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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Low-Effort Cooking While Using Low-Cost Whole Foods

baked apples take one-quarter of the hands-on time required for making an apple pie

Time is such a valuable commodity in our culture, so much so that none of us seem to have much of it to spare. As much as possible, I try to conserve my time in some areas in order to have more of it for other areas.

This is a principle that I've explained to my family members, encouraging them to eat more of the cheaply-sourced foods that take less of my actual hands-on time to prepare. By primarily making these low-effort frugal foods, I can have more time to make some of their favorite high-effort frugal dishes. 

I touched on this idea very briefly yesterday. So my first low-effort food is rice.




  • rice is a low-effort, inexpensive scratch-cooking food (3 mins. hands-on), whereas scratch-made bread is a high-effort food (35 mins. hands-on). When our homemade bread supply is running low, I make more rice to go with dinners in order to stretch the remaining bread, therefore delaying the time that I need to do more baking.
  • whole potatoes "baked" in the microwave are low-effort foods (2 mins), whereas potato salad (35 mins) is a high effort food. We get the same potato-satiety from the baked potatoes as the potato salad, but my work is significantly diminished.
  • cooked oatmeal (2 mins) from oats is a low-effort food, whereas homemade granola (10 mins) is a high-effort food, and homemade granola bars (60 mins) are an even higher effort food (which may explain why I rarely make granola bars.) Since I don't buy commercial dry cereals, our breakfasts are almost always scratch-made in some form or another, such as toast made with homemade bread, eggs, homemade yogurt, etc. When I check the pantry and see that we are out of breakfast-y foods for the next morning, I set up the crockpot just as we're finishing our dinner with either rolled oats or steel cut oats for overnight oatmeal. If I forget to do this, then a pot of hot rolled oatmeal is pretty quick to make in the morning and takes very little hands-on effort.
  • popcorn (7 mins) made from kernels, oil, and salt in a pan on the stove is a low-effort snack food, whereas crackers (50 mins) made from scratch are high-effort snack foods, and something that I only do once or twice per year.
  • this snack cake (12 mins), which is mixed in the pan in which it bakes, is a low-effort dessert, whereas a layer cake (60 mins) is a high effort food. I think we all knew that. However, I just wanted to point out that this snack cake recipe can be used as a celebration cake in a pinch. After some cooling, spread the top of the snack cake with a scratch buttercream icing and throw lots of colored sprinkles on top. Voila -- celebration cake, with only a small amount of hands-on effort.
  • baked apples (15 mins) are a low-effort dessert, whereas scratch apple pie (60 mins) is a high-effort dessert (even with this make-ahead pie crust dough)
  • a pot of rice and a pot of beans (15 mins) are a low-effort Tex-Mex vegetarian combination, whereas making scratch flour tortillas and beans (60 mins) is a high-effort Tex-Mex combination.

I think there's this myth that frugal cooking is always extremely time-consuming and complicated. That line of thought must come from the notion that one must replicate commercial products to be fully satisfied. 

As much as I can, I try to find the less labor-intensive options that deliver similar satisfaction for my family, using primarily cheaply-sourced basic foods. Of course, we all grumble from time to time that it would be nice to have more of the products that we see in stores and advertisements. They sure do look appealing in photos. In the end, I realize that by saving money on our groceries, we can afford other life luxuries, such as vacations, a nice home, and a comfortable retirement someday.

I do what I can to provide tasty meals for my family while keeping to a small budget. In that light, it just makes sense to prepare several low-effort foods per week, then add in one or two high-effort dishes for variety and excitement.

As a perk, making more of the low-effort foods means that I have more time for some of my frivolous hobbies, like showering, sleeping, and vacuuming. I know. I'm really too self-indulgent.

Does this idea resonate with you? Do you opt for simpler foods if it means you save both time and money? What are some other simply-prepared foods that save your time compared to their labor-intensive counterparts?

You'll find this post, and many others like it, just a click away on this page -- a compilation of my recipes, shopping lists, and menu plans that illustrates how I feed my family of 4 adults on $125 to $135 per month.

8 comments:

Kris said...

Did you come up with the graph? You have such a mathematical mind! :) While I don't use a graph, I am right there with you on low vs high effort. I estimate that of the 5 suppers I cook a week, 1-2 of them are higher effort and the rest are low effort. Being at home vs at work or out running errands tends to factor in for me on how much effort/energy I put into a meal (although today I was mostly home but went for low effort, as I was tired!). Some of my decisions on meals also include clean-up time--for instance, I like to roast chicken in the crock pot, which is very quick to prepare, but after the meal, I have a fair amount of messy work ahead of me to clean the carcass. All to say, I agree with you--cooking from scratch doesn't necessarily mean heavy hands-on.

I have been recently using budgetbytes.com for recipes--there are rice bowl recipes on there (which is apparently a trendy thing .... who knew??) which are basically rice and beans.

Lili said...

Hi Kris,
Thank you. Oh yeah. It's just an excel/word template that I was playing around with.
I think about the clean-up time and effort too. Chicken carcasses are not my idea of a fun evening, either. I can sometimes enlist help when I have a job that messy and unpleasant. Or, I can delay the work and refrigerate or freeze the whole carcass to deal with later.

That's so funny about rice bowls. I guess I've been on-trend since before the trend! Thanks for informing me. (Are you "trendy" if you're unaware of the trend?)

Conni said...

Thank you, Lili, for yet another informative and thought-provoking post! I have been a frugal homemaker for over fifty years and have learned LOTS of tricks/tips but I learn something new from you almost every time I read. Your writing style is excellent and I want to encourage you to keep sharing! BTW.....even though my passion has been baking bread for many years (grinding the grain, etc.), I have never been comfortable tackling pie crust....TUH DUH‼️ I made ‘your’ no fail crust the other night for a turkey pot pie, using almost half whole wheat flour and coconut oil, and it was FANTASTIC...we loved it. Thank you!

