Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ebook Readers Take Note!

If you have some means to read Amazon ebooks (a Kindle, Kindle for PC, which is free, Kindle for iPad, what have you), there is a LOT of good stuff to be found in the Kindle store.

Dana Carpender is rereleasing her books in ebook format.  I also found a very old but beloved cookbook, Harriet Brownlee's The Low-Carb Gourmet.  There are, in fact, literally hundreds of low-carb cookbooks in the Kindle store, a few outright free, others free to borrow if you have a Prime membership.

I indulged today in one of my favorite guilty pleasures.  I pulled up the Kindle store cookbooks, priced from low to high (advanced search) and looked at all the freebies.  To my surprise and delight, there were numerous ebook versions of these wonderful antique "housekeeping" books I just adore.  These are such fun.  Written back in the early 1900s and 1800s, they're aimed at young brides.  Although they may have plenty of recipes in them, they may also have sections on things like how to make furniture polish or worm a horse.  They're just delightful.

And they have that wonderful free quality I so love in a book.<G>

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Soylent Pink, a/k/a Pink Slime and Its Kin

I'm assuming everybody has heard the Pink Slime scandal.  Pink slime, euphemistically called by its makers "lean finely textured beef" or "boneless lean beef trimmings," consists of beef scraps, sinew, fat, connective tissue, and other beef deemed unfit for human consumption, ground into a fine paste.  This paste is then placed in a heated centrifuge to separate it into liquid fat and protein paste.  Finally, the lean material is processed, heated, and treated with ammonia to kill e.coli, salmonella and other harmful bacteria.  It's extruded into blocks, flash frozen and sold cheaply to meat processors as an additive to beef products.

The term "pink slime" was actually coined by Gerald Zirnstein in 2002.  At the time, Zirnstein was a microbiologist for the USDA Food and Safety Inspection Service.  But pink slime didn't hit the public in the eye until spring of 2011, when UK chef Jamie Oliver, in his show "Food Revolution," gave a thorough airing of pink slime, how it was made, and how pervasive it was in American's ground beef products -- not only hamburger patties eaten at most fast-food chains, not only in processed beef products, but even in the ground beef you bought at a lot of grocery stores.

That's when the slime hit the fan.

Since Jamie Oliver's expose, numerous new services on TV, online and in print have covered the issue exhaustively.  ABC news did a whole series this year and showed how the public perception has made itself known:  Several fast food chains stopped using the product, and some grocery stores stopped adding it to their ground beef.  The backlash was so severe that the primary company making it, BPI (Beef Products, Inc.) closed down all but one of their processing plants.

BPI and others within the beef industry have protested the public image, coining the phrase "Beef is beef" (Remember Wendy's commercial campaign against McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, "Parts is parts"?).

Here's my take on what some call pink slime, but others take a step farther and call "Soylent Pink."  This stuff started out as beef unfit for human consumption.  Now, I'm sure that after it's been folded, spindled, mutilated and ammoniated, it's safe from a bacteriological standpoint.  I'm also sure that I could pick up a piece of poo out of my cats' litterbox and ammoniate it or irradiate it or whatever until it's safe from a bacteriological standpoint.

Doesn't mean I want to eat it.

However, the beef industry does make one valid argument.  We're all outraged by the pink slime . . . but have you ever heard of "mechanically separated chicken"?  Maybe you have, maybe you haven't, but you've probably eaten it.  If you've ever put a chicken nugget in your mouth, you've eaten it.  If you've eaten a hotdog or a slice of bologna in the past few years, you've almost certainly eaten it.

Mechanically separated chicken is the pink slime of the poultry world.  Stripped chicken bones are run under a high pressure stream of water which blasts any remaining meat, sinew, veins, connective tissue and gristle from the bones.  This appetizing mishmash is pureed into a batter consistency.  It's then used to make chicken nuggets or as an extender.  Now, let me add an aside here for fairness' sake:  McDonald's hasn't used mechanically separated poultry (MSP) for a few years.  They now use only white meat in making their nuggets.  But nuggets you buy your kids at the grocery store aren't nearly so finicky.  'Nuff said.

I bet you thought hot dogs and bologna were made with beef and/or pork.  Surprise, surprise!  Unless your hot dog is specifically labeled "all beef," chances are the first ingredient is mechanically separated chicken.  The same with bologna.  They may not contain any beef or pork at all.  And the quality of ingredients only go downhill from there.

As Alice Cooper would say, welcome to my nightmare.

There are, I guess, two important points to be drawn from this whole thing.

First, don't put any food blithely in your mouth without knowing what's in it.  Okay, when you're in a restaurant, it may not be easy to learn exactly what's in every bite, but when you're in a grocery store, you have no excuse.  None.  Read the F-ing label, and if you don't like or don't recognize something on that label, don't eat the product!!!  (Now, that said, I do have to add a disclaimer.  Our beloved USDA, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the pink slime counts as "beef" and doesn't have to appear on any label as an ingredient.  So yes, we were snookered.  We had no way to know we were eating this horrible crap.  What I hope we've all learned from this is to ask questions.  And if you don't get satisfactory answers, ask more questions.)

And second, learn to cook things yourself.  Yes, from scratch.  Want chicken nuggets?  There's no magic secret known only to fast food chains.  It's not rocket science.  Cut up some nice chicken breast into bite-sized pieces and bread them with parmesan cheese or nut meal or pork rinds and seasoning and make chicken nuggets.  They're delicious.  I should know, my husband and I have done it several times.  I've even made low-carb sweet and sour sauce to dunk them in.  Don't settle for inferior food made with dubious (to say the very least) ingredients.  Learn to make it yourself and eat it with a clear conscience.

