Thursday, April 30, 2009

Convenience foods....what's your limit?



We recently had a discussion on LOK's Household Tips board asking what is considered a convenience food. I was surprised by what was deemed convenience, I consider them economical and/or staples. There was a time that store bought bread was considered a convenience food. Now if you make your own bread you're considered frugal, earthy/crunchy/granola'y. Granted some things in the store, like canned goods, were brought about for health safety reasons instead of convenience. But technically, unless you're growing, grinding, hunting, catching or raising your food...you're using convenience food.

So what is today's definition of a convenience food? For me, I don't look at how the food is prepared. Just because it's already cooked, sliced, diced or shredded doesn't necessarily mean it's a convenience food. In our area and in the right places, shredded mozzarella cheese is cheaper or the same price as a huge block of it. Yesterday I found it for $1.90/lb....over $1 cheaper then anywhere else. I'd have been foolish to pass that up even though I have almost 5lbs in the fridge already. I bought 10lbs (and wishing I grabbed more lol). I'll bag it up into pizza size portions and throw it in the freezer.

For me, a convenience food is anything that costs a lot more to buy then it costs for me to make from scratch. I say a lot more because I consider my time to have some value (although not at the present rate of minimum wage). For other's though their time may be worth more to them. The other important thing is the the food has to taste as good or similar. For instance I can buy frozen meatballs for the same or almost the same price as ground beef. If I buy them...they are a convenience food because we're not particularly crazy about their taste. Now the brand that we like the taste of isn't considered a convenience food even though it costs $.20 more a pound then ground beef. Just the additional ingredients could eat up the $.20. But if they don't, my time is worth $.20 more.

Some things can change from a convenience food to an economical choice. My $3.99 for 33 servings size box of Potato Buds is normally considered a convenience food. Last winter when the price of potatoes went sky high, the box then switched from a convenience food to an economical choice. The same could be said for my bag of frozen sliced peppers and onions when green peppers were $2 a pound this winter. (frozen they are $1.25 per pound).

So how do you decide whether something is an economical or a convenience only choice? Check the unit price! Figure in the other ingredients you'll need to make the dish you're buying. And if it suits you...the cost of your time. Add it up and weigh the options.

Some things that I don't consider convenience that others may...

* Salsa, taco and spaghetti sauce...cost less then if I were to buy canned tomatoes and ingredients to flavor it. (green peppers, sausage, onion, cheese, garden veggies, spices, etc) If our garden does well enough this year and I get things canned, these might move into the convenience category.

* frozen fish patties, sticks, canned tuna or salmon...it's way cheaper then buying fillets and preparing them.

* canned veggies and fruit. Not a convenience food, only a way to preserve it. Same with juice

* certain cuts of meat...only a different way to purchase it, not a convenience. Allows for less waste. For example...boneless skinless chicken breasts compared to a whole chicken. I never really considered deli meats to be convenience either, just a different cut of meat. I mean salami is a sausage. Granted I could cook a turkey breast or ham and try to slice it really thin for less. But that's like saying that steak is a convenience food because you could buy a whole side of beef cheaper and cut it up yourself.

So what would my list of regularly bought convenience foods look like...

Cake mix (for those lazy day snacks)
Brownie mix (can't seem to find a from scratch recipe that compares to boxed)
Pudding mix
Instant coffee
gravy mix
taco seasoning
boxed mashed potatoes flakes
pancake mix
bottles of salad dressing
boxed mac and cheese (could be considered an economical buy but since it doesn't taste the same as homemade....it's convenience)
frozen pizzas (I consider it convenience because I don't like them much, the rest consider it economical as it can be cheaper then homemade and they like them well enough)
pizza rolls
chicken nuggets (again could be economical but the taste isn't the same so it's convenience)
canned refried beans
canned beans
canned soups (although I consider this a staple)
tortillas, flour (can't seem to make corn ones well so that's a staple, not a convenience)
bread
microwave popcorn
tortilla chips

What would your list look like? What's a convenience food to you?

