A friend of mine was laid off from her job three months ago. Not surprising, given the current economy. Anyway, like many people, she’s in over her head financially. Without her salary her family is having trouble making ends meet. Since it looks like she might be out of work for awhile, she came to me for help on stretching their budget.
One of the first areas we tackled was food. With three kids, food is a big money drain in their house. As part of the plan, I introduced her to “once a month cooking.” (For those who don’t know, once a month cooking is when you spend one or two days cooking all of your main meals for the month. Then you freeze it all and bring out what you need each day as the month progresses. You save time and money doing this. If you make things in bulk, it takes less time to make a big batch of something and freeze it than it does to make the same thing three separate times during the month. You save money because with meals already prepared, there is no need to hit a restaurant because you’re in a hurry or because you have nothing to cook.)
After I explained the method to her, she was really excited. She could see that the time and money savings were going to be substantial and helpful for her. After the first month, I asked her how it went.
“Well, it didn’t go so well,” she admitted.
“What went wrong?” I asked.
“No one liked the food. They felt like they were eating leftovers all month. All I heard was complaints about how everything tasted bad reheated and they wanted ‘fresh’ food. I ended up throwing most of it out because no one would eat it and we went to restaurants instead. We wasted all that money,” she said sadly.
I was puzzled by this. The recipes she used were ones that freeze very well. Once they were reheated they shouldn’t have tasted any different from “fresh” food. I’d coached her on the best storage methods and I knew she hadn’t left anything in the freezer long enough to get freezer burn, so I wasn’t sure what the problem was.
“Maybe you could come over and talk to them,” she asked.
“Sure,” I agreed.
On the appointed day, I showed up at her house for “the lecture.” I showed them how much money they were saving and how much time mom was saving by cooking this way. I explained to them that the food was okay if it was frozen. No one was in danger of getting food poisoning. I told them that if they partnered with friends in the once a month cooking game they could get a lot of variety. I explained that, once heated, the food tasted exactly the same as if it had been made that day. I told them that things like garnishes, condiments, etc. were added “fresh” after the reheating to keep those items from soaking into the food and tainting the taste. I used every argument in the book. None of it made a difference.
“It’s leftovers,” dad and the kids said. “And we hate leftovers. We want food that’s prepared fresh. It’s gross to eat stuff reheated. What’s the point in her cooking this way when we don’t want to eat it?”
Okay, fine. I know when I’m beaten. I could see, though, that my friend really wanted this to work. She could see the potential. So I thought some more. Then inspiration hit. The next month when it came time for my friend to shop for her once a month cooking session I invited her whole family along. We loaded up the husband and kids in the car and headed for the store. As we walked the aisles, I told them to pick the things that they liked and would eat.
Dad and the kids made a beeline for the frozen food section. They picked out pizzas, burritos, stuffed chicken, Bubba Burgers, Uncrustable sandwiches, Hot Pockets, stuffed potatoes, frozen bagged meals, and frozen dinners like Lean Cuisine and Hungry Man. I’m sure they thought I was insane when I burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” the father asked.
“You won’t eat the things your wife makes and freezes but you’ll eat things that someone else makes and freezes?” I was laughing so hard I could hardly breathe by that point.
“It’s not the same,” the fifteen year old challenged.
“Isn’t it?” I asked. “Your mom made enchiladas last month and froze them. How is that any different from that frozen burrito you’re holding in your hand that someone else made and froze? It’s the same with that Lean Cuisine chicken parmigiana. Your wife made chicken parmigiana last month and froze it but you wouldn’t eat it. But you’ll eat that chicken parmigiana that someone else made and froze in a cardboard box? If she bought all of this stuff right now you’d eat it?” I asked.
“Well, yeah,” said the father.
“I’ve got news for you,” I said. “The only difference between this frozen stuff and the stuff your wife made are the ingredients and the cost. She made things with healthier ingredients than you’ll find in any of this stuff. Fewer preservatives, less fat and calories, and less sodium. And the price for her to make this stuff is incredibly cheap versus the price to buy it pre-made. That pizza you’re holding that’s six dollars? She made the exact same thing for under two dollars.
“You call her food leftovers and refuse to eat it. But when you get right down to it, how is it any different from this?” I asked, waving a hand over the cart loaded with frozen food. “This stuff is all cooked at the plant and then frozen. These are really the leftovers from a one-thousand serving dinner, cut up into individual sizes and packaged.”
Silence on aisle three as they pondered this. I could see them looking for an objection, any objection to my words. My friend clutched my arm as she could sense victory looming. I waited. Finally the husband spoke.
“I guess I see your point. It does seem silly when you put it like this,” he said. He looked at his kids. “We’ll try again, won’t we?” he asked them.
“Yeah, sure,” said the oldest, unenthusiastic, but at least willing.
We went back to the front of the store and began shopping again, this time for ingredients instead of pre-made meals. The next month was far more successful. The family put aside their objections to “reheated” food and reminded themselves that it was really the same as the frozen food in the grocery store. My friend and I have paired up and we each make several meals and trade so that there is more variety for them to choose from.
I hear all the time how much people hate leftovers and how much they hate food that has been prepared ahead of time and frozen. I hear every objection. How reheated food tastes gross. How freezing ruins the taste of the food. How fresh is so much better. And on and on. But many of these same people are more than happy to eat frozen food from the grocery store.
The moral of this story is this: What you think of as “leftovers,” is often nothing more than “frozen food.” They are the same thing: Food that someone has prepared, cooked, and then frozen so that it may be preserved for consumption at a later date. Only the “leftovers” you won’t eat are much healthier and prepared for a fraction of the cost as the stuff in the store. The next time you’re tempted to turn up your nose at leftovers, think about it.
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