I wish for poor men luck—an honest praxis
Cheap food & cloathing—no corn laws or taxes 1
For better or worse, I’m old enough to remember, barely, the introduction of TV dinners in 1954. These complete, frozen meals on an aluminum tray were my mother’s answer to what to prepare for my brother and myself when she and my father were eating out. For variety, she served frozen chicken pot pies. She tried frozen fishsticks once, but neither of us liked them. (maybe if she would have allowed us to have some tartar sauce?)
Flash forward fifty years and my mother, like many people today, could easily feed our family a huge variety of ready-made foods available both fresh and frozen from one of the many markets in our area.2 Today, there’s no need to cook. You just stop at one of the many places that sell complete meals ready to take out of the package and eat, or if you wish, reheat in your microwave oven. These meals aren’t just a bucket from the Colonel or a “happy meal” from the Golden Arches. These are local foods, ethnic foods, organic foods, enough for a large family or just enough for one. I remember during one of my first visits to France stepping into a Monoprix3 and seeing a complete choucroute garnie4 for four on a black plastic tray, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, and ready for the microwave. Take-out meals are not just an American phenomenon.5
According to the USDA, “The away-from-home market now accounts for about half of total U.S. food expenditures.”6 And “away-from-home market”7 doesn’t include prepared food purchased for in-home consumption. To that add the food purchased ready-to-cook—items where you just add liquid and heat. (What would my childhood have been without Kraft Macaroni and Cheese?8) Only about a third of us prepare two or more meals at home on a daily basis,9 and that statistic doesn’t separate scratch cooking from box cooking. When you add everything up, very few of us are cooking meals from basic raw ingredients. So? I’ll come back to the concept of cooking meals from basic raw ingredients later.
It seems like everyday there’s a new story in the news about food prices rising around the world. Grain plays some part in almost everything we eat nowadays and grain has doubled and even tripled in price in the last few years. “From subsistence farmers eating rice in Ecuador to gourmets feasting on escargot in France, consumers worldwide face rising food prices in what analysts call a perfect storm of conditions. Freak weather is a factor. But so are dramatic changes in the global economy, including higher oil prices, lower food reserves and growing consumer demand in China and India.”10
A friend in France recently posted the following on his blog: “The prices of what are called produits de base—staples—at the supermarket have increased by anywhere from 25% to 50% recently. A liter of milk that was costing about 50¢ U.S. now costs $1.00. A kilogram of flour has gone from 40¢ to 75¢. Butter from $1.75 to $3.30 a pound.”11 More and more I’m hearing people on food-related radio talk shows calling in and complaining about rising prices as well as asking for advice about how to keep their grocery bills under control. The same subject is showing up on online forums. So want can we do?
Unlike the aforementioned Ecuadorian farmer, most of us allocate a rather small portion of our overall living expenses for food. How much do you spend on food as a percentage of your overall expenses? I figure that I spend on the order of 10 percent. One study found that an average family of four in Camden County, New Jersey, spent about 20 percent.12 I would expect that a larger family will spend a larger percentage of their total expenses on food than a smaller family. I would also expect that a poorer family will spend a larger percentage of their total expenses on food than a richer family. That subsistence farmer in Ecuador is probably spending a huge percentage of his real income on food, assuming that he isn’t growing everything his family eats.
Even if we only spend a small percentage of our pocket money on food, each of us is almost certainly feeling the increase in food prices to some extent. Is there anything we can do about it? In most cases, definitely yes. If we are inclined to let someone outside our home do the cooking for us, we have, staring us in the face, one instance where a lot of money can be saved. Even if we buy ready-made food to eat at home, we are spending much too much money. When my wife and I have a nice dinner out, it is not uncommon for us to spend as much on one meal as it costs to eat at home for two or three weeks. If we do not entertain, our groceries for a typical week will cost about $75. How can we do it so inexpensively?
