My father, ever the fiscal conservative, used to tell a Depression-era story about his own father, who was for many decades a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. It was a let-that-be-a-warning-to-you anecdote to his four young daughters about the dangers of inflation. My grandfather and my dad were having breakfast at a diner in Philadelphia, the story goes. My grandfather wagged a finger at his cup of coffee – it cost a nickel at the time – and said, “Bobby, before you die, that cup of coffee will cost 50 cents,” a price that seemed unfathomably high to the little boy.

By the time my father died in 2019, a cup of coffee at Starbucks cost five times that.

I’ve been thinking about this oft-repeated family tale lately whenever I go to the grocery store, where it seems that even when I’m buying just a handful of ordinary items – a box of cereal, a tub of yogurt, cat litter, chicken thighs – my bill hovers near $100. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices were 11.4 percent higher in August than one year previously. The USDA broke that figure down into two parts: food purchased at the grocery store, which cost 13.5 percent more than the previous August, and restaurant meals, which it put at 8 percent higher. Either way, I’d bet your salary, like mine, has not kept up.

Moreover, many of the items hit hard by inflation this year are basics, things like butter, eggs, milk, fruit, beef and chicken. So simply eliminating occasional indulgences, say hazelnuts or that tempting hunk of Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper aged sheep milk cheese at Rosemont Market in Portland ($32.49/lb.), won’t be sufficient belt-tightening.

When money is tight, you can postpone an expensive vacation and, if you’re lucky, a big-ticket purchase. You can decide you won’t see a Broadway show or take private pickleball lessons. The house addition can probably wait.

But everybody has to eat.


We asked four Maine experts for tips on buying groceries and eating economically in these inflationary times. We spoke with UMaine Cooperative Extension agent Kathy Savoie, who teaches home food preservation, food safety and nutrition. The topic of eating on a budget, she said, is “near and dear to my heart!” It is also, unhappily, an evergreen one. “It just always cycles back around during times of economic stress,” Savoie said. “So here we are again.”

It may seem counterintuitive to ask Sara Jenkins, the chef and owner of Nina June restaurant in Rockport, for advice on the subject of food economy. The restaurant, after all, serves entrees that range from $36 to $42. But Jenkins knows soulful Italian cooking inside out, and that nation is famous for what Italians call “cucina povera,” or “poor cooking.” Give an Italian grandmother a handful of stale breadcrumbs, a glug of olive oil, a couple cloves of garlic and a pound of pasta (itself is just flour and water), and she will make you a feast.

Allison Messier, SNAP-ed Nutrition Educator for Midcoast Hospital in Brunswick, teaches classes on economizing in the kitchen for Mainers in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But inflation is hitting her in the pocketbook, too. “Personally I am flabbergasted at the amount I am spending (on groceries) per week,” she said.

Finally, we spoke with Don Lindgren, proprietor of rare cookbook store Rabelais in Biddeford and an expert on, and collector of, Maine community cookbooks. What, we asked him, do famously thrifty Mainers from the past have to teach us about facing hard times in the kitchen today?

For one: “Throughout time if you think about people being in urban settings and being faced with the Depression or wartime scarcity, those folks can’t turn to their backyards or the woods or the lake or the ocean” to eat, Lindgren said. “Mainers can and they do.”

What follows is a common-sense list of grocery shopping and cooking tips, observations and recipes culled from these interviews, and a few others, as well as some of my own suggestions.


We get it. It’s awfully hard to resist the local peaches at your farmers market for just a few weeks. Keep your fruit lust in check by making a meal plan and sticking to it. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Savoie lumps these three recommendations together, in that order. Find out what’s on sale, she said, then build seven days of breakfasts, lunches and dinners around those items. “Shopping the sale flyers can make a huge impact,” Messier agreed.

Before you head to the store, check your refrigerator and pantry to see what you already have and make a list of what you need.

“When you show up and wing it, particularly if you are hungry, you are going to buy a lot more than you need, which ends up as food waste,” Savoie said. “That is just like dumping your piggy bank down the drain.”

A plan can aid you at the farmers market, as well, where alluring local produce beckons. “It’s easy to go to the farmers market and fall in love with the peaches and the heirloom tomato and the this and the that,” Jenkins said. “It’s another thing to go home and use it. Hey, how many peaches are we really going to eat?”



