Non-Doomsday Prepping Part 1: The Case for Being Prepared
Some years back, I started writing a cookbook because so many younger clients on my fertility website had no idea how to shop, store, and cook affordable food. A lot of families around the world are living on takeout and spending fortunes on food, having to dine at restaurants or hit the grocery store deli every day, and eating incredibly unhealthy diets that really impacted their ability to conceive. When they tried to eat healthy food, they failed because it was expensive and hard to prepare. In addition, it occurred to me that because they were living day by day, meal by meal, they were unprepared for any emergency (such as the coronavirus we’re looking at right now, job loss or family illness).
So I came up with this concept I called “non-doomsday prepping” which is just the notion of having a wide variety of shelf-stable food on hand so you can cook at home using ingredients that are on sale, while also being somewhat prepared for emergencies as they arise. Prepping doesn’t mean you’re crazy or weird, it’s actually a great way to save money over the course of time, and it doesn’t even have to take up lots of space.
I’ve divided my cookbook up into smaller essays and I’ll share them here for anyone who is interested.
OMG really?? Not another cooking article! Seems like about the last thing the universe needs is another cooking article.
But with gas prices high, hamburger at 5.99 a pound and even just bread and butter, the original meal of human survival, becoming cost-prohibitive, those beautiful glossy photos in your average cookbook aren’t working for those of us who are living on a budget. Many of us simply can’t afford to eat the way that most cookbooks advocate, nor do we have the expertise to create new recipes. This leads to families subsisting on prepackaged foods which are less nutritious and much more expensive than cooking from scratch, or eating out constantly, which is terribly expensive.
And as for being prepared for emergencies, a notion that seems more important than ever nowadays, many of us simply can’t afford to eat the way that most prepping cookbooks advocate either, nor do we have the expertise to cook using wheat berries and soy grits. Families trying to stock up end up spending massive amounts of money on prepackaged one-use-only foods like canned ravioli and freeze-dried concoctions which take up lots of space and don’t go very far in an emergency.
Luckily, I have had 25 years of experience feeding a family of 7 people — my husband, myself, and 5 children — on very little money and I’m going to tell you how I manage to juggle cost, nutrition, and preparedness on a budget. I love food, I love cooking, I love being prepared, and I love saving money!!!
The secret to feeding a family on a budget is shopping wisely and a little advance preparation. If you buy versatile ingredients that last a long time, and keep them on hand by stocking up on them when they are on sale, you will save tons of money on things your family eats every day. The added benefit: you will always have a good supply of food on hand in case of natural disaster, job loss, illness, injury, unexpected expenses, and so forth. I call this principle “non-doomsday prepping”. You don’t have to prepare for a zombie apocalypse, Armageddon, or even the coronavirus, but it is simply sensible to be ready to go for a week or even longer without having to drop a chunk of money on groceries. When my husband lost his job unexpectedly in 2012, we were very glad to have our pantry stocked.
Additionally, non-doomsday prepping really saves you money in the long term, because the fewer trips to the store you take, the more money you save in gas and wear and tear on your car (if you’re making 2 car payments, you may even be able to give up one of your cars!!), the less chance for impulse buys, and it saves time and effort that you can then expend on other things (such as cooking more things from scratch).
What’s wrong with the way I shop?
The way most modern folks shop for food is they wait till the last minute, go to the store every other day (spending $5 in gas per trip and wasting an hour or more of their time), buy only enough for a meal or two regardless of what’s on sale, then toss in 17 impulse buys, and use a 30 cents off coupon and walk out feeling like they saved money. Then they go home and make a dinner of rotisserie chicken and scalloped potatoes from a mix that costs them 15 dollars for a meal with little real food value. And they spent 75!
Convenience foods are not always the enemy, though. Some convenience foods are wastes of money, others are worth their weight in gold, and the trick is knowing one from the other. Additionally, some fresh foods in the produce and meat department are usually affordable and others have become so prohibitively expensive (like hamburger lately, once the staple of poor families) that unless you hit a great sale, they’re not worth it any more. With a little planning and forethought (plus the time you’ve saved from not having to run to the grocery store 5 times a week!) it is completely possible to cook entire meals for a fraction of the cost that have far more nutrition and are much better tasting than something from a box.
I tried to do this type of thing before and the system was SO complicated that I couldn’t stick with it. Plus it cost me a fortune.
