As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother cooked dinner from scratch most nights. I came from a family of modest means and I understood that my mother cooking was one of the ways we saved money. I was taught that food was never to be wasted, so we ate leftovers. I learned that if you knew how to cook it properly, a cheaper, lesser cut of meat tasted wonderful and wasn’t tough. But cooking from scratch means more that just knowing how to prepare food. It means knowing how to plan meals, budget your time, make a grocery list and go shopping.
One of the best ways to get the most for your food dollar is to create a shopping list and stick to it. To make a shopping list, you would first need to create a meal plan so that you will know the ingredients you will need. When planning meals, it is important to consider what is on sale, what you already have on hand and what time you have available to cook during the week. Once you have a detailed grocery list you are ready to head to the grocery store.
It is easy to look at a grocery store’s sale circular or clip coupons and purchase the cheapest processed foods. You may feel you are getting the most food for your dollar and possibly you are getting more items, but at what cost? Mark Bittman wrote a good op-ed article in The New York Times, entitled Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?
In this essay he compares the cost of feeding a family of 4 at McDonald’s to the cost of feeding that same family a home cooked roasted chicken dinner. The home cooked meal is cheaper, and could cost even less if the meal was not as heavily meat based. Additionally, one must consider the hidden cost of eating heavily processed foods–obesity, diabetes and other diseases that accompany being overweight. What you save today, may cost you down the road in doctor’s bills and poor health.
To demonstrate how cooking from scratch stretches food dollars I will use a whole chicken versus a bag of chicken nuggets. The price of a whole chicken at my local grocery store was $1.29 per pound and the average chicken weighed 7 pounds, making the cost of the chicken roughly $9.00. The most economical bag of chicken nuggets I could find was $4.49 for a 1 pound, 11 ounce bag. You could by two bags for roughly the same $9.00.
One can assume the chicken will contain roughly 35% waste in the form of bones and excess fat deposits. Using that assumption, a 7 pound chicken will yield 4.55 pounds of meat, compared to 3.38 pounds of chicken nuggets from the two bags combined. Not only does the chicken produce over a pound more meat, but once the meat has been eaten off the bones they can be used to make a soup or chicken stock. Finally, the chicken meat is only chicken meat. The nuggets contain other ingredients than chicken, including added salt, sugar and fat. To illustrate the unhealthy result of the extra ingredients in the nuggets just look at the percentage of fat in the calories for each service size. For the brand of nuggets I used as my example, roughly 60% of the calories in the nuggets were fat calories, compared to roughly 40% for the roasted chicken with the skin. The percentage would be even lower without the skin.
Meal planning, creating a shopping list and cooking from scratch may seem time consuming and more difficult that microwaving some chicken nuggets, but they get easier with practice. The Environmental Working Group has a helpful pamphlet, entitled Good Food on a Tight Budget, free on their website
or with a contribution you can receive a copy. The pamphlet provides numerous tips and tools for budgeting your food dollars, meal planning and shopping. It also contains recipes. Having a good all purpose cookbook is a must too. These cookbooks provide instructions for the basics like hard boiling an egg to more complicated recipes. They also contain information on meal planning, nutrition, shopping tips, cooking techniques and other helpful hints. The Joy of Cooking and the Fannie Farmer Cookbook are two examples of classic, all purpose cookbooks. How to Cook Everything is a more contemporary all purpose cookbook that includes numerous variations on recipes.
To make your food dollars stretch takes time and commitment. The key is to know your schedule. Try to find a block of time each week to look at your schedule and plan meals, basing that meal plan on the time you actually have to cook the meals. When you have a day or two where you are limited in meal preparation time, try to prepare items for those days’ meals ahead on a day off or when you just have more time.
For those who are food insecure and may never have cooked this way, attempting to cook from scratch is probably a scary prospect. What if something goes wrong in the cooking process and the food is ruined? They do not have the funds to just try again. In my final installment of this series I will present some ideas I would like to see offered through my local food pantries to help those needing assistance learn how to make the most of the food they receive from the food pantry. I know many of these ideas are currently offered at larger food banks, so if anyone has any experience with these ideas, positive or negative, I welcome the input.