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The cost of healthy food
September 23, 2011 4:27 AM   Subscribe

Food Fight: Does Healthy Food Have to Be More Expensive? In which the blog Get Rich Slowly chronicles an argument about nutrition vs cost and then invites readers to chime in.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (129 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is entirely possible to eat a varied and balanced meal for very, very cheap. 'Nuff said. I am a bit frightened by the degree to which people try to defend a nonsense diet of expensive junk/fast food.
posted by Cerulean at 4:36 AM on September 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


Deen responded, saying, “…not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine…I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills…It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.”
Red meat and wine probably wouldn't be that healthy either.

We eat some packaged food (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, cheese slices, etc) and some food made from actual ingredients (salsa, various kinds of sandwiches, baked goods, pizza). We spend way less on groceries than families half our size. So....yes. You can eat pretty healthily for less money than you think.

The real question is whether healthy food takes more TIME. If you can't afford to spend time cooking, then no, you probably can't eat very healthily. Fortunately, we live in an area and I have a job such that my wife can stay home with the kids. She's not slaving over a hot stove all day by any means, but she is freed up to do the shopping during the day, rather than rush through it on the way home from work. And we don't both have a "we just got home and now we have to figure out what to cook?! Let's get McDonald's again" feeling.
posted by DU at 4:40 AM on September 23, 2011 [12 favorites]


More people should consider a fast, cheap raw salad for dinner.
posted by Cerulean at 4:42 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Another very over-looked variable is picky eating. Anyone thinking that's a matter of training or forcing the child to eat has never raised a child. Or possibly more than one. I have *twins* who won't eat the same foods. Making a meal they'll all eat can be challenging. Salad ain't it.
posted by DU at 4:45 AM on September 23, 2011


Instead of complaining about how poor people eat like crap because processed corn is cheap, maybe raise the minimum wage? Instead of complaining that fast food is the only thing to eat downtown, maybe change zoning laws to allow mixed use urban so people can work, live and play in the same neighbourhood-- including crazy ideas like rooftop and vacant lot farms? Instead of complaining about how advertisers keep telling us to be thin and beautiful, maybe install some playgrounds and extend afterschool activities? Maybe instead of pointing out that people can't cook because they have no time, teach people how to cook healthy meals -- and be smart about credit, and balance their budgets -- in 15 minutes with home economics classes in schools and adult education centres?

Oh, right. Because it's much easier to shout how STUPID people are, and how HORRIBLE the system is, rather than do something about it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:49 AM on September 23, 2011 [22 favorites]


Deen adds a ridiculous amount of butter to almost everything. That does not make the food healthier or cheaper. Her response (the "not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine…I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills") is not even responding to what Bourdain is complaining about.
posted by synecdoche at 4:49 AM on September 23, 2011 [9 favorites]


She's not slaving over a hot stove all day by any means, but she is freed up to do the shopping during the day, rather than rush through it on the way home from work.

Do you not have a decent grocery delivery service in the states yet?

We actually save money over our local supermarkets by using a delivery service, we get better choice and access to a wider range of special offers too. Although this is largely because we don't have the overhead of car ownership I suppose.

Do a lot of people really live such resource constrained lives that they can't spare maybe 90 minutes a day at the most to do this (quite enjoyable) stuff themselves?
posted by public at 4:49 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are there any actually healthy fast food chains? I imagine healthy food probably is cheaper to make than standard greasy fast food, as long as you don't also try to capture the "organic" or "natural" crowds. So if you could reach the same level of efficiency, it should be possible to sell large meals even cheaper than KFC. Obviously price isn't the only factor, but I wonder if there'd be enough market there for it to work.
posted by lucidium at 4:52 AM on September 23, 2011


90 minutes a day?? Good lord, no, they don't. You both get home around 5:30-6:00 after picking the littlest kid up from daycare. You have get the older one's homework done and checked, cook and eat a meal, change diapers, etc and do all the other stuff before getting them to bed at a reasonable hour. And that's if you aren't also working a second job.
posted by DU at 4:54 AM on September 23, 2011 [25 favorites]


Big grabs, big gulps, Kings of size, 30 % more-Xtra! single wrapped butter pats - Eating anything not emblazoned in logos and wrapped in foil or plastic is simply not cool.
posted by Cerulean at 5:01 AM on September 23, 2011


Do you not have a decent grocery delivery service in the states yet?

Nope.

That is, not everywhere. And the places missing it ("food deserts," meaning the mostly-poor communities with no local supermarket and no public transporation available to get you TO the neighborhood where there is one) are the places that need it most. The food delivery services available cater mostly to families who a) have computers (you have to order online), b) are seeking a wider range of organic options, and c) can afford the membership fee -- in other words, the richer folk.

Fresh, nutritious, healthy food is not expensive -- unless it's two towns, three bus transfers, and a taxi away.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:05 AM on September 23, 2011 [13 favorites]


Frozen vegetables (which are, for the most part, just as healthy as fresh) are super-simple to cook healthily. Frozen peas or broccoli or green beans, I just throw into a dish (I don't even add water, because there's enough water in the veggies themselves), cover, and nuke for a few minutes. Still green and vibrant and enough "snap" to taste decent.

A banana at the supermarket will cost you about 20 cents. Most fruit (except berries or grapes, which seem to be hellishly expensive in my supermarket) is pretty cheap.

Rice? Even brown rice? A giant bag costs nothing, and if you get a rice cooker, it doesn't take any effort to cook.

I think most people eat badly because bad (for you) food tastes good, and we're genetically engineered to like fatty, carbohydrate-rich foods. Unfortunately, we're not creatures that regularly run away from predators and have to hunt and gather for those sources of sugar and fat anymore, so our bodies are telling us we "need" things that actually do us harm.
posted by xingcat at 5:06 AM on September 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


I only read TV Guide because I can't afford The Food Network.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:07 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yes, it's not really about money - it's about TIME. When I was a kid, we lived on welfare and ate healthy, time-intensive meals. Now my mom is working a great job, making $60k a year -- and she eats unhealthy ready-meals and orders takeout 10 times more often because she doesn't have time to cook. She leaves at 8:30 after seeing my niece picked up by the school bus, and gets home at 7:30-8pm.

This week has been especially hectic for her (she's moving), so I've been making her dinner and taking it up. Thinking about her health, I've made vegetable rich chilis and curry, simple "throw everything in a pot" type recipes - Each took me at least 90 minutes, with 30+ minutes of chopping.
posted by jb at 5:09 AM on September 23, 2011 [13 favorites]


A species that eats according to calculation instead of biology. Makes sense to me.
posted by larry_darrell at 5:16 AM on September 23, 2011


Do you not have a decent grocery delivery service in the states yet?

NYC has Fresh Direct, which is pretty great as grocery delivery goes. But NYC also has 1 in 5 people living below the poverty line. Are those 1 in 5 people logging onto their netbooks or using the FD iPhone app to order locally raised grass fed beef and organic vegetables? Probably not.
posted by elizardbits at 5:21 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


including crazy ideas like rooftop and vacant lot farms?

Not commenting on your broader points, but when you take a look at the amount of carcinogenic particulates anywhere near busy roads, and the amount of heavy metals, arsenic, lead and more in old industrial sites, those tomatoes don't look so appealing.
posted by smoke at 5:28 AM on September 23, 2011


For those living in poverty a 'fast, cheap salad' isn't cheap. $3-$5 or more for a bag of salad, not including tomatoes or anything else to throw into it and not considering iceberg lettuce which isn't really healthy or filling, and $3-$6 for a bottle of dressing, although you can get away with $1.50 or so if you go REALLY cheap, and we're talking off brand MSG laden crap. So is that really healthy anyway?

For those living in poverty, you know what's cheap? Ramen. 15cents a package around here, one package is a meal. It's not healthy but it's filling. You know what else is cheap? Hot dogs. Bologna.

What some people consider to be 'cheap' just boggles my mind.
posted by Malice at 5:30 AM on September 23, 2011 [26 favorites]


That so-called $7.94 meal didn't actually cost $7.94, of course. He spent vastly more money than that on ingredients and then only counted the fraction that he actually used in the meal. So, for instance, organic butter costs $5.69 per pound and is only available by the pound, but he calculated the cost per ounce and then only factored in how many ounces he used.

It's not just that the cost of ingredients can be prohibitive for people who are really living paycheck to paycheck, and therefore that the slightly-more-expensive KFC meal might be more affordable to actual poor people than the ultimately-cheaper home-cooked meal. It's that the KFC challenge food was exactly the kind of food that Paula Deen cooks, which is to say standard American food with lots of butter, cream, lard, etc. If you cook like that all the time, you can buy the butter and be sure that you'll end up using it all. (You also won't eat any fruit or vegetables at all. The writer provides a handy google docs spreadsheet of the ingredients he bought, and there is not a single piece of produce on the shopping list.) Bourdain, on the other hand, parachutes into a different exotic, authentic (and I use those words intentionally, because he certainly does truck in exoticism and authenticity) peasant or working-class culture every week. One must buy a completely new set of $10 ingredients every week, and then use thirty cents worth of those ingredients in each recipe. It is very likely that one will never use the rest. And yes, that is more expensive ultimately than eating KFC. It's also more expensive ultimately than doing what Deen does, because the ingredients in her recipes are pretty standard.

I think that ultimately this is a stupid fight. I think most people consider Paula Deen's recipes to be unhealthy, time-consuming food that is saved for special occasions, and I think that Bourdain is used more as travel and food porn than an actual source of recipes. If you want to get at what people are actually cooking, you should yell at Rachael Ray or the people who do Martha Stewart's Everyday Food. But I also think that people who are going to talk about constraints on people's food choices ought to be people who have some working experience of what it's actually like to be a normal home cook in the US.
posted by craichead at 5:31 AM on September 23, 2011 [12 favorites]


If you buy salad in a bag that's your problem.
posted by Cerulean at 5:33 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Do a lot of people really live such resource constrained lives that they can't spare maybe 90 minutes a day at the most to do this (quite enjoyable) stuff themselves?

