The Recession Diet: Why Fears of Recession Might Trigger Poor Food Buying Decisions

There was a fascinating article yesterday in the New York Times entitled Recession Diet Just One Way to Tighten Belt, which looked directly at the real-world ways consumers alter their spending at the retail level. In other words, the authors, Michael Barbaro and Eric Dash, actually went to a supermarket to watch and learn how spending was changing because of recession fears. A few elements really stood out to me.

Buying the Cheap Stuff

At Save-A-Lot, a discount grocery store in Cleveland, Teresa Rutherford, 51, chided her sister-in-law, Donna Dunaway, 44, for picking up a package of Sara Lee honey ham (eight ounces for $2.49).

“We can’t afford that!” she said. “Get the cheap stuff.” They settled on a 16-ounce package of Deli Pleasures ham for $3.29, or 34 percent less an ounce.

Here, Teresa is clearly advocating buying a cheaper type of cold cut ham, presumably for sandwiches. Yet I’m left with a biting question here: what’s really behind this switch from the high-end ham to the middle-of-the-road ham?

Clearly, the belief here is that price is directly related to quality, and because of that, many people when in corner-cutting mode will simply settle on a cheaper version of the product they’re already buying when they see it on store shelves rather than asking more fundamental questions. To me, this is the equivalent of buying a new GM car instead of a new Lexus without even looking at the late model used options – it’s settling on a mediocre option because you’ve already self-limited your options.

predictably irrationalCutting corners by just buying the slightly less expensive version of the same item isn’t really cutting corners at all. In the book Predictably Irrational (which I enjoyed and reviewed a while back), Dan Ariely (the Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT) dug into this phenomenon repeatedly from different angles.

Relativity Ariely argues on page 4 of his book that when people make buying decisions, they are looking for information, and in most buying situations, the easiest available information is the sticker price. They want guidance, so they use the highest price and the lowest price as “runway lights,” guiding them into a safe place in the middle where they feel like they’re not spending too much, but not buying something cheap, either. Teresa in the ham-buying example is using these runway lights – the high-end ham is too expensive, but she doesn’t go for the low-end Carl Buddig ham for less than $2 a pound, either.

Obviously, marketers are aware of this and thus price accordingly. They want to ensure not that those middle prices are a good deal, but that the fattest profit margins are connected to the item that sells the most. Thus, quite often the items in the middle tiers at a grocery store are the worst bang for the buck you can buy – they’ve got the highest profit margin for the store.

Anchoring Similarly, people often judge what a “fair” price is based on the first price that they ever associate to a given product – that becomes the anchor price for all future buying decisions and an anchor price is very difficult to do away with, as Ariely describes on page 30.

In this ham-buying example, Teresa and Donna likely have different anchor prices for ham in general, but they also might not be anchoring on the same item, either, and this is probably likely given how different they thought the acceptable price for ham was at the beginning. One person’s definition of acceptable ham is different from another’s, so Teresa might go home and find the cheap ham to be completely unacceptable. The best solution would have been to buy a small amount of the cheaper ham and a regular amount of the usual ham and actually find out whether the cheaper one is acceptable.

My question is why is $3.29 a pound ham a necessary purchase at all? If you’re truly being frugal with your money and didn’t necessarily put a premium on the quality of your ham (which, if you’re willing to compromise while standing at the store shelf, is likely a given), why not try the lowest-end ham and work up from there? Or, even better, drop the ham entirely and eat leftovers for lunch?

Another quote from the story really shook me:

Ms. Dunaway, a homemaker, used to splurge on the ingredients for homemade lasagna, her husband’s favorite, before food prices began to surge this year.

“Now he’s lucky to get a 99-cent lasagna TV dinner, or maybe some Manwich out of a can,” she said. “I just can’t afford to be buying all that good meat and cheese like I used to.”

Ms. Dunaway was willing to make homemade lasagna, which means that food preparation time isn’t that big of a deal – she has ample time to prepare meals. Yet she’s replaced this with a 99 cent lasagna TV dinner or some Manwich out of a can? That’s cutting corners in the short run, but adding a lot of cost over the long run due to the consequences of an unhealthy diet.

The problem is clear – when the economy is bad, people cut corners, but cutting corners on food not only often undermines what you’re trying to accomplish, but can have bad long-term consequences for your health.

The Solution: A Cheap and Healthy Diet
If you want to “cut corners” when buying food, don’t turn to the junk food aisle and don’t “settle” for middle-of-the-road inferior versions of other foods, either. Instead, make a sensible plan and stick to it. Here’s what you do.

