More on The Middle Ground

Sunday, March 25, 2012

[I wrote this shortly after writing my post on The Middle Ground in August, and it promptly got lost in half-written blog-post purgatory. But when I looked at it tonight, it seemed almost done, so I decided to finish and post.]

There was an op-ed reprinted in the N&O by Frank Bruni, food critic for the New York Times commenting on the culinary divide between the Elites and (to borrow a Pioneer Woman parody phrase) the Budget People. Multimillionaire food personality and cookbook author Paula Deen is defending her copious use of bacon and butter by talking about how she’s giving recipes for real people, not people who can spend “$58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine.” In her spat with her fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who took her to task for promoting unhealthy foods, she said she cooks for “regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills.”

I haven’t actually ever looked at a Paula Deen recipe, so I am unable to comment on whether or not they are budget-minded (I suspect not), and obviously, you can have too much home-cooked bacon and butter, but I think we’d be moving in the right direction if bacon and butter that people put in recipes they cook themselves were the biggest problems we were dealing with. Because that would mean that we had conquered the problems of sugared soft drinks with every meal, fast food meals three times a week, ginormous portion sizes, and continuous snacking. To name but a few.

I woke up this morning thinking about the process of learning to cook and decided that I should be more vocal in my support of the judicious use of convenience foods in putting meals on the table day in and day out. I actually think they can serve an important function.

If you want to learn to juggle, you don’t start out with a bowling ball, a chainsaw, and a flaming torch. You don’t even start out with three balls. You start out with one ball. And as you get the hang of that, you add another, then another. Then after you’ve gotten really good at juggling three balls, you can add even more — or you add chainsaws and bowling balls and standing on your head in the dark. Or whatever you want to do to keep things interesting.

I feel like the Dollar a Day Project — starting with no food and being able to spend only one dollar at a time — was the chainsaw-and-bowling-ball version of home cooking. It took thought and preparation. It was challenging. And the only reason I was able to do it was because I’d been doing what I do for so long that I’m good at it, and most of it I don’t have to think about at all.

But most people aren’t looking for a challenge when they’re thinking about dinner, they want something quick and easy that will taste good. And that’s why they don’t cook from scratch and end up getting take-out instead — take-out feels easier than cooking.

I remember a few years ago talking to my mom on the phone. She said they were supposed to go out for dinner but then she remembered she had something to do that she had completely forgotten about. She said, “We didn’t have time to go out, I made chili instead.” And I just laughed, because I couldn’t imagine very many people — especially people from younger generations — saying they were too busy to go out so they made chili.

So how do you get to the point where you don’t have time to go out so you cook at home, instead of the other way around?

I think convenience foods can serve as an important bridge when people are either just learning how to cook or transitioning from lots of eating out to more eating at home. Like training wheels, they can help you keep moving forward while you learn out how to stay balanced. Things like Rice-a-Roni, commercial pasta sauces, canned soups, packaged Ramen noodles. All of these are generally cost-effective and can help you throw together a quick, reasonably healthy meal.

And for some people, that might be as far as they want to go. Open some packages, mix a few things up, dinner.

Done.

The only real objections I have to convenience foods are that they tend to have high levels of sodium (sometimes crazy high levels) and they’re more expensive than making things yourself. And things you make from scratch generally taste better. And don’t actually take that much more time, once you have everything set up.

But if you don’t have blood pressure concerns, if you’re comfortable with the amount of money you’re spending on food, and if you think what you’re eating tastes fine, then who am I to say you should be doing anything different.

I definitely used a lot more commercial products when I first started cooking. I would often use them as a base and then add my own vegetables. Like for instance I would buy a package of Lipton Noodles and Sauce, which you add milk and butter to — basically it’s like a slightly upscale version of packaged mac and cheese — and then I would sauté onion, mushrooms, and broccoli with garlic and olive oil and add that to the prepared noodles. I would do the same thing with pasta and tomato sauce, buy prepared tomato sauce and add green pepper and mushroom or zucchini or whatever. A lot of my meals were like that the first few years I was cooking for myself.

I’m sure there are people who would argue this isn’t a “home cooked meal” but I don’t really care about those people. And you shouldn’t either. You get to cook and eat what you want.

I started doing less of that when I started trying to get my monthly food bill down. It’s cheaper to buy noodles and make a basic white sauce, and you get to control the seasoning and add flavorings, and once you know what you’re doing it takes about the same amount of time. But I’m not a food snob. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using Bisquick to make pancakes or biscuits, or Jiffy mix to make cornbread.

So if you’re working on eating home more and spending less on food, don’t feel like you have to do everything at once. Just do what you can and try to make a little progress every day, every week, every month. Eventually you’ll end up where you want to be.