Yes, this is correct. Perhaps famiiarize yourself with the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey on how Americans spend their time.

90 minutes a day to prepare meals? That's insane. Not everyone finds it enjoyable, but more importantly it would cut into the 2.7 hours (on average) spent watching tv each day. We have our priorities you know.
posted by jeremias at 5:35 AM on September 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


synecdoche: "Deen adds a ridiculous amount of butter to almost everything. That does not make the food healthier or cheaper. Her response (the "not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine…I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills") is not even responding to what Bourdain is complaining about."

Because her only honest response would be,"You're right."
posted by Splunge at 5:36 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I moved from New England to the northern midwest I was shocked at the cheapness of crappy snack and junk food at gas station and convenience stores. It all is so much cheaper than back home - 64 ounces of soda for sixty cents?!

Anyway, that said - and pardon me for not yet having RTFA (I'll get to that shortly) - the 'cost' of food includes a couple harder-to-see things. One is the cost to individual and public health, and health systems in this country. And the other is government subsidies (or corn, for example, which makes huge companies, eager to get those companies, find ways to shove high fructose corn syrup into everything - and then market it to everyone).

Of course, you don't see that stuff on the price tag or at the counter, but it's there.
posted by entropone at 5:39 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


A banana at the supermarket will cost you about 20 cents. Most fruit (except berries or grapes, which seem to be hellishly expensive in my supermarket) is pretty cheap.

Rice? Even brown rice? A giant bag costs nothing, and if you get a rice cooker, it doesn't take any effort to cook.


It's nice that this is true for you, but fruit or rice is not cheap everywhere. Apples have been costing me around a dollar fifty per apple lately, which is affordable because I'm only shopping for myself.

There are many reasons not to cook. I don't cook anymore, mostly because trying to work in my tiny, poorly ventilated kitchen is unpleasant and cooking smells that linger in my sleeping area make me sick. Also, I don't have an oven, microwave, or any storage space. I used to teach in an urban school district, and many of my students lived in places with even worse kitchens than the one I have now. The cost of food wasn't the only reason their families didn't cook.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:42 AM on September 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


It reminds me of the designer's offer to the client: Fast, Cheap, Good – you can pick two.

At any rate, when speaking of "the poor," as the second commenter notes, it's important to take many things into consideration, such as the observation that many people only have expensive convenience stores nearby, and no cars (and long, inconvenient transit routes). As someone who is a pedestrian, I can affirm that shopping nearly daily because that's how much you can carry (and I don't have any kids to worry about) is kind of a pain, and I have it fairly sweet because I live in a nice neighborhood to walk around in... but the prices absolutely do reflect the convenience aspect of my two small (and very, very limited) neighborhood groceries, one of which is sort of an upscale healthy/high-quality grocery/green grocer, not a feature of poor inner city neighborhoods.

Also, in the modern world, there's a big difference between being poor in the sense that you've never been exposed to middle and upper class standards of healthy and nutritious food and cooking, and being poor in the college-student or between-jobs or fallen upon hard times sense; if you were raised with healthy options, it's easier to conceive of how to achieve something close with more limited means.

In spite of that, some of the very best cuisine has come from poor people being clever and innovative with inexpensive ingredients, but those cultures/communities were not "inner-city" poor... being able to hunt or fish and scratch out your own garden from a bit of land and trade with your neighbors, plus share recipes, ideas and traditions was vastly different from a concrete jungle/7-11/McDonalds subsistence.
posted by taz at 5:44 AM on September 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


I eat oats. Good toasted oats are great groats. It's oats that rock my boat. Me gusto oats.

If oats get your goat, go out and get some oats. Your gut will gloat.

My pal Patty loves pâté. Pity Patty. A pat of pâté in Patty's pot puts Patty partly portly.

Peut-être, Patty ought to eat oats.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:44 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Rice? Even brown rice? A giant bag costs nothing, and if you get a rice cooker, it doesn't take any effort to cook.

Is rice healthy?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:58 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]




Monsanto makes a fortune selling proprietary fertilizer and seed to factory farms who in turn allow their massive fertilizer/waste runoff to pollute the rivers further ensuring the locals will have to depend on the big box stores to purchase over-processed foods if they even have time to turn on a microwave; but if they don't they can always hit the drive-thru because the temping allure of the over-sugared food they offer is worth the change of contracting diabetes and even if they do, there are plenty of drug and insurance corporations happy to subsidize their shit diet for a monthly fee. Why do people eat like shit? Because corporations make more money when people eat like shit.
posted by any major dude at 6:01 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do a lot of people really live such resource constrained lives that they can't spare maybe 90 minutes a day at the most to do this (quite enjoyable) stuff themselves?

There's nothing I like better than coming home from work and spending a couple of hours cooking a meal for my wife and myself, but we don't have kids and we both get off work at about 3:30-4:00. There are a vast number of (American) people, successful and otherwise, who don't have a spare 10 minutes/day, much less 2 hours.
posted by Huck500 at 6:20 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


In addition to time and cost there's calorie intake to consider. My brother does manual labor for 10 hours a day during the week and half days on the weekend and could eat a 7 piece KFC meal all by himself. At Thanksgiving, he'll finish three dinner plates piled high with all the fixins. He brings his own lunch to work in a cooler this size and still buys an afternoon snack to get him through the rest of the day. He's not quite at the 12,000 calorie-a-day Michael Phelps diet, but it's up there and the cost of groceries takes a significant chunk out of his income.
posted by hoppytoad at 6:21 AM on September 23, 2011


Do you not have a decent grocery delivery service in the states yet?

Ha ha, you're joking, right? Seriously, it's actually kind of weird. Just like streetcars and walkable neighborhoods, home delivery of groceries used to be common in the US up until the 1960s or so. Now it is basically nonexistent, except for some high end services in a couple large cities.

Yes, it's not really about money - it's about TIME.

I agree. More than that, there are a bunch of ways that being (relatively) well-off allows you to save money. Because I can afford to live close to where I work (so I spend maybe 10 or 20 minutes a day commuting in total, and that commute passes two grocery stores), and I can afford to have an enormous (and super energy efficient) freezer and lots of pantry space, and because I can afford to buy things in large quantities if I want, therefore I have the option of eating local and high quality food at every meal. For example, I buy local, organic, free-range, etc, lambs, plus 1/4 of a cow, each year, and at a very low per-pound price -- and never have to even look at the expensive, grey, and unappetizing meat at the grocery store.

But in the modern US, that represents a crazy privileged existence, and I'd never hold it up as a model of how people juggling kids, long commutes, and/or second jobs, should be living. These are structural problems that need structural solutions (like higher wages, fairer subsidies, different land use regulations, etc), not shaming people for not trying hard enough.

Oh, great, another thread where the holier-than-thou can judge other people's food choices.

Happily, I don't see much of that going on here, compared to the more nuanced and careful readings.
posted by Forktine at 6:29 AM on September 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Do a lot of people really live such resource constrained lives that they can't spare maybe 90 minutes a day at the most to do this (quite enjoyable) stuff themselves?

90 minutes? Try 30. And I LIKE to cook. But I also like to SLEEP. And these days I work an 11-hour day, and have an hour long commute at either end of that workday. So even if I started cooking the second I walked in the door, with a 90-minute recipe I wouldn't be eating until 9 pm -- leaving me less than 30 minutes to do the dishes and get ready for bed.

I would like the time to read the occasional book now and then.

The 90-minute recipes are for the weekends, but I have the inconvenient problem of having to eat EVERY day, unfortunately....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:29 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


We've had this conversation a lot on MeFi (and in the rest of life as well, of course) and as a Slow Food person and food activist I've had a lot of time to think about it.

The trick is that this issue of "eating healthy food affordably" is quite multifaceted. It can certainly be done, and is done by many people (I've been proud of feeding 2 adults very well on about $200 a month for the past four years or so), but it's also true that it's not just a matter of flipping a switch.

It's definitely not about cost alone, though cost plays an important role. Our entire food system has trended in the direction of favoring convenience, branding, packaging, and use of heavily subsidized foods to produce artificially lower prices on foods that are more processed and less healthy. It's not always true that convenience food is cheaper - McCain pre-processed fries are not cheaper than a potato - but it's also pre-processed and so it's convenient, delivering another kind of value in the form of saved time. That's our aspirational food, the kind of food most heavily promoted and valued. That's also the food that's most readily available to every American.

No, you don't have to eat that food. You really don't. But in order to avoid it and develop another set of values and habits around food, certain conditions need to be in place. Among these are:

Psychological will. You just aren't going to make the effort to change habits if you haven't decided this is something you want in order to overcome the other obstacles.

Education.
You have to know and recognize the problems - health problems and political issues - with the current food system in order to develop the will to change your habits.

Sources of healthy, whole foods.
It's pretty hard to find a decent meal selection in a corner grocery, though you can, though in turn it's going to get repetitive if you have to do it often because the selection is so narrow. So you need to not be in a food desert, and ideally you also need to have some options that aren't just a major grocery store, because they are mainly in the business of pushing the highest profit-margin, branded and packaged foods as well, over whole foods and fresh produce. A healthy, strong food system will also have dedicated produce markets, direct sale farmer's markets, community gardens, collective gardens, and urban gardens. But it's important to note that in recent studies, even when the 'food desert' issue was tackled by comparing areas with abundant food supplies to food deserts, just having access to good food was not a predictor of healthy eating. There's more going on than food supply. The food has to be high quality, fresh, affordable and appealing, and people have to first value whole foods.