The latest venture at Casa Logston is homemade sausage.  We actually took a fascinating and fun sausage-making class.  We have a nice meat grinder attachment on my stand mixer.  Considering what probably goes into bulk breakfast sausage, I see a lot of homemade frozen sausage patties in our future.  And by strange coincidence, I just happen to have a pork shoulder sitting there in the fridge.  Hmmmm . . .

Wake up and smell the Soylent Pink, people.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cool trick if you love ghee!

Have you ever had ghee?  It's similar in principle to clarified butter, but clarified butter is generally served melted and liquid, whereas ghee (the Indian name) is the name for the butterfat itself, whether it's melted or solid.  Basically, ghee is pure butterfat with the milk solids removed.  It has a delicious toasted, nutty flavor.  Because the milk solids have been removed from the butterfat, ghee cooks much better at higher temperatures than regular butter can, because there's no milk solids to burn.  The only downside is that making ghee takes time and supervision.

Or not.

Today I learned a really amazing way to make large quantities of ghee for all your cooking needs.  It couldn't be easier.  Just plunk two or three pounds of butter (preferably unsalted) into your slow cooker.  Cook on low until the butter is melted and the milk solids rise to the surface, somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half.

Skim the milk solids from the surface of the liquid with a spoon.  Then either ladle out the clear liquid, or pour it through cheesecloth to strain out any remaining milk solids.  And there you are, an ample supply of delicious homemade ghee.  It keeps a lot longer than plain butter and can be frozen as well.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Just so you don't think I'm abandoning my blog . . .

I've been busy preparing for a convention that I attend every year over Memorial Day weekend and the days surrounding it, so things have been kind of frantic and there probably won't be anything more until sometime next week.  I'll be off at a convention, leaving my poor Paul at home to fend for himself.  He enjoys this weekend, because it gives him a chance to play around with low-carb meatloaf (I loathe meatloaf), corned beef and the like that I never, ever eat.

See you all next week!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Low Carbing On A Budget Part III -- Couponing 101

I’m sure everybody has seen, or at least heard about, Extreme Couponing, where couponers walk into a grocery store, load up eight shopping carts, present a stack of coupons two inches thick and end up paying a dollar for $1,000 worth of groceries.

That’s not going to happen to you or me.

There’s several reasons for this.  First, let’s get the biggie out of the way:  The people on these shows aren’t doing their ordinary grocery shopping.  They’re showcasing one shopping trip where they’ve cherry picked a list that corresponds with the most spectacular coupons just so they can show they can save 99% plus of their bill under absolutely perfect conditions.  Even for them, these are atypical shopping trips.  Most of us aren't going to go to the store for 200 boxes of Cheerios.  Even if we ate Cheerios in the first place.

Let’s face it:  Low carbers are never going to get the kind of results other couponers will.  Why?  Because we buy (or at least should buy) heavily from the fresh produce and fresh meat counters where coupons are rare.  For the most part, food coupons are for heavily processed foods which, hopefully, we aren’t buying.  That doesn’t even take into account that these extreme couponers are spending a huge chunk of time (often over 40 hours a week) clipping coupons and searching out deals.  They also usually have a ginormous stockpile occupying their entire garage and/or multiple rooms in their house.  So unless you’re prepared to make couponing your actual profession, you can’t hope to equal their results.

However, couponing can, with very minimal time and effort and without a ginormous stockpile, be a wonderful asset for low carbers, and I’m going to show you how to do it.

First, realize that while there aren’t many coupons for fresh meat and produce, you do eat a lot of things that aren’t fresh meat and produce, such as oils, dairy, eggs, condiments, cheese, beverages, frozen or <shudder> canned vegetables, sweeteners and so on.  Also, remember all the consumables around your house that aren’t food?  Household cleaners, paper and plastic products, health and beauty products, pet supplies, and over-the-counter medications and so forth.  All of these are ready coupon candidates.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I only started using coupons early last year.  I’d watched Extreme Couponing, but somehow it all seemed like (a) too much trouble, and (b) inapplicable to me as a low carber.  Then, after a shopping trip to Meijer, I was ready to throw out the Catalinas that printed out at the register, but . . . I looked.  There in my hand was a coupon for $7.50 off my next meat purchase of $25.00 or more.  I had almost thrown away $7.50.  What low carber doesn’t spend $25 on meat on a shopping trip?  That was the beginning for me.  I went home, got online and did some research, and picked my jaw up off the floor when I realized just how much money I’d literally trashed over the years.  If I’d started couponing back when I moved out of my parents’ house 27 years ago, I probably would have saved enough money over the years to go out and pick a new sportscar off the lot.  Still, better late than never.  I’ve saved hundreds of dollars this year alone, and you can too.

If you followed my earlier instructions, you already have a list of your favorite consumables, food and otherwise, from your store price comparisons earlier.  If you have trouble making this list, just walk through your day, and while you’re in the bathroom, kitchen, pantry or the laundry room, open the cabinets and look at what’s in there.  Make your list and break it down into categories.  I break my list down by the aisle at the grocery store I usually shop at:  Produce, Meat/Fish, Deli, Frozen, Beverages, Snacks, Canned, Condiments, Baking Aisle, Dairy, Paper/Plastic, Cleaning, Health/Beauty, Pills (for me, this encompasses both over-the-counter meds and supplements) and Pet Supplies.

