I had rockstar dreams. Once upon a time, I was going to be a famous actress/singer/dancer and live in the lap of luxury, with a team of dedicated employees to cater to my every whim.
Now I am the caterer...and taxi driver, personal shopper, accountant, maid, butler, activities coordinator...I should get paid by the hour! Then I could live in the lap of...oh nevermind.
With all of that going on, don't I deserve a little convenience in my life? Perhaps. But I had to sit down and take a hard look at where the small amount of money we had was going, and somewhere along the way it occured to me that HUNDREDS of dollars were disappearing out of our wallets because we were buying convenience food.
Let me clarify a little bit - in my book, "convenience food" includes ANYTHING that I could make for myself, but I choose to buy a pre-packaged version. Yes, that includes bread, pancake mix, soup, precooked meats, shredded cheese. Anything that I could DIY in my meager kitchen. There were two thought processes going on:
1. What am I buying just to avoid putting some time in at the stove?
2. What is the benefit if I did it myself instead?
The answer to the first question was a long list of prepared meals, breakfast foods, snacks, and easy dinner solutions. The answer to the second question was short: I save a LOT of money, and I KNOW what is going into my family's mouths - no fillers, preservatives or extra junk. This required me to put firmly in place another brick:
4. Give a little sweat equity in the kitchen, gain a lot in the wallet
Let's dispel a few myths about making things homemade:
It takes too much time
My breakfast muffins take 10 minutes to mix, 20 minutes to bake (while they're baking, I can do other things!). I often throw some together before I go to work in the morning, it's that easy. Same goes for most dinners that I make. Ten or fifteen minutes of prep, and I can go about other business while things cook. Especially in the crockpot - I've been known to toss ingredients into the 'pot before work, set it, and dinner's done when I get home. Easy Peasy! At first things took longer to make, but that was just me re-acquainting myself with the stuff in my kitchen :)
One of my biggest time savers was making extra portions of a meal and freezing them - I haven't yet ventured into once-a-month cooking, but making extras while I'm already in the kitchen has been a lifesaver on nights when we aren't getting home until later in the evening. Sometimes those freezer meals are the only thing standing between me and the temptation to order out. That alone saves me almost 20 bucks a week...more if you include the fact that our leftovers often become lunch at work!
I can't cook.
YES YOU CAN. You don't need to be Julia Child in the kitchen, you just need to be able to operate an oven/crockpot without breaking something. It's really just following basic instructions, if you could program your iPod you've worked harder at that than you would in the kitchen! Two of my favorite recipe sites, Cooks.com and Recipezaar.com are chock full of simple recipes with minimal ingredients. A good basic cookbook (my personal favorites are How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food and The Best of Cooking with 3 Ingredients (Flavors of Home)) can be your best friend and help in areas you aren't comfortable with - I always had questions about cooking raw meat...now I roast with the best of them!
I won't really save any money because I have to buy the ingredients
OK - most people know that is about as false as Tammy Faye Baker's eyelashes. But I do actually know people who think this way! They figure that buying ONE of something over TEN somethings makes the ONE something cheaper. But most of the time, the raw materials that you use will add up to a LOT less when you consider that you're buying enough to make SEVERAL somethings instead of just one meal.
Investing some sweat equity in your kitchen is ESSENTIAL to successfully feeding your family on a small budget. I am a working mom (anywhere between 32 and 48 hours a week) and my husband works as much or more. My son is a mini-hurricane right now. I DID NOT think I had the time to do the home cooked meals thing every night. But I knew that I could make the same thing as packaged meals for a fraction of the cost, so I made the choice to TRY.
I started just making the effort to plan very basic protein-veggie-starch dinners. The more I did it, the easier it became to branch out and try new recipes. If you stick to recipes with less than 10 ingredients (and follow your price book!) most of your dinners will end up being under $7 for 4-6 portions. That's an ENTIRE WEEK of dinners for less than 40 bucks.
Getting familiar with the flour jar will also cut major costs. I make homemade muffins, buns/rolls, and pizza dough just about every week. ALL THREE of these recipes cost me $2.73 COMBINED. That's six muffins, 12 dinner rolls and a whole pizza pie. There are a TON of cheap recipes for muffins, breads, breakfast bars and such out there, just find the ones that appeal to you! The only think I don't bake myself right now is sandwich bread - only because I get it SO cheap at Price Rite. If I can figure out how to make it for less than 75 cents a loaf, I'm all over it.
I even make our own version of 100 calorie snack packs. I buy a BIG bag of the snack of choice, and divvy it up into snack baggies. The cost? Around 5 bucks for about 20-30 servings. Those snack packs at their CHEAPEST are 2 bucks for SIX. My cost for the same number of servings - $0.25.
The added benefit of all this work? You know EXACTLY what's going into the mouths of your precious family. No fillers. No added preservatives, extra sodium, or things you can't pronounce. I don't know about you, but it makes me sleep better at night. And my husband is healthier than he's ever been, in spite of his diabetes....there's something to this "home cookin' thing"!
Next week we'll spice it up! Literally ;)
Some great resource sites:
Make ahead recipes - Your Own "fast" food
$5 Dinner Mom - awesome recipes, all for 5 bucks or less per meal!
Saving Money with Homemade Convenience Mixes - everything from breads to sauces to seasonings, and tips on making homemade even healthier.
Grab and Go foods
The Crockpot Lady - if it can be done in a crockpot, she's tested it! Another awesome recipe site.