The family vacation is an important rite of passage. Often viewed with great anticipation, even a simple trip can involve significant investments in both time and money. Therefore, it can be disheartening when activities or attitudes don’t go as planned.
I have been told that I’m easy to travel with, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to adjust my actions and behaviors over the years, as have the rest of my family. Here are some things that the Kuna family does to maximize vacation enjoyment. I hope that you will find these tips useful for your next family adventure.
Understand your fellow traveler
I am the guy that likes to pack a week before a trip. My wife is more freestyle and prefers getting ready the night before. When it comes to packing, we respect each other’s position, but our different behaviors impact us in other ways.
I find crowded and fast-moving airports confusing and stressful. Add to this the fact that at 6’ 3” flying is uncomfortable for me, and you can understand that my stress and irritability build the morning of a flight. My wife is more relaxed in these situations and sees nothing wrong arriving at the airport “just-in-time” or less. In the past, our conflicting attitudes could create tension at the start of the trip, which usually resulted in me becoming progressively more tense and quiet, and Julie becoming more critical of my lack of engagement.
This changed some years ago when I fessed up to her about the anxiety that airports and flying cause me. Now, instead of two people acting out their frustrations, we cooperate. I make a concerted effort to stay in the moment, and Julie makes an effort to arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I still don’t like flying, but I now have an ally instead of an enemy the morning of our flight.
Do you anticipate your vacation months before it actually occurs? We do, and such anticipation can make it easy to become unrealistic with plans or expectations. Our family trips often involve 5 people, which makes even simple activities complicated and expensive.
It is unrealistic for us to spend $350 per person ($1750/total) to take a Grand Canyon helicopter ride, but we can certainly enjoy the park ranger talks, hike the trails, and have lunch at one of the park restaurants. This philosophy extends to less extravagant activities. We don’t go to novelty wax museums or other low-value/high-cost events. However, we will do activities that are unique to the location, such as going to the top of the Seattle Space Needle or touring the Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona. Our rules of engagement are understood by all family members, and I can’t think of a time when someone had a fit because we didn’t do a low-value activity.
We attempt to be economical with our accommodations. Our preferred vacations are campouts, as we are all nature lovers. However, we have also had many trips that involved hotel stays. We view a hotel room as a place to sleep, and our priority is on clean as opposed to luxury. We value hotels that offer family-friendly amenities such as an in-room fridge and a complimentary breakfast. We will go to a fancy restaurant or two on a trip, but these visits are considered bonuses. We celebrate a great dinner, but we can also enjoy hotel room PB and J sandwiches.
Imagine 5 adults traveling. Person A may want Chinese food, but person B wants Mexican. Person C is ready for the next adventure, but person D wants to linger at a current activity. We have found peace with the simple idea that it is OK not always to get what you want. We try to live by the concept of majority rule, but when push comes to shove either Julie or I have the final vote.
Expect The Unexpected
Things don’t always turn out the way that you want them to, and sometimes things go terribly wrong. We have blown car engines on trips, and have had other mechanical disasters. Several years ago, our accommodations got screwed up, and the 5 of us were expected to stay in a cabin that had only a single bed. Although we try to be proactive, sometimes even the best plans fall apart. We don’t expect our vacations to be perfect; instead, we focus on the positives of the trip.
Reward Effort And Behavior
In the past, I did most of the driving, but more recently, I have been sharing the driving with Julie. On our most recent trip, we faced a horrific thunderstorm as we drove on the congested expressways of Atlanta. At times the downpour was so torrential that it was impossible to see the car in front of us. Julie was driving, but I tried to do what I could to relieve her stress. When we safely reached our destination, I announced to the family that we should give her a round of applause for her skillful effort. Acknowledging her validated her stress and gave her temporary hero status. Costs of making her feel better, completely free.
On the same trip, we also faced rain when we toured Charleston, SC. Charleston is a beautiful and historic city, and we were hoping to spend a lot of time exploring. However, the rain prevented much of this. We shifted our visit to indoor activities instead. Although hardly ideal, we still got a flavor for the town and enjoyed our stay.
A vacation is just a vacation. Practice the art of generosity, and both you and your vacation mates will be happier. During most holidays, there are things that I may want to do that may be different from activities that someone else may wish to. My solution? I tend to give in to the other person’s wishes. In a hyper-assertive and self-absorbed world, this may seem weak. However, imagine that all parties practice generosity. When we tally up our adventures at the end of a trip it usually turns out that we all got to do the things that we really wanted to do. When everyone cooperates, everyone benefits.
Find Joy Everywhere
There is a lot of joy to be found beyond the exclamation points of a trip. A beautiful sunset, fragrant flowers on a walk, engaging public art; there are enjoyable experiences everywhere. Finding hidden joy initially takes practice, but if you make the effort you get a lot of happiness in return.
Our return flight from Atlanta to Chicago was scheduled for 9:30 AM. We had to return a rental car, check our bags, and go through TSA. We knew that we had to be up and out very early. To give us a little more time, we decided to find a room close to the airport for the night before our flight. Hotels close to airports are typically pretty expensive, but Julie found one that was only $80/night. Fortunately, the room was clean. Unfortunately, there were other compromises, including the fact that anyone who used the bathroom faced the real possibility of being trapped there, as the bathroom door was defective. We all had a good laugh when someone got stuck, which evaporated any frustration (all parties eventually escaped!). Laughing at minor problems turn dissatisfactions into funny family stories.
Respect Each Other
Most of my suggestions focus on mutual cooperation and team effort, but it is also OK to be an individual on a family trip. My kids are older and responsible, and so universal participation isn’t required. Julie and I did several couple walks, and when possible, I let the kids sleep in. My “jam” may not be theirs, and that is OK.
Understand Financial Constraints
Despite being conservative, our 7-day vacation for 5 cost us over $3000 (airfare, hotel, food, car rental, activities). However, it could have been a lot more expensive if we ate out more, stayed at more expensive hotels, or did additional activities. By having an active conversation, we all work together to keep cost reasonable. We know to not go for the most expensive item on a menu, and we don’t feel the need to buy a souvenir at every stop. By being clear about finances, we avoided credit card shock on our return and kept our vacation memories sweet.
No vacation is perfect, but by following some simple rules, most family trips will become a fond rather than a painful memory.
Julie used to be the initiator, then it was me, then we tried to do it together. However, those days are now over. What was once so important has become unimportant. I guess that is the way life is.
3:45 AM I wake up and stumble to the bathroom and dress, I groan. I open the bedroom door to head downstairs, and I’m greeted by Mercury, the cat. She looks up at me, gives me a quick meow, and proceeds to scamper down the stairs. Her friendly welcome is really a ploy to get her morning treat. She succeeds.
After a check of social media, I’m out the door and walking to Starbucks for my 3.5-mile morning walk. It’s Memorial Day and the early morning is peaceful due to the lack of work traffic. As I get closer to downtown Naperville, I become aware of the hidden activity there. A police car blocks an intersection here, cone barriers are placed there. The city workers have been busy during the early morning. The city workers are getting ready.
It is now 5:30 AM and I’m walking down Jackson Avenue on the side of Nichols Library. The sidewalks on both sides of the street are lined with empty lawn chairs of every design and color. Interspersed between them are old blankets and sheets that claim other patches of sidewalk and curb. The residents of Naperville are securing their spots for the annual Memorial Day parade that starts at 11:30 AM. If you live in Naperville, you know that it is imperative to claim your viewing space early or risk being relegated to standing at the back of the sidewalk.
The Naperville Memorial Day parade is an enjoyable event, and likely similar to thousands of other celebrations that are simultaneously occurring across the country. Some watchers come to enjoy the spectacle. However, most attend to be supportive of someone who they know who is marching.
When I was active in the YMCA Adventure Guides (then called Indian Princesses) program with my two young daughters, we often marched in Naperville parades. When my kids started in middle school, they continued to march via their school’s bands.
In the beginning, Julie would be the one to get up very early to set up our bag chairs at the edge of the sidewalk. As the years went by I became the chair placer. Then over time, we both would go to mark our parade viewing territory.
Part of our attendance was due to the holiday celebration, but the primary reason for showing up was the excitement of glimpsing our kids when they proudly passed us playing some popular march. At the instant of their appearance, we would stand, clap and scream their names. Although they claimed embarrassment by our uncouth actions, they also seemed pleased with their moment of recognition and stardom.
My kids are in now college and beyond and their Memorial Day mornings are spent sleeping in rather than marching; with their change in behavior has come ours. The local parades that had been so important to us in the past have become unimportant.
When I was a young child, one of my absolute favorite activities was watching Saturday morning cartoons. Then it became unimportant. As a teen, my collection of LPs were played until their vinyl was so worn that the records almost became transparent; now their music is just a trigger for nostalgic memories. I can recall a desire to buy a bigger house, something that I absolutely would not want currently. I can remember taking on professional positions and responsibilities to advance my career; now, I celebrate my abundance of unstructured retirement time.
So many aspects of my life that seemed irreplaceable became replaced by other things, which in turn were changed out for still others. Life is not a static photograph; instead, it is a dynamic movie that twists and turns throughout time. It is a river that carries you down a journey.
Some people fixate on a part of their past and are forever trying to relive or return to that time. The middle-aged man who recalls his glory days in the military, or the former cheerleader who wishes to return to her popular past. Two examples of countless more.
There are also the “if only” people. These folks ruminate over a past misstep. “If only I would have married my high school sweetheart.” “If only I would have finished my college degree.” “If only…”.
Dear reader, we are precisely where we should be on our life journey. However, if we want to be somewhere else, we need paddle ourselves in that direction. We can enjoy our memories from our past successes, and we can learn from our past mistakes. However, to expend large amounts of time or energy in fruitless activity is a waste of both.
Last night my family and I streamed the movie “The Commuter,” a terrible movie. We all laughed at the lousy script and ridiculous premise. The experience was akin to a bunch of friends sharing a fun evening together. I smile when I remember their parade days, but I would never trade this present to return to the past.
As a kid, I didn’t give up Saturday morning cartoons, I traded that time for something else. I didn’t attend a parade on Memorial Day, but I connected with my now adult kids in a way that was just as enjoyable.
To live in the past prevents me from celebrating my present. Each day is precious and is never to be repeated. Together, Let’s look at what we have instead of what we don’t have. In reality, the parade didn’t pass me by, I was the one who moved on.
I did a quick mental calculation and confirmed that there was an extra day before I had to arrive in Tucson. My initial miscalculation was based on the incorrect assumption that I could spend a full two days exploring the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Parks.
I now had a decision to make, should I somehow extend that experience or find a new one elsewhere. I looked at my road atlas, and I did a Google search; several possibilities appeared of which one looked intriguing. Apache Lake was a large reservoir lake located in Arizona’s remote and mountainous Tonto National Forest. Created by damming the Salt River in 1925 it was long and narrow, as such artificial lakes often are. Posted photos made the body of water look surreal and misplaced because it was surrounded by buttes and had mountain tips poking out of it. Further exploration yielded that the lake had a campground, a motel, a lodge, and even a restaurant; all located in a single compound on its eastern shore. It seemed like an ideal place to spend my excess 24 hours.
Apache Lake is isolated, and the closest city on my northern route was Payson, which was 1 hour and 40 minutes away via the twisting and winding roads of the Superstition Mountains. I made a mental note to gas up in Payson as there didn’t seem to be many other options beyond there.
I put away my morning cooking gear and secured Violet’s living space making sure that I strapped down any loose items. I took out her rugs and gave them a good shake and then proceeded to sweep her floor with the little whisk broom that I purchased from Walmart. Carpets replaced I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from my Dometic chest style fridge, and then pulled shut her sliding door. I was now ready for the three and a half hour drive from Holbrook, Arizona to Apache Lake.
The Superstition Mountains are tall, but they don’t compare to the Rockies that I drove through a few days earlier. Also, I was feeling more confident driving Violet in the mountains as I had figured out how to downshift her transmission, which made it easier to navigate the 8 percent downhill road grades.
