Mindless Eating

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, a friend recommended the book Mindless Eating to me and I happened to run across it at my friendly local used book store (Nice Price Books) and picked up a copy. I finished it a week or two ago and thought it was great!

It’s by a researcher at Cornell University who studies food and eating behavior, and the studies themselves are fascinating (I especially liked the one about North Dakota wine) and also the insight it gives about simple things you can do to adjust your eating patterns seems really useful.

The point that I liked the most was in the end where he talks about working on changing habits.

The basic thrust of the book is that there are a lot of small things in our environment that add up to encourage people to eat more than they want or need to, and by paying attention to those things and flipping them around, you can set up your food environment to push you in the other direction.

His strategy is that you should take some time to figure out where your problem areas are — Do you get hungry in the afternoon and buy snacks from the vending machine? Do you go out with friends and eat and drink too much at happy hour? Do you take too many second helpings at the dinner table? — and then work to change those problem areas by creating new habits.

To do this, you come up with up to three simple habits you will focus on for the next month. (You don’t want to do more than three because you want to keep it simple and not try to make too many changes at once. Doing a little bit at a time will be easier and almost imperceptible, so you’re less likely to run into the difficulties people hit when trying to make a whole bunch of big changes.) Things like, “I will drink a glass of water before I eat,” or “I will plate food in the kitchen and not leave serving bowls on the table,” or “I will park at the far end of the parking lot even if there are spots closer.”

You take out a piece of paper and write down the habit(s) you want to establish with a column for each day of the month, and every day you do the thing you’re supposed to, you put a check mark in the column for that day. Once you’ve reliably established that habit — when it starts to feel like second nature and you don’t have to think about it much anymore — you can move on to a new habit.

I love this idea because it’s simple and manageable and it gives people something really specific to focus on.

A few years ago I was working on a project that resulted in a lot of procrastination, and I started working away from my office in an internet-free location to avoid internet-based procrastination (my usual downfall) so I had to come up with some new procrastination options, and I started playing pool.

One of the more interesting things I discovered while playing pool was that if I focused on what I wanted to happen — like if I wanted to hit the ball really hard, and I thought about hitting the ball really hard — I would invariably make a terrible shot. (Random aside, a guy I was playing with once told me that to hit it hard I should pretend I was hitting my boyfriend upside the head — “Just smack it. Smack it as hard as you can.”) But if I focused on what I needed to do to hit the ball hard — draw my elbow straight back, keep my arm close to my body — more times than not, the shot would be great.

And I think that revelation totally fits with the Mindless Eating approach.

You break down your problem into small, very specific pieces, then focus on one piece at a time. So you’re not thinking about the larger issue at all (hitting the ball hard, losing weight) you’re taking action to address specific problems (keeping your elbow straight, not taking seconds at dinner). Once one problem is fixed, you can move on to the next.

I think this idea can be applied to almost anything — not just health-related things like eating better and exercising more but any problem area in you life, from watching less tv to keeping your house clean to spending more time with friends and family. Pick one thing you do that causes problems and work on changing that one thing. Once that’s changed, pick something else. You probably won’t see immediate results, but you’ll make steady progress and that’s likely to be more sustainable than larger, more drastic changes.

And definitely check out the book if you get the chance — Mindless Eating by Bryan Wansinik, Ph.D. — or for you short-attention span folks, the website.

Coupons and the Big Picture

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Okay so I’ve been sporadically following the dollar a day coupon thing and I’m having trouble getting past the weirdness of it all.

American consumerism in general gives me the heebie jeebies so I just don’t think I could bring myself to spend the mental energy required to (a) spend time looking up deals on the internet and/or (b) go into CVS more than twice a year. Drugstores give me the heebie jeebies even more than grocery stores. At least with grocery stores I can stick to the outside and have it be mostly okay. But there’s no happy spot for me in a CVS or Walgreens, it’s just acres and acres of icky packaged products.

Also I’m slightly torn by the ethics of the whole thing.

