A Few Lessons

Monday, March 23, 2009

A friend told me last week that the California vegan folks posted a comment about me on their blog. I finally got a chance to look at it and was saddened to read that they said they didn’t learn anything from my project.

Since the main point of my project was to highlight some specific strategies I’ve found to work well in shopping and eating for less, it seems like I should talk about those things individually, in case there are others out there, like Christopher and Kerri, who might be reading this and not learning anything.

So here are some thoughts, with a few concrete lessons highlighted.

[1] I believe that you will spend less on food if you buy smaller quantities of food more frequently than if you spend larger amounts up front. (With the exception of certain staples—like rice, flour, and other grains—that you use frequently, that keep for extended periods of time, and that will have a substantially lower unit cost when purchased in larger quantities.)

There were a number of reasons I started with no food and a dollar each day with which to buy food. A few were related specifically to the project. For instance, it meant that there was no math involved—I didn’t have to weigh and measure food to determine unit cost. (This also eliminated the thorny question of “How much does one cup of rice cost?”—the cost will be quite different if you start with fifty pounds of rice than if you start with one or two pounds.)

Another is that it saved me from having to plan out a month’s worth of meals in advance. I’m not good at advance planning.

But most importantly—and this is not necessarily just for this project, but applies to life in general—it allowed me to adjust as I went along and get what I felt like I needed that day. This turned out to be extremely important, as I had no way of predicting at the start of the project how I would feel after a day or a week or three weeks of it.

It turned out that I felt better than expected with smaller quantities of food, but the balance was precarious. On a couple of days when my schedule was disrupted or I exercised more than usual, I needed more food to make up for those changes, so I had to re-adjust. Because I was working day-to-day, I was able to see what I needed and to get it without too much trouble, and to get back on track within a meal or two.

I think this made a huge difference in the outcome of my project, and allowed me to stay on a pretty even keel, as opposed to Kerri and Christopher who really seemed to struggle throughout the month.

LESSON #1: If you’re looking to eat well for less, buy less at a time, work with what you have, and adjust as you go along to meet your body’s needs.

(2) If you have only small quantities of food, certain types of foods are going to work better than others.

For instance, whole grains are much more filling than refined products. This is why for breakfast, I went with steel-cut oats rather than the standard rolled oats (a.k.a oatmeal). They’re chewier and denser and more satisfying. They really stick with you. And I actually like them (though my friend AnneMarie at People magazine said they felt like a penance, so that may be a personal preference thing).

Beans and legumes are also good options, because they have fiber and you can get a large volume of them at very low cost. These were what I focused on in the first week when I had nothing else to work with.

And this is why the wheat berries and split peas worked so well the first week—whole grains and legumes. Even though it looked like only a small amount of food, it was quite filling. (My friend Juliet actually cooked up some wheat berries and split peas last week and said she thought they were great. I’m thinking of making them again soon.)

LESSON #2: Eat whole grains and foods with a high fiber content.

(3) There are also certain foods I would stay away from.

One thing to try to avoid is refined sugars and flours, because they tend to cause rapid rise in blood sugar and to make you hungrier than you would be otherwise.

The one thing that was unfortunate about the way I designed my project was that I couldn’t bake. Baking is an excellent way to get a large volume of food for very little money, and at first I was trying to figure out how to make it work, but ultimately I decided to just go with mixes because I couldn’t figure out how to get a cost-effective amount of flour and oil with such a short project time period.

I was actually a little jealous of Christopher and Kerri that they could make bread and pancakes, and I’m not sure why they didn’t do it more often (though perhaps the economics didn’t work out—I didn’t really do any math on that, so I don’t know).

I relied on Jiffy mix, which is very economical, but has more sugar and salt than I would normally use, and I would prefer to use some whole grain flour.

Other than the Jiffy mix, I didn’t really have any flour or sugar, and I think it’s one of the reasons I was less hungry than I expected, and maybe why Kerri and Christopher were, at times, completely ravenous. For instance, on Day Eight, Christopher wrote

Today I was fine until I got home, but upon entering the kitchen, it took everything I had to not tear open the closest container of food and pour it down my throat. I was not just ‘hungry,’ I was bordering on frantic.

