As anyone who’s read this blog even occasionally or lackadaisically knows, I’m on a constant quest to feed my family better. (And if you’re new here, hi, let me sum it up for you: I’m B., and I have incurable culinary OCD.) Less than a year ago, when I started writing RRG, I thought it was just going to be a journey of trying to be more local eaters, trying to be perhaps more aware of pesticide use and over-the-top additives in our food, and of course, continuing the never-ending mission to make vegetables and fruits and whole grains appealing to our whole family. But a funny thing has happened along the way: I’ve really come down with a case of the conscious eater’s conscience.
There are so many fewer boxes, cans, and packages in my pantry than there ever have been before; and even though J. and I probably ate more fresh produce and a more varied diet even when we were first married than many Americans do, there are now so many vegetables and fruits on our table at any given time that I sometimes sit back in amazement at the CHOICES we have. Of course, as I’ve written about before — several times, in fact — we’ve still had to eat consciously, upping our consumption of organics, limiting our animal proteins to pastured and sustainably raised, etc., on a budget. And it’s funny how well you can eat on a budget; but it’s also funny how many tricks I find myself employing to hold fast to that budget while still feeding us WELL and plentifully.
Neither J., nor I, nor our two boys — who, even at the ages of 4 and 2, often appear to be approximately as ravenous as small wolverines — would take kindly to the overall reduction we’ve experienced in our consumption of meat, refined sugar, and packaged snacks if there were any hint of deprivation. So I’ve had to make a conscious effort to figure out how to stretch pennies, which is something that earns me strange looks from well-meaning people. How, they seem to be wondering, can you possibly be concerned about your budget if you’re shopping at Whole Foods? How does being a prissy, fussy, foodie type equate to stretching your dollars?
As I’m discovering, there’s more symmetry there than people might think. It’s a simple equation, actually: Spend what you must for quality meats and produce, and figure out the rest.
Bread? Kind of expensive. Flour? Really cheap. (Even organic whole-wheat flour.) Cereal? Getting more expensive…and smaller. Oats? Dirt cheap. Homemade pancakes and waffles? Also insanely cheap.
See where I’m going with this?
Yeah, I’ve really gone off the deep end this time. I’m starting to make EVERYTHING myself. I’ve always enjoyed baking, and I’ve always been a good bread baker — a skill which I know not everyone cultivates — but at least I haven’t got any fears about yeast or proofing or fermentation or whatnot. Frankly, I may not always have time to put together loaves of whole-wheat sandwich bread, but I’ve discovered recently that I can easily slap together homemade wheat pitas. It’s made me want to dive into the world of make-it-yourself in a way I never even thought possible.
There are so many things we all take for granted as food items that must be bought at the store. I never thought much about the tortillas we’ve always kept on hand, until I read somewhere about making your own. Now whole-wheat tortillas are becoming a favorite project of mine. Pasta, too — if, like me, you don’t own a pasta machine, you might consider it ridiculous to even attempt making your own spaghetti.
You might. Or you might pull out a rolling pin and make whole-wheat spinach ravioli entirely by hand, which is what I did for almost 2 hours last night after the kids went to bed.
Yes, it was far more effort than I think most people would put forth; and yes, I’m likely going to continue to purchase most of my pasta, especially since there are very affordable whole-wheat varieties that don’t require me to sweat over a pastry board and rolling pin until all hours. (Also, the ravioli turned out pretty well…but not impressively so.) It was definitely an “off the deep end” kind of crazy ODSKG moment. But you have to realize why I did it.
There is something. Immensely. Satisfying. About doing it yourself.
Knowing that I’ve saved $4 on the big package of tortillas at the market, and can make something that tastes light years better and is far healthier for just pennies in raw ingredients (and about 30 minutes of time), is deeply rewarding. Soul-soothing, in fact. Watching L. and J., neither of whom care much for store-bought pita bread, fighting over the last scrap of my warm fresh pita, gives me a sense of pride. And eating this way — wholly from scratch, everything made totally from whole ingredients in my own kitchen — tastes amazing, feels amazing, and makes it possible for me to say YES to so many things.
YES, darling grizzly bear sons of mine, when the smoked salmon is on sale at the store I will buy you two packages for your lunchboxes, because the money for that luxury purchase comes out of not buying breads and cereals and processed grains of all kinds. YES, you may have the high-quality maple syrup and local honey and cashews for topping your oats and pancakes, because I’ve figured out how to feed you breakfast without having to open up any vacuum-sealed packages. YES, dear husband, we can buy the good cheddar cheese and the lovely goat cheese you crave, because we’re learning to eat less of it as we enjoy better, healthier, more flavorful meals that cost us less than they used to when we bought all the lower-quality ingredients and convenience items at the supermarket.
Maybe best of all, though, even better than enjoying our food more and getting better value from our purchases, is the freedom I feel in being able to make these things myself. I know it sounds strange, but before, when I relied on other people to make and sell to me staple items like breads and pancake mixes, I had to be very sure not to run out of them. If we ran out of tortillas and I’d been counting on making quesadillas for lunchboxes, there would have to be a trip to the store…or a last-minute panicked rummaging for some kind of substitution. But just last week, we found ourselves absolutely clean out of bread, tortillas, crackers, and basically grains of any kind — with two days’ worth of lunches to account for. And as I felt myself go into that mode of dread, I stopped suddenly, opened the pantry, and found a bag of flour.
Less than an hour later, we had a double batch of warm tortillas and some whole-wheat waffles cooling on the counter, and absolute peace of mind. Our family continued to eat abundantly and happily for the rest of the week, with no sense of deprivation, no sense of compromise, no realization, even, that our cupboards had been “bare.” There’s POWER in knowing that you can make this stuff. There’s satisfaction in self-reliance and in breaking free of the emergency mid-week grocery trip.
I know it’s not a solution for everyone, and certainly, there will be times in our lives when making it all from scratch doesn’t work as well as it has been at the moment — schedules happen, life happens, and part of the reason convenience foods like packaged breads evolved was to help fill the gaps for busy families. But I’m happily plunging off this deep end for the moment, knowing that if I can make passable ravioli with a sharp knife and a rolling pin, I can do just about anything in the kitchen that I’d ever want to do. It’s hard to describe how this feels, but trust me: When you’re able to embrace homemade everything, food, and life, are just so good.