Use your grocery flyer. Each week, grab a flyer for the upcoming week at the grocery store. Look at what fresh produce, fresh meats, and healthy staple foods are on sale in the upcoming week.

Make a meal plan. Using those items, figure out what meals you’re going to eat over the next week. Focus on simple stuff that you know how to make and tasty stuff that you know you’ll be interested in eating.

Focus on inexpensive staple foods. If you’re looking for foods to supplement what you have, look at inexpensive staple foods, especially anything that can be bought in large quantities and stored. Beans come to mind – a pound of dried beans can be purchased very cheaply, provide a lot of nutrition and protein, and can go a very long way.

If you make frugal choices to begin with, you can choose the high-quality version of that item. For example, once you’ve made the decision to give beans a serious try in your diet, you can choose organic beans or fresh herbs and spices to give them a rich flavor. Choices like these are quite frugal – you’ve already made a great cost-saving choice by going with beans and flavoring them up the way you like them best is a great way to keep yourself eating them.

Avoid the junk temptation – it’s cheap and tasty now, but has long term consequences. For most people, it’s a lot easier for the moment to just say, “Why bother?” and head down the junk and prepackaged food aisle for some easily prepared and rather tasty meals. Resist that temptation at all costs. Stick with staple foods and fresh foods – you’ll be much better off over the long haul.

Use a grocery list. Once you know what you’re eating, make out a grocery list containing exactly what you need for the coming week – and only what you need. When you get to the store, only put stuff in your cart that appears on the list. Do that and you’ll be in great shape at the checkout aisle.

Use what you learn – and don’t lie to yourself. Many people give this a sincere try and wind up preparing foods that they frankly don’t like too much. If you don’t like a dish, don’t blame the process – blame the dish. Just simply note that you didn’t like it and try something different. Many people give up on an ingredient or a process simply because they didn’t like the first permutation. You know what? It’s the anchoring problem from earlier in the article all over again.

Make meals in advance. If you find something really tasty on sale, make a bunch of meals with that food, freeze them, and enjoy them later. That way, you don’t just get to enjoy the benefits of the sale now, but for as long as the meals last in your freezer.

Afraid to cook? Many people are trying to cut back right now, but don’t have the basic kitchen skills needed to make things work. My suggestion is to head down to your local library and pick up Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Make some very simple recipes using some very simple ingredients. Learn a little bit at a time. Pay attention to what you like that also happens to be healthy (for me, tomatoes and onions and garlic are right up on that list, for instance). Use those in abundance, especially when they’re on sale.

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  1. Tristin says:

    Great blog. You have offered great advice that I follow already myself. I think (as you have mentioned in previous blogs) that you have to know what you value, because being frugal is not necessarily about price, but it’s about getting the BEST value for your dollar. Your “best value” may differ significantly from mine. A friend and I recently discussed this because she thinks that the best value always comes from WAL-Mart because of their low prices. However, I could never ever spend money at WAL-Mart because I am opposed to the chain (for MANY reasons), so although their prices may be better in certain instances, it is not the “best value” for me.
    A tip that I think is helpful is to shop at local produce markets-this is important to me because more than half the food I consume is produce. Not only are you supporting the local economy, the prices are SO much less than at chain grocery stores. I save about 60-70% by buying produce at a stand vs. the grocery store.

  2. Tristin says:

    P.S. I agree-”How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman is a GREAT book for those who are not well-versed in the kitchen. I bought this for my husband when we were dating.

    I would also recommend Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here for the Food”. My husband is still a novice but he appreciates AB’s scientific/experimental approach. Plus, on a personal note, I am slightly in love with Alton Brown… he’s just so cool!

  3. Vanessa says:

    I really love this post! I find the best solution for me was to have a weekly meal plan as you mentioned along with watching the flyers for the good deals… once I knew what I was cooking for the week and had all the ingredients on hand I found cooking really enjoyable and stress-free… Before I started doing this we ate out alot which is much more expensive and I’m afraid not healthy at all…
    Thanks for the great blog Trent :)
    ps.
    I’ve recently added dried mixed beans into my stew dishes… something we never ate before… it’s delicious!!

  4. Anitra says:

    Between this and the series of “Born to Buy” reviews, I am feeling immense pressure to feed my (as yet unborn) child better food than I ate as a child. It’s really hard though when my husband and I still gravitate towards the packaged food that we ate growing up. We want to make better choices, but it seems like everything “good” is either harder to prepare (example: sweet potatoes vs. white potatoes/rice/pasta), more expensive (brown rice vs. white), or something one or both of us hate eating (my husband hates beans).

