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Three Bodacious Budget-Stretching Tips

Once upon a time, we were poor. We were unemployed. We had three small children. We had one car and it was on its last leg. And we lived way out in “Egypt”. Being economical wasn’t an option. It was a necessity.

We were fortunate to get food stamps for a time. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, Though.  I had to go in to a government office every few months .I had to take in important documents like my unemployment checks, birth certificates, Social Security cards, proof of expenses. I also had to take the children with me because I couldn’t afford a babysitter. Sitting in a government office with three small children was never the highlight of my day but I was thankful that my children were well behaved and I was also thankful for the extra help and I learned several ways of stretching what I received go as far as I could.

A few lean years later, our situation had improved somewhat. We had a job. We had two cars that ran most of the time. We had two more children. And we still lived out in “Egypt”. Being economical was still a necessity.

One evening, we had another family over for dinner. This was a larger family, like ours,  and as we were putting away the leftovers after the meal, one of our guests commented that “I sure knew how to stretch a bean.” I had to think about that for a little bit and as I did, to agree with them. I had just served a dinner to 14 people. Everyone had plenty to eat and we even put away leftovers. I wasn’t stressing about not having food later because I had had a party today.

How did I do this? How do I Stretch a Bean?

Tip # 1:  Multitasking Meats

We don’t eat a lot of things like steaks or even plain hamburgers. When I go shopping for meat, I I buy larger cuts or packages of meat and divide them up. I consider what sort of things I can do with those pieces or packages of meat and plan menus around them. A large roast can be stretched by dividing it into a smaller roast, finely sliced strips for stir-fry, or chunks for soup or stew. A bag of chicken quarters can be divided into legs and thighs for grilling, shredded for tacos or chicken salad while the meat and bones of some other pieces become soup.

Once a month, my favorite grocery store does a” BOGO for 1 cent” and often there’s a roast involved.  One of my favorite deals like this happens around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. They offer a deal of “buy a ham, get a turkey free.” I buy the largest ham I can find. Then I get the largest turkey they will let me have free. I usually freeze the ham and cook the turkey for Thanksgiving. And occasionally I repeat this for Christmas.

This past Thanksgiving, I had a whole house full of people for dinner. I had 21 guests so I fixed both the turkey and the ham. After everyone had eaten, and some of the people had fixed plates to take to work the next day, we still had a lot of food left oven. In fact, we had enough ham for another ham dinner,  a casserole with ham, ham sandwiches, and a big pot of soup. I also had enough turkey left for another turkey dinner, “Goodbye Turkey” casserole, turkey sandwiches, and big pot of turkey noodle soup. I figured that I got 14 meals out of $32 worth of meat.

I don’t always do quite that well, but I really embrace the idea of multitasking meat.

Tip # 2: Adventurous Vegetarian

Many years ago, my best friend was a vegetarian.  One of our favorite things to do when we were out was to stop at the whole foods market and check out all of the amazing dried beans and rice and grain products available. She taught me quite a bit about vegetarian cooking and shared a number a recipes, many of which became family favorites. She taught me about combining grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and dairy to create flavorful, protein packed, meatless meals. These meals were very filling and very economical.

During that time when we were unemployed, I did quite a bit of vegetarian cooking. One of our favorite recipes was a beans and rice dish with an Italian flavor to it. The recipe made quite a lot and even froze well. While we enjoyed eating it, there came a day when even my ever-patient husband requested that I retire that recipe from my collection. I’ve since tried to cut it down, but It still makes more than we feel like eating.

Vegetarian foods are very versatile, too. Beans and grains can be combined to create meat substitutes such as veggie burgers or veggie loaves.  Most ethnic cuisines have some vegetarian dishes worth trying and often, just changing the seasonings of a dish can add an ethnic flavor to beans and rice.

When I am planning my week’s meals, I plan for at least one Vegetarian Adventure.

Tip #3: Super Soup

I can’t say enough positive things about soup. It’s hot, filling, versatile, and economical. It can be served hot or cold, winter or summer. And remember those bones from the turkey and ham? Here they are again!  What about those vegetable proteins, those beans and rice? Here they are again, too. I think soup is a culinary Super hero.

Soup is an excellent way to stretch out smaller portions of meat, use up those less-than-perfect vegetables that got shoved into the back of the fridge, and even revitalize leftovers. Half a pound of ham is plenty to add to Split Pea with Ham or Navy Bean Soup.  A variety of chopped vegetables, broth, and seasonings creates an amazing minestrone or other ethnic soup. And while this idea may not work for you, when we were short on funds, I tried to waste as little as possible. I kept a large plastic container in my freezer where I collected all of the leftovers that were insufficient for another meal or hubby wouldn’t be able to take for lunch.  When that container was full, I would thaw it out, heat it up, and we’d have “Whatchagot Stew”. It was never the same, but it was tasty and filling.

Soup is super versatile, economic, and deserves to become a Super Star in anyone’s cooking repertoire.

Even if you’re not strapped for cash, may I suggest learning how to Stretch A Bean? Plan meals using multitasking meats, become adventurous with the vegetarian eating and embrace those super soups. Your family and your pocketbook will thank you.

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