Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saving Gracefully

Tax returns are due tomorrow, and while for some people this portends a healthy return check, I’m not so lucky. For the third year in a row, I’ve owed a good chunk of change to Uncle Sam (and his stately progeny, Cousin Ted). I’m hoping this will be the final year that this will happen to me- writing for Screengrab was a blast, but they didn’t take out any taxes from my check, leading me to grit my teeth every April 15.

Being bled again this year- funny, $600 in taxes doesn’t feel like that much until you have to pay it all at once- has naturally strengthened by resolve to save money whenever possible. But unlike when I was living alone and I could simply rely on Netflix and the Columbus Public Library system to keep me entertained and the good folks at Maruchan to feed me, now that I’ve got Ang and the Offspring it’s gotten a little more complicated. After all, while you can tell a kid until you’re blue in the face that when you buy Frosted Flakes you’re mostly paying for the tiger on the box, there’s just something about the young boy’s taste buds that won’t allow store brands of their favorite products to pass muster.

And it’s more than just the finickiness of a child’s eating habits- it just feels right for a family to sit down and enjoy a full meal, both as a wrap-up to the day and as a bonding ritual that allows everyone to get together at least once a day as a unit. And when you’re having a honest-to-goodness dinner, you want something good, not just something edible. It’s not just about filling your stomachs- it’s about relaxing and enjoying some time together. At least, that’s what I like my dinners to be.

So how to reconcile my goal of saving money with my desire to provide my family with tasty, nutritious dinners? The most obvious change would be to make the switch to store brands in some cases. Of course, Tony the Tiger and pals will still find their way into my grocery cart, but in the cases with many staples of my diet- pasta, for example- the store brands work just as well for our purposes as the name brands do. In addition, I’m trying to be keep a closer eye on the sales and promotions at the supermarket and, if necessary, do some quick mental computations to determine the best value. This can be tricky, as the general assumption is that the larger sizes tend to have a lower per-unit cost, but this isn’t always the case. For example, a few weeks ago Kroger was selling a pack of eight Pop Tarts on sale for $1.88, and a box of twelve for almost twice that amount. So much for conventional wisdom.

Perhaps the biggest way we’ve been trying to cut down on food expenses is to start looking for homemade alternatives to restaurant or carry-out food. Naturally, there are always going to be times when there’s no alternative but to eat out. Now that spring is here, the Offspring is busy with sports, so whenever he’s got a game there really isn’t time for anything BUT carry-out. However, if you’re serious about saving money, you can’t let restaurant eating become your default choice just because you don’t feel like cooking.

One thing we’ve tried lately is to overhaul our weekly pizza dinner. Whereas we once relied on pizza-delivery chains to take care of the meal, recently we’ve started buying the ingredients at the grocery store and preparing the pizzas at home. This is easier than one might think- pre-made crusts are tasty and reasonably priced, and pizza sauce, cheese, and toppings don’t cost a whole lot, unless of course you’re topping your pizzas with expensive meats and hoity-toity veggies. As for us, we tend to stick with the old reliable pepperoni (or just cheese for the Offspring).

After my last ingredients run, I itemized the cost of preparing two pizzas, one pepperoni and one cheese. Here’s what I came up with:

Pre-made 12 inch pizza crusts (2) - $5
12 oz. mozzarella cheese - $3
12 oz. pizza sauce - $1
½ pack (~50) slices pepperoni - $1.50
Total - $10.50

Of course, this doesn’t factor in the smaller costs such as spices, butter or olive oil to brush on the crusts, and gas for the oven, but those would take the cost up to $11, tops. Not bad at all for two pizzas.

So, you ask, how did they turn out? Not to sound immodest, but pretty darn good, especially for a non-professional cook like myself. The Offspring was especially fond of the cheese pizza, eating an unheard-of-for-him four slices. And it even passed the all-important next-day test- after all, any pizza worth its sauce will still be good after a night in the fridge. Now, I wouldn’t claim that my homemade pizzas were as good as the ones we order from the local delivery joints. Then again, those usually run us about twice the cost of the homemade ones, and they certainly aren’t twice as good as the homemade kind. And considering that (a) it takes less time to have a pizza on the table when you make it yourself than when you order one, and (b) the Offspring can help out it he wants, I think I’ll keep on baking my pizzas at home, thank you very much.

To that end, I’ve been puzzling out ways to make our pizzas even better. Maybe next time I’ll pick up some provolone to lace in with the mozzarella, or some onions or peppers to add some zing to the toppings. In addition, I’m trying to find other restaurant favorites I can learn to whip up at home. Anybody know of some good (and fairly simple) Chinese recipes? Because that would be awesome.


Chris said...

For what it's worth, when I finally broke down and bought a bread machine, I've been saving oodles of money on bread and pizza crust. Unfortunately, I've become a bread snob that cannot abide the store bought anymore. But perhaps that's a good thing.

Amber said...

I learned to make a pizza dough in the food processer that takes 20 minutes to rise but we do have Boboli night on occassion.

For Chinese recipes, check out Mary Ellen's Cooking Creations and click on her link for Asian stuff.