Magic Beans

asst beansThis is not going to be a post about the magical beans for which Jack traded his family cow, although trading a cow (beef or any other meat for that matter) for beans in your diet once in a while is as good a trade as the one Jack made.  The beans to which I am referring are the beans you eat, and more specifically dried beans.  Dried beans are a valuable weapon in both the fight against hunger and the struggle to stretch food dollars.  Dried beans are cheaper than canned beans and can be stored for extended periods of time if kept in a cool, dark place.  Beans are such a good source of protein that the USDA classifies them in the Protein Food Group in the recommended dietary guidelines, making them an economical and healthy meat substitute. The USDA also classifies them as part of the Vegetable Group because they are high in fiber, which is good for lowing your risk for diabetes and heart disease.  Fiber also takes longer to digest, so foods high in fiber will help you feel fuller longer.  Finally beans are high in antioxidants, helping to protect your cells from free radicals, and are low in sugar, which means they help prevent insulin in the blood from spiking.  In spite of their health benefits and economical cost, most Americans do not incorporate beans into their diet, and when they do they often opt for canned beans over dried beans.

Some people may not know how to cook beans or may have a basic understanding of how to cook beans, but are under the misconception that it is difficult or requires a large amount of time.  I admit beans do take some time to cook and you can not come home from work and expect to put a meal using dried beans on the table in a short period of time without planning ahead.  The time required to cook dried beans, however, should not prevent you from incorporating them into your diet.  Most of the cooking time is unattended and can be done in advance, when you have time, like on the weekend or a day black-beansoff.  One just has to plan ahead to incorporate dried beans into your diet.  If you do it regularly, cooking beans will become almost effortless, whether you do it weekly or every couple of days.

In his book, Food Matters:  A Guide to Conscious Eating, Mark Bittman claims he is on “a mission to make sure every fridge or freezer in America is stocked with a container of home-cooked beans.”  Bittman’s philosophy is to regularly cook a quantity of beans to have on hand, storing them in the refrigerator, to use in recipes, toss in salads or just eat for a snack.  His recipe is simple.

  • Put some beans in a large pot and cover with cold water by a couple of inches.  Bring beans to a boil and let boil, uncovered, for about 2 minutes.  Turn off the heat and cover the pot, letting the bean soak for 1-2 hours.
  • After soaking, try a bean for doneness (they won’t be).  If it is at all tender, add a pinch of salt.  Make sure the beans are covered by about an inch of water, adding more if necessary.  If beans are still firm, do not add salt and make sure they are covered with 2 inches of water.
  • Bring pot back to a boil, then adjust heat so that the beans gently bubble.  Partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally and checking for doneness every 10-15 minutes.  Add water as necessary to keep the beans covered.  Small beans may take only 30 minutes extra cooking time and larger beans may take up to an hour more cooking time.  Add salt when the beans are just starting to become tender and stop cooking when they are the doneness you prefer.

Cooked beans can be used all at once in a recipe or saved in the refrigerator for several days to use as needed.  As a rule of thumb, 1 pound of dried beans equals 2 cups of dried beans equals 6 cups of cooked beans.  They can also be frozen and will keep for months.  If you do not need the liquid in which they were cooked it can be saved and used as a soup base.  It’s as easy as that.

chickpeaMark Bittman’s method requires little foreplanning, but does require you have a bit of extra time, as beans that have not been presoaked will take a longer to cook.  To shorten the cooking time by 1/2 or more presoak the beans in salted water (2 teaspoons salt per 1 quart of water) overnight or at least several hours.  When cooking beans always keep an inch or so of water over the beans and only salt the beans toward the end of cooking, within the last half hour.  If you are not going to mash your and you want to preserve their appearance, let the beans cool in their cooking liquid before draining so that the skins do not dry and crack.

Beans can be flavored as they cook or once the primary cooking has been completed.  Some flavorings that can be added to a pot of cooking beans include:  bay leaf, thyme sprigs, parsley, mirepoix (diced and sautéed onion, carrot and celery), garlic, smoked meats, like bacon or ham hocks and even leftover bones from pork, beef or chicken can be used.  The cooking liquid need not always be just water either.  Beer, wine, coffee or tea can be used alone or with water to flavor beans while cooking.  Flavoring can also be added to the beans once they have been cooked.  Make sure most of the cooking liquid has been drained from the beans before the final flavoring is added.  Some good flavorings to add to cooked beans include:  the herbs rosemary, sage, or thyme, cumin, garlic, hot sauce, cooked tomato sauces or salsa.   After adding the flavoring, continue to cook the beans for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavor to infuse the beans.