That day, they had eaten pancakes with “donated” McDonald’s syrup for breakfast, and spaghetti with tomato sauce for lunch. High flour, high sugar, limited fat, no protein. Recipe for hunger.

LESSON #3: Avoid refined flours and sugars, especially those eaten without accompanying fats or protein.

Another thing to avoid—and this may seem counterintuitive if you’re trying to eat healthy food—is salads.

The main problem with salads is that they’re quite expensive and not very filling. You’re much better off focusing on heartier vegetables—something like cabbage, which is very cheap and filling and can be used in many different ways, or even frozen spinach, which is also inexpensive and quite versatile.

I lost several tufts of hair when reading Christopher and Kerri’s blog when they recounted their excitement over finding an exceptionally cheap bottle of salad dressing at the Dollar Store, and subsequent nightly salads with one-quarter of carrot, one-quarter of a tomato, and a small amount of romaine lettuce.

I’m not sure what kind of access they had to oils and fats or vinegar (the way I set up my project, it wasn’t cost-effective for me to get any sauces or vinegar, or any kind of oils or fats, except from the chicken I cooked) but if you do want to eat salads economically, you should definitely make your own dressing rather than buying bottled dressings.

The easiest to make are simply oil and vinegar or oil and lemon juice with salt, pepper, garlic and herbs and spices. (It’s pretty flexible, you can pretty much use what you like.) You should be able to find recipes in any basic cookbook or cooking website.

You can make a little bit at a time and use just what you need rather than filling your refrigerator with all kinds of bottles with all kinds of different dressings.

LESSON #4: Favor long-lasting, nutrient-dense produce over herbs, salad greens, or other more ephemeral and low-calorie items.

LESSON #4.5: If you do choose to eat salads, make your own dressings from on-hand ingredients rather than purchasing specialty products.

(4) Again, with small quantities of food, certain preparation strategies are going to work better than others.

One of the things that started me pulling my hair out in the first place with Kerri and Christopher’s blog was at the start of the project when they made refried beans.

When you make refried beans, you take cooked beans and mash them up and mix them with a few other ingredients (oil, spices, onion, garlic), which has the primary effect of taking one cup of food and turning it into a half cup of food. With approximately the same number of calories. So I would recommend leaving the beans whole rather than mashing them up, because it will look and feel like more food.

Also if you have a cup of rice and a carrot, I would recommend chopping up your carrot and mixing it with your rice and cooking them together rather than eating a half a carrot by itself and a cup of rice by itself. It’s the same amount of food, but both the rice and the carrot will taste better, and together they’ll feel like more food.

Along the same lines, soups and stir-frys are great ways to make a little of this and a little of that feel like much more than it would be if you ate the individual items on their own. (Casseroles are also a great option, if you can make some kind of sauce to hold them together. Because I didn’t have dairy, I wasn’t able to do anything with casseroles during the project.)

Kerri and Christopher ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch almost every day, until Day 20, when they discovered the beauty of soup.

I think they would have been much happier had they started out the week with a big pot of soup to take in for lunch. And even dinner. Soup is easy to make, keeps well (can also be frozen for longer storage), is eminently flexible, and very tasty. If you’re trying to stretch your dollar, definitely eat soup.

Had I not been pretty satisfied with the amount of food I was eating, I would have had more soups and stews. But I felt pretty good, so I ramped things up quicker than I expected to more “normal” meals (e.g., pasta, scrambled eggs, etc.).

LESSON #5: Maximize the volume of food you have available to you, focusing especially on soups, stews, and pilafs.

I may be able to come up with more lessons as I think about it more, but I think those are the most important ones for now. And , like I said, I’m sorry Kerri and Christopher didn’t learn anything, but maybe these ideas will help some others.

