Good eats for cheap

So here’s the thing.  Every now and then, someone I know, or am even related to, trots out the argument that eating healthily is too expensive for most people.  Of course they are saying this to me, in the context of my very comfortable, middle class, suburban lifestyle.  And I get that.  But that fact that I can afford it doesn’t mean its unaffordable. That kind of logic drives me crazy.

On a very small scale, here’s a perfect example.  Recently, I made some strawberry jam.  A good friend made a comment to me about how great that was, but wasn’t it so expensive.  I wasn’t really sure, so I decided to work it out.  2 quarts of fresh strawberries (from a farm stand – supermarket would be cheaper): $12.  Bag of sugar $2.89.  Box of Certo, $3.99.  A lemon, $0.49.  Washed out jam jars – free. Bear in mind that I only used half the bag of sugar and half the Certo.  So the layout cost was under $20. This made 8 jars of jam.  I just checked and a jar of Bonne Maman, the supermarket equivalent of homemade jam, sells for $4.99 (heck, even Smuckers is $3.79).  So the retail value of my jam comes to nearly $40.

Making something yourself is almost always cheaper and equally,  tastes better (after a little practice perhaps) and is usually healthier.  Jam’s a perfect example.  I can short the sugar a little and my kids don’t even notice.  What I make is literally fruit, sugar and pectin.  Tell me again why you would put anything else in it?

Now, I can extend this argument to just about anything in the kitchen.  But here’s the rub – you need some equipment, some know-how, time, energy and motivation.  Equipment isn’t really that hard. You need less than you think you do. Unfortunately, as with so many things in the states, people seem to think you need fancy, expensive stuff to cook.  I still use the cheapo stock pot I got almost 20 years ago for everything from cooking pasta to making soup to making jam.

So think how happy I was to come across a copy of Clean Eating magazine at Super Cuts the other day.  Each month, they produce a list of budget recipes and a shopping list to go with it.  They provide a list of 5 family meals for 4 people (ie 20 servings) for $50.  That’s $2.50 per meal per head people.  And they look darned good.  But you do have to put in the effort to buy the good food and actually cook it. To get the recipes, looks like you probably have to subscribe, but it makes its point.


Soda Wars, serving size, and a little experiment at home.

Not surprisingly, I’m a big fan of Mark Bittman at the New York Times.  He’s a great cook, inspiring and seems like a real person, not a celebrity chef.  And he writes great stuff about food.  He stands in the same camp as Michael Pollan, but his arguments seem even more approachable and less wonkish.  So here’s what he has to say about the proposed limit on soft drink serving size in New York City:  He reframes the argument, saying that sodas and junk food aren’t really food at all, so in regulating their serving and use, it’s akin to regulating the likes of say tobacco and alcohol.  It’s an interesting take.

 “We should be encouraging people to eat real food and discouraging the consumption of non-food. Pretending there’s no difference is siding with the merchants of death who would have us eat junk at the expense of food and spend half our lives earning enough money to deal with the health consequences.”


And I was thinking about serving size, regardless of whether it’s sodas, junk food or something else all together. I have graced the halls of some of the super stores on and off over the years (BJs, Costco), but in the end, I often come away feeling that I just by a lot more of the same sort of thing and we just consume it faster. It makes sense that our brain, evolved as it is to withstand lean periods, sees a large package and thinks, let’s go.  Conversely, a smaller package or portion is going to kick off the impulse to conserve.

So, in the interest of science, in my own family, I am about to embark on our own experiment with this very thing, using that most healthy of examples, milk.  With Teal Green son being 14, taller than me and engaging in Tae Kwondo 10-12 hours a week, not surprisingly, his food consumption is considerable and his milk consumption is downright ridiculous.  I buy the stuff 2 gallons at a time, several times a week.  So our little, unannounced experiment is that I will now buy it in half gallons and track consumption to see if it sticks around a little longer.  I wonder – will having it in a smaller container spark off some impulse not to pour out quite as much?  Could be that I am deluding myself, but it’s worth a shot.

Enough with the Stuff

Ahhhh, Christmas.  The lovely smells of baking sweet sticky things.  The dreams of sugar plums.  The sparkling lights. The joy.  The anticipation. For some, even the celebration of the birth of their considered savior. Oh yeah, and the endless rush to go out and buy lots and lots of stuff, ’cause you feel you have to.

