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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Really good food costs either time or money

There's no doubt about it, really good food (organic, freshly cooked, scratch-baked) will cost substantially, either in our time or our money. We could feed ourselves on junky cheap stuff. I could open packets of ramen, or blue box mac and cheese, night after night. But I want better. I want delicious, fresh-tasting vegetables and fruit. I want well-seasoned, but not overly salty meals and snacks. I want cheese, not cheez. But the good food I want comes with a cost.

To feed my family well, I choose to spend more time than money in making that happen.

  • I choose to bake and cook almost exclusively from scratch
  • I choose to hunt down bargains

  • I choose to work with less-convenient packaging

  • I choose to keep a garden and orchard
  • I choose to preserve whatever I can each summer and fall
  • I choose to forage wild foods when possible

  • I choose to repackage institutional-size containers into more home-kitchen friendly sizes when I come home from the wholesaler
  • I choose to shop at multiple stores

And so, I choose to spend a lot of time procuring and preparing food each day.

When you see my grocery totals for each month, they're made possible by the hours of work I put in each day. Your choices may be different. You may be in the position to spend more money and less time in meal management for your household. Or you may be choosing a blend of time invested and money spent.

This came up with me, personally, after church a couple of weeks ago. A gentleman friend of ours asked me what I do. I replied that I'm a homemaker. He countered with, "yes, but what DO you do?" (Emphasis on the first DO.) I could just be insulted and saunter off to my own corner. But instead, I chose to "educate" him on how some of us manage meals for our families, through labor in place of dollars. As I delved into the details of baking all of our bread, keeping a garden and orchard, canning and freezing for winter meals, and cooking almost everything from scratch each day, he began to have a look of incredulity in his eyes. I didn't even go into how and where I grocery shop. This was such a novel idea to him, that a modern-day homemaker might do many of the things that his grandmother had done.

I think our family DOES eat very well, almost every single day. Because we enjoy really good food. That is a priority for us. And I've found the way to make that happen, with an investment of my time, in place of our money.

Gotta go. I've got to get that golden brown, with fruit bubbling up over the edges, cobbler out of the oven!


  1. Thank you, Lili. I'm in your ball field for sure. I do almost (not quite) the exact things you do but I also work a 40 hour week in my job. It just makes it harder for me to accomplish all the extras I need to do to cook meals every day and to make sure it's done on that tight budget. I wouldn't change any of it for the world.

    I have been criticized by "friends" over the years why I would spend so much time cooking a whole chicken and then messing with all the bones and skin when chicken breasts were "ready to go". I have been criticized for canning and freezing. And for baking my own goods and for not just "pick something up". Tastes better and costs less is why I mess with this.

    In this way I have been able to help my children pay for college. I wouldn't change a thing.

    Even my parents say that many young families visit their garden in the summer and when he gives them fresh veggies, they don't know how to prepare/cook them. Dad always tells them to "talk to my daughter". I know exactly how to prepare everything and I think Dad delights in that. He even calls me a Mennonite woman. By the way, Dad's grandfather was Mennonite so there is that flowing through me!

    I am, however, a little burned out from cooking right now. But I will not bend and suggest going out (Hubby requested that we not bend on that either). Not sure what's on the menu tonight.

    On Sunday, I made our usual dinner but then I made two pots of soup to have for lunches during the week this week. We didn't have a ton of leftovers from our roasted chicken, squash and cauliflower dinner but maybe enough chicken that tonight might be the mock KFC bowl dinner. Mashed potatoes, chicken, corn and gravy.

    Now I'm going to look for a nice dessert for our bowls of dinner for tonight.


    1. Hi Alice,
      So often, I've felt like the odd one out in my circle of friends and family. Even my husband doesn't realize just how much time and effort goes into making meals, daily, when cooking it all from scratch on a small budget. So, I totally understand, it's hard, to feel criticized or have our work diminished in someone else's eyes. I'm glad for you that you have family who understand just how much work you put in every week, making meals from scratch. It's those small snippets of appreciation that keep up the motivation, for me.

      Burned out on cooking -- I get that. This is a good time to just make a large amount of something very, very simple, like bake up a bunch of those chicken leg quarters (if you have any left), add a bunch of whole potatoes to the oven while you're at it. And just do repeats for a few nights. Still very good food, just a tad repetitious. Another trick I employ, here, when bored with my own cooking, I scour the freezer for various containers, a couple of days' worth, thaw them in the fridge, then try to mix and match them all to make meals for 2 or 3 days. This has the side benefit of clearing out part of the freezer!

