Meal-planning is hailed as the number one tip for saving money in the kitchen and avoiding food waste. And it really does do both of those things! But I find that when everything is coming in the garden, it becomes rather difficult to plan far ahead.
Why? Well, it’s hard to know sometimes whether the zucchini will be ripe by Tuesday or Thursday. You can’t predict whether or not an insect will come along and wipe out those kale leaves you had in mind for tomorrow’s meal. And beyond that, food preservation calls regularly during garden season. More time on preservation means less time on meal planning or cooking. You just can’t do it all in one day.
It’s canning season! Of course, you can pretty much always “put up” a jar of something, but this time of year my canners always get an extra-heavy workout.
If you’re new to canning your own food (or if it’s just been a while), you may not know what you really need on hand to get the job done. It’s good to know what’s necessary and what’s extra so you don’t end up spending too much. It’s also good to double check that you have everything you need before you begin- because no one wants to stick an entire batch of hot-and-ready preserves back in the fridge because they didn’t have enough new lids to seal the jars. (Nope, I’ve never done that.)
What do you really need to can your own food at home? (This post contains affiliate links.)
1) Water Bath Canner– Water bath canning is for high-acid foods only. It does not get hot enough to safely preserve low-acid foods. (More on that in #2.) That being said, you can do a lot in a water bath canner- jams, jellies, preserves, tomatoes, sauces, salsa, fruits, pickled veggies, etc. It’s also the least expensive method to get started.
A water bath canner is basically a giant pot that will accommodate up to seven quart jars (or more smaller jars). It includes a rack to lower the jars in and out of boiling water, and keeps them off the bottom of the pot to protect them from breakage. While I’ve had friends who’ve fudged canning in a large stockpot with a towel on the bottom, the real canner and rack is definitely more convenient.
2) Pressure Canner
The beautiful thing about pressure canners is that you can preserve almost anything in them. They can double as a water bath canner when needed, but they are able to build up enough pressure and heat to safely can low-acid vegetables, stocks, meats and poultry at home. (Side note: It is super exciting to can your own soups- like turkey soup right after Thanksgiving- and be able to create your own nourishing shelf-stable convenience meals to pop open on a winter day. Totally worth it.)
I use the Presto brand because it works well and is one of the more affordable home pressure canners. It does use a rubber gasket to seal, where as the All American pressure canners have a metal to metal seal- so there’s no parts to replace. It’s also almost three times as expensive- so I haven’t felt the need to switch to that just yet! Just Plain Marie explains in this post why she “broke up” with her Presto and decided to switch to an All American Pressure Canner instead.
Important: A pressure cooker is not the same thing as a pressure canner. If you buy a pressure cooker, get ready for soups, rice, and tender meat, but don’t expect to preserve your food in it. However, a pressure canner can be used as a pressure cooker. Got it?
You don’t need a water bath canner and a pressure canner- it just depends on what you want to can!
3) Mason Jars. I know several people with mad skill and canning experience who make a variety of glass jars work for canning. Me? I’m not that brave. I like to use the product that I know will work! Mason jars withstand high temperatures, and can be sterilized and reused easily.
While it may seem like an investment to buy jars at close to a dollar a piece, they really will last you indefinitely if you care for them well. I would recommend just buying what you need for your first project- a pack of 12 half-pint jars, for example- and then adding to your jar collection gradually as you do more. I started with only 6 quarts of tomatoes my first time- about 4 years ago. By last year, I was up to over 120 jars of food! The investment was easy to make when it was gradual.
(Mason jars come in varying sizes and can either have regular-mouth or wide-mouth openings. Check your recipe to see which kind you should buy. Over time you will learn which sizes you prefer for different preservation projects.)
I included a link above to purchase mason jars, but you should really look locally first. They’re about twice the price online because of shipping costs. Grocery stores, hardware stores, farm stores, and even places like Walmart carry them. (What can I say? Canning is getting trendy again!)
4) Lids & rings. Your first set of new jars comes with its own lids and rings. The rings can be reused as long as they are not rusted or bent. The lids, however, need to be replaced each time you can something new. You can buy lids with rings, or just lids alone. Make sure that you’re buying the right sized lid to go with your jars (regular vs. wide mouthed).
5) Canning Tool Set– Not absolutely necessary, but highly helpful. I canned for over a year without one of these kits, trying not to spill as I ladled boiling liquid into hot jars, and using regular kitchen tongs to precariously extract the rounded-edge jars from the steaming canner. Needless to say, the use of a funnel and tongs meant for picking up extremely hot glass made things a lot simpler and safer. I highly recommend you purchase a set. (You can also get a water bath canner and the canning kit together if you want a deal.)
Bottom line- if you have a canner, jars and lids, and food to put in them, you are good to go. Make sure that you’re following tested and approved canning recipes (like in this book) for safety.
When you make a purchase through an affiliate link, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you in advance for your support!
Most of us are familiar with the concept of building an emergency fund for when finances get tough. But what about an emergency food fund?
Now, I’m not talking about building a store of canned goods for a natural disaster or for survivalist prepping (not today, anyway). While there’s good reason to discuss that, I want to address a much more common occurrence. What about having food sources in place for when you’re short on cash?
We have had to rely on our garden and our food stores more than once when our finances were looking grim. The nice part about having homegrown food sources available is that your grocery budget can be a flexible expense. Sure, you may want to have certain ingredients in the pantry, but if you can’t afford it, at least you have lots of other food options available to you.
