You run in the house after a long day at work and your family meets you with “What’s for supper, Mom?” Even though my kids are long out of the house, I face the same dilemma each night — how to put a nutritious dinner together in a matter of minutes.
You grab some meat, whether chicken, moose, or fish, a rice mix from the cabinet and precut vegetables for a salad, and you are ready to go. But if you are conserving on your grocery bill, what does that convenience cost you?
I did a quick calculation on a few store items that are convenience foods. These are our go-to items that with a little planning, we might have a better alternative. Also, remember that we are willing to pay extra for these items because of the time saved. So time to prepare is also considered.
Rice mixes are easy to prepare, come with all ingredients included and make a tasty side dish. I priced both store brand and national chains to find that a chicken-flavored rice with mushrooms mix costs 85 cents per serving. By cooking the rice myself in water with a chicken stock dry mix and adding a can of mushrooms, I got a total price of 56 cents per serving. It was less expensive, tastier and has far more mushrooms than in the prepared rice mix.
The preparation time wasn’t that different. The commercial rice mix took 25 minutes, and my home-prepared mix was made in 30 minutes. In addition, you can control the amount of sodium in the home-prepared rice dish. The commercial mixes have almost half your sodium allowance for the day.
I have a friend who cooks 2 pounds of rice at once, yielding 11 cups at 22 cents per cup. She portions it out into the amount that her family will eat at one meal, then refrigerates or freezes it for longer term use. This is plain brown rice that is highly nutritious and takes a little longer to cook than white rice. She then customizes it to any meal. She sautés chopped up onions, garlic and peppers, adds the rice, then salsa for a Mexican meal. She adds soy sauce, onions, peppers and a fried egg for an oriental meal. Or for breakfast, add dried fruit, milk and a bit of sugar or honey and cook it down to a custard consistency.
Beans are one of the mainstays in my cooking repertory. They are cheap enough in the can, ranging from 89 cents to $1.29 per can. However, if you buy 2 pounds of dried beans and cook them, you can get that same amount of beans for 23 cents. They do take a couple of hours to cook, so I soak them overnight, then cook them as a part of my weekend chores. I package them in the amount I use in recipes, freeze them and I’m ready for those quick meals.
Precut vegetables are available on the salad bar or in bags in the produce section. Lettuce on the salad bar costs $1 per one-cup serving or you can buy it in the bag for 70 cents per cup. That is a savings right there. However, if you are willing to wash and prepare your own vegetables, that same amount of lettuce is 36 cents per cup.
Is it always better to do the preparations yourself? Convenience foods aren’t always more expensive. In my kitchen, I always keep brownie mix, cake mix, fruit gelatin and frozen pizza. All these items are less expensive than I can make from scratch or they save lots of time. Each of my favorites can easily be customized by adding additional ingredients. Each of us has a list of convenience foods that we feel are essential in our kitchen. Think about what you really can’t do without and keep those items on the shelf.
Convenience foods are available to help save time. However, with a little work, you can have a better product at a lower cost.
Roxie Rodgers Dinstel is associate director of Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Questions or column requests can be e-mailed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 907-474-7201.