Cooking from scratch – Saving the Grocery Budget
|September 30, 2012||Posted by Koalaborg under Budget, Home Life|
Following up on my recent posts (here, here and here) about saving our grocery budget, I wanted to spend a little more time on the benefits of cooking from scratch. I admit to being a bit of a snob when it comes to from-scratch cooking. I will always prefer pulling out a cookbook over a box of “mix” or some fully prepared frozen dish, like a frozen sheet of lasagne. I try not to judge because I don’t know people’s circumstances, and on occasion I like certain convenient foods too, but I think it is unfortunate if a person depends too heavily on prepared, packaged foods.
There are obvious health and nutrition benefits from preparing food from scratch. Packaged foods need to be shelf stable, and so contain preservatives and other nasties. Packaged foods tend to contain more salt too. For these reasons alone I try to avoid them when I can.
I think it is important to distinguish what I am referring to as “from scratch” – some people might consider this to include everything, from full meals all the way down to condiments and well, pretty much everything. At this point in my life, I do not make condiments – while I would love to prepare everything from scratch, I have to balance time and money constraints with my wish to prepare everything myself.
To start, I’ll do a brief kitchen inventory of things I do not make from scratch around here. My reasons here are mostly time-related. I have a limited amount of it, and if I am going to spend more time preparing the big things from scratch, I have to pass on preparing some of the smaller things. And it isn’t always a better buy, I have found. Some of these I would like to switch over to homemade, but for now, I’m using store-bought.
Peanut butter – I will say that I have bought peanuts in bulk and prepared my own peanut butter. It was quite tasty but it was labor intensive even with my food processor, and I determined that I got more peanut butter for the money buying the natural store bought stuff than preparing my own.
Ketchup – I like Annies Organic so I will stick with this for now. If I prep a batch of homemade and find I prefer my own, I’ll do the switch.
Mustard – I do love different mustards so I really should try preparing my own.
Vegan Mayonaise – I love Veganaise and don’t use enough to need to prepare my own.
Vegetable stock – this is something I should be doing, but I use so much of it, honestly its just easier to keep jars of Better Than Bouillon in the pantry.
Salad Dressing – This comes down to convenience and time for me, since I am sure its more economical to prepare my own. This is high on my list to switch over to homemade.
BBQ sauce – I actually can’t stand the stuff, this is my husband’s domain. I would like to try making my own - who knows, maybe I’ll like it more then?
Applesauce – My daughter loves the stuff and I try to keep the pantry stocked. I would love to prepare my own and can a bunch, but for now its easier for me to get storebought. Its Fall though, so if I have an opportunity to get a large batch of apples, I might get some applesauce prepared.
Salsa - I actually make very good salsa, but I tend to keep store-bought jars in the pantry. Because I do most of my meals from scratch (and without much help in the kitchen), preparing homemade salsa in addition to a full meal (especially if I just rolled out a double batch of tortillas) is just too much for me. This is high on my list to prepare in bulk and can for later use.
Breakfast cereal – I love oatmeal or cream of wheat for breakfast, but with kids in the house, it is essential for me sometimes to have something quick on hand. I always keep Organic O’s (from HEB Central Market – kind of like healthy Cheerios…) on hand, and I am quite fond of Kashi’s Cinnamon Wheat. On occasion we splurge and get Chocolate O’s (HEB Central Market) or Cinnamon Squares (Cascadian Farms) – but that’s more for a sweet fix rather than nutitious breakfast options.
Pasta – Yes I do have pasta rollers for my Kitchenaid Mixer. I do need to get the tube noodle attachments but I can make spaghetti, linguine and lasagne noodles. For everyday cooking, though, I keep boxes of whole wheat noodles of all types in my pantry. For me, it comes down to time. I love fresh noodles, but I need the convenience of grabbing noodles from the pantry.
Crackers and pretzels – We do a lot of fruit in our lunches when I pack for co-op or park day, but snackables like crackers and pretzels are a must around here with kids. These I do not prepare from scratch, for time considerations. I am planning on a batch of graham crackers this week – we will see how they turn out (and how much time it takes to prep) and if we will make the switch to homemade.
Granola bars – My husband keeps a box at his desk for missed or late meals and snacks. We don’t buy them with such frequency that the cost is an issue. I am planning to make chewy granola bars this week though. Depending on how they come out, I might switch over and prepare a bulk batch for the freezer.
Okay, so that’s a pretty extensive list of what we don’t prepare from scratch around here. I get the impression though that when most people speak of cooking from scratch, they are differentiating between preparing a lasagne (for example) from noodles and possibly homemade sauce and fillings versus buying a frozen lasagne that just goes into the oven. Or cookies. Oh my goodness don’t get me started on cookies. My husband knows that there is a particular commercial where a mom and her kid are having a “moment” in the kitchen where they are making cookies – only they aren’t actually making cookies from ingredients. The mom has pulled out a package from the freezer – it looks like a cardboard tray with cookie dough already shaped and needing only to be transferred to a cookie sheet and put in the oven. For some reason, I shake my head when I see this commercial.