Fun Fact:  Beans cause gas because they contain indigestible carbohydrates which provide humans no nourishment, but do nourish the microbes in our gut.  When these microbes dine upon these carbohydrates they produce gas in our intestines.  When cooking dried beans you can reduce the indigestible carbohydrates by soaking them overnight or doing the quick soak detailed above.  Discard the soaking water and start with new water to cook the beans.  Just remember, removing indigestible carbohydrates removes color, flavor and nutrients as well.  Also, feeding the good microbes in our gut helps keep our gut microbiota in balance and recent research has suggested a link between unbalanced gut microbiota and a variety of negative health issues.

black and white beans

We offer dried pinto beans to clients at the food pantry and most of them take them, but every now and again someone declines.  To help those who are reluctant to try cooking dried beans, I am working on some recipes, using pintos as well as other beans.  I will share them once I have gathered them.  Have you ever tried mashed beans on toast for breakfast?  I learned about this from Jamie Oliver.  Evidently the Brits eat it all the time.  I’m sold!  As my family will tell you I have been known to eat strange things on toast.


Snow Day Fun

snow cardinalTuesday I found myself with some unexpected free time.  Due to a weather forecast of 4-8″ of snow, food pantry clients had been rescheduled to another day, so I did not have to volunteer.  I assumed, however, because of the forecast that my kids would be home from school for the day.  It did snow all day, but the temperature never dipped below freezing, so nothing stuck to the roads.  The kids only had a two hour delay (sorry guys!) and I didn’t have to volunteer.  What to do with this unexpected gift?!  I decided to spend the day going through a cookbook my brother and sister in law gave me for Christmas, entitled Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine:  The Folklore andscuppernong Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking, by Joseph E. Dabney.

When I initially started thinking about food insecurity and how to assist people who were hungry, one of the first ideas I had was to look to the past to see how folks used to cook, especially during hard times, like the Great Depression.  Prior to the Great Depression the United States also lacked the societal safety nets we have today, so people suffering from poverty really were on their own to survive.  After a bit more research, I learned that not everyone cooked and ate the way I assumed.  My notion of how women 100-125 years ago cooked and provided food for their families was based on a rural society, where there were little work opportunities for women outside the home and most families had enough land on which grow produce and/or keep some livestock.  After reading How the Other Half Ate, by Katherine Leonard Turner, I learned that urban dwelling women approached cooking and feeding their families very differently than rural women, and as the title suggests, different social classes cooked and ate differently as well.

Additionally, I came to realized that cooking like rural women from the past requires a great deal of time.  Initially I didn’t think this would be a problem for most of the people today who suffer from food insecurity, as I believed them to be unemployed.  After all, that is what many politicians and people in the media would have you believe.  I have since learned from my reading and volunteering, that many people who are food insecure are also employed, sometimes working two and three jobs, and therefore do not have an abundance of time to cook from scratch.  Cooking from scratch also requires certain implements and appliances that the food insecure may not own, like large pots and pans, a multiple burner stove or an oven.

With all that said, I do still think there are lessons to be learned from old cookbooks and food traditions of the past, which is why I read old cookbooks and historical accounts of how and what people ate.  This particular cookbook, although not old as it was originally published in 1998, contains the result of research and numerous interviews with old timers conducted by the author.  It is perhaps more an historical account with recipes than it is a cookbook.  The geographical location this book discusses, southern Appalachia, has historically been and still is, one of the poorest areas of the United States.  I was very curious to see what these hardscrabble people ate and how they prepared it and to determine if I could learn something from their practices that I could pass on to people in my community who are struggling today

