Image: Cooking from scratch
George Marks  /  Getty Images file
To save money, some are embracing more traditional home cooking.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/26/2008 11:07:55 AM ET 2008-08-26T15:07:55

In today’s fast-paced society, the Hillbilly Housewife Web site — with its traditional recipes for making cornmeal mush and tips for turning leftover rice into breakfast pancakes — would seem to be a relic of a bygone era.

But with food and gas prices rising at a faster pace than most paychecks, the site devoted to frugal ways to feed a family has recently seen traffic increase by a third, to about 300,000 unique visitors a month. Susanne Myers, who took over the site from a friend about a year ago, says she’s been deluged with e-mails from people looking for cheap ways to fill their families’ stomachs.

“Especially toward the end of the month I get a lot of e-mails from women, (and) they’re pretty desperate,” Myers said.

They come from all walks of life, she said. One day, it might be a woman who has $20 left to feed her five kids; the next, a woman who was able to give up her pricey Starbucks habit after stumbling on Myers’ recipe for homemade mocha drinks. When milk prices surged, she got a lot of questions about using powdered milk, a cheaper alternative that the site advocates in many recipes.

Until recently, food was considered so cheap in the United States that many families rarely bothered with the type of serious, cost-saving home economics common a generation or two ago. Now the skyrocketing cost of everything from cereal to eggs is prompting some Americans to turn to traditional techniques for stretching a dollar or a meal.

The change comes as overall food and beverage prices have risen 5.8 percent over the past 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and some household staples have notched even bigger gains. Americans paid a whopping 12.1 percent more for cereal and bakery products this past July than they did a year ago. Fruits and vegetables are up 10.1 percent over the same period.

Many expect grocery prices to continue to rise as global demand increases and farmers and ranchers pass on higher costs for everything from chicken feed to fertilizer.

The food inflation is clearly affecting American lifestyles. An April survey by market researchers NPD Group found that more than half of adults who described themselves as “financially challenged” were trying to use up leftovers more often and prepare more meals at home than they did a year ago.

Harry Balzer, a vice president at NPD who long has followed U.S. eating habits, said Americans are still eating out but are choosing cheaper restaurants or skipping desserts and side dishes. To save money at home, he said, more people are choosing grain-based foods, such as pizza and pasta, over meat-based meals.

He doesn't think they will spend a larger percentage of their paycheck on food.

Grocery chains are reporting similar trends.

Supervalu Inc., whose brands include Albertsons, Cub Foods and Save-A-Lot, is seeing more customers redeeming coupons, taking advantage of sales and buying store brands as they grapple with rising food prices. Spokeswoman Haley Meyer said the retailer also has noticed more shoppers swapping out pricier items for cheaper alternatives, such as ground beef instead of steak.

“We’re seeing consistent customer numbers — we’re just seeing a shift in what they’re buying,” she said.

At Wal-Mart Stores Inc., spokeswoman Melissa O’Brien said customers appear to be substituting chicken for red meat and buying more pasta.

Wal-Mart also is seeing a brisker business in its ready-to-eat items, perhaps because people are choosing to buy items like a pizza from Wal-Mart rather than going out. Aiming to capitalize on that switch, the company recently launched a television commercial promoting its take-and-bake pizza.

Still, don't expect all Americans to start baking their own bread and preparing bean dishes from scratch. While the price spikes have prompted some people to try their hand at those things, and to say they will give up restaurant visits, Balzer said most Americans just aren’t willing to give up the time savings and convenience of prepared food.

“We love eating,” he said. “It’s the shopping, the preparing, the storing and the cleaning up. You’ll have a hard time convincing me that Americans will be willing to do this more.”

For those people who are trying to shop and eat more like their grandparents did, the change in behavior isn’t just a matter of time management. Accustomed to years of drive-through restaurants and pasta in a box, many simply don’t know how to cook from scratch.

The Hillbilly Housewife site assumes that its readers have only basic knowledge and offers detailed instructions including recipes, grocery lists and a step-by-step strategy for feeding a family on $45 or $70 per week. Another menu is specifically geared to families who are receiving a subsidized food box from the nonprofit Angel Food Ministries.

The site also recommends scouring grocery ads for sale items and planning meals based on what you can buy cheaply. And it counsels its readers to avoid items that might be marked up during high demand times, such as cranberries around Thanksgiving or condiments before the Fourth of July.

The site, one of many similar homegrown communities that have popped up on the Web, also is rife with tips for substituting traditional ingredients with cheaper ones, such as margarine instead of butter or beans instead of meat. Families are counseled to stretch orange juice by heaping glasses with ice cubes and to cut hot dogs into thin strips so they last longer.

Leftovers, which in many homes are forgotten in the back of the fridge, are assiduously incorporated into future meals under the Hillbilly Housewife’s guidelines. Myers, who lives in Rock Hill, S.C. and has a 5-year-old daughter, can stretch a whole chicken into several meals.

“I call it the rubber chicken,” she said.

Carol McManus remembers well the strategies for making a chicken into dinner one night, sandwiches the next and then a soup stock. Years ago, when her five children were young, she made a game out of seeing how much money she could save at the store while still making good family dinners, she said.

Spaghetti and meatballs might be repurposed the next night for pizza sauce, while pot roast might show up one night with potatoes and the next night with vegetables. She tried to shop as infrequently as every two weeks, since multiple trips to the grocery store often translate into higher bills.

McManus, whose children are now grown, runs a restaurant on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard and recently completed a cookbook, “Table Talk,” focused on easy recipes for family meals. If there is an upside to the down economy, she said, it might be that people will re-embrace things like sitting down together for a meal each night.

She said she learned the value of a family dinner — as well as some of her frugal strategies — from her mother, who was a child during the Depression.

“Putting a meal on the table every night was like the most important thing to my mother and I think a lot of people growing up during the Depression,” she said. “That showed love, doing that.”

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