Up and down I went as I drove into more and more remote forest. AZ-377 S, AZ-260 W and AZ-188 S to AZ-88 W, I followed Google Maps commands to go further and further into the wilderness. As the road narrowed, I started to spot dirt forest roads splintering off from the highway into what appeared to be oblivion. I drove on.
After many twists and turns, I came upon the magnificent Lake Roosevelt. This large body of water was also created by damming off the Salt River. I drove on. Google Maps instructed me to turn on Arizona State Road 88, a much narrower and worn roadway. After many more twists and turns, I came to a sizeable flattened piece of earth on a precipice. I looked back to see the gigantic Roosevelt Dam directly behind me; it sent shivers up my spine. For a split second, I wondered what would happen if it’s immense structure burst. I refocused my thoughts and looked ahead. Google Maps was instructing me to drive forward towards a road that was heralded by a yellow caution sign that read, “Pavement Ends.” I drove on. I was now navigating the Apache Trail.
Soon caution alarms started to sound in my head. The road was very narrow, almost certainly too tight in my mind to accommodate two-way traffic. There was no shoulder, only a small strip of piled dirt that demarcated the edge of the road from the abyss on the other side. Hundreds of feet below I could see the Salt River winding from Roosevelt Dam. The way was pitched upward as it had to climb the mountain before it. I drove on.
I started to feel a panic that emanated from my abdomen, moved into my thorax, and terminated as a lump in my throat. I deliberately started to slow my breathing to calm myself. I drove on.
The road was not only unpaved and narrow, but it was also in terrible condition consisting of a continuous deep washboard pattern that was further sprinkled with potholes. Violet the van was shaking uncontrollably, and I had a real concern that she could be damaged to the point of becoming inoperable. There was no place to pull off, and my T-Mobile cell service was fading in and out. I flipped on the Verizon hotspot to boost reception, but neither carrier could compete with the granite mountain that was blocking reception. I drove on.
I wanted to turn around, but there was no place to do this. The road was so narrow, and it appeared to flow in a single direction. I had a real concern that if I did manage to reverse my course, I could face a car coming directly at me. In my mind, if that happened, one of us would have to reverse either up or down the mountain. Of course, an impossible option. I continued to focus on breathing.
I attempted to drive in the middle of the road so I could stay as far away from the edge as possible. As I turned into a hairpin twist, I was immediately confronted by a huge, bus-sized RV approaching me from the opposite direction. This tiny dirt road was for two way traffic! I reacted by automatically swinging my steering wheel to the right as Violet’s front right wheel brushed into the dirt curb that separated me from the valley below. My heart raced as I tried to stop Violet from moving forward. I looked up towards the massive Class A RV and glimpsed the driver who appeared to be in his 30’s. His sweaty face and horrified continence suggested that like me he was unaware of the challenge of the Apache Trail. As he passed me, it was clear that we could easily touch each other. I drove on.
This dirt road was 14 miles long, but that distance translated to over an hour of driving as my speed varied from 10-20 MPH. Violet continued to shake uncontrollably as secured objects broke free and crashed about her cabin. A box crashed into the back of my head and sprayed me with its contents of bolts. I drove on.
I finally spotted the turnoff to Apache Lake. Ahead the Apache Trail continued with a new caution sign stating that the next 5 miles were only a single lane. I turned right and started the descent down. I pulled into the resorts parking lot feeling like I could pass out from adrenaline. It was not a good feeling. In my usual fashion, I tried to center myself and gather more information with the idea that knowledge is power. Although I did have a cell signal, it wouldn’t support data, and I finally gave up.
When I exited Violet, I was literally vibrating. Some of my oscillations were due to the emotional aftermath of my harrowing journey, some were due to physically being shaken for oven an hour. I did a quick assessment of Violet’s condition, and she appeared to be intact. However, her internal contents were strewed throughout her cabin in a twisted and incoherent mass.
I walked into the lobby of the lodge and made my way to the desk. A young Hispanic man greeted me. “Wow, that road in is pretty rough, how do you guys commute here every day,” I said trying to appear calmer than I really was. “Yeah,” he noted. “It is pretty bumpy, we actually live on site here,” I asked him if the trail south towards Phoenix was any better, but he couldn’t give me a clear answer. He told me to find a spot to camp and to then return. I drove down towards the lake, but I couldn’t really determine where the campsites were. At that point, I was on complete overload, and my ability to problem solve had reached its absolute limit. I drove back to the lodge and asked him how much it would cost to stay at the motel. He replied, “Seventy bucks,” and I booked a room for the night.
The small motel was in clear sight of the lodge, but the road to it was not. I got temporarily lost driving there. When I finally reached the motel’s parking lot, it was completely empty. I was the only guest. I entered my room using a standard key with a diamond shaped key tag stamped with the number 5. Having a real motel key seemed to be a throwback from the 1970s, but I was too shaken to appreciate its novelty.
I entered the room and flipped on the air conditioning unit and was greeted by a familiar musty motel smell. The room was clean but spare. The walls were white, painted cinder blocks, and a single table lamp was the only source of illumination. Surprising there was a relatively new flat screen TV attached to the wall directly opposite the bed. I crumbled onto the bed, shoes and all, and flipped on the TV. A total of 5 channels greeted me, but one of them was frozen in some sort of digital TV mishap. I stumbled onto the beginning of a movie and decided to watch a bit. Within minutes I realized what I was viewing. The film was “Into The Wild,” which is a story of a foolish adventurer who decides to explore the wilderness and winds up dying after prolonged starvation. I elected to turn the TV off.
I attempted to investigate alternative routes to Tucson, but the lack of internet data blocked my efforts. It was now around 5 PM, and I decided that I would go back to the lodge for dinner. When I approached the dining room, I was aware of two things: the waiter looked very surprised to see me, and the large room was completely empty. I sat at a table, and he handed me a menu.
I scanned the menu’s contents and discovered the usual resort fare… burgers, sandwiches, and a few expensive items like steak. I chose a Reuben Sandwich with a side salad, and the waiter disappeared with my order. I continued to be struck by the emptiness of this cavernous room, which reminded me of a scene from “The Shining.” Eventually, the sandwich came, and it was surprisingly good. My total bill was under $10.
On return to my room, I decided to have a drink. I had brought with me a small flask of bourbon to mix with a Coke that was chilling in Violet’s fridge. For some reason, I thought having a little whiskey on the trip would be a manly thing to do, strange as that sounds. This was definitely the time to use it.
The alcohol calmed me, and I reexamined my room’s appointments. I was surprised at the number of ashtrays available. One in the room, one on the little table outside of the room, and three on the picnic table directly across the room. Five ashtrays within 15 feet of my room, I thought, “Well, you don’t see that every day.” The alcohol had its desired effect, and I drifted off into sleep, it was 7:30 PM.
I started to rouse at 9 PM. In the recesses of my mind, I heard what sounded like demonic chanting. I woke a bit more and became aware of a heavy bass riff that was repetitive and persistent. My fogginess assessed the information as some sort of heavy metal rock concert, but that assessment seemed off. The bassline was so loud that my bed was shaking in a rhythmic pattern. All of a sudden, and in the middle of a note, the music cut off only to resume a few minutes later. This pattern repeated itself many times. The same song would be played at a quaking volume for anywhere between 1 to 3 minutes, it would then stop abruptly only to resume minutes later. It was creepy.
I looked out of my motel room’s door towards the parking lot to discover that I was still the only car parked. I looked in the opposite direction, and at the far end of the motel, I spied an old car with its interior lit up like a Christmas tree. It was parked on the motel’s walkway and looked completely out-of-place. The car was the source of the music.
Now fully awake, I retired my cellular internet connection, and surprisingly it worked. I was able to to use a couple of my GPS applications, which gave me different routes from Apache Lake to Tucson. One direction took me the 14 miles back towards Roosevelt Dam, the other was a 26 miles long trek south on the Apache Trail. Further research yielded confusing information, but it was clear that at least 14 miles of the 26-mile southern route were also unpaved, and at least 5 miles of that road was only a single lane. There was no easy highway route, and I found my anxiety building.
I called upon my cognitive skills to calm me. I did see a couple of vehicles in the lodge’s parking lot. Several were of the 4-wheel drive variety, but one was an older Chevy sedan. “It made it up the trail OK,” I thought. Perhaps the road wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Also, I now had some working knowledge of the trail, and I even knew that Violet could survive the rough road.
My cognitive restructuring helped only so much. Honestly, I would have paid someone to drive me out if that had been an option. I still had to decide which route to use the next day. Which way, the known northern route, which was more out of the way, or the more direct southern route, which was utterly unknown? I went to bed.
I woke the next morning around 5 AM and took a long, hot shower. I looked out my door and found that the heavy metal car was no longer there. It was almost as if its purpose was to wake me when the internet connection was better. I chucked at my willingness to attribute a meaning to every random event in my life.
I tried to do more research, but the internet was no longer working. I went back to Violet and pulled out a road atlas from her driver’s door storage pocket. There wasn’t enough detail on the map for this remote spot, and I slotted the atlas back into its door spot.
I decided to try connecting my phone while in the van as I had previously installed a cell phone signal booster. Although the booster didn’t help me when I arrived at the lodge, I was now a block away and at a slightly higher elevation. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I tried the phone, and I was able to connect slowly to the web. Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with any new information, and so I went back to the motel room to pack up my things. It was now 7 AM, and I had some time to kill as the restaurant didn’t open until 8. I took a walk along the lake with my camera in hand. Now, slightly calmer, I was able to appreciate the incredible beauty of the location. Apache Lake was long and majestic, and there seemed to be a spiritual presence in the air. I took it all in as I needed as much calming I could get.
I still was uncertain which route that I should take, but I wondered if the road towards Phoenix was in better condition, as it would have been the one more traveled. Should I risk the dirt road to Phoenix with the assumption that it was more roadworthy, or should I go back the longer but more familiar route? I needed more information, but there was none to be had.
I went to the lodge’s dining room and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was not alone. At another table were two “country” looking guys. Both appeared to be in their 40’s and were sporting similar goatees. They were wearing jeans and sturdy work-type boots. On their heads were camo colored ball caps, on their torsos they wore long-sleeved Tee styled shirts with a short-sleeved tee shirt pulled over the top.
In the past, I would have been too intimidated to approach them, especially since they had a rough look. However, their garb was similar to the dress of many guys that I see on construction sites, which gave them a familiarity. I boldly walked up to them, introduced myself, and started a conversation. They were very friendly and supportive. They told me that the road in either direction was equally terrible, but also noted that they had pulled a trailered boat on it the other day. This was another confirmation that Violet should be able to successfully get back to the highway if I drove her slowly enough. I decided to return the way that I came. Yes, it would make the overall drive longer, but the familiar factor would reduce my stress. I elected to wait until midday, as I thought the opposing traffic would be the lightest then.
Despite all of the cognitive efforts to neutralize my anxiety, I was still dreading the trip back to the highway. I wasn’t in the sheer panic that I had been in, but I was clearly outside of my comfort zone. I pulled myself into the driver’s seat, attached my iPhone to my dash phone holder, and turned the key. I was off.
I was glad that I chose the northern route when I started to recognize familiar landmarks, and I drove a full 5 miles in complete isolation. I took a sharp curve and faced another huge bus-sized RV approaching me. However, this time, I was more prepared as I knew that the road was two-way. The RV passed without incident. I qualified that encounter with the idea that this would be the only vehicle that I would see on the road so the rest of my trek would be clear sailing. At that moment another huge RV approached and drove past me, oh well. Eventually, I saw Roosevelt Dam in the distance. It’s massiveness frightened me the day before, but it now calmed me as I knew that I soon would be on paved ground. I stopped at the dam to take some photos and to catch my breath. My trauma was over.
Was my Apache Lake adventure worth it? I would say, “No.” The setting was beautiful, but the shear stress of getting there depleted any joy. Did my cognitive restructuring, internet research, and information gathering do the trick in calming me? Again, I would say, “No.” However, my efforts did reduce my anxiety and gave me more of an illusion of control over the situation. Therefore, those efforts served a useful purpose.