Invest in a coupon organizer wallet, or, if you’re ambitious, a three-ring binder with clear pocket sheets of various sizes.  My coupon wallet (here’s the exact one I use, if you care: has dividers labeled with the same categories I just listed above, so I can neatly store my coupons.  This wallet is perfectly adequate for my purposes and (important to me) small enough to go in my purse, but you can always go big with a large coupon organizer like this ( or a three-ring binder.  Don’t get overexcited and spend a bunch of money on some fancy coupon binder “system” on eBay.  Make your own dividers and buy some cheap clear plastic pocket pages with varying size pockets for varying size coupons.  The goal here is to save money by couponing, not eat up all your savings buying couponing “supplies” that you don’t even need.

I refuse to carry a huge binder or box of coupons with me to the grocery store.  It gets me stressed and confused.  If you get so far into couponing that your stash of coupons outgrows your coupon wallet, my advice is to buy a cheap cardboard expanding file folder, label it, keep your coupons in there, and then transfer what you’re going to use on a particular shopping trip into your coupon wallet.

Don’t go to the other extreme and just shove your coupons into an envelope or your pocket.  Your coupons will get crumpled (bad if you have to feed them into a slot at the register), mixed up, and possibly forgotten.

Where To Get Coupons

The first and most obvious answer is, of course, the newspaper, generally the Sunday paper.  There are two main newspaper coupon inserts, SmartSource and RedPlum.  Once a month is the big, wonderful Procter & Gamble coupon supplement.  There are also other coupons to be found in the newspapers, such as Walgreens flyers and weekly newspaper magazines.

Now, let me state at the outset:  I neither run around begging people for coupon inserts, nor do I comb through recycling bins or dumpsters looking for them.  I’m too proud and too lazy.<G>  That said, my parents, who live in an independent living apartment, save their coupon inserts for me (in exchange, I do their grocery shopping and coupon for them<G>) and their neighbor’s as well.

Magazines often contain coupons.  If you already subscribe to a magazine, fine, but it generally isn’t worth it to subscribe to a magazine just for the coupons.

If you get serious about couponing, online coupon clipping services can be worthwhile.  I buy some coupons from Coupon DeDe’s (  There’s a small “handling fee” per coupon, as well as postage to mail them, so this kind of thing is most useful if you’re going to use a lot of coupons.

Some coupons can be found right on the product.  Peel-off coupons can be used at the time of checkout.  Other times coupons can be found inside the packaging or printed on the packaging, to be cut out for later use.

Catalinas are paper coupons printed out at the register, so named because the machine itself is branded Catalina.  These coupons are a wonderful, wonderful resource.  Catalinas are one of the few sources of coupons for fresh meat or produce and for store-brand products.

You can often get coupons direct from the manufacturer.  Some manufacturers have downloadable printable coupons.  Others, if you write or email them about their product, will mail you coupons.  Many manufacturers will mail you very high-value coupons just for contacting them and asking a question or showing interest.

There are numerous sites for free online printable coupons, such as  Most grocery stores accept printed coupons, but some don’t.

Store loyalty cards can give you a double or even triple savings.  Take the Kroger Plus Card, for example.  Every week in the weekly sales flyer you’ll see special discounts for Plus Card holders.  Additionally, if you set up an account on the Kroger web site, you can download digital coupons directly to your Plus card.  These coupons are automatically applied when you scan your Plus card at the register and check out.  And finally, every time you check out and use your Plus card at Kroger, a certain number of points are accrued on your Plus card, corresponding to the size of your purchase.  You can use your Plus card and these points at Kroger gas stations (and, to a lesser degree, at a couple other gas stations, such as Shell) for gasoline discounts.  For instance, if you have 100 points, you get a 10-cent discount per gallon, 20 cents for 200 points, up to $1 off per gallon.

If you have friends or other family members who coupon, consider a coupon swap wherein you cut out the coupons you want from an insert, then pass the rest on to others, and they pass theirs on to you.  Most manufacturer’s coupons are good for at least a couple of weeks, so you can even swap coupons by mail.

How To Combine Coupons

Yes, you can combine coupons.  You can’t stack up three identical coupons and use them all for one product, but you can combine coupons from different sources.  Say that you have a manufacturer’s coupon from SmartSource for 50 cents off a tube of Colgate toothpaste.  There’s a Walgreen’s store coupon for 25 cents off that same tube of Colgate toothpaste.  You can use both coupons for a total of 75 cents off that tube of toothpaste.  Or say that I have a digital coupon downloaded to my Kroger Plus card.  I can use a paper manufacturer’s coupon for the same product.

Now, let me add two disclaimers here.  First, read the coupons.  They often have limitations on them, such as “limit of four like coupons per purchase” or “cannot be combined with other offers.”  Also, be sure your coupon hasn’t expired and that it isn’t another store’s coupon.  Some stores will actually accept expired coupons or coupons for other stores, but most won’t.  Second, know your store’s coupon policies.  For instance, some stores double coupons under $1 all the time, or certain days of the week.  Some stores don’t double, period.  Other stores double coupons under 50 cents.  It’s worth your time to find out the store’s coupon policies and make notes for yourself for the future.  Few stores actually post, either on the premises or on their web site, their coupon policies.  You’ll have to ask.  Brace yourself and do it.  It’s less embarrassing than a misunderstanding at the cash register.

