Cooking As A Means To Health, Not Frugality

I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I’m a big fan of cooking and an even bigger fan of eating. As a “personal finance blogger” (in name only, really), one would expect that my reliance on home cooking is mostly for finances, but I am here to tell you ’tis not so. I mean, saving money is great and all, but the real reason I cook most of my meals is for my health. The physical kind, not the financial.

I was nineteen when I suddenly and painfully became lactose intolerant. Without getting too much into it, it took a complete overhaul of my food intake to figure out what was going on. I tried various elimination diets. Through trial and error, I learned that, in additional to my lactose intolerance:

  • I cannot eat tomatoes for more than two meals in a row,
  • I cannot eat certain spices,
  • Non-fibrous carbohydrates give me drastic energy spikes and can greatly exacerbate my anxiety,
  • I am extremely sensitive to caffeine and other stimulants,
  • I have mild sensitivity to wheat, and
  • Chocolate makes me break out.

You know how much American fast food contains one of: dairy, non-fibrous carbs, or tomatoes? Like, 95% of it.

So, out of necessity, I started cooking all my meals myself. Obviously from my food spending, I don’t cook everything still. But, I’ll cook most of what I eat. And given my new diet, I figured out what I could make that would not only taste good, but make me feel good.

At this point, I have everything down to a system. I eat 150 kcals of almonds or cashews each morning, offered free at my workplace. Sometimes I’ll drink tea in the morning, but only once in a while since multiple days of green tea can literally keep me awake and jittery at night. Each week I get a delivery of my vegetable CSA, each month a delivery from my meat CSA. Once a week, I break out my podcasts and let myself flow into cooking. This week I set aside four hours to turn a pound of ground beef and this:

Into this:

From the top, left to right: roasted watermelon radishes and beets, stir fry broccoli with peppers and onions, romaine lettuce, sweet potato fries, roasted cabbage, celeriac puree, kale chips, and ginger ground beef stir fry. 

(Obviously I’m a big fan of roasting. It’s almost impossible to screw up! If I ever own a restaurant, I’ll name it Maillard in appreciation.)

Using my prepped food, it’s easy for me to throw together meals. Sometimes I’ll put together a protein with a carb and vegetables and call it a day. Other times i might supplement with some simple cooking. From the above, I was able to throw together a root vegetable salad, beef lettuce wraps, and Asian fusion sweet potato poutine.

Because I’m always getting 8-15 pounds of vegetables a week, I don’t worry too much about my micronutrient intake. I don’t have to sacrifice health for taste, either. Cooking all my meals means I can generally avoid unnecessary fat, sugar, and salt and season everything just the way I like. Instead of a heavy cream-filled ranch, I can throw together my own delicious savory dressing from olive oil, balsamic vinagerette, sesame oil, soy sauce, white miso paste, and just a dash of honey. Shaking smooth until a deep brown gravy forms, it makes for a delightful concoction of tang and umami while still keeping everything feeling light. In spite of and sometimes because of the health-consciousness of my meals, I’ll get semi-jealous sometimes-digs, sometimes-compliments from my coworkers on how my food smells in the office kitchen. Having everything already on hand is also great in that it reduces my daily stress– I never have to worry about planning my next meal.

Note that while I mention how wonderful cooking has been on multiple dimensions– health, taste, daily convenience– I don’t really harp on it being cheaper. That’s because, for about $45 worth of ingredients (including spices and oils), I only make about 10 meals worth of food. Assuming I could buy fast food for $10/meal and that I spend 4 hours/week batch cooking, I only really save $55/week or about $13.75 per hour of my time. While it’s not nothing, the benefit here in terms of cash is dwarfed by the benefits in terms of living.

Why do you cook? What’s your cooking style?

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RealEats Meal Delivery Review

Back in the day, I made it my unofficial goal to try every meal delivery kit out in the market. Blue Apron? Been there. Plated? Done that. I wanted to see if I’d learn any new and interesting flavor combinations from the experience. Plus, there was the novelty of it. And the first box was often heavily subsidized by sweet, sweet venture capital money.

The biggest downsides of these services was always the cost and the effort. At $10/meal they were often no better than getting takeout, but I’d have to cook and ingredients always came in 2-meal portions (whereas I normally cook for 4+ serving sizes). For someone who actually enjoys meal planning and gets my groceries delivered through by my CSA anyway, there never seemed to be much benefit.

But when I saw RealEats I was intrigued. RealEats is a weekly food delivery subscription that sends out full, already-cooked meals. So the convenience of other food boxes, but without the hassle of actually cooking. Each meal is separated into its constituent components and vacuum sealed: grains separated from meat separated from vegetables. In order to prepare the meal, all you have to do is sous vide the vacuum sealed bag for the indicated amount of time (usually around 3-6 minutes) and plate.

