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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mama Masha's Kitchen - Shop smarter, not harder

This is going to be a little bit backward. We have talked already, what to do with food, once it hits your kitchen. Now we are going to talk about getting it there.

Many of my friends are on a tight budget these days. Some lost their jobs, some had unexpected home repairs, some – health problems. In many cases, there is hardly anything left in the bank, after all the mandatory bills are paid. Which brings us to two essential questions:

1) Do you include your groceries when you calculate the upcoming bills for the month?

2) How often and how do you shop?

Let's face it, we all have to eat. There are no if's or but's about it. So, to answer the first question, if you are not currently including your groceries into the upcoming expenses, you really should. Keeping a good record of all your expenses is helpful anyway. If by the end of the month you find yourself having anxiety attacks over how to feed your family before the next paycheck or unemployment check comes in, that is a very strong signal to you to start getting a handle on your budget.

Before the beginning of the next month, do the following:

1) Set up either a handwritten or an electronic ledger. I have one in Excel format, and it includes one tab with all my transaction information: the date, who it was due, the amount, the balance after the transaction and the category (food, utilities, mortgage, etc.) It's a slightly more comprehensive version of the transaction registry you get from the bank when you order your checks.

2) Record your income (after taxes) as a positive number. If you are the person in charge of the family accounting, but both you and your spouse contribute to the expenses, include both contributions.

3) Record your upcoming bills for the month as negative numbers – you should know those amounts pretty well by now from the statements you get from your service providers. Include groceries – it's ok if you err on the side of too much.

Once you are done, your ledger for the month should look something like this.

Obviously, the amounts may vary, but you get the idea. Whatever is left once you have subtracted food, rent, debt and utilities is what you have available on other stuff: clothes, emergencies, savings (strongly recommended) and whatever else you can think of. Your month-end balance becomes the starting balance for the next month, and so on.

Setting this up in a spreadsheet, like Excel or Open Office Calculate (incidentally, did you know Open Office was free?) allows you to move things around and play with amounts to get a clear idea what you have going in and going out. It also makes it easier to add an extra row, in case you forgot something. Note “risk points” - that is, the time of month when you get close to hitting zero. Be very, very aware of those – they are your main stressors.

As you look at the grocery schedule, you see two trips – one at the beginning of the month, a kind of light one, and then one further in, about halfway between paychecks that is a more substantial one. This brings us to the next question: how often and how you shop? Do you find yourself throwing things out a lot? Do you get home from the store and suddenly realize you have to go back, because you forgot that one thing? Do you go to pick up a bottle of milk, a pack of chicken and two boxes of cereal, and end up spending three times the amount you intended and coming home with armfuls of bags.

I am all for being fun and spontaneous and have some surprise foods for your family. However, you have to discipline yourself to earn the right to splurge. And that means planning and exercising control over your spending and your eating habits.

Tool number 1 in achieving grocery success is one of the oldest in the book – the shopping list. Get a cute refrigerator magnet and stick a pen and a sheet of paper on your fridge door. As you notice something getting low, put it on the list. Before going to the grocery store, check things that are out of site and can be easily missed: the cabinets where you keep your dry and canned goods, your freezer, your crisper, the dog and cat food and litter containers, etc. Learn to figure out how long stuff lasts and to figure out whether you need to get it this time, or whether it will last another 10 days or so.

Engage your family in compiling the list. If they – especially your kids – are reluctant to contribute, let them know that this means they don't get a say in what meals you make. Educate the little ones that “jelly, candy, cookies, mac-n-cheese” does not a shopping list make. It's a good start, mind you, but hardly a comprehensive meal-maker.

Once you have compiled the list, stick to it! If at all possible, leave the kids at home to avoid spontaneous (“But mo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-om!”) cookie and candy purchases. Do not shop hungry, if you can help it. Carry an apple or a food bar in your bag if you don't have time to sit down and have a decent snack before you go. But do something – I have shopped hungry, and it is lethal. It's even worse, if you shop with your spouse and both of you are hungry.

Step number 2 is to stock up on things that will keep. Of course we all like fresh stuff. But, sadly, it all has an expiration day and can be a real budget killer. So, think of your foods as short-term and long-term ones. Relax, stuff that can be stored up and kept longer does not mean preservatives and other scary chemicals. It's really not that bad. Survey your kitchen cabinets and allocate a space for stuff that will keep. If you have a pantry – that's a great place. If you don't – be creative. We don't have a pantry and our kitchen is tiny and barely has any cabinet space at all, so we keep some stuff on top of the cabinets in nice-looking containers.

