Spice Up Your Meals Without Hurting Your Wallet

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A fistful of parsley dries out in the refrigerator after you used it for a dish or two. And the 15 bottles of spices on your spice rack have long lost fragrance before you noticed.

Sound familiar?

It’s a common home-cook frustration. A new recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh basil and a pinch of smoked paprika, but when you go to the grocery store, even the smallest quantities of those ingredients provide far more than you need. Why?

The answer is simple: It’s good business.

Big bunches make big money

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As far as fresh herbs go, sellers make more money off of large bunches, according to John Stanton, professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Demand for fresh herbs — like basil, cilantro, mint, rosemary, thyme, and parsley — has increased dramatically over the past few decades, thanks to gourmet restaurants, and the rise of celebrity chefs and cooking shows. Growing fresh herbs has become a high-profit niche market, experts say, but it’s costly to compete.

Because herbs are at their best when freshly picked, it is important for sellers to establish a quick supply chain. To be successful, they must develop an efficient system to move the herbs from growers to customers, Stanton said. Herbs are also more delicate than vegetables. To prevent damage to the leafy herbs and keep their attractiveness, growers, distributors, and sellers also have to handle them gently and package them properly for long shelf life.

“You cannot have the product sitting around some place too long,” Stanton said. “The withered parsley is almost as powerful as the unwithered, but it just doesn’t look good.”

The complex, labor-heavy logistics that get herbs from growers to grocers in good condition cost a lot of money. Selling herbs in large bunches — more than what a home cook may need — helps make up for these costs.

While no one wants to reveal profit margins for the products they sell, Stanton said growers profit more from fresh herbs than from competitive produce, such as tomatoes and carrots.

The struggle of minimizing waste

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Jeanine Davis, associate professor at the department of horticultural science at NC State University, said small packets of herbs are good alternatives to big bunches of cilantro, parsley, or mint.

While home cooks may avoid food waste by electing the fresh herbs that come in plastic containers, they aren’t necessarily saving money. For instance, a full bunch of cilantro costs $1.99 at Wegmans, a regional supermarket chain in the Northeast, but 0.25 ounces of the same product packaged in a plastic is priced at $1.25. The package is actually more expensive if you calculate the cost per unit. And it may still come with more than you need, as well.

If you’re more concerned about minimizing food waste, subscribing to meal kits might be the way to go. Herbs, spices and seasonings come in the exact amount you need for a dish from meal subscription services like Blue Apron or Sun Basket.

How to make fresh herbs last longer

Compared with buying smaller packages of herbs or subscribing to a meal kit, buying those big, fresh bunches of herbs is the most affordable choice. Buying more than you need doesn’t mean you’ll inevitably waste food either. Karen Kennedy, education coordinator at the Herb Society of America, shared these tips with MagnifyMoney for getting the most value out of your herb purchases:

Spices last longer but can still be problematic

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Most commonly, dried spices are sold in bottles at grocery stores. Each bottle contains a few ounces of herbs, generally about 1 to 2 ounces. Prices vary dramatically by spice.

Kai Stark, purchasing manager at Frontier Co-op, an Iowa-based natural product wholesaler that owns the organic spice brand Simply Organic, told MagnifyMoney that spices are costly because some are extremely difficult to harvest, such as saffron and vanilla, making them incredibly labor-intensive. Others are prone to crop failures, making them risky items for farmers to grow, Stark explained.

Still, many may think two ounces of nutmeg for $5 is costly, especially when the recipe calls for only a tiny bit. Stanton, however, argues that people believe that dried herbs and spices are expensive because they only think of the cost per bottle. He referred to a roasted chicken meal as an example:

“Let’s say a jar of tarragon costs about $3, and a nice chicken may cost $7,” he said. “So you put the chicken in a pan. You took a pinch of tarragon and then you put it in an oven. The cost of the meal is [actually] the full $7 dollars of the chicken and about 3 cents of tarragon.”

“It’s better to think of it as cost per use and then it’s not that expensive,” he added.

