Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Professional Housewife

When I first ran out of money, (because my husband paid me my housekeeping monthly and as it had been Xmas, I had spent the lot on presents as well as food), it would be a whole month before I was given my next allowance. Even with the weekly family allowance - all of £1.50 - two adults, four children (two in their teens, but ALL with teenage appetites), one ravenous labrador dog and grandma who lived around the corner all needed to be fed. I was prepared to exist from the leftovers, as a few stone dropping off me could only be an improvement, but mainly it was terribly important to me no-one in the family knew of my dilemma.

Thank goodness that I did have a good amount of basic foods. Mainly because I never used them much anyway. Some must have been there years.
So I began to prepare dishes from what I had - mainly dry goods, but things still in the fridge and a very small amount in the freezer. When the bread ran out, I made bread, when the yogurt ran out I made yogurt. When the pasta ran out I made pasta. When the dog biscuits ran out I made dog biscuits. True.
I very soon discovered that serving three courses - soup, mains and pudding - worked out less costly than two courses. This is because a starter (usually soup) and the pud - often a steamed or milk pudding can be very filling. The main course could thus be smaller. Very soon the youngsters began to rush to the table at meal times, looking like little birds in the nest, beaks open. "Why are we now eating better meals?" one asked. I pondered, then spoke the truth "because I've been thinking more about it. Also everything is now home-made."

I'll never know why it occured to me to do this, but it was one of the best things I've ever done and that was, from the start, I began working out how much ingredients cost, by dividing the weight into the price. Discovering that 6oz of own-brand flour works out for less than 4p (today's price) is enough to get anyone started. On packets and labelled jars were written the amount, often the protein content (as with lentils), and when it was time to cook it was like playing a dual role of both shopkeeper and customer.
At that time, because I knew so very little about it, cooking was turning out to be more like hard work than fun, and when I don't enjoy doing something I try role-playing (perhaps today I run a guest-house, or tomorrow I could be a chef, or a home economist). Another approach was to turn it into a game (make a main course for under £1, or how much can I make for 50p?). Setting a price for a meal I found was extra good fun because I could sit there with pen and paper and a recipe, and work it out without having to do any cooking at all if I didn't feel like it.
After a month's hard labour and some paperwork I discovered that the real cost of all the food I had prepared from stores, including a very few other items that needed to be bought, was less than HALF of what I had previously been spending.

With the next housekeeping due it was time to work out what was worth buying and what was not as I was not intending to work quite so hard for the rest of my life. Many manufactured products are worth using. Stock cubes, custard powder, ketchup, brown sauce. Cheese. It takes a gallon of milk to make a pound of cheese. Recipes were adapted to fit into my budget, a little less meat, a lot more vegetables. Extra protein by way of eggs and milk. While costing was my main pleasure, all of a sudden I was finding cooking to be enjoyable too. From a less than average housewife and mum, all of a sudden I had got the professional approach - looking for a profit and banking the proceeds.