Time. This is a major factor for a whole lot of people, particularly those with complicated family schedules and needs and with one or more jobs. Convenience food is appealing because of the very ease and speed with which it can be put on the table. It solves one problem in your day and frees up time you may feel pressured to use for other things, such as work, kids' homework, paying bills, laundry for work the next day, etc. I am a big proponent of the idea that cooking a home cooked meal each night doesn't have to take more time than heating something up, and in many cases it really doesn't. I value the time I spend preparing food because it's relaxing, satisfying, and aesthetically nice and makes me feel good, but not everyone is coming from that orientation, and it feels like a hassle to some people to cook, and not the best of use of their time. Then, too, eating affordably actually requires meal planning, which is a task that takes another 15-30 minutes a week at least, if you're good and practiced at it, and you also need to spend a little more time shopping, which is more detailed and time-consuming when you buy ingredients as opposed to whole food. So short of making more time for people out of thin air (really an economics question), there are two other issues related to making the time to cook: skill, and attitudes toward food.

Skills. Believe it or not, a lot, lot, lot of people have only basic cooking skills. If there were such a thing as 'culinary literacy,' a concept which maybe I should invent right now, the majority of people would be kindergarten level or lower. Cooking skill has not been a focus of the culture in the last few decades. Home ec classes have largely disappeared from schools (and I'm not sure how really great they were anyway, but at least they introduced certain concepts such as measurement and different cooking methods, stovetop vs. oven, etc.) There is so much you can learn about using time efficiently in the kitchen to produce more in less time, using ingredients efficiently to reduce or even eliminate food waste, meal planning, adapting basic recipes to accommodate what's available or cover up for a missing ingredient, etc. You can do more with less if you understand cooking and have good training and a solid repertoire. Most people don't have so much here to draw on.

Equipment. This is particularly a problem when you're poor and in inadequate housing. Some people have only a microwave or toaster oven for heating food. Some have a stovetop range only. Some have a whole stove with oven and broiler, but it may not all work well. Some old fridges and freezers don't hold temperature well and cause food spoilage. So there is that issue. But even if you have the basic kitchen and it's adequate, you are missing out on other appliances that can contribute to an extremely affordable food supply. Number one on that list, for me, is a chest freezer. Many of the local-foodie people I know save a bundle by going in on large meat orders and splitting the cuts, freezing them to use throughout the year. You can also buy corn, green beans, tomatoes, kale, etc. in bulk when they're super cheap, blanch them, and store them throughout the year, which drives your overall food budget down like crazy. But you need to be able to afford the chest freezer and also have a place to put it. Other kinds of equipment that can drive food costs down significantly are dehydrators, canning sterilizers and jars, slow cookers, and bread machines. Again, all (except the last probably) require some training and skill to use effectively.

Class and Culture It's not yet widely valued in all cultures to cook your own food from scratch. As a kid who brought my mom's healthy, hippie lunches to school and was made fun of for not having Twinkies and chips, I can attest to that personally, and it's something I'm aware of in food justice activism. The shiny, branded, packaged, and admittedly indulgently good-tasting (sometimes) convenience foods are still America's marker of the good life for a lot of people, of all classes. To change our idea that brand names, bright colors, and low nutritive value are aspirational, we have to change the way we value and represent food to one another - in advertising and in daily life.

A healthcare context. A healthy diet is important to overall well-being. How many people struggling to get by are getting adequate time to consult health providers about their diet? How many have decent oversight for family health and good resources? This is another political/economic problem. I know lots of people who started eating much better because their doctor read them the riot act about heart health or family cancer history. Not everyone gets this kind of regular, attentive reinforcement. Not everyone is operating within a context of monitoring and maintaining their good health.

All of these things point to complicated, not simple, solutions. They point to a need for economic and political change, and also clearly highlight areas in which there can be effective programs put into place for food activism. Certainly eliminating food deserts is a step without which the rest can't take place. But in addition to that, we need more small farms and robust community and urban farming initiatives; more skills training and education around food, health, and the politics of food distribution; a better sense across the culture of giving your food supply a greater amount of your time and attention - a sense that doing that is valuable, pleasurable, and worthy; continued support for cooperative extension and other community welfare programs that develop skill and teach methods for managing household food; harder work to eliminate poverty and substandard housing, support for life choices which increase the amount of time available for food preparation, and an overall improved economy and social safety net that doesn't demand that this core aspect of health and happiness take a back seat to making rent and keeping shoes on your feet or your kids'.

The obesity epidemic is concerning, but to me it's a bit of a red herring as to the cause itself. It's a symptom of a society that isn't working, especially for the lower income, and it needs to be addressed systemically as well as - perhaps more than- individually. When all the conditions for health are in place, only then is it really productive to look at and critique individual choice.

For the middle income and affluent, though, the conditions are often pretty much in place or can easily be obtained. It does take personal change to live healthfully - it's not something that is going to come super easily if your present habits don't involve regular home cooking. It is going to take more time and attention. If it's worth it - and personally, I believe it is - you'll take the time for it from somewhere else. Now that my life is a lot busier because of 2 hours a day spent commuting, I've noticed my will to maintain good habits flagging. To me this means that it's essential to restore some of that time, so it's one main reason I'm trying to move to the town where I work. As the main food manager for my household, that's the system that's going to work for me. If I had more money but couldn't get back less time, I might consider starting a freezer meal swap group or hiring one of those services that delivers a week's worth of prepared meals. There are solutions, some harder to do than others, variously available to different people, if you value good food and want to have it in your life.

Short version: yes, it's more than possible to have home-cooked, good, healthy food on a budget, but only if a preponderance of the necessary conditions are in place to some degree, and only if you are willing and able to work at it. It's not fair to make it sound easy, but it's also not fair to make it sound impossible. Both extremes ignore the systemic economic and cultural issues that brought us to this point and will need to be addressed and ameliorated in order to move us forward from here.

Related: this past month, Slow Food has been doing a "take back the value meal" $5 Challenge.
posted by Miko at 6:34 AM on September 23, 2011 [103 favorites]


Do you not have a decent grocery delivery service in the states yet?

It's important to remember that "the states" are 3,000 miles across, not all connected and crossing numerous climates. We're having discussions on limiting postal service to more rural areas, so having a food delivery service for all of us is probably out of the question.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:37 AM on September 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


Bruni's point that there is classism involved when foodies praise David Chang's pork belly and sneer at the amount of bacon and deep frying they see Paula Deen promoting on her show has some validity. But the real argument to be made here is that when elite chefs serve fried chicken and fancy pork belly in their hot new restaurants, their goodies are marketed as treats and a special experience, not as everyday eating. As we all know, you just can't eat that stuff every day without slowly killing yourself. Maybe it's not Paula Deen's personal mission to educate people about how to feed themselves healthfully and frugally, but if that's the case she should own up to the fact that it's not her responsibility to do so and she'd rather make everything taste rich and delicious. She knows that her food is neither healthy nor for every day consumption and let's face it, not all that economical either.
posted by Lisitasan at 6:40 AM on September 23, 2011


I went to Taco Bell yesterday (because I like to torture myself) and saw a sign in the kitchen area "WATCH LETTUCE AND CHEESE--COSTS ARE HIGH".

1. It's Taco Bell. Lettuce and cheese are the only nutrition items in there.
2. I'm the customer so give me my friggen lettuce and cheese
3. It's already $4 for 3. So are you saying I'm paying $4 for cheese and lettuce?
posted by stormpooper at 6:49 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


The time constraints and lack of energy people are mentioning as barriers to cooking for themselves and cooking helpfully are really interesting when thought of as proof of just how effective the push of convenience food was in the fifties and sixties.
Two or three generations back, before the advent of cheap, highly processed foods (or at least when it was still only accessible/marketed to wealthy housewives) being exhausted, overworked and poor didn't keep anyone from cooking. There simply wasn't a choice. And families passed down the knowledge of how to skillfully prepare good food out of pennies.
I think that the need for convenience food, which was initially a luxury item, became so great as more and more families relied on two incomes and the heavy subsidization of processed ingredients 'democratized' the availabilities of these foods, and the behemoth corporations had bludgeoned our culture with thousands of memorable jingles and cute ad campaigns at the expense of cooking beans and vegetables and chicken soup at home, that this shared knowledge has all but disappeared. I may be over generalizing here but I think the gist of what I'm saying is true- that the culture of American society has for more or less two generations stopped cooking and relied heavily on cunningly marketed processed food. So my question is, how do we revive home cooking and a willingness to budget time for it without being paternalistic?
posted by Lisitasan at 6:56 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


So my question is, how do we revive home cooking and a willingness to budget time for it without being paternalistic?

From what I can see, that would only work if having a single-income househould were economically feasible. Don't forget that two or three generations back, it was also not quite the done thing for women to be working outside the home, no matter how economically deprived the family may be. Some families may not have had much except for "the knowledge of how to skillfully prepare good food out of pennies" -- but a key element in that knowledge was "having someone actually at home for long enough to do that prep work".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:02 AM on September 23, 2011 [9 favorites]


Ugh, having to spend ninety minutes a day cooking sounds awful. I only really cook once a week, and it's a two to three hour cooking session. I usually make three different things, though it might be anywhere from two to five items. I make a big salad and hard boil a bunch of eggs or bake some chicken pieces almost every week, and then the remaining items are alternately things like casseroles, quiches, or a cake or cookies, depending on what I don't already have stowed away in the freezer for the coming week. Last week, for instance, one of the items I made was a two-dish pinto bean casserole, with four to five servings in each dish. I ate one of the casseroles this week and will be eating the other next week. Then I can have cereal or oatmeal (cooked in the microwave in ninety seconds) for breakfast, casserole or a sandwich and salad, and cookies or a piece of cake for lunch, and chicken and veggies (like a baked potato, four minutes in the microwave) for supper, with fresh fruit for snacks during the day.

