It’s the Most Time of the Year

Thursday, December 27, 2012

I’ve been thinking lately about a passage from How to Cook a Wolf (from the chapter “How to Keep Alive”).

The man I know who lived for two years on about seven cents a day [ed. note: 2011 equivalent = $1.14] (this was in the early thirties at the University of California) was and still is a bonny figure indeed, tall, lean, and wholesome….

His formula was simple, but as a I said before, he cheated now and then.

He would buy whole ground wheat at a feed-and-grain store, cook it slowly in a big kettle with a lot of water until it was tender, and eat it three times a day with a weekly gallon of milk that he got from a cut-rate dairy. Almost every day he stole a piece of fruit from a Chinese pushcart near his room. (After he graduated he sent the owner a ten dollar bill, and got four dollars back, with an agreeable note inviting him to a New Year’s party in Chinatown in San Francisco. He went.)

Every three weeks or so he had a job as a waiter at fraternity house banquets and other such college orgies. He always took a basket and a rope, and let down into the alley sometime during the evening a surprising collection of rolls, butter, olives, pie, and even chicken or meat. After one or two sad experiences with alley cats, who found his basket before he got to it, he knew how to close it firmly against any marauders but himself and would hurry back to his room with it as soon as the waiters were dismissed.

He confessed much later that the food never tasted good and that it was always a relief to get back to boiled wheat and milk again, but that for two years he wolfed down those frowsy stolen scraps as if they were his one link with la gourmandise.

Eating holiday food is fun, but I’ll be glad when it’s over.

How to Shop, Part II: Think First

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Okay so I was going to write about working on a limited budget for the next part of this series but I realized that before I do that, I need to talk a little bit about planning.

I’m looking at what Cory Booker bought (I looked for an itemized list but couldn’t find one, he tweeted a picture of his receipt but it’s crumpled and hard to see exactly what’s on it) and wondering just what the plan was, if he had one or if he was just generally looking for what was cheapest, what was on special, and what was similar to what he normally ate. For instance I read that he bought bagged salad mix because it was on sale, 2 for $5.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time armchair quarterbacking the Mayor’s choices, but for those of you following at home, I will say that I do not recommend spending 15% of your budget on lettuce. Lettuce is not filling, it’s not hugely nutritious, and it doesn’t keep well. If you really feel the need for something salad-like, buy a cabbage and make some slaw. Otherwise try to let go of the notion that eating salad is a prerequisite for a healthy meal. It’s not. Focus your resources of more substantial vegetables.

One of the problems with trying to buy a week’s worth of food all together is that you are likely to end up with too much of some things and not enough of other things; it’s really hard to know how much of something you will eat in one meal. If you eat less than you think, you might not have had the foresight to get other things that will go with that thing to make a second meal, so in the end you’ll have a bunch of random things that don’t necessarily go together but that you have to eat together because that’s all you have. And you are out of money to buy more. And you will feel sad and deprived because you will be eating half a can of beans an apple and a bowl of macaroni for dinner.

Buying for a few days at a time is better because you can get what you need for one meal and then see what you have left over to roll into the next meal.

And, just to be clear, you are not trying to buy exactly the amount you need for one meal, that would be hard and most likely not cost-effective (unless you have access to bulk bins, in which case it’s an option that definitely should be explored), you are simply buying the things you need to make a meal.

Normally, in non-Food Stamp Challenge food shopping excursions, you do not have to buy every single item you need to make a meal, so this is all a little easier. And since most people — even, I would think, most food stamp recipients — are not usually starting with absolutely nothing in their refrigerator or pantry, I’m not going to spend too much time telling you how to deal with that situation. (And anyway, I already did that. If you’re really interested, you can read about the Dollar a Day project in 2009, where I did start with absolutely nothing and bought everything I ate for the next 30 days, spending $1 at a time. You can get to those posts by clicking on the Dollar a Day links in the sidebar and then using the calendar in the sidebar to navigate through the posts.)

As noted in the previous post, I don’t know that I’m actually capable of planning a week’s worth of meals at once, and even if I could, I know that I am definitely not capable of follow the plan. So the planning I’m recommending here is not that kind of planning, it’s much more limited. You do not need to pull out your crystal ball, you just need to come up with a few specific meals that you will eat over the next few days.

If you have a smaller household and cook meals at home on a regular basis, you will almost certainly have a stockpile of leftover food starting to build up. For instance pasta is sold in packages of one or two pounds. You are not going to eat a pound of pasta all at once. (Unless you manage to make something so extraordinarily delicious that you want to eat it four or five nights in a row, which I suppose could happen, but doesn’t usually happen to me.)