I agree and I HATE the “systems” that are so complex that they are unusable. You know the ones – they call for notebooks and smart phone apps and file folders and special bank accounts for your grocery shopping and the ability to plan meals months in advance. It seems to be human nature to design “systems” that are so impossible to manage that you end up a slave to the system instead of IT working for YOU. I believe the best systems are the simplest, so all I did was just make short lists of 5 or 10 pantry ingredients that go together, like building blocks in a pyramid.
You do not need to go out and buy everything all at once. I repeat, DO NOT go out and try to buy everything at once. That defeats the purpose of the “waiting for things to go on sale” idea. Just buy what you can afford month by month when it goes on sale. You do not need to have all the things on hand at all, ever. You WILL want to have basic staples on hand from the beginning, of course, but apart from that, use your own judgement – if you’re not a person who enjoys Asian cuisine, for example, you would not want to buy a large economy size bottle of fish sauce. That is ok! The cardinal law of non-doomsday prepping is, “You do you.”
I do recommend keeping a wide variety of foods on hand, though. When times are lean, cooking and eating food becomes a very large source of entertainment and enjoyment in our sometimes rather mundane lives. Macaroni and cheese, ramen, and PB and J may be cheap and familiar, but what invariably happens is that people develop something called “food fatigue” – they get so tired of eating the same thing day after day that they end up blowing the budget on fast food or some other extravagance. This can be avoided if you switch it up and try lots of different meals over the course of a couple months.
But shelf-stable foods aren’t HEALTHY!!
They’re healthy enough.
One of the great ironies of how the human brain works is encapsulated in the saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” People get so caught up chasing the dragon of utter perfection that they end up rendering themselves unable to attain reasonable goals, ending up either spread so thin that they’re not being at all effective, or getting burned out and giving up.
Aim for the good, not the perfect. There are many people out there who get their jollies squawking about the hard choices that others face every day and how THEY would never do such a thing. Personally, I think it’s far better to reach for attainable goals for your family’s diet than to bankrupt yourself buying food that quickly spoils, your family refuses to eat, and you don’t even know what to do with. Do you know how to prepare kale? Honestly, other than buying it prechopped in a single serving salad, I don’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s a miracle food, if it costs too much and rots in my fridge because I don’t have the time or knowhow to prepare it, it is useless!
We’re going to aim to strike the elusive balance between delicious, convenient, healthy, and affordable food that lasts on your shelf in an emergency. Not everything is going to be what the food faddists would have you believe is necessary for good health (some packaged foods will be involved, because packaged foods are what keep a while and our goal is preparedness) but then again, a diet of quail eggs and and lentil sprouts is both unsatisfying, and unaffordable for anyone in the lower to lower middle classes – not to mention your children aren’t going to eat anything “yucky” anyway. Fancy foods often spoil very quickly, which may be fine for someone who lives 5 minutes from the grocery store or has a car and can afford gas, but for those of us who don’t, we simply can’t rely on a constant influx of fresh ingredients. Plus, many of us simply do not have the time or culinary skills to cook unfamiliar foods from fresh, leaving us with a choice between Package A or Package B.
Of course, if you LIKE fancy foods and can afford them, by all means have at it! Hit us up in the comments and tell us about the stuff you bought and how you used it. But it is imperative for those of us without a $2000 monthly food budget to listen to our gut instincts and not to the Snobby Sallies of the world, many of of whom are even profiting personally by scaring people into adopting food choices that are not based in real world, real life choices (or feeling guilty when they can’t). Convenience and affordability matter just as much as “health,” especially when “health” is presently being defined by people with time and money to burn.
The truth is, the human race survived for a million years in one form or another eating a diet so low in nutrients and high in toxins (there are many naturally occurring toxins; not everything harmful is man-made) that it is downright frightening. It is FINE and SAFE to eat a variety of foods, even some that are processed, and exchanging ergot, aflatoxin, and botulism – naturally occuring food toxins that have killed millions and are still killing people today – for some man-made preservatives is actually a good trade.
Virtually all foods are perfectly safe in MODERATION as a part of an overall varied and nutrient-rich diet. Eating nothing but junk is not a good idea of course, but by picking packaged foods judiciously it actually HELPS you to reduce the level of processed food in your family’s diet. It simply doesn’t work to spend more on groceries than you can afford, trying to to buy foods you don’t know how to prepare and your family won’t eat, ending up frustrated and eating at McDonalds, when you can have plenty of food in the pantry. It is much more important to keep your family financially solvent and eating as fresh and healthy as you can afford than it is to avoid ALL processed foods constantly.