One of the first themes that struck me was that they ate what was available wild in their environment, when it was available.  Some of this practice will not be very practical today.  We live in more populated areas with less open spaces, so foraging off the land will not work as well today.  Additionally, we have mostly lost the knowledge of what is edible, growing wild in our wild-strawberrybackyard or local woods, but it is there.  There is a group in Philadelphia, The Wild Foodies of Philly, whose members forage in the city and there is a global organization called Falling Fruit, whose website contains an interactive map of where people are urban foraging.  Similarly, I can remember as a young girl picking wild strawberries and blackberries, winter cress, persimmons, beach plums and black walnuts, all of which were eaten by my family.  Recently someone gave me some paw paws from a nearby tree growing in a nature preserve and my husband has picked and we have eaten morels and other mushrooms growing in our woods. (A note about gathering wild mushrooms–I am not advocating for anyone to pick and consume a wild mushroom without first taking a class in mycology or going foraging with someone very knowledgeable in wild mushrooms.  Some varieties can make you sick, but others can kill you quite quickly.  Unless you can tell the difference with certainty do not consume foraged mushrooms!)  And almost everyone has dandelions growing in their yard!  I often wonder if the people who spend money on herbicides to get rid of dandelions are sometimes the same people who spend money to buy dandelion greens in Whole Foods.

In addition to wild plants, the mountain people of Appalachia supplemented their diet by hunting wild animals, like rabbit, deer, raccoon, squirrel, opossum and turkeys.  Not everyone today is interested in hunting or has the land available to them on which to huntwild turkeys.  Likewise, our tastes have changed so that few could imagine eating opossum, but I know many families locally, who still supplement their diet with venison, rabbit, wild fowl and small birds, like dove.  The Chester County Food Bank participates in the Pennsylvania program, Hunters Share the Harvest, where hunters can share extra venison with food banks.  I just had a client ask me last week if we had any venison.

With regard to produce, they ate or preserved to eat later what was in season, growing in their garden.  Not many people can or preserve food today, but it was a necessary way to stretch the summer bounty into the winter, when produce was scarce.  Today, eating seasonally is still just as wise as it was in the past, even if you do not have a garden.  Produce in season is going to be cheaper, but also will taste better and be healthier, since it was allowed to ripen fully before being picked.  Even if you do not know how to can produce, many fruits and vegetables can easily be frozen, so if one has access to freezer space, freezing summer produce can be an economical way to enjoy summer’s bounty in the middle of winter.

In conjunction with eating what was available, the people of Appalachia wasted very little.  When they slaughtered an animal or killed wild game, they used almost all parts of the animal in one way or another.  Additionally, many plant products we commonly dispose of today were in the past used in recipes, like corncob jelly and pickled watermelon rind.  While I understand that many of these historical cooking practices are not practical for today, we can take away the lesson of reducing waste in our cooking.  For instance, I just recently purchased a rotisserie chicken for a dip recipe.  Once I had picked the meat off the bones, I put the bones into a pot with a quartered onion, covered it with water and simmered it for about an hour.  When it was done I removed the chicken bones and onion and strained the remaining liquid.  This produced 4 cups of chicken stock, which only cost me my time (mostly unattended cooking) and a few cents for the onion.  Abaconnother easy practice, which reduces waste and creates cooking stock, is to save parts of produce you are not going to eat, like the end of a carrot or broccoli stalks, in the refrigerator.  Once you have a decent amount of this vegetable matter, follow the same steps as with making chicken stock. This process will result in vegetable stock at no extra cost.  Finally, I save most of the fat rendered from frying bacon.  I put it in a container in my refrigerator and use small amounts not only for frying foods, like potatoes, but also to flavor braising water for vegetables when I don’t have any stock on hand.

I thoroughly enjoyed my snow day on Tuesday, sitting with a cup of tea and a cookbook.  While I did not grow up in Appalachia, I did grow up in the country and the people and food ways described in this book spoke to me and reminded me of my childhood.   Unfortunately so much of what I was remembering from my childhood is gone.  The wild strawberries and hedgerows of blackberry canes are not there anymore.  Very little, if any, winter cress grows inblackberry the fields due to herbicides or planting practices.  My grandfather, sharer of persimmons, has long since passed away.  Like the memories of my youth, passing down the practice of cooking from scratch and cooking methods used to stretch the meager food resources of a family have largely disappeared too, especially as busy parents rely more and more on processed, already prepared, packaged food.  Unfortunately, we are losing more than we realize when we give up these practices.

