Alice Waters and others share tips on cutting your food bill

(Published by Tribune Media Syndicates, July 2009)
by Francine Segan

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we Americans spend a whopping 30 percent of our budget on food. Experts share tips to cut those costs without compromising flavor or nutrition.

Cook at home

"Learning to cook is one of the best ways to save money," advises Alice Waters, award-winning cookbook author, chef and owner of Berkeley California's renowned restaurant, Chez Panisse. "We've been told by the fast food industry that cooking is drudgery, but actually it is a relaxing, pleasurable activity that not only saves money but promotes good heath. Get the whole family involved. Kids like to be engaged and have responsibilities."

Start simply and build your cooking skills. Learn a few basics, like braising, which means slow-cooking less expensive cuts of meat to enhance flavor and tenderness. Use inexpensive flavor-boosters like garlic and onions.

Buy on sale

"Check out your supermarket's weekly discounted items before you shop, and plan meals based on what's on special. With so many great recipes at your fingertips, both in cookbooks and online, you can find a delicious way to prepare anything," points out Katie Workman, Editor-in-Chief of, a website providing recipes from the best chefs and cookbook authors.

Buy marked down slightly bruised fruit and vegetables to use in soups, stews, juice or smoothies. Blanch and freeze extras. Visit the "marked down for quick sale" bins for gently dented, but perfectly good canned and packaged goods.

Buy what's in season

"Shop for affordable seasonal ingredients at farmer's markets. Go on Saturday and take the kids so they can look at food that's real. The produce is so tasty that the kids will actually eat their veggies and there will be less waste," stresses Waters, a long-time advocate for locally grown ingredients. "Or, follow Michelle Obama's example and grow a garden, the most economical way to feed ourselves. If you don't have space, join a community garden."

Shop smart: "Make a shopping list and don't shop hungry," warns Workman, noted food blogger "A list keeps you focused and away from impulse purchases."

Rick Bayless, Chicago restaurateur, cookbook author, and host of PBS's Mexico--One Plate at a Time adds, "I know it is old, but it is true—stick to non-processed foods and you will save money." Prepare your own basics like mac and cheese, soups, and salad dressings rather than use costlier ready-made.

"Buy in bulk," continues Workman. "Divide foods into portion-sized batches." Choose family-size packages and whole chickens, instead of the more costly cut-up pieces, and freeze the extras. "The freezer is definitely your friend," agrees Bayless. "If you defrost slowly, you can really freeze most anything—meats, fish, all sorts of vegetables, and even tomatoes."

Use less protein

One chicken for 10 guests? "Yes! It is more than enough protein for everyone, and with lots of vegetables and salad, no one will be hungry," says Waters, author of eight cookbooks. "We need to reorient our menu and not focus so much on that big piece of meat." There's no need to worry about getting enough protein according to Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, "Protein is a total non-issue in American diets. It is in everything—meat, eggs, rice, beans. People who eat enough calories get plenty of protein."

"Use smaller amounts of meat as part of a stir-fry, or in a main course salad," suggests Workman. "Or omit the meat. Dried beans are the best bang for your buck on the planet. High in protein and fiber, low in fat, filling, and versatile, beans are great in all sorts of dishes— salads, dips, soups, stews, and more. And don't forget eggs and tofu, which are both very cheap and flexible proteins."

Throw nothing away

"Think soup before you toss out anything! Bones can go in the freezer and when you have enough, make stock. Extra herbs can add flavor to broth. Rinds of cheese can give sauce body and flavor. Carrots that are a little limp and sad will be fine once they are peeled and sliced for a stew," suggests Workman.

"Plan for leftovers ahead of time, before they become leftovers! Soup, pasta, potatoes and rice dishes can all make great use of leftover ingredients," suggests Waters. "For a gourmet touch that's free, grate the rinds of citrus fruit sprinkled on fish, soup, or egg dishes or to add a pleasant acidity to pasta."

Use odd bits—herb stems, vegetable peelings, and leftover meats-- to make soups or stews, which you can freeze in single serving bags. Dice leftover cooked vegetables or proteins and add them to salad, stew, or toss with cooked pasta, potatoes or rice.

Use what you have

"Shop" your pantry cabinets that may be nearing their expiration dates. Beans, dried herbs, soups and many other items can be pureed together to create tasty dips.

Look through your refrigerator and make use of remaining still-good condiments, sauces, and pickles. Add them to stews, soups, salads, stir-frys. Or make an "Everything but the Kitchen Sink Meatloaf"

Alice Waters' Spring Minestrone

Adapted from The Art of Simple Food
8 servings

A delicious budget minded one-pot main course meal. Feel free to substitute vegetables.

In a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat:
1/2 cup olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, cut into bite-sized pieces.

Cook for 15 minutes, or until tender.

4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
5 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt

Cook for 5 minutes longer.

Add, and bring to a boil:
3 cups water

When boiling, add:
2 small leeks, diced

Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for salt and adjust as necessary, then add 3 cups of cooked beans—cannellini, white runner, Great Northern, or navy-- along with:

1 cup shelled peas (from 1 pound in the pod)
1/2 pound asparagus, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal into 1/2-inch pieces

Cook for 5 minutes, then add:
2 cups spinach leaves, coarsely chopped (about 1 pound)
Cook for 5 minutes. If the soup is too thick, add more water. Remove the bay leaf.

Serve in bowls, each one garnished with:
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon or more grated Parmesan cheese

Delicious "Leftovers" Dips

Adapted from Philosopher's Kitchen (Random House) by Francine Segan

Two healthy, economical, and delicious dips using leftovers. Serve them with left over toasted bread or raw seasonal veggies for a light summer supper.

Olive Dip

Makes 1 cup

1 cup olives, any kind
1/2 cup leftover cooked vegetables, any kind
1/2 cup leftover fresh herbs, any kind
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic

Blend all the ingredients in a food processor until smooth.

Bean Dip

Makes 1 cup

2 cups left over cooked beans, any kind
1 teaspoon dried herbs, any kind
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
Juice of 1 lemon or 1/2 teaspoon vinegar

Blend all the ingredients in a food processor until smooth.

Everything but the Kitchen Sink Meatloaf

By Francine Segan
Serves 6

You can put almost anything in meatloaf. If you like the individual ingredients, you'll like the mix. Promise. The secret is in the proportions-1 1/2 pound ground meat to 1 cup dry and 3/4 cup liquid ingredients.

1 large onion, finely minced
1 large egg
1 1/2 pounds lean ground meat such as beef, lamb, pork, or turkey
1 cup dry ingredients, such as a combination of bits of leftover pancakes, cooked oatmeal, breadcrumbs, sandwiches, non-sugary breakfast cereals, or crackers
3/4 cup liquid ingredients, such as a combination of ketchup, barbeque sauce, tomato sauce, or soup
1 tablespoon of your favorite dried herbs
Salt and pepper to taste

-1-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

-2-Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix.

-3- Place onto a baking pan and shape into a rectangular loaf

-4- Bake for 50 to 60 minutes until the meat is cooked through and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reaches 160 degrees F.