To Stockpile Or Not To Stockpile?

The couponers on the show have big, rather intimidating stockpiles.  I don't have the space for a large stockpile or the patience to rotate stuff.  My "stockpile" is two sets of cheap plastic Plano shelves in my laundry room and a stack each of toilet paper and paper towel packages in the garage, and my Plano shelves are nowhere near full.  I don't have room or time for more.  I only stockpile everyday items that are relatively non-perishable, like toothpaste, deodorant, paper goods, laundry detergent and so on.

That said, when you happen on a really great bargain at the store, it does pay to stock up if you have the money and space to do so.  You don't have to go crazy with it.  Chances are the same great price will come up again in a few months.  But when shank-end hams go on sale at Kroger for 77 cents a pound, I get three or four and put them in my upright freezer.  I've got five boxes of Splenda packets that cost me nothing, after sales plus coupons.  My 18-cent Speed Stick deodorants would last Paul and me probably a year, and my $1 bottles of Tide detergent will keep us in laundry for at least a few months.

Make your own decision about stockpiling based on your available space and personal preference.  If you don't mind stocking up when a great bargain rolls around, you'll save more.  If you can't, you can't.  Simple as that.

Now, Put It All Together – Combining Sales and Coupons

You have your list of commonly-used consumables and prices.  You have your weekly sales flyers.  You have your coupons.  Now is the time to find some serious bargains.

Look, Cascade ActionPacs are on sale at Kroger.  Ordinarily I could get them a little cheaper at Wal-Mart, but at the sale price it’s much cheaper at Kroger.  And look!  There’s a digital coupon for 25 cents off that I can download from the Kroger web site to my Plus card, and I’ve got a manufacturer’s coupon for 50 cents off.  On Thursdays, my Kroger doubles coupons under $1, so if I buy the Cascade on Thursday, I can get $1.25 off the sale price of the product.  Wow!!!

When you make up your shopping list for each store, arrange your list under the same categories you do your coupons.  If you have a coupon for some item, put a little “C” next to it so you’ll remember to get that coupon out (you can break it down to “MC”, “DC” and/or “SC” if you have both manufacturer’s coupons, digital coupons and/or store coupons for an item).  That way you'll remember to have all your paper coupons out and ready at checkout.

To Make It Easier

All of this sounds terribly complicated, but it’s not.  First of all, at least some of this, like menu planning and knowing the price spread between your local stores, are things you should be doing anyway.

You don’t have to devote a lot of time and energy to saving money.  Most of it can be done sitting at the computer.  I spend about a half hour a week, if that, clipping and filing coupons, including discarding expired coupons.  I spend about another half hour late Wednesday night or Thursday morning looking at the weekly ads, planning my weekly menu and printing out my shopping lists.  In exchange for that hour of time, I’ve eliminated all but one or two grocery trips (depending on whether I’m going to more than one store) and a lot of time, effort and confusions.  No, I don’t save 99%+ on my grocery bill, but it’s very, very common for me to save over 50%.  (In case you're curious, my top savings on a grocery trip was 77%.)

You can buy books on couponing, but it seems ridiculous to me to spend money learning how to save money, particularly when there are so many free resources available online.

Here’s a couple of essential couponing resources:  This is where every couponer should get started.  Don’t feel like you have to buy her book.  The information on the site, and the lovely downloadable .pdfs, will answer all your questions and talk you through everything step by step.  The database is very valuable.  Sign up for the newsletter.  Seriously.  This is a daily newsletter every couponer should sign up for.  It will steer you towards the best deals as well as delineating how you can combine this coupon with this sale to get incredible prices.  I mentioned this earlier, but this is the best coupon service I’ve found, so if you want 20 of that wonderful $1.00 off Mio coupon, you can do that without buying 20 newspapers.  They mail the coupons very quickly, so you can confidently buy a coupon that's going to expire in, say, five days.

If you feel intimidated, start slowly.  Check out one week's Catalinas and newspaper insert coupons and set aside only those for products you use anyway.  If you need any of those products, then use the coupons even if the products aren't on sale.  Some savings is better than full price!  Those big ticket "Sale plus store coupon plus manufacturer's coupon equals a free product" items aren't nearly as common as the TV show makes them appear.  But every coupon you use is money in your pocket, regardless!

Low Carbing On A Budget Part II -- Menu Planning

I can’t emphasize this enough.  Menu planning:  It’s not just a good low-carb strategy and a time and energy saver, it’s a savings imperative.  If you implement only one savings strategy, it should be this one.  Menu planning will not only keep you from straying off plan, getting stressed out with last-minute “Oh, my God, what can I fix for dinner?”, but will keep you from wasting food.  Menu planning can take into account unexpected schedule changes, abbreviated time available for cooking, nights when you’re just too pooped to cook, and unexpected guests.  I’m going to talk you through a week’s menu planning at Casa Logston.

Because Wednesday is the day my Kroger’s puts meat into the Manager’s Special section, I go to Kroger on Wednesday.  There’s a nice chuck roast there.  While I’m there, I notice that chicken drumsticks are still on sale for 79 cents a pound.  From my comparison list, I know this is a great price.  Tomorrow the new weekly ad comes out, so I won’t have that price tomorrow.  So I’ll snag a package now.

