How did you learn how to handle making meals?

Specifically, I mean the entire process of procuring and preparing food.

DH’s relative’s household is currently having trouble because the wife in the family got brain cancer, had brain surgery (has an amazingly good prognosis, considering) and can no longer do all of the stereotypical wife things that she had been doing.  That leaves DH’s relative and remaining 3 kids at home completely helpless when it comes to meals.  She did all the menu planning, grocery shopping, and cooking.  Since she got sick, they’ve been eating a lot of rice and beans because they’re income limited and that’s all he really knows how to make.  He also has to work overtime to pay for everything so it’s not like he has a lot of time and ability to put into the process.  He says he’s pretty terrible at it.

He does have three teenage kids at home who are perfectly capable of taking on some of this work.  Which my DH suggested.

So with the relative’s permission we sent the kids a copy of our favorite easy to use cookbook for beginners without a lot of money (unfortunately Faster! is out of print) with instructions to double the recipes, along with a giftcard from Walmart (which is their local grocery store) for $100.  To give them practice menu planning with a budget.  I don’t know if it will do any good, but maybe it will.

I learned how to use grocery circulars for sales, how to build up a pantry, and how to comparison shop at a very young age.  My father would take me to the market and show me the process he went through.  I learned cooking from both my parents and have a repertoire of both of their weeknight meals.  At a slightly older age I took over cooking a few nights a week and once I got a driver’s license I was in charge of a portion of the grocery shopping.  (Before then I would occasionally be sent on my bike or by foot to get missing ingredients if necessary.)  I experimented with recipes and menu planning during long boring summers.

DH never really learned how to shop or cook until he married me.  In college he spent one year on the meal plan and then survived the remaining three years with a combination of eating out at cheap restaurants (usually Schlotzky’s and Pizza Hut) and getting free day-old bagels from the bagel place next door to his dorm.  After marriage I showed him how to comparison shop because when you’re living in a city and using public transportation, shopping requires muscle.  At first, I did most of the cooking, but one day when he asked me to make (my father’s) chili for him, I realized that that was probably something he should learn to do himself.  So I taught him.  Then he taught himself more.  Then he took a cooking class to get better knife skills.  Now he’s a better chef than I am.

We’ve been teaching DC1 to cook, and when I remember I try to show hir how to comparison shop even though we don’t really do that much anymore (we have our favorite brands and can afford them).   Being able to eat cheaply is pretty freeing, especially when you’re starting out and so much of your disposable income is going to food.

How did you learn how to procure/prepare food?  Do you do it the same way that you learned?  If not, what has changed?

The Austin’s Special Pizza

Not for vegetarians.  Or the health conscious.

An Austin’s special is:

Pepperoni
Onions
Bacon
Garlic (pref. roasted)

STRONGLY recommended.

That is all.

#2 says:  DO WANT.

Ask the grumpies: Favorite cracker for enjoying with cheese

Leah asks:

 What is your preferred cracker with cheese? I only like certain crackers and will shun my non-preferred brand; are you similar?

#1: I’m not sure I have a favorite cracker. I will eat lots of different kinds, especially with cheese. I have to say, crackers are not an area where I have deep conversational depths. But if I have to say something, I like crackers with herbs in them.

#2:  I have passed through life (since beginning to ttc) with so many obnoxious food restrictions that I have thought much more about the subject of crackers.  (Though I have *never* liked Ritz crackers.  Yuck.  Well maybe when I was a really little kid I did, but I also liked cheeze wiz back then.)

These ak mak sesame crackers are really good with lemon quark.

These La Panzanella crackers are not good for me glycemically but they are really really tasty, especially the rosemary version.  They pair well with sharp cheeses.

I mainly like wheaty crackers and triscuits because they don’t make me feel like crap later (except when I was allergic to wheat and I couldn’t eat them).  I used to like kashi but now they’re too sweet.  Not a huge fan of oat biscuits.  I like dipping wheat thins into pub cheese or queso.  Wasa wafers are pretty good in pub cheese and queso too.  I like rice cakes with cream cheese.

So I guess I like a lot of different crackers, but mostly obscure brands other than like triscuits and wheat thins.

Ask the grumpies: Important questions about ice cream preferences

Leah asks:

Ice cream: vanilla or chocolate base? Lots of stuff added or little? Any additions you hate?

