The Big Picture

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

[Ed. Note: This is something I started writing in 2009 or 2010 and apparently never posted. I think some of it was incorporated into my explanation of why I don’t use coupons, but when I re-read it, it seemed like most of the ideas here never made it out of the drafts folder.

The discussion about how much I paid for a baby bok choy when I did my ramen hack meal made me think of it, and wonder if I’d ever posted it. And I hadn’t. And it wasn’t quite done yet. But now it is. And I have.]


One of the things that I think might be a little bit different about how I work and how most Americans operate is that I try to stay focused on the big picture.

I don’t worry too much about individual things — how much fat a particular food has in it, or what the per-pound cost of what I’m buying is, or whether I’m getting enough protein at every meal. Instead I try to stay focused on the total. How healthy is my diet over the course of a day, week, month? How much did I spend overall for what I ate, and how good was it? How do I feel?

A few years ago, I did the food for a reunion of my college housemates and when we were looking at receipts to split up costs, one of my friends who does a lot of her shopping at warehouse stores (BJs, Costco, etc.) kept making comments about how much more I paid for things than she usually pays. But I had purchased most of the food for the weekend, and my overall total was far lower than hers. And this is true of our regular lives as well — my monthly expenses are far less than half of what she and her husband typically spend in a month.

One of the reasons I shop at Whole Foods is because I think the food is better. If you’re buying better food, you’re likely to be happier with less of it, and you won’t need to do as much to it to make it taste good, so that will save you time as well.

(One of the books I read over the course of the past year, I don’t remember which, included a theory that one of the reasons people who eat a lot of processed foods tend to overeat is because their bodies aren’t getting the nutrients they need, so they’re driven to eat excessive amounts in an effort to make up for it. I don’t know that there’s any evidence to support that theory, but I thought it was an interesting idea.)

At some point, I decided that trying to get low-calorie everything was silly. As long as the total calories I’m taking in is about right (I’m not very big and I do not have a very high metabolism, so I really should be taking in much less than the recommended “average” 2000 calorie-a-day diet), it doesn’t matter how much each individual thing I eat has. If eating a more caloric item means I have fewer items to eat, that works in my favor. Less money, less time, less shopping.

I started buying whole milk again not too long ago. I drank skim milk for a long time, but I never liked it, and switched to 2%. Then for a while, I’d buy a quart of skim milk and a pint of whole milk, so I could have whatever I wanted — straight skim for nonfat, straight whole for full fat, half whole and half skim for 2% (whole milk is 4% fat), or anything else in between. This is not cost effective, as a pint of whole milk costs almost the same as a quart. But it was less waste and I liked the flexibility.

Over the summer when I was having back problems and wanted to maximize calories per food intake, in order to minimize the amount of effort and trips it took to get food, get dishes, and get everything back into the kitchen, I decided that whole milk and mayonnaise were my friends. Maximum calories, minimum effort.

The problem is that most people are completely bombarded with food all the time, every day, all of it having way too many calories. And it’s nearly always the kind of food you can eat a lot of without realizing how much you’ve eaten. So if you have higher calorie things rather than lower calorie things, you’ll eat even more too much than you would otherwise. But it seems to me that the real solution is not to eat large quantities of lower calorie foods, but to eat less food overall. And have it be better quality.

When people talk about how fruit and vegetables are expensive, I feel like they’re missing the point.

Fruit and vegetables may be expensive on a per unit basis — and certainly they are expensive on a per calorie basis — but they taste good and they make you feel full. Satiety depends more on volume than on calories; I am more full after a seventy-five calorie apple and a twenty calorie carrot than I am after a four-hundred calorie bag of Doritos. (I was horrified to realize that a ninety-nine cents Big Grab bag of Doritos is two-and-a-half servings of a hundred and fifty calories each. Gaahh!) And I will be less hungry later, too. I can’t imagine any circumstances under which four-hundred calories of Doritos is a better option for me than ninety-five calories of fruit and vegetables. Unless I was having some kind of sodium crisis and need a huge influx of sodium quickly.

I feel like people need to step back and think about the big picture, both with what they’re eating and with how much they’re spending. You don’t need to balance every meal (for those who need a pep talk on the subject, feel free to re-read this M.F.K. Fisher excerpt) and you don’t need to try to get every single thing as cheaply as possible. You just need to get it all to work together — what you’re eating and how much you’re spending and how your life overall is working.

So for me personally, I’ve decided that spending approximately a hundred dollars a month on food (food prepared at home, excluding meals out, which is a separate budget item) is a reasonable target. I like to have a number that is low enough that I have to stay focused, but not so low that I have to knock myself out. That number is going to be different for everyone — everyone has different amounts of disposable income and different nutritional needs and different constraints on their time/space/energy.

