The Middle Ground

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I was listening to Fresh Air last night and Terry Gross was interviewing Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse (and, more importantly, The Edible Schoolyard) fame. Terry noted that the fixed price dinner at Chez Panisse is currently around $90 per person, which is clearly out of reach for most people.

She said she feels like there is a divide when it comes to food and eating in this country, with cheap, super-sized sodas and fast food meals on one side and expensive, lovingly prepared foods made with locally sourced ingredients on the other. She asked if there was any middle ground.

I don’t remember Alice Waters’s exact response (and I’m too lazy to listen to the interview again right now) but I think it basically had to do with how food is artificially cheap in this country, and how good food will cost more, because it’s more expensive to produce. But it’s also worth more. That’s just how it is.

While Alice Waters was answering Terry Gross on the radio, I was answering her in my kitchen, telling them that indeed there is a middle ground — the middle ground is to cook your own food, at home, with the best ingredients you can afford. It will be much better than a fast food meal and a fraction of the cost of dinner at Chez Panisse. (In fact my entire month’s grocery bill, shopping almost exclusively at Whole Foods, is roughly the same as a single meal for one person at Chez Panisse. And my per-meal cost is actually a fraction of the cost of the fast food meal — for the past ten years, I have eaten for about a dollar per meal, which is approximately one-fifth the current cost of a Big Mac Meal at my local McDonald’s.)

It’s not complicated and it’s not out of reach. I firmly believe that anyone can do this.

Here’s how.

First, before you start, you need to think about why you want to. Are you doing it for health reasons (either yours or other family members)? Are you doing it so your kids get to eat good meals at home? Are you doing it to save money? Are you doing it so you can eat better food?

Try to figure out what your motivation is.

Knowing this will help keep you from getting derailed when the going gets tough, and can help you figure out which alternative approach you should focus on when you need to cut corners to get through. If you’re doing it primarily for health reasons, then you might be willing to spend more to have the same level of food — for instance buying pre-cut produce that you can throw together quickly when you get home after a long day at work. If you’re doing it for financial reasons and health is less of a concern, then you can go with a lowest common denominator approach (my preferred L.C.D. foods are fruit, breakfast cereal, and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches) until your schedule — or psyche, as the case may be — clears up and you can manage full-fledged meals again.

One you’ve gotten that figured out, this is what you need to do.

Step 1
Learn to cook.

Get your hands on a good beginner’s cookbook — my favorite is Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham but there’s no shortage of cookbooks in the world. Stop by your local library and take a look at what’s on the shelves there so you can test drive some and see how it goes. When you find one you like, invest in a copy. Also try to pick up one or two comprehensive basic cookbooks, like the Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer or for a more recent take, How to Cook Everything. Or go retro and get the plaid Betty Crocker. Check out yard sales, thrift stores, used bookstores for cheap cookbooks.

Or you can stick with the internet and check out YouTube, where there are endless cooking videos, and also look at food blogs, of which there is also no end.

If you’ve never cooked anything, start with weekend breakfasts — pancakes, scrambled eggs, biscuits. You’ll be more relaxed and have more time to work things out. If it’s a disaster, you can just fix a bowl of cereal or a bagel and move on.

Once you’re comfortable with that, you can move on to easy dinners — pasta with vegetables, black beans and rice, mac and cheese. If it helps to get you going, use convenience products, but know that nearly everything you buy prepared (or partially prepared) in the grocery store you can make yourself, cheaper and better.

Keep looking at cookbooks and magazines and food blogs, where you can get new ideas for different meals, and keep trying out recipes to figure out what you like, what your family will eat, what works with your schedule.

If you start to feel sick of it and feel like it’s not worth it, remember why you wanted to do it in the first place, think about what’s not working, and try to come up with a different strategy. (In Holistic Management parlance, this is the monitoring phase. You don’t just come up with a plan and go, you have to constantly review it to see if it’s working. If it’s not working, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Look at what the problem is, address the problem, try again. Monitor, adjust, monitor, adjust.)

