One of the things that I have found most liberating about giving up full-time work is being able to spend more time thinking about food. By that I don't mean that I spend the day grazing through the contents of the fridge. Far from it, if I get really engrossed in something I sometimes don't get my lunch until the middle of the afternoon. What I actually mean is having time to think about what we will have to eat, which ingredients we already have and those I will need to stock up on. Such planning is essential now that we are manging on a much smaller budget. When I was out at work, though, managing meals was one of the bugbears of my life. Ironically, more money for us didn't mean a better diet. We did a big shop at Morrisons or Tesco once a week, supplemented by fruit and veg from the Saturday market. I was usually aware of what staples we were running low on - milk, bread, tea - but meals were another matter. We bought what we thought 'looked nice' in terms of meat and fish and to keep it fresh we put most of it in the freezer. It was then either defrosted in the microwave, in a rush, each evening, only to find that we'd run out of whatever we had planned to have with it. Or, tired and hungry, we couldn't face the wait of the defrosting and cooking and opted for a takeaway instead. We also wasted a lot of food; things got pushed to the back of the fridge where they passed their sell-by date unnoticed. Invariably, the fruit was eaten up by the following Wednesday or it had been picked over and that which didn't pass muster grew itself a nice furry overcoat in the fruit bowl. Someone at work told me that they got round the problem by always having the same meal on the same day each week but what if you didn't fancy fish on Fridays?
I shop for food three or four times a week now (twice for fruit and veg at the markets) but only for a few things at a time, so we can eat fresh produce while it is still actually fresh, and I use a wider range of local shops as well as the supermarkets. I take a list with me of what I need to buy to make meals and I will probably combine the trip with collecting books from the library or running other errands. This works for me because I am only a short walk from the centre of town and I can be there and back in no time. I also shop with a list which saves wasting time prevaricating at the shops/market stall and again at home when you might otherwise find you have to make a second trip for something small but vital that you've forgotten the first time.
Last autumn, we unearthed our smoothie maker which we'd bought at some earlier date in an 'improving' moment and, after the initial buzz, had lurked, unused, at the back of the cupboard. We now use it for all those bits of leftover fruit - the mottled banana, that spare half an orange from making pancakes - and add to them the last bit of yoghurt in the pot at the back of the fridge, whilst it is still in date. We feel very virtuous improving our diet in this way whilst effectively 'recycling' that which would formerly have been wasted!
I make my own cakes and pastry and other puddings from scratch. I don't do this every day as we have fresh fruit for pudding most days but perhaps a couple of times a week to fit in with whatever else I have planned. This is as much because home-made baking tastes so much better as it is about saving money. Also, if your baking is going to be eaten quickly (and it is always eaten quickly) it doesn't need to contain lots of additives and preservatives to extend its shelf life like the mass-produced stuff. Baking is not hard to learn to do and I taught myself very largely from Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course which I received as a wedding present and have referred to regularly ever since. For further inspiration, women's magazines nearly always have recipes in them and I go through my back copies and tear any interesting ones out before they go for recycling. For the baking novice, I humbly offer the following tips:-
- use the best quality ingredients you can afford. I tend to use Flora margarine for most baking but would use butter instead where something was intended to have a buttery taste such as shortbread. Block butter is cheaper than the spreadable kind but it needs a while to soften after you have taken it out of the fridge.
- I only use free-range eggs. The cost is only marginally more, you can cook with a clear conscience and the results, especially for meringues, are superior in taste and texture.
- invest in good, strong tins. I have been using my cake tins for twenty years and they weren't new when I got them. I find that lining them with greaseproof paper prevents food sticking to the tins and makes washing them afterwards less of a chore. Tesco has a good range of reasonably priced cookware, as does TK Maxx, or you can pick them up at car boot sales.
- use a timer and don't be tempted to peak in the oven part way through or your cake will sink. Equally, don't let anyone open the kitchen door, or a window, immediately after your cake comes out of the oven as a draught can cause sinking, too.
Jam and chutney making are also much simpler than people would have you believe. The jam can be used as a filling for your cakes, for roly-poly puddings or to glaze the contents of fresh fruit tarts. Both jam and chutney making can be cost effective if you buy fruits in season or when you have a glut of your own produce. I turn the majority of my blackcurrants into jam as they are high in pectin and the jam sets easily. The results can make good, inexpensive presents that recipients seem to welcome with open arms. Again, these are tips from my own experience if you fancy trying preserving for yourself:-
- get a good book from the library with step by step instructions. The Good Housekeeping Book, Preserves by Joanna Farrow is excellent and I wish I'd discovered it when I first started making preserves myself. You can also search for recipes online; Delia Smith's website has some good ones (search by fruit type), including Fresh Apricot Preserve.
- I would always recommend using a proper preserving pan, like the one pictured below. I got mine very cheaply, second-hand, after trying to make blackcurrant jam in the base of my pressure cooker which bubbled all over the electric ring and was a beggar to clean. I didn't realise that jam rises as it boils and needs plenty of space in which to do so. Sadly, (but to the downshifter's benefit) jam pans are cheap second-hand because most people just don't make their own jam these days! I use a separate wide-based stockpot for making chutney as it doesn't rise in the same way and I don't fancy jam that tastes of vinegar, however faintly.
- I re-use jars again and again and the jam keeps better if they have close fitting lids and you use wax discs to seal it when potting it up. Chutney needs lids that fit well to prevent the liquid from evaporating; plastic or coated metal lids are best as the liquid (vinegar) will corrode plain metal lids when stored.
- get friends and relatives to save their empty jars (with lids) for you and to return any jars in which you gave them jam as a present once it is finished. You are doing them a kindness really in saving them a trip to the recycling bank!