Bread Need Never Be Wasted

breadAll of the talk last week about the importance of cooking from scratch put me in the mood to write about cooking again.  This time I am going to focus on what to do with stale or excess bread.  As I mentioned in a previous post, each of the pantries where I volunteer gets bread donated from large retailers who have pulled the bread from sale in their establishments.  By bread I do not mean sliced bread for sandwiches, but loaves of bread, like French or Italian bread.  These donations come in once a week.  Sometimes they are barely enough to distribute to all the clients, but other times they are bountiful.  When the donations are large, excess bread is kept in the freezer or refrigerator.  When the current week’s bread arrives, any remaining from the previous week must be discarded to make space.  A couple of weeks ago I happen to be volunteering when a large bag of bread was brought out to be discarded.  It bothered me to see perfectly good, albeit stale, bread being thrown away.  I decided to take it, with the idea of finding uses for it.

As I started going through my cookbooks looking for recipes using bread I came across the sentence I used for my title in a cookbook by Alice Waters.  Boy was she right!  Here are some of the uses for stale bread that I found.  The first use for stale bread that immediately came to mind was bread pudding.  My mother made this dessert quite a bit when I was growing up.  While I was familiar with bread pudding as a dessert, I also discovered recipes for savory bread puddings that can be used as a side dish for dinner.  Like adding raisins or other fruit to a dessert bread pudding, the savory bread pudding can be made with vegetable add ins, like winter squash, roasted peppers or eggplant.  Sticking with side dishes, a great use for stale bread in the summer when tomatoes and fresh basil are plentiful and flavorfulpanzanella is Panzanella, an Italian bread salad.  Fattoush, a Lebanese bread salad, is also good in the summer.  It is usually made with pita bread, but I have substituted a cubed sturdy loaf bread in place of the pita bread and it worked just fine.

Stale loaf bread lends itself to breakfast casseroles as well.  My kids love a baked French toast casserole I make or you could just slice the bread and make individual slices of French toast.  Additionally, there are numerous variations on the breakfast strata, which is a layered stratabreakfast casserole consisting mainly of eggs, bread and cheese.  To those main ingredients you can add any of the breakfast meats and/or vegetables like spinach, peppers or mushrooms.  The great thing about most of these breakfast casseroles is that they can be assembled the night before and would just need to be cooked in the morning.  The strata I make the most calls for ham, which is a great use for leftover ham as well.  I think stratas make a great breakfast-for-dinner meal too, add on a salad or better yet, make the strata with some spinach for a one dish meal!

The recipes I have discussed so far are dishes using bread, but stale bread can be transformed into other things to be used in recipes.  Homemade croutons are a good use for stale bread.  Just cube the bread up, toss it with some oil (preferably olive oil) and herbs or garlic, and bake until the bread has dried out.  Croutons can be tossed in a salad or served in a soup.  Similarly,croutons you can make homemade bread crumbs too.  Finally, I have made toasts for snacking.  This is particularly good if you have a baguette, as the slices are the perfect size.  I mix together spices and olive oil, then brush it on the thinly sliced baguette and bake until the slices are crunchy.  The ones I make have a spicy mixture of spices on them, but I have often wanted to try ones with a mixture of Italian spices and maybe some cheese.   Finally, bread, wrapped well, can be frozen for up to 3 months, so if  you have the ability to freeze it for a later use that is always an option too.

I did not make all these recipes with the bag of bread I brought home, but I have made a version of every recipe I mentioned, sometimes with fresh bread, but most often with stale bread which usually works better.  Although not the recipes I used, I have included links to recipes for a couple of dishes I mentioned to give an idea of what the dish is like.  One thing did concern me as I was reading over recipes, particularly the ones for casseroles.  Most of those recipes called for several eggs and a good deal of milk, or even cream.  These ingredients are often precious to people who are struggling to make food last as long as it can.  In discussing making bread pudding with my mother she mentioned she sometimes makes her grandmother’s recipe.  I knew from stories my mother had shared about lean times during her childhood, that this recipe would be a simple one yet would still taste good.  I asked my mother for the recipe and sure enough it uses less eggs, a bit less sugar and omits the vanilla all together, while still being tasty.  I have included this recipe below.  Thanks Granny, both of you!

