Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Fine Art of Being a Balabusta--Part #3

In Part #2 I laid out all the conveniences available to us today apropos of food: restaurants, take-home food stores, frozen meals, packaged ready to nuke meals. As I mentioned, a person would hardly starve if they had zero cooking skills. But starvation is not what I'm worried about. There are two excellent reasons why cooking skills should be taught, and taught starting young. The first is cost and the second is health/nutrition.

Cost: In a previous posting on what it costs to be frum I covered the expenses involved in providing food. Those expenses were based, however, on someone's basically eating home cooked meals.

I went around to a few grocery stores and markets looking at the prices for frozen and packaged prepared food. Good grief! A one serving frozen package of Meal Mart baked ziti cost $4.69 at Shoprite. One of the kosher grocery stores had it at $4.30. And we are not talking here about a large serving either. The local pizza shop sells the fresh baked ziti at $6.50 for what is a two-person serving according to the government, but which frequently is a one-person dish.

How much is that same baked ziti if I make it from scratch? One box of ziti noodles, on sale at 5 for $2.00. One package of cheese--$3.59, not on sale. One can of tomato sauce also on sale at 4 for $1.00. Spices already in my cabinet and negligible cost--let's add 10 cents. Total cost made at home? $4.34, for 5-6 servings. That's correct--6 times as many servings for the same price. Let's not even mention that my ziti tastes better.

How about one kosher pizza? $16 to $18 a pie in the pizza shop, at 8 slices. Frozen, ready to heat pizza was cheaper--$13.99 for an eight-slice pie. Homemade? Two different prices. Use frozen pizza dough--$5.00 for a package. Cheese--$3.59. Tomato sauce--25 cents. Spices--10 cents. Cost: $8.94. Flour on sale for $2.05 for 5 lbs., sufficient to make 4-5 pizza doughs. Cost for one: 40 cents. Add in the other ingredients and a homemade pie costs $4.34. Have a large family and need more than one pie? $32 in the pizza shop and $8.68 fully from scratch.

How about those packaged foods that only need water added? A whole generation is growing up thinking that the mixture inside those soup cups is actually soup. You're paying for a whole lot of things that you can't pronounce and that come straight out of a chemistry set. The packaged mac and cheese? Can you say blech? Expensive blech? Price them out and you will find that, without exception, the home made version is loads cheaper.

Restaurant meals? Going to eat fairly simply and just get a protein, a carbohydrate and one vegetable? $9 and up, way up, no limit up. Thirsty? Add in the price of a drink. Want dessert? Open the wallet wider. I got online to a few sites where the restaurants post their menus. Talk about shock! A prime rib roast dinner began at $22 and raced up; one place charged $33 for it. Without an appetizer, drink or dessert. A raw rib roast is expensive--my butcher had it at about $35, but that raw roast will serve at least 6 people and more. That's about $5 and change per person. Add in a potato and some veggies and I'll be able to make that restaurant meal for about $6 to $7. I say this with no doubts whatsoever: I don't care what you order--I can make it cheaper at home. Oh yes, the cook at home doesn't accept tips.

So there you have one excellent reason for why people should be taught how to cook--home cooking is loads and loads cheaper then foods purchased outside of the home. And for the most part, in my opinion, home cooked food tastes better, looks better and smells better.

Health and Nutrition: You'd have to be dead not to have heard that Americans are becoming more and more overweight. One estimate is that 60% of the population is overweight or obese. This is a true problem. Unhealthy weight levels lead to all kinds of health problems. Even with all our advances in medicine the killer diseases are remaining steady in number.

Part of the problem is that people are eating fewer meals at home and fewer home cooked meals. They are relying on prepared foods that are loaded with fats, sugars, salt and refined carbohydrates. Food is full of flavor additives and chemical enhancers and food colorants. Pizza shops aren't using reduced fat or no fat cheeses, which cost more, in their products. They aren't springing for the extra cost of canola or olive oils. Caterers and food producers dump truckloads of salt and MSG in their food. Whole grain products cost more and they don't use them. Fried foods are a staple of most take home stores and certainly of the fast food restaurants. For many people french fries are one of the required food groups. Our convenience foods are killing us. Not only do they force feed us things we shouldn't be eating but they do so in portions that are way out of line.