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36 Responses to “A Few Lessons”

  1. Amy Says:

    I think the difference between the two experiments is that you already live a frugal (food) lifestyle, so you weren’t scared to be self disciplined, whereas they were coming from the idea that a good diet equates with abundance. I think it is scary to some people to think of rationing fruits and vegetables, although this is how humanity has lived for eons. (Our grandparents certainly didn’t eat asparagus in the winter, or keep bags of tropical fruit in the freezer for smoothies.)

    I have actually faced weeks were I had to stretch ten dollars to feed myself, and have grappled with the same kind of decisions you made. I’ve been surprised to find I could eat brown rice and cabbage stirfrys, and chili and scrambled eggs, and feel perfectly satisfied. It was a revelation when I learned I could make a delicious stew that lasts almost all week, of crushed tomatoes, beans, carrot, onion, basil and chicken. Then again, there have been other times I have spent a fortune at the grocery store, buying up ingredients for special recipes, trying out foods I didn’t grow up on, exotic fruits, artisian cheeses, etc. I think there are two mindsets here, which I happen to embody in little old me: the realization you can be adult and focus on filling your belly for less, while maintaining a quality diet, and the hedonistic little kid approach to eating which says you should be able to eat according to your whims, food is fun, food is love, food is entertainment, its scary to think of eating frugally, money shouldn’t enter into food decisions, etc.


  2. I was (and am)impressed with the quality of the food. The illustration, in this post, of the ravenous hunger the CA couple experienced is exactly what is so great about the experiment. Yes, you can buy good food for less if you add nutrition into the equasion. I think you did it well.

  3. Amanda Says:

    I’ve actually learned a lot from your experiement, and i’m glad I found your blog. I’m a fan! I’ve always been into the living with less thing… drives some of my friends nuts.

    I now buy my produce at the Farmer’s market in town, and I buy from the bulk bins. I also only buy certain things at certain stores because I know they are cheaper.

    I used to be so frustrated that i’d buy a bag of carrots and not eat them all before they went bad. Now I can buy 1 or 2 and use them and be happy i’m not wasting anything.

    I also started eating oatmeal for breakfast (cause I can make it in a microwave at work.) Milk, Oats, and brown sugar (got a whole box on sale for .99) It’s happy at 5:00am.

    your adventure has really helped guide me to pare down what i spend each month. I think this will be the first month my grocery budget is under 100.00 (normally 140+)… and i’ve cooked dinner for 6 people one night, 4 another night, and 4 another night… (normally those outtings in are what bring my bill over the 120 threshold)…

  4. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks for all the comments here, I’m glad people have found the project useful and appreciate your support.

    I think Amy’s comment is especially true, but I also want to point out that there’s nothing wrong with trying out exotic foods and expensive items — the trick is to find the right balance, and each person is going to have a different balancing point in their own life. If you eat well (even if simply) on a regular basis, you won’t feel like you’re deprived day in and day out, but you’ll also appreciate special items even more. Because they’re special.

    There’s a book buy a sociologist named Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice that talks about the “hedonic treadmill” — basically that people become accustomed to new pleasures and need to constantly find something more exciting. So your vacation at the lake becomes a vacation at the ocean becomes a vacation in the Caribbean becomes a vacation in Fiji. And even when you do all that, you don’t necessarily feel like things are much different, the vacation in Fiji doesn’t necessarily make you happier than the vacation at the lake did.

    By limiting what you do on a day-to-day basis, and getting special things on special occasions, you can keep yourself off the hedonic treadmill. And the special things will truly be special.

    There’s also a good article in Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette called “Creative Deprivation” that’s basically about the same thing (p.380-381). (Amy Dacyczyn is another of my Less is Enough heroes, hopefully I’ll write a post about her soon.)

