Advice for a Friend

Sunday, February 3, 2013

In 2003, a good friend who I had worked with for 10+ years did a mid-career switch and went back to school to be a nurse. Her undergraduate degree had been in political science, so she had to start from square one and take all of her math and science prerequisites before she could even apply to nursing school. It was a brave decision. She got some support from her family to help pay the bills while she went to school full time, but it was a big change.

In order to provide my own little bit of support, I sent her a small care package that included some advice I pulled together on living for less that I hoped would help her. I don’t think we ever talked about whether or not it was useful to her, but she did make it through school and get started in her new career and in the process did pretty much of a 180 degree turn on spending, so I don’t think it hurt.

I thought about re-working the food portion of it to post here but then decided to just put it up more or less as I wrote it since I think it’s a pretty good outline of how I shopped and how I thought about things when I was first implementing my system. Some of the numbers might be off, since it’s nearly 10 years old now, but for the most part, it still feels more or less accurate.

And I feel like this does a good job of summarizing my general philosophy towards food and shopping and what I eat, and can help get things rolling again with the How to Shop series.

So here it is, excerpted from a letter to a friend written in August 2003.

And now in case after having read this far, you’re saying, okay that wasn’t what I had in mind at all, I will also offer specific insight into how I have reduced my monthly grocery bill, which wasn’t that high to begin with, by approximately 35% since I moved to North Carolina. (It’s currently at around $90/month.) I believe that all of the changes I have made are fully replicable by anyone with rudimentary cooking skills and a very small ability to plan ahead.

The thing that actually has made the most difference is that I almost never throw anything out. I know what’s in the refrigerator and approximately how long I have before it goes bad, and I make sure I either eat it, or use it in a recipe, or freeze it, or somehow process it so it can be frozen and used later. (For instance if you have mushrooms on the verge of collapse, you can sauté them and then freeze them and use them later in a casserole or add them to a white sauce to make a homemade version of cream of mushroom soup, which is good for all kinds of things.) If you buy a lemon for the juice to use in a recipe and don’t use all of it (or you buy two lemons and it turns out you only needed one) squeeze the extra into a small jar (baby food jars are great for this kind of thing) and stick it in the freezer. The next time you make a recipe with lemon juice, you’ll already have some. And you don’t have to throw anything away.

Almost any processed food can be made from scratch without too much trouble. (Though there are definitely exceptions to this. Like for instance you can make Grape Nuts but it’s not easy and I decided it’s easier to just eat less of them and to make a special trip to Food Lion when I decide I want them.) You can make your own tomato sauce, salsa, granola, hummus. Some things might not be worth the savings—you’re the only one who can decide that. You just need to be aware of what you’re buying and how much it is and if there are options for getting the same thing (or almost the same thing, or not really the same thing but pretty much just as good) more cheaply—and whether the amount of time you would have to spend to save however much money you would save is really worth it.

If I have a recipe that calls for chicken breasts (like that hoisin chicken one I made for New Year’s that time, with 8 cloves of garlic, which I make all the time now) I buy a whole chicken and cut it up, use the breast meat in the recipe then freeze the rest. Sometimes I fry the giblets and the neck and the skin from the breasts and use the grease to make milk gravy and mashed potatoes and have a nice fattening meal. I poach the wings and back which gives me stock for the freezer to use in all kinds of things, along with a little bit of meat to freeze and save for a casserole or to make a couple servings of chicken salad (like they used to make at the Yogurt Patch, with almonds and celery and raisins, and I eat it on warm pita bread just like they used to serve it.) Sometimes I fry the legs and thighs and eat with potato salad in the summer or mashed potatoes in the winter, or I cook them in a tomato sauce, like chicken cacciatore (Lone Star Chicken – see recipe enclosed.) Or I poach everything but the breasts and make chicken and dumplings, good winter comfort food.

For breakfast I eat muesli (recipe enclosed) which is filling and healthful and really really cheap. (You can get oat bran and all that kind of stuff bulk at Whole Foods/Fresh Fields, or a natural foods store like the one that used to be on P St., which may or may not still be there.) In the winter I make oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar, or steel-cut oats with honey and almonds. I cook two servings of steel-cut oats and the leftovers I refrigerate then heat in a frying pan with butter and serve with maple syrup and sunflower seeds. Mmmmm.

I buy whatever fruit is cheapest—apples in the fall and citrus in the winter and in the summer I buy everything because I love fresh fruit and since it’s only in for a few months I worry less about how much I’m spending than I do with other things. Bananas are cheap year round—$.60/ lb (which usually works out to about $.20-$.30 per banana)—so I eat lots of those.

Keep your freezer and pantry stocked with things you can use to make other things, so when you make a trip to the grocery store you’re just restocking the pantry or getting fresh produce and dairy.

Keep nonfat dry milk for cooking, so you can make pancakes or a white sauce without having to go to the store for milk. (When I go to the store for one thing, I invariably leave with five, so reducing trips makes a huge difference.)

Keep frozen vegetables in the freezer to throw into a casserole or stir fry, or to steam as a side dish. Fresh ginger keeps indefinitely in the freezer and can be grated frozen for stir frys and sauces. Keep rice, pasta, noodles, canned tomatoes, condiments (soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil), canned tuna and salmon in the pantry. Keep hamburger, ground turkey, bacon in the freezer—use in casseroles, sauces, soups.

Buy day-old bagels, slice in half and freeze. Eat for lunch with tuna and cheese, for breakfast with peanut butter and a smoothie. Keep a loaf of bread in the freezer, eggs and cheese in the fridge. Make a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich for a third of what you’d pay at a shop.