The reality, dear reader, is that sometimes you just have to do things that you don’t want to do. Sometimes you have to face your anxiety and move forward despite it. Life is not always easy, and to expect every day to be stress-free is not only unrealistic, but it is also unhealthy. Sometimes dealing with stress makes us grow and become stronger. Sometimes stress is just stress. That is the way life is.
As an aside, I found this quote from Theodore Roosevelt about the Apache Trail as I was getting some background for this post:
“THE APACHE TRAIL COMBINES THE GRANDEUR OF THE ALPS, THE GLORY OF THE ROCKIES, THE MAGNIFICENCE OF THE GRAND CANYON, AND THEN ADDS AN INDEFINABLE SOMETHING THAT NONE OTHERS HAVE, TO ME, IT IS THE MOST AWE-INSPIRING AND MOST SUBLIMELY BEAUTIFUL”
-THEODORE ROOSEVELT, 1911
Well…perhaps I could have enjoyed my adventure more if someone else was driving (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?).
I looked at the map and tried to find the most remote place on earth that seemed habitable. In my mind, that place was Baffin Island in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Vast and distant, it seemed to be the perfect spot. There I could be separated from the stress of negative interactions. I would pack all of my possessions with me. Books, electronics, scientific equipment, radios.
On Baffin Island, I would build a warm and secure cabin to protect myself from the elements. On Baffin Island, I could be myself.
Baffin Island was the mental place where I would go to as a child when I was feeling stressed or judged by the world and its people. This is where I would mentally travel when I was sick of acting a role so I could be accepted.
The power of a child’s fantasy is derived from the reality that it is not bounded by the constraints of logic. It is free-flowing with its only requirement being that it satisfies the needs of its creator, and Baffin Island was my fantasy. I knew that I was a loner, an introvert, a person who was happiest in his own thoughts. A person who was delighted to be left alone.
The preparations started months earlier, although I wasn’t sure what I was preparing for. I wrote pages of lists, watched dozens of YouTube videos, and mentally solved thought problem. I dug through my old camping gear, I gleaned gadgets from my electronics collections, I constructed things with the expert assistance of my friend, Tom.
I have come to believe that these actions were part of a greater coping strategy to deal with my internal anxiety. This statement seems strange, as I don’t consider myself to be an anxious person. I always could restructure my cognition, and when I face a stressful situation, I call upon that fundamental skill to calm myself and move forward. Yet, all of my preparation seemed to have a psychological motivation.
I also admit that I felt guilty about my plan to leave, but logically, I knew that I was adding only a few days to an already established trip. My feelings spawned out of causal comments that Julie said to me since I retired. “Did you have fun today?” She would ask when she got home from work.
I felt guilty that I had indeed had fun. A happiness based on no longer being responsible for the lives of others. A delight based on having the ability to do as I wished for once. I felt guilty that I was enjoying my freedom when she had many years of work ahead of her. I fully acknowledge that my interpretation of her comments was filtered by my personal assumption that the sole purpose in life was to produce.
The reason for my trip to Arizona was so I could clean my daughter’s college apartment and haul back the material contents of the last 4 years of her life. This act was productive, contributing, and even laudable. However, taking a few extra days to visit National Parks along the way was not. Logic told me that my actions were completely acceptable. I claim to be driven by logic, but I am actually ruled by my feelings, and those feelings made me feel guilty.
A psychological solution to my guilt appeared in the form of focused thriftiness. I decided that I would do whatever I could to reduce the cost of the trip and that somehow this action would justify those extra self-indulgent days. I would stay at National Park campsites. I would sleep and cook in my camper van. I would resist the temptation to buy unnecessary things. The thrifty strategy subdued my guilt, but that emotion was soon substituted with another even more ridiculous concern.
By coincidence random videos appeared on my YouTube homepage, most centering around bear attacks. There were instructional videos on how to protect yourself from maniacal bears. There were videos describing tales of loss of limb and life by grizzlies. There was even a video showing a bear using its massive claws to rip through a car door as quickly as one would poke a hole into a taut sheet of aluminum foil.
After watching a number of these videos, I told myself that enough was enough. I reminded myself that millions of people visit National Parks in any given year, and actual bear aggressions impacts a tiny percentage of those patrons. However, just to be on the safe side, I bought a canister of bear repellent and vowed to not smell like bacon when I was in bear country.
My trip preparation continued in earnest. I scoured the pantry for suitable camper food, and I made purchases of Knorr Sides and Spam Singles at the local market. I gathered my photography equipment. I filled my packing cubes with clothing. I put new batteries in my flashlight. There was nothing else that I could do, yet I continued to feel unsettled, and I didn’t understand why.
On the day of my departure, I found myself stalling to leave. Eventually, I pulled myself into my campervan’s cabin, buckled my seatbelt, and turned on the ignition. My solo trip was about to begin.
One mile became ten, ten became one hundred. I dug into my car food bag and munch on chips, mixed nuts, and Smart Pop popcorn. I calmed, but I still couldn’t understand what was really troubling me.
I traveled in external silence, thinking. I thought about making a helpful YouTube video for van dwellers. I plotted out the destinations of my trip. I remembered the contents of my cargo bins. And so it went.
My friend, Tom, would call to check on me, and I was happy about that. I would call Julie, and I was grateful that she seemed glad to talk to me, as I know she dislikes taking on the phone.
A conversation with one of my sisters here, a text message from one of my kids there, an encouraging Facebook comment or two. I was clearly looking forward to these interactions, and I was surprised how critical these touchpoints were for a loner like me.
I have never wanted masses of friends. I have never wanted to be popular. Such scenarios seem more exhausting than exhilarating. However, I cherish a small group of people. Those individuals represent my “Priorities,” and I will do whatever I can to make sure that I am there for them. However, traveling alone illustrated a second purpose to these relationships. Traveling alone had shown how imperative it is for me to be cared about by those who I care for. Traveling alone focused me on the reality that I need people in my life, and that it was the thought of separation from them that was the cause of all of my pre-trip anxiety. I find it curious that it is so easy for me to love, yet so difficult to imagine that others love me.
I don’t want to be cared for because of what I can do for someone, I have spent my life doing that. I don’t want to be included in a social circle only because I am entertaining, funny, or a good listener. Instead, I want to be loved and accepted for who I am. I want to be missed when I’m not around, and I want to be the source of excitement when I return on the scene.
During much of my life, I gained the acceptance of others by being whoever that person wanted me to be. Now, I want someone to see my soul and feel that I am good enough.
It brings me joy to comprehend that those people who I love also love me. As I write this, I am astonished by this realization, and eminently thankful for it.
On one phone call during my trip, Julie asked me if I was having a good time, and I told her, “Yes.” There are many positives when traveling solo. I set my own schedule and spend as much or as little time as I wish to do an activity. I can stay up as late as I choose, or go to bed as soon as I desire. These are wonderful things.
However, I did miss the lack of a traveling companion to share the wonders that I saw. Someone to be mutually amazed at the magnitude of the Great Sand Dunes, or to collectively wonder about the lives of the ancient Pueblo. I wanted to share a new sight, or a sunset, or conversation around a morning cup of coffee with someone that I care about. All of those activities seem sweeter when done with someone who you love.
This great adventure was an exercise in aloneness and was a success, but not the success that I initially imagined. Yes, I am perfectly competent by myself, but this trip illustrated to me how much I need others in my life, not to do for me, but to care for me. I am an introvert, but I’m not a loner.
As a child, I wanted to live on an island in isolation. As an adult, I realize the I am not an island unto myself. I still have much to learn about myself. Life lessons are everywhere. All I need to do is to stop and listen.
Today’s entry completes my holy trinity of kitchen appliances. If you have been reading my other post, you know that I believe that there are multiple solutions to most problems, and sometimes those solutions can be quite the opposite to each other. This philosophy is demonstrated by the next two appliances that accomplish a similar goal but in a different way. I consider them “twin” appliances, fraternal twins, that is.
The slow cooker
If there was one appliance that any kitchen should have it is the slow cooker. In its most elemental form, this gadget is simple, cheap and extremely versatile.
Slow cooking has been a staple of meal preparation for as long as there have been cooks. In Colonial times a Dutch Oven was filled with meat and vegetables and placed near an open fire to simmer for hours. More recent cooks use a heavy pan or cast iron casserole set in a low-temperature oven to accomplish the same effect. However, the above methods require some tending. Slow cookers can be left all day unattended without the worry of burning your food.
Irving Naxon is credited for the invention of slow cookers, whose conception was based on stories from his mother. She was a Lithuanian Jew and told him of a bean stew that she would prepare for the Sabbath. By religious tradition, she wasn’t allowed to cook on the Sabbath so she (along with her contemporaries) would assemble her stew in a heavy pot and take it to the local baker. He would place it in his oven, and its residual heat would slow cook her meal until the Sabbath’s supper.
With the electrification of the 20th century came many small electric appliances. In 1940 Irving patented an electric pot that mimicked the above cooking method and called it, the “Simmer Cook.” The Rival Corporation bought his company in 1970 and took this invention and re-labeled it as the “Crock Pot,” in 1971.
Initially, Crock Pots were marketed to women who were entering the workforce in higher numbers. They wanted a way to have dinner ready when they came home, and sales took off. Although the device was targeted at working women, it is also perfect for soccer moms, single men, or anyone else who cooks.
In its basic form, a slow cooker is a simple device. The classic design consists of an outer pot that has a heating element which surrounds its bottom circumference. A matching piece of crockery is placed into the outer container. There is a small gap between the two vessels. A switch controls the amount of current that is applied to the heating element, which in turn controls the temperature. On low most slow cookers reach a temperature of around 200F (90C), and on high the temperature is increased to approximately 300F (150C). Some cookers will also have a keep warm setting of around 160F. This setting should not be used for cooking as it does not reach temperatures high enough to cook food.
Slow cookers use very little electricity, and so they are very economical to operate. Also, most would consider them safe for unattended use. Their design is intended to provide slow continuous heat with minimal hot spots, so burning is typically not an issue in regular operation.
Most people know that slow cookers are great for tenderizing tough meat and making soups and stews, but they can do a lot more. Desserts like brownies and cobblers can be easily created. Julie makes a killer cinnamon roll dish that is delicious. Steel cut oats can be cooked overnight to a breakfast ready perfection. Lasagna (using uncooked noodles), Mac and Cheese, roasted chicken, apple sauce, some breads, and even pizza can be made in a slow cooker.
My interest in slow cooking took off when I was a single medical resident. I was at my grocer, and I came upon a Crock Pot for less than $10. It was a small 2.5 quart model with a non-removable cooking pot and simple two-stage control. I was already cooking my meals using other gadgets (like the microwave), but I felt that the little Crock Pot might offer increased utility, and I was correct.
On many mornings I would dump ingredients into the pot and head off for a long day at the hospital. On my return home I would be treated to the smells of home cooking and a warm meal. Many of my dinners used simple ingredients, but the process of slow cooking transformed them from ordinary to memorable.
Most slow cookers continue to use the simple design principles of the original design, but there are also many variations on this theme. In 2019 it is possible to buy a slow cooker for under $20 or to spend over $200 on one making such a purchase confusing to many consumers. I did a lot of research to come up with some guidelines for potential buyers, but I found so many conflicting “expert opinions” that an overall conclusion was impossible. Instead, I have tried to combine this information with my 40 years of slow cooker experience to point potential buyers in the right direction.
Time for Q & A!
What brand should I buy? Most small appliance manufacturers make slow cookers. It was not possible to come up with a clear winner or loser. Companies like Rival and Hamilton Beach make less expensive cookers. More expensive ones come from companies like KitchenAid and Cuisinart. These higher end brands may over a nicer finish (like stainless steel) and/or more features (like computer controls). I could find no evidence that they would have greater longevity. It is reasonable to assume that an original design cooker would outlast a more complicated microprocessor controlled device.
Should I get a removable inner pot? Rival introduced the removable inner pot in 1974, and most recent pots come with this feature, which makes it easier to clean. However, my original crock-pot didn’t have a removable inner pot, and it wasn’t a big deal to wash it after use.
