Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why Do People Eat Out?

Do you ever wonder why people eat out so much?  Apparently it's in the news now, that people (Americans) officially spend more money eating out than they do on food cooked and eaten at home. For the first time ever.  Dan over at Casual Kitchen has a good post on the topic - that people still insist that it's expensive to eat healthy, and some people insist that it's cheaper to eat out.  And it's not.

But that is not the point I was going to make today.  What point was I going to make today?  Well, we did quite a bit of eating out on our vacation recently - I'd say once per day.  (That's a lot for us.)  McD's once (I know, I know. I even packed myself a salad on McD's day, and my husband got it out of the car, it wasn't lidded correctly, and it exploded all over the ground.  Bye bye salad.)  Chipotle a couple of times.  A sandwich.  Pizza.

My family is a big fan of Mexican food (or Mexican-like food).  One thing that we love (besides burritos and quesadillas) are "bowls".  Well, I like them because they are easy.  Sort of.  And cheap.  Sort of.

You can get a "bowl" with a coupon for $5 to $9, so that's not too terrible, right?  But of course you can make it home for cheap, so why don't people?  Let me tell you why.  Here's a summary of my bowl-making efforts recently.

1.  The rice: I use a rice cooker.  Chop onions, press a garlic clove, chop a couple of carrots.  Rinse rice.  Put rice, peas, carrots, onions, garlic, some spices, some tomato paste, and water in the rice cooker.  Do it early enough because it's brown rice so it will take 90 minutes.  ~$1.75 for 5 cups

2.  The beans: Soak pinto beans all day in the pressure cooker.  Cook at pressure, let come down in pressure naturally.  $0.60 for 1 lb dried beans

3.  The guacamole/ sour cream: buy it at Trader  Joe's. $3.00

4.  The cheese: shred it yourself:  $2.00 for 1/2 lb

5.  The veggies: I used cauliflower, so I chopped, tossed with spices and oil, and roasted. $2.20

6.  The salsa: I buy this, but darn it if I'm out.  So make a quick version with canned diced tomatoes, garlic, green onion, jarred or frozen spicy peppers: $0.75

7.  The chicken: cook this up in the crockpot.  3 lbs sale chicken + homemade BBQ sauce = $5

Now, this is delicious, makes enough for 4 people to eat at least 4 meals (in my house), except for the guacamole that will brown anyway.  But there are 6 different steps up there that I had to go through to make the stuff.  That's 2 steps per meal still.  All told, this is $15.30 for about 4 meals, or $3.83 per meal (for four people).

Versus going to a restaurant: walk up to front, order, eat.  This, my friends, is why people eat out.

At times when I've been home (maternity), or working part time, it's been easier for me to spend time cooking, because I'm at home. When I'm out of the house for 50 hours a week working, it's MUCH harder.

For four of us at a restaurant, it would run $20 to $35.

By cooking, I save $16 to $31 PER MEAL.  A no-brainer, right?  Except for a few notes:
1.  I'm pretty good at this frugal cooking and shopping thing, so those prices are near rock-bottom.
2.  Active, hands-on cooking time there is probably about 3 hours all told.  Most people look at that and say "shoot, I'm going to Chipotle!"  And really, you have way more variety there with different ingredients, different salsas.  But variety comes with a price.

You could say I'm "earning" money by cooking:
Cost to eat out four meals: $100
Cost for my four meals: $16
Saved: $84
Work hours: 3
Money earned per hour by cooking: $28

That makes me feel a *little* better when at the end of a long weekend of cooking.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A tale of two stores

Well, it's spring break week here in FHS land.  We took a short trip and did a couple of days of camping in the desert.  It was HOT.  Abnormally so - in the 90s when about 80 is the normal high.  That made the  Goodness, for many reasons I hope we can get an end to this drought.  It's pretty awful in many ways.  Of course, toddler started coming down with a cold on the drive out there, and colds really transfer easily in dry weather.  So yep, hubs and I are struck with it now.

From the couple nights of hot, sweaty, dusty camping we moved on to a nice resort with a suite with a full kitchen, pool, and water slide.  During this trip I didn't do so well tracking the grocery budget.  We took food with us, which I counted in prior weeks.  We did one grocery shop, and I counted that.  But the stops for water and to refill the ice in the ice chest?  I'm afraid at the end of the year, they end up in miscellaneous.  We also ate out a few times too.

So now that we are back and off a half day from work, I did some grocery shopping.  A quick trip to Costco for eggs and bread (Ha!  Easter weekend - the lines were 10 people deep, it was NOT quick).