If you have someone on your list and don’t have any idea what to buy them, DON’T.  Just. Don’t. Do. It.  Buying needless crap for the sake of buying needless crap is exactly why we are where we are in this country.  On so many levels.  On the knee-jerk consumerism level.  On the using up resources way faster than we replace them level.  On the we have lost track of what really matters in life level.  How about the old bumper sticker: The best things in life aren’t things.  Or how about the heart warming thought that what really matters in relationships and experiences.

It’s HARD to resist.  I remember so vividly the anticipation and excitement of Christmas morning and the unbridled joy of seeing the HUGE mound of presents under the tree.  Sometimes it didn’t really matter what was actually in the packages.  It was the cacophony of color, the pure volume of stuff in a mostly non-materialistic childhood.  But these days, for many families, even when they don’t really have the means, stuff, lots of it, at a constant flow, is just a normal part of life.  Christmas (if it’s your chosen holiday – sorry everyone else, I have to write what I know) is just the crowning glory of a life filled with stuff.  Thank you Walmart.  Thank you Target.  Thank you TV advertising that targets children’s young, impressionable minds and uses their pester power to wear down their parents.

The irony is that it’s pretty clear that in addition to trashing the planet, all this stuff isn’t actually making us happy.  If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of it, you can read a scholarly paper here.  The bottom line is that personal connections and spending time with other people and experiences make us happy.  All that stuff just gets in the way.  [See my review on the Economics of Happiness for more on that].

So here’s a suggestion.  Think carefully about the whole present thing.  Consider making it just for the kids. Forgo the crazy gift giving among adults.  Instead make the gift of each other’s company, a good meal, time spent together, a family game, a walk in the woods, home-made soup, jam, cookies, pie, bread, wine, whiskey, whatever (anything you can eat doesn’t count as stuff in my book).

By the way, if you’re looking for recipes of yummy things to give as gifts, here’s my new favorite cooking blog: Joy the Baker.  But there’s also no shame in giving something bought if you do it thoughtfully.  No huge box of choccies for the friend who’s always dieting – how about some gourmet soup or fancy spreads to go on her melba toast!  Consider booze only for those you know well.  Deliver things in reusable containers (pretty mason jars aren’t just for jam) and gift boxes – I have some I have been using for years.  They are pretty and fun and I change the ribbons from year to year.  They have become like old friends in the family.

Easiest Way to Reduce Your Environmental Footprint? Eat.

Yeah right.  Eating will reduce your environmental footprint?  Really?  What about all the noise about how much water and carbon it takes to make a hamburger, a fish fillet or even a salad for that matter.  Well here’s the rub.  Eating as a way to reduce your footprint means you are not throwing food away.  Let’s face it, eating a little less is probably a good idea for an awful lot of us.  But wasting less is a good idea for every one.  Dana Gunder from NRDC details some shocking numbers in her blog (as always, the emphasis is mine).

  • The average family of four in the U.S. throws away $175 of food per month.  In fact,  around 40% of edible food (not counting peels, bones, etc) in the US gets thrown away.  Beyond the financial cost, the environmental implications are staggering when you consider all the water,  fertilizer and pesticide that went into growing that food.  Consider the following estimates of resources dedicated to food that never gets eaten:

25% of all freshwater
4% of all US oil consumption
$90 billion in losses to the US economy (over $40 billion from households)
$750 million a year just to dispose of the food
31 million tons of landfill waste

Holy cow.  $175 a month?  At over $2 grand a year (yes, I do math every now and again), that’s sounding like a pretty sweet vacation to me.  Or donation to your local environment group.  Or deposit into your kids’ college fund.