How to keep your spice costs down

The trick to getting the most value out of a spice is using the whole bottle. Even though it might seem cheaper to buy dried herbs and spices in larger quantities, Kennedy suggests consumers stock them in small amounts to avoid waste.

In the case of nutmeg, you might want to buy a 0.53-ounce bottle that costs $2.

“If you can’t use it all before the flavor diminishes, you haven’t really saved anything,” Kennedy said.

Stark said the bulk aisle would be the place where consumers should look to save money on spices.

“You can purchase the exact amount of spice you want, whether it’s a pinch or a pound,” he said.

To be sure, not every grocery store has bulk spice aisles, and there may not be a specialty spice shop in your town. If that’s not an option at your local grocer, and you feel like you’re wasting money on spices you don’t use up while they’re most potent, consider these tips:

What you can do to make spices last longer

To keep their shelf life as long as possible, Kennedy said it’s best to store the dried herbs and spices in airtight glass jars and and place the bottles in a dry, dark, and cool location. Use your nose as a judge: You may want to toss your spice jar when a strong aroma or flavor doesn’t come off right away when you open it.

“When the fragrance begins to fade, so has the flavor,” she said. Most spices are good for one year when stored properly.

Spices sitting on the shelf for a year may not smell as good as when they were freshly bought, but Stanton said that doesn’t mean they are not safe to eat.

The expiration dates on food are mostly irrelevant, said Stanton, adding that they were labeled by companies hoping that consumers would regularly toss old products and buy new ones. Indeed, expiration dates are not required by law. Industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are trying to get food manufacturers and retailers to stop labeling expiration/sell by dates to help consumers reduce food waste.

“If you have an old bottle of dried herbs, you might have to put a little more on,” Stanton said. “So instead of costing 3 cents to make the tarragon chicken, it actually costs 6 cents.”

The post Spice Up Your Meals Without Hurting Your Wallet appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How a Rice Cooker Can Cut Your Food Budget

A rice cooker can make almost everything you want in the kitchen.

A rice cooker may seem fairly limited as far as kitchen tools go. It can accomplish one simple task very well, and that’s it.

But it’s time to expand your horizons. With a little creativity, it’s possible to use a rice cooker instead of your other kitchen tools to make all your meals and save on your food budget.

How a Rice Cooker Works

A rice cooker is made up of an electric heat source, a pot and a thermostat. In normal use, you fill the pot with rice and water and heat it.

Once the water boils off, the temperature inside the pot can rise above the boiling point. Once the thermostat detects this, the rice cooker turns off or, with newer models, goes to a “warm” setting. If your rice to water ratio was correct, you’re left with perfectly cooked rice after flipping just one switch.

Many home cooks have realized that, with some tinkering, you can cook many things in a rice cooker — not just rice. The most famous proponent of the rice cooker is probably the late film critic Roger Ebert, who took a detour from cinema to write his guide to rice cookers in 2009, called “The Pot and How to Use It.”

We spoke to Neal Bertrand, a resident of southern Louisiana who published his own rice cooker cookbook, called “Rice Cooker Meals: Fast Home Cooking for Busy People.” Bertrand, through his own experimentation and the input of cooks from the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, assembled 60 recipes that can be made using a rice cooker.

‘A Portable Kitchen’

A rice cooker can make much more than rice, from pasta to seafood and even beef. And using this one tool to cook can really help you save both time and money. For example, making pasta is a matter of putting it in a bowl with water and a little olive oil, followed by all the other ingredients.

Most of the recipes just require waiting until the rice cooker switches from “cook” to “warm,” but for gumbo and other dishes with lots of liquid, Brennan recommends using a kitchen timer as well. In addition, some of the meat dishes require browning in a skillet, though he said the rice cooker can also be used to brown meat in a pinch.

For someone extremely budget-conscious, a rice cooker can potentially replace many normally-used kitchen tools, including a stove.

“I call it a portable kitchen,” Bertrand said. “All you need is a rice cooker, your ingredients and a source of electricity.”

Bertrand said readers of the cookbook had told him they were able to eat during power outages in Louisiana by plugging their rice cookers into generators.

