At the grocery store, after we piled our monthly purchases in the trolley and stood waiting at the cash till, we did a double-take when the total came to double of what we used to pay for the same items previously. Quickly, we returned some frivolous items and asked for a re-total. Even then, the bill was unbelievably high. So we pared it down to the bare essentials for immediate use and asked for yet another recount. The total bill was still too big to match the small number of items left in the trolley. Suspicious, we asked for each item to be passed through the bar-code scanner again. There was no error. Food prices had recently skyrocketed to almost double since we had last done our grocery shopping. Inflation has hit each one of us and our household budgets too.
Unlike other luxury items that can be forgone after the price hike, food is an essential. How can one feed their family well and still keep within budget when basic kitchen expenses are a damage on the wallet?
Saeeda, a cooking aficionado, shares several tips for managing the kitchen on a budget. “Food side staples like rice and roti are usually made in extra quantity as back-up,” she says. “Now I take a headcount and make them per head, so there is minimum wastage. If there are main meal leftovers, I reuse them the next day as a side dish.
The rise in cost of living means scrimping on your kitchen expenses. But with some tips on hand, you can keep your pantry full and the expenses sparse
“One item that has seen a great price hike, almost double, is imported tinned food,” adds Saeeda. “Tins that cost 300 rupees now cost 525 rupees. I try to source foods like mushrooms, sweet corn, olives and baked beans organically instead. I make my own ragu, pizza and pesto sauces with fresh ingredients instead of buying ready-made sauces and spices. I use the regular long grain rice for daily daal chawal and for biryani and pulao, I use the extra long grain. There is a difference in the price of both.”
Mariam too has made several adjustments in her kitchen after the price hike. For one, she now finds cheaper local alternatives for expensive imported products, consequently helping local industries. She makes her own brownie and cake mixes instead of using store-bought pre-mixed boxes. She buys in bulk only when needed and when it saves on cost. She avoids food wastage and tries to utilise leftovers as much as possible.
To control kitchen expenses, Lauren sticks strictly to her shopping list and tries to avoid getting sidetracked by sales and promotional items at the grocery store.
“Previously, I used to buy in bulk, so my groceries would last for a couple of months,” she says. “Now I just buy two weeks’ worth of food items, and restock as and when needed. I do buy a big loaf of bread for savings, and freeze it for subsequent use.”
A popular imported chocolate spread now sells for an astounding 650 rupees for 350 grams. “I just can’t get over the price hike,” says Lauren. “I tried making my own chocolate spread at home with cream and cooking chocolate; it turned out wonderful, and I could even store it in the fridge for up to five days.”
“I prefer cooking at home,” she adds. “But when there is a time constraint I order from reasonably-priced places which have a home-cooked flavour. Recently I ordered from a fast food restaurant but their prices seemed so unreasonable that I now have decided to make pan-fried chicken whenever I get a craving.”
Here are some helpful tips and suggestions to help home-managers cope and still enjoy your daily meals.
• Make your own kitchen garden — a perfect way to get fresh, organic, healthy vegetables at much lesser cost. Grow as much of your own vegetables and fruit as possible. And there is a lot you can grow easily: lemon, green chillies, tomato, eggplant, a variety of gourds, papaya and bananas are just a few. Even small everyday use items of daily cooking, such as coriander and mint leaves and green chilies which the vendors used to toss in for free, now come at a cost that adds up at the end of the month. Not only will growing your own food save on cost, it will save you from buying vegetables grown in sewage — which is generally what is being sold to Karachiites. Tofiq Pasha’s Bhajitable Garden, a Facebook page dedicated to discussing the growing of vegetables, provides informative charts and tutorials for growing your own vegetables.
The prices of seasonal fruits and vegetables available locally will be more reasonable than the exotic, out-of-season variety sourced from far afield. You can buy foods such as mangoes, tomatoes and peas in bulk, in their peak seasons, at cheaper rates, and then prepare, freeze and use them for as long as they are safe to use.
• Cut down on excess kitchen luxuries, such as expensive sauces which are used rarely. Also decrease consumption of unhealthy items like soft drinks. Keep a closer watch on kitchens run by hired staff, it can help make a significant difference in monthly running expenses.
• Cut down on wastage. You can remake leftovers. For example, leftover baked potatoes can be re-served as aloo ki bhujia (potato curry). Portion food according to the size of family, so everybody gets their required nutrition intake and at the same time food isn’t wasted. If you are cooking chicken, instead of cooking the whole freshly cut bird or frozen packet, apportion meat pieces per person as consumed normally, and use the rest for the next meal.
• Use daily utilities like oil, tea leaves, and sugar carefully. Often we tend to use them a lot more than is actually required, and we run out of stock quickly. Using lesser oil is healthier, and the benefits of cutting down on sugar or even avoiding it cannot be over-emphasised.
• Prepare your own spices such as biryani and qorma masala. Make your own dahi, and use malai instead of expensive imported creams. Make homemade snacks for children instead of using processed meats such as sausages and nuggets, which are more expensive and less nutritious.
• Check where you shop. Buy your monthly supplies from reliable discount and wholesale stores instead of from corner stores that charge a premium. Buy fruit and vegetables directly from the mandi (wholesale market) or from those suppliers where you can eliminate as many middlemen and their extra charges as possible.
• Check how much you need to buy. If you are a larger family, you will save by buying in bulk for a month or more those foods that can be stored for longer periods of time such as grains, rice, pulses, cooking oil and tea leaves. Perishable foods such as vegetables and fruits can be bought once a week. Smaller families will save by buying as needed for that day or week, instead of spending on extras that may not be used or could perish before use.
• Buy local. The prices of seasonal fruits and vegetables available locally will be more reasonable than the exotic, out-of-season variety sourced from far afield. You can buy foods such asmangoes, tomatoes and peas in bulk, in their peak seasons, at cheaper rates, and then prepare, freeze and use them for as long as they are safe to use.
• Compare prices. If there is a difference in price for food items of almost the same value and quality, skip the brand name and go for the lesser-priced item. If something is needlessly expensive, such as a bag of chips for 1,200 rupees, it is something you can easily forego.
• Substitute costlier superfoods with humbler ones. Fruit can be very expensive, so we can balance fruit with a lot of daily vegetable consumption. Dates and dried fruit such as apricots and raisins last for long. Even two dates or a tablespoon of raisins count as a portion of fruit.
• Keep a balanced diet. We are a meat-eating nation; make a conscious effort to equalise meat-based meals, which are more expensive, with vegetable and daal meals, which are considerably cheaper and also an important part of a balanced diet. We don’t need to eat beef, lamb, mutton or chicken every day to get our proteins. Pulses are a good substitute, and there are many types we can include in our menu such as maash, masoor, moong, lobia and channa to name a few. Although even these are not cheap, when compared with meats they are still more economical.
• Eat simple and wholesome food. Some people believe that only by buying exotic, expensive foods can they maintain a healthy diet. This is not true. For instance, we need carbohydrates, but that doesn’t mean we need to include fancy breads, oats and cereal. Roti and rice will do the job nicely, and every household has flour as a staple. For fats we don’t need to buy extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil; regular vegetable oil will do the job. If we can’t afford the more expensive nuts such as pine nuts, we can eat peanuts, which are more affordable. A kilo of peanuts is for 250 rupees, and if you eat a tablespoon of peanuts every day, which is all you require for good health, it will last you for ages.
The writer is a freelance contributor
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 15th, 2019