Lunch for 15

Monday, September 28, 2009

Scrap Exchange had a Swap-O-Rama on September 5 and it’s a little crazy for the people working at it, a bunch of them are there all day, so we usually provide food. (What’s a Swap-O-Rama? Here’s info from Wendy Tremayne, originator of the idea, and here’s a blog post I wrote about our Swap in Raleigh, with pictures!)

This year we thought Only Burger was going to be around for the event so we were going to order lunches from them, but there were apparently problems with permits or zoning or some such thing and they couldn’t have the truck there. So no Only Burger.

So on the Friday before, when I called to check in and see how things were going, I was told that we had to figure out something food-wise.

We decided that doing sandwiches would be easiest, and because I was in the middle of working on things I didn’t really feel like working on, I offered to take care of it.

So off I went and shopped and cooked and packed everything up for transport, and bright and early Saturday morning Ann came and picked me upĀ  and we loaded up the coolers and while we were driving to Raleigh, I started to tell her about my shopping experience and said something about the four stores I went to.

She said, “You went to four stores?”

I said, “I went to four stores … twice.”

She said, “You have to write a blog post about this.”

So here it is.

The reason I was able to do the $1/day project is because it wasn’t all that different from what I usually do — it was basically a mildly extreme version of my life.

With documentation.

And media coverage.

But shopping for people who are not me is different. Shopping for a lot of people is different, and shopping for a lot of people when you don’t really know how many people will be there and you don’t know what people will want to eat or not eat, is even more different. And doing this cheaply is not something I’m particularly good at. But I’m working on it.

So I figured this was a good opportunity to be systematic and see what I could figure out.

I started by thinking about what we wanted, and putting together a general outline of what I would need to make and what I would need to buy.

This is actually the most important part, otherwise you will get way WAY way too much food. You can start out with a list of everything you might want to make or eat, but you then need to think think think about how many people are going to be there, what they are actually going to eat, and what you really need to make. Remembering the whole time that less is enough.

I realized that one of the reasons I have trouble when shopping for large groups is because I’m buying things I don’t normally buy, so I don’t know who has the best prices. This leads to a lot of hemming and hawing and general supermarket-aisle angst, where I drive myself crazy.

So as part of the new systematic approach, I decided I would come up with a pretty specific list of what I was going to make and what I needed to get and then comparison shop before actually shopping. (Hence the four stores twice plan.)

This strategy was facilitated by the fact that all of the stores I wanted to go to — Compare, Food Lion, SuperTarget, Trader Joe’s — are basically on the same road.

So I drove to each of the four stores with my little list and wandered the aisles and looked at prices.

After the last stop at Trader Joe’s I walked back to my car, looked at my notes, and wrote down a list of what I was actually going to make and what I needed to get at each store.

The general plan was sandwiches (carnivore & vegetarian options), chips, fruit, veggie something, drinks, dessert. I didn’t want to spend all night cooking, but I was willing to put together things that are easy and/or significantly cheaper and/or better when you make them yourself.

Here’s what I ended up buying:

Trader Joe’s: $15.39
whole grain sandwich bread
lavash flatbread
sliced pepper jack cheese (12 oz)
grapes (20 oz)
tortilla chips (32 oz)
bananas (6 @ $0.19 ea)

Target: $23.24
deli-style turkey
bacon (1 lb)
pretzels (16 oz.)
juice (Juicy Juice & Ocean Spray Cran-Pomegranate)
lemons (2 lb)
carrots (1 lb)
brownie mix
brown sugar
Gulden’s brown mustard

Food Lion: $4.28
small jar Duke’s Mayonnaise

Compare: $16.06
green pepper
avocadoes (4)
onion (2 lb)
limes (4)
6 oz. bag of Nestle chocolate chips

BP Family Fare: $5.98
12-pack cans Coca-Cola
12-pack cans Fanta Orange Soda

Total Spent: $64.95

I made hummus, salsa, slaw, cookies, brownies. I also cut up fruit and vegetables, and cooked bacon for the sandwiches.

