Early Lessons, Part 6c: Calculating the Cost of Homemade: Where to Start with Cooking

For the previous posts in this series click Part 1, Part 2,  Part 3Part 4Part 5,  Part 6a, and Part 6b.  This post contains affiliate links.  If you make a qualifying purchase after clicking a link, we may receive a percentage of the purchase price.

I am still working on the post re: accounting for your time, so decided to add an extra post here on making your own food.  The post on accounting for time, should be out tomorrow — as long as my eyes return to normal quickly after getting dilated this afternoon as part of a routine annual appointment.  If they don’t I won’t be able to see the screen to type and the post on accounting for your time will be shoved off one more day.

When I was growing up, we rarely ate out.  My mother prepared all the meals that we ate.  Some of our meals were simple — packaged breakfast cereal and milk, sandwiches for lunch — but my mom made a hot dinner for us every day.

I started learning to cook when I was 11 or 12.  We moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts and my mother went from working part-time in the evenings to full-time during the day.  At first, when I started helping with food, my mom would prepare a roast or something for dinner and leave it in the refrigerator.  I would put it into the oven so that it would be ready to eat at our regular dinner time.  Eventually, I learned to help prepare components of meals or entire meals.

By the time I was a newlywed, I had some basic cooking skills, but still had a lot to learn.  I grew up in a vegetarian household and all of the cooking I’d done was vegetarian.  My new husband was not a vegetarian and wanted to eat meat at home.  I clearly remember the first November of our marriage when his boss gave him a turkey as a holiday bonus.  I had never made a turkey and did not know where to start.  I also remember how grossed out I was to touch that thing — I wore medical gloves when rinsing the turkey and removing the gizzards from the cavity because I did not want to touch it!

Like my mother, I focused primarily on dinner, once all the food preparations were my responsibility.  The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn  (Amazon affiliate link) opened my eyes to other options and taught me to think critically about every packaged food I purchased.  I started to ask myself, “Can I make this?” and found that the answer was often, not just ‘yes,’ but quickly and at a great savings.  Even if you cook all the time, perhaps you haven’t considered some of the categories below.  If you have not cooked before, think about trying some of these items.  You don’t have to start with making a big meal!

Snacks

This is a huge and varied category.  It might mean cookies — I make so many chocolate chip cookies that I have the recipe memorized and the time from Chris’ request for cookies to hot out of the oven is no more than 25 minutes.  It might mean carrot sticks.  I used to buy baby carrots, until I learned that they are full-sized carrots milled to size (external link to Washington Post article).  Cutting carrot sticks is not that hard and does not take much time.  I cut enough carrot sticks for four or five servings and keep them in containers in the produce drawer so we can grab them whenever we like.  The bottom line here is that many snacks are easy to prepare, far less expensive to prepare than to buy, and a fun way to learn cooking techniques!

Condiments

Mayonnaise is quick, easy, and inexpensive to make.  Two egg yolks, a cup of oil, a little vinegar or lemon juice, and some seasonings makes about 1.5 cups of mayonnaise.  This takes maybe 5 minutes if you use a blender rather than whisking by hand.  Homemade will cost roughly $1.30, depending on which type of oil you use and the price of lemon juice.  The same amount of store bought costs $2.50 – $3.70, depending on brand.

Vinaigrettes are incredibly easy to make.  The classic ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part acid (vinegar or lemon juice); use that as a starting point, but recognize that this is a rule that can be broken (external link to Bon Appetit article).  That means 1 cup of vinaigrette is 3/4 cup oil and 1/4 cup.  Add salt, herbs, and other additions (chopped vegetables).  Play around with different oil-acid combinations and different additions.  See what you like!

Another reason to look at making your own condiments is so you can make something to meet your dietary restrictions.  For example, I love Thai food but almost all Thai dishes use fish sauce, made from fermented fish, rather than salt for seasoning.  I can make vegan fish sauce (external link to Vermilion Roots blog) to use in homemade Pad Thai or Thai curry.

Not all condiments are easy to make.  Ketchup, for example, can be made at home, but takes a long time.  It might be worth it if you make a big batch at once and can it, but this is probably not where you want to start on your quest to save money or learn how to cook.

Look at all the condiments you have in your house and do a little research on how to make them.  You may be surprised to find that things you are spending a lot of money on are easy to make and the homemade versions cost pennies compared to the store-bought ones you’ve been using.

Spice Blends

There’s almost no reason to buy a spice blend ever.  Maybe if you are trying a new cuisine and aren’t sure that you are going to like it.  Pick a cuisine and do a little research on it and you’ll find that it is built on a relatively small range of flavor profiles, usually based on the spices, herbs, and vegetables that were local to that area 400 – 500 years ago.  In the years since then, spices and herbs have been traded across the globe and cuisines now include overlapping ingredients.  Learn what spices and herbs make up the flavor profiles in the cuisines you like best.  Stock the individual spices and herbs and make your own spice blends as needed.

Conclusion

The categories listed here are meant to give you a starting point.  If you want to save the most money, you eventually need to look critically at everything you buy that is already prepared.  Any food that is made commercially can also be made at home, given the right combination of time, tools, and ingredients.  It is possible to can tomatoes, cook dried beans instead of buying canned, make bread, pasta (see, for example, the Pasta Grannies YouTube Channel), jam and every other food under the sun.  People made their own food for millennia.  Our current era of widely available, pre-packaged foods is maybe 75 years old (post-World War II)  and its roots only go back to the Iate-19th and early-20th century.  The trick in our time is figuring out which foods can be made inexpensively, quickly, and deliciously.  Start with what is easy for you and grow from there.

Click here for Part 6d: Calculating the Cost of Homemade: Putting It All Together

2 Replies to “Early Lessons, Part 6c: Calculating the Cost of Homemade: Where to Start with Cooking”

    1. I totally agree. But, a lot of people haven’t learned to cook and need to start somewhere. Even people who know how to cook don’t necessarily cook in the strategic fashion I’m suggesting. I just finished typing up a description of how my dinner for this evening came together. I’m not sure if it’ll end up in this series or if I’ll publish it later. It’s a great illustration of the strategies discussed in this post, so I may decide to send it out tomorrow.

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