Like most families, we live on a budget. Like most expanding families, I’m constantly trying to squeeze more out of it. I generally get the same list of suggestions whenever I ask the “What do you think is a good way to cut our costs?” question: Stop buying barista drinks regularly and make coffee/tea/etc at home instead; use the library instead of buying books; limit your takeout, etc., etc. … you’ve probably heard them all, too.
So I’m going to share a few tips for just one room in your house – the kitchen – and share some of our habits that are really done in the name of frugality, but which people always think are so fancy.
1. Use bar mops/rags instead of paper towels.
They last longer and worst case is that they add a load of laundry a week. (Best case, you wash them with your bath towels and barely notice.) We have a wetbag on our kitchen door and when it’s full, we wash it. It generally fills up right about the time we’re down to our last rag. Some of our rags are old washcloths, and some are actual bar mops that I picked up at a restaurant supply store. We use them for wiping down the counters, wiping up spills, cleaning the stove … 99% of what you’d use paper towels for – without the regular outlay of funds for paper towels. At roughly $1/rag, our 24 rags amortized within the first year (and are still going strong many, many years later.)
2. Use real napkins.
Use natural fibers: Cotton and linen absorb, whereas synthetics generally don’t. You can make them yourself by simply buying some fabric, cutting squares, and sewing up the edges. You can also find them at thrift stores, home stores, Etsy, etc. Add them to your towel load or your kitchen wet bag, and you’ll never buy paper napkins again. I hear that people opt for spending several dollars a month because they would rather trash disposable napkins than iron fabric ones. Here is my response to that: If you are the sort of person who irons your sheets, then I can see this being an issue. I have ironed my napkins exactly once in the time I’ve had them (for about … 8 years) and that was for a special dinner, for which I would have pulled out and ironed the “good” linens anyway.
3. Buy the whole chicken.
An entire chicken – even free-range and organic at Whole Foods – runs roughly $3-$5 per pound. You can have the butcher piece it for you, and then, for $15-$16, you’ve got roughly three meals. Comparatively, a pound of chicken breasts costs about $5/lb. What to do with the carcass? Throw this in a pot with water, celery, carrots, onions, and a few herbs, and you’ve got several quarts of stock (which runs a few dollars a quart when you buy it in a box). Then you freeze the extra stock for soups, risottos, or just plain drinking when there’s a cold in the house. (Still not convinced? Why not take some expert advice?) And while you’re at it, buy whole foods: Cooking from scratch in your kitchen is the best thing you can do for your budget and your body.
4. Meal plan.
For whatever duration works best for your budget. If you go to the store knowing exactly what you’re going to make and buy ingredients for specific meals, you’re less likely to impulse buy and wind up with rotting food in your fridge; which brings us to …
5. Use leftovers.
Americans toss an average of 50% of the food they bring into their houses. Take a second and re-read that sentence. HALF of the food you buy, you are likely not eating. From the pastry flour slowly getting freezer burn to the quinoa collecting dust … we are either over-ambitious about our time and tastes, or we over-stuff our fridges and simply forget what’s back there. For the purposes of today’s subject, let’s just focus on the cost of that. Sure, the pastry flour was $4, and the quinoa was $3 … but that’s already $7. And if you throw in the exotic spices ($5 each) and the grain you over-bought … we’re pushing $20. And that’s not counting the berries you over-bought at the farmer’s market or the enticing new vegetable … both of which are now fuzzy in the drawer. The solution: Meal plan and designate one (or two) days for leftovers. Sometimes I take a week or two and plan meals purely for the purpose of cleaning out our stocks – those are always the least expensive trips to the store, generally for butter, milk, eggs, and a few additions to round out what are otherwise complete meals already in our house just waiting to be eaten.
If you’re intimidated by the thought of so much cooking, there are endless resources to help. Here are a few:
- The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, by Kathleen Flinn. (She’s also got some cooking lessons on her website.)
- Dream Dinners, where you sign up to go to their kitchens and do prep for a few meals to be eaten later at your home. (If there’s not a location near you, there is likely something similar being run locally. If not, take the concept and a few friends and plan a once-a-month potluck cooking spree.)
- Cucina Bambina is local to me, but I’m listing it in case you’re also in San Jose, and to encourage you to do a little Googling for “parent-child cooking classes” – the sooner your kids are comfortable in the kitchen, the sooner you’ve got yourself little sous-chefs, and the easier dinners become.
- Cooking Naturally – our NPN recipe editors compile tasty dishes that use whole foods and are favorites with families.
The result of these five little steps is that you will sit down to every meal knowing that it was created by you (and your family), it is nourishing, and it didn’t break the bank. And the cloth napkins will add just a touch of specialness. You really should love the things you touch every day, shouldn’t you?