Buying a Rice Cooker

A decent rice cooker should cost $40 or less, according to The Sweethome, a home goods review website. Using the right credit card could go along way in making that expense more affordable and in rewarding any future ingredient purchases. (Here are a few credit cards that reward you for grocery spending. But before applying, make sure to check your credit. Many rewards credit cards require good to excellent credit scores to qualify. You can check two of your scores for free on Credit.com.)

To get any potential rice cooker chefs started, we’ve provided Bertrand’s recipe for Black-Eyed Pea & Sausage Jambalaya. Bertrand said it is a favorite from his cookbook. Enjoy!

1 lb. smoked link beef or pork sausage, sliced and browned. (Browning optional)
1 (15.5-oz.) can black-eyed peas with jalapenos
1 (10.5-oz.) can beef broth
1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) uncooked white rice
1/2 stick butter, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 small bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped green onions

Brown the sausage in skillet and drain excess grease. Add all ingredients to rice cooker, stir, cover and press down COOK switch. Once the meal is cooked, and the COOK switch pops up to WARM mode, let it stand covered 10 minutes before serving.

Image: tisskananat

The post How a Rice Cooker Can Cut Your Food Budget appeared first on Credit.com.

How a Rice Cooker Can Cut Your Food Budget

A rice cooker can make almost everything you want in the kitchen.

A rice cooker may seem fairly limited as far as kitchen tools go. It can accomplish one simple task very well, and that’s it.

But it’s time to expand your horizons. With a little creativity, it’s possible to use a rice cooker instead of your other kitchen tools to make all your meals and save on your food budget.

How a Rice Cooker Works

A rice cooker is made up of an electric heat source, a pot and a thermostat. In normal use, you fill the pot with rice and water and heat it.

Once the water boils off, the temperature inside the pot can rise above the boiling point. Once the thermostat detects this, the rice cooker turns off or, with newer models, goes to a “warm” setting. If your rice to water ratio was correct, you’re left with perfectly cooked rice after flipping just one switch.

Many home cooks have realized that, with some tinkering, you can cook many things in a rice cooker — not just rice. The most famous proponent of the rice cooker is probably the late film critic Roger Ebert, who took a detour from cinema to write his guide to rice cookers in 2009, called “The Pot and How to Use It.”

We spoke to Neal Bertrand, a resident of southern Louisiana who published his own rice cooker cookbook, called “Rice Cooker Meals: Fast Home Cooking for Busy People.” Bertrand, through his own experimentation and the input of cooks from the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, assembled 60 recipes that can be made using a rice cooker.

‘A Portable Kitchen’

A rice cooker can make much more than rice, from pasta to seafood and even beef. And using this one tool to cook can really help you save both time and money. For example, making pasta is a matter of putting it in a bowl with water and a little olive oil, followed by all the other ingredients.

Most of the recipes just require waiting until the rice cooker switches from “cook” to “warm,” but for gumbo and other dishes with lots of liquid, Brennan recommends using a kitchen timer as well. In addition, some of the meat dishes require browning in a skillet, though he said the rice cooker can also be used to brown meat in a pinch.

For someone extremely budget-conscious, a rice cooker can potentially replace many normally-used kitchen tools, including a stove.

“I call it a portable kitchen,” Bertrand said. “All you need is a rice cooker, your ingredients and a source of electricity.”

Bertrand said readers of the cookbook had told him they were able to eat during power outages in Louisiana by plugging their rice cookers into generators.

Buying a Rice Cooker

A decent rice cooker should cost $40 or less, according to The Sweethome, a home goods review website. Using the right credit card could go along way in making that expense more affordable and in rewarding any future ingredient purchases. (Here are a few credit cards that reward you for grocery spending. But before applying, make sure to check your credit. Many rewards credit cards require good to excellent credit scores to qualify. You can check two of your scores for free on Credit.com.)

To get any potential rice cooker chefs started, we’ve provided Bertrand’s recipe for Black-Eyed Pea & Sausage Jambalaya. Bertrand said it is a favorite from his cookbook. Enjoy!