#1:  There’s this ice cream place in Houston near Rice University that I think is my favorite ice cream place in the entire country and I kind of wish I could go back to Houston just to visit it.   (There’s gelato places that I like more, but not ice cream.  And my favorite hot chocolate place is in Boston in Harvard Square.  And my favorite coffee place is in Los Angeles, in or near Santa Monica.  One benefit of lots of travel for work…)   Basically all they sell is different kinds of chocolate ice cream with different chunky things in them, lots and lots of chunky things added.  OMG, so wonderful.  They have this one with nuts that is out of this world, but they give you two little scoops with a small so you can get that on bottom and like chocolate orange or the girl scout cookie one (which I don’t see as one of their regular choices– I must have just gotten lucky) on top.  SO GOOD.  One addition I dislike is a weird one– I love maraschino cherries and I love fresh/frozen real cherries, but sometimes you order a cherry ice cream and you end up with like the cherries that they use in fruit-cake and it’s just so wrong.

#2:  chocolate with things added

Ask the grumpies: Healthy natural environmentally friendly food for lazy people

Bogart asks:

I have realized that I value (a) minimal environmental impact; (b) foods made from “natural” ingredients, with “natural” here being a stand-in for Michael Pollan’s sort of stuff-my-grandparents-would-have-been-familiar-with. Things people have been eating (or cooking with) for a long time; and (c) not having to do food prep. Ever. At all.

B and C seem somewhat at odds with each other, though I am increasingly coming to believe that C is very consistent with A — that if, for example, I buy a rotisserie chicken it likely took a lot less energy to cook that chicken than it would had a roasted a single chicken at home (never mind baking bread). So my main question is how other people who value B & C manage to balance them. Should you post this, I’d be grateful if people could act like economists and assume that, no, really, I am confident about my actual preferences vis-a-vis C, it’s not just that I haven’t tried hard enough/long enough/gotten in touch with my inner chef. Also, I have enough of a budget constraint that I’m unlikely to land in a place where, e.g., I solve C by hiring a personal chef thereby violating A. So food prep does need to be minimal or inexpensively outsourced to solve this conundrum.

I tongue-in-cheek recommended a raw food diet, because even though there are plenty of people who do crazy raw food stuff (lots of sprouting and fermenting and processing and chopping and mixing and dehydrating etc.), you can actually be really lazy and just eat lots of completely unprocessed fruits, veggies, and nuts.  Depending on where you live, you can do this locally and organically too.  All it takes is rinsing off and chewing.  (How do I know:  Three months with DC1 of being completely unable to keep anything down other than fruit, and a limited longer-term diet with DC2.)  But it does take a lot of chewing.  And I am much happier being able to eat more food groups.

When you live in a West Coast city, this is also really easy.  Just go to your farmer’s market every weekend and buy food there.  Done.  You can get enough pre-made local ethnic food and other goodies to last you the week.  Still, farmer’s markets in other places often have local canned items and jams and baked goods and you can return the mason jars to them to be reused.

Everywhere else you’re going to probably not going to be able to do very well on (a) because food will need to be shipped in for 3-9 months out of the year.  Still, as a museum exhibit here in Paradise says, you can do a lot to minimize your environmental impact just by not eating meat or by cutting down on meat.  (I say this while lovingly scooping up a salad made with local butter lettuce, local feta, and ground buffalo, nom.)  So yeah, eat organic fruits and veggies.

Some cities have a caterer in town whose business model is to provide home-cooked meals to families for the week.  Usually they drop a big package off with you at the beginning of the week with meals for the entire week.  Many of these places have organic/resuable containers/etc.  But some of them it looks like all they’ve done is chop things and you still have to put stuff together and actually cook.  Meh.  Still, something to look into– it’s not exactly a personal chef because they’re making the same meals for a ton of people, which is also more efficient.  We flirted with this idea when I was unable to eat wheat with DC2’s pregnancy because one of the options in town did organic/gluten-free but never tried it out.

Really, it sounds like you want to go to your most upscale local grocery store in town and just check out their freezer section and ready-made section.  If you’re committed to minimal waste, do things like bring your own containers and get stuff from the bins (like mixed salad greens).  Also, we are big fans of cheese and crackers and fruit for dinner.  Crackers may not be the best option from an environmental standpoint, so you could do sandwiches (with local bread) instead or quesadillas (with local tortillas).  Which requires a little food prep, but mostly of the slicing and (optional) toasting/microwaving variety.  Here we discuss looking at ingredients on processed foods, and we also describe some really minimal prep options (see #5, for example, sandwiches).  When you’re middle-class or upper-middle class, most anything you can get from the grocery store is going to be affordable compared to eating out and you’ll save more money avoiding food-waste than skimping on things that make food easier (so don’t feel guilt about buying things that are already chopped/torn/etc).

