The life skill we call Home Economics includes multiple sub-disciplines. Maintaining a lifestyle requires budgeting, cooking, cleaning, and repair. Traditionally, however, it is associated with cooking. Most home economics courses focus on cooking as the primary skill. And they should, because cooking has the greatest impact on the family’s money, time, health, and overall quality of life.
According to the USDA, a “moderate” food budget for an American family of four with young children is about $850 a month. However, the USDA’s own “thrifty” plan only costs about $550 a month. That’s a $300 a month difference and it isn’t even hard to achieve. In fact, despite what you may have heard, it’s rather simple. You don’t have to drive around to multiple groceries, and you don’t even have to coupon. (But you should, at least a little.) You do have to cook from scratch.
Immediately, most people will imagine a staring at a messy, flour coated kitchen with a pile of dishes in the sink while feeling exhausted from the last hour of cooking. I assure you that this not how a practiced home cook operates. Most meals only take about 30 minutes of actual preparation time. Cleanup typically takes about 10-15 minutes, at most. And most cleaning can be performed while a dish is cooking. Even if you fall behind, an entire kitchen can easily be cleaned in 30 minutes. If you cook with an eye towards pragmatism, then it is a simple process. And, for even more benefit, you gain near total control over what your family eats. You cut out large amounts of additives and preservatives that have no nutritional value and questionable health consequences. And you gain near total control of your family’s nutrition.
Feeding a family quickly, nutritiously, and efficiently is undoubtedly a skill. And you have to start somewhere. But you don’t start learning to play piano by picking up the sheet music to Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1. Nor do you start training for a marathon with a brisk 26 mile jog. You have to build your way up. That means that you need a curriculum that takes you from start to self-sufficient. But that first $300 is a lot of money, so there no sense in wasting it while you get your feet underneath you. That’s where the 30-day Quick Start guide comes in to play.
This guide will walk you through your first month. You don’t need much more knowledge of cooking than it takes to make Hamburger Helper, but the more skills you have the better the food will taste. And you don’t need much time either, about an hour a day should suffice, and that includes preparation and cleanup for a hot breakfast, a cold lunch, and a hot dinner. You will need an equipped kitchen, including pots, pans, utensils, a roasting pan, and an oven. You will eat well, with meat at nearly every meal and a daily dessert. And you will be surprised with how easy it actually is to do.
Here are the key elements of the plan:
Make a grocery list. The biggest part of cost effective cooking is to have a plan before you go shopping. Showing up at a grocery and guessing at what you need is a sure way to overpay and to let food go to waste. Grocery shopping is where the actual savings occur. So this is the most important part of the plan. If you’re use to idling through a grocery trip and grabbing what catches your eye, this will seem strange. You’re going to have to ration your food. And sometimes you just don’t get to buy the thing you want now, because those little things really add to your total cost. You will take one trip to the grocery each week. At the end of each trip, you will split your expenses into groceries (only things you can eat) and other home supplies (paper towels, lightbulbs, etc).
Start with core meals. Core meals are highly efficient in terms of cost, time, and nutrition. Additionally, each of our core meal dinner is paired with at least one secondary meal that can be made with the leftovers, so there is almost no waste. While you’re starting out, these meals will be your dinner about 4 to 6 times a week. You will learn how to prepare these meals almost automatically, and because you buy the same categories of basic ingredients each week you will learn how to spot a bargain (or a scam) at the grocery store. As soon as you decide that your understanding of the program is firmly established, your core meals will be something you choose. But until then, we’ve got you covered.
Use pantry staples. These are ingredients that are inexpensive, easy to store, and used in many, many recipes. These typically take the form of dried starches and vegetables with long shelf lives. Most commonly, these include flour, rice, legumes, pasta, potatoes, onions, carrots, and some additional grains. You can’t beat these for cost per calorie, and they’ll make up a fair bit of the volume of each meal. Luckily, these foods aren’t very calorie dense, so even if the look big on the plate they probably won’t pack on the pounds.
Clean in sprints as you go. Almost every recipe has several minutes of waiting on the food to cook. This is when you clean. For most meals, the cleanup after you eat will be limited to the pot you cooked in and the plates you ate from. Within 15 minutes of the end of dinner, the kitchen should look as clean as it was when you started, even if you don’t use a dishwasher. If you do, it should take 5 minutes.
And those are the basics. You can the same plan over and over again, until you get tired of it. You will gain control of your food costs, your nutrition, and your time.