You don’t need TV financial analysts to tell you what your wallet has been feeling: the steady climb of food prices since the onset of Covid-19. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that April saw the biggest one month increase at the nation’s grocery stores since 1974; a 4.3 percent increase in meat, poultry, fish and eggs, and a 7 percent across the board increase in all departments since this time last year.
Need I mention unemployment figures rivaling the Great Depression? Ouch.
This price surge is not surprising, really. Food distributors lost three of their biggest clients to Covid-19 lockdowns: restaurants, schools and universities, and the airline industry. Guess who’s getting stuck with the bill?
But on March 15 – the day Gov. Sununu ordered schools to close – I took revenge, and you can, too. I was determined to spend $350 for a month of food including breakfast, lunch, and dinner for myself and my husband – as opposed to the $553 USDA guideline – at Costco and Whole Foods because money is tight and I love nothing more than a good old, self-motivating challenge.
And one more thing: I wasn’t going to deprive myself. Far from it. Granted, there was a lot this pandemic took away from us – financial security, social engagements with family and friends, freedom to enjoy the many distractions I took for granted like movies, restaurants, concerts, museums, and travel destinations near and far – but this damn virus was not going to rob me of the pleasure of cooking a good meal with a glass of wine. The experience has changed our lives financially, certainly, but the physical and emotional rewards have been equally dramatic.
What’s the secret sauce? The radical recipe? Portion control. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve heard it all before but have we ever really listened. Protein the size of a deck of cards; fruit/vegetables the size of a computer mouse; grains – including pasta and cereal – half a tennis ball; a slice of bread the size of a CD.
Portion control not only equals weight control and better health overall; it equals money control. Many Americans, including myself, need to lose weight. On average, we weigh in at 177 pounds as compared to Europeans at 156 pounds and Asians at 127 pounds. I was FLABbergasted to read 2019 stats from the National Chicken Council that Americans eat, on average, 223 pounds of red meat and poultry per year. I had no idea how much I was actually pigging out until Covid, even while tipping the scale at 162.
On the flipper side, Americans only eat 16 pounds of seafood a year. In this regard, I am not average, by intent, easily preparing fruits of the sea 6 – 9 times a week including lunch. Except for tuna, which I never eat. Consumer Reports estimates that canned tuna contains 6 percent + levels of mercury. Even Albacore. But fatty, omega-3 fish like wild Alaskan salmon and sardines are life-saving, life-sustaining, and low in mercury contamination. Think salmon, shrimp, or scallops are too expensive? Not if you buy wild and in bulk like I do and divvy out. (Don’t believe what anyone tells you about the sustainability and health of farm-raised salmon or shrimp. There’s enough scientific evidence to debunk any claim otherwise.)
Consider this: Costco sells a package of 8 frozen wild Alaskan salmon fillets for about $17. Each is large enough to divide into 2 portions. I prepare them a variety of ways, from pan blackened with a simple, homemade teriyaki sauce to baking in the oven with a seasoned breadcrumb coating with dried thyme and lemon zest. Either serving on a bed of organic rice I buy in bulk – $14.99 for 10 pounds (it lasts forever) – or with a few new, red potatoes, and always a vegetable component like organic frozen broccoli., peas, roasted corn, sautéed mushrooms, zucchini, whatever, eating this nutritious fish eight dinners a month is a pleasure for me to make and for us to eat.
Shrimp. Wild-caught shrimp. Yup, you might think it out of reach. But think again, and look at the photo. Whole Foods sells a 2-pound package of U.S. wild-caught shrimp for $22.99. That’s around 36 giant shrimp which I divvy up into six meals of three shrimp per person/per meal. That’s six different, delicious shrimp-based meals per month at $1.92 per serving. Holy Neptune!
