Best Buys From The Dairy Department
Most of us grew up being taught how important milk is for our daily diet. Current recommendations are that adults drink at least 2-cups of milk a day. Women are encouraged to drink 3-cups if they want to prevent osteoporosis and pregnant or lactating women are advised to drink 4-cups of milk a day. If you prefer to consume cheese for part of your milk quotient, then 1-1/2 ounces of cheddar or mozzarella is the same as a cup of milk. Two-ounces of processed cheese such as store-brand Velveeta is equal to 1-cup of milk.
So we know we should be drinking milk, but when we’re broke, what are the best deals in the dairy case? I wish there were an easy answer, but the truth is, the best deals tend to change from year to year, so I can only provide a few specifics.
It used to be that powdered milk was always the best buy among all dairy foods. At the time of this writing (fall, 2015) that is not true. It will be true again, in a year or two, but currently the best buy in the dairy case is fresh, nonfat skim milk. Fresh whole milk costs more. Nonfat or skim milk costs the least. In my area, which is often touted for its low cost of living, fresh skim milk is as low as $2.50 a gallon. The cheapest powdered milk I can buy works out to be $2.77 a gallon ($15.28 for 22-quarts). While I still believe powdered milk to be a good deal, it is not the best deal.
A few years ago the price of fresh milk was almost twice as expensive as the cheapest powdered milk. In a few years that is likely to be the case again. With this in mind I share a lot more detail about powdered milk in another article, so that it will be readily available when that time comes. Even now, if you live a feast and famine lifestyle, when you sometimes have more cash than others, powdered milk is good to stock up on when you have the cash. It keeps well in the pantry, even after opening, so that when you are dead broke again, it will be there–ready and available.
The cheapest powdered milk is usually instant nonfat dry milk, in 4-pound (64-ounce) or 20-quart (5-gallon) boxes. Look for store brands and value brands for the best price. They all taste pretty similar, so don’t be afraid to try a lower priced brand. Most brands use 1/3-cup powdered milk to make 1 cup of liquid milk.
You can also find powdered whole milk pretty easily these days. The brand I am most familiar with is Nestle’s Nido Fortificada brand. I usually find it in the Latino section of the supermarket. It’s available in 3-1/2 pound canisters (56-ounces). Each canister makes 3-1/3 gallons of milk. It costs about the same per package as nonfat dry milk, and makes fewer gallons. This means it costs more than nonfat dry milk. It does taste very good however, and if you have a chance to buy some when you do have the cash, it can be quite convenient when times are hard again. After opening, powdered whole milk does not keep as long on the pantry shelf as nonfat dry milk. Try to use it up within 3-months of opening it. It will still be nutritious if you keep it longer, but it won’t taste quite as good when reconstituted. Nido powdered milk uses 1/4-cup of powdered milk to make 1-cup of liquid milk.
Canned Evaporated Milk is useful, and often available from food pantries. I do not consider it a necessity, although it is a convenience. When I buy it I prefer whole evaporated milk, not the skim kind. I can make my own evaporated skim milk by combining 1-cup of water with 2/3-cup nonfat dry milk powder. I can make my own evaporated whole milk by combining 1-cup of water with 1/2-cup of whole milk powder. Evaporated whole milk costs only slightly more than homemade evaporated whole milk. If you have a little extra cash, canned evaporated milk is a reasonable investment. If you are pinching every penny until it squeaks, there is no real need for it.
After milk, the best buy among dairy foods is processed cheese like Velveeta, only in a store-brand. Name brand processed cheese is too expensive for our budget, but a store-brand is quite affordable. Velveeta and other processed cheeses are not usually in the dairy case. In my stores it’s near the pizza and spaghetti sauce. Two-pound blocks are usually the lowest price per pound. It keeps well in the cupboard until you open it. At that time it should be refrigerated. Velveeta can be sliced and used for sandwiches. It can be cut up into small bits with a knife, or mashed in a bowl with a fork, and used for casseroles or sauces. If you really want to shred it then freeze it first. While it’s still frozen it can be shredded quite nicely. Knives don’t work especially well for slicing Velveeta, although they do the job if you dont’ have anything else available. However, if you have a wire cheese slicer, the kind that come in holiday gift boxes of cheese that well-meaning but distant relatives sometimes give you for Christmas, they work the best.
