Monday, March 7, 2011

Let's eat, on the cheap. Family style.

There was a time, not that long ago, when families routinely gathered around the dinner table. Typically, world-weary Father would come home after a long day at the office. Lovely Mother would have spent part of her day planning and preparing a tasty meat-and-potatoes meal, because that was her job. Each night, the family would gather. Plates were filled with home cooked delights. Conversation ensued.

Like explaining how to use a rotary phone to a teenager, this tender portrait of Life During Mealtime a few decades ago bears little resemblance to what most of us experience here in the busy-busy world-weary present.

The majority of moms work outside the home. Add a dash of divorce, inflation, expensive gas and the proliferation of fast food, and it would seem that a relaxing dinner with the family is almost impossible.

And if you believe that, there's someone I'd like you to meet.

You can vaguely see Barb in the reflection of her microwave.

Barb shifts every paradigm our culture has come to accept when it comes to feeding a family healthy food on the cheap.

Her personal shift started after she had kids. 

Baby food is expensive. And like most of us, Barb and her husband aren't rolling in money. 

So she started making her kids' baby food herself.

It didn't take long before she integrated this culinary creativity into the rest of her world. She cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner at home, and her kids have never eaten a school lunch. Barb and her family rarely eat out, and when they do, they avoid the chains. Instead, they opt for restaurants that are local. 

She and her husband go shopping once a month, at Costco. They hit the grocery store very occasionally in between, just to pick up milk and fresh stuff. 

Influenced by documentaries the likes of Food, Inc. and Eating, Barb's opting for organics, despite the added cost.

Chicken is a case in point. Two Coleman organic chickens cost $20 at Costco. That's ten bucks a bird.

Barb explained how she makes one $10 chicken stretch for three nights of dinners.

Sorry for the stretching chicken imagery. But get this:

Dinner #1: Barb puts the bird in the crock pot with a melange of items - potatoes, carrots, spices, et cetera.

Dinner #2: Leftovers from Dinner #1 are used to create a tasty batch of enchiladas or quesadillas, for example.

Dinner #3: Whatever remains from Dinner #2 is tossed into a zesty salad.

Sure, there are ancillary ingredients. Maybe tortillas and other condiment-y items on Night #2; lettuce and other dee-lish add-ons for Night #3. 

So let's break it down.

A $10 chicken. A staple for three nights. That's 3.33 per night. Each night of tasty chicken goodness feeds four people (granted, two of these people are wee), so that breaks down to 83 cents per person per dinner.

Sure, there are extra items Barb uses to make each dinner extra-savory. Even so, she's not dusting each dish with a layer of saffron. She's using pizza dough she makes herself, perhaps. Maybe she makes a focaccia. Barb's creative. As you can see from the cookbook that sits on her microwave, she's organized when it comes to recipes. And she knows what she's doing. 

She makes her own pesto, salad dressing, croutons, granola. Her granola is absolutely delicious.

"You show me a family who eats the way we do," she said.

Barb has every reason to be proud. 

Because she gets it. Barb and her family never go without. They create abundance. 

They have a garden in the summer, and they freeze whatever they don't consume. This is one of two enviable beds, each of which is nicely tucked with potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, squash, lettuce, strawberries, herbs, so much more, every summer. 

Being this vigilant may not suit everyone. Just like any skill that becomes a personal art form, Barb's method takes commitment.

And in Barb's case, her culinary tableau is decorated very joyously, effortlessly and colorfully, because she sees all the good tastiness that comes from her efforts.

Barb does have a 'real job', but she has more time than money. So she can spend her extra moments creating a succulent, passionate, enviable lifestyle.

Providing healthy food choices for a family of four on a tight budget is very possible. Barb's proven it.

Let's look at the facts.

According to the USDA, feeding a family of four cost 462.40 per month in 2000. In 2010, that monthly cost rose to 625.90.

Barb and her family eat very healthy, tasty food. And on average they spend $350-$400 a month.

Just by spending a bit of time.

These are murky financial times for a whole lot of people. But Barb sees the silver lining. She mentioned that "maybe the one good thing to come out of the economic downturn is that people will learn to live abundantly with less."

She and her family are proving that enjoying tasty home made meals surrounded by family and friends is very possible, simply by making it a priority. 

See that glass half-empty or half-full. World-weary becomes energizing when you add a dash of effort and a smattering of creativity.

And Barb's proving that the pot becomes sweetened when it's shared.

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