There are a few unfortunate facts I’ve had to face in life. Facts like:
- I’m never going to be a size 2.
- I missed my chance to become a concert pianist, Olympic gymnast, or extreme climber.
- I’m never going to be a famous mezzo-soprano.
- If you have a farm, you have dirt. Typically, it’s in the form of mud tracked through the kitchen.
- Rosie the Robot is never going to move in and do all my housework.
- Until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil, my left knee and right shoulder are going to be better barometers than Willard Scott ever had.
- I’m never going to learn to apparate or disapparate (à la Harry Potter).
- And…My family expects to be fed. Daily. Sometimes, more than once a day.
Putting food on the table requires effort. It isn’t just cooking. There are planning and shopping to consider. Oh, and don’t forget learning how to plan, shop, and cook! If you’re starting from scratch, learning to cook scratch meals can make you scratch your head! However, the effort of preparing food at home is worth it in so many ways. Homemade food is cheaper, healthier, and provides opportunities for family bonding you just can’t find in the drive-through. Let’s talk about ways that putting in a little effort can help fill your pantry (and your family) for less money.
The number one take-home point is: Ingredients are cheaper than meals. It doesn’t matter if it is a cheap budget meal or an expensive treat. Buying filet mignon, wine, asparagus, and baby potatoes is cheaper than a steak dinner out. Tacos and burritos are cheaper and MUCH healthier made at home than eaten driving away from Taco Clanger! Most of us know this, we simply allow ourselves to fall into the “I’m running late” or “I deserve it, because, I work so hard” traps.
Those can be valid reasons to eat out, but they should be occasions, not habits. I’ve fallen into the trap of: I deserve it, because, it’s been a lousy week and I worked really hard. I finally had an epiphany. I don’t deserve dinner out. What I deserve is to save money, pay off my mortgage, and be able to cut back the hours I work off the farm! Believe me, I’d rather work for freedom than fast food!
Let’s talk about increases in effort above and beyond not eating out. This is the way added effort can really cut grocery bills! When I was at home full-time, I cooked almost everything we ate. There were no pre-packaged meals, no quick drive-through stops, heck, I even baked the crackers I sent with Liam for lunches. This wasn’t a self-imposed martyrdom! I really do enjoy cooking, and we were REALLY broke! This also doesn’t mean it’s the ‘right’ way to be a stay at home mom. Everyone has their strengths and gifts. I’d like to think cooking is one of mine, but I know for a fact that doing dishes and laundry with a smile are not!
Now, back to those crackers Liam took for lunch. I can bake cheese crackers for less than half the cost of a box of Cheezits. Homemade crackers are tastier, and I can pronounce all the ingredients! No preservatives? No problem. They don’t last long enough to go off anyway.
Now, of course, I work full-time. So, I constantly search for balance. Do I bake our bread? Yep. Do I use a bread machine to do it? Yep. (Actually, due to the whole Celiac issue, we have a GF dedicated bread machine. I use my Kitchen-aide to make my ‘normal’ bread.)
Do I make homemade yogurt? Yep… and Nope. It all depends on the week. We like homemade better, and it’s much cheaper. It isn’t really hard to make, but the store bought is okay. So, when I ‘m busy with other things, yogurt is one of the first kitchen ‘efforts’ to go. I don’t feel like a failure, if I buy something I’m capable of making. Remember that whole ‘seasons of life’ conversation we had earlier? Well, I’m in a crazy busy ‘season’, so I evaluate, prioritize, and give myself a break.
Side Note: I’m going to do a post soon about making your own bread, but there is one relevant fact I need to mention here. When making GF bread in the machine, I use bulk purchased ingredients. I did the math comparing our bread with store bought GF bread. With four Celiac sufferers in the house, (three with grown man appetites), we save (conservatively) $191.40 per month or $2,297 per year!!! Folks, $2300 is a new-to-us used livestock trailer or over half an anniversary trip to Ireland!! I’ll totally make bread for that payback! (Yes, the exclamation points were necessary.)
The idea that ingredients are cheaper than meals affects those of us who cook too. Boxed meals, meal kits, frozen dinners, and single serving containers are all more costly than separate ingredients. When I was a kid, Hamburger Helper was a big thing. What’s in the box? Dried pasta, dried sauce mix, maybe a few dried vegetables. In the time it takes to brown the meat and boil pasta, I can sautee some vegetables and make a quick sauce. I promise mine will be tastier and healthier. (If you’re new to cooking, don’t worry. Yours can be tastier too, it just takes a little practice.) Depending on what vegetables and sauce ingredients I use, it might be cheaper or it might just be higher quality for the same price.