What material should the inner pot be made of? Many reviewers cite the advantage of the heavy crock-like inner pot. They note that such a vessel acts like a heat sink that embraces its contents with heat without having hot spots. This makes perfect sense… but.
I bought our most recent slow cooker about five years ago at Walmart. It was a GE brand that has an aluminum inner pot. The cost of the gadget was under $30, and it is the best slow cooker that I have ever used. I have never had a hotspot or burn problem using it. To me, it seems that better design trumps conventional wisdom.
What size should I get? That depends on how much food you plan on making. The most popular family sized cooker is 6 quarts with an oval-shaped crock that fits cuts of meat nicely. When I was a single medical resident, I was quite happy with my 2.5 quart round pot.
Generally, for best results, your crockpot should be filled about two thirds. Too little and it won’t regulate the heat properly, too much and it will steam more than a simmer.
Do all pots use the same technology? No. Most follow the same concepts of the original design. However, some pots heat from the bottom, rather than the sides. Other pots use a thermostat and/or probe to regulate the temperature, and some pots offer various levels of computer programming. In theory, a thermostatically controlled container will provide more consistency, but I have had decades of successful results using basic models.
Should I get a pot that I can program or one that I operate with my smartphone? My current slow cooker has a few built-in programs. For instance, I can have it cook on high for an hour and then switch to low for the remaining cook time. I do use this feature, but Julie uses high and low settings.
I would not overbuy; an overly complicated pot may offer little extra benefit and could intimidate you from using it. What could be simpler than a three-way switch that says, “high, low, and off?”
Should I pop for extra features? Most are unnecessary. Some pots feature programming abilities that you will likely not use. Many stainless steel finishes are constructed of low-grade materials and don’t offer additional beauty over time. Multi-purpose devices often perform weaker than dedicated ones. One feature that I like is a locking lid. This is very useful if you transport your dish (think pot-lucks).
Can I use my multi-cooker as a slow cooker? Many electric pressure cookers offer a slow cook function with several heat settings. However, the highest setting is below the 300F of a typical slow cooker set at high. Besides, you will likely want to buy a glass lid to use instead of the pressure lid that comes with your cooker. The bottom line is that you can use your Instant Pot type device as a slow cooker, but a regular slow cooker will be more versatile.
At a low cost, a basic slow cooker is a handy, flexible and worthwhile device!
The fraternal twin to the slow cooker is the pressure cooker, made famous by the Instant Pot. Where a slow cooker uses low heat over a long time, the pressure cooker uses very high temperature over a short amount of time.
You may recall that water at sea level boils at 212F (100C). Any additional heat will not raise the temperature of the water beyond 212F, and the additional energy will result in higher production of steam. The atmospheric pressure determines water’s boiling point. If you live high in the mountains, the atmospheric pressure is less, and water will boil at a lower temperature. If you lived below sea level, the boiling point would be increased. A pressure cooker is a sealed vessel that builds pressure by heating liquid (water), and this simulates a pressure that is 1 bar higher than atmospheric pressure (15 PSI). At sea level, this causes water to boil at around 250F (121C) instead of 212F (100C). It is this higher temperature that causes food to cook faster.
With the recent Instant Pot craze, you may think that the pressure cooker is a new invention. In actuality, the pressure cooker was invented in 1679 by French physicist Denis Papin. Commercial pressure cookers were manufactured in Europe as early as the mid-1800s. US companies started to make pressure cookers in the 1930s, and the National Presto Company introduced their pressure cooker at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Pressure cookers are closed devices with a sealing gasket between a secured lid. On the top of the lid is a vent hole that has a pressure regulator placed on it. Units built during the WWII years were of inferior quality, which led to the reputation that pressure cookers were dangerous pressurized time-bombs. However, after the end of WWII quality improved and safety features were added making their rational use very safe.
When I was growing up, my mother used her stove-top Presto 4 quart pressure cooker several times a week. The unit was purchased in the early 1950s and was still in operation at my sister’s house until last year when it was finally destroyed by operator error. When a Presto reaches pressure, it indicates this by having the regulator rock to one side to release the excess steam. This steam-letting cycle jiggles the weight back and forth giving this type of pressure cookers the nickname, “jigglers.” Presto pressure cookers continue to use this type of pressure regulator to this very day. A variation on this theme is the Indian manufactured pressure cooker. This device also uses a weight system, but when the cooker reaches pressure it “whistles” with pressure releases. Second generation cookers (mostly manufactured in Europe) use a spring device instead of a weight. These cookers typically have a visual indicator that pops up when they reach pressure and (depending on the brand) may quietly hiss or be completely silent when operating.
In 1991 the electric pressure cooker was introduced. This plugin appliance initially used a manual timer, which was eventually replaced by digital controls. In 2008 Robert Wang of Canada developed the incredibly popular Instant Pot. His gadget is just a standard electric pressure that has a few other programmed sequences added. Many of them are simple timers for common foods like chicken. However, many cooks choose to set these times manually and avoid the pre-programmed buttons.
There are a few other pressure cooker programs that allow you to use these devices as non-pressurized pots. For instance, you can heat the cooking vessel to a low 110F to incubate cultured milk to make yogurt, or to around 200F so that your instant pot can act as a rudimentary slow cooker.
Most electric pressure cookers achieve a pressure between 10-14 PSI resulting in a lower cooking temperature than a stove-top pressure cooker. This fact means that it will take a bit longer for them to cook a dish. The bottom line is that if you are converting a pressure cooker recipe from a stove-top unit to a table-top one you will need to add some time and vice versa.
I have always had a stove top unit, and many years ago I bought my first electric unit, a Nesco. Although it didn’t have the yogurt function it did allow for both high and low pressure, could be set to brown/saute food, and to operate as a steamer and slow cooker. So programmable pressure cookers have been around for a long time, and Mr. Wang’s Instant Pot is just a variation of a theme. My Nesco went to its greater reward when its lid got damaged in a counter fall. It was replaced by a 6-quart Mealty model whose functions are very similar to the more famous Instant Pot.
Depending on the food a pressure cooker can shave two-thirds off the cooking time making it reasonable for the busy chef to make homemade stews, soups, and sauces. However, just like a slow cooker, you can make many types of food in a pressure cooker, including a killer cheesecake.
What size pressure cooker do I need? The most common size is 6 quarts and is suitable for most families. A popular size for singles and couples is between 3-4 quarts. With that said, home pressure cookers come in sizes that range from 1 quart to 8 quarts. If you need more capacity, you can purchase a canner, which is a pressure cooker used to can foods.
How high can I fill a pressure cooker? Just like a slow cooker you should only fill a pressure cooker about two-thirds full (less for certain foods like beans). However, the reason for this is different. If you overfill a pressure cooker, you can potentially block the vent tube which can cause improper cooking and the release of steam through the cooker’s emergency release system. Also, if you don’t have enough air space in the pot, you may not build an adequate amount of pressure.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of a stove-top pressure cooker? Stove-top units are relatively simple in construction and with proper care can last for decades. They cook at a full 15 PSI, which offers faster cooking times. Since they are heavy pots, they can also be used for regular cooking. Growing up we often used our pressure cooker (without the regulator) to pop popcorn. Its heavy bottom prevented popcorn burnage (no one wants that!).
A stove top unit may be slightly intimidating the first few times that you use it. However, once you are familiar with it using a stove-top pressure cooker is quite simple and safe. However, you shouldn’t leave it unattended.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of an electric pressure cooker? The Instant Pot has made pressure cooking fashionable, but its basic design has been around for decades. I read that its creator, Robert Wang spent 18 months perfecting the device which leaves me scratching my head as he took an existing product and added a couple more presets. However, I am grateful that his product has been so successful, as it has introduced pressure cooking to a new generation.
The main advantage of an electric pressure cooker is that you can set it and forget it. Push a few buttons, and the pressure cooker does the rest. After it is done cooking it will automatically go into a keep warm cycle. Amazing!
Electric pressure cookers have a few disadvantages from their stove-top siblings. They typically cook at a lower pressure (often 10-11 PSI) which means that you will need to cook your food for a bit longer. In addition, they are limited to household current at 120 volts (in the US), which reduces the amount of heat that they can produce. Therefore, if you are cooking something with a thicker liquid, it may burn on the bottom of the pan before the cooker can make enough steam to pressurize. On the rare occasion I have had to transfer my meal to a stove-top pressure cooker because of this.
What brand should I buy?
For a stovetop unit, Presto offers excellent value. Fissler is considered top-of-the-line, and Fagor provides quality at a decent price point. I have a Kuhn-Rikon Duromatic which I like. A stove-top unit could last you for the rest of your life if you properly take care of it.
As far as electric pressure cookers are concerned, I have used models from Instant Pot, Nesco, and Mealthy and performance among them appear similar. Also, several other brands seem to be made at the same Chinese factory. However, If you like accessories you may want to go with the Instant Pot as its popularity has caused third-party companies to make all sorts of gadgets for that brand.
Is it worth buying the top of the line electric model from a particular brand? I would suggest that you consider buying the base model as opposed to more expensive one as overall performance and functionality should be similar. Expect a much shorter lifespan for an electric pressure cooker compared to a stove-top unit as their more intricate design means that they have more components that can fail.
Do I need all of those functions/buttons on an electric pressure cooker? No. Most cooks avoid the pre-programmed buttons, and they enter times manually (which is super easy). Most pressure cookers will offer some non-pressure options. Some of these options include slow cook and a yogurt maker. If these are things that you want, then look for those buttons. However, it is easy to make yogurt without an electric pressure cooker, and a real slow cooker is much more versatile than the program built into electric pressure cookers.
What is the gasket, and why should I care? The gasket is a rubbery O ring that seals the lid to the pot which allows steam to build. My mother’s old Presto used a rubber gasket that would fail every few years. She would send me to the local hardware store to fetch a new one, and changing it out was a simple task.
New pressure cookers use silicone gaskets that are more durable and are less likely to retain odors. If needed, they are straightforward to replace. Just make sure that you get the gasket designed for your model. If you cook a lot of sweets in your pressure cooker (cheesecake and the like) you may want to consider getting a second gasket for them, so you don’t contaminate your treat with the taste of onions or garlic.
I always remove the gasket and hand wash it after use to increase its longevity.
Do pressure cookers explode? Pressure cookers made in the 1940s were constructed and designed poorly, and there were reports of the devices popping their lids and spraying the ceiling with their contents. However, for decades pressures cookers have been designed to higher standards and have incorporated safety features. If you follow your manufacturer’s directions, you need not worry. In almost 50 years of using a variety of pressure cookers, I have never had a pot flip its lid.
Are there things that I shouldn’t make in a pressure cooker? Pressure cookers use heat and liquid for cooking, so food will not brown in a pressure cooker. Also, heating a quantity of oil under pressure sounds like a horrible idea. Sometimes it is easier to use alternative methods. For instance, you can cook frozen vegetable in a pressure cooker, but it is easier to pop them in the microwave. Read the manual that came with your device and understand it for the best results.
Should I buy all of those accessories? Probably not. The majority of things that a pressure cooker cooks well requires no accessories. At times I have used a trivet in the bottom of the pot to keep a chunk of meat out of the liquids at the bottom. If you don’t have a trivet, you can improvise by using an inverted heat-proof saucer or a pot steamer insert.
Once you are familiar with cooking in your pressure cooker, you will know what types of dishes that you use it for. At that time you may consider one of the many dozens of accessories that are available.
Using a slow cooker and/or pressure cooker is a way to ease your cooking burden and to make it more likely that you will cook at home regularly. Start cooking!
Dear reader, I am about to embark on a trip where I will have little access to the internet. Therefore, it is likely that I won’t be posting for a few weeks. Spoiler alert: I think that I’m going to write about one more kitchen appliance that I find indispensable when I return from my trip. Since I have already written about my holy trinity of kitchen appliances, I’ll give this other gadget the designation of “Honorable Mention.”
This is another post on how you can save money by cooking at home. In this post, I’ll explore the second device in my holy trinity of kitchen appliances, the food processor.