On the one hand, these coupons are created by manufacturers to lure people in and to get them to use a product, and the stores and manufacturers are creating the game so it’s up to them to set the rules. If people figure out a way to make money off of it, then that’s the fault of the stores and manufacturers for setting up a flawed system. And obviously not everyone gets things to work at quite this level (i.e., buying only what is free or very cheap) because if they did, the manufacturers and stores would change the rules faster than you can say BOGO.

On the other hand, that’s not really how it’s intended to work — people aren’t supposed to go out and get as many Rolaids coupons as they can get their hands on and then buy scores of Rolaids that they don’t need in order to generate $1 for each one they buy. Especially if there is a limit printed on the coupon. If something says “limit four per customer,” is it okay to get twenty-eight of them and make seven trips through the checkout line so you don’t trigger the limit?

I remembered reading some interesting articles in The Tightwad Gazette about ethics and coupons, so I went back and looked at those and, as usual, I think Amy Dacyczyn is right on.

She talks about how ethical situations are often a gray area where lines are drawn in different places by different people but that determining what is or is not ethical is fairly straightforward. As she says: “It is wrong to save money at the expense of others.”

Indeed.

She goes on to say

Small, seemingly insignificant acts such as pilfering office supplies, swiping sugar packets, and steaming postage stamps, and fudging income taxes and insurance claims merely pass along your costs to other consumers. It doesn’t matter if your boss pays you too little; the restaurant, the post office, or the insurance company charges too much; or if the government doesn’t spend funds entirely on programs that you approve of. The collective impact of this raises the cost of living for everyone.

I’m not sure where buying forty packages of Philadelphia Cream Cheese Minis to generate $1.50 that you use to buy eggs and bananas falls on this continuum, but I do agree wholeheartedly with another statement she makes about using coupons:

Our family generally uses coupons to buy nonfood items, and food items that cannot be prepared from scratch. But most food coupons are for convenience foods. Often the foods are more processed. Even when these items can be purchased cheaply, it should be considered that your family is acquiring a taste for these more expensive and less healthful items. This could potentially create bigger grocery bills in the future. Many of the products have more packaging as well. So even when Jell-O Pudding Snack Paks are near free, I seriously question these purchases because of the environmental issue of the excess trash created.

I think that last sentence is especially relevant to the dollar a day example where the first purchase was of a plastic spray bottle of cleaner along with a plastic tub of spray cleaner refill, the sole purpose of which was to generate coupons, and the next few purchases involved forty individually packaged cream cheeses.

The first part of the quote, about acquiring a taste for more processed foods (which, as a totally unrelated aside, makes me think of the signs about not feeding the bears in Yellowstone) is also important. If I had eight boxes of Wheat Thins, I would eat eight boxes of Wheat Thins. The reason all of these offers for snack foods are buy one, get one is because most people are incapable of eating small quantities of these kinds of foods and the more Doritos, Wheat Thins, Crunch ‘N Munch, and Pringles you have around, the more you will eat, and the more you will buy in the future. Therefore I don’t consider free Wheat Thins to be any kind of bargain, and in fact I’d like Wheat Thins to be as expensive as possible so I ration them properly.

So overall for me, the problem is not with the ethics of it — it’s not like I would do this project if my high moral standards didn’t get in the way — the main issue is that I don’t want to participate in the consumer culture to the extent required to make this work. The reason I want to use less is not just to save money but to make my life easier and to have less of an impact on the world around me. I don’t want to get a whole bunch of processed, packaged products — even if they’re free, and even if I’m going to give them away — because my life got better when I stopped buying things like that, and I think everyone else’s life would get better too, if they relied more on basic ingredients and less on packaged products.

In addition to improving my day-to-day quality of life, I also reduced my resource consumption, which is important to me. Everything you buy — even if it’s “free” — has to be produced, packaged, shipped, stocked, and sold, and when the product is gone, the packaging has to go somewhere. In America, “somewhere” would be the landfill. Which requires additional resources to create, maintain, and keep stocked with fresh trash. The fundamental reason there is a flood of oil in the Gulf is not because BP cut corners or regulators let things slide, but because we use too much oil. Everyone, all of us. The best way to solve the problem is not picketing the local BP station, which is just silly and barely even affects BP, but to use less of everything.