Granny’s Bread Pudding

  • 3 cups bread torn into bite sized pieces
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • optional ingredients include 1/2 cup of raisins, blueberries or chocolate chips or a sliced banana

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix bread and milk together and let sit for 15 minutes.  Mix together slightly beaten eggs, sugar and cinnamon.  Add this mixture to the bread/milk mixture and stir.  Add any optional ingredients and stir.  Turn into an 8x8x2 inch baking dish and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Come Together, Right Now, Over Hunger


conference-save-the-date-2015This past Monday I had the opportunity to attend an anti-hunger conference, entitled Coming Together: A Community Response to Hunger, sponsored by the Food Bank of Delaware in partnership with Brae’s Brown Bags and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).  The organizers of this conference took an interesting approach and invited both adults and children to attend, so in addition to all the adult attendees, about 200 students representing several Delaware school districts were in attendance as well.   The speakers included a nice mix of local and national figures.  Panel discussions included speakers from the state government, state and federal governmental agencies, the American Academy of Pediatricians, and local and national organizations working to raise awareness of and put an end to hunger.  The attendees, including the students, were given numerous opportunities to ask questions of the panelists.  I left this conference with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future as a result of the genuine concern and eagerness to help displayed by the attending students.  I also was reenergized to continue my journey to assist the food insecure.  Additionally, I received validation for my assertion that teaching cooking skills to those experiencing food insecurity will provide them with a necessary tool to use in their struggles against hunger.

The person who inspired me the most was 11 year old Braeden Mannering, who is responsible for Brae’s Brown Bags.  In 2013 Braeden attended the Kids’ State Dinner in Washington, D.C.  This luncheon was also attended by First Lady, Michelle Obama, who asked Braeden how he was going to “pay it forward.”  He didn’t have an answer for her that day, but out of his search for an answer to that question Brae’s Brown Bags was born.  Through his3B foundation Braeden distributes brown bags, containing a water bottle, 3 healthy snacks, and a brochure listing contact information for shelters and other aid organizations, to homeless people in the area.  To date Brae’s Brown Bags has delivered over 3,000 bags to those in need.  He hopes to include specialty items, like toiletries, gloves in the winter and books for children, in the future.  It was inspiring to see what could be accomplished by a single person with an idea and the will to see that idea realized.

Not only was I impressed with Braeden, but with all the young people who attended.  One panel discussion was geared specifically for them.  Two State Senators and the Committee Chairman of the DE GOP sat on a panel and answered questions posed only by students.  The students asked well thought out questions on topics including what they could do to best help those who are hungry or whether the legislators would support certain items, like locating a food pantry in every Delaware high school.  Perhaps the bravest question came from a young lady who asked what help and advice they would offer to her and her family.  She stated that even though her mother works 7 days a week, it still isn’t enough to keep them from being hungry.  She completed her question with composure, but broke down after returning to her seat.  The legislators were visibly moved, as was everyone in the room.  It is easy to talk about hunger abstractly, but much harder when you can put a face on it and that face is standing in front of you.

Numerous topics concerning hunger and food insecurity were discussed during the course of the conference, but a considerable amount of time was given to the discussion of childhood nutrition, probably due to the upcoming opportunity to enact a child nutrition reauthorization bill.  On the topic of childhood nutrition, panelists discussed school lunch and breakfast programs, afterschool and summer nutrition programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).  Additionally, Dr. Sandra Hassink, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke about the medical implications of poor childhood nutrition.  She remarked that this is the first time in our history that we have both an obesity epidemic and significant incidence of food insecurity occurring at the same time, with the distinct possibility that people could be experiencing both problems.  Dr. Hassink also stated that it is impossible to eat healthy if you do not know how to cook and rely on prepackaged, processed foods for your meals.

Dr. Hassink’s comment about cooking wasn’t the only time that topic was brought up during the conference.  Other speakers and attendees mentioned either the importance of cooking from scratch or the unfortunate loss of knowledge in how to cook from scratch while discussing the importance of good nutrition or the task of helping people with limited resources stretch those resources.  Additionally, the importance of cooking from scratch was discussed at the table at which I was sitting.  Joining me at the table was a registered dietician from Nemours and  a group of women from the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension who staff the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).  This program provides nutrition, cooking and budgeting information to residents of DE who qualify for SNAP, WIC, Head Start or free or reduced school meals.  After listening to all the discussion about the importance of cooking from scratch, I believe now more than ever that my concern over the loss of cooking skills is well founded and warrants further exploration into ideas to help people learn cooking and other related skills to stretch their food dollars and eat healthier.

ghandi change quote


If You Teach Someone to Cook. . .