      Good luck finding that dessert for this evening!

  2. I think you are definitely correct about good food taking an investment of either time or money or some combination of the two. And I'm mostly good with that. However, I admit this is something I have been struggling with a bit lately. With the kids back to school I have been doing more hiking, which I love and which is SO very good for me physically and emotionally, but it takes away from my time at home. Working on finding a balance between hiking "enough" to maintain those benefits while still being home enough for cooking, maintaining our home and garden, and being well-prepared for my other outside of the home commitments at church, as an assistant scout leader, volunteering in my children's classrooms, and so forth. I know that, for me personally, when I am not getting in some hiking, I seem to have less energy and enthusiasm for the rest of my tasks, so it's a balancing act between feeling my best and being at my peak performance, yet allowing enough time for everything.

    And yes, sometimes I do take some shortcuts, particularly if it keeps me from eating out. A rotisserie chicken from the store now and then (love the flavor as well), some prepared taco shells, things like that.

    1. Hi Cat,
      I understand what you mean. There really are only 24 hours in each day, and we do need to sleep for part of that time. I think the time balance is most difficult when I know it will be an ongoing set of time commitments in my life, like with exercise. When it's just a busy season, I can reason with myself that I can get through a tight month or two, and then relax. But when my life feels just chronically busy, and I can't see where to remove or reduce any commitments, that's hard to wrestle with.

      I have 3 priorities for my health, good food, exercise and good sleep. When I let any one of the three slip, I get sick, or like you, feel I have no/less energy. Sometimes, I just have to let an extra area in my life fall to a lower standard of good-enough. For me, that's housekeeping, or extra projects, or saying no to some volunteer work. When you're in the thick of raising a family, you do need to make sure that you are taking excellent care of yourself, and realize that you won't be able to do it all, all of the time. People who do it all, all of the time, eventually crash and burn, and often in a very big way.

      I think you've found some good (healthy) shortcuts in cooking, like buying roasted whole chickens, or taco shells. I buy corn tortillas, pre-made, as my own homemade ones, a) take too much time, for my schedule, and b) don't turn out as well.

      So, keep up the hiking! It appears to be good for you, in both physical and mental health. And as best as you can, keep up with blending time and money to provide that good food for your family.

  3. We have more money than time, but we do find time for cooking from scratch. My parents both worked (and my mom's parents worked and my grandma's widowed mother worked) and my father is European and had taken a lot of french cooking classes when he was a bachelor in San Francisco, so combining my mom's hand-me-down weeknight recipes with my father's, we don't have much need for modern processed food. Then add to that a great CSA and the Victory Garden cookbook and we're set. (Tonight: swiss chard torte. DH makes a great pie dough.)

    Granted, sometimes we'll have cheese, crackers, and fruit for dinner. And unlike my father, I'm more likely to use canned beans than to soak dried beans. But we do make stock from roasted chicken and from the Thanksgiving turkey. It really does make a difference in soups.

    My husband took a cooking class about five years ago because his lack of knife skills was driving me crazy.

    We don't garden other than my herb garden and berry bushes and we don't can.

    1. Hi nicoleandmaggie,
      You and your husband have found the balance/blend of the two (time/money) that suits yourselves best!

      I love the Victory Garden cookbook! I think that's where I first read that you could eat radish leaves. My mom had always tossed them, so I thought they were inedible. Now, I actually plant radishes with the idea in the back of my mind that I will use them for their greens, and not worry if the roots don't do well.

      I'm sure there's a favorable ratio of gain to work, in growing the herbs and berries, especially if most of your herbs are perennials!

    2. How funny-- we actually have a post on radish top soup (from the victory garden cookbook). That's one of the things we used to make when we had more time than money.

      With the exception of the occasional basil, all of our herbs have been there for about 10 years when they were first planted. (The cilantro reseeds itself every spring-- I don't know why our basil won't do that.)

