Martha During a Recession

Posted by Brette in Food

Recently a comment was posted questioning how I can afford to cook Martha. How does one afford Martha on a budget? Everyone can afford this. I think there is a perception that Martha’s recipes are extravagant and pricey. For the most part, that isn’t true. Yes, she sometimes makes over the top things, but I find most recipes to be doable for the average person. I cook dinner 7 days a week. I want food to be healthy and tasty and I love to try new things. If I’m going to be cooking anyway, why not try something new and fun? Martha’s recipes are not unapproachable in any way. In fact Everyday Food recipes are pretty easy and accessible. Here are some tips for how to afford good food on a budget:

-Make recipes that appeal to you. If it doesn’t sound good, you probably won’t eat it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stretch yourself. I’ve been surprised many times when I’ve tried something new. But if I know that I just hate duck, I don’t make duck recipes. Look for recipes that allow you to punch up your dinner routine without going crazy with totally unfamiliar or unpalatable  food.

– Look for recipes that can replace some of your boring same old, same old recipes without a change in cost. Instead of baked potatoes, try potato au gratin, for example. Instead of spaghetti and meatballs, try a recipe for a bolognese pasta. Virtually the same ingredients and cost, but hugely different in taste. Try new veggies. Instead of peas and carrots, try Swiss chard and parsnips. Swapping one veggie for another usually ends up to be similar in price on average.

– Cook at home instead of eating out. You can buy an awful lot of food (or treat yourself to some expensive options ) for what it costs to buy a meal at a restaurant. And you can control how it tastes. I’m really off restaurant food lately. It’s never as good as I want it to be and I would rather just make my own food the way I want it.

– Choose recipes that will give you bang for your buck. I’m unlikely to try something that is filled with expensive ingredients because I can find a different recipe for something more affordable that is equally delicious. New chicken recipes are invaluable to me because I’m ALWAYS cooking chicken. If I can discover a new chicken recipe that delights me, it gets added to my repertoire.

– Buy ingredients on sale and use your freezer. Stock up on things you know you use often when there’s a sale or you have a coupon. I use a lot of chicken, so if organic chicken breasts are on sale, I buy a boat load. I buy flour in bulk because I use so much. I fill the cupboard with chicken broth when it’s on sale.

– Eat leftovers. I often eat leftovers for lunch. We don’t waste any food and I have no problem figuring out what to have at noon the next day! Plus this way, the pleasure lasts for two meals.

– Plan menus. I try to take some time each weekend to pick out what I want to cook in the next week. There are lots of things I always have on hand, but if there is something particular I need for a recipe I want to buy it and have things planned out so I will use and not waste it. In the past I have been guilty of having big plans to make things and then letting life get in the way so that the particular produce or dairy item goes bad before I get to it. I try to set manageable menu goals for myself based on my schedule, so I’m not trying to make 2 hour dishes on a crazy Thursday night.

– Doctor the bad recipes. If you read my blog, you know that from time to time I encounter a Martha recipe so bad (or so badly executed by me) that I dump it. This doesn’t happen often because in the words of the lovely Tim Gunn, I try to “make it work.” I’m always tasting as I’m cooking and making adjustments. When you try something new, you can never be sure if it is going to turn out, so you’ve got to stay on top of it. I sample and I adjust flavorings or seasonings.  There have been times when I’ve completely altered the recipe to the point of it being unidentifiable, just to make the food edible. Once in a while though, something ends up in the trash. It happens and I think it happens no matter what kind of food or recipes you’re cooking.

– Substitute ingredients that fit your budget. Martha demands the best. And sometimes I cheat. I’ve been known to use store brand chocolate chips instead of fine chocolate, bacon instead of pancetta, vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean, generic frozen spinach instead of fresh, and milk instead of cream. And I often used dried spices instead of fresh (though I can tell you there really is a big difference, so I really want to try to grow my own). I often use bottled lemon juice instead of a fresh lemon. Yes, there is a slight taste difference, but sometimes it just doesn’t make that much of a difference in the dish.

– Cut the recipe in half. If it’s something you’re not sure you’ll like (or if it is just too big), cut it in half and sample it. If it’s bad, you aren’t wasting much and you still got to sample something new.

