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Eating In, a series examining food and food culture in New Hampshire, ran May 17-21, 2010.

Cooking: A Recession Survival Tool

All this week in our series “Eating In”, NHPR has been looking at food – where we get it today and where it might come from tomorrow. For a lot of people, the economy forced them to take a second look at how they spend their food dollar -- whether that meant going to restaurants less or changing what they buy at the store.

Through the Working It Out web site, NHPR’s Jon Greenberg came across a woman who found herself headed towards a total food makeover.

SFX – dogs barking

There’s isn’t a lot of money in the first place in the doggy daycare business. But that’s how Veronica Forbes makes a living for her and her two sons. They live in a small cape, in need of a bit of care -- on the outskirts of Dover. It’s been in the family for generations.

FORBES: Yeah, this was my mother’s house. I mean my grandmother’s house.

As the recession wore on, Forbes found her trips to the supermarket increasingly unsatisfying.

FORBES: I noticed that the stuff I did buy, the packages getting smaller but the prices didn't. I felt like they were trying to trick you. I was getting less for the money I was spending and I was spending a lot.

Her weekly grocery bills for herself and the two boys were 230, even 250 dollars. Some people like to buy food. Not Forbes.

FORBES: I hate shopping,

Her forays at the store were a cross between the old television show Supermarket Sweep and carpet bombing.

FORBES: I'd go up and down each aisle and then I'd get home and find nothing went together. there wasn't a meal to make out of it.

And then, partly because of the money but for no particular reason she can name, Forbes began to change.

FORBES: it just dawned on me, I should pay more attention to what I'm spending and what I'm eating and the more I paid attention the more I saw the bad stuff we do eat.

FORBES: I need my stool. I can’t reach.

A tour through Forbes’ cupboard is revealing.

FORBES: I do have some split peas because I want to try to make split pea soup… :52 there's peas, chicken broth, beans.

And what was there before?

FORBES: there would have been Kraft Mac and cheese, spaghetti O's, hostess cupcakes, yodels, 2-3 boxes. I would buy them lots of things because I thought they should have options.

Forbes’s trips to the grocery store are very different now. She’s much more targeted.

FORBES: I will purposely not go down all the aisles, I will say, I'm here for this.

And at home, slowly, in small steps, she’s learning how to cook. One of her first efforts, with much trepidation was something her grandmother would make, chicken soup.

FORBES: I was wondering, when you ,, right to put this bone in there, I was half using a recipe and half remembering.

From a single bird, Forbes will get a dinner, chicken salad for lunches and finally, dinner again as chicken soup. Her typical grocery bill is now down to 180 dollars or less. She’s saving at least 50 dollars a week. And that includes the extra money she pays to buy a few organic items like salad greens and bananas.

There are many people like Veronica Forbes, or, more accurately, the way she started out. The UNH Cooperative Extension Service teaches basic cooking and shopping to more than 1200 people a year.

Debbie Luppold coordinates these Extension Service programs. She says her students often find a trip to the grocery store overwhelming.

LUPPOLD: There were so many different varieties of things. It really appeals to that thought that if I buy this, I can just save so much time to do something else. And the advertizing on television makes everything look so terrific.

Luppold says the biggest hurdle for would-be cooks is that many of them grew up in households where little cooking took place. Now, the idea of preparing something from scratch is completely unnerving.

LUPPOLD: If someone wanted to all of a sudden take me and put me in a woodworking shop, I’d be terrified. I wouldn’t know where to start. And cooking can be the same way.

That sense of uncertainty is still there for Veronica Forbes but she has a tempered view of her own progress. Her larder is a hybrid; there’s a Lean Cuisine meal in the freezer as well as apples in the fridge. She says she’s learned that compromise and a bit of backsliding are OK.

FORBES: if I do buy something bad, I don't beat myself up over it. I just tell myself, I'll do better tomorrow.

It’s a healthy attitude that has lead to healthier and cheaper meals.

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