PUBLISHED: 6:44 AM on Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Eating well on less money
The rising cost of fuel nationally has impacted Alaskans at the pump and at the grocery store. Families across the Southeast are facing big bites out of household budgets as food prices increase at the fastest rate since 1990. For most families, already pinched by soaring energy costs, surging food prices create a challenge in providing nutritious and low-cost meals. A quick Internet search provided this information: (Source: Robert Gavin, The Boston Globe, March 9, 2008)

• Milk prices have increased 26 percent over the year.

• Egg prices have jumped 40 percent over the year.

• Food accounts for about 13 percent of household spending compared with about 4 percent for gas.

• Many analysts expect consumers to keep paying more for food.

• The USDA forecasts overall food prices will rise about 4% this year.

Sticker shock at the grocery store might have some of us thinking that fast food restaurants, commonly associated with low prices, might be just the ticket in these trying times. Not so fast. It seems that consumers will continue to pay more as manufacturers prices go up. A food distributor in the New England states noted that supermarkets, restaurants, and other outlets are paying some of the highest prices ever. According to the spokesperson, cheese prices have doubled from a year ago, and beef prices have risen more than 50 percent. Add those costs to the fuel prices and, well, Houston we have a problem!

In a recent phone conversation, my son told me that he now bakes his own bread. As he stated, "A pound of flour is much less expensive than a $4.00 loaf of bread." Many of us find that our food dollars stretch much further when we prepare foods from scratch, instead of using pre-packaged meals or convenience foods. In addition to saving money, home-prepared foods are often more nutritious than those found in fast food restaurants.

A well-stocked pantry is the key to creating quick and easy meals. Canned vegetables, canned beans, meat and fish, sauce mixes, soups, rice and pasta can quickly be made into nutritious, satisfying suppers. A starting point can be leftovers -- use them as foundations or supplements to healthy meals. Following are some ideas for quick, easy, and nutritious meals.

Make a black bean soup by combining one can of drained black beans; canned stewed tomatoes, drained; browned sausage or ground beef; and a little beef broth (bouillon cubes in water works fine). Heat thoroughly and serve with tortilla chips. Garnish with sour cream or plain yogurt, and fresh cilantro.

Heat one can of refried beans, spoon onto a flour tortilla, add a little cheese, and warm in the microwave. Serve with brown rice, chopped cabbage, salsa, and sour cream or plain yogurt for great burritos.

For a great skillet supper, prepare one cup noodles (any type). Add one can of salmon, drained (or tuna if you prefer); one can of cream of chicken (or mushroom or celery) soup; and one can of your favorite vegetables, drained, or one cup frozen vegetables. Heat and serve.

A delicious curry is as simple as mixing together one can of coconut milk; 2 cups chopped, cooked chicken (leftovers work nicely) or one canned chicken; and one pound frozen vegetables. Season with 3 Tablespoons curry powder and 2 teaspoons basil, or season to taste. Add one Tablespoon brown sugar if you prefer a sweeter curry. Heat all ingredients thoroughly and serve over brown rice.

Here's a homemade version of a hot pocket. Stir up a quick batch of biscuits, or if you prefer, use canned biscuits from the refrigerator section of the store. Roll or pat them out to a ¼-inch thickness. In another bowl, mix canned and drained salmon, cream cheese, and a dash of dill weed. Put a spoonful of the salmon mixture in the center of the flattened biscuit, fold it over, and seal the edges. Bake 10 minutes or until biscuits are lightly browned.

Does your family like hot sandwiches? Mix one can of drained salmon or tuna with one Tablespoon chopped onion, ½ cup catsup, and 1 cup grated cheese. Divide the mixture and spoon into hamburger buns. Wrap each bun in foil. Pop into the oven about 15 minutes, or until hot and the cheese is melted.

How about Fried Rice? Cook some rice (or better yet use leftover cooked rice). Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet, stir in rice, one Tablespoon soy sauce, and ¼ teaspoon powdered ginger, if desired. Add frozen or canned, drained vegetables; leftover, cooked meat; and a scrambled egg (optional).

Many of us enjoy having breakfast foods for supper. Make up some pancakes from mix or scratch. Drain canned or frozen fruit, fold into the batter, and cook as usual. If you've got a can of whole cranberry sauce, break it up and add some in the pancake batter before cooking. Mix the remaining cranberry sauce with light corn syrup and heat for syrup.

The bottom line is that our inflation worries have expanded from energy and housing costs into everyday food needs. Now, just like we do for energy, we'll learn to keep our eyes open, watch prices, and adjust behavior accordingly.

Dr. Sonja Koukel is the Health, Home & Family Development Program educator for the Cooperative Extension Service UAF Juneau District.

-Adapted from an article written by Roxie Rodgers Dinstel, CES UAF, Tanana District