In this busy season of preserving food every day, I find myself contemplating the cost of preserving food for my family. Is it worth the time and effort I put into this never-ending seasonal chore at a time when I have four children under the age of six and a teenager to take care of?
The nutritional benefits of home grown, organically grown food are enormous compared to what’s offered at the local supermarket. There’s no comparison between a tomato picked fresh off the vine, warm from the sun and one in a supermarket, covered with pesticides, mealy at worst, and trucked from who knows where. And, I can grow organic food at costs competitive with conventional produce, and usually cheaper. The same holds true for many organic fruits and vegetables.
Then there’s the costs associated with the activity of preserving food. First of all, if one is interested in drying food, a good dehydrator runs about $100 and up. A dehydrator also requires electricity to run – not a significant amount, but something to consider. However, food like herbs can be dried without a dehydrator, either in the microwave or with air-drying.
Freezing food doesn’t require much in the way of equipment, and most food can be frozen without affecting the taste or consistency of the food. I personally have a steamer that I found at Ikea that works beautifully. I recycle my quart and gallon freezer bags year after year with some bags lasting through quite a few uses. Once a bag has a hole, I retire it from freezer use to prevent freezer burn.
Canning does require some expenditure, particularly if one decides to can a significant amount of food. A water bath canner, new, will cost about $30; it is possibly to find them at thrift stores for significantly less. It’s also possible to find them for free. A steam canner runs about $40, and I personally have not seen any at thrift stores. (If one is concerned about the controversy about steam canners, here’s some information to consider.)
A pressure canner costs at least $70, but again it is possible to find these at thrift stores. Sometimes they can be found at estate sales. The ring on a pressure canner typically needs to be replace every other year. The gauges should be replaced on an older one, and need to be checked on both old and new pressure canners. A local extension office can do this.
The other big expense in canning is the jars. These can be found at thrift shops, but in my experience it’s generally cheaper to buy a new case of canning jars which will come complete with bands and lids. Freecycle and Craigslists are other possible sources of canning jars. Buying a new case of jars generally costs $8 to $12, depending on the type of jar and the store. Both the jars and bands can be reused. The jars will easily last for years.
We’ve been canning for about 12 years and have only lost a few jars over that time period. The bands will last for several seasons until they start to rust. Lids are one-time use only, unless used in the freezer. A package of lids runs about $1.50, and they can be found on clearance at the end of the summer.
Also for canning, a set of tools is necessary – the jar lifter and funnel. The funnel is particularly invaluable because it can be used for filling almost any jar in the kitchen. I often use mine for filling quart bags with chicken stock. The jar lifter and funnel usually come as part of a kit that costs anywhere from $10 to $30, depending on what is in the kit.
Growing food takes time. Preserving the food takes time. It can be a family affair. Today, my five year old shredded zucchini in the food processor while I trimmed and cut up green beans and steamed them for the freezer. We spent about half an hour together in the kitchen doing this. Most of my food preparation for the freezer takes about 15 to 30 minutes. Canning takes longer, but it can be done while doing other activities in the kitchen. Preparing food for dehydrating also takes anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes depending on the type of food we’re preparing.
If you have volunteer plants in the garden or compost and preserve them for the winter, you have almost free food. This year, I have several squash vines, five tomato plants, several lettuce plants, and a zucchini plant that came up by themselves.
It also takes time to acquire food away from home. I generally buy extra quantities of fruit when we visit Gentiles, a local produce place, for our weekly produce trip. I can usually do about 16 to 20 pounds of fruit in a given week. I stick to easy fruit like plums, peaches, blueberries, and strawberries. None of them require a lot of time or effort to prepare for the freezer. The kids love to help with the blueberries and strawberries making the whole process go much faster. I generally don’t can my own applesauce since it’s time consuming with my current food mill.
With the kids getting older, it’s much easier for us as a family to pick fruit together; this also makes our fruit picking more efficient. This year, with three of us picking, we came home with over 50 pounds of strawberries. We turned our strawberry picking into a morning trip and spent the afternoon preserving about a third of the strawberries.
Is It Worth It?
Gardening and preserving food have always been an interest shared in common with my husband and I. Our different interests and skills complement each other. It’s simply what we love to do, together. Our dream has always been to have a big house with lots of gardens in the country, maybe a bed and breakfast, when my husband retires.
As the size of our family has increased in the past five years, it has been difficult at times to garden and can. Last year, I was very grateful for the drought that kept my efforts in check while I had a new baby born at the end of April. This year, I’m appreciating the abundant rain and the help of three kids in the garden and in the kitchen. Next year could be very different. But, I’ll keep gardening and preserving food for my family. Growing our own fruits and vegetables organically will help us to have a more organic lifestyle without the higher price tag.
I’ve been gardening for about sixteen years. I can’t imagine not spending some part of the day outdoors in the garden. I need to be in nature, and I need a canvas that I can tinker with. I love sharing the garden with my children, and I hope they carry that love and memories of our time in the garden into their families.