Live and Learn said...

I always appreciate a good graph to illustrate a point. I don't use Excel enough to know how easy it is to make graphs with it, but there a several graph/chart making programs for free out there that I have used before that I have really liked. However, I can't seem to remember which ones they are right now. So, I guess that's not really useful information. Oh, well.

Alice said...

I have always been the high effort vs. low effort my entire life being a wife and mother. I still prefer a good home cooked meal vs. going out but I save some of the higher effort things for the weekend and we call it meal prep. I will spend an entire Saturday doing what I love and that is cleaning or laundry while prepping food for the week to come. I will do the chicken roasting and subsequent chicken broth on those days as well. I gather the fragments from my fridge and make something from that during the weekend as well.

Hubby does a lot of cleaning and laundry but his type is mostly surface cleaning. That's just fine with me but I see I need to brush window screens and wash window ledges which are things he doesn't see. I really need to scrub showers which he shouldn't do with a hip and now an abdomen which needs to heal. Scrubbing bathroom floors are my job as he can't get down to do that.

I also need to tackle my kitchen freezer as it is packed full of odds and ends. I need to move some out to the deep freezer.

About being "trendy" before it was called trendy is just too bad we didn't think of that word before someone else did. Rice bowls or the KFC bowls where all the meal is in a bowl is kind of trendy but we've been doing that for years when the kids were little. That's how my mom often served a meal--all piled up on a plate. We love meals that way. We eat spaghetti in a bowl--spaghetti bowls!

Keep these great ideas coming! I love them and it surely helps me get things done using all of your good suggestions as well as the commentor's good suggestions.

Alice

Lili said...

Conni said...
Thank you, Lili, for yet another informative and thought-provoking post! I have been a frugal homemaker for over fifty years and have learned LOTS of tricks/tips but I learn something new from you almost every time I read. Your writing style is excellent and I want to encourage you to keep sharing! BTW.....even though my passion has been baking bread for many years (grinding the grain, etc.), I have never been comfortable tackling pie crust....TUH DUH‼️ I made ‘your’ no fail crust the other night for a turkey pot pie, using almost half whole wheat flour and coconut oil, and it was FANTASTIC...we loved it. Thank you!


Hi Conni,
Thank you for those very kind words. I can't tell you how much they meant to me.
I am so glad that you liked the pie crust recipe. I knew it was a winner when I found it.
Have a wonderful day, Conni!

Lili said...

Live and Learn said...
I always appreciate a good graph to illustrate a point. I don't use Excel enough to know how easy it is to make graphs with it, but there a several graph/chart making programs for free out there that I have used before that I have really liked. However, I can't seem to remember which ones they are right now. So, I guess that's not really useful information. Oh, well.


Hi live and learn,
I've only used excel, so far. So, I have no way of comparing it to other offerings on the web. That's good to know that there are a lot of free apps online. I'll have to google them some time. So, yes, your comment was useful. It got me to think about other possibilities. There could be an app that is much more user-friendly than excel and I wouldn't have thought of it ha you not mentioned it. So, thank you!

Lili said...

Alice said...
I have always been the high effort vs. low effort my entire life being a wife and mother. I still prefer a good home cooked meal vs. going out but I save some of the higher effort things for the weekend and we call it meal prep. I will spend an entire Saturday doing what I love and that is cleaning or laundry while prepping food for the week to come. I will do the chicken roasting and subsequent chicken broth on those days as well. I gather the fragments from my fridge and make something from that during the weekend as well.

Hubby does a lot of cleaning and laundry but his type is mostly surface cleaning. That's just fine with me but I see I need to brush window screens and wash window ledges which are things he doesn't see. I really need to scrub showers which he shouldn't do with a hip and now an abdomen which needs to heal. Scrubbing bathroom floors are my job as he can't get down to do that.

I also need to tackle my kitchen freezer as it is packed full of odds and ends. I need to move some out to the deep freezer.

About being "trendy" before it was called trendy is just too bad we didn't think of that word before someone else did. Rice bowls or the KFC bowls where all the meal is in a bowl is kind of trendy but we've been doing that for years when the kids were little. That's how my mom often served a meal--all piled up on a plate. We love meals that way. We eat spaghetti in a bowl--spaghetti bowls!

Keep these great ideas coming! I love them and it surely helps me get things done using all of your good suggestions as well as the commentor's good suggestions.


Hi Alice,
You brought up a very good point -- when spouses or other household members don't help as much as we think they should with cleaning or tidying chores, it may be that they just don't "see" the mess or dirt that we see. I need to remember that, so that I will be kinder when I "ask" for more help around the house. Thank you for pointing that out to me.

With the one-bowl meals, that's exactly what we've always called them in our house -- "one-bowl dinners." When we had our kitchen torn up, I cooked meals on the kitchen table that was set up in the entry hall. To minimize dish-washing (which had to be done in the bathtub), I served entire meals in 1 bowl per person. It would begin with a bowl of soup. When everyone finished their bowls of soup, I refilled the bowls with a grain/meat/veggie skillet meal. Then when the bowls were empty once more, I filled everyone's bowls with cobbler or crisp. I know that's probably taking the one bowl idea further than most would like, but it meant that I wasn't hunched over the bathtub washing multiple plates and bowls per person each night.

I'm working on my kitchen fridge and freezer this week, just doing a small section each day. I was able to use some of the various leftovers in a soup and found some ham from Easter that I can use tonight and another night. It's like a treasure hunt. You just never know what you're going to find.
Have a great day, Alice!

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