    3. That is the recipe that I remember! Yep, we've eaten our share of radish top soup!

  4. I have wondered why other people care about my work/home balance and why it can bother me. Every time I start to think about it, I come to the same conclusion--everybody's needs are different and as long as I am living the lifestyle I believe to be the best for our family, does it really matter what others think? I ran into a similar situation to yours on Sunday--I was talking with a couple and the husband was surprised to learn I work about 35 miles away. "Do you drive it every day?" he asked ... well, no, not even close, but I have learned that I get weird looks/comments about "but don't you want to pick up more hours at work", so I have learned to reply "Oh, my work hours are variable, but the flexibility serves my family well" and to try to avoid answering these kinds of questions directly. My own experience is similar to yours, Lili--I can work a lot of hours but my energy flags and we eat a poorer quality of meals, or I can work 1-2 days a week on average and I have the opportunity to enjoy my work and my family and can keep up with eating more meals from scratch.

    Your cobbler looks delicious! I am angling to get the "best mom ever" award tonight with homemade potato and ham soup and homemade dinner rolls ... ;)

    1. Hi Kris,
      I have no idea why it's so important to everyone else, how we choose to live our lives. I have a friend who reminds me, all too often, "what other people think of me is none of my business". I do think you have a pretty ideal balance. You work a couple of days per week, and still have the energy to give to yourself and your family. And your paid work is in a field that you find fulfilling. So that is a win, too.

      Your dinner sounds very yummy! Can I get a doggie bag, to go?

    2. You would be welcome at my table any time! :)

      I like your friend's quote. Thing is, we really don't know all of what is going on in anyone's life--for instance, most people know I have 2 kids, but few realize that my husband's job at times requires him to work nights (on a ship, which is weather-dependent, in other words, unpredictable) or to be out of town for professional reasons. Combine that with elderly parent issues and a desire to volunteer at church and school ... it's just soooo much easier to live a lifestyle with less money but more time. You are right, I DO have a great balance. Sometimes when people make remarks, I start second-guessing myself--I think that's why this post hit home for me.

    3. You're so right, Kris. we never know, fully, what's going on in others' lives. In fact, I did not know your husband occasionally worked on a ship, and nights. That in itself puts an extra burden on your energy -- some of the time being the only parent for your kids.

  5. I think what you have achieved for yourself and your family is beyond most peope's imagination and have devised through your own ingenuity, research, time and effort the "machinery" to crank out wholesome, nutritious good food using very little paper capital. You truly are an inventor, Lili. I come to your blog to read, study and marvel the machinery you have created. Most of us have only a fraction of that awesome machinery working in our homes. I say kudos to you for being so smart and savvy!!


    1. Hi YHF,
      Much of what I do has evolved over the years. And I have many friends, family members, and mentors to thank for what I know how to do, now. I hope that I can pass on to my grown kids, what I have learned, early on in their separate households.

      And I am very happy to share what I've learned with any one else that cares to read, here.

      The learning is not just a one-way street. I have learned so much from the input in the comments and through private emails, from people that I would have never had to opportunity to meet IRL. So, a heart-felt thanks from me to you (and everyone else here) for the opportunity to learn more!

  6. Great Post Lili. And keep doing what you're doing. It is obviously working for you and your family, as you are always putting together really good meals that are very nutritious and well balanced.

    1. Thank you, Jayne! You're no slouch at putting together great meals on $mall change, yourself.

  7. Such a great post, Lili. We are here cheering you on!!

    1. Thank you, Belinda! I appreciate the cheers and support.

  8. You tell 'em, Lili! I LOVE this post! One of my pet peeves about our society is that people seem to be expected to define themselves through their income-making activities... as if "having a job" is required in order to be a complete and valuable human being.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm a total lefty liberal, but I question the assumption that being a cog in some sort of a corporate wheel is an inherently more fulfilling existence than caring for one's family. I think anyone of either gender should have equal opportunities in terms of careers, and I also think that families should have the freedom to decide for themselves what works for them - including the option of women working while men are "homemakers". So it really irks me when people "poo poo" it as if you're just sitting around all day eating bon-bons or something.

    I also think it goes beyond the whole gender stereotype thing. I mean, our society has gotten itself into such a crazy place where people are wedded to their jobs more than they are to their own lives. It's like with each generation, people are expected to work longer hours, take less vacation, and even be on-call 24/7! And I'm not talking about neurosurgeons or something, even your standard office worker is expected to check emails from home, be available while they're on vacation, and even re-locate if the company says so. It's CRAZY!

