Be An Informed Consumer

This long snap of cold weather has a lot of people feeling a bit stir crazy. Many days it felt just too cold to go out food shopping, so a lot of us have been cocooning and digging deep into our panties and freezers to come up with something good to eat. That may have been fun or frustrating. The people who took the time to stock their pantry and freezer thoughtfully before it got cold out probably found it was much easier to throw together quick, healthy and inexpensive meals.

To eat well on a tight budget you simply need to plan ahead before you go shopping. You’ll save time and money if you aren’t always running to the store to pick up something you’ve forgotten. So, while it’s wise at any point during the year, it’s particularly smart to fill your grocery cart with items that have long shelf lives when you know the weather is probably going to be unpleasant. You’ll eat better when it’s so nasty outside that you just can’t face setting foot out the door, much less dragging a full grocery cart through the snow.

Once you look through what you have on hand, you can begin to build cost-conscious, nutritious meals by using less expensive protein sources like dried beans, lentils and peas. They last a long time in a pantry before spoiling. Canned varieties are just as good and can be equally inexpensive, plus they can save you precious time. Eggs also have a decent shelf life and can form the basis of all sorts of tasty dishes. Canned or frozen meat or fish can come in handy too.

Once you settle on a protein, make sure your meals include plenty of vegetables and fruit. During the cold winter months you may want to use more canned or frozen varieties because they’re often tastier than what you’ll find in the fresh produce isle. After all, they were processed at the peak of freshness. Plus, you can store them so much longer than fresh. Consequently, canned or frozen varieties can really help when you are digging around for that something special to pull a dish together. Just buy low sodium canned vegetables, or rinse the vegetables in water to remove sodium, and make sure the fruit you buy isn’t packed in syrup.

If you must buy fresh, the fresh vegetables and fruits that are often more reasonably priced this time of year include broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, as well as root vegetables like parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips. Tropical fruit, like lemons, oranges and grapefruit can be a good buy too. Check your favorite grocer’s sale flyer and take advantage of sales but take an extra minute to compare the price of fresh to the canned or frozen varieties. You might find the sale price for fresh isn’t as big a bargain as you might think.

If you really want to save money, buy baked goods when they’re on sale and freeze whatever you can’t eat right away. Freezing increases shelf life without sacrificing the taste or texture of most baked goods. You can save even more money by buying day old bread. Just eat or freeze it right away.

Smart shoppers also walk right by those packaged convenience grain foods. They know how much cheaper and healthier it is to buy their pasta, rice, and oatmeal plain. All you have to do is read the labels to see how much added sugar, salt and preservatives are in most of those boxes. You can make them just as quickly by adding your own seasonings and they’ll probably feature fewer calories and taste better too.

Take a little time to think about the foods you need to keep in your pantry to make the meals your family like best. Involve everyone in your family in the process. That way you’ll be sure to have everything you need to prepare meals they’ll enjoy on hand.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment. If you have almost everything you need to prepare a favorite dish, minus one ingredient, think about what you could substitute. You might come up with something everyone will like even better. I’ve seen many interchangeable lists of ingredients for dishes like casseroles, stir fries, skillet concoctions or even tacos. Be inventive. Just be sure you’re using safe food. That often depends on how you store it.

While the length of time you should store a food before eating it varies, there are some basic rules if you want to keep the people you’re feeding safe. Before you buy any fresh food, you want to make sure it really is fresh. Look for bruises, mold and other indications of age before buying produce. If the food is packaged, check that packaging. If it’s damaged in any way, don’t buy it.

Before you put anything in your shopping cart, check the date marked on the food you’re thinking about buying. People often ask, “What’s the difference between the dates manufacturers put on food?” Some foods list an expiration date, others say “sell by” or “best if used by” and yet others have a “date of manufacture.” Some foods are labeled with more than one of these dates. Did you know that food manufacturers generally decide how to date their products because, for most foods, product dating isn’t legally required?

