Archive for the ‘Food and Drink’ Category

First Tomato Soup

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

The tomatoes I planted this year did even worse than last year.  A few of the plants just got drowned in the torrential rains shortly after I transplanted them, and the one plant that got big and healthy hasn’t produced much in the way of fruit.  I don’t really get enough sun here for tomatoes, but I can’t help myself. 

Today, we finally had a ripe tomato, and I let N pick it.  He came in with it and asked "Can we make First Tomato soup?"  This was, of course, a reference to one of the Voyage to the Bunny Planet books* by Rosemary Wells** where in the day that should have been, Claire gets to pick the first ripe tomato and her mother makes her First Tomato soup. 

I couldn’t resist a request like that, but I also didn’t want to waste one of my few homegrown tomatoes on something that could just as well be made out of store-bought tomatoes.  And I strongly suspected that neither of the boys would actually eat whatever I made.  So after a few minutes of googling, I made the simplest soup possible — tomato, olive oil, and salt, pureed together without cooking.   D refused to taste it and N had just a few bites, but T and I enjoyed it.

*In each of these books, a young bunny has a terrible day, and then the Bunny Queen takes them to the Bunny Planet, where they get to experience the day that should have been.  Each of the days gives the child what they were really missing — quiet and solitude, parental attention, warmth and affection.  The link is to a book that contains all three stories, but if you can find the out-of-print box set in a used bookstore or yard sale for less than the unreal prices being asked by Amazon sellers, I’d vote for that.  The books are larger than the classic Sendak Nutshell Library but only about half the size of a standard paperback and there’s something about the small books fitting into their own little case that is absolutely irresistible for preschoolers.

**Yes, Rosemary Wells, better known as the creator of Max and Ruby.

Are high food prices bad?

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Parke at US Food Policy poses the bold question: "Are high food prices unambiguously bad?"

The obvious problem with high food prices is that they mean that people on the edge eat less, and often poorer quality food.  Food is one of the most flexible part of the budget for most people — in the short term, you can’t reduce your rent, but you can skip a few meals, or see if the local food pantry can help you out.  There’s a study that shows that poor families eat less in cold winters, when utility bills are especially high.

So what’s good about high food prices?  Let’s start by thinking about the parallel question for gas.  I don’t think that high gas prices are unambiguously bad.  While I worry about the effect on low-income folks, especially in rural areas, I think high gas prices generally send the right economic signals: buy more fuel-efficient cars, use more carpools and mass transit, think about the costs of commuting when you decide where to live.  I’d like to see more of the cost of gas going into funding things like better mass transit, and less going to enrich oil companies and OPEC, but that’s a different issue.

So, is there something parallel for food?  Well, a big part of why food in the US is so cheap is that energy has been cheap.  When Michael Pollen says that the US food economy runs on corn, he could just as easily say it runs on oil — in the form of fuel for tractors and combines, in the form of fertilizer (which is largely made from petroleum), in the form of the fuel for the trucks that move the corn from farm to processing plant to grocery store.  So, it’s hard to imagine how food prices could stay as low as they’ve been in a world of higher energy prices.

It’s also likely that the relative costs of different kinds of food will change.  Bananas may be more expensive compared to apples, free range chicken may only cost twice as much as factory farmed chicken, rather than five times as much.  Some things that have been unsustainably cheap will be more expensive, and that might be a good thing.

But, none of this makes the basic problem of low-income people not being able to afford food go away.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been doing a lot of thinking about how to make sure that low-income households are protected in the context of climate change legislation that will increase energy costs — basically, the idea is that if the government auctions off all carbon permits, rather than assuming that companies are entitled to permits at the left that they currently pollute, it generates enough money to provide generous refunds to low and moderate income households.  I’m not sure what the food equivalent of that is.

Thrifty food plan wrap-up

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

In the final week, we wound up doing three grocery trips, to Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Giant, for a total of $173.75 for the week, and $460.78 for the month.  Some of the high spending this week is because we stocked up on stuff that will last until the next month, but we also bought more packaged goods — a big thing of nutrigrain bars for D to take as snacks at camp, string cheese, ice cream — and D even convinced T to buy "orange chicken" at Costco.  So, it’s easy to see that it would be easy to blow past the $501 thrifty food plan budget if you weren’t really watching.  The bars are a lot cheaper at Costco than at the regular grocery store, but they’re still far more expensive than baking.

As it happens, this week we’re going to get our first delivery from South Mountain Creamery.  Since I read The Way We Eat, I’ve been wanting to move away from industrially produced meat and dairy, and this looks like a way to do so without adding yet another set of shopping trips to our lives.  It’s not cheap, but it’s a better price than the comparable foods from Whole Paycheck.  I’m interested in seeing whether we can taste the difference.