So we had sandwiches on wheat bread or lavash, with any combination of turkey, bacon, hummus, lettuce, tomato, avocado, onion, mustard, mayonnaise, salsa. We had fruit (cantaloupe and grapes), vegetables (carrot sticks and slaw), pretzels with hummus, chips and salsa, and brownies and oatmeal-raisin-peanut butter cookies for dessert.

Here’s what I learned.

Trader Joe’s was suprisingly not cheap.

I got tortilla chips there because a 32 oz. bag was $3.50 (vs. $2.50 for a 16 oz. bag at Target) but it was way more chips than we needed, so I would have been better off with the smaller bag.

The bread was a good price, and the cheese was less for more than at Target so that was a good buy too. The grapes I totally shouldn’t have gotten — it was $2.99 for 20 oz. and for some reason when I was in the store I was thinking that 20 oz. was almost 2 lbs so that was around $1.50/lb which is a good deal, but of course 20 oz. is nowhere near 2 lbs., it’s only a pound and a quarter, so it’s actually about $2.40/lb which isn’t a good deal at all.

Which brings me to my main point about Trader Joe’s.

I think they try to trick you into thinking you’re getting a good deal when you may or may not be. They package things in odd sizes, they generally price things individually rather than by the pound, and there are no scales anywhere for you to weigh and figure out how much you’re actually paying relative to what you’d pay at a different store. They also put signs all over the store that say “Great Price!!!” so you feel like you’re getting a great deal. And it’s very easy to end up in what I think of as IKEA mode, where you’re like, “Wow! Look how cheap this is!” and buy things even though you don’t actually need them.

Also they have that Costco thing going where they are cheaper per unit on very large sizes. As I think I’ve stated previously, I believe that’s a false economy; when you have more, you use more so you don’t really end up saving nearly as much as you think.

So basically Trader Joe’s in general makes me nervous, but I still expected it to be cheaper for the kinds of things I needed for this little adventure and was surprised that it wasn’t.

Because Trader Joe’s is kind of a haul for me, if I were to do this again, I would get my produce at Compare and everything else (other than drinks) at Target.

In terms of drinks, for some reason I can’t find seltzer water at Target, I don’t know if I’m looking in the wrong place or what, and also convenience stores regularly have crazy cheap specials on 12-packs of soda, which I like better than 2-liter bottles because (a) the bubbles are better (b) you can use keep leftovers indefinitely and (b) aluminum is highly recyclable.

I wanted non-soda options besides seltzer and juice so I started looking at iced tea, and I was looking at the big bottles of Arizona iced tea but all of those are sweetened and I really wanted something without sugar and then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait, I can just make my own tea at home.”


So I made iced tea, combination of Celestial Seasonings Berry Zinger, green tea, and English breakfast tea, which I like to make strong, then mix with seltzer and a little fruit juice, and it’s fab. And it’s effectively free — when I buy a box of tea bags I have it for years.

I definitely recommend this as the frugal drink option.

Overall the food was pretty good, and there was definitely too much, but I was able to foist some off on fellow workers and the rest I took home with me and ate throughout the following week and I don’t think much at all was wasted.

I was reimbursed $57.59 from The Scrap Exchange. (I didn’t charge for things we didn’t use at all, like mustard, or that I just used a small amount of, like mayonnaise and brown sugar, or things that I will use again, like cups, so that’s why what I charged is different from what I spent.)

Ann thought it was totally cheap but it seemed like kind of a lot to me. It was only lunch, after all, and my goal is $1 per meal, so I feel like it should have been $15, but I spent almost 4 times that. Though the total is for everything I bought, including the food that was eaten later (most of the chips, pretzels, hummus) as well as some items that weren’t consumed at all (juice, half the bag of chocolate chips), and it doesn’t include things like eggs and oil that I used in some of the recipes, so it’s not the most exact accounting of everything, and I think it’s just sort of hard to compare and really I just need to not worry about it.

When all was said and done, I realized that one of the reasons I spend too much money on things like this is because (a) I want to make sure there’s enough food, and (b) I want to make sure there’s something that everyone will like. This means I have more variety than I would otherwise, and, correspondingly, larger quantities.

