Gluten Free and Not Broke

By: Rachel Sircy

When my husband and I first got married, I was a grocery-budgeting wizard. I could easily keep our food expenses under $100 a month. I shopped sales and bought store brands. I figured out meals made from ingredients that were inexpensive but that were also delicious. Unfortunately, none of these inexpensive delicious meals were gluten free. My dinners relied a lot on processed convenience foods like the just add water pizza crust mixes you can get for 1.00 each in some stores.

When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, I had to give up all the basic knowledge that I had about how to shop for and prepare food. And my grocery bill quadrupled (that’s not an exaggeration). Suddenly inexpensive bleached wheat flour had to be replaced with countless tiny 1lb bags of bizarre powders – things I would never have considered edible before had I not been forced to turn to them. I learned a new vocabulary and new price tags. Amaranth, Teff, Xanthan gum were now words I knew and things I ate. Sickness forced me to eat some pretty horrible things in those days (thanks Bob’s Red Mill for your experiments with bean flours, but your beany bread was puke-worthy) and sickness also forced me to get over the sticker shock. The first bag of xanthan gum that I bought was 8oz and it cost me over $12. After a while, things stopped tasting like cardboard, and I stopped tearing up every time the cashier said the grocery bill total out loud to me. Sooner than I realized, $6 for a half-sized loaf of bread seemed normal to me. After all the terrible mishaps I made in the kitchen playing mad scientist with these tiny bags of ridiculously expensive flours, I was relieved to find a 4lb bag of all-purpose gluten free flour for $16. I was going into the grocery store trying to stick to a budget, but I was so clueless that if someone had told me that a bunch of bananas was $10 I might have believed them.

So, I’ve been broke for a while now. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. But the good news about that is that after several years of trial and error, I am finally learning how to be gluten free without breaking the bank. And now, I can take all of my mistakes and turn them into helpful knowledge for all of you out there reading this. Here are 5 tips that I hope will help you go gluten free without going broke:

