Archive for the ‘Food and Drink’ Category

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Friday, August 6th, 2010

I’ve spent much of this week at work banging my head against the wall that of all the offsets Congress could have found to use to pay for state fiscal relief (FMAP) and education jobs, the one they chose to use was a cut in Food Stamps (SNAP).  And then the Senate decided to cut Food Stamps some more to pay for child nutrition programs.

I get that inflation has been lower than predicted, and so the Food Stamp increase in the recovery act is lasting longer than expected. But, as Dave Obey said, that would have just meant that “some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.”  (And kudos to @AnnieLowrey for following the story from the start.)

At least with the FMAP/EduJobs bill, I can make the macroeconomic argument that it makes sense to spend more money today, prevent huge layoffs in the states and local governments, and cut spending in 2014.  (If the economy is this bad still 4 years from now, we’re going to have much bigger problems.)  But in the child nutrition bill, the increases would actually come AFTER the cuts.

Matthew Yglesias wrote about the child nutrition bill s today and noted that it really is robbing Peter to pay Paul — taking from dinners to pay for lunches, and from the summer to pay for the school year.  I wanted to highlight one of his commenter’s responses, since it’s rare to hear from people who are directly affected.  JRoth wrote:

I’ve been on SNAP benefits for over a year (family of 4, household income in ‘08 and ‘09 around $20k), and I can tell you that the margin between the old benefits ceiling (somewhere around $500) and the new (well over $600) makes a huge difference in my family’s grocery budget. With the former, I can just about squeeze the entire month’s food into the SNAP budget – a couple months we had to go the last 2-3 days on leftovers and cobbling together whatever was in the freezer. Under the new benefits, I can buy my kids fresh fruit without stressing over the difference between a $2 pint of blueberries and a $2.50 pint.

Point being, insofar as the public health goal of SNAP is enabling more healthful family eating, an extra $25/person/month goes a long way in obviating the (perceived) need to buy the high calorie/low nutrition food products that are implicated in low income obesity.

As for school lunches, the current budget is laughably small (under $2/child/lunch, iirc), and so any improvement in that number will represent an improvement. But school lunches remain a nutritional wasteland, even in places where there’s an awareness (my kid’s school offers whole grain in most meals and healthful-seeming dishes, but the reality is A. they still taste gross and B. the backup options are unconscionable things like Uncrustables.

That sounds right to me.  I was shocked and slightly horrified to read last month that Fairfax schools were selected best in the country for nutritious school lunches.  My kids eat the school lunch about once a week (N thinks it’s a huge treat, and would have it every day if we let him; D only wants to do it on the days that they have grilled cheese or breakfast for lunch.)  If that’s the best, I can’t begin to imagine what the worst looks like.

Snowed in

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

My office follows the feds, so we’re officially open tomorrow, although with a two hour delay.  I’m going to work from home, though, as I think the commute will be a nightmare, and I still have work I can do.

Total inches of snow: somewhere around 34.

Inches of packed snow remaining on the road post-plowing: about 3

Height of piled snow surrounding our driveway: 5 feet, plus or minus.

Days snowed in: 8 (as of tomorrow)

Soups made: 4 (chicken chili, red lentil and chickpea, black bean, and curried cauliflower)

Breads made: 3 (challah, multigrain, and Portuguese sweet bread)

Batches of cookies made: 3 (two chocolate chip and one peanut butter)

Pounds gained: haven’t dared to set foot on the scale

Games played: Dominion, Ticket to Ride, Sorry, Monopoly, Go Fish, Don’t Get Caught, Munchkin Fu, Qwirkle

Hours of TV watched: too many

The NY Times has a terrific graphic about snowfall in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, showing what each city has received this year, last year, and the average level.   It dramatically shows that Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia have all gotten way more snow than average, coming after a less-snowy-than-usual year last year (in fact, in DC, the past 3 years have all hardly had any snow), while NY is having an average year after another average year, and Boston is having an underperforming snow year after a snowy year.   But the most surprising part of the graphic is how little difference there is in the average snowfall levels for DC vs. New York.  I grew up in NYC and have lived in the DC area for the past decade and a half, and I would have told you that NY gets much more snow on average.  I’m not sure how much my impression is biased by the low snow levels of the past few years, and how much it’s that DC snow usually melts on its own in a day or two, while NY snow sticks around in ugly gray piles for weeks.

calorie counts

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

The NY Times reported this week on a study that looked at the effects of New York City's requirement that chain restaurants post the calorie counts of each item on the menu.  The researchers looked at fast food restaurants in high poverty neighborhoods, and compared purchases in New York and Newark.  They found that the average purchase in New York was of more calories after the law was in effect than before, while there was no change in Newark.