I think the only way around the quantity problem is to do a box lunch kind of thing, where you do specific amounts of specific things and that’s all. I’m not crazy about that idea, so my approach is to make things I like and will be willing to eat for the rest of the week if it doesn’t get eaten at the event. That actually works out pretty well.

The other problem is that I use events like this as an excuse to get all kinds of things that I like but don’t generally get for myself. And I did a much better job with that this time — no M&Ms, no sour cream onion dip, no Trader Joe’s sweet and salty nut mix.

So I made progress with something at least. The rest, I’ll keep working on.

Health/Food Update

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I took a break on this between mid-May and mid-August, but I’m back to reading health books and thinking about what is “healthy food.”

I’m definitely not buying into the main premise of Good Calories, Bad Calories (the last book I made it through in the spring) — that carbs are the problem and a high protein, low carb diet (e.g., Atkins) is the solution — but I think the author makes some interesting points and the book definitely changed how I think about food and what to eat.

One of the things I noticed after the first week or so of my project was that I felt really great, especially in the mornings when I would wake up. I felt like my heart rate was lower and I wasn’t hungry; everything felt calmer.

[Good Calories, Bad Calories Aside #1: This is one of the several significant things I disagreed with in Good Calories, Bad Calories — he has a chapter about calorie reduction and how it doesn’t work for weight loss because people can’t stick to a reduced-calorie diet: it makes them miserable, they think about food constantly, they’re not able to concentrate, etc.

This was not my experience at all, and Taubes’s argument appears to be based primarily on a study of World War II conscientious objectors who agreed to be fed a diet similar to what Europeans suffering through wartime shortages would be eating — three small meals a day consisting of watery soup, one or two slices of bread, potatotes, and similar poor-quality foods.

Taubes described the results of the study and how awful the conscripts reported feeling, that they became obsessed with food, etc.

Uh, yeah.

As I said, I did not have this experience at all, and think the fact that you are looking at draftees in an institutional setting, where I’m guessing most of them didn’t want to be in the first place, and then give them awful food and have them keep a diary of it, are really significantly confounding variables. I’m not sure how much of that study can be transferred to everyone everywhere who tries to lose weight on a reduced calorie diet.]

It’s hard to know how much of how I felt during the project was from my body having adjusted to a very low-calorie diet, how much was from the things I was eating (whole grains, high-fiber fruits and vegetables), and how much was from the things I wasn’t eating (fat, salt, sugar).

And I’m not really interested in replicating the entire project, but I have been thinking about trying to see if I could figure out which parts made the most difference and try to work some of those into my regular life.

The thing that I’ve found is that, for me, limiting salt/fat/sugar/calories is highly subject to disruption.

The reason I was able to do it on the project was because it was part of a larger goal that I was really committed to. I had arranged my entire life around the project (I even skipped a trip to my niece’s birthday, which came right in the middle of the project time frame — I felt badly about that but I think being in People magazine and on Rachael Ray made up for it, my nieces loved having a famous auntie) and if I had work meetings that involved food, I explained what I was doing and why I was drinking water instead of ordering lunch or coffee. That was totally fine in the short term.

But in my normal life, I feel like as soon as I have one high-sugar, high-carb, large-amount-of-food day (for instance when preparing food for 15 people working at the Swap-O-Rama, including making brownies and cookies) I’m completely off track and have to start over from square one. Since it takes a few days for my body to adjust to a new regime, it feels really hard to get into the groove I need to be in, especially since I seem to run into an “exception” at least once a week.

And this is one thing I do agree with about Good Calories, Bad Calories — carbs beget carbs. The more refined sugar and flour you eat, the more you want.

So I’ve realized if I want to make changes, I just have to commit to them and stop making exceptions, because the list of exceptions will be endless.

And that brings me to another concept that I learned about during my research and that, unlike Good Calories, Bad Calories, I can be 100% fully behind — Volumetrics.

This is the term that Penn State researcher Barbara Rolls has come up with based on her decades of obesity reseach — it is the idea of substituting foods with low energy density (low-calorie, high fiber foods like fruits and vegetables) for energy dense food (high-calorie foods like high-fat dairy, meat, refined flour and sugar).

