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Seasonal Eating and Comfort Food on a Budget

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According to the United States Department of Agriculture, U.S. consumers spent about 11.3% of their disposable income on food in 2022. That’s an increase of 12.7%, primarily driven by more people eating out as the pandemic eases.

Although the USDA reports more people are eating in restaurants, is that cost-effective for families on a budget? Chip Carter, producer and host of the national TV show Where the Food Comes From, doesn’t think so. He told Geoff Williams with U.S. News, “dollar-for-dollar, it’s an easy answer. Cooking at home wins hands down.”

Eating Better at Home

Considering that eating at home is cheaper, how can a shopper maximize the family food budget and still eat well and healthily?

According to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH), it’s possible to cut the grocery budget and still eat well.

HSPH advises shoppers to make a meal plan first. That way, they can take advantage of sales at grocery stores and plan to buy the ingredients on their menus.

Shoppers shouldn’t go to the store on an empty stomach. That increases the likelihood that you will immediately buy impulse items that look appealing without considering how that purchase might affect the budget. Shopping on a full stomach, on the other hand, means you’re likely to buy only what’s on your shopping list.

HSPH also recommends choosing meatless meals. Vegetables are generally cheaper than meat, while increasing the volume of the meal, and boosting nutrition and heartiness.

Try fresh vegetables in the summer or opt for veggie-based soups and stews in cooler weather.

Eating Seasonally

Food experts say eating seasonally is a great way to eat better and cheaper. When you buy locally grown food in season, it’s fresher and lowers environmental impact as well.

According to the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), seasonal eating has many benefits. It also helps the area’s economy since cash goes back into local pockets. That helps keep farmers afloat and creates jobs. Eating locally-grown food reduces transportation costs as well as emissions.

While produce is abundant during the late spring and summer in most areas, fall produce includes apples, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, pears, and the ubiquitous pumpkins. In the winter, shoppers can buy cabbage, kale, and parsnips.

Alex Casparo, Registered Dietitian and owner of Delish Knowledge, adds, “With planning and flexibility, you can eat affordably throughout the seasons. In the fall and winter months, seek out root vegetables, like sweet potatoes, winter squash and beets. These vegetables tend to be inexpensive and have a long shelf life, which decreases the risk of wasting money related to food waste.”

Preserving Comfort Food

Can cooks stick to a budget and eat seasonally during the fall and winter? According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the answer is yes.

Classic comfort foods are most prevalent during the blustery months, and seasonal vegetables available during this time, like butternut squash, lend themselves well to being roasted and used in soups or stews.

Casparo agrees. “Cruciferous vegetables, like kale, and broccoli, may protect against some diseases, including some types of cancer. Add them to soups and stews along with affordable proteins like beans and lentils for a simple, budget friendly meal — and any leftovers can be repurposed as a freezer meal.”

Whole grains, including brown rice, quinoa, millet, wheat berries, barley, and farro, can also help complete a meal. You can use these as side dishes or incorporate them into a soup.

While it may take some advance planning, shoppers who plan to cook at home can learn to preserve their own fresh vegetables by freezing or canning.

The Extension Services at Alabama A&M University and Auburn University offer a range of free resources on preserving herbs, fruit and vegetables, and making jams and jellies by freezing, drying, canning, and pickling.

This age-old method may incur some upfront costs like a pressure canner, jars, bands, lids, freezer bags, etc., but those who are diligent about doing it will see savings on their grocery bills and recoup the costs of the preserving equipment.

Instead of buying canned or frozen green beans, for instance, it’s easy to reach into the pantry and grab a home-canned jar of beans.

Freezing food is another good way to save money on grocery bills. Comfort food casseroles like lasagna and broccoli freeze well, and cooks can also freeze pantry staples like homemade chicken broth.

Observing food/canning safety rules is critical for safe, healthy eating, so getting expert guidance on this subject is crucial.

More Comfort; Less Money

While it may not be ideal for singles or couples, the HSPH also recommends shoppers consider buying in bulk, especially nonperishable staples. Whole grains, rice, dry beans, and lentils may all be cheaper when purchased in larger quantities, so you’ll want to calculate the unit price for items to determine if they’re more affordable in larger containers.

Long-time budget-conscious shoppers know that generic or store-brand items are almost always cheaper than name brands. The HSPH backs that up, noting the generics are more affordable since the labeling is less elaborate and companies don’t spend the big bucks on advertising campaigns.

Shoppers can also save money by going to discount stores like ALDI or Lidl. These stores offer a few brand-name products but primarily sell their own store brands.

Along with traditional grocery stores, these outlets also feature items seasonally. While they may offer discounts on hot dogs in the summer, shoppers can often find good deals on seasonal holiday foods like canned pumpkin, stuffing mix, or candied fruit in the fall.

This article was produced by Gourmet Bon Vivant and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.