Convenience versus cost

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New though this blog is, you’ve probably noticed a theme: my approach to building a more budget approach to my food involves making a lot of stuff at home. I’ve switched from buying bagels to making my own bread at home, I’m making yoghurt from scratch, I’m making granola, I’m rummaging through my leftovers to put together a meal, rather than reaching for the takeaway menu or a microwave meal.

Of course, there’s a cost included in all of these activities beyond the straight up dollars and cents I’m spending on raw ingredients. There’s the cost of production (electricity, water, heat, use of resources, etc). And then there’s time. Making bread requires that you’re around for a good couple of hours. Yoghurt takes more like 14-16 hours to process. This isn’t all active time of course, but there is an investment that I’m making here.

I’m lucky enough to work as a freelancer and I can organize my time to set some of these projects going and then wander back to my desk on the other side of the apartment while dough rises or yoghurt incubates. While I might be cash-strapped, I’m relatively time rich, and I know that isn’t a privilege that everyone (or even many people) share.

So what do you do if you’re working a 9-5 job + commute + family obligations + hobbies + social life + trying to get some sleep, once in a while? (Believe me, I’ve been there).

Here’s a few questions to ask yourself if you’re looking to balance convenience versus cost in the kitchen: 

  1. What do you actually enjoy doing? There may be some home cooking projects that you already know you enjoy and you’d like to get back to. Maybe you’ve always had a thing for meal planning. Maybe kneading dough is a great stress relief for you. Maybe the idea of batch cooking and freezing meals for future-you fills you with joy. Start with what feels easy and what feels good.
  2. Look for small wins. Although some home cooking is time consuming, lots really isn’t. Take a look at your daily eating habits and see if there’s anything you could easily make for yourself rather than buying at inflated store prices. (Making your own granola or granola bars is a great example of this – super easy to do, cheap, and way more delicious).
  3. How else can you economize your food budget? It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to give up on all convenience foods. But are there ways you can cut down on their costs without making everything from scratch? Maybe you always buy brand name soda – could you switch to the store label instead? Do you find yourself stopping at the super bougie grocery store just because you happen to be passing – what if you tried to buy in bulk, or go on a trip to a local market on the weekend? There are lots of ways to cut down on food costs, not all of them involving hours spent in the kitchen.

Convenience isn’t the enemy – but it can sometimes eating up more of our grocery budget than we at first realize. What are your top tips for balancing cost versus convenience?

Quick Tip: Make Your Own Vegetable Stock

 

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Stock is just one of those staples, isn’t it? A lot of my favourite go-to meals, from a simple weeknight soup to a showstopping beef bourguignon, rely on the humble stock. For years, I’ve relied on store bought options. Whether its cubes, stock pots, or cartons, buying vegetable stock from the store can set you back between somewhere in the range of CAD $3-5.

And yet for most of us, we have the resources to make delicious vegetable stock right on hand for almost no extra cost at all. It just takes a little planning.

I wish I could remember where I first saw this tip so I could give credit, because it really has been life changing for me. But here it is: save your vegetable peelings. Yep, it’s that simple. Whenever you’re peeling anything (onion skins, carrots, potatoes) or chopping off the stems or stalks of a vegetable – pop them in a large ziploc bag that you keep in your freezer instead of the green bin. In no time at all you’ll have have a big full bag.

Once you’ve got your bag on the go, making your stock is this simple:

  1. Take your desired amount of veggie peelings from the freezer bag. You want a fairly decent amount each time (1-2 cups worth approx) to make sure you get enough flavour in the stock. Add to large pan.
  2. Fill pan with water and bring to the boil. Add salt to taste. Then simmer until your stock is at your desired intensity. (I usually spend about 30 mins simmering it while I get other parts of whatever I’m making ready).
  3. Drain your stock into a bowl/ container and discard of used peelings.

This gives you a lovely, rich, stock, that tastes slightly different each time depending on the peelings you had to hand on any given day. Earthy, full of flavour, and practically cost free.

This is one of those things that’s so no-nonsense and self evident that it almost seems silly to write it out here. And yet so many of us (myself included) have become addicted to the myth of “convenience” foods that we forget how easy and cheap making our own food can be; we also forget how much better it tastes.

Adventures in Bread Making: Soda Bread

1 loaf homemade soda bread: ~ CAD $1.86
Standard store sliced white loafs: CAD $3 – $4

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When I first started my quest for cheaper grocery bills, bread was one of the first places my mind turned. Not because we eat a lot of bread in my household, but because when we do eat bread we eat the fancier stuff. It’s pretty rare that we buy a standard loaf of sliced white bread – a pretty common purchase is a bag of Montreal style bagels (which even on the day old special one of our local grocery stores is $3 pre tax for 5), and on special occasions we’ll often grab an outrageously good loaf from the local Italian bakery. Truly, we are spoiled, and I’m not really interested in eating tasteless white slices in the name of economy. If it’s a choice between that, and no bread, I’d rather go without.

Luckily, there is another option.

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Welcome to Penny Gourmet

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Hello and welcome to Penny Gourmet: a blog focused on cost conscious cooking for food lovers.

Why did I decide to make this blog? Well, it’s simple. I love food. Maybe a little too much at times. I love the way food brings people together. I love the simple act of putting together a meal that puts a smile on a loved one’s face. I believe food can provide nourishment far beyond the simple nutrients and calories listed on the nutrition label.

Food lover on a budget

But, for a food lover on a budget, eating well can seem like an impossible task. Eating out? Forget it! Dining on delicious home cooked meals at home? Pshaw! Haven’t you heard of ramen noodles!? Our stereotype is that eating cheap means eating poorly – that good food is a luxury reserved for the rich.

I’ve fallen into that trap. Just recently I was horrified to see how much I was spending on groceries every month. Now, I am lucky enough to not be living on the breadline by any stretch of the imagination, but money can be tight. I certainly shouldn’t be spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on groceries every month. I felt a momentary panic. I was going to have to give up everything I loved and subsist on brown rice for a month! No more avocado on toast for me! (*Disclaimer: I don’t actually eat avocado on toast, sorry millennial-haters)

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