Friday, October 21, 2011

Eat for Free!

I'm one of those nut jobs that thinks that profit and food don't mix. Food is a basic human right, and so I don't like that 14.6% of Americans struggle to put food on the table (One in six families in my city lives in food insecurity). Not okay. Then there are those of us who don't struggle to keep just any food on the table, but instead struggle to keep the right kinds on (junk food tends to be cheaper than healthy foods, unless you really know how to shop). Or we have money to eat, but it takes away from our ability to pay for other needs (health insurance, gas for the car, new shoes).

Dandelions are edible from root to flower top.
The fact is that American households spend an average of $6372 on food each year, which is around 13% of their income, and European households spend far more. Cutting the expense by even a modest 10% can help a lot. So I have made a list of ways that you can eat free. Some you may find gross, immoral, too time consuming or weird, but I'm sure you can use at least a couple. Enjoy!

Dandelion roots can be eaten as a
vegetable or roasted for a
coffee-like beverage.
Plantain seeds are great for adding
to baked goods.
Eat wild foods. Wherever you live, there is something edible growing nearby. Mushrooms, berries, nuts, fruit, greens and flowers are all possible. One of my favorite foods is dandelion which is probably growing in your yard; I eat it as a pot herb, a soup, a fritter, a wine, a tea and a coffee substitute. Get a good, local plant guide and make sure that you positively identify anything before eating it.

Eliminate waste. Even though you've paid for it, by rescuing food from the trash, you basically get free food. Americans waste around 14% of the food they buy. Using the numbers from above, that is around $892 a year. Tell me you couldn't use that kind of money. Plan to use leftovers before they go bad: have a buffet night or use for lunches. Take inventory of the refrigerator every other day and plan meals around food that is about to go bad. Don't buy more than you can use.

To cubes of dried bread, add seasoning and just enough
 stock to moisten then bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes
 for out f this world stuffing.
Eat your trash. Some parts of foods that are commonly thrown away can be eaten. Save veggie scraps (onion skins, potato and carrot peels, celery leaves, etc) in a container in the freezer until you have a good quantity. Then save the bones and skins from a chicken. Simmer together and strain for some out-of-this-world stock. Radish and beet leaves can be eaten as a cooked vegetable. Potato skins can be made into snacks. Juice apple peels and cores left over from making applesauce. I keep a container in the freezer for bits of foods such as tomatoes, leftover pasta, beans and onions and use to make Trash Chili. Stale bread can be made into any number of foods such as bread pudding, croutons, or breadcrumbs. Roast pumpkin seeds from your jack-o-lantern. Make cake pops out of dry cake.

Combine sales with coupons to get free stuff. With a bit of planning, I frequently get free food from the grocery. For example, I get a $1 coupon (say for pasta), then wait until it goes on a 10 for $10 sale in a couple weeks. When a new product is being rolled out, it is not uncommon to find coupons for a free product.

Look for neglected food in your neighbors yard. If your neighbors have fruit or nut trees in their yard that they obviously don't plan on using (the mulberries are staining the sidewalk) ask if you can harvest it for them. Offer to split it if you want, but often they'll just be glad to get rid of it. Many older homes have fruit trees left over from a more self sufficient time, and their new owners can't be bothered to harvest it all. I get lots of pears, mulberries and apples this way.

Dumpster drive. I know what you're thinking, it does sound gross. Often, however, food in a dumpster is often just as safe as it was in the store. Once food reaches its sell-by date, it's tossed, but it's not as if that date is magic and the food will instantly spoil at midnight. It's probably fine. I only take food that is in sealed containers and non-perishable (whereas others have eaten meat, produce and dairy with no ill effects). I don't take anything that leaks or bulges. Bakeries that bake everything fresh daily have wonderful dumpsters; you can fill the freezer with any excess you find. Obviously, it is a safer bet to dive a store's dumpster than a residential one.

Get online freebies. Many websites have lists of free samples that you can request from manufacturers and stores. My favorite is You just enter in your info and in 6-8 weeks, you get a mini-sized product. I've received spices, sauces, cereal, candy and granola bars. A plus is that you also receive coupons.

Ask. If you can't afford a food that you really enjoy (or need), it never hurts to ask. Write a letter to the manufacturer and ask for coupons. They'll often send them to you. As a thank-you, write a glowing letter that they can use on their website. Also, writing letters with questions, compliments or complaints will often net you great coupons.

