Home ec: not just cheese biscuits and aprons

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 16, 2012

By Katie Scarvey
Back in the dark ages, there used to be a class called Home Eck. Actually, it was “home ec,”and the “ec” stood for “economics.” Home ec was for girls, and shop was for boys. No exceptions. You were going to make either an apron or a gun rack, depending on whether you had a Y chromosome.
I did a little research and discovered that the American Home Economics Association was created in 1908 with the laudable goal of helping young people navigate consumer culture and run a home smoothly and efficiently.
At some point, “home ec” training fell out of favor. I think it was definitely on a downhill slide when I was in high school (as Title IX was kicking in, thank goodness, giving girls sports opportunities beyond basketball and cheerleading).
The thought that anyone would want to learn how to sew an apron — an apron? — seemed laughable to me then. Home ec felt like a relic of a dying era, one that wanted to keep women in the kitchen, and possibly without shoes.
Looking back, I kind of wish I had taken home ec and learned how to do more with a needle than just re-attach a button. Taking that typing class didn’t mean that I was destined to be a secretary, after all, so I should have realized that learning how to make cheese biscuits wouldn’t necessarily be the first step toward a lifetime of fetching my mister a pipe and slippers upon his triumphant return from The Office.
These days, any class resembling what we knew as home ec is often called “life skills,” or some such. I recently learned there is a class at Salisbury High called “Teen Living,” which makes one wonder whether eye rolling is covered.
I think it’s great that the concept of “home economics” seems to be returning, with an emphasis on consumer skills and healthier cooking and eating.
I remember women from my childhood who ran a household the way someone might run a business. They took it seriously and saw themselves as an integral part of the family economy. Even if they weren’t bringing in a paycheck, they were managing the income that came in and maximizing it by practices of thrift and frugality. At some point, however, respect for the homemaker or home economist — who could whip up curtains and bake bread and grow and can tomatoes — eroded.
That’s why a book like Melissa d’Arabian has written is valuable. It’s a reminder that with a little planning, we can eat quite well and spend less on food — and be wealthier and healthier for it.
I’m not quite as careful with a penny as I used to be, but back when my children were small and I wasn’t working outside the home, I definitely saw myself as a home economist. My husband, who brought home our only significant paycheck, was the financial offense. I was the financial defense, guarding our money and making sure that we didn’t give up any unnecessarily.
I remember asking for a chest freezer for my birthday shortly after we had bought our first house.
I think my husband thought this was some kind of test that would perversely require him to do the opposite of what I asked: “If I actually get her the freezer instead of a thoughtful, romantic gift, she’s going to be upset.” But it wasn’t a trap: I really did want the freezer and I was thrilled that he took me at my word. That’s because I knew the freezer would pay for itself in no time because I’d be able to really take advantage of sales.
Here’s an example. We drink a lot of smoothies and use a lot of frozen fruit. If you normally spend $3 a pound, say, for frozen berries to put in your smoothies and they go on sale for $.99 a quart while they’re in season, a freezer allows you to buy a dozen quarts and freeze them. You’re not saving pennies there; you’re saving serious dollars.
If those bananas you bought are on the edge of being overripe, they don’t have to go to waste if you have a freezer. Slice them up and use them as smoothie ingredients at your convenience.
If you like the convenience of eating frozen entrees at work (Lean Cuisine or Cedar Lane, etc.) there’s really no reason you should ever be paying full price for them. When a buy-one-get-one free sale comes around (be patient), don’t just throw two in your cart and call it a day. If you have a freezer, you can buy a few weeks’ or even a month’s worth.
I tend not to be a big coupon shopper because most coupons seem to be for highly processed foods that I want to avoid. Instead, I stick to really great sales. I found an amazing prize last winter on blocks of parmesan cheese — half price of an already reasonable price. We use a lot of it, and it freezes well (with only a minimal change in texture), so I bought pretty much all they had, maybe 16 blocks. My husband raised an eyebrow at the time, but I think we’ve worked our way through more than half of them and probably paid a third of what they would normally cost.
It really does boil down to planning, and you don’t have to be a CFO like d’Arabian to understand these concepts.
One thing that my husband and I have been doing since the kids have been at college is cooking for the whole week — or most of it — on the weekends. Dave, for example, will cook up a huge batch of chili and we will eat it for most of the week. I know that some people would probably rather starve than eat the same thing for dinner four nights in a row, but it works for us (partly because my husband is such a fantastic cook). Other people do the same thing but instead of eating on a dish for a week, freeze the leftovers to eat later.
I also try to save on food costs by working in plenty of foods that offer a lot of nutritional bang for the buck, like lentils, beans, sweet potatoes and the like.
But the bottom line is probably this: even if you don’t work too hard at saving money at the grocery store, if you’re actually making most of your meals at home from scratch, you’re still probably better off, both financially and nutritionally. There’s very little that will drain your budget faster than the going-out-to-eat habit.
If you understand nothing but that — and put your understanding into practice — then I think you should pass Home Ec 101.