Once you’ve mastered following recipes, you’ll start to be more comfortable making adjustments and making recipes your own. And you’ll get a repertoire of things that don’t really have recipes, they’re just things you put together — being able to cook without needing a specific recipe for every dish (or to use the title of another book I like, How to Cook Without a Book) is a real time and energy saver.

Step 2
Learn to shop.

For starters, just go to the same store you usually go to; you don’t have to change everything at once. Start paying attention to prices and noticing what’s on special. If you shop according to price — buying fruits and vegetables when they are cheaper than normal — you will be buying seasonally. Congratulations, you’re now one of the cool kids.

There are multiple different shopping strategies, any of which can be successful. Some people like to shop once a month, because it saves running around and reduces impulse purchases. (This would not work for me at all because I want fresh produce more than once a month. Also I work from home and walking to the grocery store gets me out of the house, which is generally a good thing.)

Many people shop weekly. My brother likes to shop at 7am on Saturdays because he says no one else is there yet and the store is fully stocked for the busy day ahead — he said you get the best selection with the fewest people. (When his kids were little, he’d take them with him and they would explore the store while he shopped, which is definitely not something you want to do later in the day when the store is packed. Also I think this works better for men than women; a man grocery shopping with three kids is enough of an anomaly that all of the workers knew whose kids they were and would keep an eye on them. Also probably works better for my brother than most people, he’s got a special talent for things like that.)

I used to shop weekly but I found I ended up throwing out a lot of food because I would buy things based on what I thought I might want, and then I would go out to lunch and not be hungry for dinner or work late and decide I really wanted Chinese food, or whatever. So I wouldn’t eat the food I bought and then I would forget about it and go shopping again and get more and then throw things away.

When I started working from home, I decided I needed to fix this, and I started looking in the fridge before going to the store to see what I had and/or what was about to go bad and use that as the basis of the next meal I was preparing. Instead of trying to get everything I thought I might want to eat in the week, I decided I would buy just what I needed for the next meal I was making (assuming that that meal would provide at least two or three servings — one dinner and two lunches, and if it was more than that, the remainder would go in the freezer, I can only eat something three times before getting sick of it), and also restock pantry staples.

Basically I would stay focused and buy food for the next two to three days instead of anything I ever might want to eat. The grocery store was less than a mile from my house. If it turned out I didn’t get something I actually needed, I could either work around it and get it next time (after all I’d be back in a few days), or make a special trip for it. It would be fine.

It was fine.

My food costs dropped precipitously once I implemented this strategy. I would shop for two to three days worth of food, but would almost always end up with four to five days worth of food, so I would be going to the grocery store twice a week instead of once a week, which really isn’t so different.

Also I walk to the store, so I don’t tend to go crazy with impulse purchases, and I pay with cash, which also puts a serious curb on purchases.

As you cook more, you may find that the store you usually shop at doesn’t have the best produce or doesn’t have the best prices. Look around at other stores and see how things compare.

Generally different stores are cheaper for different things. As you pay attention to prices you’ll learn this. You might make a trip every month or every few months to one particular store to stock up on things that are cheap there while you do most of your shopping at the store that’s most convenient or that has the best meat or fish or produce or whatever you care about most.

For instance the vast majority of my shopping trips are to Whole Foods, because it’s a comfortable walk from my house (about a mile and a half), it’s convenient to other places I often walk, it’s a lovely store with a remarkable diversity of customers, and everyone there is nice. However I will not buy Asian foods there because I can get them for a fraction of the cost at the Asian Grocery. So I drive to the Asian Grocery a few times a year and get soy sauce, fish sauce, rice noodles, rice paper wrappers, bamboo shoots, and whatever else I regularly use in stir fries and other Asian dishes.

If you get really taken with sourcing ingredients and care a lot about where your food comes from, you can check out farmer’s markets, roadside stands, pick-your-own farms. You can talk to people with backyard chickens. You can join a CSA. You can plant a garden.

But you don’t have to do this.

Even the worst industrially farmed tomato in the worst grocery store in town is better than fast food — which is not only using the worst industrially farmed tomatoes but is also adding loads of sugar and salt, and charging you for the pleasure of serving you.