So how are these dates benefitting us? Most manufacturers wouldn’t stay in business long if they were selling unsafe food, so you can probably trust the dates they put on their products. When they list a “sell by” date, that’s the last day they think a store should sell a food. However, some foods can be safely eaten after that date, like bakery products, but you wouldn’t want to eat them too many days after the date listed on the food. If the product lists a “best if used by” date it means you shouldn’t store the food much longer than the date listed if you want the food to retain its best flavor and quality. If your food lists an expiration date, the producer is telling you that’s the very last day the food will be at its best. Again, you could eat the food after its “best by” or “expiration” date, but it won’t taste as good. Why waste dollars or space in your tummy on food that isn’t top notch?

The reason a food producer puts a date of manufacture on a food is so they can identify their products if something goes wrong and they need to recall a food. I’ll bet you’ve seen food recalls in the media where they indicate the batch number so consumers can return or throw out bad lots. That’s a very good thing. It keeps more of us safe.

You will also want to write a date on foods that aren’t already marked or that you open and put in a different container, unless you know you’re going to eat them right away. There’s not much worse than opening a food container and finding something really old or moldy inside.

Keep in mind, some foods can be safe to eat, like stale crackers or cereal, but your family will probably turn up their noses and eat something else. That’s a quality issue, not a safety issue. Sometimes you can see or smell safety issues. If you look at a food or smell it and something doesn’t seem right, don’t eat it. The rule is, when in doubt, throw it out. The scary part is some dangerous foods can look and smell just fine but still contain a food-borne pathogen. That’s another reason to pay attention to those dates on packages and cans. Food producers put them there for a reason.

That’s also why it’s important to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, as well as to keep rotating the staple foods you keep on hand. You want to be safe and to maintain the quality of the food in your pantry.When you bring newly purchased foods home, write the date you purchased foods on any that are not already dated. Then take an extra minute to move the older food already in your pantry to the front. Place the freshly purchased foods behind them. This will help make sure you don’t waste food by forgetting to use something before it’s too old to eat safely.

You also need to make sure your pantry is not too hot. Staple foods stay good longer in a cool (50-70 degrees), dry, dark place where the temperature ranges from between 50-70 degrees. Check your refrigerator and freezer temperatures regularly too. Your fridge should be at or below 40 degrees and the freezer temperature should be zero degrees.

Finally, nobody wants to open their pantry and find it’s been invaded by inhuman pests. If you want to keep icky insects and rodents out, you have to keep your pantry clean. Many of us find our flour or other grains infested by uninvited pests or other bacteria at one time or another. One way to minimize contamination is to store those things in your refrigerator or freezer. Just make sure they are also clean. You don’t want to start growing any unpleasant science projects in or on your food!

You can more nutrition information at ChooseMyPlate.gov or visit the Partnership for Food Safety Education at fightbac.org for more food safety information.

And if you’d like more ideas to improve your family’s health, call to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. Learn fun new ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money. The Eat Smart New York Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, a community based educational organization affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. CCE-Chautauqua is part of a network of extension associations, programs and services located across the state and nation. For more information , call 716-664-9502 ext. 217 or visit our website at www.cce.cornell.edu/chautauqua.

Cornell University Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities.

It’s also important to remember that if you, or people you know, are struggling to make ends meet, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture knows a healthy diet will likely reduce health care costs, it’s putting healthy food within everyone’s reach. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at www.mybenefits.ny.gov, or contact your local social services office.

So, if you’re looking for something to pull together from your pantry why not try a nice steamy nourishing dish like:

Brunswick Stew

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 medium sliced onion

2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth

2 cups cooked diced chicken or turkey

2 cups canned or cooked tomatoes

2 cups canned or cooked lima beans

2 cups canned or cooked whole-kernel corn

Directions:

Heat oil in a large pan. Add onion and cook in oil until tender.

Add chicken broth, diced chicken or turkey, tomatoes, lima beans and corn. Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes at medium-low.

Yields about 8 servings

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size – 1 cup (11 ounces), 240 Calories, 60 Calories from Fat, 6g Total Fat, 25% Calories from Fat, 1.5g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 45mg Cholesterol, 330mg Sodium, 23g Total Carbohydrate, 6g Dietary Fiber, 7g Sugars, 22g Protein, 6% Vitamin A, 2% Calcium, 10% Vitamin C, 10% Iron Nutrition facts for recipe calculated using diced roasted skinless chicken.

Source: Loving Your Family, Feeding Their Future – The Healthy Family Guide Book (USDA)