This works because I am only cooking for myself and don't mind not having some huge amount of variety in my meals, and I'm spending less than $30 a week on my food. Once I have someone else to cook for, I'm going to have to change my meal preparation system dramatically. A friend of mine has a three-week recipe rotation system. I think I might do something like that, and line up a number of recipes that take 30 minutes to cook. Breakfast can be the same, lunch can be sandwiches or leftovers, and I can still do a batch cook once a week to make baked goods and things to help piece out the meals.

I do hate this ridiculous "processed and fast food is unhealthy/well the poor can't afford prime rib!" argument. I seem to have seen it so often.

Two or three generations back, before the advent of cheap, highly processed foods (or at least when it was still only accessible/marketed to wealthy housewives) being exhausted, overworked and poor didn't keep anyone from cooking. There simply wasn't a choice. And families passed down the knowledge of how to skillfully prepare good food out of pennies.

I'm not sure I agree with that. There were a lot of malnourished people sixty years ago. The poor often didn't have a lot of variety in their diets, or know how to cook food well. And a lot of very poor women had to work outside the home, which often meant they had just as little time as now to cook for their own families. My mother (who is 72) grew up eating pork, milk, applesauce and fried potatoes — her family just didn't have much else. She was overweight as a child but malnourished, and had to have her teeth all removed in her late thirties. She learned about nutrition and developed her cooking skills once she was on her own.
posted by orange swan at 7:04 AM on September 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


EmpressC: I mostly agree, I did say that almost all families now depend on two incomes. However, that's simPly not true, in the upper middle class and particularly in white families it was simply not done, but poor families and many African American families depended on womens salaries as well. Women performed all kinds of domestic and service jobs to stay afloat and had to cook and care for their own children too.
posted by Lisitasan at 7:28 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Two or three generations back, before the advent of cheap, highly processed foods (or at least when it was still only accessible/marketed to wealthy housewives) being exhausted, overworked and poor didn't keep anyone from cooking. There simply wasn't a choice. And families passed down the knowledge of how to skillfully prepare good food out of pennies.... So my question is, how do we revive home cooking and a willingness to budget time for it without being paternalistic?
You don't. I know this is really hard for people to believe, but the women who switched to convenience foods weren't morons or dupes of food conglomerates. My grandmother knew what it meant to make all your own food. She watched her own mother do that, and she didn't want that life for herself. My great-grandmother worked like a dog every day of her life from the time she learned to walk until she dropped dead of a stroke at the age of sixty. It wasn't a romantic or glamorous life. It involved working two shifts, one at a sweatshop and one at home, as a girl and young woman, and it involved taking in boarders to supplement the family income after she had children. My grandmother was not lazy or bad for wanting things like leisure time and/or a job that allowed her to leave the house.
posted by craichead at 7:30 AM on September 23, 2011 [18 favorites]


I did say that almost all families now depend on two incomes. However, that's simPly not true, in the upper middle class and particularly in white families it was simply not done, but poor families and many African American families depended on womens salaries as well. Women performed all kinds of domestic and service jobs to stay afloat and had to cook and care for their own children too.

Did you see orange swan's point about the prevelance of malnutrition, though?

What I'M saying is, for the families who "made good meals out of pennies," they probably did have the luxury of a stay-at-home parent. And for the families who didn't have this, they probably made do with less.

I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm saying that you maybe are looking at a slightly incomplete picture.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:30 AM on September 23, 2011


Orange swan: you're absolutely right. I didn't think through the roast implications of my too general statement but overall I think more people knew how to make do and cook. Certainly eliminating hunger and malnutrition motivated the USDA to make wheat, milk and corn as cheap as possible. And in terms of calories, the master plan worked. I just think that previous generations knew better how to cook economically and from base ingredients than most Americans do now.
posted by Lisitasan at 7:32 AM on September 23, 2011


I agree, they made do with less. Maybe now we're debating the relative ills of widespread obesity and malnutrition and diabetes versus those of just plain hunger and malnutrition? I'm not being flip, but I think that's what this boils down to. I certainly don't believe people were better off, only that with the understanding we now have of nutrition( such as it is) we would do well to have a culture that values simple cooking and simple food enough to find a way to do it at home.
posted by Lisitasan at 7:38 AM on September 23, 2011


If you buy salad in a bag that's your problem.

Alright. So you buy some romaine lettuce or like kind of head. I used to do it quite frequently. Let's say you're feeding a family. How far is that going to stretch? And if it can, it has to be eaten fairly quickly, lettuce doesn't stay good for very long. The head itself won't even stretch across two adults and two children as a meal, so you'll probably have to buy another. Let's say you want some real nutrition in that salad? Well, you'll need tomatoes. Maybe some purple onions. Croutons? Sunflower seeds. A little cheese, maybe some chicken.

And you're telling me that's cheap? No, don't think so. Not for the poor. That is a luxury and to scoff all high and mighty that they should be eating a cheap salad speaks volumes about your personal experience with poverty-level living.

It's easy to think "It's just $5" when you have money to spend, even lower middle class. $5 can stretch far enough to feed your family for a week rather than one meal of a 'cheap salad'.
posted by Malice at 7:38 AM on September 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Craichead: I'm really sorry if I gave you the impression that I believe that. I don't. I meant to give convenience foods their due as answering a real need and I do not think that your grandmother or mine were idiots. I'm simply lamenting the loss of general knowledge of home economics and cooking from scratch that I believe was collateral damage. I hear my grandmother, who wept when she bought her first washing machine at sixty, talking trash about her own daughters and sons not being satisfied with rice and beans. I'm gonna shut my trap now because I'm obviously not expressing myself well here.
posted by Lisitasan at 7:42 AM on September 23, 2011


We really need to be thinking in terms of cost per calorie. For one dollar, you can get 207 calories at Burger King. According to this, a large serving of salad has 33 calories + 73 calories for ranch dressing. So you'd need to eat 9+ servings of salad with dressing before you get the calorie content of a double whopper with cheese, and I dare say that 9 servings will cost you more than $4.79. That's not even counting the time and fuel it takes to get the ingredients and prepare it.
posted by desjardins at 7:49 AM on September 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


You're doing okay, lisitastan. I think it's just that the situation is really, really complicated, and any one single solution is doomed to suffer from "oh, yeah? Well, if someone's got [foo] then they can't [baz] quite so easily, so then what?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:56 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Related: If these agricultural subsidies went directly to consumers to allow them to purchase food, each of America’s 144 million taxpayers would be given $7.36 to spend on junk food and 11 cents with which to buy apples each year – enough to buy 19 Twinkies but less than a quarter of one Red Delicious apple apiece.
posted by tr33hggr at 8:07 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thanks Miko, for taking the time to make that thoughtful comment about the number of issues and their complexity.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:17 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Other kinds of equipment that can drive food costs down significantly are dehydrators, canning sterilizers and jars, slow cookers, and bread machines.

This is very true.

But, perhaps ironically, if you are poor and live in a place with a bad infestation of German Cockroaches (the little ones that come in the hundreds), you can't have a dehydrator (they think it's a perfect nest) or leave food out in a slow cooker or bread maker or they will crawl in before it heats up. They also really like nesting in toasters, kettles and even coffee makers, so all of these are suspect. They live in microwaves too, but won't get into the food in the same way.
posted by jb at 8:25 AM on September 23, 2011


Several narrative issues that I often see in this conversation:

1. The desire to narrate a linear past - ie, "the working poor have always eaten well until [THING] went wrong", whether [THING] is positioned as large corporations or moral collapse. Poor folks' diets have varied tremendously across region and history - prior to the Enclosure Acts, for example, but after the Middle Ages, the English working poor ate pretty well. After the Enclosure Acts but prior to the reforms of the late 19th century, not so much. this article on margarine points out that in France in the 19th century, fat (needed by active laborers) was so expensive that working people simply could not afford enough.

2. Positioning the past as "natural" and the present as regulated/corporate-controlled. Whether in ancient Rome or 19th century France, as soon as you have any kind of modernization or complex government, you have government attempts to manage the diets of the working poor - sometimes positively with subsidies and sometimes negatively, to prop up food prices. "Puericulture" was a 19th/early20th century french state initiative to educate working class mothers about child nutrition - it gave rise to the current state of French eating, which is so often positioned as "natural" and virtuous.

3. Mistaking individual solutions for structural solutions. Yes, it's certainly possible to eat very healthily and very cheaply, if you have the know-how, the time and the willpower. And people who have those things, that's very good. An individual solution is supporting an individual to make better food choices - possibly through social means or moral suasion - like praise, encouragement, support for willpower, driving them to the grocery store, etc. A structural solution is about the population - you're not focusing on getting 100% of the people to eat perfectly; you're focusing on methods that improve outcomes for the majority. Honestly, it's reasonable to say "Frowner, for pete's sake, must you buy so many Cadbury Eggs? You know better!" if we have that type of relationship - that's an individual relationship. But fingershaking at whole populations just looks silly and intolerant, plus it doesn't work.
posted by Frowner at 8:36 AM on September 23, 2011 [18 favorites]


One must buy a completely new set of $10 ingredients every week, and then use thirty cents worth of those ingredients in each recipe. It is very likely that one will never use the rest.

I think this kind of nails it, salad-wise. I love salads. I lost 30lbs in the last year and salads were no small part of that. But they were salads I bought at the cafeteria at work. It's a well, but not exotically stocked salad bar. I would (and still) frequently get a salad at lunch, chuck it in the fridge then eat a couple of granola bars or something and then take the salad home for dinner. I'm a very competent home cook but making a meal-sized salad at home is a total pain in the ass with lots of whacked out portioning and storage you're left over with. I always have some cut up peppers and cucumbers already in my fridge for hummus dipping and such—I’m already halfway fucking there!--and I still don’t like making salads.
posted by Cyrano at 8:37 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


overall I think more people knew how to make do and cook.