The food processor was invented in 1971, and the original French design was refined and introduced to the US home market in 1973 and branded as the Cuisinart. Initial sales were slow, but they took off after an article in “Gourmet Magazine” praised the machine.
Within a few years, other small appliance manufacturers were selling their own versions of the device, some of them worked well, others less so.
In its basic configuration, a food processor resembles a squat blender, but it has a much broader base and larger/flatter S-shaped cutting blade. Its design is intended to work with more solid foods, where a blender excels at blending liquid foods.
The primary tool of a food processor is its cutting blade which can be used to chop, blend, puree, and do a variety of other tasks. Also, food processors come with disks that can be used to slice and shred foods. Most household food processors have a bowl capacity between 7 and 14 cups. Processing food is rapid, and in many scenarios, it is simple to do multiple batches in a smaller unit to achieve the desired quantity of product.
A sibling of the food processor is the food chopper. These gadgets look like baby food processors and typically have a bowl capacity of 1.5 to 3 cups. They don’t have the power or utility of a regular food processor, but they are small, inexpensive, lightweight, easy to store, and easy to clean. They are often used to chop softer foods and are great for chopping up vegetables for any dish that calls for them.
A food processor and/or food chopper are an essential small electric appliance in my kitchen, and I have both.
I am continually using my 3 cup Black and Decker food chopper to mince vegetables, nuts, and fruits for recipes. It is small, lightweight design makes it easy to grab from my cabinet, and its 3 cup size makes it very easy to clean. Since it has a limited capacity, it isn’t uncommon for me to run several batches to get the desired amount of chopped product, but since each batch only takes a few seconds, the process is hassle-free. I bought the Black and Decker almost 15 years ago for under 30 dollars. That is less than $2 for a year of use.
A decent food processor is significantly more powerful than a food chopper, and it is possible to perform many additional tasks because of this. Besides, a food processor comes with slicing and shredding disks which add to its utility. On the downside, a decent food processor is more expensive, bulkier, and a bit more challenging to clean than a little chopper. For simple jobs, I pull out the chopper, for larger and more complicated ones I use the food processor.
My history with food processing is long. Fascinated by the prospect of exploring a new gadget I purchased a Sunbeam model (when Sunbeam was still a respected company) in 1978 and quickly set myself the task to exploit the small electric to its full potential. After a few years, I wanted a Cuisinart, which was the state-of-the-art machine at the time. I combined my Christmas and birthday money with a stash of cash that had been saving for the purchase and bought a 14 cup Cuisinart DLC 7 SuperPro. Eventually, I saved for some of the accessory disks to see what they could do. I purchased this gadget when I was a poor medical student. Yes, I really love my gadgets! I used my DLC 7 for all sorts of tasks. In fact, I often used it to knead bread dough so I could have homemade bread.
The number of different processes that you can do in a food processor is impressive. Not only can you chop foods, but you can also make a cake, create nut butters, blend mayonnaise, puree soups, make salsa, shred cheese, slice tomatoes, and the list goes on.
When I married Julie over 25 years ago, we did some kitchen rearranging. She became our principle cook, and my Cuisinart was transferred to a shelf in the basement. After a few years, I bought a smaller Cuisinart 7 cup Classic Pro, which we have used ever since. Its lighter weight made it easier to grab from our lower cabinet, and its smaller size made it less intimidating. It has been a great machine that has served us well for decades.
I use my chopper and processor regularly. In the last week, I chopped up vegetables and shredded cheese. Julie finely chopped lemon peel for a cookie bar recipe. I grated Parmesan Cheese, made homemade biscuits, mixed cornbread, and this morning I blended flour, brown sugar, and butter to make a streusel top for an Easter morning coffee cake. With a food processor, you are only limited by your imagination. In fact, after St. Pat’s day I chopped leftover corned beef, potatoes, and carrots into a delicious corned beef hash.
Below are answers to some questions that I have been asked about food choppers and processors over the years. They may be helpful to you if you are considering purchasing one.
What brand should I buy? One reviewer may love a particular model, and another one may not. In general, the Cuisinart and Kitchenaid brands seem to be well regarded. If you have the cash, I would stick with a model from these lines.
The Hamilton Beach brand also has good reviews on Amazon and could be a budget option. Many years ago I bought a different Hamilton Beach model for the sole purpose of seeing how it compared with the more premium brands. The model had a large capacity (12-cup) and a high wattage motor. On the surface, it seemed to be the equivalent of a significantly more expensive Cuisinart. I found that it did a decent job at light duty tasks like chopping vegetables, and it was OK at shredding cheese. Cutting fat into flour for biscuits was a bit more challenging, but I did it. When I tried to make a small batch of pizza dough the machine really struggled. For comparison, my 7 cup and lower wattage Cuisinart has no problem doing any of these tasks.
As far as food choppers are concerned I would avoid no-name brands. Expect to pay $20-$30 for a 1.5 cup model and $20-$40 for one with a 3 cup capacity.
What capacity should I get? Experts recommend a capacity of 10-12 cups for the average family. However, I really love my 7 cup processor because it is smaller and easier to handle. If I need a ton of chopped veggies, I just do them in two batches. With that said, I now used a mixer when I make bread, cakes, and cookies. If my food processor was my lone appliance, I would probably opt for a larger size which would make it easier to make those items.
As far as a food chopper is concerned, I think that a 3 cup size works well for both singles and families.
How many features are needed in a food processor? A lot less than you think. You can accomplish just about any task with the S-blade and a couple of disks. Some processors will include a dough blade, which is helpful if your processor has enough power to knead bread dough (you can also just use the S blade). The more complicated your processor is to assemble or clean, the less likely you are to use it.
Cuisinart now sells a more budget-friendly line (Cuisinart Essentials) that gives you a lot more extras (like an adjustable slicing disk) than their more expensive models. These units have gotten good reviews, but they are mostly plastic (including the drive shaft) which could make them less durable. Some large capacity units have an additional small work bowl for tasks like chopping garlic. Other units have special and complicated attachments that let you do things like cube vegetables. If these functions are essential for you, go for it. However, I believe in KISS (keep it simple, stupid!).
Many years ago, my sister Nancy purchased an all-in-one kitchen gadget. It could be converted into a mixer, food processor, blender, juicer, and a few other things. I recall the two of us spending an extraordinary amount of time trying to figure out how to assemble the darn thing. The unit had a million little parts, and we kept on having to refer to the written instructions just to put it together. Needless to say, she never used it after its novelty wore off.
What is the most essential control on a food processor? The one button that you should remember is the pulse button. This control allows you to power the food processor in short bursts. Any kind of chopping should first be attempted using the pulse button.
How many speeds do I need? My Cuisinart has one speed, which works great. Some machines have a lower speed which is useful if you are new to food processing as you will be less likely to turn soft/wet veggies (like green peppers) into mush. However, once you get the hang of pulsing, one speed will do it. Having many speeds in a food processor just complicates things.
How should I clean my food processor? Most components are dishwasher safe, but I usually wash them by hand. Always clean the blade/disks by hand as washing in a dishwasher can dull them. Be careful, as they are super sharp.
Can I use my food processor as a blender? Well… sort of. You can undoubtedly puree soups and the like but follow the machines guidelines. My 7 cup machine can only handle 2 cups of liquid at a time before it leaks its contents all over the countertop. Some newer machines are designed to handle more liquid.
Technically, you could make a smoothie or milkshake in a food processor. However, a good blender would do a better job. If you attempt to do this make sure your bowl is perfectly clean. You don’t want your strawberry smoothie to takes like yesterday’s garlic chicken.
Can I whip egg whites or heavy cream in a food processor? Surprisingly yes (follow your machine’s instructions). However, you will probably get better results using a hand mixer.
Can I make cookies, brownies, and cakes in a food processor? Yes, although your method will be a bit different than traditional baking.
Can I knead dough in a food processor? Yes, but follow your machine’s instructions. My 7 cup machine can easily make dough enough for a pizza. In the past, I regularly made 2 loaves of white bread in my 14 cup Cuisinart. The end results were good, but I now make bigger batches and use different equipment. Lower quality machines will have difficulty with even small quantities of dough.
Are there foods that I shouldn’t process in a food processor? If a food it too hard to cut with a knife it is too hard to process in a food processor.
Can I make my own breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan Cheese, or cornflake crumbs in a food processor? We do it all of the time. The resulting product is not only cheaper also but tastes better.
Should I buy a professional unit? I think cooks often make the mistake of thinking that a professional cooking appliance (stove, fridge, small electric) is better than a residential one. A real professional device is typically designed for durability rather than convenience features. When a manufacturer labels a consumer level product as “professional,” it is done as a marketing strategy that is based on their opinion rather than any standardized specifications. Appliances modeled after professional ones can be a disadvantage to home consumers as they can be cumbersome, difficult to clean, and often take up an enormous amount of counter space.
What are the two biggest mistakes that cause undesirable results? Overfilling the bowl can cause uneven chops and may even stall the motor. Overprocessing can turn a mince into mush. A food processor is straightforward to use once you get the hang of it. When chopping always start with the pulse button.
I want one, but I don’t have a lot of cash. A food chopper or starter food processor is not very expensive, but if the cost is too high for your budget consider asking for one as a holiday/birthday gift. Also, remember that the small expense of buying one will be mitigated after a few home-cooked meals.
The secret to making cooking at home a regular event is to identify those tasks that serve as a barrier to doing this. When I’m in a hurry, I don’t want to spend the time preparing food and using a gadget to do this work gets me in and out of the kitchen faster.
An appliance is only useful if you use it. When we moved my original Cuisinart to the basement, it became a hassle to get it, and we mostly did without. If you have counter space, keep your appliance there. If you don’t, find a cabinet spot where you can easily access it. Make it a point to use your food processor, so it can be easily integrated into your daily cooking routine.
This is the next post in my series on how to save significant money by cooking at home. In this post, I will tell you that you should spend some money so you can save some money. A counter-intuitive idea to be sure.
Let me backtrack a bit first. You can cook almost anything with elementary and inexpensive cooking gear. In 2012 I had several recently divorced men in my psychiatric practice. When they moved from their homes into apartments, they knew to buy a couch, big screen TV, and other creature comforts. However, they purchased little to no kitchen equipment and spent what discretionary cash that they had on restaurants and fast food. I made a Saving Savvy video for guys in similar situations, and in it, I looked at the minimum equipment that they would need to go beyond reheating and to start cooking. I’ll link that video at the end of this post for those who are interested.
However, today my goal is to get you cooking, and the easier the process is, the more likely that you will not only try cooking but also sustain cooking. It is only when you do the latter that you will see the many benefits of cooking for yourself.
I am a gadget fanatic, and one of the activities that give me pleasure is exploring the pros and cons of electric and mechanical creations. Many years ago I bought a sewing machine. I can’t sew so such a purchase would seem odd on the surface. However, my buy was with intent, it was just that my purpose was different than the obvious. I wanted to understand how such a complex machine worked. It is with a similar zeal that I have explored the potential of small electric cooking appliances. How do they work? Are they worthwhile time savers or simply shelf warmers. What else can they do beyond their commonly used utility?
The microwave oven is one of the appliances in my holy trinity of necessary kitchen gadgets. If I were suddenly forced to leave my house with only the clothes on my back one of the first appliances that I would buy for my new dwelling would be a microwave oven.
The microwave oven is an amazing, versatile, and inexpensive appliance. Everyone knows that you can reheat leftovers and make bag popcorn in a microwave, but many believe this is where the device’s utility ends. This is not the case.
When I was a single resident, I discovered that a microwave oven could be used to make all sorts of food. Meats like fresh fish and chicken can be cooked to deliciousness. Vegetables can be done correctly. Baked items like muffins or cakes can be successfully created. Rice and pasta take about the same amount of time as on the stove, but you don’t have to watch the pot continually.
The process of microwaving is most similar to steaming, and so you can’t expect your foods to be brown, but there are many workarounds to make your dish look appealing. However, since a microwave is super quick, it is not the right choice for foods that require long/slow cooking to tenderize (like stews).
Smaller amounts of food cook quicker than larger amounts making the microwave perfect if you are preparing for one or two. A microwave can be a kitchen in a box if you live without a formal kitchen.
