Couponing

Monday, May 31, 2010

Something got me thinking about coupons a couple of weeks ago and I started to write this post then forgot all about it. Found it today languishing in my drafts list, so here it is.

I find the whole coupon phenomenon somewhat fascinating. The main thing that fascinates me is trying to figure out what the couponers actually eat. Most coupons I see are either for processed food that I would rather not buy or things that are completely unnecessary. I’ll admit that I haven’t looked that hard, but I don’t see a lot of coupons for apples or rice.

It also seems like most coupons are buy one-get one or spend x amount of money and get a discount, so you have to actually spend a lot in order to “save” a lot.

This approach doesn’t work for me at all, as I really try to limit how much I’m buying and focus more on the total cash outlay than on the unit cost. I definitely spend more than many people on the individual items I buy, but the total I spend is generally much less than most people because I buy less. I also have much less tied up in inventory. I’m always amazed at how much food people have whenever I go to someone else’s house.

I didn’t used to do this quite so much, but after a brief period of trying to get the lowest price, I realized that buying a lot in order to get a low unit price often turns out to be a false economy, mostly because I’m weirdly picky about stuff, and if I decide I don’t want to use something, I won’t. Sometimes I don’t want to use it because I decide I don’t like it anymore, but sometimes it’s because I realize it’s completely unnecessary and I would be better without it. If you buy things in bulk, you then end up with a whole bunch of stuff you have realized you either don’t want or don’t need, and that’s no bargain at all.

But like I said, I’m mostly baffled by what people who get a huge shopping cart full of groceries for $1.75 actually eat. I see lots of condiments and maybe some snack foods and some other processed food items. There was this one video I watched online where a woman got this huge shopping cart of groceries and everything in it had a coupon; her total cash outlay was less than two dollars. They interviewed her while she was shopping and she talked about what she was getting. For instance she had a coupon for a dollar off from the seafood department, so she bought a quarter pound of fish, which was just over a dollar and used the dollar-off coupon, so it basically cost nothing. But at the end of that transaction, she had a quarter pound of fish. Which is one not-very-big serving. Is that what she cooked for dinner for her family? Yum. Eat up, kids.

I would love to know what the monthly menu is, and also what the total spending is for everything across a whole year, not just the trip where they use all the coupons and spend $1.75. How much did they have to spend to build up the “bonus bucks” and everything else they used on that trip?

It reminds me a little bit of this time I talked to my grandmother after she’d been to the racetrack. I said, “Did you win?” She said, “Yes, I won twenty dollars.” I said, “How much did you bet?” She said, “Well I don’t know, but I won twenty dollars.”

Learning to Cook

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham

Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham

The Splendid Table used to be on on Sundays at noon on my local NPR station, and for a long time I couldn’t listen to it because it drove me nuts, it can be just so pretentious, but then either I got used to it or it got less pretentious (or I got more pretentious? hmm…) and I started listening to it most weeks and then they changed the time and it’s now in the middle of something else I’d rather listen to so I don’t listen to it anymore.

But back when I was listening to it, someone called in during the Q&A portion of the show and said she was a really bad cook, nothing ever turned out right for her, but she really wanted to learn and wondered if Lynne Rossetto Kasper had any suggestions for basic cookbooks for beginner cooks.

I was standing in the kitchen saying, “Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham! Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham!” like it was Jeopardy or something — Baton Rouge, Cindy, Baton Rouge! — but Lynne Rossetto Kasper said, “How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.” And I said NO! Wrong Answer!

Nobody ever listens to me.

Especially when I am in my kitchen and they are on the radio.

But I decided that around graduation season I would put up a post telling people that if they want to get something useful for any graduates in their life, they should get Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham.

The book emerged from a series of classes Marion Cunningham taught for people who wanted to learn how to cook but knew absolutely nothing. She field tested all the recipes on the people in the class and revised and clarified based on things they had problems with or questions they had. So everything is explained in remarkable, painstaking, excruciating detail, yet it is not at all condescending. It’s like having some very nice neighbor take you under her wing and tell you everything you need to know and give you a whole bunch of really great, simple recipes that cover the basics across a range of things you might want to make — appetizers, soups, salads, meat entrées, a whole section on chicken (called “Thank Goodness for Chicken”), meatless main courses, salads, desserts.

I really love this cookbook and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

My Reading List

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I’m just about ready to move on from the food books, but decided on one last session.

