Once upon a time, all girls took home economics classes (boys could take wood shop or auto mechanics.) Then, about the same time that girls were allowed to wear pants to school, (so sadly, not joking) some boys took home-ec and some girls took shop classes. (I took art class instead, for no particular reason.)

That’s all gone by the wayside now, and hardly anyone gets to take home-ec (or auto mechanics, because you aren’t meant to fix your car anymore.) That’s all fine and well until you’re broke and wondering how to make dinner out of an egg and some bits from the cupboard, or trying to figure out what that smell is (in related content, you can and must clean the garbage disposal) or any of a dozen other minor issues that *should* be easy to solve.

Despite the art classes, I grew up to know a fair bit about keeping house, which I parlayed into all manner of food-related jobs, including running a cooking school. One of my favorite classes to teach there was on how to run a household economically.

  1. Know what you want to buy, and what a good price would be.

We keep a chart of all the pantry items we use frequently and their cost at all the stores we shop at. This lets me go through the ads on Wednesday and make a list of what to stock up on, and informs our weekly shopping.

  1. Take advantage of sales, but don’t buy more than you can use.

When the brand of mayonnaise we like is on sale in spring, I’ll buy several jars because we eat a lot of sandwich and salad suppers in the summer. The rest of the year, I’ll buy it only as I run out — it takes us most of the winter to empty one jar. If you have limited pantry storage, this is a particularly important concept.

  1. Don’t waste food.

Americans throw away about 40% of the food that they buy. That’s rough on the budget and the planet!

To avoid waste:

* Store food properly.

* Know what’s in your fridge and pantry

*Find recipes that use odds & ends

*Don’t buy it if you don’t need it.

  1. Take care of your stuff.

Thrift means making things last, and that means repairing minor damage before it gets worse, keeping things clean and in good working order, and even storing food properly so it won’t go bad before you can eat it.

  1. Buy reusable items when you can.

Disposable items are not only bad for the environment, but for your wallet. When you add to that the fact that disposable stuff often isn’t as useful, it’s pretty clear that reusable is the better choice for everyone except the disposable industry. Some things are obvious savings, like substituting a four-pack of plastic sandwich containers at $4.19 for a years’ worth of zipper sandwich bags at $27.56.

Others are more complex: buying dishcloths and washing them costs more for the first year than buying and throwing away sponges (annually, $16.64 for dishcloths versus $11.34 for sponges). The dishcloths, however, last around 4 years, so the real comparison is $16.64 (plus $3.64 times 3 years to wash) = $27.64 versus 2 sponges per month times 4 years = $45.36. You can also look at it as “not throwing 96 sponges in the landfill.”

  1. Buy quality stuff.

You can buy inexpensive pots and pans and replace them over and over again, or you can buy quality and use it forever. (There are a few things that you want to replace frequently, like cutting boards, and so you should buy cheap.) If you have to save up to buy what you want, fill in with thrift store items while you wait. Here’s my list of cooking essentials:

Knives: If you buy only one thing at full retail, make it a knife. Wüsthof and Henckels are the best brands.  You’ll use this knife every day for the next 20 years, which makes it worth an investment.

Cutting boards: I’m not going anywhere near the wood-vs.-plastic debate here. Both are fine if you clean them every time, and both will have to be replaced every so often. Avoid glass, which dulls knives. If you eat meat, you’ll need one board for raw meat and one for everything else.

Pots: A really big, a medium and a small pot.  Make sure the bottoms are very heavy and the handles heat-proof.  Lids are a must.

Skillets: A small one for two fried eggs and a big one for everything else. Cast iron is best if you’re reliable about taking care of it. If you’re not willing to commit to cast iron, stainless steel is better.

Cookie sheet: Actually, a sheet pan, but home cooks will call it a cookie sheet. Sheet pans have a rim and cookie sheets do not. The rim keeps your frozen pizza from sliding off, and is useful if you someday make a jelly roll.