As with so many things, this waste is part of a bigger systemic issue.  Some of it is lost in the supply chain.  The upside is that because of the financial cost of that, food suppliers are always trying to improve this and of course, the more you buy local, the less of a problem this is.  But inside our own kitchens, it becomes a social issue.  Families have 2 working parents who don’t have time to keep a constant catalog of what’s in the fridge at the top of their mental agenda; people have lost the art of cooking and the knowledge of  how to use leftovers to make a delicious meal, not something your kids will complain about — I’m thinkin’ chicken soup after that pre-roasted bird you bought on five buck cluck Thursdays down at the market.  But you have to know how to make the soup.  You have to know what veggies keep and what go bad quickly, how to shop wisely to make it all last through a week so it’s not all just a wilted mess by Friday that you end up throwing away because you didn’t have time to cook it on Tuesday.  And it’s also a question of ridiculous, changed social relationship with food.  We look at the package and use someone else’s definition of what’s “ok” to determine if we can eat it (I’m talking about sell-by dates here).  If you’re so removed from your food that you can’t use your eyes and nose to tell if that broccoli is OK, or the milk or cheese or ham for that matter, you’re probably going to chuck it if you’re just not sure (ok, ok, I’m like that with chicken, but that’s ’cause it’s chicken).  But if the cheese has a little white bit on the edge, for goodness sakes, cut that bit off, give it to the dog, or the cat or the chickens, or just chuck it.  But don’t chuck the whole thing.  It makes a difference.  It really does.  Go back and re-read those bullet points.  That’s a lot of natural resources consumed for something you didn’t consume.

Easiest Way to Reduce Your Environmental Footprint? Eat. | Dana Gunders’s Blog | Switchboard, from NRDC.

Does DYI make us greener?

Cooking your own food makes you more aware of where it comes from and feel more connected to the animals and the land that provides it.  So does it follow that making things yourself, even just putting together an IKEA bookcase, make you more connected to your stuff??  According to an article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology by social scientists from Harvard, Tulane and Duke, it can.  They call it the IKEA effect.

Here’s the abstract:

In four studies in which consumers assembled IKEA boxes, folded origami,and built sets of Legos, we demonstrate and investigate boundary conditions for the IKEA effect—the increase in valuation of self-made products. Participants saw their amateurish creations as similar in value to experts’ creations, and expected others to share their opinions. We show that labor leads to love only when labor results in successful completion of tasks; when participants built and then destroyed their creations, or failed to complete them, the IKEA effect dissipated. Finally, we show that labor increases valuation for both “do-it-yourselfers” and novices.

The take away?  In a consumer society where mostly we pay people to do and make things for us, no wonder it’s so easy to throw things away.  With no sweat equity, it’s no sweat to throw stuff out.

To The Source:

BoingBoing, Testing “the Ikea effect” – why do we value things we assemble more highly than premades?

Journal of Consumer Psychology, The IKEA effect: When Labor Leads to Love

The Slippery Slope

Eight years.  I’ve lived in the States as a fully certified adult for eight years.  I did grow up America, but then spent my formative, early young adult years (post college to age 35)  in Europe, so think of my life in terms of how long I’ve been “back in the States.”  It was a strange thing returning after so long away.  I left as a recently graduated college kid and returned, married, with 2 kids and a mortgage.  So although culturally, it seemed like coming home, things felt incredibly foreign in some unexpected areas.  I didn’t really know the ins and outs of “grown up” life – how to establish credit, get a mortgage, run an old, New England, wooden, house (my god, the houses here are made of ant food, and need SO much maintenance).

But the surprises went far beyond the practicalities of how to navigate the logistics of adult life.  What I found was that culturally, although on the surface it felt like coming home — I have the right accent and even say wicked and talk about the Red Sox – in so many ways, I am no longer comfortable with the status quo in American social norms.  So imagine my horror when the other day, I found that I ran 3 errands within 1/2 mile of each other, moved the car between each on, and didn’t even think about it….until I was sitting in the car after the third one, and it hit me.  It’s not just that I’ve slipped down the slope, it’s that I didn’t even feel the wind in my hair on the way.

Over the last several years, I have been disheartened by the lack of awareness of Americans of their impact on our planet.  And even now, eight years later, there’s much more awareness, but slim evidence of willingness or even desire to do anything about it.  My tendency to see the best in people and empathize makes me think that as people become more aware, behaviors will change.  But watching my own behavior and the tendency to slide to the “norm” of what’s around me, makes me pretty despondent about our hope for change.

