Taking the full measure of life

Food & Money

January 2nd, 2008 · 16 Comments

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There’s a wonderful smell of sauteeing garlic emanating from my kitchen, but I’m not in there. My husband is making dinner for us tonight, which is a previously unusual affair that will become more common. It’s part of a new plan we are trying.

As many people do, Dan and I spent some time over the holidays assessing where we are concerning _____ (finances, health, cleanliness, etc.) and where we need/want to be. I don’t set New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t think my husband does either, because he’s never mentioned one. The Pasta Queen had a great quotation up in a recent post: “Every day is the fulcrum of your life story.” She pulled the idea from a comic, and I think it’s an awesome statement about how to view life. You don’t need to wait for a new year to demand that you make changes; at any point, you can start making shifts in yourself to change your life.

However, I do have time every Christmas season to sit and think through things that have been slipping my grasp. At my job, I am fortunate enough to get off from December 21st or so until Jan. 2nd each year–paid, without it coming from my vacation time. A bonus of time. Before my current work, I worked in the schools and got the school winter break. Before that, I was a college student. So I’m used to contemplating my life, and changes I would like to make, over the holidays. I think my husband is the same way.

Dan and I spend a lot of money on food. This used to vaguely embarrass me, but it doesn’t anymore. For one thing, I learned that Americans now spend a lower percentage of our time/income on food than any previous generation of any known society. I wish that was a beautiful thing, but it isn’t. It’s tied up with how industrial our food has become–how much we rely on a few foods, like soy, dairy, corn, canola, and wheat, and how those foods are grown with tax subsidies and with a ridiculously bad environmental impact. I learned I had ovarian cancer when I was 21, and after I started researching the links between cancer and environment and cancer and food, I grew horrified. I changed my eating habits, which means I changed my purchasing habits. And over several years, I developed allergies and intolerances and medical problems that led me to cut processed foods out of my life, to a large extent. (Since I’ve had a celiac diagnosis, some has crept back in while I learn how to make gluten-free food.) It was a very gradual process, but over time I have come to eat largely organic (or organically grown, if not certified), largely local food. I was a vegetarian at home for a while–and my husband was, too–until we learned that I have allergies to eggs, cow dairy, soy, and some nuts. Plus, I have celiac disease, so even seitan is out. We added some meat back, but we purchase 90% of our meat from local sources that pasture the animals (chickens, lambs, cows, pigs) on organically tended land. Now that I’ve adjusted to my allergies and intolerances some, we have returned to eating vegetarian (using beans, peas sheep or goat cheese, and some nuts for protein) most of the time, but we do still eat meat at two or three meals a week. We keep it in our freezer: right now we have lamb shanks, leg of lamb, ground pork, and ground beef. That meat plus our local, organic veggie consumption is not an inexpensive proposition; we spend a pretty decent chunk of our income on food. Oh, and when we eat out, we try to patronize local restaurants that support local farmers for all the same reasons (plus those restaurants are usually the best at dealing with food allergies/intolerances). It all adds up.

What we get in return is well worth it, in both our minds and hearts. We get food that is extremely fresh and better-tasting than most grocery store produce, certainly better tasting than most conventional produce. We get produce that is not covered in estrogen-mimicking pesticides and meat that is not filled with cancer-blooming growth hormones. We get meat from animals that have lived a decent life on pasture as God and nature intended them to. We get to know we aren’t contributing as much to groundwater pollution. We get to send less garbage to the landfill because fewer of our foods are packaged. We get to avoid being part of stripping the land of minerals that future generations will need for their plants to grow. We get to feel relieved that in at least one way, we are reducing our contribution to the greenhouse effect/global warming by not having our food refrigerated and trucked in from far away. We get to support our local economy by supporting local farmers that patronize local businesses. And we get to know that we are helping those farmers/cheese producers/etc. make a living wage. I do not regret spending more on food than the average family does, even when it means a reduction in other expenses–taking fewer vacations, sharing one car, buying fewer new clothes. It’s still worth it.

