Friday, March 11, 2011

Healthful snacks can be good for you and your budget

At our house, it’s not uncommon for our children to be eating one meal and already asking about what I’m serving for the next one. And my family’s food-centric ways aren’t limited to meals. Snacks are supremely important, too—even for the baby who doesn’t yet talk but who pounds on her highchair when she’s hungry between meals.

With four children, who each eat at least two snacks a day, I’m serving up a minimum of 56 snacks a week. Providing this many snacks stretches my creativity—and my budget. An extra challenge is providing healthy snacks that don’t require a lot to time to prepare. (Serving 56 snacks over the course of a week already takes a significant amount of time.)

Though the kids moon over blue yogurt in tubes and little boxed lunches with cheese and crackers, we try to avoid prepackaged (and expensive) snacks like these. Instead, we try to focus on giving them whole foods—although to be honest, they aren’t exactly gobbling up celery and carrot sticks when I serve them.

To help us keep our budget in check and to encourage the kids to eat more healthy foods, popcorn has become our go-to snack. I simply heat a tablespoon or two of canola oil in my 8-quart stock pot and drop in a half-cup of popcorn kernels. I put the lid on and stick close to the stove, shaking the pan on the burner when the popping begins to slow.

In less than five minutes, I have a bowl of warm popcorn that costs about 25 cents to make. Even drizzled with butter and a little salt, homemade popcorn is far cheaper than any microwave popcorn—and much better for us.

Popcorn also lends itself to many easy additions. These include dried cranberries, a tablespoon of apple or pumpkin pie spice, a few tablespoons of powdered sugar mixed with a little cocoa, freshly grated parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning, cinnamon and sugar, mini chocolate chips and—our current favorite—a few handfuls of mini marshmallows. Dropping the marshmallows on warm popcorn makes it taste like a popcorn ball, without any of the work.

Fruit and yogurt smoothies are another household favorite that meet the criteria of inexpensive and healthy fare. I scoop up past-their-prime bananas when my local grocery store discounts them to 25 cents a pound and store them in the freezer in their skins until I’m ready to use them.

When I need to prepare a quick snack, I defrost a banana long enough so that I can remove its skin. I drop it, along with a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt, into the blender. Sometimes I add other frozen fruit or fruit that needs to be used up, with a little honey or raw sugar. Smoothies are flexible enough that I’m generally able to use what I have on hand. Last time I made them, in fact, I even dropped in some spinach, which was stealthily camouflaged by the blueberries I added.

When my own ideas for snacks run low, I can turn to sites online for a wealth of healthful snack ideas. The Mayo Clinic site, for example, suggests stringing chunks of fruit on wooden skewers to make fruit kebabs. Parents magazine’s site touts cheese as an excellent snack, and suggests serving chunks of it to children on “skewers” of pretzel sticks. Or, if your children are reluctant to eat fruits and vegetables, Parents’ site recommends preparing zucchini bread or carrot muffins.

With a little imagination, snack time can be fun, delicious and budget-friendly for you and your children.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Warmth and better meals some rewards of cutting our food budget

Last summer, after my husband and I did some honest budget-crunching, I revealed that we were spending an average of $800 a month on food for our family of six, with approximately $200 of that amount going toward meals out. (Some months, we discovered, we spent close to a $1,000 on food. Ouch! )

At first when we realized what we were spending, we decided to cut our food budget in half. It was a drastic move that forced us to rethink how we were using our food dollars. We started using cash and reconsidered buying many of the items we thoughtlessly threw into our cart. While I’m glad we reached a new level of consciousness, we all ended up feeling deprived—and crabby.

We realized that, while we're capable of spending half as much as we once did, we honestly didn’t want to make such a sweeping change. Instead, we decided to slowly increase the amount we were spending on food, until we arrived at a level comfortable for us. As of now, we’ve determined that we’re comfortable with spending about $500 a month on groceries.

Two notable changes have taken place since our food budget revelation. First, by shopping more carefully, we have freed up cash to help us reach one of our financial goals, which was our original motivation for changing how we shopped. That goal was to install a source of backup heat, which we were able to accomplish in early fall. We now have a small gas stove in our living room, a place where we’ve been curling up and spending lots of time together on cold winter nights.

Second, as we’ve become more aware of how we’re spending, we have become more conscious of what we’re eating. We’re eating out less and preparing more satisfying and nutritious foods at home. We’ve also cut out most prepackaged foods, including things like frozen pizza and pudding cups, and we have switched to an almost all-organic diet.

Seeing our food budget through new eyes has definitely been a learning experience. Not only have I had to learn to shop differently, but I’ve also had to sharpen my skills in the kitchen. The first time I made cooked chocolate pudding from my mother’s old recipe, it was so runny that it was more like chocolate sauce than pudding.

To be honest, it’s taken some adjusting on the part of our children, as well. We don’t buy the super-sweet 8-ounce containers of yogurt or microwave popcorn anymore. But we do enjoy plain yogurt sweetened with a little honey, and popcorn made in a kettle on our cook stove. Finding suitable substitutes for the pricier convenience foods we once ate has helped with the transition. Getting my children more involved in meal preparation has helped, too.

Having my children work alongside me does take extra time (and patience), but when they’ve made an investment in what they’re preparing, I’ve found they’re much more likely to eat it. I suppose you could say buying and preparing wholesome food is the same for me: it takes time and a little bit of patience.

Still, even while I may be devoting more time to shopping or spending a few more minutes in the kitchen, we’ve enjoyed the tangible (our new gas stove) and intangible (increased energy, improved health) rewards in a way that makes this kind of conscious spending feel like a worthy pursuit.