Splurging Now and Then


I live in a world where I don’t think much about the prices of food. Much of the food that we have around the house is left-over from some photo shoot I’ve done and in that world, all I’m worried about is whether it is the right product and whether it looks great. Another large percentage comes to me weekly in the form of a CSA delivery and it’s hard to know exactly how much the zucchinis were versus the apples. The rest are other things that I tend to think of as necessities and I buy them based on things like sustainability rather than price. It takes a pretty shocking price tag on something for me to really take notice (over $20 for Mac and Cheese at Stumbling Goat?!? Hello!)

I’m lucky to live in this world of so much wonderful food. Not everyone is, and I that’s why I decided to participate in the Hunger Challenge this week. Between thinking about what food I will make, reading the comments here and watching the discussion on other participating blogs, I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time thinking about the cost of food.

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It has reminded me of when I was growing up and my family did think a lot about how much money we had to go around for the month. And it’s funny to me how much has changed in the way we think about splurges then and now. It’s entirely possible that this is just me, but when I was a kid, craving the latest in junk food as most kids do, I always believed that we couldn’t afford it. The junk food and fast food was the expensive stuff. Now, I’m wondering if it was just a ruse… a very good one… played on me by my mother. As a child, it’s easier to accept “we can’t afford it” than it is “no, that’s bad for you.” So, we never had pop or chips or frozen pizza around the house (we did, however, have Kraft dinner… the one junk food staple that seems has always been cheap. We’d mix it with tuna and mushroom soup or eat it on its own, usually with ketchup). A big dinner out for me was going to Pizza Hut. That was a huge splurge, only warranted by straight A’s on my report card.

But we did eat well at home. Food was mostly made from scratch and we used fresh herbs (usually grown in big pots on the patio) and olive oil. When our house allowed it, we raised rabbits for their meat, and Rabbit Cacciatore was one of my favorite dishes. My father and step-mother even pulled together all of their recipes for the kids as we went off to college… they called it the HOG cookbook… for “Hard times, Old times, Good times.” It’s a collection of recipes that are good but frugal. My dad (who is a bit of a geek like me), recently pulled the whole thing together into a website which you can check out if you are so inclined.

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Maybe food costs just really are different now than when I was growing up. Today, it seems that people tend to think it’s a splurge to buy spices or fresh produce or good cooking oil. And it is hard to argue with that. Making food from scratch takes time and investment. It’s a choice that someone has to intentionally take because it’s harder than just grabbing the frozen dinner or the can of soup. To get the bigger payoff, you have to go without some thing in the short term. There are ways around some of the big upfront costs of stocking a pantry… Madison Market has an incredible bulk food section where you can buy small quantities of things like olive oil, flour and spices at reasonable prices and it is always possible to find deals on produce, especially when it is produced locally and in abundance.

But, to take advantage of that, first you have to know about it, second you have to take the time to get to the store fairly regularly and third you have to have the time to plan and cook. None of the recipes I’ve made this week are particularly challenging, costly or even time consuming in and of themselves. But it would be much harder to eat the way that I have this week if I were working full time or had a whole family of kids around to feed. I might be able to stick to the budget for the week or a month or even longer and feel like I’m eating well. But, I have more time, more equipment, more resources that support me than most people out there, even those not on a limited budget.

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Now, I’ve rambled on quite a while here about a few of the questions and thoughts that have been going through my head this week… and I think that stirring up those thoughts, and asking ourselves what we can do to help, is really the point of this challenge. Please keep up the great comments! They’ve given me a lot to think about!

Now, onto the food accounting…

Tuesday, I was semi-planning to make a risotto to have along with a nice little tilapia fillet that I found at Metropolitan Market. But, I got hungry in the afternoon, and made a big bowl of popcorn (my favorite junk food) which filled me up a bit longer than I thought it would. So dinner started late, and I decided to make it a bit simpler. I pan fried the tilapia with just a bit of salt, pepper in a tiny bit of organic olive oil (picked up in the bulk section at Madison Market… $1.56 for more than enough for the week which will replace oil I used earlier to hopefully be more in the spirit of the challenge) along with a quick medley of red pepper, onion and zucchini on a bowl of rice ($3.67 for the meal). It was simple, quick and delicious.

Yesterday, I was light on food day during the day… I had a photoshoot to do on location in the middle of the day, which lead me to skimp some on breakfast (espresso, toast) and lunch (an apple). The photoshoot was for Edible Seattle (always a great time), but I had to say no to the homemade chicken karaage that was being made! Sad! (but… the recipe will be a great budget recipe when it comes out in a few months… keep your eyes out for it!). For dinner, I made a recipe from a cookbook I recently picked up, “Beaneaters and Bread Soup” (Lori de Mori; Jason Lowe). This is a fantastic cookbook. It’s packed with beautiful stories about Italian artisan’s, and even more beautiful photos. I just want to live in this book.

