Living on less: 'How to Feed Your Family' by Cynthia Hillson reviewed

casserole in the ovenBack in the early nineties, "Food Stamp menus" were en vogue, and the newsgroups and early web sites were full of ideas (of course it wouldn't hurt to pay a few dollars for the knowledge!). Cynthia Hillson, then a mother of five living outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, was one of the first to happen upon this concept: that feeding a large family could be cheaper, if you'd only plan carefully and follow a list of rules. The Hillbilly Housewife is just one similar concept that has sprouted into web being since.

In the time since the late 1980s, when Cynthia's husband lost his job and took one making less than $30,000 a year, she's birthed one more child and the cost of groceries has risen immensely. Instead of attaching a weekly cost to feeding a family (in 1991, it was $45), now Cynthia is just focused on the process, and her self-published book is called "How to Feed Your Family." She sells it for $8.00 and encourages readers to make photocopies to share with their friends and church groups. She sent me a review copy and, after reading her perky, practical advice I've decided to send her a check; her advice is way undersold. Were she vastly more polished and a bit more savvy with sustainability, she'd be travelling the country with Michael Pollan.

In this slim stack of three-hole-punched pages, Hillson sets forth strategies right out of In Defense of Food (without any of the science, most of the background, nor the elegance). Sure, she skips some of the parts I find important in my family food plan (she dismisses organic food as too expensive and gives up on gardening as not worth the effort), but many of the vital strategies are there.

Plan your meals. Shop on the outside of the store. Cook from scratch. Control impulse buying. Buy in season. Reduce your number of trips to the grocery store.

Cynthia spends a lot of focus on strategies for getting the absolute lowest price per item, and often, these strategies are time-consuming. (It's worth noting that she finds very little use for coupon clipping -- I, too, have found that items most often advertised in Sunday inserts never make it to my shopping list in the first place, but for slightly different reasons.) She advocates spending several weeks gathering a "price book" that compares the cost of often-purchased staples in several local grocery stores, and even drawing a map of the stores so you don't spend time in aisles where you never will make purchases -- and so you'll be less tempted to make impulse buys. She also has a smart plan for stocking up on pantry items in rotation; a handy tool if you're living (and grocery shopping) check-to-check.

Even if you, like me, have stark differences in food values than Cynthia, you'll likely benefit from her homey advice. I think the most vital nugget of wisdom in here (there are lots, but it's my own recent revelation so I love it) is that cooking breakfast from scratch is simple and far cheaper (and healthier) than purchasing breakfast cereal. She makes dozens of pancakes at once and freezes what her children don't eat that day, for instance, at far less cost.

You may not find that every one of her rules work for you; but if you follow just one or two, you'll certain save money on groceries anyway. And I'd be willing to bet that's as much per week as the cost of her book.

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