it yourself.
  7. Buy produce that’s in season and have a plan for it (i.e., menus) so it doesn’t spoil. Also think of ways to use the whole fruit or vegetable. Beet tops, parsnip tops, and other root vegetable greens are delicious steamed or sautéed. They can also be included in stock. Stick brown bananas in the freezer to use later for banana bread or to make a smoothie.
  8. Jars of dried herbs are pricey and often lose their flavor sitting on the shelf exposed to light. Instead, plant herbs, even in pots. Rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, basil, mint (always plant mint in a pot because it spreads fast) are easy to grow.
  9. If you have room in your freezer, store flour, sugar, beans, etc. in there so you don’t have to toss food because bugs got into the container.
  10. Make your own convenience foods. If you’re cooking, make enough for two meals. Make large pots of soup or stew and freeze it in serving-size containers. You can do the same with chicken or proteins other than fish. Welcome to your new frozen food dinners.
  11. Make your own pizza. Dough is easy to make and can be frozen. Then it’s just a matter of grating cheese and having your own combination of toppings. Instead of tomato sauce, use sliced tomatoes and fresh basil.
pizza before cooking with pesto, tomatoes, black garlic

Pizza with pesto, tomatoes, and black garlic before baking

12. Learn a couple of cooking techniques that can give you flexibility in making quick meals. For instance, you can quickly brown chicken parts in a large Dutch oven on the stove, add layers of sliced onion, garlic, olives, artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, etc. with herbs, a dash of wine or stock, cover and cook in the oven at 350 for about an hour. Make rice or other grains and you’ve got your meal. Alternately, use diced tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini for a different flavor combo. Make roasted tomato soup and the next night add seafood to the soup with a few slices of lemon. Now you have cioppino. Do you enjoy the flavors from roasting vegetables? You can turn any combination of roasted vegetables into a quick and easy soup. And, that goes for leftovers.The leftovers from the roasted squash you served with chicken one night can be added to stock, simmered and then pureed to make soup the next night.

Roasted peppers

Roasted peppers

Roasted red pepper soup

Roasted red pepper soup

In the Market:

  1. Have a plan. Make a list. Check your calendar to see when you’ll actually be home to eat. A lot of the produce and dairy you buy gets tossed away because you don’t use it before it goes bad. Knowing how you’ll use what you buy and that you’ll be able to eat it will prevent you from wasting money.
  2. Shop the store’s perimeter–that’s where the produce, meat and dairy tend to be. The middle aisles, with the cookies, prepared foods, and snacks are the most dangerous and expensive places in the store. Stick with your list.
  3. Shop ethnic markets. You’ll find interesting, even unusual produce, often for less than the big chain supermarkets. If you don’t know what an item is or how to prepare it, ask someone who works in the store or a fellow customer. I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful recipes that way. And, I’ve found great deals on duck legs, lamb, fish, and other items at ethnic markets.
  4. Again, buy produce that’s in season. If there’s a great deal on a particular vegetable you enjoy, buy in quantity. You can use it to make soup; you can even freeze it. And, it’s less expensive than buying packages of frozen vegetables. If Roma tomatoes are on sale and you like tomatoes, buy several pounds, slice them in half lengthwise, drizzle with olive oil and roast. Romas have a hearty texture but they don’t have great flavor; roasting brings out the sugars. Roasted tomatoes are perfect for soup, pasta sauce and cioppino. And you can freeze them.
  5. If you like to shop farmers markets but find them too pricey, try shopping at the end of the market. Sometimes farmers will give shoppers a deal so they don’t have to schlep inventory back.
  6. If you’re single, go in with friends on deals for bulk purchases when buying at Costco, CSAs, etc.
  7. Become friends with your butcher and your produce guy/gal. They can direct you to good deals, tell you about the product,  and offer suggestions on how to use it. If you feel like making stock from scratch, ask your butcher if he/she can give you beef or lamb bones. Roast the bones, add onion, garlic, root vegetables, salt and pepper and, of course, water, to a big pot. In a couple of hours you’ve got stock for making a lot of different meals. Package them in one-cup and quart containers so you can add a little or add a lot to make soup or a stew. And don’t forget to mark them so you know what the container is and how old.

butchering

What are your favorite strategies for smart food purchases? Where do you splurge? Where do you save?

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Caron Golden

About 

Founder of premier organization of personal chefs inspires students to follow their dreams of culinary entrepreneurship.

Candy Wallace, executive director of the American Personal & Private Chef Association (APPCA), today was recognized by Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies as its 33rd Distinguished Guest Chef.

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