A secondary issue for me is that I don’t want to buy food at CVS. I don’t want to decide what I’m going to eat based on what’s on special that I can get a coupon for. I would much rather spend the time figuring out how to get what I like for as little as possible and work from that angle rather than going at it from the other direction.

And all of this, I think, highlights the fact that there is more than one road to saving money.

You can do what I did and try to buy less, use less, stop using things, and make things yourself, or you can work within the system and get points on your credit card, use coupons, and take advantage of the deals that are out there. In general, I think there are a lot more resources available (blogs, articles, books) for the latter approach, and I think many people probably think that’s the only way to do it, which is the main reason I wanted to do my version of the dollar a day project. I know it seems un-American but it’s possible to spend less by buying less while still being happy.

But no matter what you do, you should think about the big picture and what you want your life to be like and what you want the world you live in to be like. I don’t particularly want to live in a world where there is a CVS on every corner filled with Cheese Doodles and Old Spice bodywash. I suppose it’s possible that the act of maxing out coupons to get free stuff is so subversive that it would ultimately bring down CVS and cause Old Spice to stop making bodywash but I’m not willing to take the chance on that.

More on Couponing

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thanks to the commenter who posted the link to the coupon website where someone ate for a $1 a day using coupons.

Fascinating!

So it turns out I was missing some key pieces of information. First, if you get the right combination of things (e.g., store discount card, manufacturer’s coupons, store coupons) you can actually purchase items that have a discount that is greater than the cost of the item, meaning that you make money every time you buy it. Second, you can often get things at cost or nearly at cost using a combination of special offers and coupons, and doing so will allow you to use discounts that apply to your entire purchase, bringing down the cost of the things you buy that don’t have coupons or other discounts attached to them.

At first I thought this seemed like bad design on the part of the stores and food producers but on further reflection, it occurs to me that they might actually  like it. Just like casinos need people to occasionally win money in order to give everyone hope and keep them coming back, stores might need people to succeed using coupons to keep other people who aren’t as committed (or savvy or skilled or whatever it is you need to make this work) participating in the system.

Or maybe they just didn’t think this through all the way. Who knows.

So the big money maker in the beginning of the project was Philadelphia cream cheese minis, which had $5.00 off special offer when purchased in multiples of five, making them $0.49 each and which had an in-store coupon for $0.55 off, with an unlimited number of coupons available. So this meant that the person doing the project made $0.30 for every five cream cheeses he bought.

And of course I had to spend half the day today reading the whole thing to see how it turned out instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing. And to save the rest of you from that fate, here’s my report.

From what I could tell, he didn’t generally use manufacturer’s coupons to buy the things he actually ate. He bought whatever he had the most coupons for that would generate the most additional coupons (in the form of “catalinas” — the $1 off or $3 off coupons that come out with your receipt) and that would allow his total to get to the level that would make additional coupons usable. For instance, if he needed $20 in order to use a coupon, he would buy stuff that he had coupons for that cost little to nothing — or, in the case of the Philadelphia cream cheese, actually generated income — that would get the total where it needed to be.

So on Day One, where he purchased things at CVS, he really only needed the rice ($2.49), peanut butter ($1.67), and pork and beans ($1.00), which comes to $5.16, and he had a $4 off coupon, so that would be $1.16 but in order to use the coupon he needed to spend $20. So he bought 8 boxes of Wheat Thins that were on special for $1.00 (I think to people with a CVS Bonus card? not entirely clear on that) and for which he also had eight $1 off coupons from Facebook, making the Wheat Thins free. He also had two coupons for free bags of Ghiradelli chocolates that he had from before the contest started. So he got the $5.16 worth of items he wanted plus $8 worth of Wheat Thins plus $8.58 worth of chocolate, bringing the total to $21.76 ($16.58 of which was free) and allowing him to use the $4 off coupon, making his total spent $1.16.

Now, he notes that his sister made him give up the chocolates since he had the coupons from before the project started, but she allowed the purchase to stand. I am more of a stickler, and would have been inclined to make him re-do the entire purchase and get it to work without the previously saved Ghiradelli coupons.

But that’s just me.

This same money-making strategy came into play later in the project, with different things.