We are supposed to eat in order to live. Our food is the source of the nutrients we require to maintain ourselves in a healthy fashion. Our bodies don't work right if we don't get the right amounts of these nutrients. Some of these nutrients are killed when cooked incorrectly or at too high a temperature. Frying kills many of the nutrients. Ever seen the boiled mess that some restaurants call cooked vegetables? Those vegetables have lost most of their nutrients into the cooking water--you get only the shell. You really think that the restaurants and take home food places are sitting and comparing the nutrient contents on the labels on all the products available to use? Their prime consideration is the cost. And yes, sometimes you have to pay a bit more to get food with a high nutrient content.

Cooking at home allows you to prepare foods so that they lose the least amount of available nutrients. Cooking at home allows you to combine foods for nutrition benefits. When you shop you can compare labels and buy the best-for-you product.

Baked goods can have their recipes altered to more healthful versions. Shortening is not a necessity in most products regardless of what the recipe says. Ditto whole eggs and a whole slew of other ingredients. Whole grains can be substituted for refined grains.

Here's the sad fact: eating someone else's prepared food is costly in many ways. You spend more money and get less bang for your buck. The food's not healthy and the portion sizes are not in line with healthy eating. (Just a note: the few places that do advertise a "healthy" dish jack up the price for that dish beyond belief.) The nutrients are lacking. Buying such food should be reserved for true emergencies or when no other options are available. I admit freely to using the pizza shop before Pesach when I am turning my kitchen. When one of my children had surgery on a Friday I bought a lot of Shabbos ready made because I just plain was not going to be around to cook--except of course for the soup and the cholent and the salad, which no one in my house will eat from a caterer. So yes, I practice what I'm preaching.

When I was teaching English in high school I legislated with the administration to give the girls a formal class in nutrition. I did the research, I designed the curriculum and was truly fortunate that the chemistry teacher was ready, able and willing to teach the course. Okay, so the girls got the nutrition information. What about home economics? From what I can see, the only home ec in the high schools is teaching the girls how to kasher a chicken. Yup, that is going to take them far.

So yes, knowing how to cook and bake is a survival skill, especially in today's times. And given the number of boys who are on their own for a while before marriage, let's give the boys the basics too. Learning how to cook is also about learning how to eat right.

One last note: not everyone who cooks at home is going to be a cordon bleu chef. This is one area where there are some cooks who are better than others. But everyone can be taught to be an okay cook. Part of it is wanting to learn. And part of it is having people who are willing to teach.


Anonymous said...

Yes, in general, home cooked food is healthier for you. But there is a catch. So many of the traditional jewish recipes are loaded with fat,eggs and salt and are then fried. We also need to adjust these recipes so they are more healthy.

Anonymous said...

You're right Sima. I've changed the recipes and don't make some of the others anymore. But I admit I really miss gribenes and chopped liver. And oh what flavor chicken shmaltz gave to food.

SaraK said...

ProfK, excellent. I always enjoy eating my own home cooked food over take out.

Sima, why do you have to cook "traditional" food? I do not make kugels, nor do I fry anything.

Anonymous said...

Lots more then just kugels that are traditional and that can be a bad bet from a health point of view. Unskimmed chicken soup, matzah balls made from unrefined white flour matzah meal and soaked in that unskimmed soup. Matzah brei. Milchig dishes with full fat cheese in them and butter and sour cream added in. Cholent. Flanken. Corned beef, and most of the cold cuts. Egg based dishes like blintzes. Tons more depending on where your family comes from.

Looking Forward said...

cold cuts can be good for you, you just have to remember that they're not the essence of a sandwhich.

You take a few cold cuts, as flavor on whole wheat bread, and turkey is an especialy good choice.

I've gone entire summers on turkey slices on whole wheat bread.

Quite healthy.

(that and things like cheese sandwhiches and, gasp, peanut butter and jelly, and maybe some tomato or bean soup!)

Anonymous said...

PROFK- I agree with you about almost everything, but pizza. You forgot a few more costs in your homemade pizza. Tomato Paste $99 per can (Tomato souce is not enough) Garlic and olive oil - another dollar. Then there is Yeast. Gas/Electricity for baking and for self cleaning your oven before and after milchek baking.

Difference in cost is too minute not to opt for taking out pizza.

But I'm a strong believer into knowing how to do things. That is including cooking, sawing, making fire and etc. How do we know what will happen next time Jews are expelled from the country they are living in? Or someone decides to blockade our city. We need survival skills and our children need these skills too.