When we arrived back in the States, it would never have occurred to me not to walk or ride my bike on any journey of up to about 5 miles unless it was pouring rain (forget about drizzle).   Now those journeys are done regularly in the car, or there’s definitely discussion about the logistics of not doing them in the car.  Our heating would never have been above 68 – and yet our thermostats’ default was 72.  I had few clothes that I wore until they were dirty, washed and rotated, for many years.  I now find myself feeling the need to buy more stuff, just because I can. The pressure I feel to have a lush, chemical, water sucking lawn is palpable – to not do so feels like a cheat on the neighbors and their property values.  Even though I feel pretty passionate about more sustainable landscaping, including growing my own food, given that we have a fair amount of open land, I feel the sting of bucking that status quo.  I find it easier to act where the results are private and I can still give the semblance of “fitting in.”

Intellectually, I know what’s going on here.  It’s pretty well documented that people tend to drift to the norms around them.  On the whole, this is a good thing; it’s what makes societies function effectively.  Knowing when to shake hands, what kind of tip is expected at restaurants, how children are to behave in public, etc all be useful.  But what happens when many of the social norms are found by a large minority within a society and by the world beyond, to be fundamentally flawed or harmful?  What happens when on an abstract level, sensible minds agree that the norms we have need to change, but on a practical level, people just want to carry on as they always have?  How do we make that happen?  That’s where we are with changing behavior in a more environmentally friendly direction.

The Economics of Happiness: film review

The core message of The Economics of Happiness is fairly simple: modern life as we know it isn’t really making us happy.  What we need is more community and to localize.  What could be so hard about that?  And then the rest of the film catalogs how we got where we are (colonialism, globalization) and some possible ways back to some sort of equilibrium where happiness can thrive.  I went to the film hoping to emerge reinvigorated with answers of how I, as an individual, could act to move things along.  In all honesty, as the film ended, I was feeling a little despondent about the enormity of the task at hand.  But the reinvigoration came quickly – and from just the thing the film counsels we all need: more community.  In this case, the community was the group of movie watchers who stayed after to engage in lively discussion.  The movie was put on in collaboration between Sustainable Sudbury and the Friends of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge.  The venue was the refuge’s new visitor’s center, a wonderful resource for our local community – both in terms of a physical space and for the educational and community activities it can play host to.  So, just in watching the film in a group setting, as opposed to streaming it on Netflix, alone in my living room to my laptop, it had a greater impact on me!

As for the film itself, it takes us to the isolated region of Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau.  Twenty years ago, that society appeared fairly primitive by modern industrial standards, and yet what the film’s director, Helena Norbert-Hodge found, was a  stable, equitable, society with no poverty or unemployment and a huge amount of joy in daily life.  Only with the arrival of modern commerce and its pressures to consume and compete did the society start to see ethnic and religious conflict, unemployment, poverty and environmental degradation.  It’s hard not to wonder how oversimplified this version of events is, but it illustrates the point and brings into focus the main message of the movie: our move toward globalization is at the root of many of our societal, economic and environmental problems.  And by looking back to the traditional Ladakh way of life, we can see what aspects of that were valuable and did work.  The take away was that the deeply felt sense of belonging and community made everyone in the society connected and therefore cooperative, so things worked and people were happy.  It was a finely balanced way of life, closely in tune with the local environment.  What it didn’t address was issues like population growth and competition for natural resources as population grows – but in focusing on what did work, it made its point.

The challenge I see for modern Western society is how we do the about face that is so clearly needed in order to recapture what we have lost. Unemployment, environmental degradation and financial meltdown have all resulted in our newly refocused attention on fixing what’s broken.  The value of a film such as The Economics of Happiness is that it puts into sharp focus what the problems are and in the broadest terms, defines a solution: re-localization.  The method by which we get there will be, no doubt, long and tortuous, but the first step is waking up and realizing that change is what we need.  And it’s not as if the film gives us no concrete advice on how to approach this.  The most obvious action an individual can take is to start with their own personal food system – a movement that is gaining more traction year by year with CSAs, community gardens, farmer’s markets and even supermarkets carrying more local products.  But beyond the local food option, the film reminds us of 3 things we can work to change in the wider political and economic system (globalization) to make longer, deeper change back towards an economy that works towards happiness.  These three things are regulation, tax and subsidies.  It’s a little disappointing that there’s not more said in this realm, but those are huge issues which could each be a film in its own right.  For me, just thinking about those three things reminds me that here’s where we start:   recognize the problem, educate others to notice and hopefully care, organize and act to change the system that’s bringing us all down.  It won’t happen overnight, but our slumber has been disturbed, we are waking up and smelling the (fair trade) coffee.