Friday, September 25, 2009

Easier When We Know How

Yesterday remembered that some many years ago the Family Circle magazine asked me to write for them, explaining how a family of four could live on £21 a week. The article ran to several pages, the lists were given of every food bought and every ingredient taken from the storecupboard. All meals for the full seven days (breakfast, lunch and the main meal of each day) were photographed and recipes given for all. It made quite a feature that proved so popular the magazine ran into four re-prints that month.

There have to be a few guidelines when it comes to foods we should be buying, whether on a budget or not. Nutrition comes first, treats come second, and only then if there is money left to buy or make them. But there is more to serving food than just to keep us alive, for ' a family that eats together stays together', and the more tempting the meals the more likely a family will wish to so. This is worth remembering, for TV snacks, pizzas nibbled while a child sits at the computer, or a single micro-waved meal eaten alone will never bring any feeling of 'togetherness' as a family. Even if students live in digs sharing with others, it is still better if all can take turns at the cooking and eat together.
Of course there are very close families who do not eat together, because maybe they work shifts or the teenage ones 'have to go out' as they so often do at mealtimes (ending up eating pizzas or burgers albeit in the company of friends, but not the healthiest option). We should all try to encourage the family to sit down for a meal together at least once a week and, if the children are younger, every day if we can. A bonus being it is usually cheaper if we cook the once, rather than preparing different meals at different times of the day.

When times are hard, food is often the only comfort. The good news being that 'comfort food' (by this I don't mean stuffing our faces with bars of chocolate) can be some of the cheapest dishes we can make. Just think of a casserole (needn't contain much meat) with lots of gravy and dumplings, or a steamed pudding with custard. Food that sticks to our ribs and leaves us feeling a 'glow' inside. And what is better than that? Even a bowl of porridge will give this feeling and as oats not only help to lower the cholesterol, they also contain something that gives us an 'on top of the world' feeling. What I call a double bonus. This 'feel-good' factor is in various foods - oats are one, peppers another. Presumably others as well although I don't know what they are - yet. Porridge is also extremely cheap to make. Extremely! A triple bonus?

There are many people who wish to reduce their food budget but do not feel inclined to cook more than they have to. This was something I came across when I had my cookery slot on Radio Leeds where one time I offered to give suggestions on how to cut costs - this to be done individually, in a person's home. Several people took me up on this and was in each case able to reduce their expenditure, but there was one lady who told me at the outset she had no intention of cooking but had to feed her husband and son, and have treats for her grandchildren when they called and she was finding it difficult to find the money.

There were very few things I could suggest other than to re-think her shopping. She had kindly allowed me to read through her check-out receipts so I knew what she bought. The men in her family appeared to want to wolf through mounds of sandwiches, and she said she had been buying 5 or 6 medium sliced loaves a week to make sarnies. My suggestion was to buy one less loaf, but all bread to be thin sliced bread (this was sold at the time and I would like to know why it still isn't), as this way she would gain enough extra slices to equal a medium loaf, which she then wouldn't have to buy.
Another thing was minced beef. This was bought from the supermarket and she complained there was always too much in a pack - but never enough in a smaller pack. So, as many of us do, ended up by using all the meat once the pack was opened. She also bought the cheapest beefburgers sold. One suggestion was to use the surplus meat in the pack to make her own burger, but on asking if she ever bought meat from a butcher she said she never had, but did pass by one on her way to the supermarket. This then led to me asking her to buy her next mince from the butcher but only the amount she really needed. Later she told me this really saved money and she also began to make her own beefburgers using butchers meat.

Here I should add that so often we always ask for 'a pound (or kilo)' of mince, diced stewing steak, liver etc, and only counting by numbers when it comes to chops, or chicken quarters....
No butcher will mind selling you 12, 11, 9, or 5 oz of anything if that is all you need. And we don't even have to think weights. Many is the time I have been so short of money that the only thing i could do was ask for '55p of minced beef please'. Butchers certainly are very used to calculations of this sort, and to them any sale is better than no sale.
We should also remember that butchers nearly always will give a bag of chicken carcases freely to those who ask, but given them a few days notice to allow them to have time to collect several for you. Sometimes you may find winglets are also in the bag, and once I found a drumstick.

Back to the checkout list. Chocolate biscuits being bought for when the grandchildren called. I suggested making biscuits, but shock, horror! No cooking please. Then suggested instead, buying the cheaper stores own-brand digestives and spreading the backs of these with the cheaper 'cooking' chocolate that melts easily (the dark and also orange-flavoured are really quite good) - for then there was VAT on choccie biccies, but no VAT on plain biscuits (this may still be the same). She did agree to try this and when I visited her a month later she was thrilled to bits. Melting chocolate was hardly cooking, and she really enjoyed spreading it on the biccies, and probably licking the spoon.