I have written previously about cooking from scratch, highlighting its decline and noting its importance in stretching food dollars.  Now I would like to share a my vision for the promotion of cooking from scratch, particularly among those who are food insecure.  I have tried to tailor my solutions to what will most likely work within my community.  I currently have two ideas for promoting cooking from scratch.  One is relatively simple.  The other one will be a bit more difficult to implement, but definitely possible.

Often people are hesitant to cook something new because they do not know how to prepare it.  I have heard anecdotal stories about the difficulty of trying to get food pantry clientskale heart to take kale when it was offered last year.  Many people were hesitant to take it because they had never eaten it or prepared it.  They didn’t know what to do with it.  The easiest step to take to encourage people to cook something with which they are unfamiliar or in a method with which they are unaccustomed, is to provide them with a detailed recipe.  These recipes would work for fresh produce and larger meat options like a whole chicken.  I envision them being written in more detail than the typical recipe to accommodate the person who has little experience cooking from scratch.  The recipes would also have a minimal ingredient list or at least include inexpensive and/or easily obtained ingredients.  In addition to offering the recipe, actually having a sample of the finished product on hand for people to try might further encourage them to take the new food item and try it themselves.

Expanding on the idea of providing a recipe, I would like to facilitate a partnership between the food pantry and another entity, like a grocery store or farmer, that would donate one more item needed for the recipe.  For instance, if a recipe for baked chicken was provided to anyone who took a whole roasted chicken herbschicken, partnering with someone who would provide the needed fresh herbs, lemons or heads of garlic, depending on what was needed for the recipe, would be ideal.  The lemon, herbs or garlic would only be available to those clients who took the chicken.  I see a similar paring with those items and various types of produce or cinnamon and a container of oats, but I am sure there are many more parings to be made.

The next obvious step to promote cooking from scratch is to demonstrate to people how to cook by offering cooking classes.  This undertaking will be more difficult in my community as the two pantries I am familiar with do not have kitchens.  To offer these classes these pantries would have to partner with local organizations that do have kitchens, like a church, fire hall or municipal building. These classes would focus on cooking from scratch with whole ingredients and teach a variety of skills, like how to get the most from the ingredients on hand, budgeting and shopping and healthy cooking.

The ingredients used in the recipes for these classes would either be things people might already have on hand, distributed by the food pantry or inexpensively obtained at a local grocery store.  The classes would include a cooking demonstration as well as nutritional information and cooking tips and shortcuts when applicable.  I would also like to see informational classes that did not necessarily involve a cooking demonstration provided as well.  These classes would cover topics like the importance healthy eating and how to achieve it, meal planning and creating a shopping list, and strategies for stretching your food dollars.

CM cooking classI am not reinventing the wheel here.  Emergency food providers across the country are already doing most of this and more.  Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end child hunger in America, has a program called Cooking Matters.  Through this program parents, caregivers and children learn about cooking, budgeting and decision making food skills to get the most out of their food dollars.  Many larger food banks across the United States offer Cooking Matters programs through their facilities.  Additionally, other large food banks have developed their own programs, as is the case with the Food Bank of Delaware.  Their program does not have a cooking class component, but it does offer informational classes to low income participants on some of the topics outlined above.

As I go forward on my journey I will endeavor to advance these ideas in my community.  The first area on which I will focus my efforts will be compiling recipes to be distributed.  In addition to recipes provided by food panty staff and volunteers, I hope to encourage those clients who do cook to share their recipes to be included in this undertaking as well.  As I gather recipes, I will share some here and I encourage those of you who like to cook to share your favorite recipes.  Provided they meet the criteria stated above, I will gladly share them with food pantry clients. recipe card

Fruits and vegetables!

butternut squashThe food pantry I was spinachvolunteering in yesterday had some of the butternut squash I wrote about a couple of weeks back.  They were also offering frozen blueberries, fresh apples and fresh spinach, which had been harvested from greenhouses just last week.  I am pleased to see minimally processed produce, even if it is frozen like the blueberries and squash, offered.  I didn’t pack too many orders yesterday, so I don’t know how readily the squash and spinach were being taken, but the apples and blueberries are always popular, particularly in households with children.