– Accept that good food takes time. You have to be willing to spend the time to get the result. Everyday Food recipes are often quick and easy and I love them for weeknights, but I also love to make things that take more time on other nights. I enjoy making bread, even though I have to dedicate a day to watching it rise. For me, that’s fun and is better than a lot of other activities I can think of. It’s easy to buy packaged food that can be microwaved or reheated but you definitely get better food if you make it yourself.

– Make things yourself. Martha is a big believer in making your own stock, breadcrumbs, pie crust, jelly, etc. If you do this, you save lots of money. Of course it takes time. These things are almost always better tasting when you make them yourself. I admit I don’t do as much of this as I could and it’s something I’m working on.

– Cook with seasonal ingredients. Usually you get a magazine one month before the issue date, so the September Living issue arrives in August. This means there may be recipes for produce that are not yet in season when you get it. It’s tempting to want to make these delicious recipes when you get the magazine, but they will be more affordable when they’re actually in season. I also buy large quantities of seasonal ingredients (for example, I get a half bushel of apples in the fall) and cook with them a lot while they are available.

– Be critical. Yes, Martha is a doyenne of taste, however she doesn’t live in the middle class world. She often recommends kitchen tools that I think are too expensive or makes outrageous statements such as saying everyone should have 30 kinds of pasta in their pantry. Scale down what Martha does to make it possible in your world. She has fantastic ideas, but they have to be filtered and downsized. Actually I find that her magazines do a good job of doing just that – they provide recipes anyone can make for the most part.  When you watch her on her show she will say outrageous things sometimes, but that’s the fun of Martha.

– Think about how you can save money in other aspects of your life. For me, organic food is non-negotiable. But it costs more. So we make sacrifices in other areas. That means being frugal in our daily lives and evaluating how to save money.

– Make choices. We don’t drink alcohol and that’s a major expense for many people,but one I don’t have. As far as I’m concerned, this increases the money I have available for food.  I know I would rather cook good food than go to the movies every weekend, so that’s a choice I make. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about recognizing what’s important to you and making it work in your life. We can’t all live Martha’s life where she can have anything she wants, any time. Instead, it’s about prioritizing and for me, good food is at the top of the list.

– Change how you think about food. I would rather have a delicious healthy dinner than all the potato chips in the world. So our house is mostly devoid of packaged food. If we want dessert, we make it. If we want a snack, we make popcorn or have cheese or fruit. Food is something you *make,* not something you take out of a package, in my opinion. Yes, sometimes it is expensive to buy goat cheese and organic eggs, but I don’t spend any money on packaged food so I think I come out ahead in terms of cost.

– Splurge when it’s worth it. Last year I ordered my Thanksgiving turkey from Martha. It was organic, free range, and pasture raised. It cost an arm and a leg. But it was the best turkey I have ever had in my entire life. It was worth every dime. Choose special things like this to spend your money on and the joy will carry over as you’re being creative with inexpensive meals at other times.

– Don’t just throw dinner together if you can avoid it. Enjoy what you’re making and eating. It makes me a happier person to eat something that I’ve anticipated for a few hours and which has new, interesting, or delicious flavors. Eat consciously and allow the money you spend on food to translate to real satisfaction.

Do you have any tips to share about how you afford to cook Martha? I would love to hear them.

Bookmark and Share

You can follow any comment to this entry through the RSS 2.0 Both comments and pings are currently closed.

34 Responses

  • Thanks for the valuable tips on cooking Martha for less. When I make my menu plan for the week, I also base it around what’s on sale at my favorite grocery store.

  • I’m with you – use that freezer space for all it’s worth! One of the complaints I often hear from friends who are just starting to cook regularly is that stocking a pantry can be expensive, but once you’ve got your gear in place, it pays for itself with the ability to make meals on the fly. (Canned beans and frozen veggies are LIFESAVERS!)

  • This is a fabulous list! Thanks for posting it; it really makes sense in so many ways. You can easily emulate someone’s style without following every single step; you’ve certainly proved this by pointing out these money-saving tips. I agree about restaurant food; I find myself increasingly disappointed after many meals eaten out. Often it’s more about just sitting uninterrupted and having someone else do the cooking/cleaning up than it is about the food. For good food, I make it myself at home.

  • What I really like about this blog is how sensible you are when it comes to Martha’s suggestions. Some of them do seem extravagant in time of recession. I remember your post about the turkey and will check out getting one myself this year. Thanks so much for this reminder.

