As part of my blogging break, I’ve asked some of my friends to guest post. This post is from my real life friend, Caleb. Caleb and I went to college together (his wife was my roommate for a year!) and, several years later, we’re living in the same area of the country again. He agreed to share some of his family’s tips for eating well on a budget, including a recipe for homemade yogurt. Enjoy!
As a teacher in a small, start-up school in Upstate New York, I am making a salary less than many who work at places like McDonalds or Pizza Hut. I am also the father of two adorable little girls (ages 2 and 1) for whom we are deeply concerned about the types of food that they eat. Following are four simple steps we take that allow us to be creative and stay healthy while living on a very tight budget. I realize that our specific situation won’t be universally applicable, but I trust you will find some inspiration for your own cooking and meal planning.
Step 1: Plan
Grocery stores expect (read: hope) for you to shop without a plan. If you don’t know what you want, then you will either walk out with more than you intended to and you’ll be more likely to come back over and over again throughout the week! To avoid this, we begin by planning our meals on a simple rotation (Mexican, Soup, Pasta, Stir Fry, Casserole). This allows us to have something different each day and some variety from week to week, but our grocery list stays consistent. We’re currently getting food assistance from WIC, so that helps us determine our grocery budget as well.
On our big monthly calendar in the kitchen, we write in the meal rotation and have a “cooking day” every two weeks or so (usually a Sunday) when we cook a few meals in large batches to freeze. This works especially well for soups, pasta sauces, casseroles, etc. (More on this in Step 2.) Having our calendar does not mean we get tacos every Tuesday, but it does mean that we don’t have to ask ourselves, “What’s for dinner” every day.
Step 2: Prepare
Different from planning which has to do with shopping, preparing means to literally prepare as many meals as possible ahead of time. With two little ones who are very busy, my wife finds that she has enough time to throw something in the oven or crockpot during the day, but too much more prep than that is difficult with the little ones underfoot and other household chores to do. So, she will take a weekend day and cook many things at once in preparation for the next couple of weeks. Usually this means browning meat, soaking and cooking beans, chopping vegetables, making sauce, boiling stock, and preparing casseroles. The tricky part is remembering to get these things out of the freezer in time for them to thaw so they end up being ready on time.
Tip: Buy glass baking dishes at thrift stores in a variety of sizes. Prepare the foods in these and freeze them so it can go right from the freezer to the oven. Also, recipes will need adjusting when they’re being frozen ahead of time. Pasta should be underdone, some veggies may need to be frozen separately and then added, sauces may need additional flour or corn starch, etc. Experiment and be sure to write down what works and what doesn’t.
Step 3: Cut down on meat
We aren’t vegetarians, but we do tend to eat meat-less (not meatless) on a regular basis. Protein can be found in any number of things, and since we’re on WIC we get a lot of rice and beans and other high protein foods that we can substitute. This spring we purchased a quarter-beef from a local farmer. We use that meat sparingly, and think we may be able to hold out until the fall when we can get another quarter. (Buying local meat straight from the farm is a great way to save money and be healthy, but we won’t cover all that here.)
We try to stretch our meat as much as possible. Instead of cooking a steak for each of us for dinner, we’ll make two small steaks, then cut part of it into strips and stir fry it; or cube it to make stew; or add it to some beans and spices to make chili: the possibilities for one steak are really endless. It all comes from being willing to be creative about the way you choose to use your meat, as well as adjusting our thinking so that meat is more of a side dish than the entree.
Step 4: Do it yourself
In our society, we’ve gotten so used to paying people to do things for us, we’ve forgotten that people used to do things themselves. So, we’ve adopted the philosophy that we’d rather do it ourselves, if we can.
Here’s one example of that:
One of the benefits of being on WIC is that we get a lot of milk—and I mean a lot. 5 or 6 gallons a month. We don’t drink it fast enough, and would probably get sick if we tried. So, what to do with all that milk? For starters, we freeze it (just pour a little off the top because it will expand and burst the plastic jug), and then we make our own yogurt! This may be the best thing we’ve discovered this past year.
Here’s the recipe that we use every 2-3 weeks to make about ½ gallon of yummy yogurt. There are endless varieties, but this is the one that works for us.
½ gal. milk (any fat content, we use 1% because that’s what we get with WIC)
½ cup yogurt starter (i.e. 4oz of any store-bought yogurt that contains “live” or “active” cultures, which they all do)
1/3 cup powdered milk
¼ cup maple syrup/honey/sugar (optional)
Put milk in crock pot and turn on low. Heat the milk to 180 degrees (about 2 ½ hours).
Unplug the crock pot and let sit for about 3 hours until the milk is between 80 and 110 degrees. While the milk cools, add sweetener (if desired) and powdered milk (this will up the protein content and thicken the finished product).
After the milk cools, put 2 C of the warm milk in a bowl, add live culture and whisk together.
Stir the milk and live culture mixture into the crock pot and wrap with a towel/blanket. Let sit for 8 hours (we usually leave it overnight).
The finished product will be soupier than most yogurts, so I will chill it in the refrigerator for anywhere from 3-6 hours before transferring it into the jars.
Notes: If you must have Greek style yogurt, you can strain it through cheesecloth. You can also thicken the yogurt with a packet of clear gelatin. Do not beat, whisk or shake your yogurt as this will break the bond and you’ll get a very soupy mixture indeed. Best to gently fold any flavoring in if desired.
Our two-year-old loves to have this yogurt, applesauce, cereal, and frozen blueberries all mixed together in a bowl for breakfast. She calls it ice cream.
Living below the poverty line does not mean that you have to exist exclusively on Ramen and canned beans, but it does mean being creative and doing a lot of things yourself that you may not have considered before.
I know this posting is longer than is normal for this blog, but I hope that our story has provided some good inspiration and sparked your creativity. Remember, it’s not the amount of money you take home that determines your menu, it’s your willingness to take responsibility for the foods you eat.