Don’t make things harder for yourself than they need to be.

When I started this post, I was thinking there were going to be more steps, and I might think of some others later, but I think for now this is it.

Learn to cook. Learn to shop. Shop and cook.

And eat.

And do the dishes.

There you have it.

The middle ground.

9 Responses to “The Middle Ground”

  1. Marcia Says:

    It’s the dishes that kill me every time! thank goodness for a husband who does 80% of them.

  2. lessisenough Says:

    For a while a few years ago, I had a friend living with me while she was finishing up her grad school work. She would work in the afternoon and then take a break for dinner and then do the dishes and then go back and work a little more in the evening. It was perfect — she got to work right up until dinner and then have a nice meal without having to cook, and I got to make dinner and then not have to do the dishes. I got really spoiled!

  3. Lorrie Says:

    I emailed a link to this post to my son, who is a sophomore in college and renting a house with 3 other guys. We gave him a pretty generous budget for a month of food and incidental expenses. In the first week he spent half of it. He’s either going to have to get a part time job very quickly or go hungry. I hope this blog post helps him to see the light.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    Hope it helps. There’s always an adjustment period. And also some startup costs, the first time you shop you have to get a lot because you don’t have anything to work with. I vividly recall the first grocery shopping trip I took when I was starting my first job and knew I had to watch my pennies and I got to the checkout and it was $75 and I freaked out , I was like oh no this totally isn’t going to work. But then I got into a routine where I spent about half that each week and it was fine.

    And eventually (many years later, when I started focusing on it again) I learned how to keep a running total in my head as I shop so there would no longer be any surprises at the checkout. (I don’t really do that any more because it’s such a routine that I spend almost exactly the same whether I’m tracking or not, but it’s a good skill to have.)

    Also I find that I if I have a set amount to spend, it’s easier to hold onto the last half than the first half. You blow a bunch and then you realize you need to pay attention otherwise you’re going to be left with nothing. Then you do a better job. (Or at least that’s how it works for me.) Hopefully your son will figure that out.

  5. Interesting. I’m not sure I believe the 1 dollar a meal claim but good information.

  6. Lorrie Says:

    Well, it’s now been 2 weeks and he’s spent all of it. Here is what he had to say in response to my sending him your post: “Thanks Mom! I definitely need this. I recently found out I suck at shopping cause I spent all $300 and I seem to be running out of food quickly – next time I’m going to Wal-Mart instead of the organic market = /”

    There you have it. And my son is an incredibly bright kid. Ugh!! Today I spent $82 for groceries for the week for 3 of us, my husband, me and my 15 yr. old daughter. I do understand that there are alot of start up costs, but I actually sent him a couple of boxes of staples, things like brown rice, canned tuna, pasta, salt, pepper, cereal, etc. I hope he has found a part-time job by now and has earned some money! This tough love stuff is tough!! And it’s not like we didn’t tell him. $300 for a month seems pretty generous to me. Of course, I’m not 100% certain that he spent all that money on just groceries. Sorry if I’m venting, but it really drives me nuts!

  7. lessisenough Says:

    Well people are free to believe or not believe — when I was doing the Dollar a Day project, people didn’t believe that I bought tomato sauce for $0.22 despite the fact that I posted receipts of every transaction. I’m not sure if they thought I was forging things or what.

    I’m actually an insane data tracker. I track my spending to the penny and have done so for more than 10 years. (I started tracking expenses in 1995 but wasn’t tracking to the penny because I didn’t know how to set up a cash account in Quicken. My father is a CPA, we were talking about Quicken and I was expressing my frustration with tracking cash purchases. I said if I take $40 out of my checking account, it just goes in as “cash withdrawal,” there’s no way for me to know that I spent some on lunch and some at Mr. Eagan’s and some on a book. At first he was like well that’s fine, it’s just incidental expenses that you spent cash on. Which was not the answer I was looking for. And then he was like well if you want to be insane about it you can set up a petty cash account. I was like how do I do that? So he told me and I set up a petty cash account and have tracked everything to the penny since then, though I don’t remember when that conversation was. I think it was probably 1996 or 1997.)