  5. Anna Says:

    I’m a fan of the less is enough ideal. I do stockpile or have food storage of items that keep well. Most of my grocery shopping these days is to replenish that storage as I get quite a few free vegies and bread from a freegan type place that gathers older vegies and bread from supermarkets. I also grow salad greens and other vegies and fruits. Oatmeal, I buy quaker oats in the huge package at .75 cents a #. I buy brown rice and black beans in 25 # bags and I buy garbanzo’s by the #. Frozen vegies when they are $1. or less a # and frozen blueberries. My favorite dish is oatmeal,milk and blueberries zapped in the microwave till it is like a pudding. Not expensive but very satisfying and no sugar added. I find that routine simple foods are very satisfying and then an exotic food now and again spices up life. It is simple and enough and healthy. Anna

  6. Shannon Says:

    I really enjoyed your blog! I think the difference between the two is that you didn’t have a political agenda. The other blog was trying to show how hard poverty is so of course their focus was on lack and deprivation. They definitely could have been more creative but they chose not to in order to make a point. I don’t mean that to criticize them, but they wanted their experiment to show difficulties, so that’s what they did.

    Is is harder if you are truly in poverty of course. Then the person might not have access to bulk bins or decent supermarkets. They almost definitely do not have the time to comparison shop. They wouldn’t have the luxury of worrying about ingredients or ethical issues either though.

    This blog instead had more of a “foodie on a budget” mindset. You state clearly more than once that you aren’t saying anything about poverty or hardship, you just wanted to see if you could do better in the taste and nutrition departments than they did. And you certainly did!

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to what you do next. Keep up the good work!

  7. lessisenough Says:

    Yes, so much of the differences in our respective projects had to do with our different goals.

    I mentioned that in the “Are You Hungry” post, where I talked about how my subjective experience of hunger would have been different from theirs, because one of their main goals was to empathize with impoverished people (for instance, thinking about how it would feel to be hungry and know you weren’t able to get more food) whereas I was really focusing on what I could do to maximize what I had.

    The different focus resulted in really different perceptions.

  8. Marcia Says:

    I actually read their comment about your blog awhile back and defended you. I tried to do it without being mean. But I really think you did a *much* better job than they did. But they were trying to prove that it can’t be done, and you were trying to show maybe that it’s not as bad as we think?

    Anyway, your blog really makes me think about food. It’s amazing how I just don’t need to shop as much anymore. I tend to buy things in bulk, but then I don’t need beans for 3 months or rice for 2 months. And why go buy more black beans when I still have chickpeas?

  9. Marcia Says:

    And funny thing it…I think they deleted my comment over there. Hmmph.

  10. sarah Says:

    I think that people who normally don’t plan what they eat beyond “what do I feel like eating right now” find the idea of planning and making decisions based on anything other than whimsy a difficult transition. Maybe that’s why the CA folks didn’t do so well, it doesn’t look like they really wanted to engage in planning in the same way you did. I am a planner–I prepare and freeze big batches of stuff that we really eat–spaghetti sauce for example. Add in the fact that I’m feeding two people who need to gain weight and two people who need to lose it and planning is just required.

    My biggest take-away from your experiment is that I’m going to quit buying a whole bunch of something just because it is a good deal. The idea of discovering what’s in the bottom of that freezer scares me! Unless it is something we absolutely love already. Reducing waste is more cost effective than buying at the best possible price and I didn’t realize that before your blog.
    Thanks!

  11. Sharon Says:

    Another strategy you used which I think helped is that for the most part you kept the ingredients separate until you needed to combine them for a meal. That way it wasn’t predetermined what an ingredient had to be. So if it was no longer appealing to eat an ingredient in a certain way, you could turn it into something else.

    If your salt is just salt, it can be used in many things. If all your salt is garlic salt, you may enjoy your salted rice even more, but be really dismayed when you try to eat your blueberry muffins or oatmeal made with that same salt.

    For another example– if a person has potatoes and carrots, sometimes it’s more appealing to have carrot soup for lunch and potato soup for dinner rather than to have carrot and potato soup for both meals.

    To me this is easier to do with more natural ingredients such as you used, but the same thing can be done with more processed ingredients such as peanut butter, jelly, and bread. In addition to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, on other days the cook could make hot peanut butter toasts (toast bread and spread with peanut butter–tastiest with crunchy). Then cut the second slice of bread in half diagonally and spread it with jelly. Top with second half. Cut from the tip to make two triangular tea sandwiches. That way you have more appealing food with different temperatures and textures. Although the carbohydrate crash wouldn’t change, it would be more appealing while eating it.