Same thing with rice, eggs, dried beans, frozen vegetables. And some fresh vegetables, like carrots, onions, garlic. And spices. Even some convenience foods like boxed cereal.

You rarely use everything you buy in a single meal.

And buying a few things to go with things you already have on hand to make one or two full meals is much cheaper and easier (much much much … it would be difficult to adequately emphasize how much cheaper and easier this strategy is) than trying to buy everything you need to make every meal for a week every time you shop.

So, if the Mayor had taken me shopping with him, instead of aides with calculators, I would have advised him to do things differently.

First, before even going into the store, we would have had a conversation about his schedule and what kinds of things he might want to eat for the next two or three days. When does he normally eat? Is he someone who pops out of bed ravenous, or someone who can hardly stand the thought of food until ten o’clock? Is he going to have to eat things on the run or will have time to make things fresh? When is he going to have the most time to cook?

Instead of looking for the absolute cheapest foods, we would then have looked for the cheapest foods he could get that would work for him given how he likes to eat, how much he needs, and what kind of schedule he has. Shopping for $4 a day is not like shopping for $1 a day; there’s not only one path out of the wilderness. We can take things other than price into account.

Someone who is hungry in the morning and needs a big meal to get through the day should buy eggs, cheese, frozen spinach, so he can eat scrambled eggs with spinach and cheese for breakfast. Maybe biscuit mix and some oranges.

Someone who can’t manage food until late morning is probably better off focusing on two meals: a bigger, slightly early lunch and a later dinner. And possibly a mid-afternoon snack if the time between meals is long.

Regardless of how or when you like to eat, for the first night, you probably want to make some kind of stew with vegetables and beans, and you want to try to make enough to eat on both the first and second nights. Serve over rice. (The Mayor went with sweet potatoes instead of rice, because they were cheaper, but I think that was a tactical error. I think rice was probably still within his budget, and it makes your meal feel like an actual meal in a way that sweet potatoes will not. The volume of food you eat is as important for satiety as the number of calories, so you need to keep that in mind when trying to decide what’s most cost-effective.)

So, for instance, for your first shopping trip, you might buy:

a dozen eggs – $2.30
one package of frozen spinach – $1.30
a bag of carrots or celery (fresh) – $1.80
a block of hard cheese (e.g., cheddar, Muenster, pepper jack) – $2.50
a box of Bisquik or other baking mix – $2.30
two cans of beans – 2 @ $.90 = $1.80
[or a bag of dried beans, if you have time to soak and cook, and the prices are better]
one can of tomatoes – $1.30
one bag of rice – $2

TOTAL: $15.30

[Note about prices: I’m not looking anything up, and I know prices vary significantly around the country. The prices I’m giving are my estimate based on what I think I would pay at the store I shop at most here in North Carolina, which is not the cheapest store. Some people are likely to think those prices are much too high and some will think they are much too low. It’s just a general ballpark, don’t get too hung up on it.]

But wait, you say, I’ve just spent more than half of my budget on the first day, and I don’t have nearly enough food to get me through the week!

It’s true, you don’t. But you’re not going to eat everything you just bought in two days and you’ll be able to build future meals out of those items, with a much smaller incremental cost.

Also, my experience with rationing is that you’re better off lowballing things in the beginning to see how much you really need and if you can get by with less than you think. Then you can see how much you have remaining, and what you feel like you need most — if it feels like you need more substance, you can buy more rice and beans, but if you have enough of that, you can spend the extra on fruits and vegetables. From a psychological perspective, it’s much easier to go without in the beginning and have enough in the end than the other way around. Running out of things and having no money to get more is suffering, no two ways about it.

So for the first few days, you’re going to have scrambled eggs with spinach and cheese for breakfast, along with biscuits, and you make a stew out of the tomatoes, carrots (or celery), spinach, and beans and serve over rice for dinner.

See how that goes and how much food you eat.

Then on your second trip, you’re going to look to see what you have left and build your next few meals based on what you have in the pantry.

Maybe you buy a few pieces of chicken and an onion and poach the chicken with carrots/celery (and some spinach, if you want), and use the biscuit mix to make dumplings. (Note that for this, you would need a carniceria, or some other store with a butcher counter, so you can buy individual pieces of chicken by the pound. Where I live in Durham, there are carnicerias on every other corner; don’t be afraid to check them out for some pollo.)

You will probably be able to get what you need on the second trip for about $8, which will put you at $23 and leave you around $7 for a third trip.

