Hacks from my Happy Place – VI

Okay, this isn’t exactly like my other “Hacks” posts where I share shortcuts and recipes from my kitchen. It’s about how to shop for all of those things you put in your fridge, freezer and pantry for making all of those yummy things in your own kitchen.

Generic vs. Brand Name: Do not be afraid to try generic options, especially when it comes to non-perishable items. Generic, or store-brand options, are often identical to what is branded by name, and priced lower only because they don’t have to tack onto the price to cover marketing, branding and advertising costs! I have only ever tried one store-brand product with which I was not satisfied, and that was for jarred peanut butter. Interestingly enough, the brand names – Jif, Skippy, etc. – all seem identical, so I buy whichever is the least price!

Fresh produce in season: Fresh produce is most often going to cost more than buying the canned item, and often when buying the frozen item as well. And you’ll have to do whatever necessary cleaning/prepping needed that is already done for the canned and frozen items. Having said that, when it comes to taste, fresh always wins! For example, I like canned pineapple well enough but I would gorge myself on fresh pineapple! They are NOT the same! Canned green beans are a staple in my pantry, but fresh green beans are always a more vibrant green after cooking and have a bit of a snap to the bite that canned can never duplicate! So buy fresh produce when it comes in season and save the other stuff for when you can’t get fresh!

Bakery items: Sure, that fresh donut in the bakery case is tempting, but the cookies and cupcakes are not only expensive, they are not as good as what you bake fresh. Convenient? Sure, but we seldom buy sweet treats for reasons of convenience. Save your money and treat yourself by baking from package or scratch and enjoy a freshly baked delight!

Grocery store circulars: The grocery store I usually shop at puts out a weekly circular, which lucky for me, comes in my mail, but is also available in the lobby of the store. Of course, it advertises name brand items on ‘special’. However, be aware of two things – one, not everything listed in the circular is actually on sale, and two, not every advertised price is actually the price at the store when you go to purchase it. I’ve looked at several items, thinking to stock up although I already had some, because they were in the circular only to find out the advertised item was the item’s usual price. Why? It’s one or two reasons. The item will be advertised if the store wants to lower its stock of that item (perhaps to make rotating stock in the warehouse in back easier) or else it’s simply “filler” to make the ad full. Be aware by looking at the shelf price. If it’s not a money-saving deal and you don’t need it, don’t buy it! Also, I now take my circular to the store with me, and have gotten the advertised price for items that are not marked on the shelves at the advertised price.

Expiration/sell by/best if used by: Certainly, none of us wants to buy food items that will go bad before we have time to use them! However, most non-perishable products are good well past these dates. Milk is always sold with a “sell by” date, but properly kept in the fridge, can last up to a week later. Oh, and milk can also be frozen! I always keep a quart of milk in my freezer over the winter months, in case the weather is too inclement for me to get to the store. Other things, like cheeses and lunchmeats can also be frozen before their expiration date.

Couponing: I’m all for coupons. However, coupons are only for name-brand products and often require a purchase of multiples in order to take advantage of the savings. Unless you are an extreme couponer or regularly donate to your local food bank/women’s shelter, don’t get sucked into using a coupon just because you have it! Again, compare savings of the name-brand product, with the coupon, to the cost of a generic or store-brand product and you’ll see that often you don’t save any money (and it often still costs you more!).

Loyalty programs: Many grocery stores now offer a loyalty program to do just that, keep you loyal to them instead of shopping at their competitors. Some programs make sense, and some do not! The other grocery store in my area has a loyalty program of earning 50 cents off your next purchase for every $50 worth of groceries. However, their prices are pennies to quarters more expensive than the store I usually shop at and the earning periods are short (usually a 4-week period). My store, in addition to points that allow me to get a discount on gasoline, also has different discount days – a senior discount day, a military discount day, etc. And these discounts are for their name brand products! So you can bet I go to the store on senior discount day and save 10% off the majority of their products I purchase (fresh produce, meat and dairy are not included).

I hope some of my grocery shopping experiences will help you save some money on your next grocery bill. If you have other great grocery shopping tips for saving money, please share them in the comment section!

Hacks from my Happy Place – II

Summer is upon us, and that means we’re looking for alternatives to using our ovens and adding unwanted heat to our kitchens and homes. For those of us with a toaster oven, this is a great alternative for anything that fits the reduced size. Air fryers, crock pots and slow cookers (no, they are not the same thing) are also great alternatives. Of course, for anyone lucky enough to have an outdoor grill, that’s the way to go, weather permitting!

Foil becomes a good friend for outdoor grilling. Any combination of fresh vegetables can be put in a foil ‘pocket’ with some broth, spices, butter and folded up, then laid, seam side up, on the upper rack or far corners of the grill grate. The important thing to remember is not to put them on the hottest part of the grill grate, as they will cook too quickly. Fresh green beans, asparagus, squash, zucchini, even sliced tomatoes can be cooked with some broth and seasonings. This is a good way to make use of fresh produce as it comes in season!

Your crock pot is useful for large pieces of meat or poultry. A turkey breast, a whole roasting chicken, ham and of course, beef roast all cook well in a crock pot and require nothing but preparation time – the pot does the rest.

Slow cookers are a useful kitchen appliance to have year-round. A slow cooker allows you the additional advantage over a crock pot by having settings from warm to deep fry. It also allows you to lift the cover to stir or add without losing the heat. I always use mine when making my (semi-homemade – see my first “Hacks” entry) spaghetti sauce and for making meatballs, stuffed peppers and whatever other creations I come up with. It’s very similar to using your stove top but at a very reduced electric usage!

Your microwave can be helpful in cooking through things like potatoes, which then can be made any number of ways. My favorite is to cut slices in cooked potatoes that don’t go all the way through (make sure they are cool enough to handle!), add some butter or margarine between the slices, then wrap them in foil and cook on the grill as you would fresh produce. You can add spices like garlic, or simply serve them with things like sour cream, cheese, bacon bits, etc. and each person can top their potato as they please.

Air fryers are for more than just French fries! You can use them to bake, roast and even grill. If you own an air fryer, do yourself a favor and check out the recipes that came with your booklet. Then experiment!

When you DO have to use your oven, plan ahead! You can make multiples of things (like meatloaf) at the same time, then freeze the extras for future meals that will just need thawing and reheating.

Here’s hoping you have a cool kitchen this summer without losing the variety of great meals!