I don’t think most Americans think this way. There’s food stamps and WIC available for when you get into trouble, right? I don’t begrudge anyone who truly needs government assistance (we are on government insurance because of our income level), but I personally don’t like the idea of taking more than we need from government programs.
And of course there’s credit cards. If your financial dry period is just temporary, why not just swipe now and think about it later? Why can’t a credit card serve as your emergency fund? I personally really don’t like the idea of having to pay off our food bills later in life- with interest. It makes me squirmy to think of deferring payment for something that is here and gone so quickly.
Basically, we feel that if we can grow and source our own backyard food, why shouldn’t we? If we have learned the skills to do it ourselves, then why not be self-sufficient in that area? Why rely on someone else for something that you can do yourself?
(I know that not everyone is immediately able to do this. I am not criticizing you. At one point, we didn’t have permission to dig up our landlord’s yard for a garden, and I didn’t know how to can, and I bought everything we ate. I get it! I’m just encouraging you to consider this type of preparation as an option if you have the ability to do so.)
You don’t have to have a large garden or lots of land available to you in order to prepare your own emergency food fund. Here are some ideas to help you build a stash for when times get tough.
1) Buy store-bought canned goods ahead. When times are good or if you spy a great sale, buy a stash of non-perishables to keep in your pantry. Focus on the most nutrition for your buck- beans, vegetables, canned fruit without added sugar, rice- you want to be able to stretch your dollar when you don’t have that many to spend.
2) Learn a preservation method. Arm yourself with knowledge. You can learn how to water-bath can, pressure can, dehydrate, ferment, vacuum seal, salt, or smoke. I don’t have all of these under my belt yet, but we try to add a new skill every few months. Even preparing vegetables and meals for the freezer is better than nothing, so long as you use them before they get past their prime.
3) Buy bulk produce. Late summer and fall is the perfect time to stock up on fresh, delicious vegetables and fruits from your local farms and markets. You’ll get better prices than at the grocery store, and better quality food, too. Once you have the produce, go exercise one of the preservation methods you learned.
4) Start a ground or container garden. Start small and add a little each year to your home garden. We began with a few tomato plants, and have now ended up with one large main bed and several smaller beds scattered across our property. I would guess it provides at least half of our total produce needs year-round- and more when we don’t have the money to be picky about it.
5) Learn to hunt, trap, or fish. My hubby fishes regularly in the warm months, and we freeze his catches to eat year round. About a $30 investment in a license and a trout sticker gives us a good return in healthy protein. Of course, these skills can become expensive when you are constantly buying equipment for them. See what you can get for free or used to ensure that the meat actually pays itself off- otherwise you negate the point.
5) Raise your own meat or protein. We have laying hens and a milk goat. The chickens provide us eggs for breakfast and cooking, and the goat provides us all we need in milk, yogurt, and cheese. We haven’t specifically raised meat animals yet, but we may at some point in the future. (UPDATE: We since have taken on raising meat rabbits and butcher the occasional chicken.)
Learning one of these above skills not only provides you with healthy, frugal food sources, it also helps to prepare you for when times get tough. There have been several times when money was tight that we’ve said, “Well- we won’t starve, anyway.” And it is a real blessing to know that our family can still eat healthy food without us having to go to the store for it.
How do you plan for your food needs when money is short?
The moment when you open a can of home-grown green beans to meet a putrid stench rising from the jar. When you sprout your own wheat berries but waited a day too long to dehydrate them and they are beginning to grow mold. When you go to collect pears from your tree and have to cut out huge brown spots and you feel that you are throwing out half your crop.
I hate it. I hate the waste of food and money, I hate the frustration of hard work ruined, and I hate that I failed somehow in my efficiency and skill of providing for my family in this way. There’s not much that’s more disappointing to me in the way of homemaking than to see good food gone bad.
But amid the maddening mistakes that come with growing and preserving your own food, a positive outlook can still be had. Here are three pluses that counterbalance the challenges.
1) You are making an effort to know your food. When you choose to preserve on your own, you know where your food came from, how it was grown, and what kinds of additives are in the can. Even if you make mistakes occasionally, you are still, on the whole, doing well by eating more fresh and local food. Your preservation failure is not reason to give up the cause. (Chances are that supermarket food can and does get wasted just as much, if not more so, than your home-preserved food- it’s just that you blame yourself a lot more when your hard work goes to waste!)
2) You are probably experiencing less waste by preserving at home. It seems sometimes like cutting out all those buggy spots on the apple has to be more wasteful than buying a jar of applesauce, right? But not so. If you weren’t taking the time to cut out the spots, the apples would simply be falling to the ground and rotting. And what we don’t realize is that tons of good food gets wasted in the industrial food market. If an apple isn’t perfect, it gets rejected. If the basil is too tall, it gets thrown out. If an animal is sick, it gets killed instead of treated. You get the point. You are actually saving food, even when it seems like a lot needs to go into the compost.
3) You are honing your skills. It can be really disheartening when you find your canning jar lids didn’t seal properly. But just think- from every mistake you make, you learn a lesson, and you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. Think of it as a bump on the path that taught you how not to trip. Mistakes are there to teach you to pick back up and do better when you try again next time.
I am preaching this to myself as I’ve had a few big discouraging preservation mistakes this past week… Take heart! It’s not reason to give up. Keep trying and you will continue to learn and get better at saving your own food to eat year-round.