What I found when I started shopping this way was that food I bought to last for two or three days would invariably stretch for longer than that, especially when combined with things I had on hand. And it’s not like I was going to starve to death if I got busy and couldn’t make it to the store for a few days, I would always have something here that I could throw together.

[And again, I need to insert my disclaimer here.

This is not designed for people who are in dire straits, who have nothing in their cupboards and only a few dollars to spare. That requires a different strategy — and outside help, I’m not going to be able to solve those problems with a blog post.

This is for people who are trying to figure out how to spend less, and it’s based on the strategy I use all the time, every day. I’m using the Mayor’s experience as a jumping off point, not because I’m trying to tell him or those in the SNAP program what to do, but because it provides a specific example and it gives me a chance to compare my strategy with what people typically do when they’re trying to get by on as little as possible, and to highlight how the two approaches differ.


Generally what happens if I go for too long without making it to the store is that I have to get increasingly creative and start pulling things out of the pantry and freezer that have been languishing and see what kind of meal I can make from those. There are a few things I can almost always make — curry rice pilaf with carrots and peas (and if I’m lucky, ground beef or chicken), spaghetti with bread crumbs. Or chicken livers. (That’s not punishment, I actually like chicken livers, I think it might be a southern thing).

And then when I finally do make it back to the store, I spend $20 or $25 instead of my usual $12 to $14, because I have to replenish more things in the pantry and freezer as well as getting what I need for the next few meals. But eventually it evens out.

That’s how it works for me.

And that’s today’s lesson: Think first, because a little bit of planning goes a long way.

How to Shop, Part I: Waste Not, Want Not

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Okay, I’m looking at info on the SNAP challenge, which seems to come around every year, and this time is being taken up by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is going to live for the week on the average amount of SNAP assistance in his home state of New Jersey, which is approximately $4.35 per day, or $30.45 per week.

And whenever I end up on this subject, I get comments addressing the politics of this situation, so before I get into this, I would like to state the following:

I respect everyone who takes this challenge and I recognize that often people who are receiving food assistance have problems in their lives that go far beyond simply a lack of money (for instance limited access to fresh food, difficult work schedules, and transportation issues, to name but a few).

The suggestions I am offering here are not specifically intended for people who are receiving public assistance, but are in the spirit of positive support for anyone who might be looking to shop for less than they are currently spending. My goal is to offer specific information on shopping on a limited budget that I hope will be useful. This is based on my personal experience of shopping and eating for the past 12+ years for between $90 and $100 dollars a month.

I will also state that the strategy I describe below is geared primarily towards small households, one or two people, and is not designed for large families living complicated lives involving working parents and kids and extracurricular activities. There are scads of blogs for you people already. This is not one of them.

Okay, there you have it. Thus ends the disclaimer.

Now for the details.

The first thing you want to do is re-think your shopping strategy.

You probably work with a once-a-week shopping trip, where you try to bring home everything you need for the week. This was Cory Booker’s strategy, he went to the store and spent $29.78 for what he hopes will be a week’s worth of food.

The once-a-week shopping strategy is almost universally promoted as a way to save money, the idea being that every time you go to the store, you will make all kinds of impulse purchases and bring home lots of things you don’t really need. You run into the store for a quart of milk and a loaf of bread and $75 later find yourself walking out the door. So you limit your trips to once a week and you get everything you need with one run through the grocery gauntlet. (There are people who go a step further and promote the once-a-month shopping strategy, which limits your exposure to Funyuns and Us Weekly even more, but I don’t think enough people actually do that for me to need to critique it.)

The basic idea underlying this is that you are capable of being a completely organized person who sits down on Saturday and plans out your week, including a menu for each day’s meals, and if you just have that in front of you, you will not turn into a completely impulsive person who loses all self-control when you find yourself in the supermarket fun house surrounded by brightly colored packaging and today-only specials.

I think the once-a-week approach is probably a very good strategy for people who meet some or all of the following criteria:

(a) you have a regular schedule
(b) you are effectively able to gauge how much food you will eat in a week
(c) you are capable of developing a weekly menu
(d) you are capable of adhering to the weekly menu that you developed
(e) you are able to cook food that gets completely eaten in a timely fashion (including all leftovers, which are consumed or frozen for later use).

When I had a job outside of the house , I employed this strategy until I finally came to the realization that I am not that person, and gave up on it.

I had a number of ongoing problems.

First, my schedule was somewhat erratic — sometimes I would have a work lunch and wouldn’t be hungry when I got home, sometimes I would have to work late, sometimes I would go out with friends and get bar food. Second, I’m a really moody eater. I want to eat what I feel like eating, and I am rarely able to predict on Saturday what I will feel like eating on Wednesday.