I have not been able to get In Defense of Food at the library and finally broke down and bought it, because I’m considering giving it to someone and decided I could just buy it and read it and then give it away and that would be fine. I started it the other night and it seems like Michael Pollan and I had similar reading lists for our projects, many of the things he quotes sound very familiar. So far I’m liking the discussion of Nutritionism very much.

While at Nice Price looking to see if I could get a used copy of In Defense of Food, I came across Mindless Eating, which one of my friends highly recommended, so I got that. And my eye was also caught by The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life by Wendy Shanker. Chick lit tends to make me pull my hair out, and the quote from Jennifer Weiner on the cover almost made me put it back, but I decided to get it anyway.

I started it yesterday and took the bus to Chapel Hill was standing there trying to get the fare box to take my dollar and the driver said, “You’re not fat. Why are you reading that?”

I’ll be sure to remember that the next time I’m at the beach.

I’m looking forward to finishing the food and health books so I can move on to my new area of interest, which is how we ended up with gross processed food as norm and cooking from scratch as this crazy thing that no one has time for. This is connected to all kinds of things — industrialization, the rise of consumerism, gender politics, and the feminist movement, to name but a few — and I’m starting to build a new reading list to cover all of that (including Building a Housewife’s Paradise, which I picked up from my friends at UNC Press and which I can’t wait to read). So hopefully I’ll have interesting things to say about some of that before too long.

Still planning on writing up some overview info about food and cooking and health. And if everyone everywhere would stop asking me for things, it would go a lot faster. But so far I’ve been entirely unsuccessful at making people go away.

Burgers

Sunday, May 16, 2010

As some readers of this blog have probably been able to figure out, I like a good burger.

It’s so easy to get burgers when eating out, I usually get my fill that way, but sometimes I decide I want one but don’t feel like going out and will make one at home. If I’m making it at home, I make a trip to Whole Foods and get half a pound or so of ground chuck, and use half of it for the burger and put the other half in the freezer to use later in a Universal Pilaf, or to make empanada filling or something like that.

A couple of times recently when I’ve gotten ground beef at Whole Foods, the butcher has told me I should chop bacon into really small pieces and mix it in with the ground beef and cook that for my burger. He said it’s really good.

I’m kind of a burger purist, and generally I prefer to eat one kind of meat at a time, so I hadn’t done it. But on Saturday I decided I was going to have a burger and I was walking over to get stuff and thought, “Now what was it I was supposed to mix in with my burger?” and then I remembered that it was bacon and I decided I should try it.

So I got some bacon ($2.46) along with my ground chuck ($2.31) and took about a third of a piece of bacon (the bacon from the butcher counter at Whole Foods is much more substantial than packaged bacon, not sure what the equivalent amount of packaged bacon would be) and chopped it up and mixed it together and pan fried the resulting hamburger patty on the stove.

Holy cow was that good.

Not good if you’re recovering from open heart surgery or if you have an appointment the next day to get you cholesterol levels checked, but if health is not your primary concern, it was pretty darn awesome. I ate it in smaller and smaller bites as I went along and looked at the last of the bun sadly when it was gone.

In other bacon-related news, my friend Cathy forwarded this recipe for Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies. So I may try to make those at some point.

For those of you who have never tried to make a burger at home, I’ll pass along Marion Cunningham’s recipe for The Perfect California Burger, which is based on the recipe developed in 1936 by Bob Wian, who started the Bob’s Big Boy restaurant chain.

The Perfect California Hamburger

1 sturdy, fresh, tender hamburger bun
3 to 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
4 tablespoons finely chopped onion
Vegetable oil or shortening
1/4 to 1/3 pound fresh ground beef with 1/3 part fat
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup shaved (chiffonade) clean, crisp, iceberg lettuce
2 to 3 tablespoons sweet relish

Only if you must:
2 tablespoons ball-park mustard (no Dijon)
2 tablespoons ketchup
Cheese (only mild Cheddar, please)

Slice the hamburger bun in half. Stir the mayonnaise and onion together and spread on one half of the bun. Heat a skillet and film the bottom with a little shortening or oil. Lightly form the meat into a patty and put it into the hot skillet. Salt and pepper the top very liberally. Fry for 2 or 3 minutes (don’t press down with a spatula because this will dry the meat). Turn the hamburger over and salt and pepper it again. Fry until cooked to your liking. Put the hamburger patty on the onion mayonnaise, and spread the other half of the bun with relish and whatever additional condiments you may be using. Spread the lettuce over, add a slice if cheese, if you must, and put the bun together.

