Is Homemade Food Worth the Effort?

Reading the ingredients on purchased food spoils my appetite. Even canned tomato paste now contains fructose, making it taste like catsup. (Luckily I can still find the “pure” variety.) And I don’t like to think about what’s in food from restaurants, bakeries, and caterers. When I see borekas I just think “transfat.”

I also don’t enjoy paying for extras like starches, sugars, artificial colors, preservatives, and more.

That’s why I avoid a slew of Israeli staples, including soup mixes, catsup, breakfast cereals, soy shnitzel, soup nuts, soft drinks, flavored yogurts, puddings, and snack foods (yes, you can entertain without serving Bisli). Mayonnaise used to be on the list, until I gave in to one of my children who prefers the jarred stuff. I won’t share the ingredients of this item, which does have that stand-up-by-itself texture mine lacks.

Some commenters mentioned that they find it cheaper to buy applesauce than to make it. I haven’t priced store-bought applesauce in a while, since we don’t eat it regularly. But five or ten extra shekel for a homemade Chanukah treat is worth it for me.

A lot of things I make from scratch may not be more economical, gram per gram. I use canola instead of cheaper soy or corn oil. Whole-grain flour is a lot more expensive than the subsidized pasty white stuff. But savings on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, all very cheap in Israel (when it’s not shmitta), make up for those costs. Also, what’s not “worth it” for a small family can make a significant difference for a large one.

What about the cost of my time? Well, I consider money saved by cooking from scratch as part of my income, tax- and childcare-free. And cooking healthy food doesn’t have to mean hours and hours in the kitchen, as I mentioned in an earlier post. In fact, a recent study compared meal-prep times between two groups of two-career couples: those cooking from scratch and those relying on convenience foods.The ones who bought prepared foods didn’t save time because they tended to make more elaborate meals.

One family made a simple meal of sandwiches and edamame, using bread, cheese, greens and salmon and tomatoes. That meal took about a half-hour to prepare. Another family had a six-dish convenience-food meal of microwave barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese, prebagged salad, bagged dinner rolls and a cookies and ice cream dessert. That meal also took a half-hour.

I had to look up edemame, but not in my Webster’s. (It’s amazing how many ethnic food items, like quesadillas, have become mainstream in the seventeen years since I left the US.) It won’t be on my table anytime soon. Then I read this bizarre statement:

The study authors noted that the biggest time savings of convenience foods may be at the grocery store, where it’s faster to grab a frozen entree than to collect six separate ingredients to make the same dish from scratch.

Well, that might be true if you’re shopping for only one meal at a time. It didn’t occur to the clueless study authors that four or five of the six ingredients would be used for several meals. I imagine that those who rely on convenience foods make more trips to the store because (a) they don’t have room to store all those bulky packages for more than a few days and (b) they are unable to improvise when they run out of a particular item.

I have another question about this study, which says that Americans spend 22 minutes on a grocery-shopping trip. Are American stores really so efficient? Twenty-two minutes doesn’t leave much time for reading ingredients and comparing prices, either.

Some convenience foods don’t save any time, like matza balls from a mix. I tease one of my friends about using it because matzah balls only contain eggs, matzah meal, salt and maybe a little oil–once you are getting the bowl dirty there’s no advantage to the mix. Of course the mix contains all kinds of things that make the matzah balls fluffy.

Even so the mix is probably healthier than Robin’s recipe containing six tablespoons of margarine. Try her recipe for ribollita, the ultimate winter stew, instead.

I can relax a bit now that our annual family Chanukah party is over. We used Carolyn’s idea for Chanukah magnets, impressing my guests.

Related: What’s There to Eat? Saving Time in the Kitchen

Please visit CookingManager.Com, my site on saving time and money in the kitchen.


  1. mominisrael says

    Well, half a tablespoon per matza ball is quite a lot. I posted the ribollita as a balance.

  2. It’s the 6 Tbl of margarine that make the matza balls fluffy, not the mix ;-). Mine practically sail out of the bowl. I figure it’s worth it – by the time you’ve divvied up the matza balls, how much fat is each person really getting anyway. I do cook most things from scratch, mainly for taste and health reasons, and do try to be at least reasonably health-conscious, but some things are worth breaking the rules for. Holiday meals are one of them. I don’t want healthier matza balls. I’d rather have the old-fashioned kind and just not eat them that often.
    The ribollita on the other hand is actually quite healthy for something so filling.
    Thanks for the mention, and for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

