Fight inflation in the kitchen

The total came to nearly $90 – four painfully small canvas totes of groceries that did not include meat, cheese or eggs. Had I been shopping at an ultra-fancy Amazon-owned health-halo organic market, this might have seemed reasonable, or even a bargain. Instead, I was at the (sadly) best option in our poor, rural county: a grim, dark and untidy corporate chain store with exploitative policies, limited fresh produce and extensive displays of cheap soda, chips and cookies. Shopping here is not pleasurable, by any stretch of the imagination; both the atmosphere and the prices leave much to be desired.

Unless you’re named Musk or Bezos, you’ve likely noticed that inflation has started to bite, and to bite hard. In the twelve-month period ending this past March, the U.S. inflation rate was 8.5% – the highest it’s been since late 1981. In the simplest economic terms, inflation means that our money doesn’t go as far as it used to. The huge conflagration of various challenges we’re facing right now – a global pandemic, the pointless war in Ukraine, climate change, housing instability, supply-chain disruptions, insatiable greed – means that we’re all experiencing inflation to varying degrees. The good news is that in almost all cases, you can control how much inflation affects your individual household by adjusting your own behavior. No surprise, then, that one of the easiest places to accomplish this is in the kitchen.

Before we really start whining about grocery prices, however, I want to make it perfectly clear that the average American spends far less on food as a percentage of their household income than do most other developed nations. The best available statistics indicate that we spend about 7% of our budget on food, whereas in the U.K. it’s closer to 9.5%, and around 15% in France, Spain and Italy. On a relative basis, our food is devastatingly cheap here; this is because we have absurd federal farm subsidies and because we’re a net exporter of food, which means we produce a lot. (Our cheap food is obviously both terrible for the environment and our own health, but the system holds!) Unfortunately, we’re very spoiled and therefore accustomed to cheap food, which means that we’re far more sensitive to price increases than other countries. (See also: $90 for four tiny bags of groceries, above.)

If you, too, are starting to feel the sharp stick of inflation in your own food budget, we hereby present some easy ways to keep your food costs down, eat healthier, and reduce environmental impact. It’s a win-win-win!

There is simply nothing nice to say about CAFO meat in tubes.

Eat less meat and dairy

We’ve discussed this numerous times here at Finding Quiet Farm, and it’s so obvious that it’s almost awkward to present it as a revolutionary idea, but reducing or eliminating your meat and dairy consumption is absolutely the easiest way to improve your diet and spend less on food. Meat prices overall are up an average of 20% in the past year; the recent avian flu outbreak means that chicken and egg prices have also skyrocketed. Raising animals for meat in CAFOs is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental degradation; consumption of animal products is conclusively linked to a nearly endless list of health problems and premature death. In short, eat less (or no) meat and dairy, and buy what meat you do eat from a local regenerative farm. Also, get eggs from backyard chickens – either your own or someone else’s!

Strawberries a bit soft? Perfect for baking or smoothies!

Minimize food waste & ignore expiration dates

Another subject that we’ve beaten to death over the years here – Americans waste about 40% of all food. If we want to trim our grocery spending, it starts with being realistic about what we’re actually going to eat instead of aspirational shopping that results in huge amounts of waste. I’m not at all a fan of the warehouse stores like Costco, with their massive plastic clamshells of spinach or grapes or asparagus; unless you’re feeding the Brady Bunch, it’s pretty likely that produce will spoil before you finish it. Those stores entice shoppers with their “bulk discounts,” but that’s not a discount if most of it ends up in the trash; also, their excessive and unnecessary packaging is infuriating. Unsurprisingly, most food waste is perishables like greens and fruit, so be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what your household will actually consume.

On the same topic, please please please do not ever pay attention to expiration or ‘best-by’ dates on packages. They’re not regulated and they’re designed expressly to keep you throwing things away and buying more. Use your eyes, your nose and your common sense – if something smells strongly of alcohol (fermentation) or is actively moving, probably compost it. Otherwise, trim off the mucky bits and eat it – transformed in a soup or a smoothie, if need be. Expiration dates are a large-scale corporate racket designed to keep us spending. Ignore them entirely.

What do you have on hand that you can use up?

Pantry challenge / use what you have

We’re quickly moving towards the season of abundance here, and that – coupled with inflated prices – means I’m challenging myself to use up everything we have right now, both in the pantry and the freezer. The typical American household has a lot of food on hand, but like our overstuffed closets, much of it gets ignored in favor of “new.” For a week, or a month, or whatever timeframe you can manage, challenge yourself to eat what you have. Use up that little bag of red lentils, the frozen container of chili, the rest of that pasta, last summer’s canned tomatoes. Make a frittata or a stir-fry or a soup out of the odds and ends of vegetables and herbs in the crisper. Create flavorful meals by working with what you have, rather than buying more. Also! Eat your leftovers. Plan your weekly meals thoughtfully so that leftovers (or ‘favorites,’ in our house) can be either frozen, incorporated into packed lunches or used for future meals.

Frozen summer sweet corn: the secret ingredient in delicious soups.

Use your freezer

Never forget about your amazing freezer, the greatest food-saving appliance ever invented. Brown, too-soft, overly ripe bananas and other past-its-prime fruit: frozen on sheet trays and used for smoothies and muffins. Vegetable scraps: stored in zip-top bags for stock and soup. Sliced bread: saved for toast and bread crumbs, rather than going stale and hard on the counter. Incredible sale price on organic blueberries: frozen for baking when fresh fruit is too expensive. Fresh summer sweet corn: sliced from the cob and turned into spicy corn chowder in winter. The list goes on and on – your freezer can help you save money and eat better. Use it.