But I don’t want to be wasteful. And at times, we have been wasteful. Sometimes we go out to eat even when we have perfectly great food waiting to be cooked because I am worn out. Sometimes I forget to use an ingredient or two in a recipe (especially working from a recipe in my head), and then the food may sit in our fridge until it rots. I live in the middle of Atlanta; I see homeless people in my neighborhood on a nearly daily basis, and it makes me feel frustrated and a bit disgusted when I throw away food that a farmer worked hard to grow could have fed someone–if not us, someone else–while I know there are people around me going without. Part of the gratitude I think all people who live in a land of plenty (or a position of plenty) should feel about having that plenty is taking care of what we have; it’s a form of saying grace. Wasting money I spent on food and wasting food by letting it rot in my fridge are not doing that.

So my husband and I came up with a plan to tweak our food pattern this year. It’s part of our larger plan to save an extra $10,000 on top of the money we save for retirement. To some of you, that $10,000 would seem like a very easy goal, and for others of you, it would seem quite lofty. On our income (I work in non-profits, and my husband is a Ph.D. student) it’s certainly not simple, but we can do it. Barring any disasters (and we’ll take those as they may come), we know it’s attainable to save an extra $10k if we shift some of our habits and stay careful about budgeting.

As far as food goes, we are allowing ourselves to eat out five times a month–once per month at a more expensive restaurant, and once a week at much less expensive restaurants (or at a more expensive restaurant where we will split one dish, more likely). To reduce our food waste at home, to cut our overall grocery bill a bit, and to relieve me on the nights that I am too worn out to cook, my husband is now what we are calling the 3Rs cook. His job is to reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce our food waste by using up what I leave behind and using what we have in the pantry/fridge/freezer instead of making new purchases. Reuse the rest of sauces, cheeses, and leftovers that don’t go with any particular meal. Recycle the byproducts of previous meals (like chicken broth from our enchilada chicken) as parts of new meals. Tonight’s our first 3R meal–pumpkin/spinach/feta risotto with a side of mashed turnips. A strange combination? Maybe a little bit–we’ll see. But it will taste good, and it will use up food that otherwise might be wasted. It’s a relief to know that my overpurchase of butternut squash isn’t going to waste. It’s also nice to sit in here and blog after my first day back at work instead of standing in the kitchen for an hour. Strange, but nice.

Tags: gratitude · meal planning · on the soapbox

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mia // Jan 2, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    Just stopping by to say hi and congratulations on your weight loss!

  • 2 abba // Jan 2, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    What a great post. I wished I lived in an area where we had restaurants that bought locally. Not much to choose from other than the normal chain restaurants. You mentioned so many great things in this post. I know you will reach your goal. Sounds very realistic.

  • 3 glutenfreeforgood // Jan 2, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    Do you ever eat teff, quinoa, or amaranth? These are real nutritional powerhouses. What about buckwheat? I’d be happy to share with you a nutritional profile I’ve put together of different grains compared to wheat.

  • 4 Jenn // Jan 2, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    Sometimes I see our grocery bill and I am SHOCKED. My mother would have a heart attack if she knew how much we spend on food. But, like you, Dan and I have decided that it is a price we are more than willing to pay. Not only do we feel better about our impact on the environment, but we feel so much better about what we put in our bodies. If I’m looking to cut expenses, I don’t start with my food. I feel taking care of our bodies is the most important investment (our body is, after all, the only thing we’ll still have for certain until the day we die).

  • 5 kristen // Jan 3, 2008 at 7:29 am

    we, too, spend a lot on food. we try to purchase organic, locally produced food AND we need to purchase some gluten-free products (which are pricey) because of my husband’s allergy. I try to use up our ingredients and leftovers creatively. sometimes it works. sometimes not. the thing we have in our favor is my husband is a hunter and got 2 bucks this year so our freezer is full of meat. i supplement with chicken and shrimp.

    i always think — you are what you eat. would you rather be something overly processed or something that can be found in nature?

  • 6 Fatinah // Jan 3, 2008 at 7:29 am

    great post – with great ideas…..my husband & I have decided that we are going to make finances a focus for this year, and food is where we fall off the rails the most. You have some great ideas – thanks for sharing!!

  • 7 Christy // Jan 3, 2008 at 10:42 am

    My husband and I eat out way too often when we have food at home we can cook. One of our goals is to eat what we have and not let anything go to waste. Kudos to you for buying so much locally.

  • 8 Marianne // Jan 3, 2008 at 11:01 am

    I like the 3Rs idea for your husband! We really need to improve on our use of leftovers, too, so this is inspiring!