Here’s what I chose for my trial box:

Clockwise: salmon grain bowl, turkey with coconut rice and green beans, moroccan chicken, shiitake chicken with green beans and fingerling potatoes

By and large the meals had good though subtle flavors but were overcooked (to be expected with poultry in a delivery service). My favorite meal by far was the salmon grain bowl, though none were bad. Just not really to my taste. Each meal was balanced with a grain, vegetables, and protein. The website displays the nutrition facts so you can make sure you’re hitting your preferred macro allotment. Many of the ingredients are organic and most of the dishes were around 500 calories a piece.

The biggest downsides of the service are, like its kin, the deadly combination of too much plastic packaging, too much time to cook, and cost. While the meals only take 3-6 minutes to warm under boiling water, it probably took me 15 minutes on average to get enough water actually boiling in my pot. And while the trial box only cost me $30 for four meals ($7.50/serving), the typical weekly meal plans cost more: four meals cost $60 ($15/serving) up to twelve meals cost $153 ($12.75/meal).

So at the end of the day, would I order RealEats again? On a week-to-week basis, probably not. I enjoy cooking and the price is still pretty steep, akin to what I’d spend for cheap Asian takeout. But, in the first few months when we have a kid or some other time I know I’ll be too slammed to cook, I could see myself picking RealEats to tide myself through a rough patch. Similarly, I would recommend the service to someone who might eat out a lot and want to have a healthier alternative, even if it ends up not being all that much cheaper.

Have you tried any meal delivery services? Any that you would recommend?

I’ve Gotta Cut My Food Spending

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Fewer meals like this…

It should come as no surprise that I love food. Cooking, going to restaurants, the act of eating itself all just delight me. But, my spending in the area has become a little excessive and I think it’s time to evaluate whether I can maintain food quality without shelling out quite as much money.

I spent around $750 on food in September. That’s $350 more than my baseline. Let’s see if I could bring it back to “normal” levels.

Looking at my food spending overall, the big, low ROI sinks are in delivery meals and restaurants. Delivery fees cause me to spend more in two ways– (1) with the fee itself and (2) by making me feel I “might as well” add in more for leftovers since I’m already paying the delivery premium. Once a month, I also get delivery when it’s my turn to pay for game night food with pals (cooking would take too much time/probably be less enjoyable for our guests). Since I get to choose the place when I pay, I can at least pick one of the cheaper options.

Restaurants are often for social hang outs and, with my foodie friends, can often get out of hand. The meals are usually good, though we sometimes end up at pricey Zagat-rated establishments that aren’t really worth the cost. Those I could easily cut without affecting my lifestyle much at all.

Therefore, in order to reduce my food spending, I’m going to focus on minimizing my delivery and restaurant visits. Here are the rules I’ll be following:

  1. IMG_20171021_111059
    …and more meals like this.

    No delivery with one exception: game night. Choose cheaper source when tanking.

  2. One “nice” restaurant meal per month (recurring event) with foodie friends. Otherwise, suggest cheaper options or skip out to eat at home.
  3. At restaurants, only one entree or two appetizers. Not both.
  4. Takeout maximum is $10/meal, no rollovers.

I also won’t be setting a maximum budget or spending goal for November. While I would like to end up around $400, I often find that having a set amount of money causes me to become anxious and micromanage my food spending (to unhealthy, deleterious results). I’m hoping the rules-based approach will feel more natural and habit-forming than just stressing out the whole month about food cost.

How much do you spend on food per month? How do you cut the cost of social eating?

Food, Money, And Self-Care

When I was an undergrad, money was tight. My parents didn’t have much in the way of income, so I was able to get a lot of grants and scholarships for school covering my tuition, room, and board. But, fun fact: scholarship money is only tax-deductible if it goes toward tuition and fees. Which meant most of what I earned from my part-time work tutoring and TA’ing had to be saved to pay a multi-thousand dollar tax bill each April.

Now, I was by no means in dire straights, but I had very little money to work with for personal spending. I usually had it all planned by each September, a necessity if I wanted to make my paycheck last until summer. Two cross-country flights– once during winter and once during the summer– made up the majority of my budget. I didn’t wear make-up and I never bought clothes; by senior year most of my tops were company-branded tees I’d gotten at career fairs.

And yet, there was always one thing I made sure I had a little bit of fun money for: food.

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Mmmm, sushi

Starting in my junior year, when I had a little more pocket money from dropping my university’s meal plan, I let myself get takeout once a week on Fridays. I remember, there was a tiny sushi shop right by the engineering buildings where, for right around $12, I could get a feast of a lunch that was more delicious than it had any right to be: chirashi laid over a perfectly seasoned bed of sushi rice, a deeply umami miso soup, a small salad with a light sweet ginger sauce, and a couple of pieces of tempura and shumai to round out the meal. Or on days I was feeling like something really hardy, I’d get a plate as big as my head of unaju-don. Everything delicious and salty and decadent, I’d eat my food at the counters out front looking to the tall trees lining campus as little rays of sunshine streaming through the tall windows warmed my arms and face.