Hummus is so expensive to buy but so quick and easy to make at home.

Cook from scratch

Big Food has made billions convincing us that not only do we not have time to make things, but that we probably can’t. This is completely false! Yogurt, granola, salad dressing, hummus, bread…all of these (and many more) are far cheaper and healthier to make at home, plus you can control the ingredients and you avoid wasteful packaging and shipping. Five minutes of effort yields a jar of delicious salad dressing that will last for weeks; yogurt takes a few hours but that time is mostly devoted to the slow culturing and requires no real supervision; granola can be baked in huge batches and with far less sugar than packaged varieties; homemade bread, of course, produces results that can never be replicated with storebought. Keep in mind, too, that even cooking dried beans rather than using canned means substantial savings. Avoid, if at all possible, food products where someone has done most of the work for you.

A small portion of the food we harvest each year.

Grow your own

The best way you can fight inflation, of course, is to turn your back on Big Ag entirely and grow your own food. A $3 packet of tomato or lettuce seeds and a bit of water will yield hundreds of dollars of organic food. Plastic clamshells of ‘fresh herbs’ that turn into brown sludge after two days can be instead harvested fresh from window boxes as needed with about $20 of supplies. Even the smallest backyard or sundeck can produce a staggering amount of homegrown food if managed correctly, and the satisfaction of producing your own food is unmatched. Find out what grows locally where you live, and buy seconds for freezing or canning. Join a community garden, or partner with neighbors to grow collaboratively. Plant a vacant lot. Ask who might offer gleaning in your area. There are myriad ways to obtain fresh, nutritious food that don’t involve the supermarket; it takes a bit more work, but the payoff is worth it.

Are you making changes to the way you cook and eat because of higher prices? We’d love to hear what your household is doing to adjust!

Work with what you have

We’ve returned home after five months away and are trying desperately to reinsert ourselves back into our normal lives. This is proving to be substantially more difficult than we had anticipated, but thankfully the task of cooking is always there to ground me. My aspirational motto for this summer (and forever, really) is “Work with what you have.” It’s easy to wish that circumstances were different, or that we had an alternate set of tools at our disposal to complete a specific task, but in the kitchen, as in life, sometimes you simply have to work with what you have. And so my task for the summer, at least, is to cook from our existing food supplies rather than buying more.

Grains and pulses

Dry beans, grains, seeds and legumes are a pantry staple.

By most estimates, about 40% of all edible food produced in America is thrown out (more, if it’s fresh produce) instead of eaten. This is a statistic that I cite often in my classes; I ask my guests to calculate their own food budget and determine how much money they’re throwing away. I’ve even gone so far as to put actual dollar bills in the trash can (later retrieved, obviously) because for some reason that sludgy green bag of decomposing kale in the bottom of the crisper drawer doesn’t seem to equate to real money to most people. Apparently we care about our food waste problem, but we’re just too busy to do anything about it.

Sauces

How to add flavor and interest to your food.

Americans spend less money on food than any country in the First World. Calories are cheap here and we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection, plus we have absolutely no idea what all those “best by” and “use by” dates actually mean. (Answer: nothing. There are no regulations. Use your common sense; it’s designed to protect you from food poisoning. Plus, food manufacturers and grocery stores love those misleading labels because the sooner they expire, the sooner you buy more.) That means that not only do we waste food before it even arrives in the grocery store, but we buy more when our fridge and freezer and cupboards are already filled to the brim. Hence, the summer challenge.

Baking

I bake frequently, so I keep a well-stocked baking pantry.

One of the most important concepts I try to get across in my cooking classes is the idea of cooking without a recipe. I would love not to hand out recipes in class, but am well aware that this would not endear me to my guests. I want people to feel comfortable working towards a basic end goal; i.e. “Tonight I’d like to make a stir-fry,” rather than “Tonight I’m making Mark Bittman’s Beef with Broccoli and I have to stop by the store on the way home to buy beef and broccoli and fourteen other specialty ingredients.” If you look in your fridge and you’ve got a little leftover steak plus some carrots and peppers (because you already used all the broccoli earlier this week), and you know you have rice in your pantry along with Asian basics like soy or hoisin sauce, then you’ve got a meal. Start with what you have, and figure out where you’re going from there.

Spice dishes dark

So much flavor hidden in these little dishes.

In addition to teaching people specific recipes (which I invariably deviate from in class – people hate this) I also teach how to stock your pantry. Oils and vinegars, sauces and condiments, spices and seasonings, grains, pasta, beans and legumes, plus freezer basics like frozen vegetables (which get a bad rap but are in many cases better and cheaper than fresh) all come together to form the basis of some truly amazing meals. I know that people who are new to cooking require the comfort and guidance of a recipe. But I also think that as you grow and develop as a home cook, you should challenge yourself to work with what you have, rather than buying exactly what you need. Oh, and those specialty ingredients you bought for that one recipe you made months ago but never used again? A quick online search for “What should I do with tahini?” goes a long way towards using those up.

Freezer

Don’t judge. I’m working on it.

So please, friends, try this at home. I’m willing to bet that you have at least two weeks’ worth of food in your house already. Challenge yourself – for a day, a week, even a month – to only cook with what you have. See if you can come up with interesting, delicious and healthy options to use up all that food you’re stockpiling. Learning how to trust yourself and improvise a bit in the kitchen is one of the biggest steps towards becoming a better cook, and I promise you that the reward is worth the effort.