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.