Frugal Habits

Thursday, March 8, 2012

There was an article in Wednesday’s N&O called “Cheaponomics: Lessons for the Home Cook from High School Culinary Teachers,” with tips from teachers in high school culinary arts programs, who have severely limited budgets to work with, about how to save money shopping. I always find those kinds of articles interesting because it feels like half the time they are rules that I don’t follow — and that I may not even agree with — and it would be hard for anyone to argue that I’m not frugal. So for this one, I decided to do a yes/no breakdown with my thoughts.

Here goes.

10 Frugal Habits

1. Plan your weekly meals and shop from a list. If you visit the supermarket only once a week, you’ll save both time and money, and you’ll avoid expensive impulse buys.

NO!

I hate this piece of advice and I give this one a resounding — RESOUNDING — no. A thousand times no. I do not do this, and once I stopped trying to do it, my grocery bill plummeted.

Here’s why.

I cannot plan meals a week in advance because it is extremely unlikely that what I decided on Saturday that I was going to eat on Thursday will match what I actually feel like eating on Thursday. If I don’t feel like eating something I won’t. Or I’ll eat it but not be happy about it.

I really like food, I like cooking, I like eating. Planning meals a week in advance and working from a list takes something I enjoy — something that is a nice break from the endless frustration and tedium that is my pathetic day-to-day existence and that gives me great pleasure — and turns it into drudgery. I don’t want to do it, and I won’t.

When I used to buy a week’s worth of groceries at a time, I would end up wasting a lot of food, because I would project what I needed for the week, but then one day I would have a late lunch and one day I would get stuck at work so I would come home late and eat cereal and one day I would go out for drinks after work and eat while I was out, and I would never fix everything I thought I might fix when I was buying groceries, and things would go bad I would have to throw them away.

This problem was solved for me when I stopped trying to think too far ahead and instead started shopping for just a few days at a time.

I discovered that if I bought food for the next two or three days, I would actually end up with food to last four or five days. I would make sure I had on hand staples that I could always make a meal out of — pasta, canned tomatoes, rice, beans, potatoes, eggs, baking supplies (flour, cornmeal, oats, sugar, baking powder, salt), tortillas, cheese, carrots, frozen vegetables — so even if things got disrupted and I wasn’t able to make it to the store for an extended period, I’d still be able to fix passable meals.

I am always astounded — astounded — at the volume of food people in this country have in their houses. I swear that most people could eat for months without buying anything (which is one of the reasons I like the Eating Down the Fridge projects so much).

A lot of people I’ve talked to say they really hate shopping, they don’t want to have to do it more often, but shopping every few days is qualitatively different from shopping for the whole week. When you’re shopping for the week (or, god forbid, the month, like the registered trademark America’s Cheapest Family who seem to have turned their lifestyle into their entire life, which just feels really weird to me), you need to try to think of everything you might need, or might run out of, or might want, so you go up and down every aisle looking at every item and putting things in your cart. It takes a long time, and it can be exhausting. And you end up putting a lot of things in your cart that you probably aren’t actually going to use this week.

When you shop for the next few days, you don’t have to go up and down every aisle, and you don’t really have to think about much. You look at the list of things you need right now — ingredients you need for tonight’s dinner that you don’t already have at home, pantry/freezer staples that you’re out of, fresh fruit and vegetables — and get just those things, then leave. The trip is much, much faster, and much less mentally taxing, than a standard weekly shopping trip.

Impulse buys were never much of a problem for me but now they’re definitely not a problem because I pay for my groceries with cash and I have to make a certain amount of cash last for a certain amount of time. Also I feel like frequent shopping reduces the lure of many things. When you know you’ll be back soon, it’s easier to say, “Hmm, I kind of want that but I’m not going to get it now; if I still want it the next time I’m here, I can get it.” And then you’ll be back in two or three days and if you still want it, you should get it. But usually you don’t.

So that one gets a big fat No all the way around.

2. Adjust the items on your list to what’s on sale.

Qualified yes.

I heard a great quote the other day that went something like, “An elephant for fifty cents is only a good deal if you need an elephant and if you have fifty cents.”

Don’t buy things you or your family won’t eat just because they’re on sale.

However I do recommend not being too tied down to your grocery list and working with what’s on special. Instead of saying “apples” just say “fruit” — maybe pears are cheaper, or look better. Or maybe cauliflower, which is usually $3.50 or $4.00 a head is on special for $2. You weren’t planning on getting cauliflower, but you have that cauliflower and pasta dish you like so you decide to get what you need for that instead of what you were planning on making for tonight.