I have never seen any research on this, but my guess would be that the average level of cooking skills hasn't declined. It may even have risen. Let's not forget that it used to be much harder to cook because one had to cook on a wood burning stove (or coal oil, or kerosene, or gasoline) and there was no thermometer. The cook had to stick her hand into the oven to find out if it was the right temperature to bake a cake. It took skill and experience to manage such an oven or stove so that it was consistently at the right temperature for long enough to bake or cook an item. Then too things like measuring cups and timers are also relatively recent inventions. Recipes used to instruct cooks to "flavour to taste" or "add a pinch" of an ingredient and to "bake in a hot oven until brown"

These days anyone who can read and carefully follow directions can get out a recipe, turn an oven on to 350 degrees and bake a perfect cake.
posted by orange swan at 8:40 AM on September 23, 2011


We really need to be thinking in terms of cost per calorie.

But there's cost and then there's value - and value drops drastically when you think about nutrition per calorie. How much good are you getting for what you spend? The cost may be low, but the nutritive value and even long-lasting power to fill you up is lower still. You might pay less per calorie for a BK meal, but compared based on what it offers nutritionally against another use of that money, it's going to lose out.

I don't think salads are a particularly cost-effective food, though I love them. To make a salad good in my book, it needs some other veggies to add in. I do make my own dressing (incredibly fast and easy and far, far cheaper than bottled dressing) and buy lettuce heads (and in what world does 1 head of Romaine not make salad for four? That's a freaking lot of lettuce at $1.29. There's a lot more lettuce in a head than in a $2.99 bag, since we're making a direct comparison). But anyway, salads are a little more expensive. But they are not the only way to eat vegetables, and they also don't have to be based on lettuce. Squashes (butternut, acorn, etc) are a mainstay in my diet because they're cheap, full of fiber, bulky and huge, and nutritious. Green beans in season are super cheap and make a great cold salad tossed with a little vinaigrette and garlic. Root vegetables, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beets are also super filling and can deliver a lot of nutritive power.

Not all veggies are cheap, but a lot of them are, and when you have some know-how they can comprise the basis for many a delicious meal.
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


These days anyone who can read and carefully follow directions can get out a recipe, turn an oven on to 350 degrees and bake a perfect cake.

That's assuming that people can read and carefully follow directions, or trust that they can.

And that's not a comment on literacy. I'm wondering if the fact that recipes just look different may be a stumbling point for some people.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:46 AM on September 23, 2011


Americans, at least, spend less of their income on food than they ever have historically. The issue isn't that healthy food is expensive. Food prices have probably remained relatively constant adjusted for inflation--if not gotten cheaper. The issue is that businesses continually invent "food products" that mimic actual food but are significantly cheaper to produce and therefore represent a broader profit margin for the business while simultaneously representing a lower price-per-calorie for the consumer. Everyone "wins".

I grew up eating Velveeta and Cool Whip and taking the occasional trip to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard Frozen Treat. I was 23 when I first realized that Velveeta is not cheese. Velveeta is Velveeta. It is a "cheesy" food product. Cool Whip is not whipped cream. It mimics whipped cream. And Dairy Queen doesn't even claim to sell ice cream. It sells "Frozen Treat". Each of these food products is significantly cheaper than a comparable food. I told my mother just two nights ago that Cool Whip is not whipped cream. Her mind was blown.

These food products have created an expectation that food should be cheaper than it really is. Granted, it is absurd that food with more processing should be cheaper than food with less processing (white bread vs. whole-grain, for instance...if there's an extra step of separating out the wheat germ and if a certain percentage of the raw wheat is lost in the manufacturing process accordingly, it would seem logical to assume that wheat bread would involve fewer steps and would utilize more of the wheat and would therefore be more cost-efficient...except that the existing market apparatus has optimized white bread production while inefficiencies remain in wheat bread production due to economies of scale...).

Yes: Food is too expensive relative to the diminishing purchasing power of the average American. But it is because of "food products" that we falsely believe food should be cheaper than it really should be.
posted by jefficator at 8:51 AM on September 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


These days anyone who can read and carefully follow directions can get out a recipe, turn an oven on to 350 degrees and bake a perfect cake.
That's actually really only true if you have a decent oven. My oven sucks, because I live in a cheapo rental apartment with crap appliances, and it's really hard to get a cake to rise properly. My oven temperature is off, which means that I needed to buy a separate oven thermometer to get it right, and I've still got all sorts of hot spots and cool spots. For most things, I can compensate by turning frequently to ensure even cooking, but that doesn't work for things that need to be baked without being disturbed.
posted by craichead at 8:51 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


These days anyone who can read and carefully follow directions can get out a recipe, turn an oven on to 350 degrees and bake a perfect cake

That's not due to a rise in skill, it's improvements in equipment and introduction of convenience products. If you asked those same people to come up with a cake recipe from scratch, they don't have the experience to do it and wouldn't know what ingredients to include or exclude and what proportions make a basic cake. That's the type of skill required for cooking from scratch - adapting from basic model methods - not following directions.

Also, written recipes have been around, and been followed and taught for over 100 years.

It's true that women working and two-job families are not as new an invention as they seem. The 1950s were an anomaly in which white middle class and upper class women were encouraged not to work at any point in their lives, but apart from that, women have been working outside the home in large numbers since the dawn of industrialization. Women were up to 15% of the workforce outside the home in the 1800s and provided 1/3 of the factory labor and 2/3 of the teachers in addition to, of course, near 100% of the in-home labor, which was incredibly time-consuming but could often be done concurrently with cooking tasks. Women worked less when they had young children, but participated in the workforce before and after those years. In the 20th century, through the end of WWII, the percentage of women working for money outside their homes rose through 25% to above 40% in the 1940s, not so different from the 45% figure from the 1980s. It's now around 75%.
posted by Miko at 8:53 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think this has a lot to do with the way families live. In general,We no longer live with extend familiy. This would be much easier if you had grandparents and older relatives around who can spend time cooking.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:24 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


"flavour to taste" or "add a pinch" of an ingredient and to "bake in a hot oven until brown"

As someone explained, you basically have to do that if you're not working with a modern oven- and rentals and even cheap housing means ovens of dubious reliability. Besides, being able to cook well according to what's in the house, instead of having to shop by recipe means understanding substitutions, and hell, what texture it should be.

Even cake mix gives time estimations.
posted by Phalene at 9:45 AM on September 23, 2011


Granted, it is absurd that food with more processing should be cheaper than food with less processing

you make it up on the back end. It's all about how long it will keep.
posted by any major dude at 9:46 AM on September 23, 2011


If you asked those same people to come up with a cake recipe from scratch, they don't have the experience to do it and wouldn't know what ingredients to include or exclude and what proportions make a basic cake. That's the type of skill required for cooking from scratch - adapting from basic model methods - not following directions.

Is that your metric for knowing how to cook, that a person can make a cake from scratch without a recipe? Because I can't, and I consider myself a competent cook and baker who is very comfortable adapting recipes and could make some things without a recipe, such as a casserole. My definition of a good cook is someone who can make a tasty, healthy meal from basic ingredients, regardless of whether she or he uses a recipe. And my point is that it's easier for people to reach that skill level than it used to be.

And yes, of course, one must have a working oven to cook properly, and not everyone has one.
posted by orange swan at 9:48 AM on September 23, 2011


I think most people buy cakes instead of making them from scratch because they would rather remain ignorant about how much butter, cream and sugar they are putting into their body.
posted by any major dude at 9:53 AM on September 23, 2011


I have the luxury of being a stay-at-home parent. My husband's salary is nearly exactly the median income for our county, but we are fortunate enough to be able to earn it with one income. I cook all our meals, including breakfast and lunch, almost completely from scratch.

It's hard work. The cooking period of the day is also exactly when both kids (almost 5 years and 10 months) start needing 110% of my attention, so I have to chop an onion, dangle a toy for the baby, and get the 5 year old another book (or TV show) all at once. Some days, I manage to do all the mise en place during the morning while my older child is at preschool and the baby is napping, but that presupposes a lot of planning and forethought, too, and that takes more time and more cognitive energy. We belong to a vegetable CSA, which is wonderful but takes yet more time, because we go out to the farm (10 minutes away) and pick up our share and go out to the fields and pick the greens and the herbs and then come home and THEN I have to wash the lettuce and the chard and the beets before I put them away, and there has to be room in the fridge, so I have to make sure the fridge has room the night before. . . so there's more time and more energy. And of course the CSA is open between 10AM and 6PM.

We have a chest freezer, so we buy our beef by the split side and our pork by the half. Guess who did the research and the phone calls and organized the co-op and collected deposits and negotiated with the butcher on how we wanted it cut? I did. More time, more planning, more forethought. I'm not saying any of this is hard, but it is definitely time and energy consuming. If you looked at everything that goes into putting those from-scratch meals on the table, I'd say I spend probably two hours per day at it, between the thinking and the planning and the shopping and the cooking. It's worth it to me in my situation, but it definitely is not free. 10-15 hours of labor per week is a lot.
posted by KathrynT at 10:00 AM on September 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


Anyone remember what a 1 2 3 cake is?

1234 cake. One cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs.
posted by KathrynT at 10:02 AM on September 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


I’m more curious about why cooking at home is given the rep of being more expensive (clearly it’s not) and why cooking healthier food is considered out-of-reach for the working poor.

Who advertises on TV--home cooks or fast-food restaurants? Nuff said. There doesn't even have to be an active conspiracy. The bias happens naturally.

More people should consider a fast, cheap raw salad for dinner.

Kids ruin that option, unfortunately, at least until 4 or 5. Raw greens are a tough sell. Crudites (carrots, broccoli, etc.) and hummus or other semi-healthy dip work better. Likewise "green smoothies."

$3-$6 for a bottle of dressing, although you can get away with $1.50 or so if you go REALLY cheap, and we're talking off brand MSG laden crap. So is that really healthy anyway?

