This is the second post in The Homestead Kitchen Series. If you missed the first, you can check that out here on must-have kitchen tools for a homestead kitchen. One thing I think many people forget is that on a homestead, you grow ingredients. Just because you have a garden and raise farm animals doesn't mean it will all come together magically in the kitchen. So learning how to cook and eat real food is a critical homestead skill we should all have.
Food prices are going through the roof. We're dealing with inflation that is absolutely crippling for some people. Many of the food items that I buy have increased upwards of 20-30% over a few years ago.
So how does one start on a real food journey without spending twice their usual grocery budget?
You may be surprised to find out that buying healthy whole-food ingredients and learning how to cook that food can save you a lot of money.
Reasons to Learn to Cook From Scratch
Learning to cook from scratch is very empowering and liberating. I don't always like to cook, but I do always like to eat. So for me, wanting to eat delicious food that I don't have to pay for at a restaurant encouraged me to learn to cook and eat from home.
Having the right kitchen tools to cook was also an important step. I list all my favorite and recommended kitchen tools here, in part one of the Kitchen Series.
Cooking from scratch also allows for the following:
- It allows you to know how to use the food you're growing in your garden.
- If you're not growing food, cooking from scratch gives you the ability to localize your food by going to Farmer's Markets and buying ingredients, then knowing how to use them.
- It allows you to preserve the food you're growing to use when it's out of season.
- If you're not growing food, it allows you to buy in bulk when certain items are in season and preserve them for the year.
- And finally, cooking from scratch allows you to buy food in bulk from the grocery store and get a lot more bang for your buck.
Steps to Eating “Real Food”
Identify What “Real Food” Is
What is real food? Isn't all food “real?” The first step in your real food journey is to identify what you're going to categorize as real food for you and your family.
For me, whenever I'm talking about real food, I mean eating mostly nourishing food that mostly tastes good.
To dive a little deeper, this also means food that has minimal processing and, if it has an ingredients label, it consists of five ingredients or less. This is a loose rule, meaning if there are more than five ingredients but those ingredients are all whole foods, then that's OK.
But if that food has anything that I can't pronounce, then I won't buy it.
Otherwise, real food is something you've cooked from scratch in your own home that's made from whole-food ingredients. This doesn't necessarily mean you grew or raised it all yourself, but keep in mind that is one of the goals… eventually!
Maybe you're not able to grow a garden or raise animals where you live. Consider volunteering at a community garden or shopping at the local Farmer's Market. Then, maybe you can source your meat by buying a 1/4, 1/2 or whole animal and benefitting from the lower price per pound.
Please don't think I'm asking you to go into your pantry and throw everything away just to go buy healthier options at the grocery store.
Food is too expensive to waste it all like this. I'm all for a sustainable mindset change to begin applying these changes one step at a time. That's where the true change happens. Then after a few years, you'll look back and realize just how far you've come.
Take it slow and at a pace that works well for you and your family. Even small steps forward are still moving you toward an end goal.
Shop the Parameter of the Grocery Store
My next tip is to shop the parameter of the grocery store. This is where you'll find most of the unprocessed food items and less of the boxed, bagged, and processed foods.
This is especially important if you're not growing a garden and raising your own food. You'll want to stick with fresh produce over canned or frozen (as much as possible).
Buying fresh meat over packaged dinners that have the meat already prepared will allow you to control the ingredients such as salt and seasonings.
If you're not ready to make meals from scratch, start making a list of what items you're buying from the interior aisles of the grocery store. This will give you a good indication of what to start learning to cook yourself because you know your family already enjoys this food.
Learn to Read Ingredient Labels
Whenever you buy something with an ingredient label, read through the ingredients and make sure everything on that label is a true ingredient. I define this as something I would have in my kitchen cupboard. If I wouldn't cook with it, it probably shouldn't be in my food.
I don't know about you, but I don't have a box of maltodextrin sitting in my pantry. I wouldn't cook with it, so I don't want it in the food I'm buying either.
Getting in the habit of reading labels leads to the natural next step of eliminating some of those pre-packaged products and making them from scratch.
Start Eliminating Pre-Packaged Products
Some easy places to start when eliminating pre-packaged foods are to think about the smaller items that you use on a regular basis.
Here are some examples:
- Spice Mixes: You know the chili or taco seasoning packets that are all ready to go? These mixes are going to include non-food ingredients that keep the spices from clumping or caking together. But if you read the ingredient label, you'll see that you can easily mix your own chili seasoning together with individual herbs and spices. In the long run, you'll save a lot of money this way.