    Here’s my annual food expeditures since 2000. (It’s hard to compare for years before then because I was tracking things differently and also I hadn’t started shopping the way I do.)

    2000 $1,143.98 $3.13
    2001 $1,241.46 $3.40
    2002 $1,176.26 $3.22
    2003 $1,135.51 $3.11
    2004 $1,350.14 $3.70
    2005 $1,137.08 $3.12
    2006 $943.90 $2.59
    2007 $989.90 $2.71
    2008 $1,086.53 $2.98
    2009 $997.44 $2.73
    2010 $1,072.29 $2.94

    (I know there’s a leap year in there somewhere and I should divide by 366 instead of 365 but I’m too lazy to look up and see which one it is.)

    I’m not sure what happened in 2001 or 2004. Occasionally I would decided that I was being crazy and I should spend more, so I would try to spend more. That might be what was going on there. Then I decided to spend less, so I was working on that in 2006 and 2007 and then I started reading about all of these Congress people trying the Food Stamp Challenge and they found it impossible to eat for $3 a day, which I had been doing just fine for the past two years and working to bring it down even more. So I decided to stop trying to bring it down and just keep it at around $3, there didn’t seem to be any real incentive to keep going if people thought what I was doing already was impossible. So that’s where I’ve been since then.

    This year I’m averaging around $85/mo but no one would be very impressed with what I’ve been eating. It’s been a rough year.

    Note that my totals include ONLY food — not beer or wine, not toothpaste or toilet paper, not meals out.

    I eat out a few times a month and I travel for a few days every couple months.

  8. lessisenough Says:

    Well going to Wal-Mart might help but it might be worse, there’s way more stuff to get yourself into trouble with at Wal-Mart.

    My advice for him would be to use the “envelope” system and put the money he has available to spend each week in a separate envelope. That way when he runs out, he only has to make it a few more days, not the whole month.

    And some of this depends on how motivated he is. If he actually wants to try to get better, here’s what I recommend. (This is for anyone who feels like they’re spending too much at the store.)

    Think about what you’re going to get BEFORE you go to the store. What are you going to eat for lunch? What do you have, what do you need? How many dinners are you going to eat at home this week? One? Five? Think about what you’re going to make for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Think about what you can get that will keep even if you don’t eat it this week. (For instance peanut butter and jelly will wait patiently for you until you get around to it; turkey and lettuce will not. Your goal is to never throw anything away. That’s money straight down the drain.)

    You should try to calculate roughly how much everything you’re planning on getting will cost — e.g., dozen eggs $3, half gallon of milk $3, cereal $4, loaf of bread $3, cheese $3, etc. Add everything up. Let’s say everything you think you’re going to get will come to $20 (or $40 or $60 or whatever).

    Get that amount of cash out and put it in your grocery envelope. I would advise that if you’re really trying to keep a lid on things, that you not get a push cart, get a basket you carry. (I walk to the store so this is essential; I need to be able to carry everything home. But it also definitely keeps you from going nuts and getting all kinds of random things — groceries often get too heavy to carry before they get too expensive.)

    Whenever you put something in your basket, look at the price. Round up and add it to the running total of everything you’ve already put in your basket. (If it’s too much to do in your head, try using the calculator on your phone. Though I personally find keeping a running total in my head to be a lovely zen experience — you really can’t worry about anything while you’re adding up grocery costs and keeping the number in your head.) When the total hits the amount you were planning on spending, you need to stop shopping and go check out. If you still have things to buy, you might need to put some things back. If you do, adjust the total as you get rid of things and add new things.

    This is not super easy to do, the first few times it will feel really hard, and it might feel too hard to want to try to figure out, but it is extremely effective. And it’s like training wheels, once you’ve done it for a little while, you’ll get kind of a sixth sense about how much things are and how much you’re spending and you won’t need to do it anymore. It’s just in the beginning when it’s all new that it’s really hard.

  9. […] Less is Enough has a thoughtful post on the “middle ground” between fine dining and fast food. […]

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