To start with, I tend to avoid foods sold in a factory-sealed package, especially so-called convenience foods. If it comes in a can, a box, or a bag, I try to avoid it and buy the same item loose or in bulk. Instead of buying pre-washed lettuce in plastic bags,13 I buy a loose head of lettuce which costs me often less than a third of what the bagged lettuce would cost. It doesn’t take much of my time when I come home to wash and dry the lettuce. If I can’t pick up a vegetable and inspect it in its entirety, I don’t buy it. In the case of meat and fish, there won’t be as large of a savings buying it from a butcher or fishmonger, but the quality is usually superior and I, rather than the store, can choose my cut or preferred piece. I can’t avoid all forms of packaging. Dairy products, cooking oils, and some staples are essentially only available to me prepackaged. But I can minimize the items I buy in this manner. And I certainly will avoid manufactured products where “less money is spent on the actual food than it is on marketing, packaging, transportation and multimillion dollar compensation for the biggest food companies’ executives.”14
Almost every morning I eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. To the oatmeal I add some flaxseed meal, a pinch of salt, and a spoonful of honey. One of my local stores sells this same combination in “convenient” individual, foil-wrapped portions. Just add hot water and set aside for 4 minutes. A box of eight servings costs a mere $2.99. Why make my own? Two words: cost and quality. Although the package contains eight packets, they are a bit small. The total weight for at the packets is about 325 grams. That’s equivalent to three breakfasts for me. My serving consists of 100 grams of thick rolled oats, 13 grams of flaxseed meal, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of honey, and 225 milliliters of water. I place everything, but the honey, in a small saucepan, bring it to a boil, turn off the heat, and let it sit covered for 4 minutes. The honey goes on after I dish it out of the saucepan. My cost is about 49¢ per serving—22¢ for the oats, 6¢ for the flaxseed meal, and 21¢ for the honey—for a total of $1.47 for three servings, or less than half the price of the prepackaged version.15 Of course I get more ingredients in the prepackaged version in the form of a few chemicals I can’t pronounce. I could save more money by picking up free packets of sweetener from Starbucks and using these instead of my exorbitantly priced local wildflower honey.
Of course not everything I eat will save money when I make it from scratch rather than buying it already prepared in a box, bottle, or bag. For example, being a native Californian, I love mayonnaise, and unless I buy a restaurant-size tub, my per-portion cost can be high. But will I save money by making it myself? If I make it using an egg white, sunflower-seed oil, Dijon-style mustard, salt, and white-wine vinegar, my cost will be about $1.01 to produce a 250-gram portion, which is about a cup of mayonnaise. I just returned from one of the local chain grocery stores. Their price today for a 1 quart jar of their store brand of mayonnaise yields a cost of $1.04 for the same-sized portion—not much of a difference when compared to the homemade mayonnaise.
Of course I can send the price of store-bought mayonnaise higher by selecting a bottle of the national, name-brand mayonnaise; then the price rises to $1.31 per 250-gram portion if I buy the 1 quart bottle or $1.13 if I buy the next size up. Or I can bring the cost of my homemade mayonnaise lower by using a less expensive oil, such as soybean oil, the number one ingredient in the store-bought stuff. Then the price of my mayonnaise drops to about 84¢. But I think that sunflower-seed oil is a good neutral tasting oil and it makes great mayonnaise. I could use grapeseed oil and maintain a neutral taste, but that would raise my cost to $1.51, and a good quality extra virgin olive oil would bring it to $1.88 and alter the flavor.16
Besides buying as much of my ingredients as possible in bulk and “manufacturing” my own processed ingredients, I can produce a savings in my food expenses by selecting the proper recipes. This is not just a matter of choosing recipes made with less expensive ingredients, but also a matter of choosing recipes with less ingredients. I generally try to select recipes that are prepared from five ingredients or less, not including salt, pepper, and water. With less ingredients, I am forced to rely more on cooking techniques to bring out the flavor of the base ingredients rather than by building “layers” of flavors with extra ingredients. This also forces me to have a good knowledge of cooking techniques and often more time available to spend in the kitchen.17 If you are not well versed in all aspects of cooking, improving your skill and knowledge can be a good investment towards reducing your cost of groceries.
In general, by eating foods that are not based on, fed with, or otherwise entangled with basic commodities like corn, wheat, or rice, that don’t have to travel long distances from the source to the store, and that are not prepared outside the home, it is possible to keep your food budget under control. Your food expenses will certainly be lower than if you do the opposite. Unlike Sir Edward Sherburne who wrote, “Cheap Food, a Table without Art,”18 I know that it is possible to produce high art with cheap food.