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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

In Praise of Scratch Cooking


Once again, living on a food-stamp-sized budget is in the news, as bloggers attempt to restrict themselves to spending only the amount they would theoretically receive in SNAP benefits on food, and seeing what happens.  I've tried this experiment once before, and not much has changed in the interim.

Except, I have been thinking about why Mr. FC&G and I can easily bring our grocery bill in at a fairly low level, and I've come to the conclusion that most of it comes down to cooking from scratch.

You can see my grocery totals for September at the right (written, of course, on my Key West Calendar, so I'm always aware of my motivation for being a cheapskate!).  September's grocery bill came in at about $353, a good $14 under the maximum SNAP budget of $367 for a family of two, but certainly above the $4 per person per day that some bloggers use.  That lower budget would have allotted us $240 for the month.  However, note that September included a number of expenditures that aren't covered by SNAP benefits, most notably the last grocery trip of the month which included new bed pillows, a new dish draining rack, and make-up and hair products.

I really think our ability to eat on far less than $100 per week is attributable to scratch cooking.  I rarely do anything but; I can't imagine buying primarily prepared foods, and I generally buy ingredients, not meals.  Yes, my freezer does have a few boxes of frozen foods for "emergency" nights, but generally my meals consist of pasta dishes with fresh garden herbs and veggies, homemade soup made with my own canned stock, and, on the weekends, beef roasts or whole chickens slow cooked with garden potatoes and onions.  I buy pasta, but I also make a lot of my own noodles and dumplings, and the fresh-baked bread disappears around here almost as fast as I can make it.

In fact, I bemoan how high our grocery bill is, because I know that what I am buying is at least in part junk.  That grocery total is driven up by luxuries like Pepsi for our daily pop indulgence and cookies to address the sweet tooth.  Certainly, I'm attempting to do more baking of our sweets, which helped September considerably, but my love of desserts will always be our downfall (and the reason I'm glad I dance four nights a week and garden the rest of the time!).

My lesson for controlling the grocery budget?  Sadly, it isn't clipping coupons or looking for sales.  Instead, it is finding that universe of meals you can make from real ingredients, not from boxes of prepared foods, then making those recipes every night without fail.  Make a bunch -- I always make 4-6 servings at minimum, even for two of us, because that will cover another lunch and dinner.  Make ahead and freeze if you can.  Make recipes that do double duty -- that chicken that feeds Mr. FC&G nearly all week will turn into wonderful stock when we are down to the bones.  But, if you really want to save on groceries, I see no better solution than to get into the kitchen and cook.
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