  5. Andy says:

    This summer I’ll start shopping for myself again when I move out. I look forward to trying to make the best meals I can for the lowest price. It should be fun.

  6. Lurker Carl says:

    Folks aren’t thinking!

    I’m shocked those women were spending so much money for pre-packaged sliced ham when they could purchase a cured ham for half the price per pound and slice it themselves. Surely they have a sharp knife in the kitchen!

    That pan of lasagna may be expensive to make but it will provide many meals. It doesn’t need high end ingredients to make it both delicious and healthful, especially since no single ingredient is showcased. It’s like a soup or casserole in that respect, careful preparation will provide a great meal.

    Get some cookbooks from the library and test drive them. Then purchase the ones you like the best from a used book store. You can prepare the same stuff that Hormel (or ConAgra, etc) does, with less fat and salt while better tasting and more nutrious, for much less money. And less garbage to haul to the curb each week.

  7. Jim ~ mydebtblog.com says:

    Personally when it comes to food, cheap and quality are not always in the same boat. I don’t mind places like Wal-Mart for certain types of food. I can buy bread there much cheaper than the regular grocery store. Packets of tuna are also much cheaper there too. Lately we have been cooking cheaper things like potatoes, pasta, and such. We also try to buy up meat (beef, pork, fish) when it is on sale and freeze it. Hamburger helper, tacos, pizza burgers, these are very cheap and easy things we make from time to time. Plan a menu and stick to it. I try to budget $10-15 a day for our overall food costs, breakfast, lunch and dinner for the two of us. This can be done it just has to be balanced so some days might run more, some might run less, but the average should be around $10-15. Families are probably feeling the food pressure much more though given the price of a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs going up. Good article and food for thought (pun intended).

  8. I think this is also true for preventative healthcare. No sense in cutting corners and avoiding regular checkups, even if you have to pay out of pocket for some of them. Cutting corners now may cost you a lot more in the long run.

  9. BigMike says:

    Great Topic!

    I was going to bring this up before. I was listening to the Radio and they were talking about this same topic. There was a Graduate Student Saying that he would routinely eat unhealthy due to the fact that he had very little money and time. He would hit the Value Menu at Wendy’s and get two cheeseburgers. He admitted it wasn’t very healthy but what was a guy to do. I wanted too call and introduce him to a grocery store or even suggest he order the side salad and the chili off of the “Value” menu. It would be the same price and far more closer to being healthy. Not to mention a nice alternative. He could mix it up with a baked potato as well. I like to buy tortillas and humus if I need a quick lunch to have on hand at work. People like to make excuses for their behaviors. If the would break out of the rut and just use a little creative meal planning they could even probably eat much healthier for the same price or even less.

  10. Great post! I was bothered by that NYT article too. I agree with your tips (and love Bittman’s book!). Once you feel confident in the kitchen, you really can produce wonderful meals on a tight budget. I’ve started buying staples and planning meals from what is in the kitchen rather than specific recipes I want to try. I’ve cut our grocery bills in half by doing so!

  11. stngy1 says:

    Great post!
    I would be interested in a discussion on whether using a freezer is economical with today’s energy costs. When we went solar, we made a decision to sell our upright freezer. We had come to the conclusion that sales recur on a regular basis in our local stores, and there really was no reason to stockpile in the freezer, and have to pay to run it. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but we’ve managed quite well. We stockpile small amounts, efficiently, in the regular freezer, but don’t miss the separate unit and all the associated accoutrements.

  12. magpie says:

    Excellent post. I menu plan every Sunday and post it on my blog; it helps me stick with the plan.

  13. dulcinea47 says:

    I have seen a lot of great tips, here and elsewhere, on how to spend less on groceries during tight times. However I have to question one thing- you say “don’t buy the ham and eat leftovers,” well, if you do this on a regular basis, you don’t have leftovers. I’ve seen the same concept stated as “eat from your pantry.” That’s great, and it may save you money this week, but eventually the pantry is empty and you have to buy more food! The $20 you saved last week now needs to be spent to replenish the pantry. I think the ideas on what to buy or how to shop for bargains are more useful when it comes to food. Food is a necessity, unlike many many other things that we can do without.

  14. thehungrydollar.com says:

    The problem I have is finding a happy medium between shopping cheap and shopping healthy. On one hand, shopping healthy can be really expensive. On the other, I try to watch what I put in my body so shopping cheap isn’t always possible for me. I really struggle with this…

  15. Lisa says:

    Thanks for saying what I think many of us are thinking about right now. We invested in a freezer finally (this was a lengthy battle in my house) and we have saved quite a bit by taking advantage of sales. Having grown up in a poorer household in rural Louisiana, frugality was a way of life forgotten when I got to the city but now those skills are coming in handy again. Other cheap alternatives for dinner: Omelettes (scrambled eggs and toast for the kids), black-eyed peas (a variation on the bean theme), bean burritos (even fat-free refried beans are cheap), and spaghetti.

