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.
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
sliced pepper jack cheese (12 oz)
grapes (20 oz)
tortilla chips (32 oz)
bananas (6 @ $0.19 ea)
bacon (1 lb)
pretzels (16 oz.)
juice (Juicy Juice & Ocean Spray Cran-Pomegranate)
lemons (2 lb)
carrots (1 lb)
Gulden’s brown mustard
Food Lion: $4.28
small jar Duke’s Mayonnaise
onion (2 lb)
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.