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The cost of convenience

By on February 20, 2009

photo by crystl
Frugal folks cook from scratch. But is it cheaper? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. If you’re not a savvy shopper, have time constraints or don’t have health restrictions, then there’s increased value placed on ready-made and convenience foods. For example, boxed pasta and sauce in a jar is often going to win the cost-calculation comparison because not everyone has the time or desire to make homemade noodles and sauce. But many people do have time to even go as far as grinding their own grain into flour or growing a garden and canning their homegrown tomatoes. So making spaghetti from scratch makes perfect sense because they have these items close at hand.

What are your deciding factors in regards to using ready-made foods or cooking from scratch?

Here are a few points to consider.

SCALE: Ingredients for homemade meals and snacks are often going to be the most cost-effective way of cooking when you have more people to feed. A single person might argue that volume is not on their side. They might not go through a bulk bag of flour for months or be able to consume a bag of apples before they go bad. It can make sense for singles to sometimes buy ready-to-eat foods that they don’t eat often or when they want greater variety, too. Ingredients could cost more when you’re cooking at home, and some food could go to waste. Thanksgiving dinner, chef salads and coffee come to mind. But singles can look into “share shopping” with friends and family to split larger quantities of food to get the best price. And creative planning can certainly help. A larger family buying ingredients in bulk will find it cheaper than buying in small quantities, premade or dining out. Homemade meals will often yield enough servings for leftovers, and often, there’s extra ingredients to make additional meals, too.

PREFERENCE: Typically, homemade meals are far superior in taste and nutrition. You have control over what goes into your food. Many frugal cooks won’t eat store bread or takeout pizza because they simply prefer their own recipes. Some people argue that ingredients to make these items are expensive, but supplies such as yeast can be bought in a bulk container for far less than individual packets. And many ingredients can be used for multiple recipes. One reader, Karen in Kansas, says: “You can’t always make it cheaper, but you can nearly always make it better (for you). If I can’t make it better and make it for less, then we would only rarely, or never, include that food in our diet.”

COMBINATION: Often, a combination of from-scratch and semi-homemade ingredients is the best option. It allows some shortcuts but isn’t completely packed with preservatives. For example, if you’re making soup, you might use canned broth instead of making your own stock. But still use fresh vegetables.

CONVENIENCE: If you have a stocked pantry, it’s going to be easier to reach into the cupboard and cook than it will be to shop for ingredients. Also, fast food and junk food might be cheaper, but they’re not healthy. Availability can be a factor, too. Some people have farmers’ markets or salvage grocery stores nearby, or their grocery stores offer good coupon policies and sales.

Not everyone is good at cooking and baking. One reader, Nancie, says: “I cannot bake a cake or piecrust from scratch to save my life. No matter how much coaching and how many ‘no fail’ recipes I have been given. Yes, folks, it is possible to fail at a no-fail recipe. I don’t make these from scratch. I don’t see the point in wasting flour, sugar, etc., on something that I can’t make. We will not eat it, and it’ll get the obligatory counter time and then will get pitched.” Some convenience foods make sense for some people. But it’s worth taking the time to at least try to learn cooking skills. Start with the foods that you typically enjoy at restaurants or buy ready-made.

One Comment

  1. Mama Bear

    2/20/2009 at 3:40 am

    Hahahaha ‘obligatory counter time’…ohhh, so true. Just like the leftovers in the fridge that you KNOW no one is going to eat…but you do it anyway.

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