1 lb. smoked link beef or pork sausage, sliced and browned. (Browning optional)
1 (15.5-oz.) can black-eyed peas with jalapenos
1 (10.5-oz.) can beef broth
1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) uncooked white rice
1/2 stick butter, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 small bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped green onions

Brown the sausage in skillet and drain excess grease. Add all ingredients to rice cooker, stir, cover and press down COOK switch. Once the meal is cooked, and the COOK switch pops up to WARM mode, let it stand covered 10 minutes before serving.

Image: tisskananat

The post How a Rice Cooker Can Cut Your Food Budget appeared first on Credit.com.

How to Throw a Killer Fourth of July Cookout on a Budget

Like parades and fireworks, Independence Day cookouts are a holiday tradition. But hosting one can get costly if you don't watch your budget.

Like parades and fireworks, Independence Day cookouts are a holiday tradition. But hosting one can get pricy if you don’t watch your budget. Here are some tips for hosting a fabulous cookout this Fourth of July without going broke, courtesy of Sarah Spigelman Richter, a food reporter based in Manhattan.

1. Think Quality Over Quantity

You may think you’re getting a deal on that discount meat, but chances are the pricier goods are a better value, said Richter. Though you’ll have fewer burgers to go around, you’ll feel better about eating meat that was raised ethically and sustainably — it’s better for your health, the environment and animal welfare. Of course, “sustainably sourced everything does cost more,” Richter said, so don’t feel pressured to serve up a steak. “Go for any sort of poultry that’s interesting to you,” she said, or choose sausages, fish or ground meat. The latter is often cheaper and more delicious.

2. Serve Veggies 

“You don’t want to forget people who don’t eat meat at your cookout,” said Richter, who advised hitting the farmer’s market to stock up. “My general rule of thumb is, whatever looks best that day, get it,” she said. Veggies usually taste good either right off the grill or when they’ve cooled down, so they’re a perfect snack for after the pool. Try loading kebabs with veggies and a small amount of meat, or serve up meatless grilled mains like beans and tofu. “Things that can fall through the grates like asparagus can always be put in a foil pouch placed directly on the grill,” Richter said.

3. Grill Fruit 

The surprising, smoky flavor of grilled fruit is like “dinner theater,” said Richter, who explained that grilling brings out the natural sugars in fruit, which makes them sweeter, like caramelized onions. Remember to brush whatever you’re grilling with a little olive oil and keep a close eye on your fruit so it doesn’t go up in flames (indirect heat is best). Richter advised grilling stone fruit like peaches, plums, nectarines, pluots and apricots. Leave the skins on, then peel afterward and serve with a dollop of cool whipped cream. “It’s a really easy dessert,” she said.

4. Ask Friends to BYOB

We won’t dissuade you from stocking up on basics like water and soda, but it never hurts to ask your friends to pitch in. If they have particular tastes — yes way, rosé — encourage them to round out the offerings. As Richter jokingly put it, “Get your friends to bring exactly what they like so you don’t wind up with three bottles of white zinfandel that nobody drinks and eventually turns into vinegar in your pantry.”

5. Use Rewards Credit Cards 

If you’re going to go shopping, you may as well get a little kickback for it, which is what rewards credit cards are all about. You can earn points toward perks like gift cards, account credit and discounts at your favorite stores. Just remember to check your credit before you apply, as many issuers require decent credit in order to qualify. (Not sure where your finances stand? You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

6. Keep Side Dishes Simple 

“Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to make a risotto in the kitchen while everyone’s outside enjoying themselves,” said Richter. “Grab a bag of chips and some coleslaw and enjoy the day.”

Image: M_a_y_a

The post How to Throw a Killer Fourth of July Cookout on a Budget appeared first on Credit.com.

6 Depression-Era Money Lessons My Grandparents Taught Me

Here are the values I hold close to my heart, all these years later.

My grandparents were only children in the Great Depression, and they learned a lot from their own parents during that difficult time. When they first were married, they had no money at all. They were very, very poor. But they were happy.