The article offers a few hypotheses for why this might be the case.  One possibility is that shoppers were more interested in a good value than in nutrition.  I can testify that, at least for my husband, when we went to Nathans over the summer, the posted calorie counts encouraged him to buy a large drink rather than a small, because he could see that it was  more than twice as much beverage for only a dollar more.

I would also suggest, from behavioral economics, that there is probably an anchoring effect from some of the really absurd things on the menu.  About 1/3 of those who noticed the calorie signs said that they affected their purchases.  Well, people do feel like they took nutrition into account when they pass up the 1,000 calorie triple megaburger with cheese and get the double burger instead.

Some of the people quoted in the article suggests that the calorie postings will have more effect over time.  I'd be highly surprised if that were true.  My guess is that over time, people will pay less and less attention to the signage.

I also think that the law has less impact because it only applies to chain restaurants.  I don't think anyone is surprised to learn that Big Macs are bad for you.  I think people would be more surprised by how many calories are in things that sound like they might be healthy.  My sense is that most restaurants cook with far more butter and oil than almost anyone uses at home these days.

Kids restaurant week

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

You've probably heard of the "Restaurant Week" promos that happen once a year in a lot of cities — a bunch of restaurants all agree to offer a limited fixed price menu at the same bargain price for one week a year.  It's a nice way to get to try restaurants that are usually out of your price range, and gets the restaurants more customers during a generally slow time of year and lots of publicity and goodwill.

Well, this year Cookie magazine helped organize "Kids Restaurant Week" in three cities, including DC.  Adults pay $29, kids pay their age, special early seatings.  We generally have given up on going out with the boys to any restaurant fancier than Applebees, because it's just not worth the money to buy food that they won't eat, and it takes too much of our energy to keep them sitting nicely.  (Although we've discovered that a pair of bubble teas will buy us a good 45 minutes sitting at the local dim sum joint.)  But we decided to give Wasabi a try, since N likes the takeout sushi from Trader Joe's, and I hoped the food on a conveyor belt would distract D even if there was nothing he was willing to eat.  And it's right near my office.

We got there a little late, due to some parking issues.  (We discovered that our minivan no longer fits in the parking structures downtown since we installed a bike rack.  And most metered spots are off limits between 4 and 6.30.)  But they were very welcoming when we got there.

It turned out to be far more of a success than I had anticipated.  They had a kids meal planned out, with chicken karage, avocado rolls, sweet potato tempura and strawberries with ginger.  Somewhat to my surprise, D adored the chicken.  And adults could just eat of the conveyor belt or the menu.  The boys were thrilled by how the staff turned the standard wooden disposible chopsticks into kids chopsticks with the clever use of a rubberband and the rolled up paper wrapper.

At the end of the meal, the manager (or owner?) stopped by and was very welcoming.  He asked where we lived, and when we said Virginia, he told us they were opening a new branch in Tyson's in the fall.  He said that would be a more kid-friendly set-up, with more room, and the chefs working on display in the middle. 

I wouldn't have imagined taking the boys to Wasabi without the incentive of kids restaurant week, but at the end, they asked if they could go back.  And we probably will.


Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

This week I'm looking at two of the recent series of books about parenting from a father's perspective.  If the female version of these are "momoirs," does that make these "dadiaries?"

Of the two, Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, by Michael Lewis, is the more recent and the more hyped.  Lewis is the author of one of the better books I've ever read (Liar's Poker, about the excesses of Wall Street in the 1980s) and so I had high hopes for this book. And it has some really funny moments.  But basically, it reads like the slapped together collection of Slate columns that it is.  In it we learn that parenting can be absurd, exhausting and messy, but that "If you want to feel the way you're meant to feel about the new baby, you need to do the grunt work.  it's only in caring for a thing that you become attached it." 