Beyond prepared meals, there’s a great cost difference in ingredients as well. Take-home point number two: Unprocessed ingredients are usually cheaper and healthier than processed ingredients. There are a few exceptions, standard canned green beans, for example, are cheaper than fresh. However, it’s unusual for precooked food to be cheaper, and I can’t think of an instance where it’s healthier. Sometimes, I’m not even sure how convenient ‘convenience ingredients’ really are.
Grace recently had her first exposure to the wide world of cake mixes. I don’t use cake mixes, not because I’m morally opposed to them. I just like to cook from scratch and prefer my favorite recipes. Anyway, Grace wanted to surprise me with a birthday cake. So, she called a family member to get the recipe for a lemon cake I love. The recipe involved tweaking a cake mix. So, Grace started checking out mixes. She was shocked to discover that using a mix only saves adding three ingredients. She just shook her head and asked, “What’s the point?” We decided the point is most people don’t know that making a scratch cake can be done by real people, in real kitchens, without a ton of effort, or a mix.
In order to discuss pre-processed ingredients versus ‘raw’ ingredients, let’s look back at our old friends, dried beans. A can of beans averages about $1.00 at my local big box store. These beans are high in sodium and, (in my opinion), mushy in texture. Dried beans average $1 a pound at the same store. That pound of beans will become six cups when cooked. The can of beans becomes about one cup when rinsed. That means dried beans are about 1/6th the cost of canned. (And, they seriously taste better!)
Now, how much effort are we investing to save 5/6th the price? I take five minutes to pick over the dried beans, put them and water in the crockpot, and turn it on. The next morning, I turn them off to cool. Later, it takes me about ten minutes to drain them, stick them in bags or containers, and pop them in the freezer. For me, it’s worth it to cook dried beans. Better taste, better health, and better stewardship of the grocery budget all without investing more than twenty minutes. That, my friends, is a pantry grand-slam!
Many people make homemade baking mixes, spice mixes, and pre-assembled meals. If that works for you, I think it can be a great plan! However, it isn’t the way I work best. I tried that idea years ago. I can see the perks, but I kept running into situations where I needed an ingredient plain, but had used the last of it in a mix without realizing. (Poor planning on my part, I know.) I also like having the ability to mix seasonings as I go. That way, I can adjust the heat if small kids visit or the garlic if my mom comes over. Everyone has to try things, experiment, tweak, and find what works best for their family.
Leaping in at the deep end and trying to make everything from scratch is pretty much a guaranteed ticket to failure. I’ve always gone with the theory that small changes are more sustainable. If you eat out consistently, start with changing that. Invest the effort in listing, shopping for, and preparing a week’s meals. Choose things that are quick and simple to avoid burn out.
If you normally cook take a moment to look at your meal plan. If you often buy a ‘boxed’ type meal, investigate ways to make it from scratch. If you tend to cook from scratch, look at your ingredient list. Choose a few things you buy prepared, that you can learn to prepare for yourself. Cream of Whatever Soups, dried beans, spice mixes, baking mixes are all things that can easily be replaced with homemade fare.
I’ve been cooking all my life. Although, through the years my style, concept of healthy food, family size, and budget have changed dramatically. I consistently look at my ingredient lists and look for ways I can make things myself. I just have to be careful to not take on more than my time and energy allow. I hope this encourages you to look at the way you feed your family. I find that balancing time, effort, and quality helps me control both the food on the table and the jingle in my pocket!
One last thing, I’ve admitted before that I am a pretty type-A logic driven person. (Some of my co-workers now read the blog. I maybe in for some ‘understatement of the year’ cracks.) Anyway, the money-math you see above isn’t just for the blog. If I’m trying to find the best deal or decide if the savings are worth the time and effort, I bust out a calculator and convert it to black and white numbers. That way, I not only make an informed decision, but I can pull those numbers out of my memory bank when I start to think it might be easier to buy bread after all.
Do you have any suggestions for replacing ‘easy’ with a bit of effort? Do you prefer making mixes ahead or mixing on-demand? Share your thoughts with me! Oh, if you need help tweaking a recipe, please, let me in on the game. I love recipe puzzles! Leave a message if you have a moment! I love to hear from y’all!
This post is shared on some of our favorite blog hops and linky parties! These are a great place for fun, information, and community! Check them out, if you have time.