Little moments like these have gotten me through years both good and bad. Making myself chicken ginger soup with spaghetti when I’m sick, getting that french apple pie from the local baker after a rough day, celebrating with friends over hot pot. Even eating a single fried egg over steamed white rice is like experiencing a moment of peace, sending me back to my childhood when meals, like everything else, were simpler, slower, and meant to be savored.

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Tastes like home

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less price sensitive to the types of meals I eat. Which is great insofar as I have been able to have interesting and delightful gustatorial experiences. But it hasn’t been so great from the perspective of my monthly food spending.

Sometimes I wonder how much of this spending comes from the pure joy of food and how much of it is using food to do my emotional labor for me. Like I could deal with my growing sense of burnout at work, or… I could ignore that and cook my CSA box instead. I could map out my next career step, but I think I’d rather go try out the new Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant down the street.

This becomes particularly acute when it comes to bad days. Bunch of deadlines looming? Maybe I should “treat myself” to sushi. Had to sit through a set of emotionally difficult meetings at the office? Well, I was going to get the ground beef but maybe we’ll upgrade to the lamb chops.

To some degree, food is a convenient distraction. Everyone needs to eat, most of us do it multiple times a day. But it’s also something from which I derive great pleasure. It’s no wonder that the food and my emotions would become inextricably linked, both in times happy and ill. Good food is like a friend to me; I’ve never had troubles with eating too much or too little. It’s just always been there, as supportive and comforting as can be, saying, I know things are hard right now but here, savor this, you can always take it slow.

Do you have an emotional connection to food? What sort of hobbies or things do you use for emotional self-care?

Is My CSA Saving Me Money?

For a couple months now, I’ve signed up for a local CSA. I mean, I call it a “CSA” but it is really a delivery service that sources organic produce from multiple farms, mostly local, and highly seasonal for a flat weekly rate. CSA-lite, so to speak.

For $32 a week, I get a crate full of organic vegetables delivered right to my front porch. I’ve gotten everything from carrots and cabbage to garlic scapes and hakurei turnips. Since most of the produce is sourced locally, everything is super fresh. They let me indicate preferences if I decide I’m not in the mood for, say, kale. And if I need to skip a week or add one or two items, I can ask them to pack me extra item they stock extras like grains, beans, and dairy.

It’s a great service but I’ve wondered, from a purely financial perspective, am I paying more or less than I would at the grocery store for the same items?

The Comparison

To satisfy my curiosity, I did a cost comparison between the CSA items in my most recent box versus the cost at my local Whole Foods (using Instacart prices, which uses the exact pricing in Whole Foods stores).  I chose Whole Foods for my comparison grocery store– over, say, the discount supermarket a ten-minute walk from my house– because: (1) it’s the most likely to have comparable, organic produce and (2) it’s more convenient than prowling the farmer’s market stands.

There were a couple items that Whole Foods did not have, namely: Hungarian hot peppers and bull’s horn peppers. For those, I chose what may or may not be suitable substitutes.

CSA Item CSA Quantity WF Item WF Quantity WF Cost
Organic Beets 1 bunch Organic Beets 1 bunch $2.99
Organic Fennel Bulb 1 bulb Organic Fennel Bulb 1 bulb $2.90
Organic Eggplant 1 eggplant Organic Eggplant 1 eggplant $3.82
Organic Green Beans 0.75 lb Organic Green Beans 0.75 lb $2.47
Organic Tomatoes 0.5 lb Heirloom Tomatoes 0.5 lb $4.04
Organic Carrots 1 lb Organic Carrots 1 lb $1.54
Organic Dandelion Greens 1 bunch Organic Dandelion Greens 1 bunch $2.50
Organic Garlic 1 bulb Organic Garlic 1 bulb $1.48
Organic Thyme 3/4 oz Organic Thyme 3/4 oz $2.69
Organic Red Leaf Lettuce 1 head Organic Red Leaf Lettuce 1 head $2.49
Organic Hungarian Hot Pepper 0.5 lb Poblano pepper 2 peppers $2.42
Organic Bulls Horn Pepper 1 pepper Cubanelle pepper 1 pepper $1.19
CSA Total $32.00   Whole Foods Total $30.53

We see that the CSA and Whole Foods prices are more or less even, with the CSA costing a little more for a fully organic haul.

Why I’m Sticking With My CSA (Even Though It’s More Expensive)

Even though my CSA is slightly more expensive than Whole Foods organic (let alone discount supermarket non-organic produce), there are a few reason I want to stick with the service.

For one, my CSA forces me to incorporate lots of vegetables into my rotation, whereas otherwise I have a tendency to eat meat and carbo-load. It also pushes me to eat seasonally and try out new recipes with vegetables that I might otherwise choose myself. Lastly, and this is the big one for me, they deliver groceries right to my door. Do you understand how lazy I am!? So very, very.

And so, pseudo-CSA, you are here to stay.

Have you ever signed up for a CSA? What was your experience?