When microwaves were new and expensive, they came with thick cookbooks that not only were chocked full of recipes but also had a lot of useful general information on cooking methods. Unfortunately, newer microwaves usually just come with minimal information. It is definitely worth your while to learn basic microwave cooking techniques. Buying a microwave cookbook or researching on the internet can be the right places to start.
As amazing as microwave ovens are the device has detractors. Some dislike them because they expect a microwave to do things (like brown foods) that it is incapable of. Others have a fear that microwaves are bad for you. This latter group often sites information whose only authority is a rumor. The next section of this post tries to address some of the concerns that people voice when it comes to microwave cooking.
Search the internet for the dangers of microwave ovens, and you will come across countless “authoritative” sites that say the wildest things. Here is just one quote from a website called “Health-Science.”
Continually eating food processed from a microwave oven causes long term, permanent, brain damage by “shorting out” electrical impulses in the brain [de-polarizing or de-magnetizing brain tissue]
Now, someone is going to read this and believe it. I’m telling you that as a physician the above claim is not only ridiculous, it also makes no medical sense.
Let’s spend a little time talking about the science behind the microwave oven and some of the common concerns about cooking with this device.
Microwaves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Various parts of this spectrum include radio waves, visible light, and ultraviolet light. When living tissue is directly exposed to concentrated electromagnetic energy, it can be damaged. An example of this would be getting sunburned from spending too much time in the sun. However, we are continually exposed to a lower level of this energy daily, besides, many of the devices that we use create this type of energy. Your cell phone, your computer, your radio, and your TV are just a few examples of devices that generate low levels of electromagnetic radiation. No one would advise you to directly expose yourself to highly concentrated microwave energy. Microwave ovens contain this energy in the cooking chamber, which is a metal box. Your smartphone exposes you to significantly more microwave energy than any microwave oven.
Microwaves heat food mostly by energizing the water molecules in the food. The active water molecules start to vibrate and rub against each other. This movement creates heat by friction, just like rubbing your hands together creates heat by friction. It is this friction heat that actually cooks your food. Most other cooking sources (like your stovetop) provide energy indirectly to the food which makes these devices less efficient and slower. Since the power is applied directly to the food the only residual heat in the oven is a byproduct of the hot food, as opposed to a heated cooking element (like the burner on a stove).
Let’s explore some common microwave oven concerns:
Microwave ovens cause cancer FALSE I have heard many variations on this theme, but the basic idea is that foods that are microwaved cause cancer. I think that this idea is because folks are confused by the term “ microwave radiation.” Radiation just refers to how energy (or particles) are emitted. The sun radiates heat, a radio tower radiates radio waves, and so forth. Nuclear radiation is very different from microwave radiation, and it is dangerous because it contains so much energy that it is ionizing, and can damage cell components like DNA. Microwave energy is non-ionizing, and its effects on food are just to cook it like any other source of heat.
Microwave ovens denature the protein in foods TRUE I read a blog where a woman refused to use a microwave because she understood that cooking food in a microwave denatures the food’s proteins. This is absolutely true, and on the surface, it sounds scary, but it isn’t at all. Proteins are twisted chains of amino acids. Heat in any form can untwist these chains to some degree which changes their properties. When you fry an egg on the stove the albumin protein in the egg white is denatured and goes from transparent and liquid to white and solid. Denaturing is what cooking is all about and is in not exclusive to microwave ovens.
Microwave ovens destroy the minerals and vitamins in foods. MOSTLY FALSE When we talk about the minerals that we need to survive, we are mainly referring to salts of elements like calcium or magnesium. These type of elements are fundamental, and they do not change.
Vitamins are organic compounds needed for healthy cell metabolism. Prolonged heat can destroy vitamins, and any cooking method has this potential. However, since microwaves tend to cook faster than other cooking methods they actually can have a less adverse impact on vitamins than other cooking methods.
Microwaves don’t brown food TRUE Microwave ovens produce heat by energizing water molecules which then vibrate and create heat by friction. This process is similar to steaming food and does not provide the dry heat that is needed to brown. There are many tricks that a cook can use to make a microwave cooked food look more appetizing. Coating chicken with BBQ sauce, topping a meatloaf with catsup, using a naturally dark cake batter (like chocolate), or running the cooked food under a broiler for a few minutes are just some of the techniques.
Microwave ovens don’t cook evenly TRUE The pattern of microwaves in a conventional home oven is uneven which is why most microwaves have rotating platters. However, you still may need to stir food or rearrange items during the cooking process to have them cook more evenly.
Microwave ovens cause EMF (electromagnetic field?) sickness FALSE I read a post on a website that said that microwave ovens caused EMF sickness and listed a bunch of generic malaise symptoms (like fatigue). Remember, that microwave ovens are designed to be a Faraday cage (a device that does not let electromagnetic waves out). Cooking a frozen burrito is considerably different than working on a microwave transmission tower!
It is dangerous to cook chicken in the microwave FALSE Just like in any other cooking method you need to make sure that chicken cook to the proper temperature and then is allowed to rest for a bit before eating. I could find no credible reports that could confirm that properly cooking chicken in a microwave was dangerous.
Microwaved baby formula is bad for the baby TRUE…but It is not recommended that you warm up a baby’s bottle in the microwave. This is because microwaves heat unevenly and portions of the milk could be overly hot.
Microwave ovens can cause heart attacks FALSE Decades ago you would see signs around public microwaves warning pacemaker wearers about the danger of being too close to a microwave. Since 1971 all microwaves have to meet stringent guidelines as far as microwave emission, and the FDA now advises against such warnings.
We are surrounded by sources of electromagnetic radiation from devices that range from your cell phone to your computer. Modern pacemakers are very shielded from external sources of radio waves, so don’t worry.
What about microwaves causing heart attacks? I think that non-experts made the wild leap between the old pacemaker warnings and myocardial infarctions. There is no link.
Microwave ovens are dangerous for pregnant women and can cause infertility in men. FALSE This rumor exists because strong EMFs may have a negative effect on developing babies and may cause a reduction in viable sperm counts. Remember, microwave ovens are basically Faraday Cages, they don’t release EMF. Typing with your laptop on your lap is potentially a much higher source of EMF for those regions, but before you get too concerned about this, there isn’t good evidence to support even these claims. Don’t worry, be happy.
Microwaved water kills plants. FALSE True urban legend. By the way, why would anyone microwave water for plants anyway?
Whether you choose to use a microwave or not is up to you. However, make your decision based on fact, not fiction. In our house, the microwave oven is a constant and convenient appliance that makes our daily cooking chores easier and faster.
In the year 1900 less than two percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010 more than fifty percent were. Less than one-third of all families will sit down together for a meal more than 2 times a week. Forty-six percent of Americans eat their meals alone.
Research has shown that people who cook/eat at home are happier, eat fewer calories, and consume less sugar than those who eat out. Eating as a family improves family communication and cooperation. Children feel more emotionally stable when their family eats together at home.
Preparing your food at home can save significant money. If you use a restaurant delivery service, you may be paying up to five times the cost of making the food yourself. The simple act of bringing your lunch, as opposed to buying your lunch can save the average person up to $2000/year. Even fast food dining is significantly more expensive than making your meals from scratch. Food prepared at home can be customized to your particular needs, and cooking simple meals is not only delicious; it is easy.
With so many reasons to cook why is it that so many people choose to eat out? Lack of time seems to be a significant factor. If you work more than 35 hours per week, you are less likely to cook: if you have a long work commute you are also less likely to cook. In addition, the less you cook, the less likely you are to cook. This latter fact may be due to lack of skill, confidence, available staple ingredients (an empty pantry), or cooking equipment.
Julie was our main chef when the kids were younger. She eventually returned to the paid workforce, and our dinners were transformed from homemade to frozen pizza, fast food, and delivery. Our kids were in an uproar, as they sorely missed home cooking. After some thought I took on the cooking challenge with one caveat, I would not do it alone, I would also teach my kids how to cook, and this is how “Cooking with Dad, Thursday,” started.
I have to admit that I had some initial fear about returning to the kitchen, and it did seem overwhelming in the beginning, but I eventually got my sea legs. What seemed difficult soon became second nature, and it has been fantastic fun to cook with my children. We plan our meals, shop, prepare, and clean up together. Over the last 4 years my kids have become both confident and competent in the kitchen.
It is important to remember that cooking becomes more comfortable over time. With experience, you understand what to look for when you prepare a dish. Don’t be discouraged if your first few attempts don’t go as you had planned.
Here are some suggestion to help you transition from being a meal buyer to a meal creator. The ideas below can benefit you if you are cooking for one, or an entire family.
Buy a basic cookbook Why buy a cookbook in a world of internet recipes? General cookbooks are full of information for a new or returning cook. They define cooking terms (do you know the difference between mince and dice?). They educate you about the different cuts of meat. They show you what to look for when a dish is done, and much more. Also, their recipes are pretty foolproof, and they generally use readily available ingredients. I like the general cookbooks from Better Homes and Gardens and Betty Crocker.
Follow the recipe When you are just getting back into cooking, try to follow the recipe for the best results. Once you get comfortable with cooking, feel free to substitute, add, or omit as you see fit.
Have the right equipment You only need basic equipment to cook just about any dish. In my next post, I’ll explore that equipment, and I’ll also look at small appliances that could ease your workload and speed up your prep-time.
Gain cooking skills. Practice is the most critical factor here. For additional understanding read your cookbook, watch YouTube videos, or ask your mom (or dad).
Have the ingredients When you start to cook, you may become discouraged with the lack of ingredients that you have on hand. Purchasing your initial stockpile of staple items like spices, flour, oil, and sugar all at once can make it seem like cooking at home is more expensive than going out to eat. However, it is important to remember that you are stocking up. Staple items go a long way and make many meals. Buy only the basics at first, and build your larder a little at a time to reduce sticker shock.
Start simply Instead of immediately committing to making three meals a day, seven days a week, start slowly. Commit to cooking one or two days a week. Or consider only making breakfast at home, or packing a lunch every day. As you gain confidence and efficiency expand your cooking commitment to other days or meals.
Have a plan To arrive at a destination, it is always best to know where you are going. Devise a workable meal plan. One option could be to eat a particular category of food based on the day of the week. Taco Tuesdays, Pasta Thursdays, Soup Saturday, etc. Having a little structure makes weekly planning much more manageable.
Understand yourself Can you eat the same thing for lunch and dinner? Can you eat the same meal 4 days in a row? Know your personal preference, so you don’t waste food. If you hate eating the same thing several days in a row freeze your leftovers for a future meal. If you can eat the same food every day, make a big batch one day and reheat and relax on the other three.
Divide and conquer You can save money by baking an entire chicken, but only if you don’t eat the whole bird in one sitting. When I was a resident physician, I had almost no money. I had to make every penny stretch, and I had a minimal food budget. I didn’t have the money to prepare food in quantity, but in those days there weren’t any cookbooks out there for single people. However, there were some books for cooking for two. I would make a double meal portion and immediately split the second half of it into a Tupperware container that would go in the fridge. The next morning I took that half to work for my lunch. I had a great meal that not only saved me money, but it took almost no time to prepare.
Don’t leave leftovers in the fridge with the idea that you will eventually eat them, plan ahead. Consider dividing up your leftovers in microwaveable containers. Some can be refrigerated for successive days, other portions can be frozen. Consider other uses for your leftovers. That leftover roasted chicken can be portioned off for a casserole meal, and its carcass could serve as a base for a soup to be served at another time.
Save money with combinations Just about every culture has delicious ways to stretch meat. Soups, casseroles, stews, and stir-fries are just some examples. You should try to employ these foods in your meal plan. They are easy to make, ingredient flexible, and soul-satisfying. Some of my absolute favorite meals growing up were combination foods.
Learn the art of the sandwich A cheese sandwich is OK, a grilled cheese sandwich is yummy, a grilled cheese, ham, and tomato sandwich is a dinner.