  1. Keep it Simple: If you’re starting out on any kind of diet, the cravings for all the delicious food you used to eat will intensify. At least that’s what happened to me. I wanted doughnuts, fried chicken and Swedish meatloaf with gravy. Unfortunately, learning to cook gluten free was, for me, like starting all over at square one. I had no idea how to make these things with gluten free flours. Things are a bit easier now than they were nearly 8 years ago, but still, it’s hard to learn a whole new way of cooking and thinking about food. So, to keep you from making a bunch of expensive messes in the kitchen, do what I didn’t do: keep it simple. Realize that you will eventually figure out ways to make gluten free versions of your favorite foods. If you’re a beginner, start out like a beginner. A dietician gave me some very helpful advice when I was first diagnosed (and I should’ve listened, but I didn’t). She told me to just concentrate on making a balanced plate using foods that I was already familiar with. For example, have a piece of lean meat, two or three non-starchy vegetables that I already know how to make in a way that’s gluten free (i.e., steamed broccoli) and a starch like rice, or a starchy vegetable like a baked potato. You can get simple ingredients for a whole lot cheaper than boxed gluten free convenience foods and these basic meals will keep you fed and healthy while you figure out the more complicated dishes.
  2. Go Big or Go Broke: When I was diagnosed, there weren’t many gluten free all-purpose flours available on the market. And, as I said above, you had to buy a bunch of little 1lb bags of flour for anywhere from $3-$12 each and experiment by mixing them together to create different flour combinations. Each thing I wanted to make needed a different combination of flours. The flour mixture I used for dredging meat was no good for baking and the baking mix I had was no good for gravy. The gravy thing really hits home for me. Once I made the mistake of thinking that white rice flour and sweet rice flour were the same thing (who does that, right?) and ended up making a pan of stuff that was supposed to be gravy, but was really just salty, gray wet sand. Gross and costly. Anyway, my point here is that today there are more and more all-purpose gluten free flours on the market, and they are worth it! Don’t get me wrong, they’re still expensive. My favorite brand, Pamela’s Artisan Flour is $16 for 4lbs. Still, $16 for a bag of really versatile gluten free flour is SO much cheaper than having to have a separate mix for each dish that I want to make. So, skip all the cake mixes, cookie mixes and boxed gravy. You can usually substitute these all-purpose flours for wheat flour in almost any recipe. That not only means you save money, but it also means that your grandmother’s prize-winning cookie recipe is back on the menu!
  3. Make it Yourself: We all know that eating at home is cheaper than eating out. That is especially true for eating out gluten free. Most restaurants are not celiac safe anyway, but even if you’re not a celiac, you will pay more for gluten free options when you go out to eat. A few restaurants now offer sandwiches on gluten free buns, but be careful, you’ll be paying sometimes up to $2 more for that sandwich than if you purchased it with a regular wheat bun. As much as possible, cook at home. It’s cheaper and it’s healthier. I know that some of you are thinking about how much you hate to cook, and I don’t blame you. I used to hate cooking too, but now I really enjoy it. I found that what I really hated was coming home from work tired and hungry and having to put an hour or more into preparing a meal before I could eat it. The trick for me was to learn to cook on my days off – which took off most of the frustration that sapped the joy of cooking for me – and then freezing the meals in individual containers for later in the week. Now when I come home from work, there’s usually a home-made meal ready for me in the fridge or freezer. Also, let your crockpot be your guide. There are thousands of crockpot recipes floating around on the internet, many of them naturally gluten free. Throw everything into the slow cooker and let it do the hard work for you.
  4. Just Because It’s Expensive Doesn’t Mean It’s Good: Remember that. I can’t stress that enough. I mentioned above that I used to spend $6 for a small loaf of whole grain gluten free bread. The loaf was so small and my bread consumption so massive at the time that I would go through two of those little loaves per week. So, that’s $12 a week I was spending on this bread. I thought it was a really great deal at the time because the bread was at least edible – and believe me there is some gluten free bread out there that definitely isn’t – but I was settling for this expensive bread. It was thick and dense and so tough that sometimes it actually cut the inside of my mouth when I ate it. But then, one day, my mother-in-law gave me a loaf of gluten free bread from Aldi’s that was about half the price of the other bread I’d been eating. And I found something amazing. Aldi’s bread was way, way better than the other bread. Each slice was roughly the size of a regular slice of bread and the bread was actually soft! I am totally going to shill for a grocery store here, but if you want to know where the best gluten free bread is, it’s totally at Aldi. They also have some of the best gluten free crackers. So, don’t get stuck on one expensive brand and think that it must be better because it costs more. You might be pleasantly surprised by a cheaper product.
  5. Cut Down on the Cost of Other Groceries: This seems really obvious, probably, but it isn’t always. I used to tell myself that I was just going to stop into Whole Foods or Earthfare for one thing, but it was never just one thing, it was always ended up being at least 5 things. If I stopped in to grab some GF crackers to go with a pot of chili that I was going to make, I ended up getting my chili beans there. Now, the only thing wrong with the bean selection at higher end grocery stores is that they can be $3 a can. I use two cans of kidney and one can of black beans in one pot of chili. That’s $9 just for the beans to go in my pot of chili. I have since switched to purchasing store brand beans at another store that I can get for less than $1 per can. Truthfully, I really don’t notice a difference in the quality of the beans. So, be a smart shopper. When it really matters, go for the best quality you can afford (and remember, like I said above, price isn’t always and indicator of quality). However, when it comes to something like chili beans, my book says it’s okay to go with the cheapest can.

Well, I hope this lesson taken from my mistakes will help some of you avoid the pricey pitfalls of going gluten free!

My Top 3 Disney Sweet Treats

By: Ashley Whisonant

My boys and I just returned from five days of Disney fun last week. It was certainly a whirlwind, filled with family and fun.

Our family are huge sweets lovers. I made it our mission to find the best sweet snacks or desserts that Disney has to offer. Here are our top three picks and where to find them!

Zebra Dome Cakes: Found in Animal Kingdom Lodge Resort

zebra-cake

Four of these beauties come in a container. (One was gobbled up before the picture!) A thin, soft cake layers the bottom with a chocolate Kahlúa cream dome. AMAZING!

Peanut Butter and Jelly Milkshake: Found in 50’s Prime Time Café in Hollywood Studios

ppbje

We added chocolate syrup to this deliciousness. Do not make the same mistake as our family and decide to share just one. Each adult NEEDS one of their own. You can thank me later.