  • 9 ThickChick // Jan 3, 2008 at 11:38 am

    What a great post!!!

    Awhile back SisterSkinny wrote a post about grocery expenses. I couldn’t believe how low the monthly grocery expense for several of the commentors came out to – especially for the ones feeding families! I was too embarrassed to put a number on the monthyly grocery bill for just myself and my sweetie…It was absolutely astronomical in comparison. But we eat by a similar philosophy, (organic, free range, humane, sustainable, etc.) and luckily, we can afford to make that choice. You’ve got me thinking though, and I’m going to make more of an effort on the ‘local’ front and hit our awesome farmer’s market with more regularity, possibly even enroll in a CSA, rather than relying on frequent trips to Whole Foods all the freakin’ time.

    In any case, excellent post, great ideas, and good luck with your financial goals!

  • 10 K Renee // Jan 3, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    My DH and I seriously need to sit down and look at what we spend on food and eating out. It always feels like we eat very simply, but we still end up spending $100 a week on groceries–and unfortunately that’s not from local farmers. Since we moved to podunk USA, the nearest farmers market is about 25 minutes away. That’s not bad, but it’s still a trek up the road and gas is incredibly expensive.

    I want us to move towards eating vegetarian and making our own soups and breads instead of buying the crap in the store. I get obsessed in cycles–for a month I’m pouring over labels, then the next week I’m stressed and we grab a frozen pizza.

    We’ll have more income at least for this semester as DH starts teaching tomorrow (yay DH!), so maybe we can make this our priority.

    Good post, Sally.

  • 11 Erin // Jan 3, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Wow – what a great plan! You sure know what you are doing. I am very impressed – honestly!

  • 12 urbanvegan // Jan 4, 2008 at 7:23 am

    Food is very, very important to me, so I probably spend a little more on it than the average American. But you are what you eat–and I don’t eat the crappy SAD (Standard American Diet) Diet. Not only is whole food delicious; I also consider it an inevstment in one’s health.

  • 13 Meg Wolff // Jan 4, 2008 at 7:32 am

    Sally, I loved your post! Especially the part that you didn\’t have to do the cooking … great plan to start sharing the responsibility early in your marriage. Not that you can\’t start that at any age .. but harder. In my house it has evolved to … Tom usually makes breakfast (we have greens, another vegetable & rice, oatmeal, or other whole grain), we have our leftovers from dinner the night before for lunch with fresh veggies, and I usually make dinner unless it is a weekend, then he cooks dinner on one day. And, he is a great cook. Or … we do it together. If only one of us cooks the other does the dishes. When I get tired of cooking I eat a very simple meal. I think we have set a good example for our two kids. I loved that you and your husband have the same goal in mind and that you are working together to make it a reality. And yes, our food bill is high too, but since we don\’t by meat, that makes it a bit lower. But, if I did I would definitely get organic in spite of the price as you do. We splurge on fresh veggies even if they are costly. What we spend on fresh organic vegetables & fruit we save in medical bills … that\’s how we look at it. And, we don\’t buy cough medicines, pay doctors bills, and chemotherapy (that was about 80,000 dollars), because we rarely if even need them anymore. I think what you are doing is great, wish I had started at your age. You have certainly grown from your illness … that is a wonderful thing. You must be proud of yourself. I\’m sure it is not always easy but WELL worth it!

  • 14 Ricki // Jan 4, 2008 at 9:44 am

    Great post. We also spend quite a lot on food, as our habits seem similar to yours (organic, local, eating out once/week). I don’t even eat the meat, and it’s still expensive!

    Applause to your husband for taking on the cooking. My Honey hates cooking, but will chop or peel or mince any time and does everything else in the house, so I suppose it will have to do!

    Your risotto actually sounds delicious to me. Have you tried sheep’s feta? Much milder than goat’s, and equally easy to digest.

  • 15 ThickChick // Jan 4, 2008 at 11:59 am

    BTW: Thanks for your comment today re: my spinach consumption! I had NO idea! I just figured any way to consume more dark leafy greens had to be a good idea…. Now I am definitely concernd about iron, as I’ve been doing this spinach trick for quite some time!

  • 16 Weekly meal plan for mid-winter // Jan 18, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    […] Dan 3R Meal–using up leftover CSA produce (What’s a ‘3R meal’? Read this post to […]

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