As far as cost, in many or most cases, cooking from scratch is going to be more cost effective than buying prepared. Bread is a good example. Think about how much flour, yeast and salt you can get for the same amount you spend on already baked bread. A five pound bag of unbleached all purpose flour is less than $2.50 around here, a bag of whole wheat flour is less than $4.00. How much bread will that bake? It is more economical to prepare bread from scratch than to spend the money on individual loaves.
So here are some of the things I prepare from scratch on a regular basis. I find this saves us money, but is also a healthier option. Minimal processing and ingredients – one of the benefits of preparing food yourself. Meals around here in general are prepared from scratch – I keep my pantry stocked with canned tomatoes, dry beans, flours, dried pastas, cereals and grains, vegetable stock, sugar, etc. When I cook, I use my cook books and recipe cards. I try to share pictures and recipes so I won’t go into specific meals. But I wanted to list some items that people often buy off the shelf without thinking about how easy it is (or can be) to prepare at home from basic ingredients.
Pasta sauce – I don’t buy sauce in jars. There are too many added ingredients and I find its cheaper to prepare from canned diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes and tomato paste. I can get large cans of tomatoes for $1 at our grocery store, and small cans of paste are usually in the $0.50 range, so I can prepare a batch of sauce for less than the cost of store bought jars.
Bread – I’ve posted previously about baking bread around here. We go through a lot of bread so this is the most economical option for us. While I had been getting sandwich thins for my husband when he would grill, I now also make rolls for burgers, pita bread for sandwiches, and pizza crust – all from the same bread recipe.
Cookies, cakes and sweets – I keep flour, oats, baking goods like baking powder and soda, salt, chocolate chips, and sweeteners on hand. I won’t by cookie mixes or cake mixes. What’s the point? Its cheaper to keep a basic supply of baking goods on hands. And the final products are much tastier. Store bought sweets are so overloaded with sugar and other junk that just isn’t necessary.
Gravy, sauces and seasoning packets - I suppose it can be tempting to keep those envelopes on hand to whip up a sauce in a pinch (I might consider this for a camping trip I suppose…) but for regular use, it is easier (IMO) to just use a recipe and base ingredients. I make Country Gravy on a weekly (or nearly weekly) basis around here, whenever I make Chickpea cutlets. Flour, nutritional yeast, vegetable stock, soy sauce and milk – ingredients I always have either in my fridge or in my pantry. For seasonings, I keep a well-stocked spice cabinet – I buy from the bulk section which makes them very inexpensive!
Soup – Several years ago, I would buy cans of soup with pop tops for my husband to keep at work for lunch. We got to looking at the sodium content of these canned soups and were horrified. And at $3 (approximately) per can, it was not cheap. I prepare my soup in a large stock pot – and it gets us a very nice dinner and lunches for the week. It’s cheaper and definitely healthier than canned soup options. Homemade soup freezes well so you don’t have to suffer from food fatigue – enjoy your dinner and freeze in individual portions for use over the coming months.
Waffles, pancakes and other breakfasty baked goods – Just like with cookies or bread, a well stocked pantry and spice cabinet keeps this simple. When you buy pancake mixes, you are also paying for packing and convenience. Pancakes are simple to make, easy to customize and healthier when prepared from basic ingredients. I make waffles, pancakes, biscuits, muffins, etc. all from the basic ingredients I keep stocked in my pantry and fridge.
Mashed potatoes – I grew up on mashed potatoes that came from a box. There is a certain ease to just pouring into a pot and adding water. But, honestly, I keep a bag of potatoes in my pantry at all times and the cost is about the same, as far as I can tell, to prepare mashed potatoes from fresh potatoes.
Seitan – I buy my vital wheat gluten from the bulk section of my local natural food store. I keep garlic, vegetable stock, and soy sauce in my pantry. Preparing a batch of seitain is cheaper than buying the smaller packages available in the cooler section of the grocer store.
Tortillas – I have posted recently how we no longer use store-bought tortillas. Homemade are much better tasting, contain minimal ingredients, and are much cheaper to make.
There are plenty of other items I prepare from basic ingredients but this is a pretty good list I think.
Keeping a well-stocked pantry and fridge is key to cooking from scratch. Here are several items that I keep stocked in abundance.
Flour – all-purpose, whole wheat, chickpea
Salt – sea salt, coarse, iodized
Baking soda and Baking powder
Grains and cereals – barley, quinoa, rice, cous cous
Dried pasta – small noodles (penne, elbows, etc) and spaghetti noodles
Canned tomatoes (diced, crushed, paste)
Active dry yeast
Vital wheat gluten
Flax seed meal
Soy sauce/Bragg’s liquid aminos
oils – olive, canola, coconut, etc.
Basic produce (fresh)- potatoes, carrots, celery, onion, garlic
Basic produce (frozen) – kernal corn, peas, broccoli
Spices – this depends on what style of cooking you favor but minimally salt and pepper for seasoning, and build from there
Condiments – ketchup, mustard, mayonaise (not just for burgers and sandwiches but for potato and noodle salads, etc.
There are so many benefits to skipping the processed, prepared food and sticking with basic ingredients. I continue to go through our kitchen and work to reduce how much processed/prepared food we purchase. While I do have time constraints that I have to consider when thinking about how much time I can reasonably spend in the kitchen (and I already spend a lot!), I am sure there is a way to further reduce my processed food consumption.