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.
 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.