Embracing the vegetarian option
One arena where we can compromise for health is by making more of our meals vegetarian. Cutting way back on meat intake is an excellent way to save money, and it’s much easier to eat from a stocked pantry if you reduce meat intake at least somewhat – since meat tends to spoil fairly quickly, if you can avoid buying it as often, another way to save a shopping trip now and then. Additionally, when it’s possible to have an enjoyable vegetarian meal, why shell out an additional five or ten dollars for the meat??
Freezers – yea or nay??
If you can get a chest freezer, it’s a great addition. It allows you to buy in bulk when things go on sale and also to purchase bread products at the discount store for a huge savings and prevent having to run to the store every other day for the loaf of bread that you need, only to end up walking out with a 24 pack of soda pop and a $6 People magazine that you don’t.
That having been said, I’ve personally never owned a chest freezer. I made do for 25 years with a small freezer atop a refrigerator (including many a trip to the bread store feeding 2 teenage boys and 2 younger boys) and for the past five years, I haven’t even HAD a freezer (we switched over to a propane refrigerator without a freezer attached, and didn’t have the cash for a freezer in the budget). I manage just fine with a little planning.
You can find great deals on Craigslist for freezers. The type that open UP are more energy efficient (because cold air sinks down) and are safer in case of power outage but it may be harder to find things in them. Bigger is better in some ways (particularly if you’re freezing a lot of bread which takes up tons of space), although the tendency with freezers is to store too much for too long. With a bigger freezer, you have to be extra careful to rotate what you buy so your foods don’t develop freezer burn. If the power goes out, you will need to eat your frozen food before it thaws, so buy accordingly. If you have a small home or apartment, or a small family, there is neither space nor need for a big freezer.
Helpful hint: A couple of things you may not think to freeze but can save you huge tons of money are butter and eggs. Buy extra when they go on sale – butter can be frozen as it is, eggs you can crack into ice cube trays to freeze for later baking, although they’re no good eaten as fresh. Be sure to rotate them from oldest to newest to prevent spoilage. If you like them, fresh herbs pureed in the food processor, and fresh citrus juices for cooking can add a gourmet touch. Not necessities, but nice if you are able to get these things when they are on sale.
I freeze any brown bananas (just put whole, unpeeled into the freezer) for banana bread, and any vegetable peels and parings (carrots, celery, onions, parsley) and bones can be frozen to be turned into broth at a later time. I have an article about making your own broth here – it’s easy and all but free: Broth and Stock: Truly Making Something From Nothing. Once made, homemade broth can be easily frozen in glass jars for later use.
Preparing and stocking the pantry
In order to capitalize on buying in bulk, you will need some kind of pantry. It doesn’t need to be huge – just enough to keep foods that you use regularly (having basic staples always on hand enables you to be always ready to make any food that happens to be on sale) and also enough to store things you were lucky enough to buy in bulk, on sale.
I find it easiest to split this task into two – one for staples and whatever you’ll be using for the week in the kitchen where it’s all easily accessible, and then the storage for your bulk purchases can be tucked away in a less handy cupboard, or even a closet or under a bed. You don’t need to invest money in plastic bins for food storage, you can use old cardboard boxes. Cardboard does tend to collect dust and boxes will fall apart over time, and eventually you may find you are making enough use of them to invest in a sturdier Rubbermaid tub.
You may think that you don’t have enough room for a pantry/stocking program but if you look in your cupboards I bet you’ll find lots of kitchen utensils that you don’t use but once a year or even less. Move those somewhere out of the way or donate to charity, and use that space for storing your reserve food supplies.
The one kitchen gizmo you really truly need is an Instant Pot. If you’ve never had an Instant Pot and wonder why people are always talking about how great they are, it is because they’re great. If you heard from someone who didn’t like theirs, they tried to cook things that probably shouldn’t have been cooked in them, like chicken breasts and macaroni and cheese, and/or had bought the IP thinking it was going to be this miraculous time saver. It doesn’t really save you time, but what it DOES do is allow you to cook foods that would otherwise take a long time in the oven like pulled pork , roast beef, and dry beans.
If you plan on baking bread, I strongly advise a KitchenAid mixer as well. It will save you a lot of kneading. It’s not mandatory, though. Otherwise, all you really need are a couple pots and pans, a sharp knife, and a spoon, so if you have that giant set of springform pans you never use taking up space in the cupboard, get rid of them and make way for your stored food!
Wait, it’s over?? We didn’t even buy any food yet!
Stay tuned, dear readers, for the next exciting installment of Non-Doomsday Prepping in which we will actually go to the grocery store!
Photo by brizzle born and bred