The Nickel Pincher: 7 Packaged Foods You Never Need to Buy Again

Healthier food for less money, without the unnecessary plastic trash? That's something we can all live with.

October 17, 2012

Forget the plastic wrap. Homemade rosemary crackers take just a few minutes.

If you want to lose weight, one of the best moves you can make is to cut down on packaged foods. Ditto if you want to save money, leave a lighter footprint on the planet, and consume fewer harmful chemicals.


The problem is, packaged foods have been so readily available and highly advertised for so long that most of us have forgotten that you can make a great many of them at home quite simply and for far less—and without the unhealthy amounts of sugar and salt or the genetically modified ingredients in commercial versions. I'm always looking for ways to do more with less, while still eating the healthiest organic foods, and over the years, I've perfected a few recipes that have permanently displaced their packaged counterparts at my house. Here they are!

For most of us, crackers are things that come in plastic sleeves with a bunch of unpronounceable ingredients, and that usually go stale before we have a chance to finish the pack. Making them at home, though, doesn't involve much more than flour, olive oil, and a little water. My recipes are pretty basic, which makes them a great starting point for inventing your own creations by adding your favorite herbs, seeds, cheese, or other flavorings.
Learn How: Easy, Healthy Cracker Recipes

Corn Tortillas
Think your tacos all have to start with a cardboard-tasting tortilla that comes from a plastic bag? Try making your own once, and you'll never go back. The process is really simple. The only extra effort you need to make is hunting down masa harina, a form of ground corn that's been soaked in lime; you won't get the same results using regular cornmeal or corn flour. Organic versions are hard to come by, but Bob's Red Mill brand makes a version using non-genetically engineered corn varieties and can be found in natural food stores.
Learn How: How to Make Homemade Tortillas

You can turn your corn tortillas into corn chips by stacking them up, slicing them into wedges, and then baking them on a cookie sheet. You can also make traditional potato chips—or use any starchy vegetable you like, for a cheaper alternative to veggie chips—in as little as 3 minutes in your microwave or 10 to 20 minutes in your oven (plus prep time). The benefit: Aside from saving money, you can make them organic and use as little or as much salt as you like, all while avoiding pesticides and genetically modified ingredients and food additives.
Learn How:
Homemade Tortilla Chips
Homemade Potato & Veggie Chips

Making your own yogurt will save you money, since milk costs less than yogurt, and you can avoid the waste associated with all those plastic containers, which aren't always accepted by municipal recyclers. It's the one food in my repertoire that requires a bit of attention and time, but the improved flavor and quality over the packaged stuff is worth it, especially considering that some yogurt brands add all sorts of thickeners and sugar (even to plain yogurt). You can buy electric yogurt makers, but the yogurt they make is no better than mine, which I make in a soup pot wrapped in a quilt to keep it warm overnight.
Learn How: Your Step-By-Step Guide to Homemade Yogurt

Mayo and Salad Dressings
Since commercial shelf-stable mayo was introduced a century ago, most people don't realize how easy mayonnaise is to make at home. It's just oil blended with egg yolk so that the tiny oil droplets get suspended in the egg and the mixture becomes uniform and creamy (this process is known as emulsification). Once you learn how to make it, you can use it as a base for your own salad dressings, whether you prefer ranch, blue cheese, or any of a dozen creamy alternatives. In fact, in the time it takes to buy a bottle at the market, you can whip up a fresher, organic homemade version.
Learn How: Make Your Own Mayo and Creamy Salad Dressings

Energy Bars
Sure, an energy bar is a better for you than a candy bar, but commercial versions are overpackaged and still full of sugar, and the tab for keeping my college-age runner supplied with these would rival his tuition. It's actually pretty easy to re-create these bars at home using nothing more than a food processor. Lemon-coconut, oatmeal, or any of my flavor variations are tasty enough to challenge the likes of Clif and Larabars, and can be whipped up for a fraction of the price.
Learn How: Wallet-Friendly DIY Energy Bars

Last but not least, soda. Although demonized as nothing more than liquid candy, you don't have to abolish the stuff from your house, provided you make it yourself—which is easy enough to do as long as you have some carbonated water, some sweetened syrup, and a few creative flavorings. I make mine with fresh fruit, herbs, spices, and flavoring extracts, and wind up with flavors like ginger-vanilla and strawberry-basil.
Learn How: The 3 Basics of Homemade Soda

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on