  16. courtney says:

    Penny wise and pound foolish. As someone stated, they could buy a lovely whole ham, slice and freeze the rest. For me, here are the ingredients for lasagna (bought at a local super store in New York):
    Lasagna noodles: $1.00
    Fat-free ricotta cheese: $2.50
    2 eggs: $.50
    Frozen spinach: $1.50
    Canned tomato sauce: $1.00
    Shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese: $2.50
    So one homemade lasagna costs me about $9.00. I cut them into 3x4s for 12 generous-sized, delicious pieces of lasagna at $.75 each. Put them in containers and freeze them. Buy ingredients in bulk to save even more money.

    How exactly does she think she’s saving by buying cans of high-sodium, high-fat, small-serving, low-nutrient ravioli and frozen dinners again?

  17. Michelle says:

    I’ve also discovered a food co-op in my area. They have a bulk area where I can buy everything from brown rice and oatmeal to spices, teas, honey, peanut butter (which I grind there), dishwashing liquid, lotion, shampoo. It’s amazing. I don’t pay for the packaging or marketing, the products are fresh and I save on average 25% off the bill. Also, if I volunteer 4 hours a month, they discount my bill another 10%. It just takes a little creativity. BTW, did I mention that all the products are organic? The produce is also local and reasonably priced. I wish everyone had this option.

  18. KED says:

    Great article and I love that cooking is promoted. I grew up on a farm so most of my food was fresh and not purchased prepared or boxed. My hubby grew up in a family of 9 and somehow they ate alot of boxed foods. Mac and Cheese, hamburger helper and the like. I find I can easily satisfy his need for these foods by making it from scratch, with no preservatives and usually with leftovers for lunch the next day for the same or much less that the prepared food. We also used to eat out about every other night when we were both working full time. Now that I work part-time and we only eat out once a week after Sunday church……It is interesting but the more I cook and play around with recipes the less he is enjoying eating out!

    PS- I also used to buy alot of deli meats, now I rarely ever have the need, I can prepare wraps with leftover meat like turkey, chicken or steak. I also make my own prepared chicken salad, egg salad and pimento cheese for easy sandwich meals.

  19. Great point! People need to be questioning their habits. Living frugally is about more than just cutting coupons or buying items on sale.

    I’ve known too many people who would rather buy an inferior product that doesn’t do what they need or want it to do just to save money (and feel deprived), rather than question whether they need something at all. It’s like buying cheap, stinky perfume when it’s better to skip it altogether.

    I for one say skip the lunch meat altogether and start thinking like a vegetarian. While I’m not a vegetarian, reducing my meat consumption has resulted in me eating healthy and cheap.

  20. Eden says:

    Yikes! If someone needs to save $0.80 on deli meat to avoid breaking the budget, they need to focus on making more money instead of worrying about finding the cheapest food.

  21. Andrea says:

    Thank you! I keep reading articles on how to save money by buying the really cheap food and it has been bothering me. They are encouraging people to eat poorly when it would be so much better if they just bought fresh, local foods instead of all that prepackaged stuff. I was happy to find someone else who agrees!

  22. paidtwice says:

    But Eden, $0.80 here and there really adds up. But, I agree that the article as presented sounds short sighted.

    Being frugal in my food choices vs being cheap is something I continually struggle with, and am still working to find a happy medium. My spending keeps creeping up, but I feel the quality is creeping up too. And I am becoming a good bargain shopper as well. :) A little at a time, a little at a time…

  23. jakc says:

    Great post! I was reading this article myself this morning and thought it wasn’t quite right. Thought it could do with a sound “Trent-ing.”

  24. My Small Cents says:

    I find that lowering my grocery bill is a constant struggle, even with a frugal, varied diet and a lot of beans. There are a lot of great ideas in this post and many others that Trent has written. What I found really interesting in the article though, was this

    >By no means has the economic downturn been bad for all product categories. For instance, sales of big-ticket electronics, like $1,000 flat-panel televisions and $300 video game systems, are on the rise, according to retailers and research firms.<

    People can’t afford to make home made lasagna, but they’re willing to drop $1000 on a TV so they don’t have to go to the movies? Crazy.