These are the stickers that appear beneath products on most supermarket shelves. They allow shoppers to compare the per pound/per ounce price of different sizes of the same brand (larger amounts are usually the better deal), and of different brands of the same product, say crushed tomatoes from Hunt’s versus the same from Tuttorosso. Unit price labels first took off in the United States in early 1970s. In some states – not Maine – the labels are required by law. But even where they are not, many supermarkets voluntarily comply.

“Buying the bigger bag of carrots, you are going to spend more money at the time, but if you’re going to use that bag of carrots, you are going to save money over the long run,” Messier said.

But many shoppers are either unaware of the unit prices, Messier and Savoie concurred, or they don’t know how to use them. “It’s right in front of your face, but people don’t realize it is a tool they can use to really save some money,” Savoie said.

It’s no punishment to opt for a whole bird rather than parts, and you’ll save money, too. Sergii Koval/Shutterstock

BUY WHOLE ANIMALS (within reason).

When shopping on a budget, the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts. At the end of September, a whole young chicken at Hannaford was selling for 99 cents per pound, while Hannaford’s boneless chicken tenders cost $5.79 per pound. (And what is more comforting in tough times than a whole roast chicken?) Bonus: Use the bones to make stock, and use the stock as the base for any number of economical meals, say, soup or risotto.



If you are the ambitious sort, can those tomatoes and dilly those green beans. Lindgren describe preserving as “a way of saving flavor across seasons, and a way of saving the nutritional value across seasons and, of course, a way of saving something that you had in abundance in August.”

But if that feels like too much of a project for you, make your freezer your friend. Buy items on sale and in season, when they are cheaper, and freeze them for later. Be sure to label these items – dating them is also a good idea – so you can identify them when you go looking.

Jenkins and her mother, cookbook writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, have a chest freezer, “and we keep all sorts of things in it … stock, meats and fish that we might have bought in bulk, leftover things to be combined with other leftover things … like a cup of cooked chickpeas and then you can find some frozen cooked cooking greens and voila –  soup!” Sara Jenkins wrote in an email. She went on: “Chicken carcasses for stock-making, parmesan rinds for infusing stock or ragu. Ragu and tomato sauce. Sometimes I freeze a bag of currant tomatoes at the season’s end and then make incredible pasta sauce in January. I keep tortillas in there. It’s definitely a junk grab bag.”

But don’t let freezer items lurk for years until they are covered in freezer burn and you are forced to throw them out, a practice – make that bad habit – that is the opposite of economical. One way to avoid that? “My husband and I like to do a clean-out-the-freezer meal a couple times a months,” Messier said.

Make friends with cans. You can rely on them for tasty, economical meals. Shutterstock/HandmadePictures


Speaking of freezers …


“Fresh is great, and in season, you might spend a little less,” Messier said, “but frozen or canned are also good options. That’s the first thing people say to us: ‘How do I shop and buy healthy foods because healthy foods are so expensive?’ Frozen or canned last longer. You can stock up when there is a sale. There is more availability typically, especially in mid-winter. A lot of people are afraid to buy frozen or canned because they are afraid they’re not healthy, but it’s picked and packed at its peak, so really there is not a whole lot of nutrition loss.”

Savoie said her family often makes meals from canned fish, favorites like salmon loaf, salmon pea wiggle and shrimp pea wiggle.


“The whole farm-to-table stuff is, and always has been, kind of expensive, and hence somewhat elitist even though I 100 percent believe in and support it,” Jenkins said, “and it’s not like any of the farmers I know are rolling in bags of gold. But in Portland, the ethnic markets – rummage around. There are all kinds of exciting, weird, different produce. Maybe you don’t want to think too much about how it was grown, but it’s flavorful and tasty.”

Buy the redfish, implores Chef Sara Jenkins. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Use less popular cuts of meat. Admittedly, they’re a moving target; oxtails, for instance, used to be such — and consequently cheap. Now they sell for $19.99/lb. at Shaw’s. But chicken livers sell at the same supermarket chain for just $1.59/lb.


Heads up: According to Nick Vacchiano, co-owner of Pat’s Meat Market in Portland, it’s a little more complicated than simply buying off-cuts, say beef cheeks or tongue; or less familiar meats, such as goat meat or rabbit. Because demand is low for such items, they aren’t necessarily a bargain, he said. Right now, he’d steer customers toward pork — chops, tenderloin, loin, shoulder and ribs. The last were costly during the summer barbecue season, he said, but the price has come back down.