And here are my notes/tips.

I don’t like mayonnaise on my burgers so I mix the ketchup and mustard with the onion. I use pickles instead of relish. I don’t add cheese. And on Saturday, I added bacon, which was a tremendous addition.

When my parents were living outside of Kansas City when I was in college, I came home for the summer and worked at the Mission Hills Country Club snack bar and I learned a bunch of useful things, not the least of which was how to tell how done meat is by poking it.

Rare meat feels like the fleshy part of your hand at the base of your thumb when your thumb is pulled all the way in. Well-done meat feels like that part of the hand when your thumb is stretched all the way out. Depending on how rare you want your burger, you want it to feel like somewhere in between those two extremes.

Not sure if that makes sense or not. A friend actually ran across a postcard with pictures describing this procedure and sent it to me not too long ago. I’ll see if I can dig that up and post the picture. I think it will make more sense.

Expense Wrap Up

Saturday, May 15, 2010

When I started this project in January, I said I would spend $100 a month and write about what I bought and ate. I normally spend about $90 a month, so I figured I would add a little bit of cushion because I wanted to focus a little more on healthy food, and I didn’t want to have to worry about going over.

I did a pretty good job for the first few weeks, but February didn’t go so well. I had two difficult work things come up on basically the same day, one of them totally unexpected and one that should have been done weeks before but had gotten stuck in some kind of bureaucratic black hole and just happened to reappear at the worst possible moment. So at that point, everything kind went of out the window and I never really recovered.

The thing that’s funny about my spending is that it tends to average out pretty consistently. I usually spend $10 to $15 per trip to the grocery store; if I decide to go crazy and get whatever I want and not worry about how much it is, I spend $25 to $35.

Things were not always like this.

I used to spend $75 to $100 when I’d go in for a big trip, and my monthly grocery bill was two or three times what it is now. It has definitely been a gradual process of figuring out what I really need, what’s worth spending my money on, what I can do without, etc.

(Note also that this is only for food. I think most people have other things in their grocery bill that I don’t have — household products like toilet paper and paper towels and personal care products like toothpaste, etc. I track those in separate budget categories, and also there are a lot of things that other people buy that I don’t buy at all, or else I use them in such small quantities that I buy them very infrequently. For instance I make most of my personal care products, and a lot of things I’ve learned are really just not necessary. Dryer sheets and air fresheners spring immediately to mind, but the list is practically endless.)

In terms of how I ended up spending less than $25 a week on groceries, I would say that the things that helped me the most were focusing just a few days ahead instead of trying to make sure I got everything I ever might need every time I went to the store, and using cash for all my purchases.

Using cash was really hard in the beginning. I would take cash out to last two weeks and it would be almost all gone after four days. I’d have to make it through the next week and a half with like five dollars. That really made me focus on working with what I had in the freezer and pantry, and made me think about what I could do with the least amount of cash outlay. It also re-programmed me so I could function with cash in my wallet again, an ability I had lost. I use cash for almost everything now. (Actual paper cash, not debit card cash. Using a debit card doesn’t feel all that different to me from using a credit card.) I definitely spend differently when I’m using the finite amount of cash in my wallet than when I’m using a debit or credit card.

I also think walking to the store helps. Unless you buy expensive, lightweight things (I’m not sure what would fall in that category — caviar? I guess really expensive cheese could cost a lot without weighing very much) you start to max out on what you can carry before you’ve spent too much money.

So anyway, that’s how things work in my regular life. I used to monitor my spending very closely, mostly because otherwise I tend to think I’ve spent more than I have and not buy things that I probably should, but I stopped doing that last year when my income briefly fell off a cliff and decided to just embrace my inner scrooge.

So I was not totalling my expenses on this project until I would put together numbers to post on the expense page, and I hadn’t don’t any kind of averages or anything. I knew I had some cushion to work with because the first month was under and the second month was even further under so I wasn’t really worrying about it, and then when I got busy I was just trying to get through.

I finally put together the Expense Summary, and the totals were

January — $81.72
February — $66.01
April — $121.90

Three-Month Average — $89.88

Which I think just goes to show that I average about $90 a month on groceries. Period.