  • Great advice, especially when it comes to prioritizing your budget so that food and the enjoyment of it takes the lead.

    I cook most nights as well. With just 2 of us, though, we often have the leftovers for dinner. That means I really only have to cook every other night, which is a big help when I’m busy and tired.

    As a naturally frugal person, I’m BEYOND amused at some of the advice I’ve seen recently. While it may be “news” to people who’ve never had to live frugally, I laughed, laughed, laughed when one big idea in an article suggested that grating your own cheese would save you money over buying the kind that’s already grated.

    Hardly a eureka moment for me.

  • I think many people have just come to think that food comes pre-made, pre-cut, pre-cooked. The thing with that cheese is that they add things to it to keep it from clumping, so it’s not even just plain cheese. Have I used it? Yep. But I don’t on a regular basis at all.

  • Thank you – that’s nice to hear. I find that Martha personally is extravagant, but I find the magazines to have fairly reasonable recipes.

  • My mom always says if you want to lose weight, eat in restaurants all the time. I don’t think that’s true for a lot of people who are eating high calorie fast food, but for me I definitely find that the food I order rarely lives up to my expectations. A few weeks ago Mr. MarthaAndMe had a coupon Teen Martha won at a volunteer event that was for a buy one get one entree at a small Italian place. We went and my salad was inedible (who makes a house Italian dressing so spicy that you can’t eat it?) and my fettucine alfredo was poorly made. I can make a better version of that myself any day.

  • I am on a kick now where I am trying to double recipes and freeze half. I have some big projects coming up this winter and I know I’ll be pressed for time.

  • So much good information you have here Brette! I sometimes make extra and have plans for different things to do with the leftovers. My mom had always done that. Sometimes making extra chicken and freeze the cooked chicken in mealsize portions, so you can take it out and add it to pasta, stirfrys, soups, tacos, whatever you want the list goes on!

  • Awesome list – thanks, Brette. We’ve been simplifying things around the house, and employ a lot of your tips. I inherited a lot of my grandmother’s kitchen gadgets – i.e. used back in the 1920s and beyond – and find they work as well if not better than fancy new gadgets.

    I’m blessed to have a husband who does most of the cooking, and he’s super when it comes to budgeting and cooking healthy. I count my lucky stars every day.

  • Alene says:

    Brette: I do everything you do (except for the lack of alcohol – sorry). I want to suggest to everybody that I’ve been taping and watching Mad Hungry with Lucinda Quinn (is that her last name?) Her recipes seem to be very inexpensive to make and she always gives ideas for what you can do with the leftovers. I watched one about rice and beans, making extra rice, and using it in the a.m. under a fried egg and doused with hot sauce. Not exactly my cup of tea, but not a bad idea. She also poached a whole chicken and got lots of meals out of one chicken. I recommend her highly if you’re looking to be creative and frugal. Plus they’ve done up her hair and she’s wearing lots of make-up and sexy tops. Now THAT’S a change.

  • Thank you so much for these excellent suggestions. We have found that we spend more on food than anything else. It’s so important to our health, and to our family’s well-being. And it seems like a good long-term investment to feed our kids well. I will be using all this advice too (though I can’t get the DH to stop buying fancy beer…)

  • It is a big part of my monthly budget, but the only way to cut it would be to buy items of a lower quality. And I won’t do that.

    I was thinking today about how cheap fast food is and thinking about how you can get a pizza for $12 that will feed a family of 6 and that’s not all that unhealthy. But then I started doing the math – I only get whole wheat crusts, so that is usually at least another $2-$3. Then you have to add veggie toppings, which can be another $3 per topping. I actually prefer pizzas that have less cheese and sauce and more veggies, but those are usually “specialty” pizzas which cost a ton. It’s not as cheap as it sounds if you get it so that it fits healthy requirements.

  • Yes, it’s a great show and I have the cookbook. Her recipes are affordable and relatively no fuss. I just made the pork chop and apple dish (will be posting a blog on it soon) and it was good and very easy to make. I love Lucinda because she’s a real person with a real family who has the same concerns and constraints we do. She’s really in tune with the average family. Oh, and that cheesy popcorn she makes – I swear she stole it from me! I’ve been making it for years!

