The Big Picture

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

[Ed. Note: This is something I started writing in 2009 or 2010 and apparently never posted. I think some of it was incorporated into my explanation of why I don't use coupons, but when I re-read it, it seemed like most of the ideas here never made it out of the drafts folder.

The discussion about how much I paid for a baby bok choy when I did my ramen hack meal made me think of it, and wonder if I'd ever posted it. And I hadn't. And it wasn't quite done yet. But now it is. And I have.]

*****

One of the things that I think might be a little bit different about how I work and how most Americans operate is that I try to stay focused on the big picture.

I don’t worry too much about individual things — how much fat a particular food has in it, or what the per-pound cost of what I’m buying is, or whether I’m getting enough protein at every meal. Instead I try to stay focused on the total. How healthy is my diet over the course of a day, week, month? How much did I spend overall for what I ate, and how good was it? How do I feel?

A few years ago, I did the food for a reunion of my college housemates and when we were looking at receipts to split up costs, one of my friends who does a lot of her shopping at warehouse stores (BJs, Costco, etc.) kept making comments about how much more I paid for things than she usually pays. But I had purchased most of the food for the weekend, and my overall total was far lower than hers. And this is true of our regular lives as well — my monthly expenses are far less than half of what she and her husband typically spend in a month.

One of the reasons I shop at Whole Foods is because I think the food is better. If you’re buying better food, you’re likely to be happier with less of it, and you won’t need to do as much to it to make it taste good, so that will save you time as well.

(One of the books I read over the course of the past year, I don’t remember which, included a theory that one of the reasons people who eat a lot of processed foods tend to overeat is because their bodies aren’t getting the nutrients they need, so they’re driven to eat excessive amounts in an effort to make up for it. I don’t know that there’s any evidence to support that theory, but I thought it was an interesting idea.)

At some point, I decided that trying to get low-calorie everything was silly. As long as the total calories I’m taking in is about right (I’m not very big and I do not have a very high metabolism, so I really should be taking in much less than the recommended “average” 2000 calorie-a-day diet), it doesn’t matter how much each individual thing I eat has. If eating a more caloric item means I have fewer items to eat, that works in my favor. Less money, less time, less shopping.

I started buying whole milk again not too long ago. I drank skim milk for a long time, but I never liked it, and switched to 2%. Then for a while, I’d buy a quart of skim milk and a pint of whole milk, so I could have whatever I wanted — straight skim for nonfat, straight whole for full fat, half whole and half skim for 2% (whole milk is 4% fat), or anything else in between. This is not cost effective, as a pint of whole milk costs almost the same as a quart. But it was less waste and I liked the flexibility.

Over the summer when I was having back problems and wanted to maximize calories per food intake, in order to minimize the amount of effort and trips it took to get food, get dishes, and get everything back into the kitchen, I decided that whole milk and mayonnaise were my friends. Maximum calories, minimum effort.

The problem is that most people are completely bombarded with food all the time, every day, all of it having way too many calories. And it’s nearly always the kind of food you can eat a lot of without realizing how much you’ve eaten. So if you have higher calorie things rather than lower calorie things, you’ll eat even more too much than you would otherwise. But it seems to me that the real solution is not to eat large quantities of lower calorie foods, but to eat less food overall. And have it be better quality.

When people talk about how fruit and vegetables are expensive, I feel like they’re missing the point.

Fruit and vegetables may be expensive on a per unit basis — and certainly they are expensive on a per calorie basis — but they taste good and they make you feel full. Satiety depends more on volume than on calories; I am more full after a seventy-five calorie apple and a twenty calorie carrot than I am after a four-hundred calorie bag of Doritos. (I was horrified to realize that a ninety-nine cents Big Grab bag of Doritos is two-and-a-half servings of a hundred and fifty calories each. Gaahh!) And I will be less hungry later, too. I can’t imagine any circumstances under which four-hundred calories of Doritos is a better option for me than ninety-five calories of fruit and vegetables. Unless I was having some kind of sodium crisis and need a huge influx of sodium quickly.

I feel like people need to step back and think about the big picture, both with what they’re eating and with how much they’re spending. You don’t need to balance every meal (for those who need a pep talk on the subject, feel free to re-read this M.F.K. Fisher excerpt) and you don’t need to try to get every single thing as cheaply as possible. You just need to get it all to work together — what you’re eating and how much you’re spending and how your life overall is working.

So for me personally, I’ve decided that spending approximately a hundred dollars a month on food (food prepared at home, excluding meals out, which is a separate budget item) is a reasonable target. I like to have a number that is low enough that I have to stay focused, but not so low that I have to knock myself out. That number is going to be different for everyone — everyone has different amounts of disposable income and different nutritional needs and different constraints on their time/space/energy.

