Monday, February 18, 2013

repost: eat food

Metapost: my first attempt at the newfangled blogging thing ended when I decided I no longer identified with the name I'd chosen, and thus The Organized Geek was abandoned.  However, there was some good stuff in there, and I'll be reposting a few selected entries occasionally, so they don't get entirely lost to oblivion. 

Originally posted on 01.04.12, this post contains some of my thoughts about food, specifically related to food budgeting.  The timeline is of course out of date, and a few things have been updated from the original, in order to fit into the new vernacular of this blog. 

I found the above fabulous flowchart from The Summer Tomato today.  It puts me in mind of Michael Pollan's summary of the entirety of his own advice, 'eat food, not to much, mostly plants.'  How many of us truly follow this type of advice?  Unless I've bought the given product before, I'm constantly reading labels and getting jumpy if there are unpronounceable ingredients or my favorite, 'natural flavoring.'  However, I'm sure I still purchase and eat more than my share of not-food.   

In my budgeting adventures recently, Husband and I sat down to take a real hard look at our financial situation.  Our main expenditures are for housing, fuel, and food.  Housing costs are pretty stable and unchangeable, since our rent isn't likely to change and we already keep the house between 55 and 65 F during the winter.  It was the spreadsheet cell labeled 'grocery' that was truly staggering.  There's absolutely no reason, even with rising food prices and an unstable economy, that two people should need to spend that kind of number just to keep fed.

For reference, I've been tracking my own spending for nearly the past year (see immediately previous post), but have not been following the spending out of our joint account.  This despite the fact that I have personally used the shared debit card for an awful lot of grocery shopping, for the simple reason that I didn't have enough money in my own account at the time.  Bad me for not paying more attention!  

In addition, while I do make an effort to take frugal measures when shopping (scouring the circulars to figure out where to do the week's shopping, clipping coupons when they present themselves, stocking up on stuff when it's on sale, etc.), obviously there's been more than a little mindless spending when it comes to the grocery store.  We do tend to splurge on good ingredients fairly often, since we both love to cook and are amateur foodies.  Food spending falls into three basic categories: 

  • Deliveries from our local CSA: I'm not giving this up unless I absolutely have to.  Fresh, in-season, local food is absolutely worth it.  I need my fresh veg.  Maybe it should drop to every other week.
  • Pet food: our dog and cat are both on species-appropriate whole prey model raw diets, but I already buy their meat only when on sale and portion and freeze it myself, so I seriously doubt this eats up too much of the budget.  The guinea pigs get fresh veggies along with their pellets and hay, but it's generally leftover bits from prepping ingredients like carrot peels, stuff that's about to be past its prime anyway, or cheap bins of leafies from Costco.
  • General grocery
So what really is to blame?
  • Too much processed food: this is pretty minor, since we do both cook so much.  But why are we always buying so much store bread when I love baking?  The answer, of course, is that I'm just a little too lazy and don't have enough of a plan to make the time to bake enough bread for the week.  This applies to multiple things; what business do I have ever buying pickles, when I've canned up so many jars?
  • Over-purchasing:  looking into our pantry is a fear-inspiring endeavor, since it seems the piles of goods may fall on you at any moment.  Heaven help you if you wanted to add something to a shelf.  The fridge, similarly, is quite a deathtrap.  
  • Lack of inventory management: last year sometime we organized and inventoried everything in the pantry, fridge, freezer, and chest freezer.  However, it hasn't been updated particularly regularly, and so has fallen into irrelevancy.  Not knowing what we already have leads to both over-purchasing, and...
  • Food waste: throwing away what was perfectly good food and only isn't due to inattention is idiotic.  Far too many containers of leftovers get lost at the back of the fridge only to be discovered when they're developing intelligent life, and far too much good produce goes to the crisper drawer only to turn to slime out of either negligence or simply not thinking of something to do with it.  
The solution: in addition to re-instituting some sort of inventory management system, I think it's finally time to try out menu planning.  Ordinarily meals are crafted by staring into the fridge for a while until an idea occurs to one of us.  This means that we both have to keep a huge assortment of ingredients on hand at any one time for any unknown genres of food (hence part of the overstuffed fridge problem) and that shopping is done on the simple method of replenishing whatever gets used up whether it's truly a staple or not, coupled with whim.  And whim gets expensive.  My CSA orders are similarly random, and I just guess what we might find a use for in the coming week, thus leading to languishing slimy lettuce.  There must be a better algorithm to find a practical optimum for the system.  

In theory, sitting down to plan a week's menu shouldn't take too much time, and should allow for both more selective shopping and less stress after work.  I've never done this sort of thing before, aside from planning a few days' worth of bento lunches at a time.  We'll see how it goes.

Along with all those plans, we're talking about a new policy that prohibits using the shared account for food.  If I have to use my own money, it's quite likely that the pressure will be a great help in enforcing frugality.  It's working for everything else, so why not apply it to this as well?

I think there may be all of three people who know this blog exists at this point, but in case anyone has input, what do you think?  Any thoughts or tips on menu planning or reducing grocery expenditures?  How are these things handled at your house?


  1. Well, I usually have way too much food in the fridge as I thoroughly have subscribed to the spontaneous method of figuring out what's for dinner tonite and have some kind of fear of scarcity. However, I have recently discovered that if I simply buy less and wait till the big box gets pretty empty that I will: 1) use up perfectly good food that I'm ignoring and 2) will have an opportunity to clean the fridge!

    My man dan will eat practically anything (except cabbage which he will still eat if I disguise it well enough) will not notice anyway. He just thinks it's wonderful to get anything in a bowl (quite like a grateful doggie), so I'm attempting to learn to just have less around and just deal w/ my impractical fear.


    1. Yeah, I've also noticed that letting the stores get a little bit lower is beneficial for creativity. While a stuffed-full fridge might actually have too many possibilities, leading to decision exhaustion (and ultimately food waste), a more tractable amount of supplies limits the options and forces a certain level of resourcefulness.

      And hey, if a few meals are sub-par, that's okay. It's part of the process. I know I've been disappointed in more than a few experiments, but now I know what to do differently.


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