Another tip was re a non-food. She bought a huge amount of washing powder each month due to having to wash sheets daily (a medical problem), and so I suggested a quick soak then using half the recommended amount of powder, for the sheets were not really dirty, and see if this worked. It did, and she then tried reducing the amount of powder even more, ending up buying less than half the powder per month than previously.

There were one or two other 'tricks' that the lady took on board, and she certainly was able to lower her budget by several pounds over a month (and in those days a pound was worth more than it is today). Not only that, without any pressure from me, she discovered - after making some beefburgers - that she had suddenly found an interest in cooking, perhaps because she found this led to her being able to save even more money, and this alone makes the task more enjoyable.

For a couple or so years I did some 'teaching' at night-school. This again to do with cutting costs and each time students were given the 'Rule of Four' (mentioned yesterday) as their practical homework for the week, every one came back amazed at how well it had worked and how much they had managed to save. So this would definitely be how I would make a start.

Having to work with a weekly budget does make it more difficult, but not impossible. Have been in that situation myself, and also there were two times when the money never got to my purse, the first due to B working away, so could only feed myself and three small children (at that time, later we had a fourth) on the food that was left in the house. By the end of the week it was beans on toast, beans on toast, and then just beans. But we survived. More often than not, even with B providing the dosh, had only enough money to feed spouse and kids, myself making do by eating any leftovers on the plates. So I do know what it is like to be 'poor', and also to understand how difficult things can be when we know little about cooking. As was the case then with me. Had I known more, would have been able to manage far more easily and serve up better and healthier food. Thankfully these dark days did not last forever, and eventually (due again to running out of money, but this time my fault) really had to teach myself to cook, trying to struggle through a whole month without the family realising how naughty I had been re the finances (blame Christmas and several birthdays), and we all know where that has led to.

Have said this before, but worth saying again. When working from dawn until dusk trying to make just about every food imaginable, and completely exhausted because of it, remember so well that evening when - after serving a three-course meal (because it is cheaper to do this than serve two courses), one child said to me "mum, why are our meals so much better now?" My reply was "because I have been thinking more about it" - or words to that effect. Before then the money was not that short, the produce used was of good quality, at that time I was not into cost-cutting, but my cookery skills were sadly lacking. I was really only into making cakes.

The food served during that month were based on foods in stores (we did have a chest freezer and enough canned foods and dry goods to keep me going), but it was learning the best way to throw them together that I needed to learn, and also how to make something when I had run out. If I couldn't grow rice, then at least I could make pasta from scratch. I don't think anyone realised that a month of good eating had gone by with me having to scavenge almost every bit of food from somewhere. To the family it was eating meals as normal, but just better meals.

Does this mean my cooking beforehand was abysmal? I don't think it was. But a well-cooked meal, however basic and cheap the ingredients, that has thought behind it, proves that miracles can sometimes work. And this is something we should all aim to do. Think a bit more about what we cook, who we cook for, and even if (sometimes) we need to cook at all. Try to avoid getting into the rut of cooking the same meals, even if they are favourites. There are some gorgeous dishes around then are really inexpensive to make and all worth at least one try.

A good way to help cut costs is to bring the family in onto the act. Anyone into teenage years will almost certainly know about the credit crunch and how it affects the household budget. Find cost-cutting recipes that you would like to try (preferably with photographs) and then let the family choose which ones they would like you to make. If there are picky members of the family, turn it into a game. Draw up an award system where everyone has a card and can give points regarding taste, texture, flavour and what they particularly like or dislike about a dish. This can often get the small fry at least giving a nibble to a vegetable that they would normally avoid at all costs.

One way to fill our storecupboards with food we cannot normally afford is to ask for them as a birthday gift. It could be a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, or something very useful as a small bottle of brandy, rum or kirsch. Or perhaps a bottle of cooking sherry for a few drops of booze can give a cheapo meal a really luxurious flavour. We can also make our own orange liqueur using brandy, orange peel and sugar, and this would be far less expensive than to buy something like 'Cointreau'. One thing can lead to another, and asking for what we want in the culinary line (this could also be kitchen appliances) will give us a chance to make our working conditions easier, giving us 'free' food to harvest, and improving the flavour of almost everything we make.

Even the smallest steps we take to cut costs, will lead to further steps, and in a very short time we will have saved more than we could possibly expect. All we have to do is take that first step.
Most of you already have. Hope that others who have not will make a start.