Friday, October 10, 2008

Tip #3: Find your "Bare Bones" staples

I’m not going to mince words here: when you’re struggling financially, sometimes there isn’t much left to eat but rice, pasta, or beans. Not even some salad greens and a tomato to liven things up with some color are possible when things are super tight. Some of you may not be familiar with this concept just yet; others are probably nodding your heads in agreement as you read this. I’m at the grains & beans only point this week (though I might have enough eggs to treat myself to at least one more omelette over the weekend, woo hoo). I have a couple “bare bones cupboard” recipes in mind to share with you, but before I do that I want to give you an idea of what I try to have on hand for those scary few days (or weeks) before the “good” payday – you know, the payday that doesn’t have to completely go towards rent & utilities.

The key here is variety. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that my palette is a little ADD and I like to mix things up. This still applies even when I have nothing much left in my cupboards other than cat food for Hana & Stu. Fortunately, I’ve become a sort of grain connoisseur over the past few months, incorporating whole grains like farro, kamut berries, and quinoa into my grain repertoire of brown rice & couscous. I try to keep about ½ pound each of the following on hand for the “scary” days that inevitably happen: long grain brown rice, whole wheat couscous, quinoa, brown rice pastas, and farro. I like these because of their flavor and versatility. You can make soups, salads, sides – you name it! The possibilities really are endless. I store them in airtight containers so they don’t go stale & random grain-loving creatures get to it before I do. Because all of these require different water measurements & cooking times, and because a lot of recipes call for the already cooked version of these, I make sure to clip the cooking directions for each and keep them in the containers with their respective grains. This way I don’t mess up and waste anything.

On the nutrition point, I try to leave as many refined flour products out of my diet in general. Whole grains have a lot more flavor and have more nutrients than the refined stuff. Even standards like fettucine, penne, and spaghetti are now being made out of such healthy things as brown rice & flax. Now, I’m not trying to make everyone a health nut here (yes, I am); what I’m trying to show you is that there’s a lot more out there than just white noodles and rice, which means you can do more with the simple stuff. And whole grains are nutritional multi-taskers: you’ve gotta love something like quinoa which packs about 10g of fiber and 22g of protein per cup! Sure, it’s calorie rich but when there’s not much left to eat, calories can be your friend. The last thing I want people in perpetual financial hell like me to deal with is declining health due to poor nutrition!

So how do you buy good-for-you-grains so that you don’t go broke? Buy in bulk. Most things like couscous, quinoa, kamut berries, spelt berries, brown rice, wild rice, etc., can be found in the bulk section at most food co-ops or good grocery stores. The beauty of bulk buying is that you choose what you want, how much of it you want, and you’re paying for the food, not the packaging. About the only thing I haven’t been able to find sold in bulk in the Sacramento is farro. However, I have been able to find it in an 8oz. bag for about $4.95 at the Co-op, and considering you can make several 1 dish meals or a couple of big ones out of a single bag, that is a very small price to pay for such a tasty, nutty, grain (more on the joys of farro in another blog).

Legumes make up the other half of my bare bones supplies, and I don’t know of anyone that doesn’t like at least one type of bean. They’re extremely versatile and very healthy, depending on how you prepare them. Some of my favorites include: black beans, red & white kidney beans, garbanzo beans, navy beans, lentils…. okay, I pretty much like them all. I try to keep at least a can of each of the aforementioned on hand at all times. I’m trying to look into dried beans and experiment with those, as the flavor of those really can be much better than what you get in a can (and I figure if I buy them I can con my mom into making me some of her famous lentil soup next time she visits), but let’s face it: canned can be very convenient, not to mention, less expensive. As you’ll see in my next blog, sometimes a few cans of this & that can turn into an amazing meal.

With these essentials in your cupboard and some creativity – and a little help from yours truly – you’ll be able to weather even the stormiest of times. Not that you should only eat quinoa and black beans when you’re having a rough time; trust me, some of my favorite everyday meals include these healthy basics. However, having a little bit extra on hand “just in case” is always helpful. I know, I know, I’m starting to sound like I grew up in the Great Depression, but we paycheck-to-paycheck folks could use a lot of their tips. Just don’t buy 32 tomato plants right before winter just because it was a “good deal”. ;)

(NOTE: Many of the things I mentioned are wheat derivatives and I’m lucky enough to be able to eat them without any problems. I understand that there are many people out there with food allergies, so please use caution when choosing your grain products. Just because it’s listed here as a good ingredient to keep on hand doesn’t mean that you must have it. There are plenty of alternatives that we can explore later!)


  1. Love the blog. Great advice for us cooks on a budget. :-) Too bad there's not Trader Joe's in Iowa.

  2. A stocked pantry is awesome! My husband used to get paid every Friday, and then some months he got an extra paycheck if there were 5 Fridays in that particular month.

    This happened maybe twice a year? That was my stock up money!

    Flour, sugar, unsweetened cocoa, chicken broth, baking powder, baking soda - you name it, I got it! It would last me for months, and then I'd only have to buy fresh fruit/veggies and meat (and of course milk!).

    This way our weekly grocery bill stayed between 80 to 100 per week for a family of four.

    Looking forward to checking out your other tips from one frugal person to another!

  3. Cool Ideas Kimber !!!

    Keep it up !!

    Trader Joes is the promise land !!!


  4. Thanks for this post, im creating a shopping list right now and some of these are going to be picked up.

  5. Excellent base staples to go with the spices, oil, and vinegar! The only things I would have to add are: rolled oats, flax seed [I grind it myself], and peanut butter- all inexpensive and help keep you full.
    Love the blog, keep the ideas coming!

  6. What about a tiny herb garden to pad out those "scary" days? Then you can just pluck a few greens to spice up even the plainest bean/pasta/rice dish. I have 2 tiny planter boxes (we live in an apartment and are fortunate to have a balcony), and they are overflowing with basil, chives, oregano, italian parsley, continental parsley, and green onions. I love plucking them fresh, getting just the amount I need and leaving my plants to grow more, and knowing they are organic, GMO-free etc.
    I know gardens are not always easy, but even a tiny kitchen window garden in some form is usually possible, and they are really fairly fool-proof if you have sunlight, water and good potting mix.

  7. It's a fabulous idea, but with 3 cats, that's just inviting trouble! I do have a small one that I'm starting outside, though. :)

  8. I realize this is rather far after the post, but I'm planning on making myself one of these.

    I have several cats, and at the moment my plant pots are in my bookcase, with duct tape across the shelf and the pots themselves bristling with shish-ke-bab skewers. But if it means I have sage and parsley in January, it's worth it. I'm pretty sure the canning jars on the wall will work, since I can put them in a spot where it's hard to jump, and there won't be anything to "grab".



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