To be fair, you can make a single-night size of vinaigrette (oil, vinegar, mustard) for pennies (OK, dimes). Add or swap in mayo, spices, sauces, and all sorts of salad dressings are at your fingertips. I absolutely love salad, and yes, you can make friends with it. I've done so myself!

Do a lot of people really live such resource constrained lives that they can't spare maybe 90 minutes a day at the most to do this (quite enjoyable) stuff themselves?

Excluding parents of young children and those with two jobs, or those with jobs that force them to work overtime, or those working on projects they love outside of work, etc. etc. Or what DU said.

I think I have a pretty cushy life. However, I wake up @ 5:30am, work 7-4:30, pick up at daycare at 5:30pm, and make dinner every night by 6:30. Then bath, teeth, stories, bedtime for the older kid, then clean up the kitchen, make lunch for tomorrow, then help out with the baby until she (jeebus willing) goes to sleep.

We eat out (usually taqueria, italian, pizza or other kid-friendly option) or order once a week, mostly because I need a break from cooking every night. I've become a pretty good short-order cook and developed a small arsenal of decent entrees (that my 2 y.o. will eat), but it can be incredibly stressful to run into a 30-minute delay, where I get home at 6:15 and am panicked because I can't figure out what to make or how to make it or where everything I need is and oh god!

Likewise, how many times have I had to tell me daughter "no, sweetie, sorry, we can't ____, because I need to get home and make dinner." or even worse when she was a little younger, just bawling for me while I had 3 pots on the stove. Ugh!

Any extra time I have is going toward some sort of efforts to play with my kids or have sex with my wife. If neither of those are possible, I'll read or go to sleep. Cooking for fun can go fuck itself. But that's me.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:26 AM on September 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Squashes (butternut, acorn, etc) are a mainstay in my diet because they're cheap, full of fiber, bulky and huge, and nutritious. Green beans in season are super cheap and make a great cold salad tossed with a little vinaigrette and garlic. Root vegetables, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beets are also super filling and can deliver a lot of nutritive power.

Not all veggies are cheap, but a lot of them are, and when you have some know-how they can comprise the basis for many a delicious meal.


You just described my m.o. to a T. But don't forget the carrots! (My 2 y.o. looked at a roll of toilet paper the other way from across the room and said "Daddy, that toilet paper is plaid!" ... she could see the tiny stitching on the toilet paper from 8-10 feet away.)

One other important thing I don't think has been mentioned: growing your own food. Having safe space on which to grow food is a luxury, but then again, some things don't take much room at all. We currently grow strawberries, raspberries, green beans, squash/zucchini, cucumber, and tomatoes, with varying amounts of success. If we knew what we were doing (and had a little more time), we could grow a lot of our veggies and some of the fruit. (We also don't have to pay for water.) Our daycare provider has HUGE pumpkins. Could eat those for weeks ...
posted by mrgrimm at 10:34 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh snap, I just saw the main source of that report discussed in the link I posted on the front page today. Coincidence, I swear it!
posted by tr33hggr at 11:04 AM on September 23, 2011


My definition of a good cook is someone who can make a tasty, healthy meal from basic ingredients, regardless of whether she or he uses a recipe. And my point is that it's easier for people to reach that skill level than it used to be.

That's my definition of a good cook too, but a cake mix is not 'basic ingredients.' It's a processed convenience food.

I'm totally agnostic as to whether someone uses or doesn't use a recipe, but the point is that mixing up a cake mix by following directions isn't a skill. Mixing up a cake mix by knowing that for one type of cake, basic proportions are (to use Brandon Blatcher's example) 1 part butter: 2 parts sugar: 3 parts flour: 4 eggs. Then you can add flavorings - lemon, chocolate - dried fruits - cinnamon streusel, whatever.

But cakes, and baking in general, aren't actually the greatest examples of the kinds of cooking skills required to make affordable food, because they are indeed higher-level skills, and that's because the action of rising and the development of the texture you're after depend completely on specific measures of active ingredients that impact rising, gluten development, etc. It's probably harder to be a good pastry chef than to do any other kind of kitchen specialty.

The kinds of skills I'm talking about are twofold. The first is mechanical. Do you know how to peel and clean a vegetable, trim it,and chop a variety of dice sizes and shapes quickly and efficiently? Do you know which vegetables need to be peeled or not, and when? Do you know how to debone a whole chicken or a chicken breast, or to separate tenderloins from breasts? Debone whole fish? Bland a bechamel and sometimes melt cheese into it, without clumping or separating? Control heat variably for searing, browning, sauteeing, sweating? And, most importantly, can you move around the kitchen quickly, find what you need fast, get it into action, keep clean as you go, and organize a full meal based on the timing of several different processes?

The second type of skill is really more general knowhow - this is the kind of skill that lets someone whip up a healthy, tasty meal with whatever's in the house. This might include: what dishes are better made with white meat vs which are good for oilier, more flavorful dark meat? What kind of basic sauce will let you turn just about any vegetable into a gratin? What are some dishes that use a small amount of meat for a big flavor delivery? What are the various ways you could prepare a pork shoulder? What techniques use dried ingredients like rice, beans or grains, and how can you vary the other ingredients for novelty throughout the month?

Recipes are very helpful, but you need a general repertoire and dependable mechanical skill in order to cook efficiently. My weeknight meals are planned to pretty much come together in 30 minutes or so, but I can only do that because I have the equipment and the skills. I've been able to plan, make the most of ingredients, and I work fast and stay organized so I'm not wasting time shuffling through cabinets and looking for things that aren't there. Being able to follow a recipe is not the same as having cooking skill.

I know lots of people who can produce an impressive-looking meal with a copy of Martha Stewart Living in hand, but that isn't the kind of approach you need to cook well at home affordably. As someone said above, this can cause "shopping to the recipe," and one of the biggest kitchen budget-killers is starting with the idea "Hey, I want to make this Specific Recipe" which causes you to purchase single-duty ingredients that won't make it into a second meal and often to buy things you'll use in small quantity but have to purchase in bulk, which then sit in your cupboard. Recipes are a tool for cooking, but cooking (and meal planning on a budget) is decidedly not about the art of following recipes. It's about the skill. Skill expresses everything you can do when a recipe for what you want to make isn't available, or you have enough understanding of what cooking is all about not to need a recipe to prepare a certain type of meal.

And without question, there is much less of both kinds of skill - physical and improvisational knowhow - out there than there was not even all that long ago.
posted by Miko at 11:16 AM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


That so-called $7.94 meal didn't actually cost $7.94, of course. He spent vastly more money than that on ingredients and then only counted the fraction that he actually used in the meal. So, for instance, organic butter costs $5.69 per pound and is only available by the pound, but he calculated the cost per ounce and then only factored in how many ounces he used.

Yeah that made me kind of mad. The meal actually cost over $50 (not including the cost of the cookbook that had all the delicious recipes he used). This is very deceptive and maybe he didn't notice because he's used to spending that kind of money, but $50 for one meal? $20 in fats and oils?

This is not an academic interest for me because I am poor and do the grocery shopping for my family. I can't just count the price per ounce!!! I have to deal with these kinds of distinctions all the time. I am also not a defender of KFC or any other fast food and I can count the number of times I've had KFC in the past year on one finger. I would LOVE to use a much wider variety of herbs and seasonings but every little bottle of marinade or fresh whatever really adds up. Of course, after the initial layout of cash you can use a lot of it more than once, so in the future maybe you really do beat KFC's prices (though never the time saved). But it is very hard to ever justify that layout of cash. Whenever I have extra money one of my FAVORITE things to do is buy groceries with my cash instead of just food stamps, and make the healthier recipes I find on the internet and really want to make. I don't often have extra money though.
posted by Danila at 12:00 PM on September 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


We need to get home economics back in school in a modern version and not gendered. Here, it is still a required subject, but I don't see my kids learning how to manage a household. Actually, when I was younger, I spent time teaching my architecture students these basic life skills. But that all won't change the availability of good produce in poor areas.
For middle class families, however, there is no excuse. Seriously: I'm sure you want your kids to grow up healthy and able. The people complaining about picky children can send them here. No kid here has ever starved to death. But they have eaten their beans. I'm not very strict, since I remember well how it was to choke on horrible, horrible dishes. But there is no way my kids don't eat what is on the table. If it is liver, potatoes and spinach (real example), you can get away with chosing two items. But no one is going to serve an alternative.
posted by mumimor at 12:03 PM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


(Liver, spinach and potatoes are cheap and healthy).
posted by mumimor at 12:04 PM on September 23, 2011


(Liver, spinach and potatoes are cheap and healthy).

I've got a cookbook of traditional Irish recipes with a recipe for pigs' feet that's had me seriously consider getting a package from the supermarket. The past couple times I've been there, I've picked up a package and stood a while in thought, then put it back down resolving "some other time".

The last time I was standing there like that, though, this old Dominican guy saw me, wandered over, spontaneously gave me a recipe for them, then picked up two packages for himself and walked away.

The moral is, I suppose, that the knowledge of how to cook for one's self on pennies never truly vanished altogether from the landscape.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on September 23, 2011


taz had it correct long ago:
It reminds me of the designer's offer to the client: Fast, Cheap, Good – you can pick two

The more sophisticated version is that Fast, Cheap, and Good are three sides of a triangle whose total area is a constant, but that doesn't roll off the tongue as well.

So I'm supposed to work 8000 hours a day just to make ends meet, then come home and eat another pot of rice and beans that I prepared 6 months ago and froze? I think I'd rather put a bullet in my brain.
posted by Chekhovian at 12:18 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oooh, fresh meat!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:23 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


stormpooper: "I went to Taco Bell yesterday (because I like to torture myself) and saw a sign in the kitchen area "WATCH LETTUCE AND CHEESE--COSTS ARE HIGH".