I shop at Whole Foods for a whole bunch of reasons. The store has a compact layout, so I can wander haphazardly through the aisles picking up things in order of importance, and going back through aisles I went through already to get things I forgot. It is on the way to and from many things, so I can stop frequently and have it work with my schedule. I like being able to buy small quantities of meat from the butcher counter and small quantities of grains, nuts, and dried fruits from the bulk-food bins. I like that there is only one price posted, not one price for people with a loyalty card and a different price for people without a loyalty card. (I do not have any store loyalty cards, and usually they give you the lower price anyway, but not always, so it complicates my calculations about whether or not it’s worth buying something.) I like that when they post a price as two for three dollars you can buy one and it’s a dollar fifty. (Some stores have a different price for single items than for the special x for $x price, which drives me nuts.)

I’m also happy with the quality of the food I get. The prices for the things I buy may be higher than they are in other stores, but my overall costs are still low enough that it’s not worth it for me to try to come up with a different system. If I get to a point where it isn’t working for me anymore — either because I need to spend less on food, or because I know I could be spending a lot less in a way that was nearly as convenient — then I would work on figuring out something else.

But for now, this is what works.

Big picture.

Case Study: Ramen

Friday, March 8, 2013

Yesterday at work I started thinking about ramen. Not straight-up five-for-a-dollar grocery store ramen, but not David Chang ramen, either. Something in between.

I had driven to work because I had to go to the post office, so that meant I had more options for stopping points on the way home. Usually I walk, and in theory I could walk to more than one store, but the two stores I generally go to are not in the same direction, so it makes for a long trip, and rarely am I up for that on my way home.

But this time, car. The world was my oyster.

So I stopped at Food Lion and bought three packages of ramen for eighty-nine cents. Then I drove to Whole Foods and considered the options for vegetable and meat additions.

I thought about getting chicken and poaching or roasting it but decided against that, I wanted something simpler. I’m not much of a beef eater at this point, so flank steak or something like that didn’t feel right either. I decided to go with the Other White Meat, and got a small boneless pork chop, around five ounces.

Then I was thinking I should get some kind of greens, bok choy or napa cabbage or baby spinach.

The bok choy and napa cabbage were both HUGE, I knew it would be too much of a challenge for me to use that all up before it went bad, and also they were both $2.99 a pound or something like that, it was going to be way over $5, which is out of my price range for vegetables. Sometimes they have loose baby spinach, you can buy just a handful, but I didn’t see any yesterday. But they did have baby bok choy, so I bought a small one of those for around a dollar. And some green onions for $1.49, which always feels like highway robbery, but I decided to just suck it up this time.

And on the way home, I thought about how I was going to cook it.

And then by the time I got home, I was tired and hungry, so I ate leftovers instead. (Wonh, wonh, wonnhh. You lose. No soup for you.)

But tonight. Tonight! I took a nice afternoon nap and had energy for dinner.

I cut the pork chop into bite-size-ish pieces and marinated in sesame oil, soy sauce, chinese rice wine, while I did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. (Things are kind of a mess around here, don’t ask.)

I took a quart of chicken stock out of the freezer, ran the container under water to loosen it, slid the big frozen chunk out of the container into a pot on the stove, turned the stove to medium high and left to thaw.

I chopped the green onions, minced a clove of garlic (from the pantry), grated some ginger root (from the freezer).

I chopped the baby bok choy into bite-size-ish pieces and heated a frying pan in which I’d cooked some bacon earlier in the day and added a little bit of canola oil and sautéed, with some salt and pepper for seasoning. When it was tender but not cooked all the way through, I poured in some of the stock (which was by now thawed), covered the pan, brought to a boil, and simmered until seemed sufficiently done, cooked but not mushy. I tasted and decided to add some soy sauce for flavor.

I heated a little bit of canola oil in a pot, and when it was hot threw in the garlic, ginger, and white part of the onion. Stirred for a minute, when that was fragrant, added the pork. When the pork was browned and seemed more or less cooked, I poured the chicken stock into the pot and tasted and adjusted seasonings — added salt, pepper, chili salt (salt a friend gave me — kosher salt plus some kind of crazy spicy chili, it’s totally spicy, a little goes a long way). Tasted again, needed more … something. Added msg (figured it would not be a true ramen experience without msg) and a little bit of chili paste with garlic. Tasted again. Salty, spicy, good. Brought to a boil, then let simmer.

In the meantime, I cooked the ramen noodles the normal way, boiled in water.

When the noodles were about ready, I added the cooked greens to the pot with the pork and heated those together for a minute. Put the noodles in a bowl, ladled the broth/pork/greens over the noodles, added the green part of the chopped green onions for garnish.

So good.

Not the cheapest thing in the world, because of the pork — around six dollars for two servings (with almost half of that being the pork). But cheaper than going out somewhere for a noodle bowl, and better too.

And these are the kinds of things you can make that aren’t very expensive, and aren’t very hard to make, and use some things you buy fresh (vegetables, meat) and some things you have in the pantry (noodles, garlic, condiments, spices) and some things you have in the freezer (chicken stock, ginger).

And are really, really good.