    Meanwhile, people seem to be losing the ability to do ANYTHING for themselves. When I was a kid, it was common for people to maintain their homes and cars themselves. People cooked, and painted, and fixed, and repaired, and mowed, and gardened... yadda, yadda, yadda - this was just life! These days people act like you're some sort of crazy person if you say you're gonna do anything for yourself.

    OK. Sorry for the rant - obviously this subject hits a nerve with me. It just really saddens me to see how society has changed in this regard, and I can't help but think that people might be happier if they spent some time and energy learning to do for themselves rather than working in the service of corporations to get money to pay other corporations to do things for them. I at least think that people ought to know that it's an option, and that there are other choices that are just as valuable as "having a job."

    1. Hi Cat,
      I do suspect that there are some people who think homemakers sit around with their feet up, drinking their lattes and watching soap operas all day long, probably while popping bon bons. I have had friends or family tell me that I'm lucky, implying that I have an easy life. Well, I am lucky. Lucky that I figured how to have the life that I wanted, so I could support and take care of my family, in the way that I wanted. But I'm not lucky in the sense that I do nothing all day long (and I wouldn't find that to be lucky anyway -- just boring and unfulfilling). My work may not have been paid work, but it's been work that has benefitted myself and my family for this period in my life. This whole idea that your paid-career defines you is a rather shallow notion. I like to think that who I am as a person, and what I have to offer this world, is much greater than what I would/could do for a paycheck.

      My son's previous position did have him on-call in the middle of the night, several nights per month. He had to keep a beeper next to his bed for those nights. And he's a software dev engineer! One of his co-workers took to taking vacations where he couldn't be tracked down and there wasn't any internet service available, just to have some peace and quiet for a week, to recharge.

  9. I agree. Good food & the procuring of it is a priority. I, too, employ many of the strategies you do, Lili. With a large family, I have little choice. But I have to say, I enjoy the challenge of finding/making high quality food for my family as cheaply as I can. While my grocery budget is significantly higher than yours, it is still several hundred dollars per month below the USDA thrifty plan for a family of our size and composition. We went on a four day trip last week. I made & froze all of our meals and snacks ahead of time. The only food items we bought while there were ice cream cones (a planned splurge), a head of lettuce and a loaf of french bread. The trip would not have been possible for our family without this. Yes, it was a lot of work, but it was so worth it. I'm sure we ate better food than what the local restaurants offered anyway (it was a very small town). Melissa

    1. Hi Melissa,
      As I read your comment, I had a real a-ha moment about vacationing. Our family does as yours did last week, and brings food with us. I had only been thinking of this as a money-saving, or primarily money-saving, thing. But you hit it right on the head, that in addition to saving money on eating out -- you likely ate better, more actual good food, than you would have if you had eaten in the local restaurants. There is significant value in that, value that can't be quantified in dollars and cents, but in terms of the quality of the dining portion of your vacation. It just put into better perspective, how my own family vacations. So, I thank you for that!

  10. Lili, I truly respect the incredible work that you do for you family. You would be hard pressed to find a job that would pay for all of the things you do in such an economical way.

    This is indeed a subject that hits a nerve for many and I've had nerve or two hit myself from time to time. While I was working, stay-at-home moms thought I was doing a great disservice to my kids by having a nanny for them. Then when I was at home, my working friends didn't understand what I did at all.

    It's never easy. But the best is when we mature enough to be happy with whatever we are doing and not to compare ourselves to others.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      I hope that I did not in any way imply that the way that I have managed is superior to any other choice. It's just what worked best for our family and for me, personally, for this period of my life.

      It is a difficult choice to explain to someone who is living a different choice from yourself. Several of my paid-work friends really can't imagine what my day might be like. And yet, before kids, when I was working full time, I remember questioning what a couple of my sisters-in-law did all day, while they were stay-at-homes. Best to just be satisfied with our own choices, and find the commonalities that we have with others, instead of the differences.

  11. You didn't imply at all that what you do is better or worse than what anyone else chooses. You said that this is what works best for you. What I did hear is that you are sometimes frustrated when others don't understand your choices. I think this is a common feeling among most people.

    It is very obvious that you try to not offend anyone on your blog and that you try to be sympathetic to differences in others. And I think you do a pretty good job at that.


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