I’m a late-night worker, so after midnight, sitting at my computer, I’ll pull up the local stores’ weekly flyers.  I’ve already got the chuck roast and the chicken legs; that’s two meals.  Paul and I love “breakfast for dinner,” but I don’t have to buy anything for that; I already have bacon and sausage in the freezer, and we never let the egg supply get low.  Leftover bacon and sausage will become quiche makings, so there’s two more dinners taken care of, although I’ll need leeks for the quiche; I’ve already got cream, frozen chopped spinach, and cheese.  That’s four dinner entrees.  I still need two dinner and two lunch entrees (Paul and I sleep late on weekends and only cook two meals, and we eat out on Mondays) and veggies to go with everything.

Kroger has whole chickens on sale.  A whole chicken makes two meals – roast chicken for one, and chopped leftover chicken to cook with shirataki noodles to make chicken and noodles.  Meijer has ham shanks at a great price; that can go in the crockpot.  Meijer also has a good price on ground chuck – that means hamburgers and shepherd’s pie.  Okay, I’m set for meat.  Now I need veggies.

Meijer has the better price on cauliflower, so I’ll get two for the shepherd’s pie and two more besides, because we love cauliflower; I already know I’m going to Meijer for the ham and ground chuck.  Zucchini looks good at Meijer, too, and asparagus.  I’ll also get salad greens here.  Our Kroger’s produce section sucks, but two heads of cabbage are cheap and hard to abuse too badly, and they have bagged turnip greens on manager’s special – those will be great with the ham – and I mustn’t forget my leeks. 

Right now, my tentative dinner pairings would go something like this:

Chuck pot roast and lemon pepper cauliflower
Roast chicken and stir-fried zucchini
Ham and turnip greens
Shepherd’s pie and fried cabbage
“Breakfast for dinner”
“Heroin” chicken legs and coleslaw

And lunches:

Hamburgers and asparagus
Bacon, sausage, leek, spinach and cheese quiche (two quiches) and salad

Yes, there are leftovers here that aren’t used in meals, plus a whole second quiche.  There’s a reason behind this.  I work from home.  Leftovers, including the chicken and noodles I planned, are my lunches, together with salads.

Note that I’ve located the pot roast, the roast chicken, and the ham at the beginning of my schedule.  I do this because I want the leftovers from those meals to use as my own lunches and as ingredients in other things throughout the week.  However, for example, if I knew Paul was going to be working very late on Thursday, I might schedule the ham for Thursday, because it can happily sit in the crockpot, and by the time Paul gets home, I’m not going to feel like putting a lot of effort into cooking, so the turnip greens will be quick and easy.  I’ve paired the hamburger and the asparagus because we love grilled asparagus and it’s handy to cook them both on the grill, but I could, if I chose, serve the asparagus with the chicken and make marinated grilled zucchini with the hamburgers.  I also make sure that I’ve got enough ham and turnip greens to take some over to my parents, because they adore my crockpot ham and turnip greens.  When I caramelize the onions to go in the shepherd’s pie, I’ll caramelize enough for the quiche, too, and pre-prep the leeks in the same skillet after I’ve removed the onions – that way I’ll have nothing to do for the quiche but assemble and cook it, which makes it extra easy for a lazy weekend lunch.

By and large, Paul and I are “meat and veg” or “meat, veg and salad” eaters, but I’ll throw in a little extra variety – Meijer has chayote at a decent price, so I’ll make a pan of mock apple brown betty for a vegetable “dessert” with the pot roast.  Mac and cheese made with shirataki noodles will make a second side with the ham and turnip greens.  My extra head of cauliflower will make Cauliflower “rice pilaf” to go with the chicken legs.  I’ll make flaxmeal pancakes for our dinner “breakfast” and MIM buns for our hamburgers.  All these extra touches take little effort, but they’re what make the difference between a frugal, healthy meal and a wonderful frugal, healthy meal.

You can see how I’ve planned my menus not only around what’s cheap at the store, but also to minimize work on my part, and to take into account my and Paul’s schedules as well.  I’ve saved myself a lot of money and time – no last-minute emergency runs to the store – and I know exactly what to fix and when, and I’ve planned in treats to make sure I’m not tempted to stray.  Just that small bit of pre-planning has eliminated unnecessary spending, stress and waste, and assured my lunches for the week as well.

Low Carbing On A Budget, Part I

One complaint frequently heard in the low carb community is:  “But low carbing is so expensive!”

It’s true that a good low-carb way of eating is based around fresh vegetables, low-glycemic fruits, nuts, fresh meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy.  It contains none of the less-expensive items that serve as fillers and meal extenders in the standard American diet – rice, pasta, potatoes and bread.  On the surface, it looks a lot cheaper to feed yourself and your family the old carby way.

It is possible, however, to eat very inexpensively on low carb and, with a little extra effort, find that you’re actually spending less per month than before.

If you look at the SAD (Standard American Diet), you’ll find that Americans consume a really amazing amount of empty calories – foods that have no nutritional value whatsoever and aren’t even aimed at filling the stomach, like candy and other sweets, soda, alcoholic beverages, and snack foods that are pretty much starch and air.  All these foods cost money.  Conversely, eliminating them from your diet saves you money.

An average American eats out five times a week.  When you eat out, you’re paying for a lot more than food.  You’re paying for real estate, construction, decoration, utilities, advertising, employee benefits and a whole host of other overhead expenses that have absolutely nothing to do with the food on your plate – and that’s not even counting the markup imposed for profit.  You’re also paying for the filler in your taco meat or your hamburger, the thickener and artificial flavoring in the packaged stock substitute in your soup, the high fructose corn syrup in your salad dressing and the trans fats in your french fries.  All of that adds up to money you could be spending on healthy, fresh, delicious food that you will love and that will love your body right back.

