I’m going to warn you – this will be a long, laborious, boring entry to many. The truth is, though, a few people write me every week or two to praise my efforts and chronicles of being a housewife and to appreciate my writing. Some of them, yes, are even impressed with my career advances in housewifery! (these are the ones that don’t live near me where they can see the broken dryer in my driveway, the holes in my socks, and the state of my lawn!)
So anyway. I am responsible for (at least) four people’s every piece of nutritional intake, three meals a day plus desserts, snacks, and beverages. Every day, 7 days a week (minus a few of my husband’s would-be clandestine hot dogs at, yes, the Safeway gas station! Jesus.). It took me a while to figure out how phenomenal this responsibility is; but now I truly get it. This week I am offering up both my philosophy and a few practical approaches to feeding a family good food.
As a rule, I try to eschew the more typical views: that food is something incidental, something we deserve convenience with, and something that should only consume a miniscule amount of our financial resources (look it up: in most other parts of the world 70% is a more realistic figure). Neither do I believe food should be the obsessive enterprise in our life or that orgiastic pleasure should be achieved each dinner. I believe there is an art and a science to feeding a family in the way that works best for the family. I am seeking out methods that are economical and embrace both my talents and my personal values – nutritional, social, environmental, and ethical.
My personal pitfalls are not lack of skill nor tiring of the job. I love cooking from scratch and can’t remember the last time I opened up a can of soup nor bought ready-made frosting. My struggles usually deal with thinking too much on food and making my day in large part about mulling over recipes, securing the groceries, and making the time to cook. What I’d prefer is to feed the family well, to spend money on products we believe in without using the purchase as a “shopping spree”, and to spend less time thinking about food (what to make, when to make it, how much is left, etc).
A couple years ago I attempted to buy groceries for the week. I fell prey to two common problems with this approach. The first is this: if you don’t follow your plan to the letter, you often end with extra food (in raw form or leftovers), food you ultimately end up throwing out. The second potential difficulty is if you schedule meals you aren’t that excited about cooking or eating, you will not enjoy the experience and you will start to – you got it, think about food some more. Two other potential negative aspects of this approach to note: it elminates meal spontanaety to some extent, and the other partner, if you have one, may have difficulty stepping in and making the meal(s) you’d planned.
However, in the last couple years since I last tried weekly buying, I have learned a few tricks. So the last week and this I felt emboldened to try the method again.* Here is how I went about it.
First, a few days ago I re-organized my pantry. This experience was actually pleasant for me as I discovered I really used most of the food in my house – there were no cans of this-or-that, no stale spices, no random baking ingredients, no processed pasta helpers or pudding mixes (incidentally, the intimate knowledge of and use of my own pantry is one of the tricks I learned over the last two years). It took me about thirty minutes to get my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer in good order; mostly, it was in good order because I use it a lot and have been slowly weaning myself from unneccesary items.
So now I knew what I had in my house. I knew exactly what kind of dried beans I had, how many cans of tomato sauce, and what the status was on the baking powder. I had an organized and uncluttered fridge and freezer (the freezer becomes important, as you will see). From there, it was very easy to come up with a week menu – considering first any perishable groceries needing to be consumed (in my case, four pounds of corned beef from a favorite market, a bag of baby spinach, an opened can of coconut milk), thinking on the pantry items (the cashews would make a good match with a savory Asian dish; my mom’s home-canned tuna should be considered), and consolidating ingredients for the week into more than one meal (for instance, my favorite red sauce recipe makes up enough for two dinners). I made a simple grid of six days and wrote out the dinner plan (no fine details).
Now, at this point I had to think of breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and beverages (by this I mean alcoholic, and we limit ourselves to beer and wine). My goal is not to eat out or shop again until Saturday, when my husband and I have our date. In any case with this method you want to have some snack ideas so you don’t fall prey to ordering a pizza at 2:30 in the afternoon when your energy is shot and everyone’s crabby and dinner is a few hours away (or is this just me that does this?). Thinking of all this extra food in addition to dinners sounds terrifying but it’s really not. If you eat large family dinners, you probably eat leftovers the next day and mostly snack for lunch and have easy breakfasts. As long as you keep some staples in your house, you only need to think of fresh snack ideas you may enjoy over the week – items like fruit, lunch meat, maybe soup ingredients. List these breakfast, lunch, and snack ideas – the ones both in your pantry (for instance, cornbread or oatmeal cookies) and the ones you plan to buy – in another column next to your week’s dinners. Add any appropriate items to your shopping list.
Finally, you should think on any household sundries you may want to buy from your store – toothpaste, laundry soap, light bulbs, etc. Add these to your shopping list.
Now you have a menu and a shopping list (you can take both to the store). Here is my week’s menu:
Now, I am familiar enough with shopping that I write the list in the order the ingredients are laid out in the store. After I have the list, the family loads up for our shopping trip. Making the menu, the list, and buying the groceries took about one hour. Here was what we bought:
1 head red leaf lettuce
2 lbs. carrots
1 spaghetti squash
2 shittake mushrooms
4 granny smith apples
1 bunch celery
1 can tomato sauce
1 can petite dice tomatoes
1 can tomato paste
2 cans green beans
1 package spring roll wraps
1 lb. organic tofu, firm
1 package rotille pasta
1 large canister oatmeal
4 Port Townsend Brewery beers
1 lb. coffee from Sunrise Coffee (local)
Large sour cream
2 lbs. butter
2 gallons milk
2 lbs. extra sharp cheese
1 jar peanut butter (no added ingredients)
1 package frozen steak fries
1 lb. ground pork (all natural)
1 lb. leanest ground beef (all natural)
1 loaf bread (whole wheat)
4 hamburger buns (100% whole wheat)
tinfoil (100 ft reynold’s wrap)
12 roll toilet paper
package of 2 pastry brushes
The total was $127.