    Keeping ingredients separate or premixing them in a variety of ways is an important strategy that long distance hikers are encouraged to use. And like you did here, they are encouraged to avoid mixing way in advance as their nutritional needs and tastes usually change as they go along. By keeping ingredients flexible as you did, adjustments can be made along the way.

    Sharon

  12. lessisenough Says:

    Yes, yes! I didn’t even think of that because that’s what I always do — try to keep things in their most basic state to give yourself the most flexibility.

  13. Clean Simple Says:

    I’m not suprised, frankly. I looked at their site and it was whiny rather than inspiring. Oh, and they got a book deal too. Not quite sure why…

    I love The Paradox of Choice! It’s one reason I shop at Costco for many of our food items and paper goods–limited choice. Two brands of TP rather than ten! I spend less on groceries there overall because of the lack of variety.

  14. Pam Says:

    So I’ve been lurking, and have your blog as an RSS feed to my google page…I have to say that you are an inspiration to me and my family…we’ve now started looking at our grocery budget as a bottom up versus top down point of view (e.g., cost per day versus budget per week or month). And with your focus on “more healthy” for the $1, I commend you for what you have shown us and I look forward to your future projects. Thank you.

  15. Tina Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiment with us. I look forward to reading more about your upcoming project.

    And I think I am going to stop by my local mexican grocery store to see if they’ll sell me $1 worth of fresh made tortillas. Your blog that day made my mouth water, esp since I have cabbage at home and wouldn’t mind a little economical challenge myself.


  16. I would think that everyone has something to learn from the other people’s experiments.

    We are all in different situations. Some people have big vegetable gardens (or generous friends with gardens), and other people live near Mexican markets, and still other people have a lot of luck clipping coupons. I used to buy a lot of stuff from the dented-can place. I don’t live near there anymore and can’t shop there as much. And I have a Whole Foods, but it isn’t close and I can’t do what you did and buy just enough for a day or two. If I’m driving to Whole Foods I’m buying enough for several weeks or months. Other people did not luck into 12 oranges for a dollar last week or a whole pineapple the week before at the Mexican market like I did, so if they try this they might be going without fresh fruit for a while.

    It’s just going to be a different experience for everyone who tries it, and I think that every could learn something a little bit different.


  17. [...] the end of the project, Currie had a few things to say, some directed at Greenslate and Leonard. She opens up with this: A friend told me last week that [...]

  18. sendingpostcards Says:

    I just found this blog… it’s great & very inspiring!

  19. Sharon Says:

    ***Two other skills that you have that I think really helped you succeed with this experiment are that you already had a good knowledge of where to shop for basic ingredients and which stores carry certain items most frugally. Other people who have done similar type experiments sometimes try to do all their shopping in one store, and often without having scouted out what would be the most frugal. It helps too that you go looking for the most frugal items in a certain category rather than having a predetermined list. So you find the most frugal way of getting grains or protein or fruit or vegetables rather than a particular one.

    Also some people try to do this without much previous experience in cooking from scratch. It makes it hard for them to know where to begin. It also makes it hard to be flexible with recipes. You are clearly skilled at cooking from basic ingredients and knowing how to combine the available ones. And knowing how to do this sort of cooking also affects the initial shopping choices mentioned above.

    ***Clean Simple, I have noticed that aspect of more choices too. The modern grocery store is designed to get people to buy too much variety at once. It often leads to waste. Also I have read in some nutrition literature that people who have access to more variety at a meal are more apt to overeat. Knowing this can be used to advantage in shopping or meal preparation to save money. Or conversely if you are trying to get more food into a sick person, making the food look more varied can help increase their food intake.

