Monday, April 8, 2013

The Home Stretch: The Many Incarnations of Bulk Pantry-fication

I noticed that last year Jack and I changed work schedules so frequently that we were eating drive-through fast food, or simply eating out at all, way too much. Now that the schedules have settled (hopefully!) into a more dependable pattern, I took a hard look at just how much money was going down the drain during those times of unsatisfying 99 cent "value" burgers, and the effect it was having on our health and stamina.

 The joy ride is over, and though it may have been momentarily ok, our bodies just want home cooking.  And so does the budget!

 There is no drive-through that can offer home cooked butterbeans and cornbread with fat slices of garden tomatoes, or meatloaf made from actual meat without fillers and chemicals...and so on.

 Even when we do eat out at "meat and three" places, being Torah-keeping Jews means having to be a food detective when it comes to if those green beans/pintobeans/most any veggie were cooked with pork fat (or pork anything)...and if that luscious piece of pie has a crust made with lard. And so on. It's a lot more complicated at times than simply asking to omit the bacon strips from the deluxe burger.

We tired of it, and our tight income stream tired of it. 

 I have begun thinking in terms of how many hours it takes me to earn whatever I'm thinking of buying. And what percentage of my week's income that represents. All in all, I began resenting getting Not Much for too many more hours' work than I thought it all worth. That re-motivated me to get back to home cooking.

I'm doing a MODEST amount of cooking ahead on a few of my days off so that we DO have fast food for the other days...home cooked food that can be reheated fast.

There are books out there about bulk shopping and cooking and about how to super-coupon, and how to plan meals ahead down to the T.  I discovered long ago I'm just not that regimented at this point. I can work within looser guidelines, and with that I'm comfortable.

Here's the Robbyn take on simplifying a bit and what seems to work for me right now:

1. I have EASED into bulk buying for the backbone items I know we'll use. Easing into that was the only way to afford the switchover without exceeding the weekly grocery budget, which is modest but is a lot less than what we spend eating out.

 2. At this point, IF we have the money in the budget (some weeks we don't) I try to leave $20 a week for eating out together. We like that as a "date." Some weeks we don't have that, and it's ok.  On the weeks we do, we make the most of the date and it feels decadent without wrecking our finances.  Maybe someday we won't do that anymore.  But it gives us a realistic cushion to transition from being slack to being much more frugal.

3. With bulk buying, I begin buying things we always need on hand or use regularly. Some items we eased into buying at the warehouse buyer's club were cottage cheese, colby/Jack cheese, onions, potatoes, bananas. Occasionally I would add in something I'd usually never buy in bulk but could now and then, such as ketchup, mayo, olives. About once a month or every 6 weeks I'll get something pricier that's on my longer-term list, such as basmati rice (20lbs), dry black beans (??lbs, big bag), laundry detergent, toilet paper. Garlic, spices. And so on.

4. Make several familiar, dependable recipes from a bulk meat purchase.  Even a small bulk meat purchase.  I'm not organized enough (or motivated enough yet) to freeze vast quantities of the same meal item...with some exceptions, I just don't want a food such as 6 meatloaves taking up my small freezer space. But if I can take a bulk amount of ground beef and make several tried-and-true things from it, THAT I will do. Or I will take a big package of chicken legs and use it as the base for some really rich chicken stock and freeze that in canning jars, using them as "fast food" starters for any number of soups or other dishes. Time right now is precious to me. I don't have enough time off to spend it all in the kitchen.

 5. Make what we already know we like and will eat. (That goes for planning a garden, too, and canning, but that's a different post) What we are familiar with and have the spices and cooking equipment for. Otherwise, in my case, it will either turn out really weird and I'll have too much of it, or we won't like it enough to want it again for other meals down the road and it will stay in the fridge or freezer too long.

 6.Cook several related things at once and be done with it.  I love to cook certain things, but I can't say I just LOVE to cook.  I do love to eat good food.  With a really big package of ground beef today from Sam's, I made a basic mix of meat, egg, onions, salt and pepper and garlic that became the base of 1 dish of stuffed bell peppers (added cooked rice), a meatloaf (added dry oatmeal and cracker crumbs), and the rest was pattied up raw and put into plastic bags to freeze for "quick" hamburgers another time...or meat to brown and add to spaghetti sauce...or whatever.  Since I had to make rice to go in the meat for the stuffed bell peppers, I made enough to have later in the week to go with black beans and chicken sausage.  Extra servings of the meatloaf or peppers can be lunches, frozen, added to soups later, or be weekend leftovers.  Jack can heat the rice in a warm skillet and add the hot beans/sausage over it for a meal when I'm at work, and so on.

7.  Soup, Eggs, Beans, Cheese, Oatmeal, Potatoes, Rice... Eating simply can be immensely satisfying.  Staples are satisfying. When I'm TIRED and am tempted to stop at a drive-through for some "value" item, it's a waste.  It's mostly chemicals and mystery ingredients, all polluted and none of them pure.  Until we grow our own, we can NOT afford the prices of most organic things, I don't care how many slogans the purists hurl our way.  And we ARE working weekly to make that move.  Until then, we can learn to be satisfied with the simple things.  Soup is's whatever we have in the way of veggies, stock, beans, meat, leftovers, wine, whatever.  We make large batches of stock and small batches of individual soup meals using that stock as the base.  Otherwise we'd get sick of it.  ANYTHING can make up a good soup, just about.   Eggs...they are a meal.  They are so many meals, in so many forms.  Sometimes, the simpler and easier, the better. Over easy on toast.  Scrambled soft/firm with a splash of milk/cream or dot of shredded cheese.  Boiled. Minced for egg salad sandwiches, or my former MIL's egg/chopped black olive spread.  Beans = chili, baked beans, red beans and rice, soup additions, a cornbread duo, bean dip, refried beans, and so on, even brownies (really!).  Cheese  can be shredded and frozen in small portions.  It can be shredded and amended with pimientos (and a minced green olive if you like) to mix with mayo for a reliable and delicious Pimiento Cheese spread.  Put atop bread slices and toasted for cheese toast.  Grilled cheese sandwiches, yes, please.  Additions to ...well, most things.  Stirred into potato soup, dressing baked potatoes.  And so on...and so on with simple uses of the simple staple items.  A simple baked potato is better than fast food any day.  Or a hot bowl of oatmeal with butter and a dab of brown sugar.  The list goes on.

I believe our Pantry Yoga will continue and we stretch our thinking backward in time to the basics and stretch our dollars more practically (again) at the checkout counter.  Done gradually enough, it's not overwhelming and has been fairly easy.

Of course, the best "stretch" is that of planting and growing our own food.  The second best is being cautious before we give away that hard earned money and make sure it's for something satisfying and worthwhile.

Those are just a few things we keep tweaking on this journey.    Sometimes it's just habits we have to keep repeating long enough to have them become second nature.  I think maybe we'll get to that point someday.  In the meantime, I'll be slightly scatterbrained but better stocked in the pantry for "quick" food that truly is "slow"...but feels fast enough to keep me away from the drive-through.

Let me know your advice and tips...we're not experts and love to keep learning!

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