Dish It Up

Save money while eating better this year.

Tightening your metaphorical — and literal — belt might come a little more naturally this year, courtesy of the recession. Why not kill two birds with one stone in 2009 and combine your resolutions to eat healthfully and cut down on thoughtless splurging?

Food prices are unlikely to drop any time soon, but making your own grub is still cheaper than a trip to the 16th and Mission corridor. Before you start kvetching about your dwindling social life, let me dredge up the old parental guilt trip, with a twist: There are probably people in your own neighborhood fighting to put food on their tables.

According to the San Francisco Food Bank's media and advocacy representative, Marguerite Nowak, 150,000 city residents live well below the federal poverty line, with an annual income of $15,000 per individual, roughly $26,000 for a family of three. "The majority of people we serve are working families who, after paying their rent and medical bills, have nothing left over for food," she says. "Living on this income, our clients are struggling to survive versus having the choice to cut back." To give people with median incomes an opportunity to walk in the shoes of the not so fortunate, the Food Bank teamed up with six local food bloggers last fall for the Hunger Challenge: Eat on a budget of $21 for one week, the average amount a food-stamp recipient receives. In the end, participants created more than a dozen recipes costing roughly $1 a meal.

Among the participants were writer and recipe developer Amy Sherman (cooking withamy.blogspot.com), Genie Gratto (theinadvertentgardener.com), and food journalist Faith Kramer (clickblogappetit.blogspot.com). While the Hunger Challenge transformed how the bloggers cook and shop, they in turn raised awareness. Sherman's Twitter tweets were picked up by the chairman of Tyson Foods, who donated 200,000 pounds of high-protein edibles to Bay Area food banks.

Maybe $21 a week seems extreme, but here Sherman, Gratto, and Kramer share how to stretch grocery dollars in a dismal economy.

Vegetables, meats, and the rest
Unsurprisingly, frozen vegetables are often a better deal than fresh, according to Sherman. And when it comes to buying organic, good luck. Kramer says, "If you are trying to cut back on food expenses to feed your family, there are many decision trees involved here, and it may not be feasible to go exclusively organic. But if organic is a core value, there are some options."

She recommends shopping at farmers' markets for the cheapest organic produce. Gratto, who regularly shops at the Jack London Square farmers' market in Oakland, concurs. In addition, many grocery chains now offer store-label organic products at a fraction of the name-brand cost.

Getting the right amount of proteins on a restricted budget is an ongoing challenge, even for the San Francisco Food Bank, which collects millions of pounds of food annually from manufacturers, growers, and grocery stores. And it's not just protein levels that need to be balanced. When it comes to getting the most nutritional value in general, loading up on high-fiber products is a must. "A giant head of green cabbage was my secret weapon," says Kramer, who values the veggie for its bulk, versatility, and nutritional value.

A little variety goes a long way
Being a conscientious shopper doesn't mean meals should disintegrate into unappetizing blobs. Stocking up on curry powder, cayenne pepper, and herb seasonings ensures that you can infuse your cuisine with a range of tastes. Kramer suggests shopping at ethnic food markets and grocery outlets, which tend to sell seasonings by the ounce: "You can get a variety of flavor, even with simple soups and stir-fries, and the food doesn't get boring."

The bloggers, who included folks with families (like Kramer) and singles (like Gratto), agree that it's far more prudent to make crowd-sized dishes. "It's a lot easier to make things in eight or even 12 servings," Kramer says. "You can stretch out the meal and eat it as leftovers the next day, and it's a great way to make sure you use all of the ingredients you buy."

Learn to cook
Urbanites with little room in their schedules — or even less in their kitchens — might moan, but if you're looking to trim the fat, you need to know how to cook. Grocery stores like Whole Foods regularly offer basic cooking classes, and tons of cookbooks are geared toward the neophyte. Kramer encourages newbies to borrow recipes from friends or find them online, and recommends that those with little kitchen experience start with simple recipes before moving up to more elaborate dishes.

Some cheap meals from the Food Challenge to get you started

Time is money
It takes time to save money. Conscientious menu planning, driving to different stores to do budget shopping, and taking an hour to prepare a meal may not be options. "Someone who has a manageable income and some free time will find it easier to seek out bargains," Gratto says. "The ones who are shafted are those without the money, resources, time, or vehicle to get to the Berkeley Bowl to buy bulk food."

Kramer suggests buying your groceries once a week instead of making three or four trips, and not running around from store to store just to save a few cents. Know your stuff, like what produce is in season, how prices compare between stores, and that the perimeter of a grocery store is where to find things like bulk grains. According to Kramer, manufacturers' coupons tend to be for processed items, so if you're looking to be healthy and save money in the long run, you may want to skip them.

Where not to compromise
Pantry basics (flour, grains, oils, vinegars, etc.) are definitely not negotiable. Gratto maintains that even loading up on simple ingredients like high-quality butter can add flavor to otherwise humdrum foods: "The flavor is really that much better, and I knew I'd use less of it than I would a generic, mass-produced butter, since a little goes a long way." All of the bloggers insist that it doesn't pay to scrimp on veggies and greens, fresh or frozen.

Savor the gourmet experience
Trying to spread the dollars thinly can be hard in a city that seems to exist solely for foodies, but that doesn't mean you need to stop dining out altogether. Kramer and Gratto suggest trying ethnic restaurants that have flavorful food and generous portions. "A place like [Pakistani restaurant] Shalimar may not be considered gourmet or high-end, but you can get a great deal," Gratto says. "It's divey, fun, the food is tasty, and two people can get out of there under $15."

Gratto, an ardent foodie who has experienced budget crunches in the past, says it's important to find creative ways to enjoy the Bay Area culinary experience, such as going to fancy restaurants at lunchtime. Even having drinks and appetizers before heading to a restaurant can help curb spending.

Sharing is caring
For Kramer, whose family used food stamps occasionally during her teenage years, "food is a communal experience. There are lots of reasons why we like to go out to eat, but when it comes down to it, it's because it's a way of sharing with our community."

Nowak of the San Francisco Food Bank also encourages people who'd like to volunteer or donate not to limit their contributions to the holiday season. Donating to the organization is also cost-effective. For every $1 donated, the bank can distribute $9 worth of food, so even small gifts make a huge difference. For more information, visit www.sffoodbank.org.

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