    ***Laughing I agree about learning different things from different people’s experiments. Sometimes I learn from seeing how a certain pattern, strategy, or way of thinking didn’t work out well for the experimenter. Sometimes that leads me to try and figure out what might have worked out better in their situation. When things go well I learn about basic recipes that work, or specific things that are frugal in certain types of ethnic grocery stores or markets, or specific strategies. And I always learn about clever things that people do within the constraints they have set up.

    ***One thing I really like is that these experiments encourage other people to try them whole, to modify them, or to use parts of what was learned in their own regular shopping, cooking, and eating. So I appreciate very much when people such as you are willing to try a well thought out experiment like this and share the results with us.

    Sharon

  20. Kate Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your experiment and it definitely gave me some good ideas about stretching a food budget. Don’t worry about it; vegans tend to be cranky people anyway ;)

  21. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks for making me laugh.

    I think veganism would be a tough row to hoe. Even when I see amazing, beautiful food like at melomeals.blogspot.com I am never tempted to convert. (Though it looks good for individual meals, just not every single one.)

    I do think eating less meat is a good idea, but I’m not ready to give up all meat, and I can’t even imagine what would have to happen to make me give up eggs.

  22. sugarmamabakingco Says:

    I think you are just wonderful and find it sad that someone would have anything less than glowing things to say about a blog that helps to get the word out about saving while maintaining a lovely lifestyle. Shame on them. sugarmamabakingco.wordpress.com
    Candace

  23. Glenn Says:

    Just arrived via dietriffic.com …This is a brilliant post, and I am certainly going to visit again!
    Saving money and eating healthily…has to be good!
    Thanks,
    Glenn

  24. S Says:

    I just stopped by to catch up on your blog, and finally saw this post. I followed their challenge and yours. I’m surprised they would say they didn’t learn anything from you.
    I don’t know that I could say I learned anything from them (except perhaps that there might be citrus trees growing in some public areas in CA?) while I learned quite a lot from you. The first thing I learned from you was to use the bulk bins. I’d never bothered with that before. I went to EarthFare somewhere in the middle of your challenge and purchased small quantities of grains I wanted to try. This saved me from buying an entire large bag of something, only to discover it didn’t work as well as I would have liked.

    It also seemed that they approached the challenge in a more “Look at this extreme thing we are going to do” whereas your approach seemed more “No, it won’t be easy, but yes, it can be done well”.

    I liked your approach and results best. :)


  25. [...] even would ride her bike to the store to make her purchaces (12 miles round trip). I agree with her assesment of why the couple before her had such a tough time. It really matters what we eat, and while the [...]


  26. [...] even would ride her bike to the store to make her purchaces (12 miles round trip). I agree with her assesment of why the couple before her had such a tough time. It really matters what we eat, and while the [...]

  27. megan Says:

    What if anything would you do differently?

    I’m going to be starting this challenge in a few day and have found your blog very useful and I also loved your approach and attitude. I’m sure it had much to do with your success.

    Thanks for being such an inspiration to look more closely at our food choices.

  28. lessisenough Says:

    I’m not sure if there’s anything I’d do differently for a 30-day, self-contained project.

    If I had known quite so many people were going to be paying attention, I maybe would have focused a little more on getting more calories, but I went based on how I felt and I felt much better than I would have expected with such limited calories. (It actually made me intrigued by the concept of caloric restriction, which I had always figured would be awful, you’d be constantly hungry, but this project taught me that that’s not necessarily true.)

    I think if I hadn’t been trying to use everything up by the end, I would maybe have bought more rice or beans or something in the last week. As it was, I could have gotten more food but chose not to, because I didn’t want leftovers.

    I think it would make sense to start with a reasonable supply of vegetable oil and calculate the unit cost of that (e.g., if you pay $3.50 for 32oz of canola oil, then 1 oz = $0.11) and use that cost in your recipe, rather than going with what you actually spend. I purposely didn’t do that, but it made it really difficult to get any kind of fat (other than margarine, which I could have got a pound of for $0.79, so definitely affordable in the context of the project, but I didn’t get because I don’t like it).