Thrifty food plan — week 3

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

This week we did only one shopping trip, spending $58.56, to bring us to a total for the month so far of $286.95.  Then we went out of town for three days, taking the bus to New York.  I don’t know how to account for that in this experiment.  On the one hand, my brother and parents fed us several meals, which helped out the budget.  On the other hand, we spent about $60 on restaurant meals… 

So why are we finding it relatively easy to stay within the Thrifty Food Plan, when by all accounts, people on Food Stamps are struggling badly to cope with rising food prices?  My guess is that there are several things going on:

  • First, most people on Food Stamps are working, and thus receive less than the maximum monthly benefit.  In theory, Food Stamps aren’t supposed to pay for all their food — they’re supposed to use some of their cash income for food as well.  But low-income families have many other demands on their income (if I remember correctly, about half are spending 50 percent or more of their income just on housing).  Food is the easiest part of the budget to squeeze, particularly if you’re willing to invest the time in going to food pantries.
  • Second, we have a car, and so can travel to low-cost supermarkets and warehouse stores.  And we can have enough cash to buy large quantities when they’re on sale.
  • Third, we’re eating very little meat, and relatively little processed food.  We often make a big batch of pancakes or waffles on the weekend, and reheat them for breakfast all week, which is a lot cheaper than breakfast cereal.

Thrifty food plan — week 2

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

This week we spent $132.41 on groceries, bringing us to $228.39 for the month.  That included a trip to Costco, where we got out for under $100 — but barely.  Some of the things we bought (like a double package of peanut butter) will certainly last us longer than the month, but we’ve also been eating things that we bought before the start of the month, so I think it more or less balances out.  But, of course, if I was really worried about running out of food before the end of the month, I’d be less willing to buy things like the extra-large bag of chocolate chips.  (T has been on a cookie-baking kick since we finished our kitchen renovation.  It’s probably more expensive than buying generic cookies at the supermarket, but cheaper than the brand name packages.)

We’ve been eating very little meat, but that’s not unusual for us, so we’re not feeling deprived by that. But blueberries don’t seem to have reached their usual seasonal low price, and I’m reluctant to spent $4 on a pint that N will finish off in an afternoon. We did go strawberry picking this morning, and got about 7 pounds of berries.  Even if I add the cost of gas to their price, that was quite the bargain.

Thrifty food plan — week 1

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

One week into our new attempt at following the thrifty food plan, we’ve spent $95.98 on groceries.  That includes a big shopping trip to Grand Mart (big Asian grocery store, with very low prices on produce) where we stocked up on veggies, and three separate trips to Harris Teeter, which is the closest supermarket.  We went there to get ingredients that we couldn’t find at Grand Mart, then to get cookies for D’s class party when we didn’t have power and couldn’t bake them as planned (electric oven), and then to get milk and jelly.  The good news is that we didn’t have to throw out any food due to the power outage.

We’re a bit ahead of budget, but we’re out of chicken nuggets, and so are likely to hit Costco this week.  And we rarely leave there spending less than $100…

It’s super hot now (high 90s) and supposed to stay that way for the rest of the week.  Some of the things that I had planned on making require the oven to be on, which doesn’t seem like a reasonable plan at the moment.

Thrifty food plan, redux

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

The recent discussion of budgeting and how we’re dealing with rising prices inspired me to revisit my experiment of trying to stick to the thrifty food plan for a month.  This gives us a budget of $501 a month.  (Note that this is different from the Food Stamp Challenge which asked politicians to live for a month on the average monthly benefit of about $90 a person a month.  The average benefit is significantly lower than the maximum benefit, because most Food Stamp recipients have earnings, and their benefits are reduced as a result — they’re not really expected to feed themselves with only their Food Stamps.)

As before, I’m only looking at actual expenditures, not trying to allocate a cost to the food that’s in our pantries and fridge as we begin.  That said, we were totally out of milk this morning.

T stopped at Trader Joe’s this afternoon, and our first grocery bill for the month comes in at $21.53, including two gallons of milk at $3.69 each, pizza dough and sausage for pizza later in the week, "Sir Strawberry Juice" and a couple of odds and ends.  By contrast, 3 years ago when we did this before, on the first day we paid $2.45 and $3.05 for two gallons of milk (at Costco, but still…).

update: for another view of inflation, check out this NY Times graphic (via Visualizing Economics).  Shows you both where the average consumer spends the most money, and what’s getting more expensive (and what isn’t).

How are you adjusting?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

With energy and food prices both climbing, one of my regular readers suggested that I ask all of you all what adjustments you’re making.  Are you reducing your driving?  Cutting coupons?  Reducing meals out?  Saving less?  And how much are these adjustments hurting?  Do you feel like it’s a big sacrifice, or something you hardly notice?

