Each Saturday morning before eight my husband, mother-in-law, three year-old daughter, and I cram into his work van and make our weekly pilgrimage to the grocery store. Keeping with the family tradition set before I arrived, we shop at the UK largest retailer. We walk the aisles that are so familiar to us; selecting what we need for the week. Once every couple of months we also go to the large warehouse store to stock up on large quantity items including toilet paper, kitchen towels, laundry soap and the like.
When we first moved into our flat in November 2006, there was myself, my husband, my oldest son and daughter, my now eighteen year old son and my then infant daughter: four adults, one teen boy and a baby. We spent around ninety pounds per week for our groceries, plus meat from the butcher. Now two years later, it is just me, my husband, my eighteen year-old son and now three year old daughter: three adults and a toddler. And we still spend ninety pounds per week, plus meat. It has been a huge source of frustration for me…that I cannot get the bill below that. This week, I did; by five pounds anyway. It was not the seventy pounds that is my goal, but it was a beginning at least.
But it was something less that caught my eye on Saturday. One of the reasons I began this blog was to address the issues of lost arts including cooking. I have read a great deal about families that rely solely upon prepared foods, ready-meals. The news articles have usually focussed upon the lower-class families on benefits, who eat nothing but and face not only the high cost of living but long term health consequences. What I notice on Saturday though is that this problem reaches far further; across all class lines.
Now when I examine the conveyor belt with our weekly offering, I admit it is far from perfect. We often have several jars of prepared sauces for pasta or Indian food. But we also have a great deal of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as the lower fat diary products including organic semi-skim milk (three or four 6 pint jugs in fact…almost ten pounds of milk alone). Even those prepared foods are doctored a great deal before arriving on my table. For instance, the Tikki Masala sauce would be added to not only fresh sautéed chicken but also over two cups of fresh vegetables including onions and sweet peppers. So that even when we begin with a prepared option, my cooking style increases its nutritional value and dilutes the amount of salt and sugar added.
The couple in front of us in line on Saturday had nothing but canned, jarred, boxed, frozen and junk food. While I do not know how many people they were shopping for, their demographics were fairly close to our own; a mixed race couple in their early forties. Their bill was an astounding one-hundred seventy-six pounds and forty-seven pence. Their shopping cart was considerably less full than our own. Of course, anyone that knew enough to read the labels, although that can sometimes require a PhD in nutrition science, would see that their diet was high in salt, sugar and fats. It begs the question: how does a family survive?
But the story does not end there. While waiting for my mother-in-law to check out, I observed others around us. There was the upper class couple in their late fifties or early sixties. Of course, the products they purchased consisted of more branded products and several of the ‘healthy’ or ‘light’ meals, but their shopping contained just as much prepared foods as the other couple. Add to that a considerable amount of alcohol, and there is serious reason to worry for their health, if not their budgets. Then there was the young family, with a little girl about my daughter’s age, their shopping included many specially made ‘baby’ foods, which were essentially glorified chips/crisps.
If anything represents the reason I spend my mornings writing this blog it is the ready-meal phenomenon. Let’s examine how those ready-meals stack up against the four core values of the Frugal Family:
Spending time together. Alright, even I have to reluctantly admit that this one might go in favour of the ready-meals. Having been a working mother, I am intimately aware of the challenges of balancing time, cost and nutrition. But having said that, I still did not rely solely upon ready-meals. I would often prepare and refrigerate/freeze meals for the week during my weekends. As for the argument that the time I spend cooking could be better spent wit my child, I make an effort to include her in my cooking. Yes, my kitchen gets messier. Yes, I could do it quicker by myself. But in addition to the immediate rewards of the time spent together, the long-term benefits include a twenty year-old daughter and a twenty-two year-old son that can cook quite well. So in the end, I would probably mark this core value as a wash…both have their pro’s and con’s.
Saving money. We often hear that it is cheaper to feed our family junk food than a healthy diet. I would argue the point. For instance, one of the most commonly purchased ready-meals in the UK is shepherd’s pie. I make a very tasty and I argue cheaper version. A medium sized container of this ready-meal costs between two-pounds fifty pence and three pounds; and served three to four people. I can make the same meal using fresh and frozen products for less money. My recipe would require half-a-pound of fresh beef or lamb mince (I use turkey mince as well for a healthier option); this costs less than one-pound. I use about two cups of frozen mixed vegetables; for a cost of about thirty pence. A can of baked beans costs another forty pence and half a bag of potatoes adds fifty pence to the bill. The total cost is about two-pound twenty pence…and about half an hour of our time.
Environmentally friendly. Let’s continue to use the example of my shepherd’s pie. The ready-made version comes packaged in a plastic cooking container, covered in foil and wrapped in a cardboard box. While I admit that most of those items are recyclable, my version boasts one tin can as well as a dirty pot to boil the potatoes for mash and a casserole dish to bake. Of course, it takes water and soap to wash those items, but compare this to the astronomical environmental cost if that plastic cooking container is not recycled. No one even knows for certain how long it takes for a plastic container to decompose in a dump, but estimates run as high as 500 years…and imagine all the junk that it is going to release into the ground and ultimately the ground water that our great-great-great-great-great grand children will be drinking.
Healthier. Granted shepherd’s pie is not the healthiest meal period, but my homemade option will contain far fewer added salts, sugars and preservatives than the ready-meal version. In addition, as I mentioned by selecting the turkey mince/burger, I can significantly lower the fat content from the ready-meal. And for a tad more money and time, I could choose to make a completely fresh version of this common meal with fresh vegetables and homemade beans…and significantly improve the taste as well as the nutritional value of the meal.
So the next time you are standing in line at a check-out counter, I challenge you to look around and see how the items you selected compare with other shoppers. Then think about how you can improve those selections to give you more quality time with your family, save money, protect our precious environment and live healthier lives.
And for those of you interested, here is my Shepherd’s Pie recipe for serving four people:
½ pound of mince/burger…lamb, beef or turkey
1 tin of baked beans or 2 cups of cooked dried beans (red beans or pintos make excellent options)
2 cups of frozen mixed vegetables or steamed fresh (broccoli, carrots, peas, peppers, mushrooms…get creative)
1 pound of fresh potatoes…cut and boiled then mashed
Seasoning…I use Everyday Caribbean…but watch the salt content on these products carefully
Begin by cutting and preparing your potatoes and vegetables if use fresh. Then boil these while you brown the mince/burger along with your spices. In the bottom of your casserole dish (medium square or round one) combine the cooked mince with the beans and vegetables. This is an excellent way of using up leftover beans and vegetables. Once the potatoes are boiled, prepare as you would for mashed…with butter and milk. Spread the mash over the top and bake in the oven for twenty to thirty minutes until the potatoes are lightly browned. Serve with a fresh salad and bread.
This meal provides:
1 serving of protein/meat…from the mince and the beans
1 servings of vegetable from the frozen or fresh mixed
1 serving of starch/carbohydrates from the potatoes.
From beginning to end this meal can be made in less than forty-five minutes, twenty of which it is in the oven and you can be doing something else.