  3. sylvia_rachel says

    My matzo balls are very fluffy, and I don’t use any fat at all. Just saying 😉
    My two-career family has been moving toward fewer convenience foods for a while now, especially since we discovered that a lot of my husband’s tummy problems were caused by certain food additivies (stabilizers mostly). We don’t eat as varied a diet as we probably should, mostly because he and I have a ton of food allergies between us and our daughter is the queen of picky eaters, but we are certainly eating far less processed stuff than we once did, and feeling much better about what we eat (and probably spending less money on groceries, although it’s hard to compare grocery bills several years apart…). Now, if only I could get my husband to stop buying bags of potato chips!!
    I used to use cake mixes, because a few bad cake experiences early in life convinced me that I wasn’t good at cakes; but I’ve now found several easy recipes that are not that much more work than a mix and come out delicious, and have stopped using mixes altogether, yay! Other things are almost as easy to make from scratch, yet most people seem to use mixes: muffins, pancakes, I’ve even seen bags of cookie mix at the supermarket!
    I certainly have never been in and out of a grocery store in 22 minutes, unless I was there during my lunch “hour” (it’s actually 30 minutes) to pick up one or two items that didn’t get bought during the main shopping trip (because the price was too high, for instance, or the store we went to was out of the item, or we left it off the list and therefore forgot). But it’s definitely easier to get in and out faster if, as the nutrition mavens suggest, you shop primarily around the
    periphery of the store; pre-packaged goodies are concentrated in the middle aisles. We do buy some packaged things, notably this particular kind of unsweetened applesauce flavoured with blueberries and strawberries that my five-year-old apparently cannot live without :P.

  4. satiricohen says

    I think it’s illegal in Israel not to eat
    soup nuts.
    Really, how can you resist?

  5. You can find frozen edamame in most Israeli supermarkets now. Very tasty snack, boiled with a bit of salt! You just reminded me about the bag sitting in my freezer. Thanks!

  6. They are called “chatif folei soya” and Sunfrost makes them. Boil them for about 5-6 minutes, drain and sprinkle with salt. Suck out the beans and chew.

  7. lion of zion says

    intersting post. many comments. no time. just this. it kills me that in daycare/nuseries they are not more careful about nutrition. kids may eat whatever they want when they get older, but why give them all that processed garbage when they are still captive eaters and willing to try different foods?
    regarding oils, we use olive. i though that it was good.
    happy hanukkah

  8. Any study that says that the average American grocery store trip is 22 minutes and leaves that factoid without further explanation deserves to get ignored. The reality is, that the average is brought down by short “oops, I forgot to pick up enough eggs” trips. For “real” grocery shopping where the shopper is looking to buy a week’s worth of food, I bet the average American is spending about an hour in the store. Although I may be a bit low in my estimate because I buy very little processed food, so I spend most of my time in the produce, bakery and dairy sections of the store.

  9. You can cook the edamame in the microwave too :). Tastes just as good. Reminds me, I should buy more…
    I’ll have to vote against the soup nuts though. I live here in Israel and I can’t stand the things. Just empty calories. I’d rather have a good homemade crouton in my soup any day.
    PS I just checked my grandmother’s old recipe for matza balls – just as much fat (chicken fat in her case, no thanks) but MORE eggs and LESS matza meal, so in essence even higher in fat. Definitely not the kind of thing you could eat every week. I’m happy to indulge twice a year for the holidays, but at levels like that it definitely remains an indulgence!

  10. I’m a single mother of an infant and, obviously I work full time, too. I entertain 6-9 people for shabbat each meal, and I make most things from scratch. Edamame, though, are one of my staples (I don’t eat meat). In the winter, I just keep a big pot of vegetable stew on the stove and add more stuff when it gets low.
    Sometimes I can shop in about 20 minutes, but that’s because I’ve ordered my shopping list by grocery-store layout, and, when you don’t buy prepared food, you don’t have to read labels.
    But what do you feed a very picky eater who only has two teeth if not cheerios? I hate it that there’s so much sugar in them. But the baby LOVES them. Any suggestions?

  11. I don’t spend too long in any one store. But I do go to a lot of stores (not all on a single day). My longer grocery trips are where I hunt out the bargains in the “seconds” (dented cans, smashed boxes, etc). I tend to pick up a few perishables on these trips too like eggs and milk. My short grocery trips are when I hit the produce market. I’m in and out because I know what I will buy and rarely deviate (because it will go bad).
    Now that I’ve got the hang of cooking from scratch, I can’t imagine buying frozen foods or ingredients like pizza dough or pie crusts is the grocery. It is too much bother. I’ve found the best time to get something started is while my kids sit over breakfast or lunch. While they are eating, I can cut up a bunch of onions and sautee them for a pasta sauce or a soup. By the time they are done eating, the sauce/soup is simmering and all I have to do is set the timer. When it is done, the kids are usually occupied and I can divide it into storage containers and run them to the basement.