Here is a list of stuff you can stock up on without running a risk of not eating it in time:

• Pasta – you can get more than one kind, and there are organic varieties available made of healthier grains.

• Rice – get white or brown or both. It's good for you!

• Canned fruits and veggies – look for stuff that is canned in its own juice without sugar, salt or preservatives. Read those labels, people! And try interesting things – not just your basic peas and carrots: artichoke hearts, beets, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, etc.

• Frozen veggies – consider getting veggie blends to keep things interesting. Many of them are available in big bags. Frozen veggies can be steamed, boiled, fried or sauteed.

• Canned meats – and we are not necessarily talking Spam here. In addition to that, tuna and chicken, there are more interesting things that are now available in a can.

• Canned soups – do your best to get them organic, you'll know they have healthy stuff in them and are low-sodium.

• Coffee and tea.

• Salt, sugar, herbs and spices.

• Flour.

I am not suggesting that your pantry should look like a nuclear shelter, but do build up a sensible supply of these things. That way, there will always be something for dinner, even if the next paycheck is still a week away. Keep your stuff organized to make it easier to see what you have and what's getting low.

Step 3 is to fill in the gaps. The next category to tackle after the stuff that will keep is the intermediate goods. They do have an expiration date, but it can be postponed a little by freezing or refrigerating. At our house, this group consists of meat and fish. Beef, pork, and chicken are often sold in large packages that cost less per pound than the smaller ones. Get those and some freezer bags, separate them into portions as soon as you get them home, set aside a couple for the next night's dinner, and stash the rest in the freezer. I don't suggest keeping it there forever – freezer burn is hardly appetizing. But the supply will keep for a while and will offer you several protein options as you are trying to figure out the next meal.

My other favorite is shrimp. Many grocery stores sell large re-sealable bags of pre-cooked deveined salad shrimp. You can thaw it and serve it raw, if you fancy a cocktail, or cook it whichever way you want. It's a great way to “fancy-up” a meal now and then.

Root veggies hover somewhere between the mid-term category and the short-term category. On one hand, they will keep for a while, if stored someplace cool and dry. On the other hand, they can and will sprout and mold – sometimes as a total surprise to you. So, use your best judgment with them. That said – they are awesome to have on hand because there are so many ways to cook them. Regular and sweet potatoes, carrots, and beets can all be boiled, steamed, baked, pureed, fried, sauteed, put in a salad, served cold – you name it.

Onions and their cousins: garlic and shallots – also fall into this intermediate category. They are fantastically tasty and have tons of health benefits, but they can go bad if they get wet, and are a bit tough to store once you cut them. Chopped garlic marinaded in its own juice is available in large jars. All you need to do is refrigerate it, once its open. Shallots are small enough to be used one at a time per meal. As far as onions are concerned, I would suggest getting a couple of large ones per month – maybe one sweet and one red or yellow – and using Tupperware to store them, once you cut one. Just wrapping it in a plastic wrap doesn't do it – in about a day, the entire fridge starts smelling like an onion.

The short-term category includes the usual suspects: fresh fruits, veggies, green salads, dairy products, lunch meats, eggs, cheese, and bread. Some dairy products, like half-and-half, sour cream and cottage cheese will keep a little longer, but once they go, they go fast and it's not pretty. Learn to take notice of expiration dates and plan accordingly. Encourage yourself and your family to eat as much short-term stuff as possible during the first week after the shopping trip. That way, you'll know everyone is getting the fresh stuff at least once every three-four weeks.

If you can afford to get a bread-maker and learn how to use it, do so. Bread ingredients keep a lot longer than a store-bought loaf of bread. If you do have a loaf that went stale, don't throw it out, unless it's also moldy. Crush it and make a supply of bread crumbs to use for fish and meat batter.

If you know you have some things lurking in the fridge that have probably grown legs by now, suck it up and have a family fridge cleaning event one weekend. It's really not fair to load this task off just on one person. On the plus side, once your spouse and kids get to see how much stuff gets thrown out and how gross it is to have a messy fridge, they will be more mindful of random purchases and picky eating next time. Once you get it clean, keep it clean – it's amazing how much easier it is to find stuff and how much more pleasant it is to just peek into your fridge as you are deciding what to have for dinner, when it's neat, organized and doesn't have any icky splattery stuff all over it.

Do the same with your kitchen cabinets – both the ones where you keep your pots, pans and utensils, and the ones where you keep your dry and canned goods. You'll always know, where everything is, what kind and how much is left. That means less stress for you, more time to cook and more time to enjoy the meals with your family. What's not to love?

Happy shopping, everyone!

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