Anonymous said...

Cooking at home is not that true a cost saver. I can buy cooked chickens for $6 or $7 versus $5 for a raw one- so why bother? Cooked soup for $3-$4 a quart vs from scratch? The difference is trivial. Baking is incredibly labor intensive - and expensive. Isn't my time and effort worth money too?

Survival? Please- Jews don't live in Poland any more.

I patchke because my own food TASTES the best and I know 100% of the ingredients. But most of all it is incredibly satisfying to me to serve it to others and share in this simple pleasure of life. Hashem has given us a gift to enjoy, and I only pity people who find good food irrelevant.

Another reason I do not eat out very much is that I find dirty restaurants and bad service abhorrent. It is amazing to me just how low that bar is set for kosher establishments. Do you know it is STANDARD practice at every McDonalds to sweep and mop the floor and bathroom once an HOUR? Show me a kosher establishment that does that more than once a day. How many times have you seen flies in a kosher restaurant - and its the winter time? Every read some of the comments on Shamash's website?:"would even take non-Jews to this restaurant" What about the ones you don't take goyim to?

And one last thing - in the home I was raised in, pizza or pasta was not a meal but a snack. Candy was a rare rare treat - and not something we spent hard earned money on - we drank full fat milk, we didn't know from soda, but somehow, people were skinny. Go figure.


Orthonomics said...

I agree the much of Ashkenazi cooking is rather unhealthy. But, there is no reason one can't adjust the traditional to fit their own tastes and budgets. Serve roasted vegetables instead of a kugel, or try making a water challah instead of an egg challah (less expensive too).

Orthonomics said...

Chaim, I would disagree with you about cooking and cost effectiveness. I have friends who tell me food costs them a certain amount of month. What I pay for food and all household supplies including diapers is often half of what they are spending. The key is smart shopping (easier for the full or nearly fulltime homemaker) and willingness to experiment.

Anonymous said...

Mlevin, I sure hope that was a typo because if you are paying $99 for a can of tomato paste I'd sure like to know where you are living. Stop and Shop had a kosher tomato paste on sale this week for 50 cents a can.When Shoprite holds its can-can sale the pastes are 3 for a dollar.

ProfK said...

The word survival was deliberate and it has nothing to do with living in Poland. The less healthily we eat, the more likely we will develop medical issues, the more likely we will shorten our life span. "You are what you eat" is frighteningly true today.

You can't find kosher raw chicken in our area for $5 a chicken--$1.89 a pound is considered a kevaldige sale price, making a 4 pound chicken about $7.56.

The soup? Way cheaper at home, with more in it that is healthy and not made from bones and skin. Put that chicken into an 8-quart pot. Add vegetables. Add spices, easy on the salt and no MSG. Make that $10 for the pot of soup--even make it $12 for the pot to be generous. Shred the cooked chicken back into the soup. Total cost for 8 quarts from the take home food places? $24 to $32 dollars. At home: $12. And soup freezes beautifully.

Anonymous said...

tali - we buy tomato paste at BJ in bulk. But our corner store sells it for 99 cents.

ProfK - you don't need to cook an entire chicken while making a chicken soup. The main ingredient in a good tasting soup is bones. Boil a chicken neck, gizzards and drum sticks and you're done. With the rest of the chicken you can do the following:

Breast - cut into thin slices and make chicken cutlets.

Thighs - could be made into stew or meat balls. Great with pasta or potatoes.

Skin - stuff it with flour and spices and either cook it in your soup or in your chullent. Regardless, you got a great kishka for shabbos.

Fat - if you really short on money, melt chicken fat on the frying pan, pour into container and refrigerate. It becomes a great substitute for butter and oil in your cooking.

Note: Same could be done with Turkeys and they are cheaper then chicken.

Chaim - re "this is not Poland" comment. Let me remind you of Germany. Jews there thought that it could never happen in Germany... How could it hurt to acquire a few extra skills? Why fight?

ProfK said...


I'm not a "health nut" but I do keep up with what healthy standards are for eating. I read the literature available. Organ meats have for years been targeted as being unhealthy. The gizzard--the pupeck--are all unhealthy for you. These organs serve as filters in an animal's body trapping unhealthy substances. And then a human comes along and eats them. Check the cholesterol levels for organ meats. Astronomical. Check out the saturated fat levels.