“Chicken went out of sight. Chicken went up 200, 300 percent. Eggs are over $6 a dozen. Beef went up a lot,” Vacchiano said. “But pork has been pretty steady.”

As for fish, “Don’t buy the halibut!” Jenkins said emphatically. Buy the Acadian redfish! There is fish out there that is really cheap.”

Shop the sales, agreed Nick AlFiero, co-owner at Harbor Fish Market, who went on to explain that because most of the fish Harbor Fish sells is wild-caught, its price fluctuates.

“There are days when certain species might be very hard to come by, and other days when it’s plentiful,” he said. “Recently hake and flounder have been a lot less expensive. Typically you can see flounder around the holidays for around $20/lb. We’ve run specials at $9.99/lb., half price! (The difference) is pretty substantial. Be flexible to get that good protein at whatever is available at a lower price.”



Say you’ve got too many eggs from your backyard chicken flock, and your neighbor, the one with the green thumb everyone envies, has too many tomatoes. Make a deal. “Bartering is free,” said Lindgren, who keeps chickens himself. “It’s something we can do with our neighbors that helps to build community.”


Blackberries, blueberries, dandelion greens and (invasive) garlic mustard are among the many edible wild items that are as near as your next walk in the woods, or even your own back yard. But unless you really know what you are doing (and we mean really), do not forage for mushrooms.


Even if the USDA says inflation has hit restaurants less hard than individuals, eating out usually costs more than eating at home, often a lot more. Stay home and cook, or, Savoie suggested, go out for lunch, which is less expensive than dinner.

Jenkins readily concedes this: “I love to eat out. I’m a chef, so often I want to go have someone else cook for me,” she said. “But it’s crazy expensive out there. Early in the summer, my mom, Nadir (her 15-year-old son) and I went out to eat. We weren’t stinting, but it was $250 for the three of us. We could eat really well all week long for this” cooking at home.


Processed food sold at the supermarket is no bargain, either, Savoie said. “If you were to compare a frozen lasagna to making your own, you could pay a lot less to make it on your own. Cooking can save you money in the long run.”

The King of Cheeses often comes at The King of Prices. Save yourself money and use its much more affordable cousin – Grana Padano. Shutterstock


In the early pre-vaccine months of the pandemic, when trips to the grocery store were downright frightening, many of us grew adept at substituting ingredients. To economize in the kitchen, build on that skill by using – and using up – what you already have.

“Don’t be afraid to mix and match,” Messier said, for instance, “If you have extra broccoli in your fridge instead of spinach, use the broccoli and most of the time it would be fine.”

Jenkins endorses a very specific swap: “Don’t buy Parmigiano. Buy Grana Padano. Grana Padano is half the price and essentially the same cheese.”



Not quite 15 years ago, writer Michael Pollan suggested in “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” that we all eat less meat. He did so as a way to improve health, both people’s and the planet’s. But reducing your family’s meat consumption is also a way to economize.

Try meatless Mondays, Savoie said, or just use less meat in every meal. “It’s not a roast, hot vegetable, cold vegetable scenario any more,” she said. Eggs (even now, when they cost a lot), tofu and beans can all take center stage in tasty, economical meals. Maybe go light on the chickpeas, though? A global shortage of chickpeas, and consequent increase in prices, has been widely reported. Blame the war in Ukraine, the weather, transportation problems and increased demand for hummus.


Rice, pasta, soup – these are among the classic meal stretchers, and they work as well today as they ever did. Think fried rice or risotto, and pasta with beans, greens and canned fish. “You can certainly stretch anything out with making a soup,” Savoie said.

The ladies of the Free Baptist Church in South Portland in 1921 knew what they were talking about when it came to repurposing leftovers, which is still a great way to budget. Photo by Don Lindgren


For years, Savoie was a working mom with three kids at home. Both she and her husband worked full time. Once-weekly leftovers nights were part of her “sanity plan.”


“It was first come, first served. You did want to be the first one there,” she laughed. The meal was a fixture on her weekly menu plan, which was always affixed to her refrigerator with a magnet, there abbreviated as “l’overs.” A visitor noticed it one day “and thought it was some fancy French dish,” Savoie laughed. “You do have to be intentional about using the ‘l’overs’ or you’ll end up with a lot of food waste.”