I'd actually be interested in reading a book by Lewis in which he uses his journalistic talents to look at the contested territory of parenting in the 21st century, because he does nail some issues: "For now, there's an unsettling absence of universal, or even local, standards of behavior.  Within a few miles of my house I can find perfectly sane men and women who regard me as a Neanderthal who should do more to help my poor wife with the kids, and just shut up about it.  But I can also find other perfectly sane men and women who view me as a Truly Modern Man and marvel aloud at my ability to be both breadwinner and domestic dervish — doer of an approximately 31.5 percent of all parenting.  The absence of standards is the social equivalent of the absence of an acknowledged fair price for a good in a marketplace.  At best, it leads to haggling; at worst, to market failure."

Dinner with Dad: How I Found My Way Back to the Family Table by Cameron Stracher doesn't try to describe modern fatherhood in general.  Rather, it's the story of one man who decided to be home for dinner, 5 nights a week, for one school year, and how it changed his life.  And yes, it looks like it started out as a blog

In order to do this, Stracher started working from home a few days a week, and eventually wound up quitting one of his two jobs, and thus having more time to coach his kid's teams, and generally be part of their lives.  Stracher acknowledges that everything he does would be unremarkable almost anywhere but in the suburbs of New York City, but he also doesn't downplay the difficulty in changing patterns of behavior when he works a two-hour train ride from home, he's expected to travel regularly for work, and all of the kid-focused activities are scheduled for at-home-parents. 

The other major theme of the book is Stracher's desire to cook "real" (e.g. grown up) food for his family, and his frustration when his kids turn up their nose at it again and again.  He writes with passion about the pleasure of feeding people you love, and how easy it is to put undue weight on it.  (I know that one of the reasons I make waffles and muffins so often is they're pretty much the only things I can make that the kids will appreciate the effort.)  He's not the elegant writer that Lewis is, but I think I enjoyed this book more.


Thursday, April 16th, 2009

I've been making a lot of the NY Times Recipes for Health lately.  They're healthy (although not always low-calorie), usually reasonably easy to make and almost always tasty.  This week I made the Royal Quinoa Salad with Tofu and Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette.  I thought it needed more broccoli than the recipe called for, but otherwise it was pretty good.

Tofu isn't kosher for Passover by traditional Ashkenazi standards, because it's made from beans, which are "kitniyot" — not really leaven, but sort of guilty by association.  (Either because you can make bread-like foods out of them, or because they were grown in adjacent fields, not clear.)  A couple of years ago, I decided that worrying about kitniyot wasn't particularly meaningful to me — I won't eat cornbread, but I'm not going to worry about corn syrup, or tofu.

Quinoa's a different issue.  Although it sure looks like a grain, biologically, it's a member of a different family.  More to the point, it's a new world plant, and was totally unknown to the rabbis who wrote the laws about Passover.  So it's kosher for Passover, even for those observe the prohibition on kitniyot.

Passover ended tonight, so we had the traditional pizza for dinner.

Haagen-Dasz: Five

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Yes, I really am posting about ice cream the day after I wrote about my diet.  It's part of a blog tour, and when they asked me if I wanted free ice cream, I couldn't resist.

The ice cream in question is Haagen-Dazs Five and, as featured in the front page of the Washington Post yesterday (don't they have a recession to report on?), the gimmick is that there are only five ingredients in each flavor and they're all something recognizable — milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and whatever the flavor is.  In other words, it more or less passes Michael Pollan's food rules.

They say that these have less fat than the standard Haagen Dasz flavors, but this is still a premium ice cream, coming in at 220-240 calories for a 1/2 cup serving (and my guess is that most people probably treat the 14 ounce packages as a 2 serving package, if they don't eat the whole thing).  That said, it's very good ice cream. Ginger was probably my favorite flavor of the ones we tried, D liked the passionfruit best, and N liked them all.

