CALL HER A cheapskate. A penny-pincher. A tightwad. A food budget fanatic.

Elise Cooke couldn't care less what you call her because she is way too busy making her own yogurt and sour cream, canning her own stock, tending her garden, even raising chickens so she doesn't have to buy eggs.

"It is my goal to achieve the absolute rock-bottom food bill," says the Walnut Creek author and self-described econovore. Cooke, who has a Web site, www.simpletonsolutions.com, and a book, "Strategic Eating: The Econovore's Local Guide," is part of a growing network of bargain-hunters taking aim at rising food costs.

While budget-crunching, dollar-stretching and living on less is new to some, the art of living frugal is hardly a new topic. Publications such as the Tightwad Gazette and Cheapskate Monthly have been around for decades. But thanks to the economy, these days there are more resources than ever to help us save cash on food.

A simple Web search turns up thousands of sites packed with advice, coupons, blogs, videos, even games designed to hone your bargain-hunting skills. Even Disney is getting in the game with its Disneyfamily.com site, linking to e-zines and Web sites such as Mommy Savers and Money Savvy Moms.

Subscribing to one of the hundreds of sites — most of which are free — may be the simplest way to access tips, coupons and rebates, but Cooke prefers the challenge of doing her own food bargain research.

"Ten years ago, I took this on as a job," she says. She spends hours combing the Web, reading books and following up on every possible way to save. "For me, it's all about figuring out how I can do the same thing for cheaper. It's a challenge, and for me it's actually fun."

When asked how she got hooked on the topic, Cooke laughs. "I pretty much learned to live on less by default," she says, "I starved. I was in college and had no money."

A few fat years of double-income, no kids followed those lean years, but when Cooke decided to quit her job and stay home with her children, she was back at it.

"The fact is that there isn't a bailout for all of us — most of us need to do a little nip and tuck so that we can save money to spend on what we really want to do. My family likes to go skiing. If we save some money on food, then we can afford to go."

Those who argue that a little waste in the food department is a minor problem, she says, need to rethink the math.

If you spend too much on a toaster, she reasons, it's unfortunate, but not a huge budget-buster. If, however, you systematically overspend on food, the loss multiplies because it is repeated time after time.

"A lot of people think they know how to save money on food. They know they should stop eating out and start cooking more at home. But they can really do a lot more," she says. "I teach people how to get food cheaply and how to use food."

Those who balk at the idea of cooking more, she says, may want to consider the numbers. "It's a matter of weighing things. I mean, yes, you like restaurant meals. But do you like them seven times as much as a home-cooked meal?"

The trick, says Cooke, is not to cut out all restaurant meals, but to cut back. "Money saved is money that you don't need to earn."

That philosophy of cutting back but not cutting out also extends to grocery buying, she says.

"The idea is not to make yourself feel deprived. If you don't like beans and bulgur, don't eat it. You don't have to," she says. "But you can still make lots of changes that will save money.

"Our family still eats beef, but I get it on sale, and I usually slice it thin and make Mongolian beef. We enjoy that same beef flavor — maybe even more so — for a lot less than it would cost for steaks."

Gourmet leftovers

An often unexplored avenue of savings, she says, are leftovers.

"I know a lot of people who just dump their leftovers out. They let things rot in their refrigerator. That is not just wasted food. It is also a waste of your time and energy."

Instead, Cooke gives her leftovers a new identity. "I learned this trick years ago from Amy Dacyczyn, author and publisher of the Tightwad Gazette. She had these 'universal recipes' that she used for everything."

Cooke tweaked the concept to come up with her own cache of "flexipes" which she claims are the ultimate leftover makeover.

"You really can use leftovers for anything. You can turn them into a casserole, put them inside crepes, make them into croquettes or fritters or toss them into a pie shell. I think of leftovers as the ultimate fast food. They're already cooked, so all you do is turn them into something different. The best part is the family is none the wiser."