Fruit and Nutella Waffle: Found in Sleepy Hollow in Magic Kingdom

waffle

This was HUGE. It was the perfect combination of creamy hazelnut spread and sweet fruit with the crisp waffle. I could eat this for a “healthy” breakfast since it has fruit….right…?

If you are visiting Disney World in the near future, make sure to add these three treats to your list!

State Partnership Launches “Don’t Waste Food S.C.” Campaign to Reduce Food Waste

By: Mary Pat Baldauf

Don't Waste Food SC

Just in time to end my food waste series, South Carolina just announced a new campaign to fight food waste. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, S.C. Department of Commerce and S.C. Department of Agriculture recently announced Don’t Waste Food S.C. – a collaborative campaign to reduce the number one item thrown away in the state: wasted food.

One out of six people struggle with hunger in the United States, yet food waste is the single largest component being sent to landfills and accounted for 21 percent (35.2 million tons!) of the nation’s waste in 2013. South Carolina alone produced an estimated 607,000 tons of food waste in fiscal year 2015.

Don’t Waste Food S.C. is aimed at educating and empowering individuals, businesses and communities to take action by preventing, composting or donating surplus food. The campaign is working towards a goal of reducing food waste in the state by 50 percent by 2030.

The partners are working together to connect food surpluses to those in need, enhance infrastructure for composting and educate consumers, communities and businesses about what they can do to join the initiative.

For more information, educational resources and to get involved in the Don’t Waste Food S.C. campaign, visit www.scdhec.gov/dontwastefoodsc. The website features great resources including tip sheets, meal planning + shopping lists, shopping guides and composting information.

 

Ten Easy Tips for Meal Planning

By: Mary Pat Baldauf

Meal Planning

One of the ways you can be a Food Waste Warrior is to start planning meals in advance. That can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Arm yourself with these ten easy tips from SaveFood.org and you’ll be scheduling meals and saving food like a pro in no time at all. (I started planning my meals several years ago when I switched to a plant-based diet, and I consider myself a pretty good meal planner – but even I learned something from these tips.)

  1. DON’T START FROM SCRATCH: Successful meal planning doesn’t have to mean hours spent with a cookbook. Start with your go-to meals. Repeat them every week or two. Then, if you’re up for it, toss in something new every once in a while.
  2. CHECK THE REFRIGERATOR: Next week’s meals get their start in the refrigerator. See what needs to be used up, and then think of a meal to make with those items. Check your pantry for the rest of the ingredients and add missing pieces to the shopping list. Voilà. Meal one? Check.
  3. USE PORTION PLANNERS: Portion calculators can help you feed a big group, but they can offer insight too — like why there’s always so much extra rice. Find your favorite by doing a Google search for “portion planner.” I like this one from the ‘For Dummies’ franchise.
  4. HAVE KITCHEN ESSENTIALS HANDY: Stock up on two or three grains, cooking fundamentals, key spices, and easy-to-use sauces like barbecue and enchilada sauce. They can come to the rescue and bring new life to old meals and leftovers.
  5. USE BUILDING BLOCKS: Pick two types of protein, one or two grains, and a vegetable medley to make at the beginning of the week and incorporate into different meals. For instance, a sauté of broccoli and peppers can be used as a side one night, spooned onto enchiladas another night and worked into a soup or meatloaf later in the week.
  6. THINK DOUBLE DUTY: Planning a Tuesday taco night? Think about other ways to use those tortillas. Asian salad wraps, perhaps? Ingredients sometimes come in larger portions than we need. If you plan a second meal around them, it’s easier to avoid the end-of-the-week overload and unused or spoiled food.
  7. SCHEDULE A LAZY NIGHT: We often go to the store hoping to prepare fresh meals all week, but the truth is we often don’t have the time or energy to cook every night. Plan a few lazy nights that don’t require cooking and take the opportunity to order takeout or dine with friends. (This is where I get an Amy’s frozen pizza, which is the perfect “don’t feel like cooking or cleaning, but still semi-healthy” meal.)
  8. GO FRESH FIRST: To preserve freshness and nutrition, use perishables like seafood and meat earlier in the week and save staples (pasta, dairy, omelets) for later in the week. Some greens, like kale and chard, will stay fresh longer than others.
  9. LEAN ON FROZEN INGREDIENTS: Frozen foods have nearly all of the nutrients and sometimes more than their fresh counterparts. And they don’t go bad. Plus, frozen vegetables fill in the gaps. You can buy fresh vegetables in smaller amounts without ending up veggie-less at the end of the week.
  10. COOK AND FREEZE: Soups, stews, casseroles, and lasagna can all be made in large batches and then frozen and defrosted when you need a quick dinner. To keep it easy, always freeze in the portion sizes you’ll want to defrost.