  25. Jules says:

    Blech, who wants to eat ham, anyway? There’s a lot of misinformation floating around on how much protein we need. Going vegetarian doesn’t have to mean tofu and beans. C isn’t a vegetarian, so I still buy meat, but only two products a week, at most. That’s not some arbitrary limit I’ve set–it’s just the way things work out.

    Now, as far as cooking: maybe you could recommend some recipe websites to your readers next time? My personal favorite is recipezaar.com, where you just punch in an ingredient and recipes pop up, complete with reviews about who liked it and any tweaking that people did with it. It even includes nutrtitional information, though you have to take that with a grain of salt–sometimes they don’t count ingredients, and sometimes the servings are mis-sized.

    How does baking your own treats work out in your logic? Intuitively, I think we save money and get much better bread, cookies, and cakes, but my intuition doesn’t always jive with reality, so I’m curious to know how you break it down.

  26. steve says:

    One of the best ways to make food taste great and save money is to grow your own herb garden. One thing I have learned from cooking meals at home is:
    1. Most people are used to the taste of fat rather than the taste of well seasoned food. Most people don’t have an advanced palate (I know I don’t!), and basic seasoning will make even some of the most bland foods sing!
    2. Portion sized can be controlled. By making a meal made for 4 and dividing it up as 5 meals, my wife and I eat much healthier.
    3. Drink a small amount of juice and some water with the meal rather than soft drinks. Soft drinks (and the carbonation) are less filling and full of gunk…the HFCS in most drinks makes it more like having a cake without being filling.
    4. There are a TON of free recipes online for various things…try them out! You don’t need a cookbook to find some basic recipes.

    I find the seasoning makes the most difference. I never even touch the salt or pepper on the table anymore.

  27. I think there are a few flaws in your thinking. Basically, you have to see the big picture.

    As for the ham purchase, I understand what you said about bringing leftovers. However, if the ham buyers are bringing ham sandwiches for lunch instead of eating out, they are probably way ahead of a lot of people.

    Also, without actually tasting the ham myself, maybe there isn’t much of a difference between the two.

    As for the lasagna people, I agree with you. Depending on the ingredients, I bet the homemade lasagna may cost 99 cents or per serving.

    I’m bad about convenience foods. But I’m single, no kids and the last thing I want to do at the end of a long day is cook. I know buying TV dinners and canned soup will save me money in the long run, because I know I won’t end up stopping for take out on the way home from work.

  28. Sharon says:

    There are so many variables in this picture. Yes, the large ham is cheaper but some people can’t use it all. Leftovers? Some jobs don’t have a microwave with easy access. I could do much cheaper than the ham, but I don’t know all the facts. We don’t even know the differences between the two hams. Maybe the expensive one is filled with more water and flavoring than the cheap one. Unlikely, but trust me, cheap is not always better and expensive is not always better. (Just like the myth of jumbo generics)
    And you must decide just how desperate you are. I much, much prefer all natural peanut butter because I don’t like the idea of oil/shortening and sweetener in my peanut butter. But a few times when I have had serious financial problems, I have bought it because plain peanut butter on bread was a change from beans and lentils with rice. I just wasn’t able to swing the good stuff and in the short term it had to do.

  29. Sharon says:

    I will say, however, that the title of the article says “Fears of Recession” which means that they are not in dire financial straits.

  30. Joe says:

    Hey folks! Ham, lasagna..whatever! All that matters is we spend less than we take in during any phase of the economic cycle. If we do this then we have money to invest. A big problem in the US..Americans finally decide to live by a “budget” and when they have excess money they don’t know what to do with it. Figure out what to do with it before you have the amazing epiphany of a budget. It is not rocket science. I don’t know, perhaps it is, I have never done rocket science.

  31. cendare says:

    @Anitra: I just had to respond and say that sweet potatoes are actually really easy. Seriously, even I have done them a few times. Just rinse the skins, stick a fork in a few times, and throw them in the microwave on a paper towel for about 10 minutes (more time if you’re doing more than 3 or 4 of them). Or you can bake them the way you’d do regular baked potatoes. Basically, leaving the skin on makes them simple.

  32. Anitra says:

    cendare: I had no idea. We already use the microwave for regular “baked” potatoes… so now the next time I see sweet potatoes in the market, I will be ready to buy them!

  33. I’m nearing the end of a month long fundraising project where I’ve been living off of $30 of food for 30 days. While it’s been difficult, I haven’t had to completely compromise my health. In my area, brown rice doesn’t cost more than white rice, pinto beans are super cheap, and I bought 2lbs of carrots at Aldi for $0.69.