These two amazing people taught me many lessons in life — how to be a good person, how to sew and so much more. I remember watching my grandfather auction off cattle and pigs. Thinking back, it really amazes me how much they taught me without sitting me down. I suppose they led by example.

Of all the lessons they taught me, some stand out more than others, of course. Here are the values I hold close to my heart, all these years later.

1. Don’t Waste Food

I remember going to my grandma’s house and opening the refrigerator, or what my cousins and I often called “the ongoing science experiment.” Inside, you would find containers with a tiny scoop of potatoes or a completely dried out stalk of corn. When we tried to throw them out, she would get upset and tell us we could still eat it (which we never let her do, by the way). Still, it served as a lesson. Don’t throw things out immediately, save it or have it for dinner the next night.

When it comes to food, make sure you only purchase what you will eat. That way you’ll waste much less.

2. Know Your Wants Vs. Needs

The needs in your life include food, clothing, shelter and utilities like water and power. Your wants are different. You want a cell phone, but you don’t need it.

When we learn to identify our wants and needs, we become wiser about how we spend money. We hold onto it and get what we need. We also allow ourselves the occasional want — but not until our needs have been met. Learning to identify your wants vs. your needs is a crucial step in financial planning.

3. Pay With Cash

Unfortunately, I forgot this lesson when I was younger. Because of using credit unwisely, I got overwhelmed with debt and turned to bankruptcy for a way out. I then got married, and my husband and I built up more debt and had to dig ourselves out of the hole.

During the time we were paying it off, we switched back to using cash for everything. As a result, we gained better control of our money, because it really made us think about how we spent. We didn’t just rush out and get things because we could.

Looking back, I recall my grandparents always using cash, too. In fact, they did not even own a credit card. It was not that they couldn’t get one, they just decided not to. They said if they could not pay for something with cash, then they did not need it. (Not sure where your finances stand? You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

And though they were not rich, when they retired, they lived comfortably. They had been wise enough with their spending that they were able to enjoy their retirement. In fact, my grandmother supported herself for many years until she got too ill and had to enter a nursing home.

4. Find Joy in Simple Things

When you ask people what makes them happy, some say it is their house, their car or even their gadgets. For others, it could be the expensive handbag or new watch they purchased.

When you asked my grandparents this question, their answers were always the same: things that were free. Playing games with the kids. Campouts in the backyard. Having joy doesn’t mean that you own a big house. It means you find happiness in the people and things around you. Find your own joy and don’t rely on things to give it to you.

5. Cook at Home

My grandma was an amazing cook. She owned a small cafe in the same building where my grandpa was an auctioneer.

Every Saturday, the cafe would be filled with farmers from all around the area coming in for one of her amazing caramel rolls or cinnamon rolls. When an auction ended, they’d stop in for a good home-cooked meal followed by a slice of Grandma’s award-winning pie.

Then, after a long day of cooking for others, Grandma went home and did it again. There was always a home-cooked meal on the table for her family. She planned her meals and any shopping trips wisely so she always had what she needed to cook for her kids.

My grandparents did not eat out very often. There was a garden where they grew their own vegetables, and the chickens they raised provided eggs and meat.

While I don’t have a garden or a small farm, I still cook most of our meals at home. I find it not only tastes better but is healthier. The best perk of all is sitting around the dinner table with my kids and having incredible conversations. I can often picture my own grandparents doing the same thing. Sharing a meal really matters.

6. Save for a Rainy Day

Nowadays, I don’t call my savings a rainy-day fund but an emergency fund. But the idea is the same. My grandparents always saved a bit of every dollar they made “just in case.” This was money they never touched until they had to. For them, and even our family, having money set aside provides peace of mind. (You can see more smart habits of savers here.)

Though my grandparents are both gone, the values they taught me live on. I am now taking the time to teach these to my own children. I hope that they, too, pass them along to their own kids someday. The 1930s may be in the past, but the lessons learned during that time can still resonate and work today.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

 

Image: SolStock

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