  12. Your posts are often so timely for me; recently I was thinking that what I cook is not always necessarily super-healthy in the low-fat or low-cal sense of the word, but that it is mostly from scratch, to the point where I’m consciously whittling down on pre-bought anything a little at a time. Great post on a great topic.

  13. mominisrael says

    S-R, it’s a process. Hopefully we are moving in the right direction most of the time. . .
    SC–I will eat them if put in front of me, but a glance at the ingredients helps me avoid temptation.
    Abbi, thanks for the information.

  14. Everyone seems to have her own preference about what is worthwhile making from scratch. I like to make my own cakes and only buy on occasion from the bakery things I don’t make like rainbow cake (I don’t work with food coloring) or a birthday cake if the child prefers a bakery one to a homemade one. I mix up my own matzoh balls and pancakes. But I am not into preparing blintzes or latkes from scratch (though potato kugel is a regular Shabbos food) My husband’s mother, in contrast, doesn’t bake regularly, actually uses matzoh ball and pancake mix, but feels it a religious obligation to grind potatoes by hand (food processor use is alien to her) for latkes and to prepare blintzes for Shavuous.

  15. mominisrael says

    Lion, you know I agree with you about the kids. Olive is great, but too expensive for cooking and baking.
    Fern, the article mentioned two trips a week and you’re right, it should be ignored. Probably the whole article should be!
    Robin, amazing how much shmaltz people used to eat.
    Maya, babies use their gums to eat and do very well. Remind me how old she is? By 7 or 8 months she can eat whole grain bread, frozen peas, avocado, melon, apple, pear, beans, and even meat.
    SL–the thing about produce is that there are bargains to be had on seasonal produce. Now if you know you’ll never use the stuff, that’s one thing. But it’s fun to experiment.
    Thanks RM! As I was writing I was sure that it was too boring for anyone to want to read.
    Ariella, I’ve also noticed that different people “go to the trouble” for different things.

  16. I definitely pick up bargain produce and run home to make a soup as quick as possible. But for my regular produce, I hit the inexpensive market and pick out what I need.
    I use a lot of olive oil, but have a friend buy it by the gallon for me at Costco.

  17. Maya, regular Cheerios really don’t have so much sugar in them. My box says 4.5 grams sugar per 100 grams. I did not give my babies cheerios on a regular basis. They got sweet potatoes, zuccini, squash, beets, apples, bananas, chicken shreds or bits, cholent on Shabbat etc. Try and give more produce and less carbs and processed foods. It’s good for the baby. Oh, and if you are into it, yogurt is yummy too….

  18. We started making challot around Y’s Bat Mitzvah, and did it for over a year. Unfortunately, it seems to have fallen by the wayside since my diagnosis. (I was totally bummed about going back to backery-bought challot)
    I felt so wonderful making our own challot. And it was a total mother-daughter bonding experience. In fact, often ALL the kids were involved in the process.
    And I figure that it took the same amount of time (or less) than making a trip to the bakery.
    Unfortunately, my DH is willing to go to the bakery, but not into baking challot.
    Oh well.
    I won’t even get into all the other stuff that I used to make that I don’t make now….

  19. in other words, I definitely think it’s worth it. but sometimes it’s not an option….
    (just in case that wasn’t clear)

  20. My matza balls are very fluffy and have nothing in them but separated eggs, matzo meal and sometimes salt (if i’m letting them simmer in the soup pot, i don’t even add the salt). They’re even fluffier than the mix – as long as i don’t spill too much matzo meal in…

  21. mominisrael says

    RivkA, at a time like this (and at all times) your emotional and physical health has to take priority. Maybe soon Y will be ready to take it over on her own. Just make sure they don’t leave a mess!
    SS, my matza balls aren’t fluffy, they’re hard. And I like them that way. Maybe it’s because I don’t separate eggs?

  22. You’ve been tagged.

  23. Definitely…I separate the eggs always. But if you like them hard, enjoy what you’ve got.

  24. Not much time to comment today, it’s close to Shabbat- but I really enjoyed this post. I also use canola oil, I use matza ball mix (they come out nice and fluffy, though I’ve often thought about just making them from scratch) and my husband loves edamame. I’ve tried it and it’s not bad.

  25. I agree with your post completely. I recently wrote an article about homemade baby food

  26. mother in israel says

    Thanks Shoshana, I enjoyed your article. I personally don’t think making baby food needs to be such a project. I served what we were eating or pulled frozen peas out of the freezer. I mashed food for about two days before going to finger foods with my youngest.

  27. fluffy matza balls -> use soda water.

  28. mominisrael says

    Thanks Elie, much preferred to margarine.

  29. Love this article!! Just wanted to let you know that I’ve linked it to the “This ‘n That Thursday” post on my blog.
    Hope you have a great day!!!
    ~ Joy 🙂