I like to save money on things. That’s nothing unusual– people love a bargain. When it comes to coupons and deals and saving money on the usual household expenses, I am fairly frugal. CVS just sent us an email telling us that we’re in their top 1% of “money savers” on their products, which amounts to probably a thousand dollars in money saved over the course of a year. I’m able to get more for our money, and it’s a good feeling.
So I get why people would want to save money on groceries– food is the most flexible of our expenditures. No one can clip a coupon to save on the mortgage, and the electric bill and heating oil bills are hard to get down past a certain level without either freezing to death in the winter or roasting in the summer. Saving money on water is not that big a savings, percentage-wise, and who really wants to give up Netflix?
But seriously, some of the weekly menus and grocery lists that the deal and coupon and savings websites print are simply pitiful.
They’re not unfamiliar– my mom pretty much cooked in a similar way when I was a kid. We’d have a protein, a vegetable, and a starch. It’s the standard American plate. Hunk of meat, smaller portion of a sad lonely vegetable, and something to fill in around the edges. My dad didn’t like meat very well, so mostly we had hamburgers on nights that he was home, but we’d have fried chicken or pork chops when he was away. Broccoli, boiled or steamed, or corn, or frozen mixed vegetables. Mashed potatoes, maybe some rice. Mac and cheese. Nothing fancy.
My mom could cook quite well when she tried, but it wasn’t something she worked at on a daily basis. She’d go big for Thanksgiving and would go nuts once in a while and make up a feast, but it was the simple American standard most days.
That’s how I learned to cook. And, obviously, that’s how these coupon-cutters and savings-gurus and penny-pinching mommas are still cooking. They post photos of their shopping trips and they’re sad little things– a paltry bunch of veggies, mostly shrink-wrapped in plastic, a meager amount of fruit, and some chicken. Plenty of boxed items that were gotten for cheap due to coupons and sales. Maybe a splurge of ice cream bars or something for dessert. But that’s about it.
To dress this fare up, they rely upon “creative” ways to make chicken breast taste like something. Mostly in crock pots. But face it, there’s only so many times one can eat a chicken breast before one begins to feel like they’re growing feathers. The same applies to ground beef. It’s fairly tasteless and has a bland texture. You can douse it in sauce, cover it with spices, and try to hide it behind starches, but in the end it’s still just hamburger.
I started out cooking similar stuff. My big “go-to” meal for Sundays was a pot roast with mashed potatoes and the aforementioned mixed vegetables. And gravy, homemade if I was feeling very adventurous. Mostly that tasted like thickened grease, which was not a good flavour, but I was just learning, what can I say?
These days, I admit, I am somewhat tired of cooking the same old things. And I have more days than I care to admit where I am just too exhausted by the demands of life to cook ANYTHING and we end up eating sandwiches and frozen pizzas. I don’t cook as well as I’d like to as often as I’d like to. I do, however, have bigger and better meals in mind when I do cook.
I have been spoiled, in a way, by having a big grocery chain in town that prides itself on selling locally-sourced fresh fruits and vegetables (when they can find a supplier. Lots of stuff is still imported from out of Texas.) HEB is a major player in the Texas economy, so they can motivate farmers to grow stuff exclusively for them. And their produce departments are largely really good. There’s five of them in town, and only one has a poor produce section. (Can you guess which side of town that one is on? Two points if you guessed the poor side.)
My grocery pile looks nothing like the stacks of food that those ladies are photographing. For one thing, we buy WAY more vegetables and fruits. My husband would say this is a bad thing, as things do tend to go bad in the vegetable drawer when I have a bad week and don’t get around to cooking, but it does mean that we always have something fresh and green around to eat. We always have celery, onions, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, cilantro, and cucumbers on hand. Most of the time, we also have mushrooms, avocados, bell peppers, jalapenos, zucchini, and italian parsley on hand. I buy other things as needed for that week’s recipes– daikon radish, maybe, or watercress. We love bean sprouts but they’re not carried often anymore after all those sickness outbreaks. I am a huge fan of Swiss chard and the many kinds of greens, mustard to collards to turnip. I even still buy broccoli, but it never makes it to the table cooked. Usually it’s been eaten by a kid before then.
Fruit almost never gets thrown out, and we buy a LOT of it. A typical week has us going through a 3-5 lb bag of apples, two bunches of bananas, 2-4 lbs of strawberries, half a dozen lemons, a pineapple, several pounds of grapes, and probably 5 lbs of whatever else is in season and on sale. We go through a watermelon a week in summer, if it’s cheap enough, and in winter the kids go crazy for those big boxes of mandarins. I honestly cannot keep those in the house, they go so fast.
