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PENNY WISE | A street-level look at how Southern Californians
are stretching their dollars in a sputtering economy

Web feast of frugal meals

As food prices climb, sites offering low-cost recipes boom.

May 20, 2008|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Here's an upside to soaring food prices: big gains for certain websites.

At www.allrecipes.com, traffic to low-budget and quick-and-easy recipes has nearly doubled over the last three months. Www.thriftyfun.com recorded more than 4 million page views in March, almost twice the number than in the same month last year. And www.hillbillyhousewife.com, not known for recipes involving truffle oil or sauteed chanterelles, has more visitors too.

People who get a kick out of saving are eager for ideas.

"We've had more tips than at any other time in our site's history," said Jessica Stewartmaize, editor at ThiftyFun, which began in 1997 as a weekly e-mail newsletter called the Coupon Clipper and evolved into a website two years later.

It's quite a departure from the old days -- a couple of years ago -- when it was "an embarrassment" to talk about being a penny pincher, said Pamela Munro, an actor and ThriftyFun blogger who lives in Hollywood. "You were supposed to spend money, not talk about how to save it."

Now people proudly swap ideas about how to freeze cabbage (it can be done) or make a spam casserole (there are many variations) or make powdered milk taste better (add a dash of vanilla). Food frugality is as in as chateaubriand is out.

"All of a sudden, it's more than acceptable," Munro said. "It's downright trendy."

Trendy enough that Munro thinks she'll have buyers for a book she's writing, tentatively titled "Frugal Fun in Hollywood." (For the record, Munro eschews "dowdy frugality," as she put it. Why make a potholder out of old jeans when you can by a perfectly fine potholder at the 99 Cents Only store? Do you not have something better to do with your old jeans? Or your time, for that matter?)

The average cost of basic groceries, including rice, flour and milk, has been climbing this year at an annual rate of about 5%, according to the Labor Department, the sharpest increase in 18 years.

"I refuse to spend $4 on a loaf of bread," said Andrea Garza, who lives in Sanger, east of Fresno, and feeds her family of five for about $75 a week. "I'm just not going to do it when I can make it for 30 cents."

In fact, Garza makes practically everything -- tortillas, pancake mix, jellies, maple syrup, even laundry soap. She has eight chickens, which solves the egg problem. She doesn't own a cow, so she buys powdered milk, acting on advice she found on HillbillyHousewife.

"From the powdered milk -- this is where I start to sound a little crazy -- I make all my own yogurt and all my own cream cheese, and my own butter too," said Garza, who acknowledges getting a lot of ideas from www.thefamilyhomestead.com and shares some tips on www.hopefulhousewife.com, her own website.

Allrecipes.com began tracking interest in ground beef and pasta in January, and it has since risen 107% and 74%, respectively. Visits have also increased to the "10 Meals on $10" pages. The website's articles sing the praises of porcupines (balls of ground beef, rice and onion), taco soup (ground beef, onion, chili beans, kidney beans, corn, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, green chile peppers and taco seasoning mix) and boxed wine (sure, you could cut back, the wine site says, but "that smacks of desperation.")

"People want to make the most of every last bit of their ingredients," said Esmee Williams, the site's vice president of marketing.

Requests for ways to prepare pricier offerings, such as steak and salmon, also jumped significantly, indicating that people who want to enjoy finer cuts of meat or fish are looking for new ways to cook them up at home.

Ethnic food recipes are also in demand. The search for Chinese recipes swelled 200% from January through March from the prior three-month period, Williams said, and nearly twice as many people went hunting for Indian dishes.

"For us, that was evidence that people were trying to re-create restaurant experiences at home," she said.

Ethnic food suits Khalid Abdullah, who was recently buying beef kabobs and rice for lunch at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles. When he and his wife have Indian and Middle Eastern food these days, they usually make it at home. His income is "above average," Abdullah said, but inflation has made everyone take notice.

"It's not just people with average incomes," said the computer network administrator, who lives in Anaheim Hills. "We're at the point where we're watching carefully right now."

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leslie.earnest@latimes.com

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