Week Fifteen

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Last one?

I made the granola bars/blobs Sunday night 4/25 so spent much of Week Fifteen (4/26 – 5/2) eating granola.

Monday I had much granola while I worked then finished up the sesame noodles and edamame from Week Fourteen for dinner, with kiwifruit for dessert along with a bowl of corn flakes

I was again stuck inside working and eating granola for many hours on Tuesday and finally took a break to go get something for dinner but couldn’t decide what I wanted and finally decided that what I wanted was a roast beef sandwich and pasta salad, so I just went to Whole Foods.

Week Fifteen, part I

Week Fifteen, part I

Bought roast beef sandwich stuff — about a third of a pound of roast beef (In House Roast Beef), half a loaf of sourdough bread (Half Sourdough), a tomato (Tomatoes Roma CV) and an onion (organic red onions). I also bought a yellow onion (Onions Sweet Texas) and some salad fixins — loose salad mix (Lettuce Spring Mix), mushrooms (Mushroom White 8 oz), and a cucumber (Cucumber Cv). And a can of tomatoes (All Purpose Crushe) because I was considering making tomato soup but ended up not.

I was going to get a green pepper to use in my pasta salad with the red onion, but green peppers were $1.99 and red peppers were $2.49 and I like red peppers way more than green peppers so if I’m going to pay two dollars for a green pepper, I might as well spend an extra fifty cents and get a red pepper (Peppers Bell Red C). I also got a reload on bananas (Yellow Bananas Cv) and some pasta (Penne Rigate Pasta).

When I got home, I made a very basic pasta salad with red pepper, onion, oil and vinegar, and basil and had that with a roast beef sandwich (on sourdough bread with onion and tomato) for dinner.

On Wednesday I finally finished one of the things I’d been working on and after that made biscuits and bacon and eggs and a smoothie for a combination breakfast/lunch/dinner and then took a nice long nap and then tried to regroup.

On Thursday, I had granola and fruit for breakfast and roast beef sandwich and fruit for dinner and I finished another big thing I’d been working on.

On Friday I had a really good fried green tomato BLT at the Weathervane at A Southern Season with a work friend to celebrate the two big things we’d been working on for months and months that were finally done.

On Saturday, I decided I should deal with the mushrooms, so I chopped those up and sautéed in olive oil with garlic. I mixed some into my  scrambled eggs and wrapped up the rest and put them into the freezer. I had an English muffin and fried apples to go with the scrambled eggs and mushrooms, and I did not have any strawberry shortcake at the Strawberry Festival but I did have a little bit of whipped cream.

Later, I stopped at King’s on my way home from Lowe’s and bought a chicken and could not help myself and also bought a chuck roast, as I had been temporarily obsessed with the idea of making a pot roast. Not sure where this is coming from. Maybe too many weeks of cereal.

I also bought a potato and some green beans.

The King’s receipt is missing in action. Sorry. I’ll put it up later if it turns up. The total was $14.66 — the chicken was small, less than three pounds, and around $1.39/lb so the total was around $4 and the chuck roast was around $9. Which means that the green beans and potato weren’t much at all.

When I got home, I decided it was time to deal with the freezer, which was not in great shape after many weeks of erratic eating.

I processed the bag of random bread scraps into bread crumbs and pulled out all the  things I’d been saving for stock — shrimp shells and chicken bones and such — and made shrimp stock and poached the chicken from King’s along with the chicken bones. I pulled the meat off the chicken and had some for dinner along with a big salad, using the salad mix I bought on Tuesday and had almost forgotten about. The rest went into the freezer.

So after Saturday’s effort, I ended up with a freezer that contained about two cups of bread crumbs, two servings of sautéed mushrooms, two and a half quarts of chicken stock, two and a half quarts of shrimp stock, and three cups of cooked chicken. And no more bags of random things falling out of the freezer every time I open it.

I’ve also been restocking the frozen bananas, which had been completely depleted, and there were macadamia nuts and pecans left from the granola. So my freezer is actually  in pretty good shape again.

On Sunday, I had oatmeal and an apple for breakfast then mix-and-match dinner of everything else I had hanging around in the refrigerator: cheese and crackers with tomato, pasta salad, carrots, dried figs, almonds.

Time for a fresh start.

