Getting Smart About Your Family's Food Budget With Rosalyn Hoffman
Even though I'm not a mother myself, I know all too well how hard it is to stick to a budget, particularly when it comes to my grocery bill. In fact, just last night, at the checkout counter at the grocery store, when the clerk told me my total, I shook my head and wondered how people feed an entire family on anything resembling a reasonable budget...I certainly don't show much restraint when it comes to my own grocery purchases!
If you add keeping your family healthy into the mix, it feels like the act of purchasing food gets even more complicated.
In her just-released book, Smart Mama, Smart Money: Raising Happy, Healthy Kids Without Breaking the Bank, Rosalyn Hoffman attempts to help Moms (or Moms-to-be) sort through a variety of questions about keeping spending in check while making sure your family is living a good life. She devotes an entire section to the issue of how families purchase food, prepare it, and eat it, asking parents to rethink how they approach the whole process to make it more affordable...and healthier.
GG: You mention Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan as great writers to read for Moms looking to improve their family's health AND their bottom line. Do you have any specific resources (by those authors and others) you think those mothers should be reading?
RH: Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog is terrific and I’m a big fan of her book What to Eat. The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules by Michael Pollan should be required reading for every thinking person. Mark Bittman is a terrific writer with a sane take on food and cooking. Check out his recipes in the The New York Times or invest in one of his cookbooks.
One of your assertions is that it's the parent's job to make sure their kids are eating healthy foods. How do you recommend parents fulfill that responsibility when their kids are off at friends' houses, doing activities, or at school?
Whether it’s looking both ways when crossing the street or not touching their privates in public or making safe choices when it comes to drinking and drugs, it’s your job to instill in your kids the values and habits needed to make wise choices. The same is true when it comes to food and healthy eating. It’s your job to consistently offer them great, fresh food so when they’re on their own making choices, they’ll know the difference between the good stuff and the junk.
It’s impossible to police your kids when they aren’t home—if your kid occasionally eats some really gross junk food, it’s not the end of the universe. As for school lunches, that’s a tough one. I laud Michelle Obama and her food initiative, and I think smart moms should lobby their local schools for fresh, healthy lunches.
In Smart Mama, Smart Money, I relate this experience from my own childhood that informs my philosophy about kids and food: My mom was a terrific old-fashioned cook. Her mother grew up on a dairy farm, and her dad owned a restaurant; she made simple food from fresh ingredients. We did not have very much money, and there were five kids. All we ever begged for were TV dinners, and on occasion she caved and bought them. Then she would crinkle her nose in distaste when asked why she wasn’t joining us in our grizzled chicken, grey pea and cardboard potato feast. While we loved those seldom-served Swanson dinners, we also knew the difference between delicious ‘real’ food and occasional junk food.
You suggest folks grind their own meat—it's a great idea, but if someone does not have a meat grinder, where should they go to source one that's affordable and as easy to clean as your grandmother's?
Yard sales. eBay. Amazon.
You recommend that parents keep a little bit of junk food around, just as a special treat. How do you handle that at your house? How has it affected the way your kids eat?
In our house, we kept a junk food drawer that was available pretty much whenever they wanted to dig into it. Guess what? While, on occasion, we’d have to tell them it was too close to dinnertime or they’d eaten enough, they rarely over-indulged. Mostly, it was their sugar-deprived friends who turned into junk-food-eating-vampires when they came to play. Today, they shun most junk and processed foods. In fact, they’re mindful about what they eat, appreciate great food and are terrific cooks.
You also recommend parents set up some division of labor in the kitchen among every member of the family. Do you have any best practice suggestions for getting this started if your family isn't used to helping out with food preparation and meal clean-up?
Like everything else in parenting, it takes consistency and a little work.
- In the book, Smart Mama, Smart Money, I suggest you assemble the draftees in your kitchen army and, together, compile a list of food-related chores. Think about things like: shopping, meal planning, cooking, and cleaning.
- Do the fun work together in front of a Sunday football game or a Top Chef re-run fest. Bake cookies, a pie or a cake, clean and chop veggies and fruit for snacks and side dishes, or make meals for the week ahead.
- Assign cleaning tasks on a rotating basis: one week dishwashing, one week dishwasher unloading, one week taking out the garbage and composting.
- Let your kids learn to negotiate and barter their chores depending on their schedules and the job tasks they might prefer. Since you’re the Mom, of course you’ll let them off the hook more often than not, but they’ll be learning valuable lessons and you’ll be getting valuable help.
What are your tips for a parent who might be coming to this book later in the game, perhaps with kids who are a bit older, and therefore used to a particular way of eating? How would you recommend that they move their families toward a healthier, less-processed way of dining at home?
Simple. Just do it.
- Are you buying jars of tomato sauce? On your next trip to the market, instead of pre-made sauce, buy cans of tomatoes and make your own sauce.
- Chicken nuggets (ugh!)? Grab chicken breasts (sorry, that sounds lewd) and make them yourself.
- Skip the canned soups and make big batches of your own.
- Cook in quantity and freeze what you make.
- Engage your kids in the process. Ask them to help you cook and discuss what flavors they like.
- Make pizzas together.
- Consider growing a garden and having them help you.
- Or buy a variety of fresh herbs and do a taste test. See how tarragon, oregano, marjoram add flavor to roast chickens, salads, tomato sauces…
- How about a family cooking contest in the style of Chopped?
Make it fun.
What are your favorite, budget-friendly, go-to recipes when you're tired at the end of a long day but still have to cook for your family?
Our usual meal will have a big green salad, a steamed or roasted vegetable, a whole grain or sweet potato served with either a grilled fish or simple roasted chicken. Another family favorite is a quick tomato sauce for pasta served with broccoli rabe sautéed in olive oil and garlic. When the kids were younger each went through a prolonged vegetarian period (consecutively—not simultaneously) and our go to meals were massaman curry with tofu, sweet potatoes and peanuts served on top of brown rice; and, homemade burritos with beans, fresh dark greens, cheese, tomatoes, rice, etc. Think ahead: prepare brown rice or grains like quinoa or farro and keep them in a container to use through the week in different forms: under the tofu, as a side for chicken, inside a taco. Ditto for veggies. Remember to save and use up all your leftovers.
If you had to suggest one major change for any family looking to eat better and save money, what would it be?
Get the processed junk out of your food basket. Make it yourself.
Rosalyn Hoffman is the author of Smart Mama, Smart Money: How to Raise Happy Healthy Kids Without Breaking the Bank and Bitches on a Budget: Sage Advice for Surviving Tough Times in Style (both NAL/Penguin releases). She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, and was a featured insider on the Daily Beast Buzz Board.
A retail and marketing veteran, Roz was a buyer for Bonwit Teller, Filene’s, and Lord & Taylor in New York City, and an executive for Avon and Lillian Vernon. She speaks Chinese and has traveled extensively in China. In addition to being a serious cook and wine collector, she has lived and studied cooking in France, and has traveled the world cataloging changing markets. Aside from food and cooking, her other passion is design and architecture. She has worked with award-winning architects in the building and design of several modern homes that have garnered awards and international recognition.
Roz is the mom of two recent college graduates, who are gainfully employed, self-supporting and happily surviving all on their own!
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