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Let me start by saying that I do not fancy myself a cook. I'll spend hours baking and letting dough rise, but when it comes to preparing everyday meals I'm always looking for shortcuts. I mean, aren't we all? So for this busy, single working mom, 'shortcut' usually means stocking up at the supermarket instead of making things from scratch. This is the solution I've come up with for now, while I keep busy juggling a rambunctious toddler and a time-consuming job.

But here's the interesting thing: While I don't consider myself a cook, I do consider myself a problem solver, a home scientist and economist of sorts, and I love a clever solution. Like I said, I'm a busy mom.

Which brings me to this: I've been taking stock of the simple pantry staples I use the most and I've wondered if it really is economically advantageous to make versus buy some things. I'm thinking of items like instant oatmeal, peanut butter, jam, applesauce, hummus, butter, pickles, crackers, and so on.

So, I've decided to put my curiosity to the test here in this column. My hunch is that if I've thought about this, perhaps you have, too. Each week I'll pick one food item, make it, figure out the cost, and then write all about it here -- complete with my 'DIY or buy' recommendation.

Okay, let's get started ...

Here's how this week's selection all came about: I was preparing to go to a Fourth of July party and I totally forgot that I was supposed to bring a side dish. I took a look around the kitchen and saw that I had a handful of small-to-medium-sized red potatoes, but they were too far gone for potato salad. Plus, there wasn't enough to make a good, big batch of it.

I knew I was going to make hummus (more on this below) because it's my typical 'side' to bring to parties, and I thought it would be great to make some oven-baked potato chips. But, ever the one looking for shortcuts, I wondered, "Hey, why not try these in the microwave?"

So, I'm going to skip ahead and just deliver the punchline first: I experimented and they turned out amazing! So much so, that I truly wonder if I'll ever buy potato chips again. So incredibly quick and easy! Here's a peek at how they turned out:

Don't they look rustic, gourmet, even expensive?

I can make a super-tasty product that's also inexpensive, and I know there are no preservatives in it. And, perhaps more importantly for me, this recipe yields a relatively small portion. Here's my little secret: I cannot buy chips and bring them inside my house, or I will consume the entire bag in one sitting. But, this recipe yields around 30-40 chips, so I see it as automatic portion control.

Click here for my 'recipe' -- and I use that word loosely because it uses so few ingredients. I also include my hummus recipe there.

I ended up making chips using the remaining five potatoes -- and that did take me another 30 minutes or so -- but I'd imagine that for my son and me, I'd make one-potato servings of this. Just enough for us to share as a snack or with our lunch. And, I know my son will eat these because, as my first taste tester, he proclaimed these 'nummy cackers.' (Translation: Yummy crackers, because anything crunchy is a 'cracker' to him.)

And for the record? Everyone ooh'd and aah'd when they realized the chips were homemade, in the microwave no less. Don't you love that feeling? Saving money, investing just a smidge of time, and earning your friends' admiration? Pretty priceless.

Here's a photo of the dynamic duo (before I nuked up the rest of the chips):

homemade chips and hummus

(Yes, I realize the tablecloth blends in with the color of the chips and hummus. Some may say it's boring. The artiste in me prefers to call it a monochromatic tablescape.)

The Rundown:

Microwave Potato Chips
DIY or buy?
Definitely DIY (though I'm sure I'll still buy on occasion because, hey, there's a time and season for everything)

I could sit here and figure out the microscopic costs of the potato (ok, I actually did figure it to be .085 cents), the dashes of salt and rosemary, the cost to run the microwave and so on. But, who has time for that? I think we can all see here that this is pretty much a no-brainer. Big cost savings + minimal time and effort = DIY success in my book.

I know I'll always continue to buy chips here and there, especially as my son grows. It's inevitable. But, I love that I now have this go-to DIY chip recipe in my repertoire, if only for the fact of how fancy and gourmet it's already proven to make me look!

And speaking of gourmet ... I've got company visiting at the end of the month, so I plan to make them some sweet potato chips and serve with a simple spicy aioli sauce.

DIY or buy?
Definitely DIY

This one is a little easier to break down:

Store-bought hummus = $7.98 for 20-oz. container

19-oz can garbanzo beans = $1.19
3 T. tahini = .23 cents
1 T. honey = .05 cents
3 cloves garlic = .08 cents
3 T. lemon juice = .89 cents for one small lemon, which yielded me just over 3 T. juice
2 T. coarse salt = .05 cents
TOTAL: $2.49 (savings of $5.49)

For me, this is also no contest. This hummus took me less than five minutes to make, it tastes great, and it's much less expensive than store-bought. The tahini is a little bit of an upfront investment ($6.99 for 15-oz. container) , but once you've got it in stock it'll last you quite a long time. And, I usually throw an extra can or two of garbanzo beans in my cart when I find it on sale. I also keep lemon and lime juice in the fridge for those time when I don't have the actual citrus.

For more great hummus recipes, check out this page. I think I'm trying the roasted red pepper hummus next.

I'm curious to know: Have you tried any experiments like this on your own? I'm interested to know what you decided to DIY or what to keep buying, based on the cost and time investment.

Next week: Pickles!


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