Chicken in a Pot

As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother cooked dinner from scratch most nights.  I came from a family of modest means and I understood that my mother cooking was one of the ways we saved money.  I was taught that food was never to be wasted, so we ate leftovers.  I learned that if you knew how to cook it properly, a cheaper, lesser cut of meat tasted wonderful and wasn’t tough.  But cooking from scratch means more that just knowing how to prepare food.  It means knowing how to plan meals, budget your time, make a grocery list and go shopping.

grocery listOne of the best ways to get the most for your food dollar is to create a shopping list and stick to it.  To make a shopping list, you would first need to create a meal plan so that you will know the ingredients you will need.  When planning meals, it is important to consider what is on sale, what you already have on hand and what time you have available to cook during the week.  Once you have a detailed grocery list you are ready to head to the grocery store.

It is easy to look at a grocery store’s sale circular or clip coupons and purchase the cheapest processed foods.  You may feel you are getting the most food for your dollar and possibly you are getting more items, but at what cost?  Mark Bittman wrote a good op-ed article in The New York Times, entitled Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

In this essay he compares the cost of feeding a family of 4 at McDonald’s to the cost of feeding that same family a home cooked roasted chicken dinner.  The home cooked meal is cheaper, and could cost even less if the meal was not as heavily meat based.  Additionally, one must consider the hidden cost of eating heavily processed foods–obesity, diabetes and other diseases that accompany being overweight.  What you save today, may cost you down the road in doctor’s bills and poor health.

To demonstrate how cooking from scratch stretches food dollars I will use a whole chicken versus a bag of chicken nuggets.  The price of a whole chickencartoon chicken at my local grocery store was $1.29 per pound and the average chicken weighed 7 pounds, making the cost of the chicken roughly $9.00.  The most economical bag of chicken nuggets I could find was $4.49 for a 1 pound, 11 ounce bag.  You could by two bags for roughly the same $9.00.

One can assume the chicken will contain roughly 35% waste in the form of bones and excess fat deposits.  Using that assumption, a 7 pound chicken will yield 4.55 pounds of meat, compared to 3.38 pounds of chicken nuggets from the two bags combined.  Not only does the chicken produce over a pound more meat, but once the meat has been eaten off the bones they can be used to make a soup or chicken stock.  Finally, the chicken meat is only chicken meat.  The nuggets contain other ingredients than chicken, including added salt, sugar and fat.  To illustrate the unhealthy result of the extra ingredients in the nuggets just look at the percentage of fat in the calories for each service size.  For the brand of nuggets I used as my example, roughly 60% of the calories in the nuggets were fat calories, compared to roughly 40% for the roasted chicken with the skin.  The percentage would be even lower without the skin.

Meal planning, creating a shopping list and cooking from scratch may seem time consuming and more difficult that microwaving some chicken nuggets, but they get easier with practice.  The Environmental Working Group has aEWG pamphlet helpful pamphlet, entitled Good Food on a Tight Budget, free on their website

or with a contribution you can receive a copy.  The pamphlet provides numerous tips and tools for budgeting your food dollars, meal planning and shopping.  It also contains recipes.  Having a good all purpose cookbook is a must too.  These cookbooks provide instructions for the basics like hard boiling an egg to more complicated recipes.  They also contain information on meal planning, nutrition, shopping tips, cooking techniques and other helpful hints.  The Joy of Cooking and the Fannie Farmer Cookbook are two examples of classic, all purpose cookbooks.  How to Cook Everything is a more contemporary all purpose cookbook that includes numerous variations on recipes.

joy of cooking             fannie farmer              How to cook everything

To make your food dollars stretch takes time and commitment.  The key is to know your schedule.  Try to find a block of time each week to look at your schedule and plan meals, basing that meal plan on the time you actually have to cook the meals.  When you have a day or two where you are limited in meal preparation time,  try to prepare items for those days’ meals ahead on a day off or when you just have more time.

For those who are food insecure and may never have cooked this way, attempting to cook from scratch is probably a scary prospect.  What if something goes wrong in the cooking process and the food is ruined?  They do not have the funds to just try again.  In my final installment of this series I will present some ideas I would like to see offered through my local food pantries to help those needing assistance learn how to make the most of the food they receive from the food pantry.  I know many of these ideas are currently offered at larger food banks, so if anyone has any experience with these ideas, positive or negative, I welcome the input.