Week Fourteen

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

So the thing about writing this blog is that the longer I go without writing something, the easier it is to forget that I’m supposed to be writing. Nothing happens if I don’t put up a blog post. I don’t lose money, no one calls me and asks me where that blog post is or if I’m planning on writing something or if everything is okay. So after my week off last week, it’s been hard getting motivated again.

But through a great effort of will, I’ve overcome the inertia and here I am.

I’ll wrap up the last two weeks of April, and then hopefully write up some overview-type posts. The only reason I’m tempted to keep going with the weekly reporting is because I had so many pathetic weeks of cereal and peanut butter sandwiches. I’d like to think that this is not representative of my actual life, but who knows, maybe I’m just deluding myself. Maybe it would be better to stop tracking and let me believe this was just an aberration. (It’s also possible that the act of blogging itself makes my life nuts enough that my normal eating routine is thrown off, in which case I will never have a normal month as long as I am writing about it and only by not writing about it can I get things back to normal. Like the observer effect in physics, where the act of observing something changes what is being observed. Hmm…)

But enough of that. On to Week Fourteen.

Week Fourteen (4/19 – 4/25) was moving toward the end of my crazy busy weeks, but was again mostly pathetic.

I was stuck dealing with work stuff on Monday and didn’t get out of the house until late, but I did eventually manage a trip to Whole Foods.

Week Fourteen, part I

Week Fourteen, part I

But I was again not inspired when I got there, so got mostly fruit — dried figs (Unsulphured Turkis), strawberries (Berries Straw 1# P), kiwifruit (Kiwi Bin Og), an apple (Applies Granny Smit), a pear (D’Anjou Pears Og) — along with a quart of milk (Lowfat Milk 32 oz) and a potato (Potatoes Russet Cv).

Total with the $3 in bottle return and $0.10 bag refund was $7.44.

Monday was lots of grains (oatmeal, toast, brown rice, corn flakes, granola), some fruit (apple, strawberries, orange juice), some nuts (peanut butter, cashews), and some carrots. And some Girl Scout cookies.

Tuesday was the last of the Hoisin chicken, some carrots and peanuts for snacks, figs and Girl Scout cookies for dessert. Breakfast was cereal with strawberries and milk along with toast with peanut butter. And actually, that’s what I had for breakfast pretty much all week so I’m going to stop repeating that every day.

When I wrote up my weekly post about Week Thirteen, I was reminded about how great those tacos from the stand on Roxboro and Club were, so I went back for another round of those for dinner. They’re my new favorite thing — and I’ll probably go again tomorrow now that I’m thinking about them again. It’s a vicious cycle.

I taught my cleaners class on Thursday 4/22 and was going out of town on Friday 4/23 so stopped at Whole Foods in the midst of my running around for that to get stuff to make granola bars, which I wrote about separately and, as noted, I didn’t actually make before going out of town.

Week Fourteen, part II

Week Fourteen, part II

While I was there getting the granola stuff (receipt posted separately), I bought some bananas and a bag of Pink Lady apples, which are my second favorite apple after Granny Smiths, and which Whole Foods has been selling in three pound bags with these little mini apples. They’re great.

After running around doing class stuff, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana and a glass of milk and a Kind bar. Then I ran around some more, then had class, and after that, I made sesame noodles and cooked a bag of edamame which I had in the freezer, which was presumably on some past receipt. For dessert I had a bowl of cereal with strawberries and milk.

On Friday, I got up and had meetings then ran around then had more meetings then ran around some more. While I was running around the first time I stopped at Cosmic and got a chicken deluxe burrito, which I ate after my second meeting and before the second session of running around. Then I drove to Fairfax for my Scrap event.

On Saturday, I had Hampton Inn breakfast bar food for breakfast and not-yet-granola for lunch and Korean barbecue for dinner and a Snickers Blizzard for dessert on the ride home. All of which was good, and none of which is included in my monthly totals — Hampton Inn because it was included with the room, which was paid by someone other than me, granola and Blizzard because they came from the per diem money, and Korean barbecue because the tab was picked up by one of my nice, generous friends.

On Sunday, I attempted to recover from Saturday with fruit and grains — oatmeal, raisins, apple, smoothie, brown rice. I also had an Idaho Sunrise with cream cheese, and a little bit of vegetarian chilli over the rice for dinner, and a pear and some almonds for dessert.

And that was it for Week Fourteen.

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