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 up  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.

13 Responses to “Lunch for 15”

  1. Marcia Says:

    Thanks for the tip on that frugal drink option. I love strong English breakfast tea, plus I’ve got herbal and green tea at home already too.

    I find Trader Joe’s to be cheaper than the grocery store for many many things here in California. Milk, cheese, eggs, brown rice, pasta, canned tomatoes (in small cans), and whole wheat flour.

    But not produce. Almost never produce. With my farmer’s market and farm stand options, I only buy frozen veggies at TJ’s.

    What I like most about TJs is that most of their foods only have recognizable ingredients. Like the bread, for example.

  2. CherylB. Says:

    I totally agree with Marcia about TJ’s. Unfortunately we don’t have one close, but we always stop and get nut butters and assorted other things (marinara sauce) when we are close to one. Must be a California thing since I live here too.

  3. Amy Says:

    A few years ago I volunteered to make the food for my parents 50th wedding anniversary. At the time, I was deep into a Martha Stewart fantasy, so I was anxious to the food special. I think I spent $300.00. My mother had requested meatballs, which she said people always like, and I admit the Swedish meatballs I served in a crockpot were the best part. God knows how I spent so much money. I think I made different kinds of roll-ups, I had shrimp cocktail, a champagne punch, store bought cake, cheese and crackers, etc. I was a wreck. Even though I have worked in restaurants, I am not calm about feeding large numbers of people. The high expectations I put on myself didn’t help.

    Sounds like you did a great job. I think if you did this fairly often you’d have the drill down pat.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    I know that some things at Trader Joe’s are totally cheap — for instance nuts and dried fruit, while not cheap, are cheaper than at other places. Wine is totally cheap. And they have those great giant chocolate bars for $4, which is an amazing deal. I didn’t look at milk, but I did notice that eggs were very cheap.

    But basically I was surprised at how few items, on an item-for-item basis when I was looking for very specific things, TJs came out ahead on. Some of that could be skewed by how cheap the SuperTarget near me is for the types of things I was getting for this lunch. And I wasn’t hugely concerned with organic etc., which would have changed the calculation.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    Oh, I could easily spend $300 on dinner for a party like that — I spent $150 for dinner for 4 people. I think the only way to not spend a lot is to really focus on it from the beginning. And if you’re making food for a party like that, you want to think about how to make it great, not how to make it cheap. Cause then you’d feel like a cheapskate. And it’s true, the more you do something the better you get at it — you know how much of everything to get, what’s worth spending extra on and what isn’t, etc.

    One of the things that works in my favor is that over the past few years I’ve come across some really great recipes that also happen to be super cheap. They are not things that people would eat and think you’re serving them because they’re cheap. And that’s what you need.

  6. durham_resident Says:

    Just wanted to let you know that your blog gave me the courage (which is stupid to need, but true!) to go into Compare Foods. And it is *by far* my favorite grocery store in Durham now! I cannot believe how well run the produce section is. (I was shaking my head again last night @ Whole Foods w/ the moldy figs and slightly rotting/wilted fresh basil and cilantro; yet I was there shopping due to availability of certain food items, so it is a balance!)

    You food photography and recipes are also amazing. This blog has been a great read….

  7. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks, glad I could help!

    It’s funny how we get used to shopping in the same stores and feel weird going into new ones. Though I have to say I still like Whole Foods, and do most of my shopping there because it’s more convenient, and I have a pretty good system for getting what I need without spending too much. And I haven’t noticed problems with the quality of their food. But Compare can’t be beat for a lot of produce items — things like avocados,on special lately for $0.69 or $0.79 (vs. $1.29 – $1.99 at most stores) and roma tomatoes $0.79/lb.

  8. Ivy Vann Says:

    I can’t find seltzer water at my Target either — what is up with that?

    I have really enjoyed your adventures with food. I cook a community dinner every Tuesday night for about 85 people and I am constantly checking to make sure I’m getting the most for our money. Right now our gross costs are about $1.40 per person for two soups (one chicken, one vegetarian), green salad, bread and butter and cheese, dessert and fruit, juice. With donations the net cost is about $.30 a person.

  9. lessisenough Says:

    That’s so weird about seltzer at Target! I thought it was just me, because they have things organized kind of weirdly with drinks, everything in separate places — mixers like club soda in one place, then soda, and “natural soda”, and water. I thought maybe I was just looking in the wrong place.

    Another thing about Target, in their frozen food section they have a section called “Better for You,” which totally makes me laugh. It’s like saying, “Okay all this other stuff we have here is really terrible for you.” I feel like in the interest of full disclosure, not to mention parallel signage, they should have a “Bad for You” signs somewhere.

    Good job with the community dinner! My thought its that spending less on food is a process, and you can always keep working to figure out how to do it for less. The more you do it, the better you get at it. The trick is really to get to just the right level, where everything is as cheap as you can get it but still really good, and no one would ever suspect how inexpensive it is. And I actually think that’s a fun challenge, not a sacrifice. Because the less you spend on food, the more you have to spend on other things.

  10. Clean Simple Says:

    I hear you on Trader Joe’s. You have to shop carefully there. Still, sometimes the produce can be a deal. I got a lovely, huge butternut squash there for $1.49. My local markets sell them for $.78/LB. That squash would have cost me at least $5 if sold by the pound.

    I have a short list of items I always get there: wine, sea salt, olive oil spray, grated parm.

  11. Kere Says:

    Re the missing seltzer water at SuperTarget. They probably have it, but you need to look in a totally illogical place. We just got a SuperTarget in our area, and I generally don’t shop there because it’s too far from my home. But I was working in the area and stopped to grab something for dinner on the way home. On the fly, I decided on chilli. I use canned kidney and great northern beans in mine. The great northern beans were with the garabanzo beans in the canned vegetable aisle. The kidney beans were not. They were not with the canned tomatoes (which are not near the canned veggies either.) They were not near the canned chilli. They were not near the baked beans. They were not near the canned soup (which is also not with the canned chilli or the veggies but within shouting distance of the soups.). In desperation, I checked the hispanic foods aisle, wondering if they’d hidden them with the refried beans. Nope, not there either. So logically, I think “well, they’re not in any of the normal places, or the abnormal ones for that matter. Maybe they don’t sell them.” I finally saw a guy in a red shirt furtively stocking sodas and pounced on him. He suggested all the places above as I said “nope, not there, nuh-uh! Try again…” Finally he radios for help.

    They were in the condiment aisle. Between the mustard and pickles. With nary another bean in sight.

    So yeah, um, seltzer water… Next time, I’d try the baking aisle next to the flour section, or the hosiery department, with the socks and such.

  12. Kere Says:

    “within shouting distance of the soups” should be “within shouting distance of the tomatoes”.

    Sigh… Typing Fail, I haz it.

  13. lessisenough Says:

    Okay I know when most people say LOL they didn’t really LOL but this totally made me LOL.

    It’s so true. The store has some killer good prices but it is a crazy set up. And the last time I was there they didn’t have sugar, and apparently hadn’t had any for weeks. I don’t know why, but that struck me as the strangest thing to not have. How do you not have sugar? Was there a huge run on it or something? Totally weird.

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