Americans spend over 60 billion dollars per year on diet programs and products.  Because they’re looking for the magic pill, the magic button, the quick fix instead of a lifestyle change they can stick with for the rest of their life, well over 90 percent will give up and gain back every ounce they lose and probably more, so that’s money basically flushed down the toilet – and the next year those same people will go out and spend 60 billion dollars again on the next gimmick.  You don’t need to spend money on weight loss accessories, memberships and programs.  Read a few low carb books at the library and pick up the one you choose at the used bookstore.  That and commitment are all you need.

Having cut empty calories, excessive dining out and weight loss “stuff” out of your food budget, I’m now going to show you how to save even more.

Part I:  Bargain Hunting for Low Carbers

The Real Cost of Food:  How to Read A Label

The first thing you need to do is learn to read a label.  No, don’t just look at the price tag and the carb count and put it in your cart.  Let’s read that label.  The whole thing.  Then we’re going to look beyond that label.

Pick up a can of store brand green beans.  Okay, it says 14.5 ounces.  Turn it over and look at the back.  It says that this can contains four servings of green beans.  That means 3.6 ounces of this can’s contents is one serving, right? 

Now let’s look at the ingredients.  What the heck is this?  I didn’t know green beans had “ingredients.”  But there they are.  You’re paying for green beans, water and salt.  (You’re also paying for the can, the label, the factory where it was canned, the advertising campaign and the CEO’s sportscar, but we won’t discuss that right now.)

Now let’s open the can and dump the contents out into a bowl.  Wow!  You didn’t realize so much of that can’s contents were water, did you?  You’re paying for all that tin-can-and-salt-flavored water, too, unless you drink it when you cook the green beans. 

Let’s drain the green beans carefully and weigh the beans alone.  Wow!  Only 8 ounces – about half the can.  Since the can is supposed to be four servings, let’s divide our green beans by that, so we end up with two-ounce servings.  Pretty puny serving, isn’t it?  Now, let’s remember that the USDA defines a “serving” of vegetables as ½ cup.  Okay, how many real half-cup servings of actual green beans are really in this can?  In all practicality, two and a half.  Divide that by the cost of the can.  That’s your real cost per serving.  Suddenly these green beans aren’t such an excellent bargain after all.  You could buy frozen green beans for less money per serving and get a much higher-quality product, for no more work than the canned product.

Let’s take another example, a box of Hamburger Helper.  Don’t forget, this is not the cost of the finished product.  You’ve still got to add in the pound of hamburger.  Let’s look at Bacon Cheeseburger Macaroni flavor.  For right now, let’s not even consider the fact that what they call one serving contains 21 grams of carbohydrates.  Let’s go straight to the ingredients.  Remember that ingredients are listed in order of content.  In other words, the further down the list you go, the smaller quantity of that ingredient is included in the package, much less the finished food.

The first thing that stands out in my mind is, look how far down the list of ingredients you have to go before you come to any real food.  There’s “imitation bacon bits” up near the top, but you have to get quite a ways down the list of ingredients before you come to rendered bacon fat, cooked bacon, or cheddar cheese.  That means most of this packet’s contents are nutrition-free starches, sugars, partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), artificial colors and flavors, and various other chemicals – texturizers, stabilizing agents and preservatives.  That means that the vast majority of what you’re paying for (well, apart from the packaging, the advertising and so forth) is a handful of starch, sugar and chemicals.  And that handful of starch, sugar and chemicals, combined with 1/5th of a pound of hamburger, is what General Mills considers a meal for you.  Yum!  All guaranteed to give you a maximum spike in blood sugar, increased weight and pretty much zero nutrient intake.  Except for what’s in the hamburger, of course, and you’re not paying General Mills for that.

Learn to read a label and buy only what you want to pay for.  There’s absolutely no reason to waste your money on trans fats, unidentifiable chemicals, fake flavors and colors.  There are plenty of ways to stretch your pound of hamburger and your dinner dollar while eating tasty, nutritious real food, and I’m going to show you how to do it.

Store Savings:  Shopping for Savings

One obvious way to save money is to shop store sales; however, like labels, you can’t take store sales at face value.  We are living in the golden age of smart shopping.  The internet is a fantastic shopping tool that will save you not only money, but time and effort.

Where I live in Indianapolis, the grocery sources in my close vicinity include a Marsh Supermarket, Kroger, Meijer, Target, and Wal-Mart.  Sitting here at my computer, I can pull up the weekly ads for all five of these stores.  Both Marsh and Kroger have boneless, skinless chicken breasts on sale – but at Marsh they’re $2.29 a pound and at Kroger they’re $1.97 a pound.

Even before you cruise sales, however, it’s always a good idea to compare everyday prices at various stores around your home.  Make a list of your most commonly purchased food items (and save yourself some time for a later step and include non-food items too!), and whenever you visit your local stores, write down the prices and whether it’s a regular price or a sale price.  You’ll be astonished at the difference in cost from store to store.  My husband and I adore Fage Greek Yogurt.  It’s a pricey item, rarely on sale, and there are almost never coupons for it.  At Meijer it’s $1.69 apiece.  At Kroger, it’s $1.29.  At Target, however, it’s $1.27.  So unless there’s a sale, it would make sense to buy it at Target.  BUT, Kroger often has it on sale, 10/$10.  Additionally, I do the majority of my grocery shopping at Kroger, and I get fuel discount points on my loyalty card there.  So unless I have other items I want to buy at Target, the extra trip probably isn’t worth it. 

