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A SIMPLER MENU CUTS COSTS FOR THE SINGLE SHOPPER

Plenty of people are having trouble balancing their food budgets, to judge from the response The News received recently after asking readers to volunteer for shopping makeovers.

We received letters from families with lots of children, single moms, senior citizens in all walks of life. Some of them spend a relatively large amount at the supermarket, they told us. Others were incredibly careful.

But everyone felt the need for at least a little help.

Today, we're presenting the second in our series on economical food shopping, this one centering around a woman who lives alone.

"Iam a single woman, aged 51, who receives food stamps," writes Marilyn Gurzynski of Buffalo.

"I find it difficult to shop once a month and stretch my $119 in stamps over the whole month. I usually shop on the second of the month and try to spend around $57." This corresponds with the "low cost" food plan as constructed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but doesn't leave Ms. Gurzynski much leeway.

"I try to buy all my meat at once but find it difficult -- no, make that impossible -- to get a chance to be able to really stock up on staple items. By the time the next month comes, I am out of all the necessities again."

Ms. Gurzynski has other shopping problems, too. "Since I live alone and don't drive, I pretty much have to stop at the same supermarket for everything," she writes. "I don't frequent convenience stores at all."

One of the first things Dr. Tejaswini Rao and I noticed from Ms. Gurzynski's letter was the emphasis her shopping plans placed on meat.

"I guess I eat meat at every meal," Ms. Gurzynski said.

Dr. Rao, associate professor of nutrition at Buffalo State College, who is helping The News with this project, thought that was an expensive way to eat -- and probably unnecessary.

"Think of alternates to meat," she suggested. "Maybe tuna, maybe chicken, maybe beans. And plan on having them two or three days a week.

"Try to concentrate on grains," suggested the professor. "Use them to stretch the meat you do use further. A serving of meat is not supposed to be more than two or three ounces."

One way to "stretch" meat would be to use pasta or rice. Or buy some couscous (a tiny pasta much favored in Morocco, easily obtainable in most large supermarkets).

Couscous cooks almost instantly -- all you have to do is pour boiling water over it and let it stand
for a few minutes. You can add a small amount of cooked leftover meat.

Another way to make smaller portions of meat go further is to make soup with a meaty soup bone or inexpensive cut. Eat some of this soup for a day or two and freeze the rest. Inexpensive, nourishing legumes can be added to the soup.

And there are always stir-fries. Cook up a variety of vegetables in a wok or skillet and add a small amount of meat if you wish. Serve the combination over rice. (In fact, keeping large bags of mixed vegetables in the freezer so that you can scoop out the amount you want is another clever thing to do.)

Dr. Rao doesn't think that grocery coupons help singles much. "Unless they are for things like coffee or laundry detergent -- staples, that is -- they aren't of much value to small households."

But she does stress that planning before and during a shopping trip is vital anyway.

"Buy three pieces of fruit," she says. "One ripe, to eat now; one medium, to eat in a day or so, and one not so ripe to eat later."

"Don't be afraid to break up packages."

Or think of a variety of ways to use a vegetable when you must buy it in large quantity. For example, you can divide a head of cauliflower into thirds.

"Cook one third and eat it as a hot vegetable. Put another third (broken into pieces) into a salad dressing or marinade for use as a snack or appetizer. And save the rest to serve raw in salads.

"Boil three potatoes with skins. Eat one hot; when the others have cooled, use one in a potato-cheese casserole for the next night's meal. And slice the third in a bowl and pour the juice from a jar of pickles over it -- this can be stored in the refrigerator for several days and can be used in a salad."

Buying staples can be difficult for a single-person household. One idea: Set aside a place for rows of glass jars containing shelf-stable items that you can buy in large quantities -- rice, tapioca, lentils and other dried beans, flour, cornmeal and cereal, for instance.

"Place each jar, tightly sealed, in the freezer for one night to kill any eggs or organisms before storing it on the shelf. Then the jars will keep bugs out of the foods indefinitely. If necessary, cut the directions for use off the packages and store them in the jars."

And when you do find a good grocery sale, take advantage of it. When you buy in quantity, it's vital you unpack and store the groceries properly after you get them home.

Bread, for instance. Place it in the freezer immediately. Then you can take slices out individually as you need them and put them in the toaster.

Take the time to apportion vegetables in smaller bags before freezing, too.

Place meatloaf or ground meat in individual portions. Be sure to date the package.

Buy whole chicken rather than pieces. Cut them up yourself (and stockpile the necks and backs in a separate package so that you can make soup "for free" down the line).

Chicken parts can be cooked up before freezing to save time, if you wish.

All this is not to say that buying single-serving packages is always wasteful. Think the matter through. True, if you buy small containers of food (those aimed at single-person households, you pay more (proportionately) for packaging.

But in some cases, you eliminate waste.

Snack foods can really be expensive. Buy popcorn in bulk, not in microwave packages, for instance. And watch beverages -- soft drinks can get expensive. Water is still the best thirst-quencher.

Ms. Gurzynski, for instance, is an iced tea drinker, but admits she tends to make the tea from a mix or buy it in the can.

Making iced tea from scratch, however, costs practically nothing, and the tea can be stored in the refrigerator for many days.

Coming Nov. 27: Grocery shopping for a family with five children.

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