But that's not what the story is about, nope.  This is about two other stores, on opposite ends of the grocery spectrum:
1.  Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck)
2.  The 99c only store

I went to Whole Foods because we were out of tahini, and I make my own hummus.  The 365 brand is high quality and a good price ($6).  But you know me and that darned hot bar...

I went to 99c only store because I had a coupon for "Buy 5 get one free" that expired today, and because the last time I went, I got strawberries and they were pretty good.

Now, I know what you are thinking.  Am I comparing apples and oranges?  Yes true.  The hot bar isn't cheap, it's not supposed to be cheap, and the 99c store doesn't have an equivalent (which is probably a GOOD thing).  I can resist the bags of chips at the 99c store.  Whole Foods has a lot of very high quality, local and organic produce.

I live in an area where sustainable, local, organic - they are very popular and very prized and very supported.  Many people here can afford to shop this way.  Many who perhaps cannot do anyway - they make room in the budget for good food.  However on the other end of the spectrum, there are large numbers of people who could never afford to shop there.  The 99c only store is actually relatively new here.

I tend to fall in the middle.  I belong to a local, organic CSA.  The produce is delicious. We've been members since 2001.  The few times I've priced it out, it is superior in price (and much better in quality) than the regular grocery store.  When I can get free range meat - going in on a pig with a friend, buying part of a cow from a friend who bought too much, or catching a good sale at WF or another local store on free range chicken, I pounce on it.  I tend to pay $6-$8 a pound on pork or beef this way and $2 a pound on chicken.

But shopping this way is either incredibly expensive or incredibly time consuming.  If I wanted all organic and local, I could simply shop at the farmer's market.  I am agreeing then to spend my Saturday mornings shopping, and it would probably cost about $200 to $250 a week (most of that for the meat/eggs).  You can certainly bring the price down by buying direct from farmers, but then you are doing a LOT more leg work to get the items.

Therefore, I'd say about half of my food is local and organic, and the other half is not.  I *try* to buy organic for the "dirty dozen", but let's face it - even that can be a trial sometimes.  The convenient store doesn't always have organic and local.

So here's what I got today at these two stores:

First, Whole Foods:  Cost: $16.95  (there's a fourth samosa there that was already eaten).  Items: four samosas from the hot bar, one bottle sparkling water, one jar tahini

Next: 99c Only store: Cost: $4.89 (after $1 off coupon): 10 lb potatoes, 1 lb strawberries, 3 lb bananas, 1 head cauliflower, 2 lb carrots, 1 pkg mushrooms.  No, not organic - but then, I personally think that more produce is better - and if it means you can afford more produce...

So, the 99c store - this is helping me stick to an $80 budget, and it also leaves room for the WF hot bar.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Budget and Brain Power

One of the things on my mind this week is the budget with respect to brain power.

Now, I'm not sure if brain power is constant or not.  I know that different people have different abilities for sure, but what of a single person - does it vary?  I think it does.

When I embarked on this $80 a week budget thing in late January, I knew it was going to take some effort.  Though I learned to cook 13 years ago and spent many years cooking frugally, the addition of that second child and an increase in work hours took its toll.  That's when we started slipping into easier food terrain.  Small cups of yogurt, canned beans, some pre-prepared meals, especially proteins.  I figured that it would take some work to get my good frugal habits and mojo back.

And it did.  The first few weeks had us eating out a few times a week in laziness and boredom, so I set a goal of NO eating out until spring break.

Boy, what a challenge.  I didn't quite realize how much of one it would be!

When I was a child, my mother was at home until I was 11 or 12.  Her cooking repertoire was pretty repetitive, but I didn't know any different.  And she was good at it - spaghetti and meatballs, baked chicken, casseroles, fish on Friday nights, grilled cheese, meatloaf, sauerkraut, corned beef and cabbage, chili.  Not a huge amount of variety, but that was pretty normal, AND we were poor, and on a budget.  However, my mother grew up gardening, canning, and cooking from scratch - so the budget thing was normal for her.

Several years ago, when I'd been cooking for 5 or 6 years, both my mom and my MIL asked me (separately), "aren't you tired of cooking?"  The answer was NO - because I hadn't been cooking long, and because my husband was a more adventurous eater.  So I was often trying new recipes - vegan, vegetarian, meat, Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Greek, Thai, Chinese...whereas my mom and MIL were cooking with much less variety.