On the other hand, let’s take frozen vegetables.  A pound of store brand frozen green beans would cost me $1.09 at Meijer, $.87 at Target, a whopping $1.17 at Marsh, $.99 at Kroger – but wait a minute!  Here’s a common store trick:  Kroger’s bags of store brand frozen vegetables are only 12 ounces, not a pound, so 16 oz of Kroger brand vegetables actually costs $1.32 a pound.  That’s a 45-cent spread, and something I’d definitely take into account when I read the weekly sales flyers.  A sale price of $1.07 at Marsh for those green beans sounds great on the surface, but it doesn’t mean much when I can get them 20 cents cheaper at Target every day.

Once you’ve scouted established prices and sales at your local stores, then plan your menus around what’s on sale.  Most stores that have an online web site have a neat feature:  The shopping list.  You can open the weekly ad, click on the items you plan to buy, add any other items that aren’t in the sale flyer, and print up your shopping list for that store.

While you’re shopping, don’t forget that not all sales are advertised in weekly sales flyers, so be on the lookout for unadvertised specials.  Many stores, for example, don’t advertise specials on the store brand products in their weekly flyer.  My husband loves the Kroger brand carbonated fruit waters.  Ordinarily they’re 85 cents each, but they’re frequently on sale for 75 cents, which is never advertised in the flyer.

Look also for closeouts and manager’s specials.  I use Burt’s Bees lip balm.  Because the company was going to a new label design, the old lip balms, normally around $2.50 apiece, were on clearance at CVS in baskets at the end of the aisle for 49 cents apiece!

Find out which day of the week your local markets receive their deliveries of meat and produce.  When they put out the new, the old usually goes on “manager’s special.”  My Kroger puts meats on manager’s special on Wednesday, so I’ll always go to Kroger’s on Wednesday to check out the specials.  Since the new weekly ad comes out on Thursday, I can take into account the meat I just purchased on Wednesday when I make up my new shopping list and menu plan on Thursday.

International Groceries – A Hidden Asset

If you’ve never shopped at an ethnic grocery store before, you’ve been missing out.  These stores are a low carber’s best friend for numerous purchases:

Produce.  There’s a large international market called Saraga about 20 minutes’ drive from my home.  The produce department is gigantic, the assortment unbelievable, and the produce is much less abused than what I find at the grocery store.  Amazingly, the prices are much lower, too, particularly for ethnic prouce like jicama, chayote, daikon radishes, avocados, bok choi and so on, which are more frequently used in various ethnic communities and therefore bought and sold in larger quantities.  Don’t hesitate to experiment!  By expanding into fruits and vegetables which aren’t commonly eaten in American cooking, you can almost infinitely expand the variety in your meals.  If you like snow peas or bean sprouts, an ethnic market is by far the best place to get them.  There isn’t enough demand for them in grocery stores, and what’s available there has usually been sitting there for a while.

Meat.  I find that meat, poultry and fish are almost invariably fresher and cheaper at a good ethnic market.  Because most ethnic cuisines have been built around frugally using every possible scrap of a butchered animal, ethnic markets sell it all, and at amazingly low prices.  “Specialty” beef shanks that cost $7.99 a pound at Meijer are priced at $1.99 a pound at Saraga.  Bone-in beef chuck roasts, which I can never find at the grocery, are readily available and cheap.  The one drawback I find is that oftentimes beef and pork aren’t divided into the same cuts I’m used to, so sometimes I’m at a loss to figure out what cut of beef this package actually is and how I should cook it.  There are huge compensations, however, by way of the huge variety of wonderful, inexpensive meats you can buy.  I adore goat curry, but try finding goat at Kroger!  Chicken feet, sold cheaply for oriental dishes, make the most incredible chicken stock you’ve ever tasted.  If I buy a whole fish at Saraga, the fishmonger will clean and fillet it for me – but unlike the fish and seafood case at Kroger, the fishmonger will also give me the head and bones for stock.  The butcher doesn’t blink an eye if I tell him I want a pound of beef or pork fat or chicken skin (I love chicken skin cracklings), beef bones or chicken backs and necks for stock.  I get them, too, often at a nominal price.

Condiments and seasonings.  You should always buy soy sauce at an oriental market.  Do not settle for the horrible American versions sold in grocery stores.  Even at an oriental market, however, read labels – some soy sauces contain wheat and even sugar.  Also, what you want for cooking is light soy sauce.  “Light” doesn’t refer to a calorie-reduced version.  Dark soy sauce is thicker, sweeter and saltier and is designed for specific dishes, cannot be used interchangeably with light soy sauce, and will completely overwhelm your stir-fries.  Other condiments that are an excellent purchase at ethnic markets are Thai fish sauce, curry pastes, hot sauces, and dry spices.

Canned goods.  If you make curries that call for coconut milk, you will pay a fortune for it at the grocery.  At ethnic markets, it’s cheap.  Canned water chestnuts and bamboo shoots are another item you should always buy at an ethnic market if possible.  If you like canned fish products like sardines and kippers, they’ll be much cheaper here.