Her research has shown that people are just not very sensitive to calorie intake; rather, they feel full when they’ve eaten a certain volume of food, regardless of the calorie level of the food. So if you substitute high-volume, low-calorie foods, for high-calorie, low-volume ones, you will lose weight without feeling hungry

[Good Calories, Bad Calories Aside #2: this is another one of my huge problems with Good Calories, Bad Calories. In 450 pages of text with hundreds and hundreds of references — and extensive sections about caloric intakes and reduced calorie diets — there is approximately one reference to Barbara Rolls and her research. Taubes criticzes people for selectively using evidence, but as far as I can tell, he does the same thing.]

I haven’t managed to read any of the actual research papers yet, but I was able to get The Volumetrics Eating Plan from the public library, which is sort of the meal plan/recipe version of the book.

It’s basically what I noted in A Few Lessons — you will feel better on fewer calories if you eat high-fiber, high-volume foods (i.e., foods with a lot of water in them, like soup and cabbage).

If you have stored energy to spare (in the form of fat — as I definitely did, and still do) you will most likely feel totally fine, and not excessively hungry, even though you are taking in fewer calories than you might think you need.

I’m not sure what happens if you don’t have stored energy to work from — I suspect you’ll feel hungry eventually if you’re not getting the calories you need and are at or below a weight your body can live with. (If I ever get to that point, I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.)

So that’s what I’m going to work on for now — focusing on high-fiber, low energy density foods and trying to limit sugar and refined flour, and seeing how that compares to how I felt when I was on the project.

If I learn anything interesting, I’ll let you know.

Babette’s Feast

Monday, September 7, 2009

When I lived in Princeton, there was a weekly film series in one of the lecture halls on campus. (I seem to recall that it was the chemistry building, but I could be wrong about that, that seems like an exceptionally weird place to show movies.)

I don’t remember who sponsored it, or whether it was in the summer or all year, but I remember going to them on a regular basis. There would be two movies on a particular theme shown together as a double bill. Some were new and some were older, and usually they were good movies, and it was cheap and took up the whole night — and since we were all very poor, a cheap activity that took up the whole night was definitely a good thing. So we went to a lot of those.

There were some really good combinations — The Grifters and House of Games, True Love and Moonstruck, Metropolitan and Reversal of Fortune. Also some not so good combinations — for instance The Last Temptation of Christ and Wings of Desire nearly did me in. Not that they’re not good movies, but I don’t recommend trying to watch those back to back sitting on a wooden seat in a college lecture hall. After 2-1/2 hours of Martin Scorcese and Jesus Christ, the last thing you need is a movie that beings with random meaningless sentences that only angels can hear, in German. (Now that I’m thinking about it, I can’t even believe we sat through that whole thing.)

One of the movies I saw in the chem lab was Babette’s Feast, and it’s now driving me crazy that I can’t for the life of me remember what it was paired with. The only thing I can think of is Diva, mostly because that’s another one I saw that I can’t remember what it was paired with, and they are peripherally related in the sense that they both touch on art and artists. But that doesn’t seem right, it seems like it should have been another food movie.

None of which is at all relevant to anything, it’s just what I think of when I think about Babette’s Feast, which is really a great movie, and which I’ve been thinking about the past few days because I’m having some friends over for a nice dinner. I’m not spending 10,000 francs, but I’m definitely spending more than a dollar, and it’s a different experience shopping for a meal and not thinking at all about how much it will cost or even trying to think about ways to do it for less.

I don’t expect my dinner to be quite the transformative experience of Babette’s, but hopefully it will be good.

In the midst of thinking about that, I offered at the last minute to take care of food for the folks who worked at the Scrap Exchange’s Swap-O-Rama Rama this past weekend. And for that I actually was thinking about how much it would cost and trying to do it for less.

I’m very good at shopping and cooking cheaply for myself, but I’m not always good about doing it for other people, and I’m working on getting better at that. I figured this was a good opportunity to work on that, so I spent a lot more time on it than I would have otherwise, and I did learn some interesting things that I will share once I’m done with my special dinner and can get everything analyzed and written up.

So there’s something for you all to look forward to.