Katherine says:

In my experience (not having been on one myself, but knowing some people who have and owning a few raw food cookbooks), raw food diets involve a MASSIVE amount of food prep.

I submit that Katherine’s friends get enjoyment (possibly perverse) out of doing that kind of food prep and you can’t sell a raw food cookbook that just says, “wash and eat fruits, veggies, and nuts.”

Cloud says:

I like cooking OK, but hate cooking in the time crunch I usually have during the week. I’m probably less committed to your point (b) than you (I’m a big fan of EDTA and other preservatives, for instance), but do try to avoid excess sugar and more processing and additives than are strictly necessary, and my main trick is to read labels carefully and find favorite brands of convenience foods. There are some that would probably meet your point (b) requirements, and using those can help with your point (c).

For instance, there are pasta sauce brands that really only have tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs as their ingredients. If you have access to good fresh pasta (or even good frozen filled pasta, like tortellini), you can mix that with the sauce in very little time. I also have a recipe I love that is essentially tortellini, a can of veggie broth, a can of diced tomatoes, a splash of white wine, spinach and basil. I can handle this recipe even on the crappiest weekday.

I get a lot of recipes like this from Cooking Light. They have a “quick and easy” section that makes good use of convenience foods.

The only caveat to my method is that it took a lot of time at the grocery store for a few weeks, while I read all the labels and found the brands I liked for the convenience food.

We’re fans of “pour sauce A over noodles/rice B”.  Sometimes we throw frozen veggies or even meat in.  Honestly, most nights we don’t do anything as complicated as what Cloud is describing– that sounds like a weekend meal for us(!) since it requires opening more than one can.  Al fresco dinners that contain some fruit or veggies (and your choice of protein/starch/etc.) are AOK and your ancestors would totally recognize them (assuming they were lucky enough to have fruit available).  We give permission.  If you want to just have snap peas and carrots and some bread, go for it.  Or microwaved mixed veggies with or without a pat of butter (something I ate a lot of while pregnant because it didn’t come back up again), also fine (though frozen veggies provide some waste :( ).

Grumpy Nation, how would you help bogart?

The CSA will take over your life

Community Supported Agriculture is this neat thing where you give money to (usually) a local farmer, and then during the harvest season you get a box of random produce.

Paradise has an AWESOME CSA program.  Tomatoes, lettuce (cleaned!), potatoes, onions, garlic, fruit, fun random things in reasonable enough amounts that they make a side-dish but not so much that you’re drowning in kohlrabi.  Nary a collard or mustard green in sight (so far anyway).  All delicious and wonderful.   And we get it on Friday which means it’s easy to do menu planning and grocery shopping for the week after knowing what’s in the box.

Problem:  The vegetables are all so good and so abundant that they’ve really taken over.  We don’t finish things by the next Friday.  We don’t go out to eat because the food at home is better than what is close by and we feel guilty for not finishing things.  We don’t buy as much crazy stuff at the grocery store or farmer’s market even though the grocery stores and farmers markets are awesome.  We’re not eating a whole lot of meat.  Occasionally we will have just green beans for dinner because it’s Thursday and we’ve had those green beans for two weeks and we don’t want to make dilly beans again.

It is making riotous living hard, even though it is really good for our checkbooks.

We’re not stopping, but we wouldn’t mind if the boxes were a bit less generous!  (No, we don’t have anybody to split a share with– our local friends have their own box and they use the entire box because their kids love veggies at a much higher level than our kids do, though their kids are also not crazy about green beans.  The CSA version of splitting is every other week which is tempting except it is really hard to remember to pick something up every other Friday instead of every Friday.)  But I am a little bit looking forward to the winter.

What have your CSA experiences been like?  If you’ve done one, do you think it has saved you money or improved the quality of your eating?

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Bonus Sunday actually the last food pics for realz this time

In case you were wondering if they were going to completely skip cooked tomato sauces and pizza, they waited to do that until the last day.  (Not quite accurate– there were pizza and calzone that did not get photographed because apparently #2 is too hungry at lunch most days to remember to take out the camera!)

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Fresh fettucini with artichokes (front) and with mushrooms (back)

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Simple pasta with tomatoes

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Simple pizza with fungi

And that’s it! Back to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow!

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