I knew there would be a great, frugal recipe in there that would be perfect for this week. There are many, but I decided on a white bean with tomato sauce recipe… the original recipe includes Italian sausage, but I used a couple of slices of bacon instead (I love that you can buy bacon by the piece… I never make it through a whole package).

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Again, the recipe is super simple. I used a can of Northern White beans because I hadn’t planned far enough in advance to use dried ones. Toss in a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary, cover, and bake for about 20 minutes. While that is heating, toss the bacon (chopped in narrow strips) into a hot pan and cook for about 3 minutes. Add a bit (1/4 cup for the 2 slices of bacon I used) of canned tomatoes (ideally San Marzano’s… my normal San Marzano’s run about $6.99 for a 32 oz can… but I found some for only $2.99 which were still very good) and a splash of olive oil. Season to taste with salt, black pepper and chile flakes if desired. Once the beans are hot, gently stir in the tomato sauce.

On the side, I made some steamed asparagus with a bechamel sauce on toast. This sauce is absolutely luxurious without being at all pricey. It’s simply milk, butter and flour (with a bit of seasoning). Warm the milk (about a 1/2 cup) and set aside. In another pan, make a roux of butter and flour (equal portions of each… a little less than 1 tablespoon for the amount of milk I used). Cook on low for a few minutes stirring constantly. You don’t want it to brown like you would a roux for a gumbo. Then, add in the warmed milk and stir until smooth (you can stir in more milk, a little at a time, if you want it to be thinner). It should be like velvet. Add salt and pepper to taste (a little nutmeg is a nice addition too).

This amount was far more sauce than I needed for my 6 pieces of asparagus ($1.99 per pound right now!). In fact, I really made far too much food for this dinner entirely… and Cam got to eat the left over 1/2 of beans when he got home from his trip late last night. Not bad for $2.80.
Adding everything up, plus this morning’s breakfast of Oatmeal ala Philip (except with nutmeg in place of the cinnamon and a half pear instead of the raisins), I’m currently at $20.53 for the week, just a few cents below my budget. Tonight’s dinner is posole, which looks like it might push my budget some, but I’m making it for 2 of us and I’m expecting there will still be left-overs that I can polish of for Friday’s lunch.

Coincidentally, as I was leaving Madison Market yesterday getting bulk stuff to replace the stuff I had been using from my pantry, I picked up a copy of Real Change. The story on the front cover? A bigger slice of the pie: Activiest Joel Bert on food snobbery, class bias and the persistence of hunger in AmericaIf you get a chance, help someone out by picking up one of these papers, and take a read of that article which I found particularly relevant this week… and has given me even more to think about.

0 thoughts on “Splurging Now and Then

  1. This is such a great post. I’ve been reading all the posts on the Hunger Challenge this week and it’s so neat to hear your thoughts on the issue of hunger. You are absolutely right that preparing meals from scratch takes a good amount of know-how and resourcefulness. . . and especially time. But as you have proved, it is possible. Thanks so much for participating.

    Oh, and your photos are beautiful!

    Erica @ UWKC

  2. Great words, great photos and I wish I could taste it through the screen but I’d be willing to bet great food as well. I must try the baked white beans but will probably use roasted red peppers as I like them better than I like tomatoes.

    Jim – Musings on the Path to Frugality

  3. I’ve been really interested to read these posts about eating cheaply. For the past few months I’ve been living in New Zealand, and in our flat we cook together on NZ$30 a week, which is about US$20. Sure, we all buy a bit of food outside of that, but that’s the majority of our food budget– and I think we eat pretty well! We cook everything from scratch… frozen meals would be a big luxury. Maybe it’s a difference in prices here in NZ, but I’m certainly living in what you described as your childhood. Takeaway curries or a packet of biscuits are a luxury… lots of fresh fruit and vegetables from a market are the norm!
    I guess it is the stocking up of ingredients that puts people off. We certainly have weeks when our stocks get depleted and we need to spend a bit more, but in the long run cooking for ourselves definitely saves money.

  4. I had a similar childhood experience, growing up thinking that junk food was out of our budget except for the occasional treat (a York peppermint pattie eaten in the car on the way home were a luxury I remember with deep yearning).

    I don’t think the reason is that things have changed so much, but rather that the organization of a tight food budget can go two different ways. One way is to buy the empty, but cheap, calories found in ultra-cheap junk food. The other way is to invest time in converting fairly cheap, fresh, bulk ingredients into ready-to-eat food. If you subscribe to the latter philosophy, it’s difficult to justify junk food in your budget because you don’t get much bang for that buck, nutritionally speaking. A frozen dinner may be cheap in one sense, but it won’t give you leftovers and is hard to recycle into several meal adaptations.

    Now that I’ve been shopping and cooking for myself for a while, I suspect that this latter way is the way my parents see their food budget.

  5. Your photos really are beautiful– and so is your writing. It’s the first time I’ve stopped in to your blog, but this title was super intriguing to me. I think it’s so true, how as I child “we can’t afford this” is much easier to accept than “it’s bad for you”. I’m semi-teaching my daughter the same thing my parents did to me.. Hey, it works!

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