But how does that work on a budget.  Well, let me tell you, it's hard.  Why?
1.  $80 is a challenge for me. I cannot buy EVERYTHING that I think I need. I  have to buy what we NEED, with a little extra for wants.
2.  $80 doesn't give you a lot of variety.  The problem with the "no eating out" rule is complete and utter boredom.  Now, we weren't eating out at a lot of different places (I like Asian cuisine, family not so much).  However, it's really nice to grab a burger, or a burrito, or a pizza, or a sandwich, that someone else made.  If you have a big enough budget, you can get this in your groceries.  Costco and Trader Joe's, for example, offer prepared (or partially prepared) refrigerated and frozen items to tickle your fancy - like sushi, or orange chicken, or pad thai, or spanakopita, or curry.
3.  $80 is tough when you and your husband are trying to lose weight, and therefore need to prioritize protein and fat (meat, nuts) over carbs.  Beans, brown rice, and homemade bread are cheap, but I can only have 2 servings a day.
4.  $80 can be done with variety if you can cook from scratch - buy some chicken thighs, broccoli, and make a good stir-fry sauce.  Make your own empanadas.  Try your hand at making different salad dressings.  This takes time, AND thought of how to make everything, proper planning!

All of this takes BRAIN POWER.
I consider myself to be intelligent and organized.
At work, I am usually efficient and can multi-task.
I've handled this budget thing pretty well I think, balancing the grocery shopping and cooking.

But I spend a LOT of time and energy on planning meals, shopping on a budget, and cooking.
I am so tired of salad right now, I cannot even tell you.  But we get greens from the CSA every week, so there you go.

I am on the PTA board at our school.  As I attend meetings, there are a few women there who are SO organized, and efficient, I am amazed!  I simply cannot hold it together like they do.

And this what I ask myself: "why?"
The answer? "Brain power"

I use brain power at work all day.  I use brain power at home to plan meals, cook on a budget, and plan at least 3 meals a day for 3-4 people.  I use brain power to carefully control my own food intake so that I can lose weight.  I use brain power to try and schedule workouts, when insomnia and the toddler let me sleep.

I really think that after all that?  I don't have the brain power to focus on this school stuff.  It takes thought, and planning, and organization - to get people interested in helping, to make phone calls, send emails, plan events, divide up tasks if you at least have people to give the tasks too.

But after the job, the kids (one toddler) and the meal planning, there's just not the brain power left.  I think that some of my more organized friends have some advantages.  Some of them work fewer hours, so they have more time to devote to this stuff.  Some of them have older children, so they aren't dealing with lack of sleep 4-5 nights a week.  Some of them don't give a crap about a grocery budget, so they just buy and eat whatever the hell they want.

Why do I bring this up?  Imagine that you are poor, with a hard job and a couple of kids.  Imagine that you have to spend this brain power on how to feed your family on a budget.  But it doesn't stop there - you have to use it to figure out how to fix your car, pay your electricity bill, and pay your rent.  You have to use it to help your kids with homework.

Is it any wonder that there is a cycle of poverty.  "Pull yourself up from your bootstraps!  Get an education!"  There are studies out there that discuss the stress that comes with being poor - and how it affects your brain in a negative way.

I only read the abstract, but hope to read the full article here, as an example:

So: brain power.  This time last year, I was able to put regular hours into the PTA every week. I awoke before the kids on the weekend and banged it out. But it involved simpler tasks (not planning)

This year: the kids wake up before me, so it's WAY more difficult!

How much brain power do YOU have?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What did I make this week?

So one of the things I love about many of the blogs I read is when people put out their meal plans.  It's inspiring and gives me great ideas.

The reality of my life right now is that I often don't stick to the plan, and I have a hard time planning more than 3 days ahead.

So I thought I'd share some pictures of things that I made this last week instead.  It's been a rough week, with a lot of beer and not a lot of sleep, due to work layoffs, heat, stress, etc.

Not pictured: a legion of salads and turkey sandwiches, plus crockpot Asian chicken with broccoli.  And nachos.  And cupcakes.  And hummus.  And beer.

 Spinach balls (actually "mixed greens)

Roast potatoes 

Falafel (the dough)

Falafel (in the pan)

Falafel (done)

Lentil/walnut/mushroom pate, on a bagel (this stuff is delish)

Cabbage and ramen slaw with cashews

A view on my walk one day.   Yeah, rubbing it in.