So, what am I doing eating ice cream if I'm on a diet?  Well, they're rich enough that a little goes a long way.  I served myself a big bowl of fruit and put a dollop of ice cream on top.  The passionfruit ice cream was amazing with the mango chunks from Trader Joe's, and the ginger, mint and brown sugar all went well with strawberries.  As Pollan says, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

TBR: The Instinct Diet

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

This January, I got back from vacation and hopped on the scale, and was horrified to see a number that I had previously only seen when pregnant — yes, I really did weigh more than I did immediately postpartum.  It shouldn't have surprised me — all my pants were too tight.  Somewhere along the way, I had added an extra 10 pounds to the usual "I could really stand to lose 10 pounds."  So I started looking around for a diet plan that I could follow.  I'm pretty skeptical of diets, but I also know that all of these "lifestyle" approaches that claim that you can lose weight effortlessly by making simple substitutions don't work for me, because I already drink skim milk, don't drink soda, rarely have chips, etc.

Over at US Food Policy, Parke spoke highly of The Instinct Diet: Use Your Five Food Instincts to Lose Weight and Keep It Off, by Susan Roberts, so I decided to give it a try.  Eight weeks later, I've lost the "extra" 10 pounds, and am finding it painless enough that I'm going to keep going and try to get rid of the "could stand to lose" weight.

Roberts goes through a whole explanation of the different "instincts" that make us overeat, but fundamentally, the diet is about eating a nutritionally balanced diet, restricting calories, and using a bunch of "tricks" so that you don't feel deprived and hungry along the way.  So, you eat lots of soup and salad, because they're high volume.  You put the most fattening flavorful things on the outside (chocolate on strawberries, dressing on salad) so you maximize the taste punch.  You eat mostly whole grain or high fiber carbs so they digest slowly and make you feel full.  You eat a wide variety of veggies, but rotate through a limited set of main dishes, and have a choice of a starch with dinner or dessert, but not both.

The book includes both recipes and suggestions for how to follow the diet using mostly packaged foods.  In general, the recipes are quite good — the thai peanut dressing for salad is amazing, and all the soups have been good enough that I'd make them even when I wasn't trying to watch my weight.  However, the "pizza" base was all but inedible — possibly because I couldn't find the white wheat bran she recommended anywhere, either online or looking at health stores.  But the no-cook alternative is to use a low-carb pita bread, which worked out ok for me.  I thought the "I-diet bread" was awful the first time I had it, but it's grown on me over time.  (And one of Roberts' instincts is indeed familiarity.)

So, I don't think the diet is perfect, but it's working for me.  And the Amazon reviews are overwhelmingly positive.  This may be the best diet book you've never heard of.

Sorry, this post is attracting too much spam.  I'm going to close it to comments.

pie and vacation

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

After two years of making really complicated cakes for the office dessert contest (a golden cage and then a 7 layer cake), this year I decided to do something easy.  I made the eggnog variation of the New York Times' Brandy Alexander Pie.  And no, I still didn't win, but I didn't feel like I should have.


Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and a Joyous Solstice.  I probably won't be posting again until after the New Year.  Stay warm, have fun, don't spend too much, take lots of photos, and I'll be back next year.


Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

I was fascinated by this story in the NY Times about how the demand for Spam has risen as the economy gets worse.  What it tells me is that there's a lot of people who consider meat — even in the form of highly processed parts — essential to their diet.

Even if I ate pork, I can't imagine ever buying Spam.  If I don't have the money for regular meat, I'd rather eat vegetarian meals than Spam.  (Yes, I do occasionally eat beef hot dogs, which are only marginally closer to the "real meat" side of the spectrum.)

As I've said before, I think that my willingness to do without meat is a large part of the reason that we didn't have trouble doing the Thrifty Food Plan experiment.  The market basket that the plan is based on includes allowances for a reasonable amount of meat — for an adult male, they assume 0.63 pounds of beef/pork/lamb and 2.55 pounds of poultry per week.  (The equivalent numbers are actually slightly higher for adult women.)  When we were following the TFP budget, we were eating significantly less meat than that.

The TFP is overall an interesting construct.  It's designed to be low-budget, to meet all the RDIs for nutrients, and to follow the food pyramid, but it's also based on what low-income people actually eat.  It's not a fully artificial construct of "how little could one spend and still have a nutritionally adequate diet."  So, no, they don't expect you to eat oatmeal, eggs and lentils day after day.  And it includes a fair amount of convenience foods.  (Although they do note that they were unable as a result to get down to the recommended levels of sodium consumption, even assuming no added salt at the table.)

So what about you?  If you're not a vegetarian, do you feel deprived without meat?  What substitutes are acceptable and what are not?