Chicken skin stuffed and cooked to be eaten? Using chicken fat--shmaltz--as a substitute for oil? It may be tasty but it's committing nutritional suicide.

I'll agree to differ on what makes a tasty soup. Keep in mind that the cooked chicken from the soup can be used in any number of dishes.

Anonymous said...

We have a child with bad allergies. The allergy to MSG is a life threatening one. For that reason I cook everything from scratch and read labels like crazy. I went into one of the take home food stores and asked if they used MSG in one of their dishes. They said no they don't. I took out the letter from the doctor warning that MSG was life threatening to my child and asking that all people reading the letter be open about their ingredients. The man behind the counter read the letter and then said "maybe you better not buy this dish." You have no idea what you are buying when it's ready prepared. Since I've had to cook special for this child we are all eating better.

Anonymous said...

ProfK- I am not necesarily disagreeing with you on healthiness of it, but please keep in mind that what I described stretched one chicken for many meals.

One pot of soup = 10 bowls
chicken cutlets = around 10 pieces, 10 peaple could be fed if garnished with rice, kasha, pasta and etc.
stu or meat balls could feed lots of people provided you cooked sufficient amoung of potatoes or pasta to replace scantity of meat.

Kishka in a chulent= could replace meat. Large crock pot of chulent could easily feed 10+ people.

So, cholesterol amounts are small. As far as gizzards are concerned, boiling a small gizzard (from one chicken) in a large pot of water dilutes impurities to such a degree as to make it inconsequential.

As for using fat instead of oil/butter. I specifically mentioned it for those on a very tight budget.

Please keep in mind that majority of people today have health problems (abisity, cholestorol and such) from over eating. If your meal portions are small then these things are harmless. Today, we view one chicken as food for 4 people at one sitting not 20+ meals I have described above.

Anonymous said...

Profk: I've tried to make soup from just chickens here in Israel- comes out totally tasteless. I was shocked because my mother always made soup with lots of chicken back in the states and it always came out great. I think they raise the chickens here differently.

Here you can actually buy just fresh bones at the chicken counter in the supermarket. You can also buy turkey necks, also for very cheap. I usually do a combo with a few legs thrown in because my children actually like plain boiled chicken. I also have to add soup mix, otherwise it still doesn't have much taste, even with half a pot of bones. (Believe me, I've tried many different times, many different ways. Without the soup mix, it tastes like water.)

Here's an interesting article from Wednesday's Times on MSG:

Anonymous said...

Abbi, the article says most people are not affected by MSG but some are and very badly such as our daughter. Because they changed the name of MSG in a lot of cases I use no prepared foods for her. Soy and yeast allergies are not uncommon either, and they are in the MSG. The article says that a little is not bad for you, but they don't give the amount for what a little is. Our allergist has tested many foods and has told us that there is way more then a little MSG in a lot of the prepared foods. They don't have to state on the label how much though. It's nice to know that MSG isn't as bad as they used to think it is, but it is still plenty bad for some. The amount of sodium in it is also very high and most people still add salt even when they use MSG doubling the sodium exposure. Notice that the article avoided talking about that.

Commenter Abbi said...

Anon with allergic daughter: I was in no way suggesting that your daughter doesn't have a serious allergy when I posted the article. I'm sure if you're at the point that you have to carry around a doctor's note when you go out to eat, it is indeed very serious, as you clearly stated previously.

I just posted it because it happened to be in the previous day's Times and the conversation reminded me of it.

Anonymous said...

The latest research has shown that fat, even saturated fat, isn't devil it's been thought to be for 30+ years. In fact, it might even be good for you. Check the recent research. And organ meats are one of my favorites. It's such a pity that we waste most of them here in the USA, when I lived in Israel, I ate organ meats whenever I had a chance, and our company cafeteria had them once or twice a week. Chicken hearts on a skewer are wonderful. Lungs, brains, pancreas is quite good. Beef heart is a little tough, but still quite good, especially for people who don't like fatty pieces of meat. And liver, both from chicken and from beef, is excellent.

Abbi, your moms chicken soup tasted great because she added salt (or G Washingtons broth packets). Salt is a very important ingredient for making soup taste good. In our house we use a little soup mix powder for our chicken soup, but not too much, because some visitors restrict salt intake, and salt can always be easily added, but cannot be removed, from the soup.