Without trying to sound like Forrest Gump, I cooked up shrimp risotto (cheap), shrimp with tomato, feta, basil, and red onion (cheap), shrimp scampi with pasta (cheap), shrimp and veggie stir-fry with rice (cheap), shrimp with arugula and mozzarella on phyllo dough pizza (cheap), and shrimp salad with Old Bay, celery, and mayo on low-fat drop biscuits from scratch (also cheap).
Let’s beef it up! I make three meals from 1 pound of natural, grass-fed beef from Whole Foods at $6.99 a pound for two adults. Simply adjust amount accordingly for more diners.
#1: While thawed, I form beef into 6 walnut-sized meatballs and place in the fridge for continued flavor enhancement the next day with just a touch of organic ground pork. Additionally, I’ll add Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, finely grated garlic, freshly grated Parmesan, salt and pepper, and 1 egg for binding before lightly browning in olive oil.
Spaghetti sauce – even organic – is inexpensive in a three-jar combo at Costco. Likewise, I’ve been enjoying the bulk, six-package Italian brand they carry, Garofalo. It’s made with durum semolina which makes it far superior to oft-used refined flour in many other store brands. And at the recommended serving, it will last a long time and costs something like $11.
#2: Still working the thawed grass-fed beef (which is high in cardio-healthy omega-3 fatty acids instead of artery-clogging omega-6 from livestock eating corn instead of grass), I make a couple of patties for some much-loved cheeseburgers. Sometimes I have soft potato rolls and sometimes I ain’t got none left. If the latter, I sauté onions, peppers, mushrooms, and knife and fork it. Who really needs a quarter pounder?
#3: Voila! There’s just enough beef leftover for 4 tacos or a couple of baked, stuffed peppers. Both tasty with the right ingredients and seasoning, and both very inexpensive.
What the cluck? By this posting you’ve hopefully found a reliable source for chicken love. Both Costco and Whole Foods have admirable organic stock at admirable prices. I don’t mind buying whole birds and carving them up to save a buck. $3.99 a pound at Whole Foods.
On the other hand, you can buy organic boneless, skinless breast at $5.99 a pound at Whole Foods or spend less for thigh meat. Some of the greatest ethnic dishes in the world use it as a main ingredient: France’s coq au vin, India’s chicken tandoori, and Mexico’s chipotle thighs to name but a few.
Here’s what you could do with three big, boneless breasts at $6.89:
#1: Cut one in half length wise to make a classic chicken picatta. Delish, easy to make, and easy on the pocketbook. (FYI: Every recipe in the history of the universe is on the Internet.)
#2: Chop the second breast into small cubes and use for any number of stir-fry dishes on a bed of rice. One of my favs is Thai basil chicken with green beans and green peppers chicken with cashews and green onions; or chicken with pineapple and broccoli with sesame seeds and homemade teriyaki. Regardless, by bulking up on non-protein elements, you’ll have enough protein in the serving to provide a satiating meal. (This same principle can be applied to boneless pork chops. Cut into small cubes, coat with corn starch, and fry in canola oil before adding all sorts of wonderful taste combos for Asian-fusion fare.)
#3: Chop the third breast and poach in simmering water with herbs until cooked. In summer, I love a good chicken salad on lettuce or soft roll. I mix it up a little different each time. Curried chicken salad with browned almond slices, raisins, and curry; traditional with shallots, grapes, celery, tarragon, and mayo; the kitchen sink with chopped avocado, cilantro, and chives.
The totally awesome total for all the protein listed in this article was $54 for 20 days of dinners. I always add a few vegetarian entrees like quiche, pasta primavera, or eggplant parm. Sometimes we just want a damn fine steak.
Next time in Kitchen Revenge Part 2, I’ll tell you how we stopped breaking the bank on breakfast and lunch.
PS – I’ve lost 6 lbs. since March 15!
Dumb Editor’s note: The headline is updated to reflect that Carolyn lost weight, but her editor excitedly transposed March 15 into 15 pounds. But hey, six pounds! I apologize for my dyslexia. – Carol Robidoux
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About The Barking Tomato: Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on pinot noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Got foodie news? Contact Carolyn Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org