We buy rice in 25 lb sacks from Thailand– jasmine rice, it’s the best. We buy prodigious amounts of potatoes, both fresh and the dried mashed potatoes in a box. Pasta . . . you don’t want to know how much pasta we go through. When I see these people buying a little 12 oz bag of fettucini for a meal and then telling me they have LEFTOVERS . . . HOW??? HOW??? My goodness, if I mess up and buy the 24 oz bag of pasta, I get sad looks as the children accuse me of starving them intentionally. Anything less than a 32 oz bag is child abuse, in their estimation. We do not have leftovers of anything unless I intentionally cook twice the amount we’ll need in order to freeze a portion.
I think the biggest difference in the way I cook now, with a large family that includes 5 adult-sized people on a daily basis, is the number of side dishes I prepare. In addition to the main course, there are almost always two vegetable selections, quite often two starches, a “child favorite” on the side like baked beans or macaroni and cheese, some kind of bread or rolls, and most often a salad. That’s just an ordinary meal. So when I make harira, a Moroccan stew, for example, in addition to the very thick and filling beef stew, we’d also have couscous on the side, fresh flatbread of some type, vegetable crudites with ranch dressing, and a salad. Probably fruit for dessert. We don’t often make “real” desserts except on Sundays, and even then it’s going to be just a strawberry shortcake.
If we have a lasagna or spaghetti, we don’t have to make the secondary starches, since everyone loves pasta, but we’ll have two different veggies and a salad, probably with garlic bread or French bread on the side. We go through gallons of ranch dressing for dipping in chunks of cucumber or carrot sticks and celery. I try to get the seasonal veggies when I can– corn on the cob is huge around here, but I usually only have to share the asparagus with one or two other people. This is an advantage and one that I exploit.
My biggest complaint about my daughter’s cooking (besides her uncanny ability to ruin chicken) is her scanty side dishes. I’ll come down for dinner, spot the serving dishes on the table, and end up having to run into the kitchen to open a can of fruit cocktail and hurriedly slap together a salad. And even then, there’s not much food getting thrown away at the end of the meal. The mixed veggies are the food most likely to be thrown away . . . but that’s only on days where Indy decides that she doesn’t want any. When she’s in the mood for them, she’s picking them out of the bowl with her fingers (thereby making everyone else go EEEWWWW and guaranteeing that she has the bowl to herself.)
I’m not judging these cost-conscious moms . . . I’m wondering how they do it. How do you get leftovers when you’re already making such a small portion of food? These people are claiming that they each have an entire night a week dedicated to just eating leftovers. If I did that, we’d all be sharing a moldy Tupperware of some soup that no one had liked earlier in the week.
My kids aren’t all fat, either, so it’s not overeating that’s killing my grocery budget.
Of course, the biggest thing that I have noticed is that these people think that the extras . . . are extra.
I can’t live like that. I swear I must have Italian or Spanish roots, that my Scottish and Irish forebears were really just some lost mariners that got swept ashore by accident on some rocky Celtic coast and had to adapt their Mediterranean ways to the cold north. Meals are important. They’re family time. They’re part of the way I show my love to my family.
One of the cost-savings sites had a menu posted this week with pork carnitas tacos as one of the meals. And behind “taco toppings” she put the word “optional.” And that’s the biggest difference– for me, toppings for the tacos are not optional. If I’m making pork carnitas, there’s going to be shredded lettuce and chopped tomato and salsa and guacamole and sour cream and cheese of various types and probably limes and pickled and fresh jalapenos and sliced avocado and sliced black olives. Most of the time, I’ll make pico de gallo, too. And, no, not all of the cilantro will get eaten, but it will be there, fresh and green and pretty on the plate. And the haters can choose to ignore it if they like, but it will be there for those that like it. Along with all the other richnesses.
So I spend too much on food, I guess. But really, how much is too much? A bundle of cilantro is 28 cents. A jalapeno is less than a dime. Even a tub of sour cream is just 77 cents. I’m spending maybe two or three bucks on those toppings and it’s a vastly different eating experience than it would be to simply put some shredded pork on a tortilla by itself. That’s a price I’m willing to pay to give my family the best that I can.
If we were counting every penny, yes, I’d cut back a lot. If the choice was between cilantro and electricity, you know I’d be picking the electricity to keep my kids warm and safe. But most of the time, the choice to eat well isn’t a choice between abundance and starvation, but a choice between abundance and something else. Saving time, maybe, or simple inexperience in cooking. Maybe choosing to spend money on other things that they consider more important. Maybe they’re just not “foodie” people and they honestly don’t pay much attention to what they’re eating.
I just know that, when I look down the table, it gives me pleasure to see the serving dishes piled high with all the things I’ve prepared for my family. I may take a few shortcuts– I admit, on fajita night, I serve pre-prepared rice that I buy frozen instead of making fresh Spanish rice– but there’s an abundance, plenty of variety, and good flavors to savor and enjoy. And it’s not worth saving money if I’m going to be sitting at the table just watching my kids push that same steamed broccoli around on their plates and chew dispiritedly through yet another way to prepare cheap chicken breasts.
Yeah, I’ve been there and done that. And I prefer it this way.