He was able to get some great combination of discounts on Kellogg’s cereal, buying 28 boxes with 7 trips through the checkout line in order to get bananas, ground beef, tomatoes, broccoli, wheat bread, and pasta sauce. He got deals on the pasta sauce — coupons for Classico, plus a Safeway coupon where you get two free Safeway brand when you buy two Classico, so I think that was $1 or $2 for four jars of pasta sauce — but it seemed like most of the rest of the food he purchased to eat wasn’t actually discounted.

This was just what I needed to see in terms of how it all works.

Overall, he had some killer good prices on food (avocados for $0.33! I’m so jealous!), but was limited by the fact that he doesn’t normally cook and fully admitted that he was lacking in kitchen skills.

Some commenters noted that they thought his food looked awful but I thought it looked okay. I think I would have gotten regular mayonnaise instead of Miracle Whip, but he definitely made the right call in returning the relish and getting Miracle Whip in the first place. And clearly the problem was not the amount of money he had available, but the choices he made in terms of what he bought. And that was a function of past cooking experience, not his budget. So I think he succeeded quite well and definitely met both the spirit and the letter of the challenge.

It looks like he’s continuing the experiment but I really need to get some work done so I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that.

In general, I have to say that I admire people who can figure out how to make the whole coupon thing work, but there’s something just so … weird about it.

In order to make this strategy work, you start by getting loads of stuff you don’t want or need (e.g., bodywash, deodorant, 28 boxes of corn flakes, etc.). Obviously you can give it away — he makes regular donations to food banks — but it still seems so … I don’t know, wrongly excessive … for it to be cheaper to get a whole bunch of crap than to just get what you need. Especially the $0.06 income on cream cheese. So the first two days, he would just go get as many cream cheeses as he could, making $0.06 on each one, and use that to pay for cheap things like bananas and eggs. So he bought ten cream cheeses plus $0.62 worth of bananas for a net cost $0.02 and then twenty cream cheeses and a dozen eggs for $1.99 giving him a net cost of $0.79. That’s so bizarre!!

I think it’s probably good that this does not appeal to me at all as a leisure time activity, it’s hard enough for me to get things done as it is. But all of you out there in couponland dig it, then you should go for it. Welcome to America.

A is for Dining Alone

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I finished In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan and for the most part, I thought it was good, but I have some concerns with the “rules” he gives in the end. I may do a post with full comments on that, but for now I’ll just tackle the one I really hate:

Try not to eat alone.

I’m sure this is perfectly good advice for people who live with other people, but as far as I’m concerned it’s terrible advice for people who live alone — at least some of whom would probably rather not be living alone. So in case they didn’t feel bad enough already, they now get to think there’s something wrong with them every single time they don’t go out of their way to make plans to eat with other people.

So I am here to say… Don’t listen to Michael Pollan.

There’s nothing wrong with eating alone and no one should ever feel bad or self-conscious about it.

And to counter that bit of bad advice, I will herewith provide an excerpt from M.F.K. Fisher, who started her Alphabet for Gourmets (published serially in Gourmet magazine beginning in December 1948, when she was 40 years old — seven years after the death of her second husband, the love of her life, and while she was in the middle of her third marriage, which lasted from 1945 to 1951), with “A is for Dining Alone.”

A is for Dining Alone

…and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself. This misanthropic attitude is one I am not proud of, but it is firmly there, based on my increasing conviction that sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

There are few people alive with whom I care to pray, sleep, dance, sing or share my bread and wine. Of course there are times when this latter cannot be avoided if we to are exist socially, but it is endurable only because it need not be the only fashion of self-nourishment.

There is always the cheering prospect of a quiet or giddy or warmly somber or lightly notable meal with “One,” as Elizabeth Robins Pennell refers to him or her in The Feasts of Autolycus. “One sits at your side feasting in silent sympathy,” this lady wrote at the end of the last century in her mannered and delightful book. She was, at this point, thinking of eating an orange in southern Europe, but any kind of food will do, in any clime, so long as One is there.

I myself have been blessed among women in this respect — which is of course the main reason that, if One is not there, dining alone is generally preferable to any other way for me.