    Sure I’m getting WAY too many carbs and am short on calcium and B vitamins, but I think someone in a short term emergency situation could keep themselves going on a very limited amount of money and some assistance from a food pantry. Over the longer term, however this is very unsustainable.

    One thing I’ve realized is that variety is a luxury. I eat oatmeal EVERY morning and beans and rice for EVERY lunch. I’ve also learned just how many “weeds” are edible including things like chickweed and dandelions. It’s been a great experiment.

  34. Jim says:

    If you want to save a little more, try some vegetarian dishes. Mark Bittman has a vegetarian version of How to Cook Everything, and after the first few experiments, I have realized I’m perfectly happy skipping meat 2 or 3 times a week. I’ve also found that I am eating smaller portions of meat as well.
    The hardest thing to do was tell myself that meat did not have to be the centerpiece of every meal.

  35. rachel says:

    Mmmm… Baked sweet potato with a dollop of lemon honey-butter and a dusting of cinnamon…

    Who needs dried out store-bought cookies, really?

  36. Hugh says:

    Great blog, terrific post! Just wanted to add my 2 cents’ worth – when i was working through my own debt snowball, i found that using an online meal planner was actually both a terrific money-saver and a great “how-to” guide for both buying groceries and cooking in a way that actually uses up all your ingredients (i had a horrible habit of buying ingredients for one-time dishes then having to throw them out when they spoil!) One site that i used for several months was http://www.e-mealz.com – you have a pay a minimum subscription fee (around $5 per month, i think), but the convenience of having an itemized shopping list and a one-page recipe sheet for a week’s worth of dinners more than made up for the cost. My grocery bill actually came down, thanks to the planning and budgeting aspects. Plus, i was able to collect a nice variety of easy-to-prepare recipes – nothing terribly fancy, but overall quite tasty. Hope this helps!

  37. jm says:

    This NYT article was bizarre. Oh the horrors, Americans have to buy off-brand foods now! One guy even has to fly coach and stay in a Hampton instead of a Hilton. Are you fracking kidding me? Are we as a nation that out of touch with reality that we have to deceive our spouses by pouring off brand steak sauce into an A1 container?

    All of the stuff talked about in the article, we here and on other sites have been talking about doing for *years*. This isn’t a ‘recession diet’, its my freaking life!

    I’m sorry, but I am pretty disgusted right now.

  38. partgypsy says:

    It’s the groceries that still kill me for our budget. My husband does the shopping and the cooking, and we eat very well. However I glanced at the most recent receipt, and for 1 chicken breast it was ten dollars (for a chicken curry noodle dish)! He’s a great cook, but does not have the mindset of budgeting and thinking, this is really expensive, I’ll substitute a whole chicken or chicken legs/thighs parts, or use tofu instead, let alone using coupons or planning meal around inexpensive products at hand. But we don’t buy deli meat or alot of prepared products, so at least our diet is pretty decent, with alot of produce.

  39. steve says:

    If there is anybody left who reads this blog and DOESN’T own How To Cook Everything, come on, you really should. A couple of weeks ago there was a great sale on chicken thighs. Without this book, I’d probably have said “Hmm, I wonder how you use those” and passed on by to the boneless skinless chicken. Knowing that I had it at home, ready to go, I grabbed a big pack of thighs and have been making the Chicken Thighs with Soy Sauce and Lemon (really good dish).

  40. Rob in Madrid says:

    I used to buy loads of single portion prepared meals (only wife and I and she travels alot) until I started putting everything into single portions. Takes up alot more room in the freezer but when I’ve got a hankering for some lasagna I simply pull it out the freezer and nuke it. Since I started doing that I haven’t bought a frozen prepared meal. (still tend to eat out when the Wife’s gone though)

  41. palm says:

    I had a colleague who routinely purchased low-quality packaged foods to save money because the high-quality foods like homemade lasagna were so desirable to her family that they ate a lot more of them. In that case buying Manwich or whatever did save money, but only because they had pretty lousy eating habits.

    My husband’s family has a genetic cholesterol problem and they have a feast or famine response to certain foods. My mother-in-law has only margarine and low-fat cheese at home (gag), but put her in a restaurant where they serve butter with the bread and you can’t pry the dish from her hand until she’s inhaled it.

    They’d probably be better off having butter at home and getting over the perception of scarcity that makes them overdo it in restaurants and when eating with friends, but they’re afraid. Their heads nearly exploded when we lost a lot of weight in France guzzling wine, eating croissants for breakfast and downing baguettes with lots of butter at dinner. (We lived in a 5th floor apartment with no elevator, walked everywhere, adjusted to smaller European portion sizes, and we never, ever snacked.)

