Monthly Archives: December 2011

In Search of the Sweet Spot: Good Food, Less Money

I realize that the world does not need another food blog. The world needs another food blog about as much as I need another reason to spend time online. But humor me for the time being by pretending that this is at least somewhat of an original idea.

This blog has come about because I decided to run my mouth off on Facebook about people’s food budgets. I had read an article on CNN that reported that $30/week is the average that recipients of food stamps are allotted in the US. I bragged that I manage to spend only $40-50/week, shopping exclusively at a food co-op (which are big in Minnesota, where I live), which has a mostly organic, and therefore pricey, selection. In response to this, several of my friends made some very good points about how it would be nearly impossible to eat on such a small amount of money if you a) didn’t know how to cook, worked two jobs and didn’t have time to cook, couldn’t afford to invest in decent cooking equipment, etc., or, more importantly, b) lived in a “food desert” where the ingredients one needs to cook healthy, cheap meals were largely unavailable. Both of these are legitimate issues, and for these reasons and others, I think it’s fair to say that $30/week isn’t sufficient, particularly for people who lack time, equipment, and access to ingredients.

But this article raised my hackles. While attempting not to disregard the very real issues many Americans face in finding cheap, healthy food, I’ll say that this article does make it seem unrealistically difficult to eat well on a budget. The author attempts to demonstrate that $30/week is insufficient by taking $30 to the grocery store and trying to buy a week’s worth of food. Unsurprisingly, she fails miserably – but this is as much due to the totally ludicrous way she goes about this as it is to her meager budget. She seems not to have bothered to make any sort of meal plan, and chooses food at random. She splurges on expensive items like chicken breasts and packaged fresh tomatoes, and doesn’t seem to have any concept of which foods are cheap and which are expensive. When all is said and done, she has only managed to purchase a few items that could conceivably be assembled into an actual meal.

My point is not that people on food stamps should be forced to plan carefully in a way that the rest of us don’t have to (though they would certainly benefit from doing so), or that they aren’t entitled to eat expensive, “nice” foods like chicken breasts and fresh tomatoes. My point is that, as with all things in life, eating well on a budget works a lot better if you think about it and plan a bit. If the challenge would have been to find adequate housing on a budget, would the author have just run out and rented the first apartment she found? Of course not – she’d have done extensive research first. So why should food be any different? But because we have access to so much food, so many types of food, and so many instant, packaged, and pre-made types of food, a lot of Americans become paralyzed at the prospect of having to assemble a nutritious, filling, and inexpensive meal from scratch.

Recently, a friend messaged me, telling me that she was trying to cut back on her spending and asking about my cooking habits. She remembered me running my mouth off about my food budget on Facebook, and wanted to know what strategies I used for eating well on a relatively small budget. As I thought about how to answer this question, I realized that I have actually learned a ton about this since graduating from college seven okay, going-on-eight years ago, due to a combination of obsessive thriftiness and very low-paying (but interesting and rewarding!) work. At the most extreme end of the spectrum representing my years of penury were the two years I worked for non-profits through AmeriCorps, living on a salary of under $11,000 a year plus $40/week in food stamps. During this time, I learned to be thrifty as heck with just about everything, including food, and many of those habits have stuck. Now that I’m a graduate student and half-time research assistant, I earn a bit more, but hardly enough to live it up, and I still can and do keep my food budget to around $40-50/week (including a couple of very pricey staples that I’m unwilling to give up) when I am watching my spending.

So I’ve decided to start a blog about how to “do” food better. Cooking from scratch or mostly from scratch doesn’t have to be difficult, it doesn’t have to be excessively time-consuming or finicky, and it absolutely doesn’t have to be expensive.

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I really like the related concepts of trade-offs and optimization, and I think they’re helpful to keep in mind when trying to figure out how to eat cheaply in a way that is healthy, tasty, and works with your schedule. While there’s no perfect approach that maximizes all of these things, it’s helpful to put some thought into which are the most important to you. Are you willing to spend some extra time, say, cooking beans from scratch, or is the convenience of canned beans worth the extra cost? Are the health benefits of organic veggies worth the premium you pay for them? There are a number of trade-offs involved in eating cheaply, and figuring out which are your highest priorities is the first step to feeding yourself in a way that doesn’t break the bank. But this doesn’t mean that you always have to choose between easy and cheap, or quality and cheap, or nutritious and cheap. There are a number of strategies I’ve developed over the years for optimizing health and convenience while still keeping my food budget low – strategies for finding the “sweet spot”. This blog will cover all of those strategies and more.

Stay tuned. 🙂

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