It took several years of such periods of being alone to learn how to care for myself, at least at table. I came to believe that since nobody else dared feed me as I wished to be fed, I must do it myself, and with as much aplomb as I could muster. Enough of hit or miss suppers of tinned soup and boxed biscuits and an occcasional egg just because I had failed once more to rate an invitation!

I resolved to establish myself as a well-behaved female at one or two good restaurants, where I could dine alone at a pleasant table with adequate attentions rather than be pushed into a corner and given a raw or overweary waiter. To my credit, I managed to carry out this resolution, at least to the point where two headwaiters accepted me: they knew I tipped well, they knew I wanted simple but excellent menus, and, above all, they knew that I could order and drink, all my myself, an apértif and a small bottle of wine or a mug of ale, without turning into a maudlin, potential pick-up for the Gentlemen at the Bar.

Once or twice a week I would go to one of these restaurants and with carefully disguised self-conciousness would order my meal, taking heed to have things that would nourish me thoroughly as well as agreeably, to make up for the nights ahead when soup and crackers would be my fare. I met some interesting waiters: I continue to agree with a modern Mrs. Malaprop who said, “They are so much nicer than people!”

My expensive little dinners, however, became, in spite of my good intentions, no more than a routine prescription for existence. I had long believed that, once having bowed to the inevitability of the dictum that we must eat to live, we should ignore it and live to eat, in proportion of course. And there I was, spending more money than I should, on a grim plan which became increasingly complicated.

That was when I decided that my own walk-up flat, my own script-cluttered room with the let-down bed, was the place for me. “Never be daunted in public” was an early Hemingway phrase that had more than once bolstered me in my timid twenties. I changed it resolutely to “Never be daunted in private.”

I rearranged my schedule, so that I could market on my way to the studio each morning. The more perishable tidbits I hid in the water-cooler just outside my office, instead of dashing to an all-night grocer for tins of this and that at the end of a long day. I bought things that would adapt themselves artfully to an electric chafing dish: cans of shad roe (a good solitary dish, since I always feel that nobody really likes it but me), consommé double, and such. I grew deliberately fastidious about eggs and butter; the biggest, brownest eggs were none too good, nor could any butter be too clover-fresh and sweet. I set in a case of two of “unpretentious but delightful little wines.” I was determined about the whole thing, which in itself is a great drawback emotionally. But I knew no alternative.

I ate very well indeed. I liked it too — at least more than I had liked my former can-openings or my elaborate preparations for dining out. I treated myself fairly dispassionately as a marketable thing, at least from ten to six daily, in a Hollywood studio story department, and I fed myself to maintain top efficiency. I recognized the dull facts that certain foods affected me this way, others that way. I tried to apply what I knew of proteins and so forth to my own chemical pattern, and I deliberately scrambled two eggs in a little sweet butter when quite often I would have liked a glass of sherry and a hot bath and to hell with food.

I almost never ate meat, mainly because I did not miss it and secondarily because it was inconvenient to cook on a little grill and to cut upon a plate balanced on my knee. Also it made the one-room apartment smell. I invented a great many different salads, of fresh lettuces and herbs and vegetables, of marinated tinned vegetables, now and then of crabmeat and the like. I learned a few tricks to play on canned soups, and Escoffier as well as the Chinese would be astonished at what I did with beef bouillon and a handful of watercress or a teaspoonful of soy.

I always ate slowly, from a big tray set with a mixture of Woolworth and Spode; and I soothed my spirits beforehand with a glass of sherry or vermouth, subscribing to the ancient truth that only a relaxed throat can make a swallow. More often than not I drank a glass or two of light wine with the hot food: a big bowl of soup, with a fine pear and some Teleme Jack cheese; or two very round eggs, from a misnamed “poacher,” on sourdough toast with browned butter poured over and a celery heart alongside for something crisp; or a can of bean sprouts, tossed with sweet butter and some soy and lemon juice, and a big glass of milk.

Things tasted good and it was a relief to be away from my job and from the curious disbelieving impertinence of the people in restaurants. I still wished, in what was almost a theoretical way, that I was not cut off from the world’s trenchermen by what I had written for and about them. But, and there was no cavil here, I felt firmly then, as I do this very minute, that snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality. If One could not be with me, “feasting in silent sympathy,” then I was my best companion.

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