  42. Ginger says:

    Palm…I just laughed my *** off at your post. Have you ever considered being a writer? And if Americans shopped and ate like Europeans, there would be no food shortages (no hoarding) and no weight problem here. A recession may be ‘good’ for some people (NOT talking about people who are losing jobs and homes, don’t get me wrong) but maybe some people will take a good hard look at their eating out habits, their Big Mac habits, and get healthier, and thinner.

  43. Deb says:

    I’ve been waiting for a post like this, Trent! Yes, a requirement for regular reading of this blog is Bittman’s HTCE. Picked up my copy about three months ago at Half Price Books. Love it. I became a huge foodie about seven years ago (thank you Food Network – all hail the great Alton Brown) and the soaring costs of food items has me a bit dismayed, but not discouraged. Like someone said upthread, it’s all about taking a good hard look at your eating habits, and spending a little time planning and doing simple cooking instead of eating out or buying inferior convenience food that does nothing for your health and well-being.

    Great blog, Trent. Keep it up!

  44. Kate says:

    It’s times like these that make me really happy we have a chest freezer. So far this month, I’ve spent $40 on groceries for two people, mostly on milk, a little cheese, a very few green vegetables, and pantry staples such as onions and garlic.

    I don’t shop by store flyers and rarely use coupons because I prefer to purchase organic products, and the promotional items almost never include organics. Instead I buy in bulk and directly from local farmers, or grow my own.

    We’ve been taking a hard look at the meats and vegetables stashed away in the freezer, and all the canned and dried goods in our extensive pantry. It was time for freezer cleanout anyway. There’s a lot of pork and lamb in there from our fall purchases of a side of each. We get more eggs each day from our four hens than we can eat, and I make all our bread at home. I’m getting close to the bottom of a 50 lb. bag of bread flour. We’ve already gotten a few hardy cooking greens from plants that overwintered in our garden.

    Some meals we’ve made in our attempts to use up stuff from garden/freezer/hens/pantry:

    pasta with olive oil, garlic, hot pepper flakes, and garden dinosaur kale
    strata with broccoli rabe, cheese, tomatoes and onions
    curried chard & frozen spinach with tomato, served in sourdough crepes
    smoked turkey monte cristo sandwiches
    pulled pork
    pea and pesto soup
    A Goan curry made with frozen tilapia, served with buttery basmati rice
    thin crust pizzas with garden herbs
    huevos rancheros with garlic toast

    We have a huge garden planned for the summer, and we’ll have apples, cider, and apple butter from our tree in the fall. We do all this on 2/3 acre in a suburban (formerly rural) neighborhood. I’m absolutely confident we can do the same again next month. We’ve made some headway in using up the food we have stored, but there’s a lot more to get through.

    I like to think my grocery “strike” is keeping the prices down, just a tiny bit, for others.

  45. Paul says:

    With regard to the baby food that’s being talked about above, my wife and I actually made our own food for our now 3 year old son. It was really easy, and this was when we were hearing stories about people putting stuff in baby food and putting it back on the shelves.

    What we did is buy frozen veggies and prepare them as directed. Then take them from the pot and put them in a small 2 cup size food processor, purchased for about $12, hit the button and you have instant healthy baby food. It worked for us.

  46. Jen says:

    @Paul:

    lol…this will also come in handy if your kid ever needs serious orthodontic work. I’m currently sporting hardware that has left me unable to chew for about five more months. Suffice it to say I’ve become well acquainted with my blender. :-)

  47. sam says:

    If you look at cookbooks from the 50s, 60s,even 70s you’ll get great recipes that cook meals from scratch, healthier and much better. Fannie Farmer, Joy of cooking, better homes and gardens, etc. Go to the library. The MORE WITH LESS cookbook put out by the mennonites is wonderful.

  48. sam says:

    I have a good housekeeping book, DINNER FOR A DOLLAR. I got it in Barnes and Noble on the bargain rack, that has great simple dishes, too.

    Just don’t be afraid. Try new things. Read the directions. have all the ingrediants before you start.

  49. KoryO says:

    Sally…..I know what you mean about the frozen TV dinners. Been there, done that when I was single not long ago.

    But….then I got a bunch of those reusable Ziploc containers. I set aside one weekend afternoon, crammed up my shopping cart, cooked like a fiend. Made six or seven different things, divvied them up into the containers into single serving portions.

    I ate well for four or five weeks at a time. (Yes, I did own a small freezer, but it paid for itself in a matter of months when you totaled up how much those nasty TV dinners added up.) Better than I did before, in fact.