When I got home and before I put groceries away, I cleaned the fridge of anything from last week that wouldn’t be used. This only turned out to be about 1/2 cup of taco meat, two servings of peanut sauce, and some leftover hot cereal. Anything still edible (say, last night’s dinner) was already parsed into leftover servings and on the top shelf where my husband can retrieve it (by the way; he is instructed to take the leftovers to work and, if he doesn’t eat them, to dispose of them and bring back clean
dishes. I don’t care if he eats them or not, although he usually does – I just don’t want to be stacking up leftovers all week long.) The groceries are then put away.
The freezer deserves a tangential mention here. My freezer is 40% full of whole grains and flours. Besides these items and ice cubes, I freeze in very small spurts of time – a few days for meat, a few days for bread. So the pork and hamburger I bought today will spend a couple days in the freezer and be taken out the day before I cook them. This is mostly psychological so I’m not seeing red meat in the fridge for a few days and worrying about it. We make bread in our home, but it is good to have some in the freezer if you anticipate running out and don’t want to do another store run (where you are guaranteed to come home $30 short for “just a loaf of bread”). I also buy butter when it’s on sale to freeze (we are a no-margarine zone) and I freeze items like homemade frosting that are often put up in large batches. It takes time to know what freezes well (and by “well” I mean effortlessly, with no double-wrapping bullshit). I am not a big Freezer Fanatic but I have learned to use it and keep on top of it.
Back to this week. These groceries and this amount of money (along with what I have in my pantry) will keep my husband in lunches at his work (mostly leftovers, as is his preference) and supply lunch, breakfast, and homemade non-processed foods for our week, as well as our liquor bill in its entirity. It also will (hopefully) afford me a significant less amount of time in THINKING and PLANNING food (because I did this today). All in all, I spent 1 1/2 – 2 focussed hours on this project and I won’t have to shop again this week.
That’s as clear as I feel like making it. If you should decide to try some of these ideas, here are a few more tips:
1. Make one of your primary goals to KNOW what food you have in your home and how much of it you have. Maybe this seems daunting; it used to be to me. Grab the courage to throw out things you don’t use, or use them up and don’t buy them again until you plan on using them. I also posit this sort of mental inventory is much easier for someone who is primarily a homemaker and not an earner. If you are tracking a full workday or share cooking and buying duties you will have to be more creative in making this happen.
2. Make your secondary goals to A. NOT throw out food, and B. Enjoy the food you eat. This also is tricky; often people going for the weekly shopping will at first try to be economical. A small grocery bill doesn’t make up for three days of whats-it “healthy” casseroles or many reheats of the same soup (individual family preferences vary here).
3. Consider shopping at one grocery store, if there is one you like to support (even if prices aren’t rock-bottom – remember, your time is worth something, not to mention your petrol!). Multiple trips to different stores mean you will likely tire of the exercise and increase the likelihood you will make impulsive buys.
4. On your weekly grocery trip, stick to the list. Even if you see lovely seasonal tupperware or a yummy tea – do NOT buy it. Tell yourself that if you really want this thing you will put it on the next list (next week). A little longing never hurt anyone – and impulsive shopping adds up.
5. Caveat to rule #4 – you can deviate a bit from your list (celery was on sale today). A bit. Now, PUT THE ITEM YOU BOUGHT ON YOUR LIST. Take it home and make mental (or written) inventory. You should have only bought one or two “extra” things.
6. Post a similar menu as the one above up on your fridge. This will release you from thinking about what to cook, it will remind you of what ingredients you have (esp. the perishable items), and enable others to help you cook if you feel burnout during your week.
7. Streamline what’s in your kitchen by learning to cook from scratch. Keep condiments down. A fridge full of condiments that don’t get used creates a cluttered fridge that you won’t really enjoy looking in. Just like your pantry and freezer, know and use what’s in the fridge.
And finally, a few evaluation tools at the end of the week:
1. How much did you enjoy what you ate?
2. Did you throw any food out?
3. What did you do with the time you would have spent at the grocery store or thinking of what to eat? Did you find yourself thinking of the meal plan or could you release that concern?
4. How much did you spend? What did this compare to previous weeks?
5. How happy were you with the leftovers? Were those eaten happily or did you make too much? Not enough?
6. What did your family think of your meals? Did your partner (if you have one) step in and help?
Finally – I encourage you to gauge your success not by what your grocery bill is per week. Grocery bills are useless to compare because each family has different members, different values in terms of food quality (local and fresh or not; organic or non; vegetarian or non, etc). However, this method will enable you to KNOW more about what you spend since you will have one ticket per week.
Good luck and let me know how it goes!
* I chose a weekly frequency but you could buy for two weeks or more. I like the relative spontaneity a week plan affords me and I also don’t want to look at a packed fridge at the beginning of the food term. This method keeps my fridge rather svelte.