1. It's Taco Bell. Lettuce and cheese are the only nutrition items in there.
2. I'm the customer so give me my friggen lettuce and cheese
3. It's already $4 for 3. So are you saying I'm paying $4 for cheese and lettuce?
"

Actually lettuce (iceberg, which is what they use) has essentially no nutritional value. It's cellulose and water. But hey, cheese.
posted by Splunge at 12:24 PM on September 23, 2011


Actually lettuce (iceberg, which is what they use) has essentially no nutritional value. It's cellulose and water. But hey, cheese.

Wait, is it cheese? Or "processed cheese food product"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:53 PM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I was a student, I stocked up on olives, oil, canned tomatoes, lemons, pasta, rice, oats, lentils and canned fish once a month. On these items, you get huge discounts when buying in bulk, and if all goes awry, you can survive on them. You need to buy some onions and some garlic now and then, but they are very cheap. In practice, I also bought very cheaply or was given very ripe fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis. It is possible to live on this for about $100 dollars a month. Because of lentils and canned fish, you get all the nutrition you need. Add a few eggs now and then, and bake your own bread. It's cheap and easy.
For me, this is ages ago, and while I do enjoy being able to indulge in more differentiated menus, I still like rice, pasta and lentils.

If you are poor, green salades are a luxury. There is little nutrition/price, and they don't keep well. For a family of four, it can be done every now and then as a supplement. But cucumbers are cheap, and thus tabbouleh salades are cheap.

It's a good idea to grow parsley, thyme, rosemary and chives in your window sill. Very cheap and a huge boost of quality of life. It looks nice and tastes good.
posted by mumimor at 12:55 PM on September 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


Don't forget basil... we've been going a little crazy with pesto this summer.
posted by taz at 1:02 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


That so-called $7.94 meal didn't actually cost $7.94, of course. He spent vastly more money than that on ingredients and then only counted the fraction that he actually used in the meal.

This isn't some kind of dirty trick - this is a pretty standard way of food costing, useful in the food service industry and of course, necessary when you live on a budget. This is common on food blogs, government cooking-education sites, etc.

If you don't 'shop to the recipe,' you really are using just the small amounts at a time, and you count the per-meal cost as only the amount of those things you used. If I buy four pounds of ground beef for 5.00 and only use two pounds in a recipe, I used $2.50 worth of ground beef, and I still have $2.50 worth of ground beef to be used in another meal.

Now, I understand the objection - when you have to go out and buy one of these ingredients new, in larger bulk, and only use a little, that shows up as a real cost in your cash flow. So if I'm making beef stew and need 3 T of paprika, I'm going to have to buy the $3.99 8 oz container of paprika. And that might make it seem like my meal cost (whatever the total of the other ingredients) plus $3.99, but that's not true, as the value remains in the unused portion and that cost will be amortized over the next year or so as I use that up. It can feel like too much if, say, your grocery budget is $50 a week and you add one of these ingredients on to your existing list. But if this is the week you're buying paprika, it can also be the week that the shopping budget leans more toward rice and beans and other lower-cost staples.

So, doing this raises the fact that it's part of the art of meal planning and maintaining a pantry. One of the skills needed to cook affordably is maintaining a pantry. You can't go out and buy a fresh set of new staples and spices every week for your meals. But you can gradually grow your pantry by purchasing one 'splurge' ingredient a week or every few months in addition to your staples. For instance, every time I buy a new bottle of balsamic vinegar, I go "ouch." It's a lot, relative to my other ingredients. But it fits in my food budget because I don't buy a similar cost thing for every meal. It takes some time to build your pantry this way, but the long life of most pantry staples makes it justifiable.

The other key part of meal costing is making sure that these ingredients don't become one time splurges. Kurt used salt, pepper, a small amount of baking powder, a small amount of buttermilk - this won't be the last time he uses those. He'll get dozens of meals out of the amount he purchased, so it's not good accounting to charge it all to this one meal when the value will be distributed. If you're a good meal planner, though, your meal planning for the week ahead begins with an inventory of what you have in stock. I keep a running list on my fridge. The remaining buttermilk can be frozen, and that's useful in cakes, biscuits, pancakes, and cornbread, now or another time. There's plenty of butter left over if he bought a pound, and that's good for a million things, like other baked goods. Butter also lasts a long time in the freezer. So you are going to get the value of these products, even if you have to manage the initial cost.

In reality my grocery budget kind of flexes between the $40 weeks and the $60 weeks. You can sort of divide the shopping order between 'eat it all this week, fresh' items and 'pantry' items. When buying meat, I usually buy an amount that means 'some this week, some to freeze.' Most produce is for eating this week. Eggs and cheese can last for a couple weeks. The other part of the order is for the longer-life, pantry type items: canned beans and tomatoes, dried beans, rice and grains, pastas, pickles, spices, add-ins like capers and sundried tomatoes, etc. If you keep the cart in balance, removing a little from one category to add to the other categories, you can build and manage a good pantry without taking any unusual financial hits.
posted by Miko at 1:34 PM on September 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


A friend of mine in India pays $150/month total to two separate older women that come to his house, cook lunch and dinner, and wash all his dishes. Granted he only earns $20,000/year as an engineer. He will admit that "yes it is quite exploitative"
posted by Chekhovian at 1:52 PM on September 23, 2011


If you don't 'shop to the recipe,' you really are using just the small amounts at a time, and you count the per-meal cost as only the amount of those things you used. If I buy four pounds of ground beef for 5.00 and only use two pounds in a recipe, I used $2.50 worth of ground beef, and I still have $2.50 worth of ground beef to be used in another meal.
Right, I'm aware of that. And that's why the standard way of talking about food costs always comes across as so patronizing and clueless. Smug middle-class foodies always like to lecture us on how it's cheaper to cook at home if we just acquire some basic pantry-building "skills," as if there's a skill that allows you to conjure up money that you don't have. But the point is that you can only afford the initial outlay if you have spare money, and many people don't. According to the US government, which has no reason to inflate these numbers and every reason not to, about 15% of US households are "food insecure," so we're talking about a substantial number of people here. This isn't about accounting. It's about the fact that a lot of people really just can't afford to buy more than they are going to eat right now.

(Also, you know what's a horrible, horrible feeling? The feeling that you get when the lights go out and you think about the hundreds of dollars of frozen food you have in the freezer and what's going to happen to your food budget if the lights stay out and you lose all of it. I'm an obsessive make-ahead-and-freeze person, but I live in fear of power outages. And I'm not poor. I wouldn't go hungry if I lost everything in my freezer. It would just put a big hit in my emergency fund, and I'm lucky, lucky, lucky to be in a position to have an emergency fund.)
posted by craichead at 1:58 PM on September 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


Sorry. I meant to quote this:
This isn't some kind of dirty trick - this is a pretty standard way of food costing, useful in the food service industry and of course, necessary when you live on a budget. This is common on food blogs, government cooking-education sites, etc.
posted by craichead at 1:59 PM on September 23, 2011


Smug middle-class foodies always like to lecture us on how it's cheaper to cook at home if we just acquire some basic pantry-building "skills," as if there's a skill that allows you to conjure up money that you don't have. But the point is that you can only afford the initial outlay if you have spare money, and many people don't.

By the same token, it kind of felt like cheating when KFC turned that on its head to "prove" that a ten-dollar bucket was more economical than buying the ingredients from scratch. It did address the "if you don't have initial outlay" issue, but it did so in a way that felt a little....self-serving. (At least, the ad actually made me yell, "BUT YOU DON'T USE ALL THE FLOUR!" at the television when I saw it. ...I'd had a bad day.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:03 PM on September 23, 2011


Also, you know what's a horrible, horrible feeling? The feeling that you get when the lights go out and you think about the hundreds of dollars of frozen food you have in the freezer and what's going to happen to your food budget if the lights stay out and you lose all of it. I'm an obsessive make-ahead-and-freeze person, but I live in fear of power outages.

I was thinking the same thing when reading about people buying & freezing a year's worth of meat, or a month's worth of dinners. Power outages are not infrequent here, and couple months ago I had to throw away a good week's worth of groceries when the power was out for 2 days. For awhile when we were having severe thunderstorms about every other day, I started grocery shopping every couple of days instead of weekly because I couldn't afford to risk losing the food.

Is there a reason that people with deep freezers seem not to worry about this?
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:20 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there a reason that people with deep freezers seem not to worry about this?

Power outages seem to depend on area- where I grew up we never had one last longer than an hour or two. I've been living here for three years and all I've ever seen is a fuse blow.

Here, it is still a required subject, but I don't see my kids learning how to manage a household.

It was un-gendered and not very useful. There was also a family living course I did not take in high school. In both cases the classes hit when a lot of the students are either doing it already or won't be doing it for several years (ie instructions to do laundry) and the course tends to be incredibly cursory- one sewing project, instructions to do laundry at home, draw a picture of something you'd wear to a job interview.

There are no practice kitchens, and no complicated assignments like "with the following budget, plan twenty one meals and seven snacks for five people" and I'm not sure the cry-doll-lesson really helps teach anyone about the realities of parenting. But nobody is investing money in building a practice kitchen and teaching say, knife skills, because there's no budget to have everyone de-bone 10 chicken breasts each, and I suspect the zero tolerance knife policies would be triggered. Hell, they took climbing equipment out of my gym classes because balance beams were a legal liability.
posted by Phalene at 2:46 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I totally agree about the cooking knowledge and skill issue. I never took home ec or anything and while I can follow a recipe OK, I have no (or very little) basic cooking knowledge. Basically, if my husband isn't around to cook for us, I rotate through my repertoire of toast, scrambled eggs, microwaved jacket potato, and canned beans, individually and in various combinations. I remember one year in college I took the train up from New Orleans to Boston to visit my friend during spring break and the morning that I was set to return, we were sitting in her apartment chatting and she made me delicious chocolate chip cookies to take back with me on the journey. I was flabbergasted, I mean, there we were, chit-chatting, and I barely even realized what she was doing-- a few handfuls of flour in the bowl, some butter from somewhere, tossed in some sugar-- and somehow, magically, cookies were appearing out of the oven. Like, she was so casual, barely even paying attention to what she was doing, because we were having a conversation. She conceived of cookies and effortlessly actualized them, whereas I would have had to have had an ordered list of ingredients and instructions in front of me and an array of tools and instruments, and it would have required my total concentration. That really drove home more than anything that I really really had no idea what to do in a kitchen. In the ensuing years I still haven't learned anything much though.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 2:53 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Power outages are fairly rare here. My freezer will stay cold for most of a day before I'd have to start worrying; if an outage looked like it was going to be longer than that I would either borrow a generator or just shrug and accept the loss of a couple hundred dollars as not fun, but not devastating. If outages were common here, I'd buy a small generator for a few hundred dollars and not have to worry about it.