    Best of all, it was even *more* convenient than driving to the store, parking, getting out of the car, etc. I just had to stroll to my freezer, pop it in the microwave, nuke it, and voila. Don’t discount the time savings, they can be immense.

    Give it a shot, it’s got to be better for you than that processed garbage.

    (Unfortunately my bro got the freezer after I married. But am looking into doing pretty much the same thing ~ cooking like a nut and freezing them up for later).

  50. Bill says:

    To minimize food costs, you absolutely want a separate freezer.

    A large (15 cubic foot) chest freezer I saw the other day was rated at about *one* kWh/day – that’s $0.10/day on average in the U.S.

    Remember, food in your kitchen freezer will *not* last as long (automatic defrost on the fridge, manual defrost on the chest/upright freezer)

    We store an amazing amount of free food (berries, etc.) in the freezer.

  51. Llama Money says:

    I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but when in the world does everyone find the time to cook a meal from scratch every day? I work 75+ hours per week, and my wife puts in 40 – it’s tough to put together enough time to throw a meal together. We probably cook 3-4 times per week, but thats’ a stretch…

    Do most of you have one person staying at home while the other works? Or are you both working?

  52. James says:

    “A health and cheap diet”! I love it!

  53. Maria says:

    Here are some tips that could save you hundreds of dollars:

    1) Buy your fruits and vegetables at a produce market and processed food at the grocery store. Always buy off brand. Also, produce markets that sell meat generally beat grocery stores on prices. Look for sales. I never pay more than 1.69 a pound for skinless chicken breasts.

    2) When filling up your tank, do so in the morning, fill it up slowly (not full blast) and always refill your tank at the half way point. Don’t wait for it to nearly empty out. Drive the speed limit. When you are driving, note what your rpms are at 40 miles per hour. As soon as your speed increases above what they are reving at 40 mph, stop increasing your speed.

    3) Always combine errands.

    4) When stuck in traffic or at a drive through window, shut off your car. This is a common practice in Europe.

    5) Learn to cook from scratch. It’s can be a bit challenging at first, but after a short while, you’ll be ask yourself why you didn’t do it all along.

    6) Always grocery shop from a list. Never go into a grocery store without one.

    7) Grow your own herbs and vegetables in the summer time. It takes little effort and the dividends are huge. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, corn — you name it. Plus its better for the environment.

    These are in no particular order. I practice these principles and save a lot of money by doing so.

  54. Lori O. says:

    Llama Money, I understand your point of view. My husband and I both work full time, and we have SUPER STRESSFUL jobs (who doesn’t?).

    Yes, it is an effort to cook dinner. It takes planning. It takes commitment to say “We are not eating out this week”.

    It also takes a stack of simple recipes that you enjoy that take very little time to prepare.

    Start small. You and your wife will be surprised at how much better you feel when you plan ahead, know what is for dinner, and know how much money you will save.

  55. Mel says:

    I realise these comments are 2 years old, but for ideas for what to do with sweet potato, have a look at: http://www.kumara.co.nz/recipes/. In New Zealand, sweet potato is called “kumara”, and it’s used in pretty much the same way as potato – my absolute favourite is roast kumara – prepared exactly the same as (and the same time as!) roast potato and roast pumpkin. Yum!

  56. Mel says:

    I realise these comments are 2 years old, but for ideas for what to do with sweet potato, do a google search for “kumara recipes”, and the first site should be a .co.nz one called “kumara”. (sorry for no link – moderation stopped it)
    In New Zealand, sweet potato is called “kumara”, and it’s used in pretty much the same way as potato – my absolute favourite is roast kumara – prepared exactly the same as (and the same time as!) roast potato and roast pumpkin. Yum!

  57. Carol Cripps says:

    I don’t have a copy of “How to Cook Everything”, nor do I need one. I stood on a chair while my mum cooked, from the time I was able to stand. By the time I was ten, I could cook a meal for my family. Even living on my own, I have a crockpot, something many people don’t own, or if they do have one, underutilise, because they really don’t know what to cook in it, beyond spaghetti sauce, chili and potroast. I’ve bought blade steak on sale, and with the addition of onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes, served up the most delicious meal over rice. The guest who ate it said she’d never bought blade steak because she had no idea of what to do with it. That’s half the problem with eating frugally. It only took ten minutes to throw everything into the crock, and it cooks all day with no attention. Rice takes twenty minutes to cook. In that time, you can toss a salad and set the table. Yes, if you have no cooking experience, a good, basic book is invaluable, but beyond that, be adventurous,and you will not only have good meals, you’ll have terrific leftovers.

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