3. Be flexible about brands. Be willing to substitute a brand that’s on sale or try store brands, which may be close to brand-name products in quality.

Yes.

I would qualify that to say that you should be willing to try different brands, and if you can tell the difference, decide what it’s worth to you to have the one you like more.

For instance, I prefer Tropicana orange juice (well actually, I prefer fresh-squeezed orange juice, but I don’t usually have enough oranges on hand to make it; one of the problems with walking to the grocery store and spending $12 at a time is that some things are really difficult) but Whole Foods 365 brand is much cheaper. If it’s a dollar more, I’ll probably still get the Tropicana, but if it’s more than that, I probably won’t.

4. Track prices. Keep a price book, a small notepad of items you buy frequently. It’s the best way to spot a deal.

Yes.

This is one of the Tightwad Gazette strategies. I was never organized enough to do an actual price book, but I’m sort of addicted to looking at prices and I have a crazy good memory so I generally know what is standard and what is a good price. If I ever went on the Price is Right, I would kick ass.

5. Stockpile. When something you use a lot is on sale, buy multiples.

Yes & No.

In theory this is fine, but for the most part, I think stockpiling is a bad idea. Studies have shown that people use more of something when they have more of it, so I think you don’t save as much as you think you would. (Of course I can’t find links to any of those studies right now, and I’m too lazy to look very hard at this moment. I’ll try to see what I can dig up when I have more energy. Sorry, long week.)

Also things don’t keep forever. Make sure the thing you stockpile will still be good by the time you get around to using it.

And some things just take me forever to go through. If it takes me two years to go through a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, do I really need more than one bottle in my pantry?

On the other hand, I’ve been making cookies for Scrap Exchange Third Friday, so over the holidays when chocolate chips were on sale at every store I went into, I bought like six packages because I’d walk in and see the price and go “Ooh, those are cheap” and then I’d go to another store and they’d be even cheaper. And I’m only using those for Third Friday so I’m not actually using more than I would otherwise. And I know I’ll be able to use them before they deteriorate. And I can make cookies for the forseeable future without having to remember to go to a regular grocery store for chocolate chips. All good.

6. Price match. If your store matches competitors’ prices, bring along sales fliers to get the lowest prices. Wal-Mart and Target, for example, have national price-matching policies.

No opinion.

I’m sure this is a perfectly good strategy but there’s no way I’m going to be bothered to do that. It goes back to the coupon thing which I just can’t make myself do. You gotta pick your battles. This is not one of mine.

7. Check the freezer section. Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually frozen in the field, so they may have more nutrition than fresh produce that’s been sitting in bins. Frozen fish may taste fresher than fresh fish that’s labeled “previously frozen.”

Yes yes yes.

Frozen foods are especially useful for small households and for people like me who adhere to a just-in-time shopping strategy. I have several meals that can be made entirely from things in the freezer and pantry, so even if I haven’t been able to make it to the store in much longer than usual, I can still usually manage to put together a passable meal.

8. Don’t be afraid of canned tomatoes. When tomatoes aren’t in season, canned tomatoes are usually much cheaper than fresh, and the flavor may be better in a cooked dish than fresh tomatoes that have to be cooked down.

People are afraid of canned tomatoes?

Yes, certainly.

If you’re really on the ball, you can can your own tomatoes, either ones you grow or ones you buy from farmers’ markets when they’re in abundance. Sometimes you can get seconds that are cheap (but probably not in Durham, they don’t have cheap things at the farmers’ market here). My parents, who have a fabulous market near them, get a bushel of seconds and process them for canning and spaghetti sauce that they use throughout the year.

9. Use those scraps. Keep recipes in your repertoire that let you use smaller amounts of leftover meat and vegetables. Examples: frittatas, salads, and fried rice. Or sauté leftovers and use them to top a baked potato.

Yes, yes.

You can put almost anything in an omelet, and lo mein, casseroles, and fried rice are great ways to make a good meal out of little bits of this and that.

10. Stretch milk by using dried or evaporated milk for part of the fresh milk when you’re baking.

Yes.

For the most part, you will not be able to tell the difference between baked goods made with dried milk and baked goods made with fresh milk. The only thing I’ve made where I noticed a difference were bucky cakes, which I thought were noticeably more delectable when made with Mapleview Dairy buttermilk than they were the normal way I make them, with dried buttermilk. Since I only make those for special occasions, I will most likely go with the fresh buttermilk from now on.

Okay so only one big fat “no” on that list, the rest mostly “yes” and a few “mmmm, maybe.”

There you have it, your frugal tips for the week. Hope you enjoyed.

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