Processed cheese is higher in protein than cheddar cheese. It’s designed to melt more easily too. If you use cheese to make cheese sauce or add it to broccoli cheese soup, then processed cheese will work better than cheddar. It melts more smoothly and doesn’t clump up or become grainy the way natural cheese can. Processed cheese also makes divine homemade macaroni and cheese and fried cheese sandwiches. Since processed cheese is the most affordable type of cheese you can buy, it’s the one you should use the most often. If you are preparing a recipe and it calls for shredded cheese think about whether or not processed cheese will work just as well. You may prefer mozzarella for a pizza, but in a pinch, Velveeta will work almost as well. You have to take the time to cut it into small pieces, but it will get melty and cheesy the same way mozzarella will.
At my stores I can find both orange and white processed cheese in the lowest price value-brand. To some people the color of their cheese isn’t a big deal, but to others it’s of vital importance. Velveeta keeps well in the refrigerator, so if you want to have both colors available for your cooking whims, it’s not likely to go bad before you use it up. If you live a feast and famine lifestyle, processed cheese is a good choice to stock up when times are good, so you have it later, when times are hard again.
Among hard cheeses, shredded cheddar and mozzarella, in large bags are usually the best buys. Shredded cheese is easy to freeze, so if you buy a large bag and are concerned you won’t use it up before it molds, simply transfer it to several plastic zipper bags and stash it in the freezer. If your family is small this is a good way to get the lowest price on cheese without any accompanying waste. Also remember that our hands, no matter how clean they are, carry bacteria. If we place our hand inside of the bag of cheese we introduce bacteria into the bag and cause it to mold faster. It’s better to shake the cheese out of the bag, without actually placing our hands in with the cheese. This will allow it to stay fresher, longer.
Parmesan cheese, the grated kind in a green shaker jar, is another affordable option. One-pound jars are usually less per pound than the more common 8-ounce jar. Parmesan keeps well in the refrigerator so if you can afford the larger jar, it’s worth buying. Since it keeps well on the pantry shelf, parmesan is a good choice for stocking up when you have the cash.
Soft cheese, such as cream cheese and cottage cheese are a personal choice. I buy cream cheese now and then, but it’s not something I use so very often. Cottage cheese is a personal favorite of mine, and it’s high enough in protein that I feel justified in its use. While useful, these are not necessities. If you’re watching every penny, these are items I would leave out of my budget.
Lastly I want to talk about yogurt. The most affordable kind is plain, homemade yogurt. At current prices, a quart of store-bought yogurt costs as much as a gallon of milk. Yogurt is one of those things you can make at home without too much work. Not everyone is willing to make it at home. In that case, your best buy is the lowest priced value-brand of plain, nonfat, unflavored yogurt–usually in quart-sized tubs. It will cost 3 to 4-times as much as making it yourself, but it’s extremely useful to have on hand. I routinely use yogurt as a replacement for sour cream and buttermilk in cooking. It’s a good snack, great breakfast, goes into smoothies, desserts and can even be turned into a facsimile of cream cheese called yogurt cheese. If you’re into urban homesteading, then making your own yogurt is pretty much par for the course. If you are truly rock bottom broke and want to give yourself the most varied diet you can within your limited budget, then homemade yogurt is worth learning.
When I post my recipe and method for homemade yogurt, I’ll link it here.
Even if you don’t want to make your own homemade yogurt, the store-bought stuff is nutritious and worth buying when you can afford it. Do not buy the sweetened or flavored versions. You get more nutrition and more versatility from plain, nonfat yogurt. At home you can stir a spoonful of jam or a drizzle of honey into your own yogurt and give it all the flavors you can imagine. If you need portable yogurt then spoon some into a small jar with a good lid and carry it with you. Small plastic resealable containers, about 4 to 8-ounce each, are also good choices. You’ll be preserving the environment by reusing your own container and you’ll save a lot of cash over buying single serving containers.
Greek Yogurt is a very thick version of regular yogurt. It has about twice the protein as ordinary yogurt but it also costs twice as much. That means that a quart of Greek Yogurt costs about as much as 2-gallons of milk. To my mind, this is far too expensive for our rock-bottom budget.
If you don’t have a car, or have mobility issues, you can save a lot of cash by shopping through mail order. Use a debit card, not a credit card, to pay for your purchases. For the lowest prices and the most useful products, these are the specifics. Shop at Walmart.com, which provides free shipping if you spend more than $35. Choose from the following items in quantities appropriate for your needs.
Mail Order Best Buys
- Great Value Instant Nonfat Dry Milk, 4-pound box
- Nestle Nido Fortificada 3-1/2 pound cannister Whole Powdered Milk
- Great Value Parmesan Cheese, 16-ounce jar
- Great Value Melt N’ Dip or Easy Melt Processed Cheese, 2-pound package
- Maybe Powdered Nondairy Creamer, 22-ounce jar