  • Great tip on the chicken! Lately I have been cooking chicken breasts and leaving them in the fridge. The kids make sandwiches and salads out of them all week. I do not buy deli meat, unless it is organic and uncured and then I do so rarely because I just question the sanitary methods where the meat is sliced. This is a great solution. I’ve just made it a habit to poach a package of them each weekend. I usually dump some herbs in or lemon juice to pump up the flavor.

  • Great list! Eating good food isn’t cheap, but it is cheaper than eating out. We rarely eat at restaurants because like you, we usually end up disappointed.

    Other things you can do to cut your food bills is cut back on meat. There are some great vegetarian mains out there. Some of my favorite meals are Chickpea and Sweet Corn Fritters and Carrot, Red Lentil and Coconut soup. No soy, no veggie burgers, just nice meals that don’t happen to feature meat. Also cutting down on the size of the meat portion in meals and making the vegetable portion larger will save you a bundle and up the amount of veggies you eat.

  • This is a great tip. I try to make a no-meat dinner once a week and other times I make dishes with limited amounts, such as soups or stews where the focus is not just on a hunk of meat.

  • to your great ideas I’d add:
    I make my own bread. not only does it save money but I get to know exactly what goes into it and tailor it to our tastes. I also make my own pizza crusts, bagels, corn bread, etc. not hard, not that time consuming, and well worth it.

    I agree with Sheryl that most of the pleasure of eating out comes from sitting with friends in a relaxed atmosphere. most of the time, with others or on my own, I’ll choose a time when a place is not likely to be busy and just have a cup of tea or some other small item. I get to enjoy the experience and save money.

    I tend to regard good food as an investment in my health, too. there are ways to go about that and be frugal, such as the ideas you’ve outlined above. I really enjoy cooking with the seasons, for example, and glad you’ve mentioned that.

  • Christine says:

    These are really, really good tips! I like them a lot. We also eschew restaurant food. I find that I feel pretty unhealthy after I eat it. It’s definitely also a matter of priorities. There are a lot of things I would just rather not spend money on that other people might. We also don’t drink alcohol, or have packaged foods, or do certain activities that other people might (we don’t even have TV, so we don’t have to spend money on cable TV, for instance. We only own one car. Etc.). Everyone makes choices that work for them but I find healthy food to be pretty reasonable!

  • I agree with you. The thing about restaurant food is you never know exactly what’s in it. Did they dump 1/2 cup of oil into the pan or just spray it with vegetable oil spray? Things like that plague me. I think we all have to make choices that fit our own lives – and be supportive of each other when we do!

  • The idea of just going out for tea instead of a full-blown restaurant meal is a really good one. I would also say that when I have guests for dinner, I do as much far in advance as I possibly can so that when they are here I can just focus on the conversation and not run around like a lunatic, cooking. So that’s a good alternative to eating out as well.

  • Excellent advice. We practice pretty much the same ideas around our house. Making more food at home has another added benefit–family time. I learn more about what’s going on my kids’ lives around the dinner table–it’s amazing.

  • That is definitely a benefit. For years we were a novelty among our daughter’s friends because we sat down and had dinner each night. They would take turns coming over for dinner because it was a new and strange experience for them!

  • This is a terrific and well-thought-through list from someone who knows how to run a home to someone who is in perpetual learning how to, and how to do it better. Thank you for all these suggestions. It’s a very practical list that can be customized.

  • Thanks!

  • Cooking at home is the #1 way to reduce your food costs, IMHO. You can plan for the future and buy in bulk or on sale, you can change things according to your needs, and really, your health care costs will go down too as long as you’re not buying processed crap. Win-win!

  • Dangit, somehow my Good Taste Review blog is saved in the text field here. I think I fixed it.

  • What an incredible list of tips–helpful no matter what recipe you’re using. I like to try new recipes and you’ve provided fantastic ideas on how to do that without spending too much. Thanks for a terrific post!

  • Great advice, M&Me, for anyone in the kitchen, whether a Martha maven or not. Like Jesaka, I especially like your tips for mixing it up a bit, without getting outside your comfort zone.

  • Leah says:

    Great list, thank you! I try to only eat out 1x/week and cook at home the rest of the time. 🙂

  • It’s so much less expensive. But I do get tired of cooking and cleaning up, I have to say.