In our household, I’d say we’re making relatively minor adjustments:

  • Trying to consolidate errands, do fewer grocery runs.
  • Doing more shopping at the less expensive grocery stores, and buying less convenience foods
  • Really paying attention to turning out lights, unplugging appliances when not in use.
  • Taking the bus to NYC instead of driving (the parking costs in NYC were killing us)
  • Generally asking "do we really need this" before buying stuff — especially in the $20 to $50 range, which doesn’t feel like big spending, but adds up fast.

I can’t say we’ve really cut back on our day to day driving — I was already driving to the metro, rather than downtown, and the bus is really more of a hassle than the additional savings justify.  (It’s a bit slower than driving, but real problem is that the low frequency makes missing the bus a disaster, so you have to build in huge margins for error.)  I’m actually sort of dubious about these stories about how so many people are shifting from cars to buses.  I’m not disputing the fact that public transit systems are seeing big percentage increases in ridership — but we’re starting from such a low base that if only a few percent of drivers shift to buses, that can be a 30 or 40 percent increase in bus ridership.

I just put in a low-flow showerhead, but that was really an environmental choice rather than a frugal one.  Overall, we’ve done a lot to improve the efficiency of our house — new windows, new boiler (we have baseboard heating), high efficiency washer and dryer, high
efficiency kitchen appliances.  Over the long run, these will save money, but for now, we’ve been writing a lot of big checks for them.

In the short run, things will be better for the next few months, as we won’t have to pay for N’s preschool, and have already paid for camp for the boys.  But then he’s going 5 days a week instead of 3 next year, so that will cost about an extra $200 a month.   But then
after next year we’ll be done with preschool and will feel rich.

Several years ago, I read an article on called the "60 percent solution" in which they argue that you should keep your fixed expenses down to 60 percent of your take-home income.  (I see I wrote about Warren and Tyagi’s version of this plan two years ago).  If you were doing that before the recent run-up in prices, you’re probably giving up some of your extras, but you don’t have to do anything drastic.  If 80 or 90 percent of your paycheck was already allocated to fixed expenses, there’s not a lot of room to adjust.

The reason I thought the 60 percent solution article was interesting was that it recognized that it’s really hard to save significant amount of money by shaving your grocery bill.  Some of us never spent $5 a day on fancy coffees in the first place, and so can’t find savings by giving them up. Instead of squeezing at the margin, it may be better to bite the bullet and look for big changes to make — a smaller house or apartment, taking in a roommate, finding a second job.

Farm Bill

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

It appears that Congress overrode the President’s veto on (most of) the Farm Bill today.  (Due to a clerical error, the bill that was sent to Bush omitted an entire title — earlier today, it looked like they might have to pass the whole bill over again, but apparently they’ve decided that they can override the veto on what was sent to him today, and deal with the last title after the Memorial Day recess.)

The bad news is that the bill continues huge subsidies for agribusiness, at a time when commodity prices are at record highs.  The good news is that it contains some real improvements for the Food Stamp program (now to be called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) — increasing the average benefit by increasing the amount of income that is assumed to be needed for purposes other than food, allowing more  child care expenses to be deducted, allowing the employment and training program to help people buy the equipment and uniforms they need to start a job, adjusting the asset limit for inflation over time.  There’s also more money for WIC (which is *not* an entitlement, and can run out of money when lots of people apply.)

So, how do you weigh these issues?  People I generally trust don’t all come down on the same side of this. Parke Wilde at the US Food Policy blog is pretty disappointed.  He’s astonished to find himself agreeing with the President’s criticisms of the bill.  The Food Research and Action Center is thrilled to finally pass the nutrition title improvements.

I’m more on the FRAC side of this argument.  While this is definitely a bill I need to hold my nose to support, I don’t see any other way that we could have gotten the nutrition title improvements.  While the White House may not have actively opposed these improvements, they sure weren’t going to put pressure on wavering Republicans to support them in a freestanding bill.

Pantry chili

Monday, May 12th, 2008

Via an article in the Washington Post, I recently found a food blog called The Perfect Pantry.  I particularly like the recurring feature called Other People’s Pantries, and intend to submit mine soon. 

The process of unpacking our supplies into the new kitchen did make me aware of just how many spices, oils, etc I’ve accumulated.  Sometimes it’s because I try a new recipe that requires a new ingredient, but as often it’s because I see something interesting in the Asian grocery and decide to give it a try.  Unfortunately, given the constraints on my time, I’m afraid that buying new ingredients is as likely to be a substitute for cooking as an inspiration…

This recipe for Clean the Freezer Chili inspired me to make a batch of chili myself, with the rule that I could only use ingredients that I had on hand.  I don’t stock tempe, so I used bulgar cooked in canned crushed tomato as the base.  I had an open jar of mole sauce, so that went in. What else?  Black beans, ancient sun-dried tomatoes, veggie stock, green peppers, fresh tomatoes, onions, celery.  Chili powder, cumin, paprika.  I thought the result was just ok — a bit too salty for my taste, but T. liked it, and thought it was surprisingly "meaty" for veggie chili.