We all know the old saying “Cook a pound of ground beef and you eat today. Cook 3 pounds of ground beef and you can avoid the McDonalds drive-thru.”. Isn’t that how it goes? I may have missed a few of the words, but I think the basic premise is there. I don’t know about you, but right now I will do just about anything to avoid a trip to town - including planning ahead for meals!
When I was a kid, we would travel to the nearby “big city” of Olathe. I now know it was just a 20 minute drive, but when I was young it felt like an all-day excursion. We would load into the Bobcat station wagon and travel down the highway to buy groceries and run whatever errands needed to be done. Because when you live in the country, you have to have at least 3 things to do in order to justify a trip “to town”. I still follow this rule, by the way, much to my family's displeasure.
Before we would leave for our shopping day, my mom would have scoured the grocery ads and collected her coupons. There were at least 2 grocery stores we would visit and what we bought each place would depend on the sales they were having and what coupons she had. She never paid full price for a box of cereal. One of the stores even had double, and sometimes triple, coupons so those were good days! On our trips to town we would stop at Hardee’s occasionally to eat, mostly because Hardee’s used to have coupons. A few times we would splurge on McDonalds. Then we would load up and head back home with all of the provisions we needed for the week. And if we got mid-week and didn’t have something? We just made do, got creative or called my grandma, who lived next door and always had a full pantry, especially if you needed lime Jello and crushed pineapple.
As I'm reading the two books I mentioned a few posts ago, it got me thinking about our individual "consumer values". This is my name for it, probably not an official phrase. Every culture, every family, every individual has this kind of value system that we inadvertently use to guide our shopping and eating decisions. My mom was a coupon shopper. Price guided her shopping decisions. Some folks are guided by health concerns - allergies, ethical guidelines, location and availability of goods, etc. Mark Twain had a list of his favorite foods that he wanted to eat when he returned to America. His list was specific in how things were cooked and where certain products came from. What are your consumer values when it comes to what your family eats?
Take some time and reflect on what you find important. What level of "convenience" foods do you find acceptable for your family? What things do you avoid? What drives the items that make it to the grocery list and the brands that make it into your cart and the brands that do not? For example, I had a funny random conversation in the cracker aisle with a stranger the other day where we both agreed we only buy Ritz crackers when they're on sale, much to my son's chagrin. It's just one of those "consumer values" that I have. Probably can thank my mom for that one. And I don't think off-brand "Ritz" are the same, so we only eat them when I find an acceptable price on the real deal. On the flip side, I'm very particular about the bread that I buy, when I do buy it. It's a staple item and we like it, so I just buy it without a second thought, even when it's not on sale.
Why does this matter? As you're trying to get a grip on your grocery budget or your meal planning, it's important to understand what your core beliefs are. This might sound a little goofy, but take this situation for example. I want lasagna. I enjoy making lasagna, and I have a dream of having a completely from scratch lasagna made with homemade everything - including handmade ricotta and homemade noodles. Is it possible? Yes. I know how to do all of the things. Is it practical? Probably not, unless it is just a labor of love I get prepared to do and take a day to make that masterpiece. Is a frozen pre-made lasagna a suitable substitute? In my family, no. Jack has made it clear that is a complete disappointment. Yes, I acknowledge that I have created a food snob. So if lasagna is the dream, what are my options? I know I can make a quick marinara for the sauce with canned tomatoes and my Italian Seasoning blend. If I buy the noodles and ricotta, cook my own Italian sausage, buy shredded cheese, I can make a lasagna pretty quickly. If I'm super smart, I'll buy enough ingredients to make two, one to eat and one to freeze. Does jarred sauce work? You bet! Is frozen lasagna ok? Absolutely! That and a bagged salad for dinner are way better than a trip through the drive thru. You might have a different view on this whole thing - that's your consumer values. Maybe you like buying the San Marzano tomatoes to make your sauce (which are delicious, by the way,). They are pricier and harder to find, but they do change the flavor. Maybe you prefer to use fresh mozzarella instead of shredded cheese. That's another value. Your lasagna cost goes up, but that's where you decided what is important to you. Makes sense?
So next time you're making your meal plans, think about the decisions you're probably making subconsciously. Do you choose that brand of tomatoes because it's what your parents used? Is it because it's free of added salt? Price is better? Quality is different? While you may be able to make everything from scratch, how important is that to you? Do you feel like a failure if your enchiladas aren't made with homemade tortillas? Is it worth the effort to use a homemade tortilla in enchiladas versus some other application? Just give it some thought. It's an interesting process. You might realize some interesting things about yourself that you didn't know. It also might help you to hone in on how to best use your time and your finances and give you a little well-deserved breathing room and grace.