A Tough Time

When I heard that there was a new outbreak of the Swine Flu, I have to admit my response was more of weariness than concern. Now, I'm not downplaying the seriousness of the situation at all. It's a dangerous flu and people have died--that's not good at all. However, over the last couple of months my family has been wracked with one illness after another. Stomach bugs, flu bugs, and severe chest colds. There was one brutal week where literally everyone was so sick there was no one available to play nurse to the others. This culminated in me and 2 of my daughters getting pneumonia a few weeks ago. So, when the Swine Flu news hit, it was more of an "oh no, not more sickies" from me than anything else.

I am sharing this because I know this blog has been a bit slow over the last couple of months. It's been a hard time for my family, as well as some of our other bloggers. Juggling a large crew is difficult enough. Throw in illness and general economic woes and things get even more harried. So, please forgive the quietness around here. It wasn't intentional, and we don't mean it to be permanent. I'm hopeful that this current flu will not turn into the horror story that it could and that soon everyone will be enjoying warm summer weather and be healthy...and blogging again.

I want to thank everyone who has been following this blog for your patience and continued support. We are working on getting things together and having more regular posts. We also hope to do a few interactive things with our readers--so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, remember to wash your hands and keep safe until this latest threat has passed.

***This message is cross-posted on the various LOK Blogs.***

Friday, April 3, 2009

Your Pantry Essentials?

A recent question over at the new LOK Household forum got me thinking. We all know about staples--the items you keep on hand to use for cooking everyday. Things like sugar, and flour, and spices. However, depending on who you are, your "essentials" could be very different from someone else's. My family lives on pasta, however I have a friend whose husband and kids hate it--and thus she never really keeps it on hand. So I began wondering, what would be in a person's top-10 essential list. I did a few searched and I loved the variety of answers I found, such as this one.

After giving it a bit of thought, I came up with my individual list:

1. Dried Pasta - As I mentioned above, pasta is one of our core foods. Granted, the fact that it is relatively inexpensive helps. However, I can safely say my family loves the taste. There is so much you can do with it, and unlike some other starches (such a potatoes), you can pretty much cover it in any kind of sauce and it tastes good.

2. Rice - Another no-brainer, but again one of our favorites. It's funny to think my husband never ate rice as a child, and therefore didn't like it much when we married. Now we have it regularly and he loves it. We use it as a side dish frequently, but more often eat it with stews, chili, etc.

3. Tomatoes - In any manner, but mostly canned. Yes, I know fresh is best, but there are times you simply don't have, or can't get, fresh tomatoes. We use tomatoes for everything, from homemade salsa to stews. You can eat them as is, or puree them to make a sauce. Versatile and yummy.

4. Cheese - For our family, cheese is an essential. It is just one of those things that makes meals taste better. Not to mention that my son who is autistic will eat several foods that he wouldn't normally otherwise, as long as they have some cheese-sauce on them.

5. Garlic - This is probably *the* most used spice in our kitchen, aside from salt and pepper. It is simply an easy way to add flavor to a dish. We used fresh sliced on pizza, minced from a jar in stews, and powdered on pasta. One of my kids' favorite quick meals is simple egg noodles with butter and a healthy shaking of garlic powder.

6. Pinto Beans - Whether dried, refried and canned, or otherwise, this is one of those foods that our family lives on. We use them in typical Mexican dishes like tacos and burritos, but also eaten in a bowl with just a little salsa and cheese on top.

7. Tortillas - We probably go through twice the amount of tortillas than we do bread.

8. Potatoes - Any way shape or form. I keep instant on hand for "quick eat" nights. Bake potato bars are a favorite. Frozen fries covered in cheese sauce is a great treat. Many of our meals would be considered "hashes" because they are served over some sort of potato.

9. Seasoned Salt - I know some people would bristle at this, but if you read the Pioneer Woman Cooks, you'll know she is a big fan. It's not lazy cooking, but quick cooking. I use it in a ton things.

10. Hot Dogs - Again, probably not what everyone would think, but for our house, this is a staple. We eat them often in a variety of ways, from chili-cheese dogs to corndog casserole. For my autistic son, there are times he simply won't eat anything that we are making for dinner, so his alternative dish is hot dogs. Granted, not the epitome of health foods, but dependable sustenance.

So, pushing aside practicality (as much as you can, that is), what would be your top-10 essential list?

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On a sidenote, while doing the search on essentials, I came upon this article about the top 10 frugal essentials for a kitchen, to help feed a family on a budget. It's worth a look.

Top-10 Frugal Staples.