We went on a family trip this last weekend and I took the picture above as Steven was driving us home. It was an amazing sunset, my dashboard picture does not do it justice. You had to be there. I like the no u-turn sign on the side. It's there because somebody knows that you might be tempted to take a shortcut and not wait for the next off ramp. Week five of our challenge was like that. With hardly anyone on this road, would anyone even notice if we decided to change our minds and go a different direction? What is really keeping us on this course? Why eat out of the pantry? Why spend long hot hours in the summer processing food? Why grow a garden at all? We could free up so much time if we just bought food at the store. We don't save that much right? What do we get out of this all-but-outdated practice of gardening, cooking from scratch, and thrifty self-reliance?
Cooking from scratch is too much work!
I hear this all the time. Usually as a backhanded compliment that says, in effect, your food is awesome, I love your garden, but I would never do so much work just to eat. We all have things we love to do, and things we'd rather not do. We can agree to disagree with what is the best use of our time but I want you to know that gardening and cooking at home really does work. I don't like to spend time for things that aren't useful. We really do save time and money, and eat better. Sometimes I do feel like I spend all day in the kitchen, but sometimes I just throw something in the Crock-pot and spend 10 minutes or less, like today when I'm writing instead.
Lets analyze the going out to eat method. Most of you already know that eating out does not save money, but the math is fun, so here we go. It would be easy with our busy schedule to eat out several times a week, but let's walk through the math for my family. A dinner on the dollar menu rarely costs us less than $25 and its really easy to spend over $100 at a sit down restaurant. Lets say we ate out at as a family twice a week for $10 a person. That's not even ordering a dessert or a drink in most cases. That's not counting eating lunch out at work or school lunch or even junk food at the gas station. In one year we would spend $160 a week or $8,320 a year. That's a big number and I can think of lots of other uses for that money. No, eating out does not save money, but it is fun, so sometimes we do, but not often.
So you save money eating at home?
Maybe! You can save a lot of money eating at home, but you can spend more too. I have done both. I really like to cook and there are so many recipes on the internet I have never tried, but look good! Many of them have specialty ingredients I don't normally buy, but they are still really tempting! I really enjoy the variety of interesting choices, but they can be expensive! Additionally, processed junk food and almost prepped meals, where you just heat and eat fill most of the aisles in the store. While those meals are convenient, they are not cheap. So how do you stay in budget when you have so many choices?
The trick is to add the value yourself by making your own! If you buy the basics you can make anything! My general rule of thumb is to spend about $1 or less per pound for most of the food on our menu. That means buying mostly unprocessed foods and fresh fruits that are in season and on sale. I can buy 25# of rice and 7# of beans for less than $20 and that will feed my family for more than a few meals. I know that rice and beans and bread and potatoes don't sound glamorous, but stay with me. All it needs is a little marketing!
Step one is to add value by adding some color and spice! My budget rice and beans just needs some fresh corn salsa, some smoky peppers and spices, cilantro and lime in the rice, and a spoonful of fresh guacamole. The color of the veggies and the flavorful spices turns my budget meal into a delicious burrito bowl you'd pay $8-10 for at Chipotle. Pair our home canned garden tomatoes with a chunk of crusty rustic Italian bread for the most amazing tomato bisque with a sandwich on the side. You'd pay more than $10 a serving at Panera for that.
Step two is all about adding value through presentation. What is the difference between dinner and a great dinner? Presentation! I think of an elegant name for the dish I just made and write it on my chalkboard menu and set the table nice. If you arrange the food in a pretty way, your family and friends will think they have dropped by a little bistro instead of a soup kitchen. Everyone loves to eat food that is beautiful and totally delicious. No one ever thinks about how much you spent making the meal if they are happy, and full of good food at the end of the meal.
So here we are on the less traveled road of cooking from scratch, self-reliance, and thrift. Week five was good! We stayed on budget and ate well. Sorting seeds and making soap are keeping me busy. Every once in awhile (usually when I'm tired or there are lots of dishes) I wonder if it really is worth it, but like the sunset in the picture, I can't really tell you how awesome it is to stand in your food storage room that is filled with the food that you grew and took care to process. A great feeling comes with being able to provide a little of what we eat and save money too. I don't know if I can really explain it. You'll have to try it to see how beautiful it is.