Anna Dusseau | 19th March 2020
First, let me make one thing clear; I can do a fancy lunch. Which is another way of saying: ‘I’ve located the whereabouts of my nearest M&S Foodhall and I’m not afraid to use it’. So, just before we dive in and you emerge thinking that I’m 110% an Ecover-weilding sit-down-protest-type who wouldn’t know marscapone from marzipan, I can promise you that I’m not too bad at throwing together some posh lunchables when friends from our mojito-swigging past lives hop on the train to haunt us with their successful careers and ageless faces. I mean, I’m all over the grilled artichoke and stuffed bell peppers which is, I think, about as much information as anyone requires to make a sound judgement of someone’s character. So yes, I can casually sip chilled sauvignon at 3pm and laugh indulgently when my 4 year old monkey (whoops! is this lady some kind of bonkers illegal animal hoarder? read on to find out..) snarfs another slice of the £4-a-box chocolate tiffin. Sure, I’ve got my game face, too. But the rest of the time? I am a total and unapologetic cheapskate. Are you loving this? Step this way to discover how and why.
Look, home school is expensive, man! Call it a tree-hugging alternative lifestyle all you want, but having dipped my toe into both ponds, I can tell you that I am yet to find a homeschooling parent without a Tesla and a pair of Joules wellies (my pet French bearded orangutan is banned from all homeschool events on the basis that he looks like he came there to rob them..) So I have gone from being a bit of a cheapskate to full-on crisp-sandwich-Sally about as fast as you can say ‘tabbouleh’ and that’s not all, because these homeschool folks turn out to be super sociable and operate a sort of relaxed, open-doors policy during the week (at the weekend – of course – we still give the finger to any hint of company beyond a Gu dessert and the remote control, like all normal people). If you’re considering homeschooling then, better get thinking not just how you’re going to do it on either a single salary, or two part-time salaries, but also how you’re going to frequently feed large groups of lovely, like-minded people and their eclectically-clad offspring. Oh, and make it look easy. It all begins with the right ingredients.
In our house (okay, money sanctuary) the French chimp knows that, if he finds a quiche or some such tomfoolery in the fridge, something is definitely wrong. Like, if this was one of those movies where a character has been cloned, or taken over by an evil android, the quiche in the fridge would be the moment that he knew for sure that this wasn’t his real wife. Because I would never buy crazy shit like that. On a day-to-day basis, we eat a very clean diet based on simple and inexpensive raw ingredients, most of which you should still be able to find in your local supermarket, because it turns out these bread-munching bog roll hoarders haven’t in fact heard of raw ingredients. So, the basics in our house are mostly things like: oatcakes, lentils, cashew nuts, walnuts, brown rice (you’ll notice that’s the only rice you can find at the moment), quinoa, wholegrain couscous, oatcakes (did I already mention that?), tinned or frozen vegetables and legumes, a small amount of fresh produce, cartons of chopped tomatoes, anchovies (no, I’m not a vegan; I just look like one), olive oil, tinned tuna, jars of olives, peanut butter, hummus, absolutely tonnes of dried herbs and spices, and oatcakes. You’ll notice that everything on this list is simple and healthy, plus if you want to really see the pennies add up, you might want to check out a wholefood trading cooperative like Suma, where you can order industrial-size bags of oats and chickpeas at attractive prices. I mean, my kids don’t fuss about food; they love a Happy Meal Drive Thru like anybody else, but they are also okay with lunch being oatcakes, hummus and some sliced apple and peppers. They get that not every single meal has to end with pudding (not a healthy message to indoctrinate from childhood) and they often help with food preparation, which is an opportunity to listen to music, allow the baby grizzly bear to develop fine motor skills (like, if you bash a banana hard enough on the floor, it actually opens without having to yell for mama..who knew?) and discuss nutrition with my eldest, as she swoops around on roller skates like an extremely fast and ridiculously chatty sous-chef, fetching jars of oregano and packets of frozen broad beans for the risotto.
But the key to truly frugal living – not to mention being on-trend in terms of zero waste and planet-loving moderate consumption – is to recycle those leftovers. You are going to need tupperware, people! Or just wash out some old yoghurt pots and keep those Spiderman lunchboxes from the days when you tried the public school system and thought, no thanks. I mean, I am happily married to an overgrown teenwolf, so my standards on everything are fairly low but – guys – I will eat pretty much anything, to be honest with you. Oversharing? I’ve not even started. My diet yesterday consisted of reheated porridge from the previous day which the teething asshole (yes, I have a witty repertoire which goes beyond the animal kingdom) had point blank refused. Bosh! Straight into a saucepan in the fridge and onto the stove the following morning for breakfast (of course I don’t have a microwave! please keep up..) For lunch, the kids had cheese on toast with raw green beans which, to be fair, wasn’t a huge hit, while teenwolf – looking increasingly like the canine version of Christian Bale in The Machinist – and I ate a scoop of re-fried lentil bake which I had frozen from the weekend, padded out with oatcakes and hummus. Dinner was actually the only meal which wasn’t composed of leftovers (stir-fried celery with peanut butter and – yep – oatcakes) and for the kids, who eat dinner a bit earlier, it was the middle monkey’s turn to cook, so as usual it involved pasta and tomato sauce. Seriously, I wouldn’t put it past this kid to be single-handedly responsible for the nationwide carb crisis, if he was old enough to have a debit card. So the point is, I am shameless in my Scrooge-esque approach to food and have zero problem with eating a piece of toast off the floor (at home, people; not at Charring Cross Pret A Manger, for flip’s sake!) and calling that – plus baby bear’s leftover porridge – breakfast. Clearly, there is some degree of hygiene and safe food storage to be respected here and, whilst you can look that up online, simple rules like putting things straight into the fridge – or freezer if not consumed within 24 hours – should have you mostly avoiding botulism. I also don’t feed leftovers very often to my children. But trust me, if you are cooking simple, raw ingredient-based family meals from scratch and basing your own eating habits around what the kids didn’t eat plus pulses and oatcakes (can Nairn’s please sponsor me at some point?) then you should be, like us, on track to spending around £50 per week on your grocery shop. No! Yes! No? Yes! No way. Mais, oui. And that’s a whole lot of mojito money, if you are still receiving random invites from your former party pals!
It’s feels strange to be writing this post – which I began planning a few months ago – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone’s starting to feel just a bit panicky about it all, from the self-isolating shenanigans to the empty supermarket shelves which would look spot on as the set for a zombie movie (where is Brad Pitt, actually?) The fact that these people, having apparently sensed Armageddon, have gone directly for bread and bog roll, tells me everything I need to know. These are not hippie homeschoolers, nor do they have a true survivor mentality. Because, if things really got ugly, they might all have clean backsides, but would they know how to make a week of family meals out of rice, onions and peanut butter? Okay, maybe not rice, but you take my point. One of the most romantic things my husband has ever said to me, gazing dolefully at the empty fridge while I gleefully raid our 10 kilo sack of lentils with a plastic spade, was that I am about as close to a culinary cockroach as it gets and, like a cockroach, he has total faith that I would survive – and ensure my family survived – a nuclear winter. It must be love? And, wow, what an eerie foreshadowing of the strange times we are living through now! But he’s right, you know. Because, whether I’m cooking for my own private zoo (seriously, get on the hotline now to the animal protection guys! I can’t believe you’re still reading this..) or glamming it up for a get-together with old friends, I will always bend over backwards – and eat fish fingers from the baby’s high chair – to make it work.
Don’t be a stranger! Click here to subscribe to my FREE weekly newsletter, including FREE video tutorials on homeschool topics!