Deciphering Dates on Products

By: Mary Pat Baldauf

Expired

In 1968, treasure hunters discovered a Civil War-era steamboat at the bottom of the Missouri River. Among the items recovered were several intact cans of food. Six years later, scientists opened the cans to find perfectly edible peaches, oysters, and tomatoes. They had stayed unspoiled for over a century. So why do modern canned foods claim to expire in a matter of months?

Here’s the truth: Food expiration dates have nothing to do with safety, and are only loosely related to quality. They’re the manufacturer’s best estimate of when the product is at its freshest or “peak quality.” Many foods will still be good to eat days, weeks, or months after those dates, depending on the food.

If you’ve been throwing food out on these dates, you’re not alone. According to one industry study, 90 percent of us occasionally throw away food too soon, and over half of us do it regularly. All due to a simple misunderstanding about package dates. Okay. If the expiration date doesn’t tell you when food goes bad, how do you know if it’s still good?

Let’s start with the difference between contamination and spoilage. Most of the microbes that spoil food are harmless for humans. In fact, some favorite foods and beverages, like yogurt, cheese, and wine, are made using controlled spoilage.

Contamination, however, is due to a pathogen — a microbe that can make us sick. It’s due to poor handling — like allowing food to come into contact with raw chicken — rather than keeping food around for too long. Contamination related to extended storage doesn’t really happen. The president of the Institute of Food Technologists once said, “In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue.”

Here’s how to sort out just what those dates mean:

Best before Mar 11 2016
These dates refer to quality rather than food safety. It’s the date before which the brand stands by its product (unless it’s been opened or left out in warm temperatures). Foods with a “best before” or “use by” date should be safe to eat after the date has passed, but they may no longer be at their very best. This is true for “best by,” “best if used by,” “enjoy by,” and other similar expressions.

Beware the danger zone
The main criterion for evaluating food safety is the amount of time food spends in the temperature “danger zone” (40 – 120 °F). If you leave food out on the counter or in a hot car, it could be unsafe even before the date on the package, regardless of what phrase you see.

Sell by June 22 2016
You can ignore these dates as they are meant for store staff. They actually build in quality so that if the food is sold by that date, you can still get it home and have top-quality shelf life for some time.

Use your eyes and nose
For the most part, you can trust your senses to know when food has gone bad. Milk, yogurt, juice, sauces—they can all be subject to the sniff or taste test. Even meat that looks a little faded or gray may okay to eat. The products to be careful with are those they tell pregnant women to avoid—like deli meats and unpasteurized dairy products—and anything with mold.

Freeze by July 20 2016
One good way to extend the life of food beyond its date is to freeze it. It’s like pushing the pause button on your food. Almost anything can be frozen—meat, milk, cheese, eggs, bread, unused pasta sauce. (For a great guide on freezing foods, see this article from Good Housekeeping.)

Shopping Guidelines for Wanna-Be Food Waste Warriors

 

By: Mary Pat Baldauf

Food WasteThe grocery store is where you commit — to spending both money and the resources it took to grow the food — even if it doesn’t get eaten. That’s why careful shopping is the fastest, easiest way to cut food waste. Here are a few ideas to help:

  1. Make a list: Research has shown that shoppers who use and stick to written lists—only about 25% of us—have lower grocery bills and make fewer shopping trips. They’re also less susceptible to impulse buys.
  1. Skip the cart: Bigger dinner plates encourage us to eat more, and bigger carts call us to fill them. Hand baskets can help improve your grocery store discipline. Plus, you can count it as strength training.
  1. Scrutinize deals: Five bananas for a dollar is a good deal only if you eat all five. Also, many stores offer the sale price even if you buy less than the stated quantity. If you’re unsure, ask.
  1. Shop the bulk bins: Many stores offer grains, nuts, spices, and other dry goods in bulk bins that allow you to purchase only the quantity you need. This is very helpful if you just need ingredients for a specific recipe.
  1. Use the salad bars: For mixed vegetable dishes or salads that call for small amounts of different types of vegetables, shop the salad bar. They will cost more per ounce, but less overall. On top of that, they’re also already prepared, which is a real time saver for busy cooks.
  1. Use a portion planner: When you’re not sure how much you’ll need for your dinner party, use your smart phone to consult an online portion planner. My favorite portion planner is at Love Food, Hate Waste, a great UK site.
  1. Keep it cold: Buy perishable and frozen foods last so they spend less time at room temperature. And be sure to shake the water from produce—water encourages rotting and adds weight. If you won’t be home for a while, keep a cooler in your car.
  1. Be okay with imperfections: Scarred and oddly shaped fruits and vegetables are perfectly normal. If we don’t buy them, the store will toss them in the trash. (If you’re on Instagram, be sure to follow @uglyfruitandveg for some pretty fun pictures of imperfect produce.)
  1. Buy the last one: People often avoid buying the last item on the shelf. Be a grocery store contrarian. Buying these loners discourages stores from overstocking just to create the appearance of abundance.

The Great Tamale Project

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

Of all the cuisines, Mexican is one of my all-time favorites. I love queso and chips as much as the next guy, but for me the ultimate Mexican dish is tamales. And they are hard to come by. Not many restaurants serve them and it’s even harder to find a person who makes them. I know. For years, I’ve wanted to learn to make them. I’ve always been told that they are soooooo hard to make. They are soooooo complicated. They are such a project that someone’s grandmother might make them for a very special occasion. So, I’ve merely dreamed and aspired to become a tamale cook for a very long time.

I came across an old 1980’s Mexican cookbook that a friend was throwing out. I scooped it up and there it was: a tamale recipe. I read it over and over again because I just couldn’t grasp what was so difficult about what I was reading. And then it happened. I bought a Boston butt and I made tamales.

I don’t know what I’ve been waiting on. I let others convince me that this was some insurmountable task. But here’s the news flash…it is not difficult to make tamales. At all. It takes some time, but it’s not hard. And, they were fabulous!

I trimmed the excess fat and cubed the meat.

Simmered on the stove with peppercorn, bay leaf & onion.

making tamales

Guajillo peppers are soaked then pureed into enchilada sauce.

making tamales

Look at this color! Shredded pork is mixed with the enchilada sauce. It tastes much better than canned sauce, for sure.

making tamales

Instant masa is super easy to work with.

making tamales

Spreading masa on the corn husk.

making tamales

You just spread and pat it out with your fingers.

making tamales

Top with masa with a little of the meat mixture.

making tamales

Then you fold the sides over the filling and tuck under the pointed end.

making tamales

Ready to spend an hour in the steamer.

making tamales

Steamer is all loaded up with tamales.

making tamales

My first plate of homemade tamales!

OMG! My tamales were fantastic, if I do say so myself! The sauce has out-of-this-world flavor. It’s so simple to make. You soak the chiles in hot water to soften them up, then remove seeds and purée them with the soaking liquid. Then you cook the purée with some garlic, flour, vinegar, cumin and oregano. Nothing difficult about that. The pork is stewed with some garlic, onion, bay leaf and peppercorns. After it’s cooked, you shred it, mix with sauce and refrigerate overnight. Nothing hard about that. You also save the pork broth for the masa. Refrigerate that overnight so you can skim the fat off before mixing up the masa.

The next day, you simply mix the masa with warm broth, shortening, and baking powder until it becomes a soft, wet dough. You soak your corn husks in hot water for about an hour to make them pliable. Then, it’s just a matter of spreading out some masa, add some filling and fold. They steam for about an hour and then you are ready to dig in. The masa was so soft and tender and flavorful. This is key because even in restaurants I’ve had tamales with dried out masa and it ruined the whole dish. The pork was tender and that sauce, oh the sauce!

And none of this was hard to do. It takes some time, but anything worth doing is worth the time. My parents came to dinner and we all fell in love with the tamales. So much so that later that week, I made another batch. A double batch!