Cooke says her favorite "flexipe" is for muffins. "You can put anything in them. Anything. Someone told me they put spaghetti in their muffins and they were great. Last week I had this big batch of chicken soup that we were tired of eating, so I used it in a batch of muffins. I used the broth as the liquid and the solids as filler. They were delicious. And I served them with another soup."

Turning leftovers into a meal is so easy that Cooke says she often plans for leftovers, deliberately cooking more noodles, rice and mashed potatoes than she needs.

"You end up saving energy and time when you plan your leftovers." Chicken, she adds, is the ultimate leftover.

"You roast a chicken and once the meat is gone, you have bones to boil for stock. I think of stock as the Swiss Army knife of the kitchen. It's the base of so many things."

Waste nothing

Likewise, Cooke is a stickler about waste. She maintains that if people would plan their meals around what's in the fridge and needs to be eaten, they would save big. "Half-price food is no savings if you throw half of it out. You need to open the fridge and figure out what needs to be eaten every day."

That means using leftovers from a party, that unused portion of canned soup or broth, those chunks of cheese that are beginning to turn green. "I used to take those things and throw them in the freezer. I still do that, but the problem is you end up with all of these packages of iced over things and you have no idea what they are."

Another way to reduce waste, she says, is to hold off on meal planning until you have shopped the sales. "It makes no sense to plan a menu before you know what's on sale at the store. The goal is to buy every single thing only when it's on sale so that everything you eat is on sale."

Reach Jolene Thym at 510-353-7008 or at jthym@bayareanewsgroup.com

Ten ways to cut food spending
  • Buy only what's on sale. Instead of shopping for the week, stock up on sale items only. Put fresh sale items on the menu for the week, plus pantry items you have on hand.
  • Shop ethnic stores. Spices, condiments, dried goods, noodles and even vegetables are often fresher and can be had for a fraction of the cost. Health food stores that sell bulk goods are also a good bet.
  • Keep track of cost. You may think that you will remember from week to week, but with hundreds of items, and continually shrinking package sizes, you will forget. If you write it down, you won't get tricked.
  • Stock your pantry. Buy up sale items in bulk; when you find a bargain, buy six months' worth if it will store that long. Don't have space? Find space -- store it under your bed if you need to.
  • Freeze it. When you find fresh foods on sale, bag, label and freeze. Caution: If freezer space is tight, be sure to prioritize your space so that you can devote it to expensive items such as meat. If you have a large family, an extra freezer is well worth the investment.
  • Network with friends. Share produce, divide bulk items and call one another when you find a great deal. Networking saves gas and time, and slashes the food budget.
  • Pay attention to circulars. Find items you need at bargain prices and shop at those stores that week.
  • Use coupons cautiously. Coupons are often for expensive convenience foods that you can make easily and cheaper yourself.
  • Plant a vegetable garden. Here in the Bay Area, you can grow vegetables year-round, which means it's never too early or too late to put some stuff in the ground.
  • Eat every single bite of food that you buy. Enough said.
    -- Adapted from Elise Cooke's "Simpleton Solutions."

    Online resources
  • www. mommysavers.com
  • www.grocerysavingtips.com
  • www.cheapskatemonthly.com
  • www.Disneyfamily.com, click on food
  • www.Coolsavings.com
  • www.CouponSurfer.com

    Top 10 uses
    for dead bread
  • Slice it, oil it, and toast it for
    bruschetta.
  • Cube it and serve it alongside a bubbly cheese fondue.
  • Dry it out completely and store it in your sugar to discourage clumping.
  • Turn it into charlotte by layering it with fruit, sprinkling with cinnamon and sugar and baking it like a cobbler.
  • Make Welsh rarebit; toast it, top it with cheese sauce and serve it for dinner.
  • Make French toast.
  • Make croutons by cubing it, tossing it with salad dressing and baking in a medium-hot oven.
  • Make bread cubes that can be used in stuffing, in bread pudding, or turned into croutons.
  • Grind it into breadcrumbs.
    -- Elise Cooke