    If you did the same with flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, powdered milk, you’d be able to make all kinds of things (pancakes, cornbread, etc.) for not very much that I wasn’t able to do on the project because the start-up costs were too high. I decided to use Jiffy mixees instead, because they’re crazy cheap, and that was fine but more sugar and salt than I would like so I would have preferred to have been able to bake things from scratch. And I did consider that approach when I was planning the project, but wanted to do it the hardest way I could think of to see how it would go, so that’s what I did.

    Hope that helps, and good luck with your project!

  29. Em Says:

    One thing we routinely do is buy in bulk and process the excess immediately – freeze diced onions to use later, make carrot soup to use up a bunch of carrots at once, make an enormous pot of beans, freeze some in cup portions, make dip, and then make one or two types of soup/entree.

    I keep wondering about baking. Our WF has flours for less per pound than the equivalent grains, and some basic breads can be made with just flour and water, or an egg. Sourdough, of course, can be just flour, water and salt for a leavened bread, with excess starter used for pancakes. Does your WF not have baking ingredients in bulk? What about stretching a Jiffy mix with a little high-protein flour?

  30. lessisenough Says:

    The bulk flour is oddly expensive in the bulk bins, and also I didn’t have milk because the smallest, cheapest box of powdered milk I could find was $3, which seemed like too much to invest given the length of the project and what I would have to give up in order to have $3 to use on milk. (I used to be able to get powdered milk in bulk at the food co-op, but my local Whole Foods doesn’t carry it.) If I was going for more than 30 days, it would definitely have been worth it and I would probably have bought that midway through the third week. I don’t have sourdough starter (nor do most people, and I was trying to avoid things that aren’t readily available to anyone who wakes up one day and needs to eat for a dollar) and I didn’t price yeast thoroughly but my first look put it at more than a dollar, so between the flour and milk complications, I didn’t look much further, and then settled on the Jiffy mix as a workable solution.

    Cooking in bulk and processing the leftovers for later use is great. For small households, you don’t actually have to do much in bulk to end up with leftovers, you can just buy normal quantities and cook normal-sized recipes and still have things left over. I’m not generally organized enough to do much ahead of time, and I walk to the store so getting large quantities of anything can be a problem (though my life was greatly improved by the acquisition of a rolling backpack that one of my friends wanted to be rid of — thanks, Betsy!) so basically I just make sure I process anything I didn’t use right away, which leaves me with things in the freezer most of the time even without making a specific effort to work in bulk.

  31. Em Says:

    It did look as though the Jiffy mixes made a lot of food, simply and easily. So that makes sense.

    Although you can buy it, sourdough is a method, not just a product – just flour, water, and a few days for them to ferment. The risk would be that it would go off – but even a failed starter can be used for pancakes. The advantage of sourdough is that flours become more nutritive, digestible, and flavorful.

    I didn’t mention dairy, since powdered milk is one of those things I remember with a shudder from childhood food stamp days. Still, one 8-ounce cup of yogurt early on plus the $3 powdered milk would give yogurt and baking for the month.

    The problem of fats/oils is really intriguing for me. It’s hard to find small quantities of oil – only funky old-fashioned co-ops still carry bulk liquids like oil and maple syrup. Otherwise, I can’t guess how to get a flavorless oil in any useful quantity (love schmaltz, but not in banana muffins). Maybe at the kind of store that sells single sticks of butter?

  32. lessisenough Says:

    Good point about the starter. Most people I know who use it got it somewhere — either a store or a friend. I hadn’t thought about making it myself since I had never done that. That would be cool though. I think that would be a good one to use on the project where you also sprout things, which is an approach that several people suggested, but I decided that would be a different project. Also a different project to grow food yourself (another oft suggested approach). And one where you buy everything from gas station/convenience stores (that’s my own idea that I find intriguing).

    I think powdered milk is realy icky to drink, though I have a friend whose husband grew up in Bolivia and she said he actually likes it to drink. So apparently some people are okay with it. But I cannot tell the difference when I use it in baked goods (pancakes, muffins, etc.) or casseroles. Maybe if I tasted things side by side, I’d be able to tell which was made with powdered milk and which used fresh, but it’s good enough for me and makes my life much easier since fresh milk is so perishable.