Tofu products and shirataki noodles.  If you’ve looked into specialty low-carb foods, you’re well acquainted with these items.  Again, you’ll find a better assortment and higher-quality, cheaper products at an ethnic market, and you don’t pay the outrageous shipping costs for water-packed shirataki noodles.

Dairy.  Oriental-only markets rarely even have a dairy section, unless it’s just your regular American products.  However, international markets that sell foods of pretty much any other culture will have a dairy case that is well worth investigating.  American grocery-store feta cheese is a pale, pathetic imitation of real Greek or Bulgarian feta.  Indian markets sell paneer, an unusual cheese which doesn’t melt and so can be used in a number of interesting ways – Greek and Middle Eastern and Mexican cultures also have nonmelting cheeses, often called “grilling” cheeses.  Middle Eastern selections include varieties of yogurt and kefir.  And that’s not even mentioning the wide variety of “regular” cheeses.  Also look for cultured butter.  In America, it’s a gourmet product, but you can often find it in international stores much more cheaply.

Farm Markets – a bargain or a luxury?

I have mixed feelings about farm markets.  The term now encompasses everything from the old-fashioned mom-n-pop roadside stand, to permanent, stationary produce markets, to large and rather upscale gatherings of local farmers.

Now, before I comment on farm markets, let me say this:  I am absolutely not going to address non-genetically modified and/or organic vegetables versus “other.”  Would I dispute that an organically raised, heirloom tomato is probably better than its ordinary counterpart?  Absolutely not.  But this entry is about low carb on a budget.  So I’m going to talk about budget buying.  Someone else is more than welcome to pick up the organic/non-GMO argument and take it from there.

Mom-n-pop roadside stands can be a great bargain.  If nothing else, the produce you buy there is liable to be a whole heck of a lot fresher than what you’ll get at the grocery store, usually less bashed about, and certainly won’t have passed through so many grubby hands.  Sometimes these places even allow you to pick the produce yourself.  The down side to these stands is you have to find them and they’re strictly seasonal.  They’re also usually cash only.

“Permanent” farm markets may be indoors or indoors/outdoors.  There are two near me (they’re actually two branches of the same business) which have most of the produce indoors.  They close for the winter, but are otherwise open every day.  Sometimes I can find good bargains there, but for what’s locally in season, their produce is trucked in from out of state and isn’t any better, either from a cost or a flavor standpoint, than what I can get at the grocery store.  But there are exceptions, and sometimes they have spectacular cantaloupes, so I keep going back.

Large, rather upscale farm markets, usually selling organic produce and pastured meat, are a lot of fun to shop.  Unfortunately they’re also a lot of money to shop.  I’m sure that from a quality standpoint they’re tops.  However, the times I’ve patronized such markets, the word “budget” was the farthest thing from my mind.  If you can afford it, by all means, go for it.  But again, we’re here to talk about cutting costs.

Bulk Buying – Where and when it’s worth it

If you happen to be a Costco or Sam’s Club member (just as an example), you can sometimes luck into some wonderful bargains on produce and meat if you don’t mind buying a lot at once.  Now and again I’ll come across whole ribeyes for $3.99 a pound, etc.  Also, I find Sam’s Club is the best price on blueberries (my husband wants them on his yogurt) when they aren’t in season.  However, the mere fact of buying something in bulk doesn’t always mean a lower price.

Here’s where that price survey you made of stores in your area comes into play.  Here’s an example.  At my Sam’s Club, they have four 1-pound packs of butter for $7.88.  That’s $1.97 per pound – a pretty decent price.  However, at regular intervals, Kroger has butter 2/$3.00.  That’s $1.50 per pound.  Since butter freezes nicely, I’d be better served to stock up when Kroger has a sale.  On the other hand, if I’ve got a big family get-together in the makings and I’m caught short of butter, Sam’s Club may be the better deal, particularly if I’m already in the store to buy a couple big ol’ beef briskets or large packs of pork ribs.

The bulk bins at some grocery stores and specialty shops like Whole Foods are probably less useful to low carbers than others.  I have found some nice prices on bulk nuts . . . until I found better prices online.  Which leads me to . . .

Online shopping.

Online shopping has been a lifesaver for me.  If I have my comparison chart of everyday prices, I’m all set.  I can pull up various stores’ sales flyers online to establish the real best price of what I’m looking for, and I can not only compare online prices to store prices, but to other online prices.

If you use specialty low-carb products, online will probably be your only choice, at least for some products.  I get most of my specialty products either on Netrition or Amazon.  Netrition is reliable, has a great inventory, excellent service, and you almost can’t beat the $4.95 flat rate shipping.  I say “almost” because if you’re already an Amazon Prime member, like me, then shipping is free.  But there are a number of other valuable web sites, such as: – Bulk nuts, nut flours, nut butters – Actually the same company, but just to be contrary, both sites don’t carry exactly the same selection – A good place to see their selection, but most of their products you can find cheaper elsewhere – All manner of wonderful low carb baking stuff. – An “insider’s secret” site for pure liquid and powdered sucralose, no maltodextrin – All low carb, all the time.  Probably the best selection of ready-made breads. – Again, check out the selection, but you can get the products cheaper on Netrition. – Cheese, glorious cheese! – Supplements, but also other things such as low-carb sweeteners.

Again, compare prices.  You’ll be amazed at the difference from one store to another.  Bear in mind that even if some product costs a few cents less on, say, Netrition, if you’re already buying supplements at Vitacost, it’s probably cheaper to buy your stevia there than to make a separate purchase elsewhere.