Always have garlic and onions and potatoes on hand. Buy potatoes and onions in 5lb bags to save money. [Though again this is something I don’t do because the more potatoes I have, the more potatoes I eat, and any savings I managed to eke out would be lost with the new sets of clothes I would continually be buying.]

Keep flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder so you can make biscuits, dumplings, pancakes, muffins. The only fats you need are butter for baking (and for toast, and grilled cheese sandwiches), olive oil for sauteing and salads, canola oil for frying and baking.

With everything you buy, learn which stores are cheaper for which things (e.g., Asian markets for rice and noodles; and you might be surprised at how much difference there is between things in different stores—and that it’s not always the same store with the lowest price for everything) and keep an eye out for specials. If something you use a lot is reduced, buy as much as is practicable (though those of us who walk to the grocery store are limited in our ability to buy in bulk). Coupons can be useful, but you shouldn’t buy things you wouldn’t buy otherwise just because you have a coupon. (It seems to me that coupons are generally for overpriced processed foods that are still overpriced even with the coupon.) Though if there’s something you really like but have stopped getting because it doesn’t seem worth it at full price and you have a coupon for it, then you can get it and have it as a treat. As with everything, you just have to decide if it’s worth it given your current situation, whatever that might be.

So I don’t know, that’s basically what I’ve done. Is that useful? It’s worked well for me and doesn’t make my life one of drudgery and tedium. (Well, you know, any more than it would be otherwise.)

8 Responses to “Advice for a Friend”

  1. This blog is so, so helpful. I’ve been spending WAY too much on groceries, and still generally feeling dissatisfied with my food.

  2. lessisenough Says:

    Glad to hear it!

    I’ve found there to be very little correlation between how much money you spend on food and how good it is. I think, like most things, the key is to focus on what you really like, and spend as much as you need to on that, but don’t spend anything on things you don’t like or don’t really care about.

  3. SoCalmom Says:

    I found this to be very helpful and liked both the tip of using a small glass jar for lemon juice, and the concept of buying half-off bread to stick in the freezer. I have sometimes found 99 cent loaves at the Ralphs markets and put them in the freezer, but I didn’t always use them up in a short time. Recently, however, I came across a recipe for stuffing which included instructions to bake slices of bread on a cookie sheet @ 200 degrees to make bread cubes for use in stuffing. I did it with the frozen bread and now I’m ready to make stuffing with the last few celery stalks that I have left from making two large pots of soup in late January. I’m convinced that the key is in 2 elements-1) not throwing anything away but scraps and 2) making lists when shopping and keeping trips to short frequent jaunts to the store. I was looking for some rice to make a seafood Paella dish recently, and once on the rice aisle realized that they were all out of arborio rice based on a significant markdown (makes a great risotto), so I asked for a “raincheck” and can pick it up next time it’s back in stock. I feel like being aware of sales and various stores’ prices is really valuable on things you use frequently and as you say, quickly cooking something (like mushrooms) before they go bad and tossing in the freezer for a soup, casserole or quesadilla later is a superb way to save. The biggest area I need suggestions for are packing quick items for brown bag lunch at work. when I buy lettuce for salad I rarely take time to chop things up in the morning, and I’m afraid the night before will result in brown edged lettuce, so I end up throwing lettuce away. I can make sandwiches but that gets sort of boring too unless I throw in some other items for variety. I’m pretty sure you are retired or non working, but would you venture to suggest some inexpensive options for lunches if you weren’t at home to prepare it directly before eating?

  4. lessisenough Says:

    It’s funny you mention lettuce, I was having a conversation about this with someone recently, she asked what I do about lettuce. I said I don’t buy lettuce. It just doesn’t keep well enough and I don’t like salads enough to eat them the way I would need to in order to make that work. I think if you really like salads and want to eat a big salad every day it’s probably feasible, but for me it’s just not. Also I feel like lettuce doesn’t have that much nutritional value and isn’t particularly necessary to anything. It’s basically crunchy water. Someone else who was participating in the conversation said, “Yeah, it’s kind of one-dimensional.” So that’s how I feel about lettuce.

    Sadly, I am not nonworking (my clients who read this blog may wish to weigh in on that!) or retired but I don’t have to go to an office every day, I am self-employed and also seem to be picking up part-time jobs at an alarming rate. So I have a variety of different things to work around but I don’t have to pack a lunch every day.

    But I am intrigued by the Just Bento website ( and would totally try to get some of that going if I had to take food with me to work every day. It looks like a lot of that you can prepare ahead of time and then just put it together to make the meal, and from what I could see, it seems like you could do that very cheaply.

    When I do have to pack a meal (some of my part-time job shifts go through meal times), sometimes I take leftovers and sometimes I’ll cook pasta or something I can pack up and take with me and sometimes I take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Usually I take some fruit and I like to have dried fruit and nuts with me in my bag in case I get stuck somewhere without food. It’s good to have a little something to snack on.

  5. tommfranklin Says:

    SoCalmom said: “I’m pretty sure you are retired or non working…”

    Actually, I’m one of her database clients and I can attest to the fact that, yes, Rebecca is working most of the time. We keep her busy with a Perpetual Employment Project — and we’re just one of many clients she has. (Between her database work and her volunteer work it takes some planning to set up an in-person meeting with her.)

    — Tom

  6. lessisenough Says:

    Okay well now that sounds like I just paid someone to come and put up a comment claiming I am working. Yeah, right. “Working.”

    I told Ann that someone left a comment that said I seemed like I was “nonworking or retired” and she laughed heartily.

  7. tommfranklin Says:

    I’ll take that 25% discount on our next big invoice, just like we discussed.

  8. lessisenough Says:

    Check is in the mail.

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