Using leftovers is nothing new in Maine, as evidenced by at least two recipes from the “Ladies’ Circle Cook Book,” a community cookbook created by the Free Baptist Church in South Portland Heights in 1921; the book is in Lindgren’s personal collection. One calls for leftover cold boiled potatoes (and cream sauce, butter and cheese) to make a gratin of sorts. The other, for “Italian Dish,” is a contribution from a “Mrs. Marshall” and reads, in full, like this:

“(A good way to use up left-overs.) Take any kind of cold roast meat. Put through meat chopper. Put layer of meat in nappy, a layer of cold, sliced potatoes, layer of tomato, one of cooked spaghetti and a little onion if liked. Sprinkle layers with pepper and salt and if one has gravy left add to all. Over the top sprinkle rolled cracker, Bake 3/4 of an hour. The layers can be repeated according to amount wanted.”


We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention two excellent local resources, one of them our own, that can help you stretch your food dollars:

Read Green Plate Special, a column written by Christine Burns Rudalevige that has run in the Portland Press Herald since 2014. Its subject is eating locally and sustainably in Maine, but there is a lot of crossover with kitchen thrift. Many of the recipes and topics focus on eating less meat and more beans, reducing food waste and wringing every last bit from the ingredients you have. Find Green Plate Special columns here.


Watch Mainely Dish, a recipe video series from the UMaine Cooperative Extension that focuses on eating on a budget. Find the recipes and videos here.



Serves 4-6

This recipe from Chef Sara Jenkins of Nina June in Rockport. Start at least one day before you want to eat the soup as you need to soak the beans. 

1 cup dried beans, such as cranberry or cannellini
1 bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and 1 clove, peeled
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil for cooking
1 carrot
1 celery rib
1 small onion
Salt and pepper
3 cups shredded winter greens, such as dinosaur kale
1 cup farro
About 1/4 cup topnotch fresh-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, to serve


Rinse the dried beans and soak over night in plenty of abundant water with the bay leaf and 3 cloves unpeeled garlic. Cook the beans the following day in their soaking liquid with the aromatics.

While the beans are cooking, heat ¼ cup cooking olive oil in a heavy- bottomed soup pot over low heat. Chop the carrot, celery, onion and 1 clove peeled garlic finely together and sauté in the warm oil. When the vegetable mixture begins to soften, add 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt and allow things to cook down until the water is evaporated. Add the shredded greens and another cup of water. Add the farro and let cook until the greens and farro are done, about 15 minutes, adding water if necessary to maintain a soupy consistency.

When the beans have finished cooking, remove one-quarter of them and reserve. Puree the remainder of the beans with their cooking liquid. Add the pureed bean mix to the soup pot with the reserved whole beans. Simmer to bring the flavors together, 8-10 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt. Serve the soup in shallow bowls with 1 tablespoon fresh-pressed oil drizzled over each bowl and lashings of cracked black pepper.


This recipe comes from the UMaine Cooperative Extension’s Mainely Dish series. They suggest that to make the meal healthier, you discard the seasoning packet that comes with the ramen noodles and make your own homemade seasoning. You can substitute 1 pound of ground beef or turkey to yield 2 cups of
meat. And you can speed up this recipe, and economize, by using leftover meat and vegetables.

Serves: 4 | Serving Size: 1¼ cup


2 teaspoons canola or vegetable oil
1 cup onion, chopped (about 1 medium onion)
1 carrot, chopped or sliced into small pieces
2 cups frozen broccoli stir-fry vegetable mixture
2 cups cooked meat, poultry or tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 (3-ounce) package beef- or chicken-flavored instant ramen noodles, broken into pieces
Homemade Ramen Seasoning (see below) or the seasoning packet that came with the noodles
2 cups sodium-free chicken, beef or vegetable broth

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and carrots and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes.

Thaw the broccoli mixture in the microwave and drain. Add the broccoli mixture and the cooked meat, poultry or tofu to the skillet. Stir and heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the homemade ramen seasoning to the broth and stir into the skillet.

Break the ramen noodles apart. Add to the skillet when the broth begins to simmer. Stir to moisten the noodles. Cover the skillet and cook until done, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately.


1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper, or to taste

Combine all the ingredients. Use in place of the seasoning packet that came with the ramen noodles.

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