I shop at Whole Foods for a whole bunch of reasons. The store has a compact layout, so I can wander haphazardly through the aisles picking up things in order of importance, and going back through aisles I went through already to get things I forgot. It is on the way to and from many things, so I can stop frequently and have it work with my schedule. I like being able to buy small quantities of meat from the butcher counter and small quantities of grains, nuts, and dried fruits from the bulk-food bins. I like that there is only one price posted, not one price for people with a loyalty card and a different price for people without a loyalty card. (I do not have any store loyalty cards, and usually they give you the lower price anyway, but not always, so it complicates my calculations about whether or not it’s worth buying something.) I like that when they post a price as two for three dollars you can buy one and it’s a dollar fifty. (Some stores have a different price for single items than for the special x for $x price, which drives me nuts.)

I’m also happy with the quality of the food I get. The prices for the things I buy may be higher than they are in other stores, but my overall costs are still low enough that it’s not worth it for me to try to come up with a different system. If I get to a point where it isn’t working for me anymore — either because I need to spend less on food, or because I know I could be spending a lot less in a way that was nearly as convenient — then I would work on figuring out something else.

But for now, this is what works.

Big picture.

4 Responses to “The Big Picture”

  1. SoCalmomwhocooks Says:

    Thanks, I really like this post, and also the earlier one on why you generally don’t use coupons (link from 2010) and I like several things about it but will just mention the main thing is that you’ve evaluated the overall positive aspects of shopping at whole foods, including access to bin foods like grains, nuts, dried fruit, etc., butcher department (who knows when such services will eventually disappear, but it’s the reason I went to Bristol farms for the beef for a special beef dish a few weeks ago) and getting better quality overall. I like that you’ve also thought about the layout, your time, and ease of shopping, I also appreciate that they will give you the prorata price of a 2 for $3 special, and I need to remember that more often because I usually do buy all 3 of a 3 for $5 or 5 for $10 special when clearly I don’t need to. What I appreciate the most is that you are clearly open to re-evaluating and re-directing your shopping if and when another store with similar quality, variety and services that is convenient becomes a better overall choice than your current (main) grocery store. It also doesn’t prevent you from stopping by somewhere else for a special sale on baking supplies, or splurging on a certain ingredient, spice or gadget that will make your overall life easier or more enjoyable. That is why I’ve followed your advice and bought the Fanny Farmer cookbook by the California cookbook author that died last year (forgetting her name right now) and plan to start making more of these simple meals and organizing the recipes on a list by seasonal ingredients, so I can make them less expensively during the season that the ingredients are plentiful and tastier. I think it makes alot of sense and lends itself to a happier housekeeping, cooking, dining experience. Thank you again!

  2. Jennifer Szescula Flanagan Says:

    Our average bill for groceries, personal care products, household stuff is about $100 weekly – that can be scary for just two people. But at the same time, I know that if I buy the grass fed beef – that will feed us 3 or 4 meals. If I make a pot of soup (with organic veggies) that will last five meals. Some weeks we buy less, some weeks we buy more (all about the big picture there.) It really is such a difference to eat real food – you really do eat less! I’ve finally gotten myself to stop worrying about the price of fruits and veggies (that you mentioned above) and just buy them. Suddenly I don’t need to buy much else! It does take time and some days I’m more with it than others – but we have taken back our meals and our health.

  3. lessisenough Says:

    @SoCalMom

    Yes yes to all.

    Yes on Marion Cunningham version of Fannie Farmer (and really yes to all Marion Cunningham, her recipes are simple and delicious).

    Yes that I go to a regular grocery store for baking supplies — I don’t even know if you can get regular white granulated sugar at Whole Foods, I don’t even look in that aisle — and I often stop at other stores for things that are cheaper, the tienda for fresh corn tortillas and Compare for 5 for $1 oranges and 10 for $1 limes, and King’s for chicken and sausage.

    Yes on organizing things seasonally. The easiest way I’ve found to do that is pay attention to prices. Produce prices drop as things get in season — I buy pomegranates when they are around $2 each, and strawberries when they are $3-$4 a quart (they are $5 right now, still early).

    Once you start paying attention to prices, you will start to learn what is a good price and what is not a good price. Some things (e.g., carrots, bananas) are pretty much always the same price, and some things are loss leaders at certain stores (like limes and avocados at the local chain Latino grocer). So you can get the always-cheap things when everything else seems expensive, or go to a store where you know things are cheaper if you’re feeling overwhelmed and/or underfunded.

    Last year I had a moment when I got back from a trip where I had nothing on hand (really nothing) and I just really wanted to eat a lot of fresh fruits and veggies and everything at Whole Foods was through the roof, there was nothing at all at a good price. So I went to the crazy cheap produce stands at the local flea market and bought everything there, grapes and mangoes and plums and avocados and everything. It was just what I needed.

    So yes, be flexible. It will all work out.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    @Jennifer

    I feel like the most important part of budgeting is thinking about your values — what do you care about? You want to spend more of your money on thngs you care about and less of your money (or ideally, none of your money) on things you don’t care about.

    This is the part of the Your Money or Your Life program that made the most difference for me, thinking about what I wanted to spend my money on and then looking at what I was actually spending my money on, and figuring out how to spend less of my money on things that weren’t important to me. Because that is the key to spending less while maintaining a high quality of life. Spend money on things you care about and don’t spend money on things you don’t care about.


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