Vollrath are by far the best, and you can buy them on Amazon — although a cooking supply store in Sacramento will get you a better price. A nonstick lining is not particularly useful, will mean you have to replace the pan frequently, and will be real problem if you forget to take the cookie sheet out when you preheat the oven.

* Casserole dish: Shop the thrift stores for this, and wait for an old, indestructible Pyrex or Fireking dish with a glass lid.  Get a deep one, so you can make lasagna in it.

* Mixing bowls: I have a preference for glass over metal, but it’s up to you. Avoid plastic.

* Colander: A big metal bowl with holes in it. Get the one with a built-in stand, or you’ll spend the next 20 years balancing it while trying to pour boiling water into it.

* Salad spinner: Drying greens by hand becomes tiresome after the first few years. On the daily-use scale, it’s worth the money.

* Cheese grater: Also useful for grating carrots. Flat ones are much easier to clean, but a bit more difficult to use. All cheese graters are designed to also grate knuckles.

* Wooden spoons: You can get cheap ones or expensive ones. Cheap ones disintegrate quickly, so spring for the pricier ones.

* Spatula: Actually, a pancake turner, but no one calls them that. If you bought cast iron or stainless skillets, get a metal spatula. If you bought nonstick, you’ll have to buy a plastic one. Wooden spatulas are too thick to turn fried eggs.

* Ladle: Or a deep spoon. Something to get the soup from the pot to your bowl. Metal, right?

* Tong: Are amazingly useful. For $5, you can avoid flinging things across the room when you try to turn them over. Inexpensive metal ones are fine.

* Vegetable peeler: You might as well get the one your mom uses, since that’s what will feel right to your hand.

* Measuring spoons: Metal.

* Measuring cups: Also metal. If you can find a set with a pouring lip, grab them.

* Glass measure: 4-cup. Why so big?  So you can use it to cook in the microwave.

  1. Don’t waste flavor!

* The fat from your roast chicken, the onion juices in the fry pan and even the rind of your cheese all have excellent flavor that you should use in your meal or preserve for future meals.

* Assuming that you don’t eat much meat, it’s fine to use the fat to add flavor to meals. (If you eat meat every day, you should probably skip this and choose low-fat meats.)

* To save most meat juices and fat, just pour into a small container — the fat will rise and solidify and the juices will sink to the bottom.

* For bacon fat to use for frying, let cool five minutes. Pour into a container of cold water and chill. Fat will rise to the top where it can be removed and used. Particles (which may burn when reheated) will fall to the bottom where you can discard them. If you’re using bacon fat for something like cornbread, this step is not necessary.

  1. Double check “convenience” foods.

Some things are worth every penny — good organic canned tomatoes, for example. Others are far more expensive than making it yourself, and often not as good.

— Along the way I ended up writing quite a lot of material, which I’m starting to collect on a website, thenewhomeec.com.  Stop by and see what you can find! As always, you can reach me at jacross@dcn.org.


Homemade Biscuit Mix

Cost per batch: $1.90
Cost per biscuit: $0.07
Bisquick cost per biscuit: $0.11
makes about 4 cups/64 biscuits


1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups whole wheat flour
¼ cup wheat bran
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold butter

Putting it together:

Mix dry ingredients together. Cut in the butter until it has the texture of fine cornmeal.

Refrigerate until needed. Use within four weeks.

¼ cup of biscuit mix, reconstituted with milk, makes 4 biscuits. Drop by the spoonful on to a baking pan, cook at 350 degrees until nicely browned, about 20 minutes.

Warm Syrup

Cost per cup: $0.78
Maple Syrup cost per cup: $9.19
Mrs. Butterworth cost per cup: $1.68
makes about 1 cup


1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon honey
4 cloves
1 piece crystallized ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Putting it together:

Mix everything together. Cook gently over medium heat until thick and fragrant. Strain and serve.


Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on August 20, 2019 | Printed in the August 21, 2019 edition on page A7