The aftermath of my 9 year old's birthday party

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The budget update

So how am I doing on my $80 budget?  Well, so far so good.  There are some challenges, however:

1.  I tend to buy a lot of produce.  The CSA (not included in the budget) helps, but it's hard to figure out how much produce to buy around the CSA stuff.
2.  Running out of things.  I don't always remember to write stuff down.  So, we ran out of popcorn. At the local grocery store: $4.  At Trader Joe's?  $2.  Guess where we bought it last night, at the last minute?
3.  Organics.  These are expensive.  Free range meat?  Even moreso.  You can get good deals at the local Whole Foods and other high end stores, on sale.  But you have to track that.  And fit it into your budget.  And thus far, I haven't had the energy to track that - a good whole chicken can be had, on sale, for $2 a pound (so $10-12).  You can get a good 3 or 4 meals out of that, particularly if you make your own stock.  So I eat more stuff from the freezer and more dried beans, because they are universally cheap.
4.  Special occasions.  A certain boy is turning 9 next week.  I am shopping for cake mixes.
5.  Eating out.  When I first set the budget, we ate out a LOT.  Then a few weeks ago, I said "no eating out for 6 weeks".  Well, there are a couple of exceptions (gift cards, the birthday party, and a pre-paid event.)  And my spouse ate out yesterday for lunch because he was too tired to pack a lunch after a long business trip - he got stuck on the East Coast an extra day due to weather.

Anyway, here's the summary so far:

Note that this week (week 7), is still not over.  And I'm sending my husband out for vanilla and yogurt for another batch of muffins, so it will go up by a few bucks.

I'm still "over" for the year because of the first 3 weeks before I set a budget.  I'm hoping that a bunch of $70-75 weeks will let me catch up.  It's easier to get a $70 week when my spouse is traveling.

What's on the menu this week?
Lunches Mom: salad (spinach, lettuce, arugula, leftover ham from Christmas from freezer)
Lunches Dad: turkey sandwiches

Saturday: Falafel (chickpeas were on sale for $1 for a pound dried), roast potatoes, kale chips
Sunday: Some sort of lentil thing, but I haven't figured out what
Monday: crockpot chicken (I'll be at a PTA meeting for 3 hours), broccoli
Tuesday: Leftover chicken, cole slaw
Wednesday: one-pot spaghetti, cole slaw
Thursday: Seriously unable to plan that far ahead.  Depends on leftovers - spaghetti?
Friday: Someone's birthday, Nachos?

Other things that I'm cooking that don't fit into a category:
Spinach balls (actually, chard, beet green, collards).  We get a lot of greens.  I have to be creative.
Orange lemon poppy seed muffins
Corn bread
Ham salad

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Orange Lemon Poppyseed Muffins

So Sunday is park brunch day.  It rained last night, so I wasn't sure we were going to have it, but I wanted to be prepared.

I wasn't up to anything too difficult. I didn't sleep well last night and woke with a bit of a headache (thanks to 1/2 glass of wine too many at our parents' night out and hormones).  Wow, a night out!  It was fun, and for some reason, the babysitter can get our toddler to bed better than we can.

Pinterest led me to a few interesting recipes, and I picked one because I had a bunch of oranges and lemons from the farm and from friends.  But it called for poppy seeds (I had none) and plain yogurt (didn't have that either).  I didn't figure that banana yogurt would taste right.

So I headed to the store and used 10% of my weekly budget (ouch!) on poppy seeds (no cheap options at the close store) and a small yogurt.  It was worth it!  And now I have plenty of poppy seeds.

I pretty much followed the recipe here exactly, except that I didn't top with coarse sugar, because who has that?  Not me.  Still the hubby and older son loved them and they are almost gone. (No brunch today.) Pardon the crappy photo.  I mean, the photos on the original recipe are awesome.  I'm pretty sure nobody comes here for my photography. Just my witty personality.

The general weekend prep this week, in addition to the muffins, included BBQ chicken in the crockpot (for tacos), spinach balls (actually chard and beet green balls), steamed beets, plus lots of washing lettuce and radishes and hard boiling eggs for lunch time salads.

I also washed and froze dill for the freezer, and probably should do the same with the parsley, but I already have a ton of frozen parsley.  How much more do I need, really?

Thursday, February 19, 2015


So, I'm looking through the ads this week, and what do I see?

Quaker oats, 42 oz, on sale for $1.69. ($0.64 a pound)

But that's not the crazy thing.  It's says it's on sale from a regular price of $2.69.

Since when?  I JUST paid $3.99 last week at the same store!! ($1.52 a pound)


You'd better believe that I'm buying 2 boxes, maybe 3.