    The fat/oil problem was definitely the biggest issue. The only affordable one was margarine, which I didn’t want. I used to be able to get bulk oils at the Food Co-op, which was one of the funky old-fashioned ones, but it’s no longer there, (and I always felt like I was shopping in the Soviet Union — very limited selection, lots of empty shelves, and political propaganda posters all over the walls). Several friends offered to sell me a small quantity at cost, but given the fact that I got flack for accepting a bag refund at Whole Foods, I can just imagine how that would have gone. (And to be fair, even I would think that’s sort of cheating.)

    The best thing I came up with was using chicken fat, since that was easy and affordable. But wouldn’t work for vegetarians. Now that I’m thinking about this, I feel like I read or heard something recently about prisoners getting oil by putting something out and letting the oil separate… but I can’t remember what they used. Oh, wait, here’s an idea — buy peanuts, and put them in the blender to make peanut butter. Then let that separate, like it does when you buy natural peanut butter. I wonder how long it would take and how much you would need to get a useful amount?

  33. Rebecca Says:

    This is so “after the fact”, but I just found your site and it is really interesting to me. My family loves good food. We also have quite a crew to feed…eight, and not much money available… it’s a challenge, but I enjoy it. About the oil, a man in China (Mr. China’s Son…his autobiography I read some time ago) pressed oil out of peach seeds during the Culteral Revolution. He would save seeds from peaches they ate, but also scrounged other people’s seeds that they threw out or dropped after eating a peach. A real entreprenuer…he also did some other cleaner…and then some other dirtier! plans to get some cash for his family. He didn’t just get enough oil to cook with, but actually had a small business from it selling jars of oil. Also, you don’t have to have the oil seperate for it to be useful for cooking/baking. Sometimes if I don’t have an egg or no oil I use some mayo if I have any or peanut butter or even banana or avacado. It all depends on where a person lives. Another sub is coconut milk (not the water). You just have to watch the liquid ingredient so it doesn’t become too hydrated. About the chicken fat…when my dad was a kid they had chickens and his mother hated to waste anything. She made cookies using chicken grease. He loves cookies(especially choc chip…but always reminds me to NEVER make them with chicken fat. (Like I needed a reminder.) He says he used to hate cookies until he joined the service (USMC) and ate cookies made with butter!

  34. Allie Says:

    Great challenge you did here. It drives me batty when people say unhealthy food is cheaper, but arguing with them is like arguing w/a religious fanatic – it just serves no purpose.

  35. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks for your comment, sorry I was so slow to approve it. Been trying to take some time away from the computer.

    Yes, I don’t think there’s any point in arguing about unhealthy food being cheaper. Though I’m still mildly obsessed by the idea, trying to figure out what people are talking about, and thinking about other possible projects. One would be to eat a week of typical “cheap” unhealthy food (baloney sandwiches on white bread, mac & cheese, etc. — my main problem with this one is that I’m flummoxed by what these cheap unhealthy foods are — potato chips are $3+ a bag, this is cheap?) to see how much it costs, and then a week of typical “healthy” food (chicken breasts and such) and then a week of frugal healthy food (beans and rice etc.). See how those compare in terms of price and also time in the kitchen and nutrition.

    Over the summer I wasn’t able to cook for a while (I had a herniated disk in my back that prevented me from standing upright) and it was interesting to realize how limited I was by not being able to fix even basic things. In the beginning I didn’t really care, I ate cereal and fruit and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but after 6 weeks or so when I was feeling better but still not able to really do much in the kitchen, eating real meals it was a challenge. You definitely spend more money to eat healthy foods when you can’t cook.


  36. [...] so far, was Rachel Currie’s “Less is Enough” blog and her documentation of her Dollar a Day Project. I mean, talk about perfect. This idea connects to global health and equality and the many families [...]


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