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Hazelnuts are added in a pasta and pumpkin dish.alvarez/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

There’s no doubt about it – food costs significantly more these days than it has in recent memory.

In April, Canadians paid 9.7 per cent more for food purchased from stores on a year-over-year basis – the largest yearly increase since September, 1981, according to Statistics Canada. The cost of dairy products and eggs has seen the most significant increase since 1983 and wheat futures have reached a 14-year high, due in part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the skyrocketing cost of fertilizer, driven by higher energy prices.

Last year’s drought in Western Canada also meant a huge drop in production of wheat, as well as canola; the cost of cooking oils has been on the rise worldwide, propelled by drought and conflict in Ukraine and Russia (key producers of sunflower oil) and Indonesia’s recent decision to temporarily halt palm oil exports. Globally, palm is the number one cooking oil both in terms of production and consumption, and Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer.

With so many world events affecting our grocery bills, learning a few skills and strategies in our day-to-day kitchen practices can make it easier to spend less and waste less, which means saving more.

Ditch hard and fast meal-planning

Meal planning is often suggested as a strategy to combat food costs, but going to the store with a specific shopping list doesn’t give you the flexibility to take advantage of sales. Pick up good deals when you come across them, if you’re able, and come up with ways to use those items when they’re more affordable – you may just discover a new favourite. I recently picked up a massive bunch of rapini for half the cost of broccoli; I roasted half of it on a sheet pan, stir-fried some, chopped a few stalks into a salad and whirled the rest into soups – similar to what I would have done with a broccoli crown.

Think seasonally and support your local farms

The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the appeal and convenience of what grows and is produced locally, and how supporting small local farmers (and in turn their staff and associated businesses) can in turn nurture the local economy. These items are more likely to be seasonal and have far less distance to travel, so are not as affected by energy costs and shipping delays. Now is the time to eat as much asparagus as possible, and pick up strawberries that, if you’re lucky, grew just down the road. And if you love rhubarb, it can be free for the plucking if you’re friendly with neighbours who have some growing in their backyard.

Game-ify your dinner plans

So often we approach mealtime with a dish in mind and source the ingredients for it, rather than looking in the fridge and pantry and coming up with ways to use what we already have. This is a useful skill to develop with kids – think of it as a black box challenge. Half a cauliflower, a single sausage and a few eggs? How about a frittata or some killer fried rice?

Eat wallet- and planet-friendly pulses

Whether they’re dry or canned, pulses – dry peas and beans, chickpeas and lentils – are inexpensive and shelf-stable, and an incredibly versatile source of protein. If you’re cooking them from dry, there’s no need to pre-soak; simmer in salted water just until tender (lentils take 15 to 40 minutes, chickpeas and dry beans an hour or so), and if you make a large batch, you can freeze them in their cooking liquid. (It’s even faster in an Instant Pot!) Pulses are fantastic in soups and curries, and are delicious added to salads – straight from the fridge. Bonus: pulses are nitrogen-fixing crops and reduce the need for fertilizers. They’re great for us, farmers and the environment.

Upcycle your leftovers

Instead of simply reheating a plate of last night’s dinner (or letting it linger in the back of the fridge until it winds up in the compost bin), smaller quantities of leftovers can be stretched into something new; spoon saucy curries and stews over a baked potato or piece of toast, or use cooked meats, grains and veggies to fill omelettes or quesadillas.

Cook from your countertop

As our utility bills are also on the rise, it makes sense to utilize the energy we’re already paying for. Smaller appliances, like toaster ovens and air fryers (really just small convection ovens), draw about half the energy of a full-sized oven and generally don’t require preheating. When you do use your full-sized oven, there’s likely space to cook something extra while you’re at it; tuck a few potatoes or foil-wrapped beets directly on the oven rack, or roast a whole squash (poke it a few times with a knife first to allow steam to escape) and you’ll have a head start on future meals.

Freeze everything (even milk and yogurt)

Virtually any food can be frozen, extending the life of most leftovers or raw ingredients to use at a later date. If an item’s texture is going to change once thawed – think of fresh veggies, which can be tossed into the freezer raw if they’re getting limp or wrinkly – they can be used in soups, stews, chilies, curries and other cooked dishes. Similarly, the fat in dairy products might separate once thawed, but though milk and yogurt may not look as appetizing, they’re perfectly fine and still perfect for pancakes, baked goods, smoothies and the like.

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