- Grated Cheese: This is another easy ingredient that you can make yourself. You can buy a block of cheese and grate the whole thing, then stick it in the refrigerator to have as a convenience. But if you buy pre-shredded cheese, it has anti-caking agents and mold inhibitors mixed in to keep the cheese from sticking together. Last time I checked, this anti-caking additive (called cellulose) is actually a derivative of wood pulp. You can simply buy larger blocks of cheese (Azure Standard is a great option), cut the block into smaller portions and freeze the cheese until you're ready for it.
- Individual Oatmeal Packets: These were a huge hit when I was a kid, especially the peaches and cream flavored packs. But I did the math on this, and for my boys to get enough oatmeal to actually fill them up, we could go through an entire box of this pre-packaged oatmeal in one sitting. When I compared this to a $3.00 canister of rolled oats, the cost of these convenient packages was enormous. Now I buy oatmeal in bulk (from Azure Standard) and we can sweeten it with honey or maple syrup, then add in our own cream and dried fruit and come out way ahead on cost.
- Mayonnaise: Mayonnaise from the store is generally made from unhealthy oils (read more about oils below). Even the “avocado oil” mayo can sometimes be cut with part avocado oil and another cheaper oil (another reason to be a label reader!). True avocado oil mayo is extremely expensive, and you might be surprised at how easy it is to make mayonnaise from scratch.
- Coffee Creamer: If you're someone who just can't give up their coffee creamer, I'm not here to tell you that you should. What I will tell you is that you can buy some heavy cream or half and half, add some maple syrup and vanilla to it and make your own, much healthier option.
Looking at the individual items you're frequently using is the best place to start. I think you'll be amazed at how much we've come to rely on convenience and pre-packaged foods. That reliance comes at a higher cost for that food.
I've found that when replacing these foods, even with organic alternatives, I still come out ahead over buying the non-organic pre-packaged option.
There are some caveats. Ketchup, for instance, is more expensive to make from scratch than buying an organic, low-sugar option. So it's important to be keeping records of how much you're actually spending to make these healthier from-scratch options. Though, in general, you'll save money, it's not always the rule.
As you're learning to read labels and eliminate non-food ingredients (or ingredients you can't pronounce), the next step is to start looking at the oils that are in your foods.
Vegetable or seed oils are extremely damaging to our bodies and simply aren't healthy to consume. Some examples are soybean oil, canola oil (also known as rapeseed oil), sunflower or safflower oil, or any hydrogenated oils.
Don't be fooled by the “heart-healthy” label, this is just a marketing ploy.
Also, consider the cooking oils you're using at home. In our home, we mainly use animal fats such as lard, tallow, butter and ghee. Then we also use avocado oil and olive oil (though olive oil is usually for seasonings and not to cook with). Making butter from scratch is also a great skill to have, but unless you've got a dairy animal, it may not be economical to buy organic heavy cream from the store to make it yourself.
Look for Hidden Sugar
Sugar hides under all kinds of names. Pretty much anything ending in “ose” is a derivative of sugar. Dextrose, fructose, sucrose, etc. As well as corn syrup and many other names. Check out the 65 names for sugar here.
You may also be surprised to find sugar in foods that you'd never expect it to be in (salad dressing, pasta sauce, bread). Sugar is an inexpensive way for companies to make food taste better to our palate and a way to keep us wanting more of that item.
Learn to cook with and use unrefined sugar like honey, maple syrup and molasses. This is sugar in its whole form. The less processed we can get, the better.
Learn to Cook From Scratch
I'll be really transparent here and say that most of our meals are pretty basic. We cook up a protein (roasted chicken, beef roast, pork loin, etc.), some roasted vegetables and a salad.
We are busy people, and I don't have time to spend hours in the kitchen following a recipe book every night of the week. If cooking elaborate recipes appeals to you, by all means, have at it. But I'm simply trying to nourish my family well and make sure my growing boys are full.
The perfect example of a meal on regular rotation is this Spatchcock Chicken recipe. I'll serve it up with a side of oven-roasted potatoes and a salad with some homemade dressing. Everyone is happy, everyone is nourished, and everyone is filled.
As I mentioned before, this is a journey for all of us, and we're all going to be in different places. It's ok to take it slow, and I think that's usually the best way to go about making a real change anyway.
I'm not here to condemn anyone with their food choices but to simply share what we do in our family, how I've transitioned our family from a Standard American Diet (SAD) to one that's filled with mostly whole, nourishing foods while also mostly tasting good (and saving as much money as possible).