Consider breakfast for dinner Breakfast food cooking is easy and straightforward. There is no reason that you can’t have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner, or homemade waffles, or French Toast. My kid’s absolute favorite meal that Julie makes is Swedish pancakes (crepes). Making them is labor intensive, but dirt cheap.
Consider alternative breakfasts Sugary cereal in a bowl is… well, it is crap. You can eat anything for breakfast, including yesterday’s leftovers. Some simple, cheap, and quick options include: quick oatmeal (not instant) made by the bowl in the microwave in under two minutes, or apples with peanut butter, or toast with peanut butter and banana, or scrambled eggs (which can be done in a cup in the microwave if you are making a single portion), or homemade muffins or quick bread… and the list goes on.
Make meat a condiment Meat is costly, and we all probably overeat the stuff. You can reduce the amount of meat that you use in a combination dish and still have a great dinner. Hamburger is the perfect meat stretcher as it can be combined with other ingredients to create meatloaf, meatballs, and a hundred different dishes.
Consider meatless meals I grew up Catholic, and in the day we weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays. This never posed a problem as my mom had dozens of delicious meatless recipes that ranged from mac and cheese to homemade mushroom soup. Consider making one or two days a week meatless. You will have a more varied diet, and save some money.
It is OK to substitute once you have a little cooking experience Don’t have noodles? Toss in rice, or broken up spaghetti into your homemade soup. Out of fresh vegetable for your casserole? Consider using a bag of frozen. No one is the boss of you!
Ponder having a prep day A lot of people who regularly cook will prep on Sunday. They may prepare a big pot of something or a large casserole that they can serve for several meals the following week. Conversely, they may freeze some of it, so they have a stockpile of food at the ready. Others will prep up ingredients that can be combined into many different dishes. They may brown hamburger, or cook up chopped vegetables to use during the week as a base for other recipes.
Use it up Before you go shopping, shop your fridge and pantry first. Plan your meals on what you have. If something is still good, but nearing the end of its prime make sure that you cook it and not waste it. Items like somewhat stale bread can be converted into breadcrumbs, croutons, or French Toast. Overripe bananas can be quickly turned into banana bread. Softening veggies can be tossed into a soup or stew.
Avoid portion distortion Know what a regular portion/meal is and try to stick to that amount. You will not only save money, but you will be healthier.
Learn how to bake Baking is simple and rewarding. Don’t pay $3 for a muffin or cupcake, make them for pennies. When I stopped eating concentrated forms of sugar a few years back, I stopped eating muffins. However, I missed them, and so I found a variety of excellent muffin recipes that were no sugar added. I would make a dozen and freeze them. In the morning I would take out one or two and give them a quick zap in the microwave. They tasted like they were just baked and I had my muffin fix.
You can make cookies and freeze them in portion sized ziplock bags. You can also freeze the raw cooking dough in cookie-sized balls on a cookie sheet. Once frozen place the balls in ziplock bags. Take out what you want and bake… instant goodness.
I read a post from a mother who would make triple batches of cookie dough which she would freeze into cookie balls. Every day, when her son came home from school, she would take out a few and bake them in a toaster oven. Her son had freshly baked cookies every single day. I’m sure that she was mother of the year in his mind.
Consider cooking entirely from scratch at times Sometimes it is clearly cheaper and/or more flexible to make a dish entirely from scratch. Sometimes it is just more convenient to use some prepared foods in your recipe (like condensed soup), and the cost difference isn’t that great.
Find your comfort level. However, the advantage of thoroughly cooking from scratch lies in basic ingredients. If you have flour, you can make cakes, cookies, gravy, bread, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, muffins, and dozens of other things. If you have a cake mix you can just make a cake (yes, I know that you can mod cake mixes… but, hopefully, you get my point).
Singles, be kind to yourself If you are a solo eater, it has been shown that singles who eat out tend to lack core nutrient foods like vegetables and fruits. Do yourself a favor, and start cooking!
As I mentioned above, I cooked most of my meals when I was a single medical resident. I found ways to streamline the cooking process, and I think that I ate better than most of my more affluent cohorts. I learned a lot of tricks to accomplish my cooking goal. If I needed a little hamburger for something, I would defrost and crumble a frozen hamburger patty. I became a competent crockpot cook. I found that I could cook surprisingly good food in a microwave (no kidding). I would make extra of inexpensive accompaniments, like rice, and use them in future dinners so I could save prep time. Solo cooking doesn’t have to be a drag.
No kitchen, no problem! I’m trying to reduce my grocery bills because I’m retired, and would prefer to spend my money on other things. However, for many spending less on food isn’t an interest, it is a necessity. If you are on a limited budget, you may also have a compromised housing situation. You may be renting a room, or live in a makeshift basement apartment. Perhaps you reside in a tiny studio flat that only has a mini-fridge and a microwave. You can still make your own food using the cooking equipment that you have or by purchasing some inexpensive small electric appliances.
A while back I read a blog about a woman who lived in a very tiny NYC studio. She didn’t have a kitchen, but she did have a few very inexpensive appliances. She had a hot plate, a small rice cooker, a coffee pot, a toaster oven, a dorm style fridge, and a small microwave. Her building’s wiring was so old that she could only run one appliance at a time or she would blow a fuse. She would typically make enough food for 5 days in one sitting.
On the particular week of her post, she had tofu scramble with sautéed onions and peppers for breakfast. She pre-cooked the vegetable and portioned out the tofu so she could quickly fry up a daily hot breakfast. For lunches, she premade a mock tuna sandwich filling, which she then loaded onto her bread on the morning of use. Her dinners that week consisted of a homemade stir fry accompanied by rice. Five portions of her stir fry were divided into Tupperware, as were 5 portions of cooked Jasmine rice. Lastly, she made a pot of coffee and stored it in her fridge for a daily morning cup. She had a very tiny sink in her bathroom (and no kitchen sink), so she washed her dishes in the shower. Her example may be extreme, but it does illustrate that if you have a will, there is a way. She was able to eat vegetarian, shop at Whole Foods, and stay on budget.
Small electric appliances make it possible to cook for one, or a crowd. Every year I cook our Thanksgiving turkey in a Nesco Roaster, and we have anywhere from 15-20 people for dinner. Using the roaster frees up our oven for all of those yummy side dishes.
Mindset matters If you think of cooking as drudgery, it will become drudgery. Find the cooking style that works best for you. Listen to music or a book on tape while you are preparing food to make the time fly. Prep with someone and turn cooking into social time. Celebrate the fact that you are eating fewer preservatives. Think of cooking as a job where you get paid (by saving money) instead of paying out more cash for cold carryout. You won’t need to work that second job because you will be spending less.
Reassess You may come up with a great plan, but a theory is different than practice. If something doesn’t work, feel free to change it.
Progress not perfection As I have said in previous posts, we are not perfect, and we don’t live in an ideal world. Any changes that you make are good. If you go from always eating out to making dinner two nights a week (even if one of those nights is leftovers), you will save money. If you go from always buying lunch to packing a lunch, you will save money. Just do something!
This is part two of my series on reducing your grocery costs.
I returned to cooking regularly a couple years ago. A few years before then I decided to make dinner for two of my kids. I found an interesting recipe on the internet, and I planned some side dishes. I went to our local Jewel grocery store to buy my ingredients. The dish required unusual olives, special spices, and choice meat. I also bought bread crumbs, fresh vegetables, and Parmesan cheese for a side dish. I purchased salad fixings, French bread, and a frozen appetizer. The grocery bill was about $85, and I recall thinking at the time, “Wow, we could have gone out to dinner for this price!”
I had always thought that making food at home was less expensive than going out. However, my above experience seemed to prove me wrong.
Is it less expensive to eat out? I consulted with multiple sources when I was writing this post, and the consensus is clear. It is significantly less costly to make your own food than to eat out. This fact is true whether you are eating in fine restaurants, or buying fast food. Also, in many, but not all cases making food from scratch is less expensive than buying it partially prepared.
So why was my dinner so expensive? The recipe that I chose used a lot of ingredients that were exotic and expensive. Items, like one use spices and other unusual ingredients, were purchased and their remains were never used again. Instead of seeing what things we already had that could be substituted, I went out and bought everything new.
I think the above is a common problem for people who think of cooking as a special occasion event. However, if you do a little planning, you can save significant cash by cooking at home.
In my last post, I talked about saving over 20% of your food cost by not wasting food. In this post, I’ll explore ways to reduce your grocery bill directly. I’m sure that you have heard some of these ideas before. My effort is to put them together in one convenient post.
As humans were are imperfect. We don’t need to be perfect shoppers to save money. Pick and choose from the following tips that fit your own personality and style. Feel free to add and subtract from these suggestions. Remember, any positive change in behavior will yield more money in your pocket, and it is better to make a few lasting changes than to attempt radical changes that you won’t sustain over the long run.
To coupon or to not coupon? That is the question. My wife sometimes uses coupons, but I rarely do. Yet, coupons can be a useful way to stretch your grocery dollar. It makes the most sense to save coupons for items that you regularly use. Use a paper clip to secure them to your grocery list, so they are at the ready.
Cycle your way to savings. Grocery stores rotate sale prices on food items in a 6-week cycle. If you can learn about your store’s sales cycle, you can save some extra cash. Non-perishable items are easy to stock up on. You don’t need to buy a case of pasta sauce to save money, you can still benefit from just buying an extra jar or two when they are on sale.
It’s OK to be at a loss. A loss leader is a sales strategy where a store will actually lose money on a food product in the hopes of attracting customers who will come in and then buy other more costly items. Sometimes a loss leader may be constant, like an always low price on milk or eggs. Customers may think that the other foods in the store are at bargain prices and transfer their grocery shopping to that store.
Sometimes loss leaders are temporary or seasonal. I recently went to the store to buy corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day, and I was happy to find great prices on most of the items needed to make that traditional dinner. If I had chosen to do so, I could have picked up another bargain corned beef brisket to pop in my freezer for a later date.
Become avoidant. A surprising amount of floor space in a grocery store is utilized for non-food and junk-food items. Products like dish soap and garbage bags can usually be found cheaper at big box stores. Junk foods like chips, soda, and other snacks can occupy more floor space than staple items, and their purchase can quickly escalate your check out bill. If you don’t go down an aisle, you can’t buy the things in that aisle.
Take a kiddie holiday. If possible, shop without your kids as they secretly work for grocery stores, and will do anything possible to get you to buy things that you don’t need.
Never wear a “growl” fit when you go shopping. If your stomach is growling, you will buy more. Never go hungry to the grocery store!
Pen your grocery dreams. One of the most important things that you can do to save money is to write a shopping list and stick to it. Studies have shown that if you do this, you will spend much less. If you are like me, you won’t be in the embarrassing situation of going to the store for a gallon of milk and returning home with $100 of groceries and forgetting the milk!
Using a list forces you to check your onboard house supplies. Using a list makes you do at least some meal planning. Using a list protects you from impulsive purchases.
All rules don’t apply to you. Certain processed foods can actually be less expensive than some unprocessed foods. Frozen vegetable and frozen fruit can be significantly cheaper than their fresh versions. In some cases, they may be more nutritious as they are quickly processed and haven’t spent long periods degrading in a warehouse or on a shelf. Canned fish is much less expensive than fresh fish. Canned vegetable, including canned tomatoes, can also be real bargains.
However, you still need to be a savvy shopper. Basic frozen kernel corn may be downright cheap, but your price advantage could disappear when you opt for the same item upscaled with butter sauce or other additions. Stick with the unadulterated version for the best price and the greatest flexibility. Another great thing about frozen produce is that you can use only what you need, and reseal the bag for another day.
Back to basics. Some fresh vegetables and fruits and always good values. Bags of Russet Potatoes, broccoli, onions, sweet potatoes, carrots, green cabbage, bagged spinach, and butternut squash are usually economical. Bananas, oranges, frozen berries, cantaloupe, kiwis, and apples can also be good values.
I love Honeycrisp apples. Unfortunately, they cost about $3 a pound where I live. I did a Google search to find apples that are similar to Honeycrisp, and several other varieties popped up. One of them was Fuji apples, which happened to be on sale for $0.99 a pound at my local market. In other words, they were one-third the price. Are they as good as Honeycrisp apples? No, but they are not bad either.
