Ooooh, this is a nice question! I know that when you follow me on social media or even here on the blog, it seems like I make everything from scratch, and just live in the kitchen. And to be honest, I do. I probably cook around two hours a day - BUT that is my life. I spend so much time in the kitchen so you don't have to. I test recipes, and come up with little tips and tricks to make cooking more fun, give you short cuts, and to get the most nutrients out of your meal. I have no expectations at all of you spending two hours in the kitchen. In fact, I think spending on average 30 minutes in the kitchen a day for all three meals is all you need once you have a good system of food prepping in place.
However, even if you spend a couple of hours a week on food prep, how do you prioritize what to make from scratch? There is no way you can bake bread, make sauces, press nut milks, and start your own yogurt plus prep veggies all in a couple of hours. Here are my simple strategies of how to prioritize what to make from scratch and what to buy in the store:
1. What is available to you?
Depending on where I live, I make different things from scratch. It really depends on what is available to me. Living in California, I am often spoiled for choice, so I've started making some crazy things from scratch, like my own sriracha sauce. However, before that living in China some basic things were not available to me. I would make my own almond butter and nut milk from scratch, because it was simply not available in a store. I would also make plain yogurt for my husband, since all yogurt was filled with sugar and fruit, and he wanted to eat his with cucumbers and salt (it's a Persian thing :-)). So the first step is to figure out what you need, and is it even available in a store to buy.
2. What is available to you in high quality?
Over the years, I have come up with a list of non-negotiables for me. These are ingredients in ready made foods that I will never buy.
high fructose corn syrup: in most processed foods like crackers, chips, cookies, chocolates, etc. This syrup wrecks havoc on your metabolism, so I stay as far away from it as possible.
artificial coloring and flavors: if there is an E-number on the ingredient list, I will absolutely not buy the product. This is often the case for candies, chocolates, but also some sauces can have these colors inside. And you'll be surprised at all the things that are flavored like yogurts, sauces, herb mixes, etc. These colors and flavors have been linked to attention problems in children, so I especially don't give these to Baby Zand.
canola oil or other refined oils (vegetable, peanut, soy oil): these oils are just a tragedy in our food chain, raising our cholesterol levels, clogging our arteries, and adding more body fat to our frame. There is absolutely no benefit to them, except that they are cheap to produce and use in food manufacturing. Sadly, these oils are in everything. I have yet to find a hummus or pesto that is not made with these cheap ingredients.
These are my top three non-negotiables, but maybe you have some other ones like sugar, regular salt or dairy. Figure out which ingredients are important to you, and then go shopping. Every product that you would usually buy with these ingredients, try to find a better alternative or put it on your make-from-scratch list.
For me, some things that fall into these categories are dips (like hummus), pesto, and salad dressings. I always make these from scratch because I am simply not happy with the quality of ingredients used in store bought ones.
3. What are you willing to spend money on?
Once you've figured out what is available to you, and what product has better quality ingredients, you may not like the price tag on it. For me that is coconut yogurt. I absolutely will not spend $10 on a tiny jar that Baby Zand will eat in one day. In that case, I will either live without it or once in a while start my own coconut yogurt. Another example is sauerkraut. It is hip to buy this, but can quickly add up on your grocery bills. I make a huge jar for under $7, and it will last us a good two months. So check out what products you may not want to spend money on if you can easily make these from scratch.
4. How much time do you have?
The last step is, how much time do you have to actually make things from scratch? I love the idea of making my own bread; the kneading of the dough, the smell in the house of freshly baked bread, and the deliciousness are all amazing plus points. But honestly, I do not want to waste my time with this when I can find bread that tick all my other three priority points. In that case, I will just buy the bread, and continue to bake it in my dreams. If you find products, that tick all other three priority points, I say go ahead and buy them. There are plenty of things that will still be important to make from scratch, so use your time wisely. Something to consider when making things from scratch is setting up your kitchen for success with tools that really help you to use your time wisely. For example having a good food processor will make making things like pesto, hummus or energy balls a breeze within minutes.
I hope this helps. Most importantly is that you should enjoy this process of making food that will help yours and your family's health.