Accept all freebies. If you are hungry, you should always say yes if offered food. Go to free community meals, such as those at churches or community centers. Sometimes chain cafes offer free coffee and samples. Sample all the goodies at the grocery store on Saturday morning.

Take advantage of work freebies. Some industries as a rule provide more in the line of free food than others (restaurants vs. construction), but it's often possible to find something. If you work in the food industry, you know all the ways to find free food: meal vouchers, discounts, discontinued products, leftovers and mistakes. Definitely make sure that you have your boss's permission first. Don't lose your job over a broken bread stick (it happened to a former coworker of mine). If you work in other industries, you may still find free food in the break room or at company parties or meetings. One of my previous employers would supply all employees with tickets to most local events. I often got tickets for pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners.

Regrow your trash. A lot of vegetables can be regrown from scraps to get more food just for a bit of water and effort. Green onions in particular are easy to regrow. Just place the white bulb of the green onion in a small glass with water covering the bottom. Place in a sunny windowsill. Change the water every day or so and it will grow new greens. You can also experiment with regrowing romaine lettuce, celery, bulb onions, lemongrass, potatoes, beet greens and bok choi. If you plant a single clove of garlic from the bulb, it will regrow a whole new bulb. (Thanks, ioianthe, for the tip!)

By using some of these tips, you can easily cut your grocery expenditures by 10%. If you really want to, you could even eliminate your grocery bill all together. If you are living with a very low income, don't be too proud to ask for help (government, community or family), especially if your children are hungry. In this civilization, there is no reason for anyone to go hungry.

From The Farm Blog HopHomestead Barn HopWildcrafting Wednesday

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Use It Up: Food containers

Many things are tossed into the garbage can when they still have lots of good life left in them. Use It Up is a section on how to use this "trash" to make new, useful items for your home or to re-purpose items to avoid a purchase.

Many store-bought food items come in reusable containers, but we tend to just throw them into the recycling bin, or worse yet, the garbage can. Even recycling, while better than throwing away, is wasteful. It takes energy to recycle the raw materials, and if you buy storage containers, you have lots of waste in the manufacture, advertising, and retail of the items.

When I buy an item, I opt for a reusable container whenever possible. Rather than buying my pasta sauce in an aluminum tin, I buy it in glass jars. By shopping sales and using coupons, I can pay the same amount for the nicer brands in a glass jar as the aluminum tin of store brand. I also use wine/whiskey bottles with a screw top, pepperoncini/pickle jars, or condiment bottles.

Clean them out very well before using. Soak in warm water for awhile so you can scrub off the label, if desired. Scrub the inside and outside and take pains to clean every last bit of food from the lid to avoid mold. Sometimes a bit of scent remains if the jar is from a strong-tasting food such as pickles or salsa, so I take this into consideration when filling the jars with bulk-purchased or home-made food items. For example, I don't store loose leaf tea in a pickle jar or sugar in a tomato sauce jar. I will, however, store rice, TVP, or beans in the more strongly scented jars. These items are not negatively affected by the scent, but absorb the smell so I can use it for something else in the future.

Tiny glass jars are great for spices. I was once given a tiny 2 ounce sample jar of peanut butter spread. This jar is the perfect size to store a frequently used spice near the stove for easy access. A fun space saving idea is to save baby food jars with metal lids. Screw the lids onto the bottom a cabinet. Fill the jars with spices and screw in. Your spices will be easily accessed while you cook, and don't take up any valuable counter space.

I once found a bottle of salad dressing with a spritz top at a bargain price. I cleaned it out very well, then refilled it with olive oil. When I pop popcorn in my air popper, I can spritz a small amount of heart-healthy olive oil onto it, rather than dousing it in butter, or pouring on too much oil. Any condiment bottle with a thin neck and a screw top can be used for homemade dressings and sauces.

When I buy cream cheese, it is the same cost to buy it in a plastic container as it is to buy it in a little box. These containers are the perfect size to freeze an individual portion of soup. This makes packing lunch for work a breeze.

An old wild-mouth jar stores bacon grease in the refrigerator to add a bit of flavor to cooking.

Wine bottles make excellent vases.

A collection of bottles of various sizes and shapes can make for a nice country decor. Fill with foods of different shapes and colors: veggie pasta, beans, TVP, rice, etc.

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