Staples-that was easy! Flour, sugar, cooking oil, and other stables are inexpensive. You should have them on hand as they are the foundation of many meals. Beyond the price, I find little difference between the house brand and the name brand.
Other essential items like milk and eggs are real bargains at most stores. Dried pasta is often a dollar a box. Foods like oatmeal, rice, and dried beans/lentils are super values. Although canned beans are cheap, dried beans are more economical. Cook them in a slow cooker overnight and portion/freeze them for future meals.
Say cheese! Cheese is a beautiful addition to many dishes. Check prices, but you can usually save money by buying it in a block and cutting/shredding it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese is usually dryer, less flavorful, and has cellulose added (think wood) to prevent it from clumping in the bag. If you love a particular type of cheese, consider buying it at a warehouse club. My friend, Tom loves Gouda and buys a big wedge at Costco for roughly the same price as a little slice at the grocery store.
Where’s the meat? One great way to save on meat is to eat less of it (more on this in a later post). Beef is usually the most expensive meat, followed by pork then chicken. You can sometimes save money by cutting up meat yourself. A whole chicken can be less costly than the sum of its parts, but make sure you check the price per ounce first. Remember, it is often possible to substitute one meat for another.
On a recent shopping trip, I picked up a package of turkey lunch meat for my son. One pound was over $5. Thirty feet away was a freezer case filled with frozen turkey breasts at $2.50 a pound. It is easy to put a thawed turkey breast in a crock-pot and let it cook on low for 5-6 hours (or until done). Some of the breast can be carved for sandwich meat, some cubed for a salad or an easy stir fry, some can be shredded for bbq chicken sandwiches, and so forth. Freeze what you won’t consume in few days in meal-sized portions.
I just watched a video where a woman purchased a ham for less than a dollar a pound. In 17 minutes she cut it up into 11 potential meals for her family. She had slices for sandwiches, cubes for main courses, crumbles (remnants) to add to eggs, and the ham bone to make a bean dish. Each meal size portion was sealed in a Zip-Lock bag, and all of the bags were kept together in a larger Zip-Lock bag. By immediately portioning out her food she assured herself that none of it would go to waste.
The above technique can be applied to any other “bulk” purchase. I bought a large package of chicken thighs in preparation for making homemade soup. Half of the chicken was kept in the refrigerator for the soup, and the other half was frozen for a future meal. Total time for me to split the chicken up? About 3 minutes.
Bulk up Many stores now have aisles of bulk food where you can buy the exact amount of an item that you need. Also, prices can be less, and you avoid a lot of random packing. These aisles are great for singles or couples who often have limited space, limited money, and limited time.
Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink? Water is good for you, and it is free! You don’t need to buy exotic sounding bottled water that has its true origins in a municipal water supply. If you don’t like the taste of your water consider using an inexpensive filter to de-funk it.
According to a 2016 US Department of Agriculture study, Americans spend more money on soft drinks than any other food item. People may be drinking less soda, but they have replaced it with special waters, and other expensive non-alcoholic drinks. In this category, I would also include a lot of fruit juices, which are basically sugary flavored water. Giving up pop could save you over 7% of your yearly food bill!
Store crazy. Where you shop can have an impact on the overall cost of your groceries. Where I live, we have costly stores (like Whole Foods and Standard Market), expensive stores (like Jewel) and less costly stores (like Aldi, Walmart, and Costco). Baring a discussion on quality differences, if you want to save money shop at a less expensive store.
You can save money even if you shop at only one store, especially if you get to know that store’s sales cycles. However, you may save even more money by shopping for the best values between two stores. In our area, a local greengrocer chain (Fresh Thyme) offers great produce, which is often on sale. Costco is fantastic if you want a bargain broasted chicken, large quantities, or convenience foods like a stack of frozen pizzas. Walmart and Aldi are the places to go for cheap basic groceries in more normal sized quantities.
Be agnostic…brand agnostic. You may like the taste of a particular brand. However, if you stretch your taste boundaries a little, you can save big money. We sometimes used condensed mushroom soup as a base ingredient in casseroles and slow cooker meals. Campbell’s Mushroom soup is an economical 0.99 cents a can, but the Walmart version is an incredible $0.50 a can. When all the other ingredients are added, no one will know that you went with the house brand.
I eat an enormous amount of peanut butter. I buy large jars of the house band at around seven cents an ounce. The brand name versions range from nine to thirteen cents an ounce, and the gourmet premium peanut butter is an astounding fifty cents an ounce! I’m sure the gourmet brand tastes better, but not seven times better.
Expand your vision. Grocery stores place more expensive items at eye level and cheaper items above or below eye level. If you want an in instant bargain look up or down.
One ounce at a time. Packaging is often deceptive, and a box’s size is not a reliable indication of the volume of its content. Most stores will list a price per ounce (or unit) of a product which allows for easy cost comparison. If your store doesn’t do this just use the calculator function on your phone. Divide the cost of the item by the total ounces. Lower is cheaper.
Best value and cheapest cost have different meanings. Sometimes the cheapest isn’t always the best. I recently bought a very inexpensive dishwashing liquid. It smelled good and was nice and thick. Unfortunately, it didn’t do a perfect job cleaning, and I had to use almost triple the amount to clean the same number of dishes as I would have used with a better product.
When I was growing up, I recall my father buying an entire case of an off-brand canned spaghetti. In those days I liked the Chef Boyardee stuff for lunch. The off brand that he bought was absolutely terrible, and I wouldn’t eat it (which is saying a lot). It would have been much better to have just waited for a sale on the brand name.
Spice up your life. The use of herbs and spices can turn a mundane dish into a memorable one. However, spices can be expensive. You can often find a better price by buying the same seasoning in the store’s ethnic aisle. Likewise, ethnic stores can be an excellent resource for spices. Avoid buying spices in a giant container from places like Costco. Will you really use all of that nutmeg? Spices in bags can be significantly less expensive than the same quantity in a cute little bottle.
Learn to substitute. Fresh spices taste great, but you can certainly use dried ones with good results. Remember that dried spices are more concentrated, so only use about ⅓ the amount that you would use for fresh. You don’t have Italian Seasoning? Use some Oregano. Out of garlic? Substitute some garlic powder (not garlic salt).
Spice/seasoning combination products are often more expensive and more specialized than individual spices. If possible, stick to the basics for greater flexibility and cheaper costs. Do you really need to buy cinnamon sugar when you can make it in about 2 seconds, and for next to nothing?
We’ve got an app for that! Some apps will find coupons, determine which store is selling an item at the lowest price, and keep track of your grocery list. You can use your web browser to check a store’s weekly ad, so you know what is on sale before you walk in.
Is bigger better? I always thought that buying in quantity saved money, but that is often not the case. Buying in large quantities tends to make me use more, waste more, and eat more.
How many times have I bought a large box of something only to find that I didn’t like it. My wife, Julie is quick to remind me of my warehouse store purchase of some abysmal breakfast sandwiches that languished in our freezer until I finally threw them out.
Sometimes a bigger item may actually cost more per ounce. At other times it may be the same cost as a more convenient smaller size.
There are times when buying in bulk can be a good idea. Do you eat rice every day? Are you a regular baker? Is cheese a central part of your meal life? If you are going to use it, why not save a few bucks by buying in quantity.
Dig deep. Stores bring the oldest products to the front of the shelf, for obvious reasons. If you want your food items to be the freshest (and last the longest) reach towards the back.
Become a member of a secret society. Stores follow protocols, just like any other business. Perishable items that are nearing their expiration date are usually purged on a store-specific schedule. Learn this secret time and save big.
Yesterday’s bread is often discounted early the next morning. Meats and produce nearing their expiration date can be deeply reduced in price. Use them in a day or two, or freeze for future use.
Most stores have a clearance section for items that they are trying to offload. You can find great bargains here but use some caution. There is a reason no one bought that peppermint flavored Spam.
Oh, you impulsive you! Your grocery store wants you to buy, and they would love it if you purchase high margin items. We have all stopped to grab a free sample. An item that can taste delicious in a tablespoon sized sample may be less impressive when you get home and try to eat a bowl of the stuff.
Stores use music, colors, posters, eye-catching end-caps, and just about anything else that they can think of to get you to buy more. Resist!
Portion distortion When tourists visit the US from other countries, they are often shocked at the huge portion size of our meals. We associate supersizing with value, but is that really the case? Eating regular sized meals not only save money, but they are also healthier for you. Buy less and save more.
It’s not a fast, it’s a feast. If you are desperately low on cash, your main grocery buying goal should be to achieve basic nutrition at the lowest possible cost. However, most of us have a little extra money to spend. If you feel that you can’t get by without some soda or chips, buy less than you usually would and build a “treat” cost into your budget. Consider snack alternatives. Homemade popcorn (not microwave popcorn) is super cheap and tastes much better than the old stuff they sell in bags.
Be as flexible as a Yogi. We eat 21 meals a week, they all don’t need to be Pinterest perfect. Substitute and experiment, within reason. Fusion taco bars have sprung up in my town, their selling point is the use of unusual, but tasty ingredients placed in a taco shell. Substitute shredded cabbage for lettuce? Why not. A sauce instead of cheese? OK. Leftover pot roast instead of ground beef? Sure.
Every meal doesn’t need to be nutritionally balanced as long as you meet your daily requirements during the rest of the day.
By allowing yourself to be flexible, you open yourself up to a new saving horizon.
I am hardly perfect when it comes to grocery buying, but I am genuinely trying to become a better grocery buyer. Why don’t you join me and adopt a couple of the above suggestions to see if you can become a more savvy shopper?
Monday night, at 8 PM, and I scan the kitchen. There is one, another one over there, I find more in the fridge.
A couple of over-ripe bananas, and a soft tomato on the counter. A few slices of dried out delivery pizza, and a half-filled Tupperware container of homemade soup in the refrigerator. On the fridge’s door, I spy some milk that has gone bad. I take a look in our bread bin and come across a third of a loaf of very stale bread.
I gather my waste together for disposal. The milk carton gets washed out for recycling in mostly an ecologically symbolic gesture. The other items find their way into the garbage. Perfectly good food turned into waste. Do I feel bad or guilty about this waste? Sadly, no. I’m so used to throwing out food that my weekly kitchen purge yields about the same amount of emotion as cleaning the toilets.
On average Americans waste about 20% of all the food that they purchase, or almost a pound of food a day. This is in a world where about 800 million people are chronically hungry. In fact, the amount of food wasted in the US could feed 2 billion. That is a sobering number. Also, wasted food consumes 30 million acres of land and 4.2 trillion gallons of water to produce.
In general, all farming has an impact on the environment. Food waste has increased by 50% since 1974, and in fact, food waste now accounts for 19% of landfills. This organic material decomposes to produce greenhouse gasses that have a direct impact on climate change.
There is no good reason to waste food, yet I do it week in and week out. For me, there are a variety of reasons. Sometimes I will impulse buy an item and not like it. Other times I’ll make too much of something and grow tired of eating it. I’ll leave leftovers in the fridge because I have a taste for something else. I’ll forget that I bought something. The list goes on.
When I was actively working as a doctor, I didn’t really think about the cost of groceries. Now that I’m retired I am trying to change my food behavior. Eliminating food waste would put thousands of dollars back into my pocket every year. Money that could be spent in better ways.
I know that there are many simple things that I can do to achieve this goal. I should think about what food we have in the house to eat, as opposed to what I have a “taste” for. I should break meal stereotypes. Who says I can’t have leftover soup for breakfast or waffles for dinner? A cheese end can be added to a frozen pizza instead of being tossed. Stale bread can be made into French Toast. A soft tomato can be tossed into a pot of chili. These no efforts steps can go a long way in drastically reducing what food I discard.
Altruism can sometimes elicit a change in behavior, but cold hard cash is often a more powerful motivator. I would urge you to consider your food waste. A little planning and a slight change in behavior can help pay for a vacation, start a rainy day fund, or pay down a credit card bill.