So I was buying food assuming I would be cooking a certain number of meals at home, but often I wouldn’t, I would make fewer. I was also buying things assuming that I would feel like eating that thing but then wouldn’t. Both of these problems resulted in my buying food that would be tossed into the garbage when it went bad because I didn’t get to it in time. (Sadly, I was not even feeding a worm bin at that point, it was all going straight to the landfill. Pains me to even think about that.)

This is bad. Very, very bad.

Whatever you do, you do not ever — EVER — want to throw away food. Food you buy and do not eat is the most expensive food you buy. It is a complete waste of money. Not to mention all of the other resources that are wasted.

When I left my job in DC and started working from home as a telecommuter, I decided I needed to see what I could do to fix this problem. And once I started focusing on it, I quickly realized that the once-a-week shopping trip just did not work for me. I was not good at gauging how much food I would use in a week and I was buying too much.

I decided on two immediate steps that I could take to improve the situation.

The first was to review what was in the refrigerator before I went to the store. (I know that sounds basic — no one said this was rocket science.) If anything was on its last legs, I would think about what I could make involving that thing. [Later I started thinking about how I could process about-to-turn-bad foods for future use, which is its own topic that I will address in a separate post.]

The second was to figure out what I was going to eat for the next couple of days. Not the rest of the week, mind you, which was unpredictable, just the next two or three days, which I usually had somewhat of a handle on.

So I would look in the fridge to see what I had and I would think about what I could make with that — maybe I would even look in cookbooks, back in the day when I had time and energy for that kind of thing — and I would put together a list of what I needed to buy.

And this is what I recommend you do if  you want to start working on this project of spending less on groceries.

The first thing you are doing is working to eliminate wasted food. I would say that most people can cut their grocery bill by at least 20% (and some people can save much more than that) simply by eating everything they buy and not throwing anything away.

You don’t need to analyze what you’re eating or whether you should be using coupons or if another store would be cheaper. You’re still buying the foods you like and making what you want from the store you like best. You’re just working on buying exactly the right amount of food.

Take care of one problem at a time. This is the first.

I am not a wildly adventurous eater, I like routine. Generally what happens to me is that I end up with a few things I eat regularly for breakfast and a few things I eat regularly for lunch.

So what I started doing when I implemented this new strategy was to fill in the gaps for my basic breakfasts and lunches, and to get what I needed for the next dinner I was making (which was usually that night’s — grocery shopping was often my afternoon break, I would walk to the store and get groceries and walk home and fix dinner).

Note that there are a few key things you are NOT doing when you shop this way.

You are NOT walking up and down every aisle in the grocery store.
You are NOT thinking about everything you ever eat and making sure you have some of it in your house.
You are NOT worrying about pet food, paper towels, shampoo. You can deal with those later, separately from your food. Just focus on food for now.

You are simply getting what you need to eat for the next couple of days. You are making sure you have enough — but not too much — of your regular breakfast and lunch staples and you are fixing a nice dinner, which will use up whatever you have in the fridge that is on the verge of going bad, and will ideally provide at least one, but not more than three, meals worth of leftovers. Because a girl can only eat so many leftovers before going gaaahh don’t make me eat that anymore.

Some people hear about this strategy and say okay but I HATE grocery shopping, I hate the grocery store, why would I want to go more often?

And the answer to that is that you will be shopping more often, but your shopping trips will be much more targeted so they will take much less time and, more importantly, much less mental energy. You are not wandering all over the store in search of everything. You are hitting the sections that have what you need right now. That’s it. (For me, this is generally the produce section, sometimes the dairy section, and the frozen foods cases. In and out.)

And you are not having problems with impulse purchases because you are just buying what is on the list that you need for the next few days. If you feel a great desire to buy something that is not on the list, you need to use all of your stored willpower to ignore that desire for the next ten minutes that you are in the store. You can make a mental note of what it is you want and promise yourself that if you still want it the next time you are putting together your grocery list — which will be in three days, you can wait that long — you can add it to the list. And if it is on the list, you can buy it.

If, like Cory Booker, you are working with a limited budget, you need to take that into account when you put together your list and plan your purchases.

And that will be the subject of the next post. Strategies for staying within a limited budget.

But first, you can start working on buying the right amount of food and not throwing anything away.

And if Cory Booker had consulted with me before going shopping, I would have told him to plan on three shopping trips for the week: one on Sunday to get food for Monday and Tuesday; one on Tuesday or Wednesday to get food for the rest of the work week; and one on Friday to carry him through the last few days.

But alas, he did not ask me. And now he is paying the price.