Again, though, this gets at why these are solutions for people like me with resources; my meat costs are super low, and the quality super high, because I have pockets deep enough for a modern freezer that won't ruin my food, and can accept some risk. Anyone who says that this is an option for everyone is deluded.
posted by Forktine at 3:03 PM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


I just realized I have a bit of a phobia about cooking. I feel like I'm going to screw it up and waste a lot of food, so I tend to make really easy stuff (spaghetti) or nothing at all (i.e., eat out).
posted by desjardins at 3:13 PM on September 23, 2011


Heh. I used to be like that, and like Hal, above. My first husband did all the cooking, which he enjoyed, so I didn't really learn anything until my early 30s. Now my husband does about half the cooking, depending on work stuff, and I'm a pretty damn good cook myself, though still without patience for work-intensive, elaborate dishes. I started by slavishly poring over recipes... my style is always to learn things from books, so I bought tons of recipe books (beginning with the bible – "The Joy of Cooking") and subscriptions to a couple of cooking magazines, and rode those horses for a few years. These days I just skim over recipes online to get an idea of how I want to approach a dish, or *gasp* just make it up all on my own.

The first thing I ever really cooked was red beans and rice (I was in New Orleans, too, Hal... and also once took the train from N.O. to Boston!), and my good friend just laughed and laughed at me because I was so stressed out about it. No, I can't go out to do X!! I'm cooking red beans and rice!!!

Once I (eventually) began to relax everything became much easier. For the most part, other than burning or salt disasters (or insults to meats, fish and poultry such as completely drying them out by overcooking), even "failed" dishes are pretty good, or can be rescued/rehabilitated, and I don't do fancy dinner parties... so no biggie.
posted by taz at 3:24 PM on September 23, 2011


....patronizing and clueless. Smug middle-class foodies always like to lecture us on how it's cheaper to cook at home ...

I hope you're not including me in this category of people, because the reason I know how to do this is all the years I had to live on lots less than a living wage, and also all the years my mom spent raising us while working, going to school, and feeding us well with the help of cooking and food stamps.

No, you can't conjure up money you don't have. But you can make choices about the use of what money you do have. I understand exactly what you mean - less money, fewer choices, and its' harder to afford to 'invest' in something you're not going to eat immediately.

I'm not saying there's a magic solution. But I am saying that if I didn't think in terms of per-meal cost over the longer term when buying food and planning meals, I wouldn't have eaten as decently as I did, and now that I am a little more secure, if I didn't have that approach ingrained, I'd probably be lazy and just buy more expensive food and more kinds of it and watch it gather dust in the cabinets and rot in the fridge, as I see in the homes of some folks.

Rather than considering it patronizing, I found it 100% essential to learn how to handle a tiny food budget that would extend as far as possible. It continues to interest me. In the work I do with food I'm really, directly and personally aware that even though some of us know how to do this and some are really good at it and some of us wish we could do it more but don't have the ability, there are a whole lot of people out there who could stretch their food more but have never even encountered the concepts, and are ending up getting soaked by our food system as we know it because they need some strategies for navigating it - in addition to all the other facets of the affordable-food issue that I went into above.

It's all in how you look at it and what your agenda is. The butter and buttermilk in the chicken recipe is a larger initial expense only if you don't already have it and have to purchase it all at once, for special-recipe purchases. It's a larger real expense over time only if you never use the rest of the ingredients elsewhere in your food budget and wouldn't otherwise have bought it except for your special recipe. Otherwise it's a definite savings. In the KFC vs. home cooking debate, KFC is playing fast and loose. They get their food at lower cost than we do, buying in enormous bulk; they buy a narrower range of ingredients and process it using specialized equipment and low-wage staff who have no benefits; and they mark it up like mad to make enough profit. This is "cheap" in only the metaphorical sense.

With regard to the chest freezers and power outages - a giant hunk of frozen food will stay frozen for a really long time if you just don't open the freezer lid. IT's good for at least 2 days. Meat goes on the bottom, where it's coldest, and won't start dripping meat juice contamination on other stuff if it thaws.
posted by Miko at 3:27 PM on September 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


I found it 100% essential to learn how to handle a tiny food budget that would extend as far as possible. It continues to interest me. In the work I do with food I'm really, directly and personally aware that even though some of us know how to do this and some are really good at it and some of us wish we could do it more but don't have the ability

Again, it's more time than ability. Although I don't enjoy cooking that much, I do really enjoy managing the larder and maximizing space, seasonality, etc. It's just hard(er) to do with a full-time job.

Tip for anyone who lives in/near Berkeley: If you can go to Berkeley Bowl (east - the original one) at 10-11am during the week (maybe Wednesdays?), that's when they often put out their clearance items in the back by the organic produce. You can get pretty large bags of vegetables for as little as 99 cents, like enough tomatoes to make at least 2 jars of sauce.

For those living in poverty, you know what's cheap? Ramen. 15cents a package around here, one package is a meal. It's not healthy but it's filling. You know what else is cheap? Hot dogs. Bologna.

One package of ramen (like Nissin or Top Ramen) with the flavor packet is usually ~200 calories. That's not much of a meal. If you're really struggling (and live in a progressive area), find Food Not Bombs and get some free food. 200 calories per meal is very little.

I wish there were a low-grade vegetarian protein options like hot dogs and bologna--I really could have used it. My roommate would cook up hot dogs and ramen for dinner; I'd have to spring for some sort of veggie burger or eat it plain. (Things like seitan and tempeh were not easily found where I was.)

Even cheaper back then was linguine with olive oil. I think I could usually get 2 pounds for $.99.

The protein options for vegetarians are nuts, some grains, and avocados, but nuts and avocados are both pretty expensive (I never understood why nuts are so expensive, but maybe they don't grow in many places ...)

Now two packages of ramen. That's a meal...
posted by mrgrimm at 4:01 PM on September 23, 2011


It gets silly to keep addressing the same point, because no individual can stand proxy for every middle-class person that ever seemed to lack understanding of poverty, and I'm not even here to do that. But there are two different but interconnected problems here: the problem of not enough money, and the problem of reducing food cost.

Nothing we say or do about food is going to remove the problem of not enough money. That's a hugely important, different problem and it is going to need its own direct solution. Thinking further about it, there's a point it's important to make.

Not having enough money definitely limits the choices you can make with regard to food. If you don't have enough resources to buy basic ingredients, or enough of a kitchen to cook in, no number of meal plans is going to provide a solution to that. That problem is one of economics and politics, wages and geography, and more, of course. That is a serious problem which impacts what you can choose for food. But it's not a problem caused by, or solved by, the availability of food or food choices.

On the other hand, if the problem is how to make home-cooked food more affordable for those who do have enough money to buy basic ingredients and stock a pantry, well, there are hundreds of solutions, tips, and tricks for that. And there are also a lot of people who would like to understand better how to do that, and for those people, there is much that can help. And of course, if their goal is to stretch the household budget further, reducing food cost and increasing food quality is a strategy that they may really want to employ, because usually saving in this area it becomes possible to do a little better covering costs in other needed areas.

In other words, let's address poverty with solutions for poverty. Let's address food with solutions for food. Let's not expect food solutions to make life suddenly great and manageable where true, low-wage, low-resource poverty is the primary concern. They'll never actually have the power to do that. But let's do come up with food solutions where there is room to make a difference in how household budget is allocated, where we can impact the quality and quantity of available food, and where the solutions are wanted, needed, and welcomed. Which you really don't have to look far to find.
posted by Miko at 4:25 PM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Miko really said it all, pretty much, in this thread. But, I'd like to address the "time" factor. If you have kids - I understand it's tough, so I can't speak to that; we don't have kids, it's just the wife and me. Location - if you are in a food desert, again, that's very unfortunate. Regarding the OP, I am of the opinion, based on extensive experience, that eating healthy is indeed expensive in the U.S., though that varies for different values of "healthy"... merely better than junk food, yes, it can be cheap, but if you are a health nut extremist, yep, it'll get super expensive (*premium*: olive oil, wine, nuts, green tea, fresh berries year around etc., etc., etc.), moderately healthy will be moderately expensive etc.

I come back to the issue of time, because that is by far the biggest factor for me, and I suspect anyone who is not desperately poor and broke. I am a fanatic about minimizing time spent on chores - anything that is not directly accretive to my life, is a theft of my limited time on this earth.

Time: shopping, food prep, cleanup. For single people, or couples without kids, who are not in a food desert, how much time you spend is almost 100% dependent on your dietary choices. My wife and I are pescetarians. Our shopping happens once a week, total about 40 minutes: two stores only - TJ's for the basics such as nuts, oat bran etc. and an ethnic market for fruit, veggies, beans etc. We're lucky to not live in a food desert (quite the opposite, the TJ's is 4 blocks away). Add to this a trip to Whole Foods or Fresh & Easy once every 6-8 weeks or so. Bottom line, food shopping is under an hour a week. Supplements and the like (f.ex. protein powders, nutritional yeast, psyllium etc.), bought online.

Food prep/cooking: breakfast 10 minutes, dinner approx. 20 minutes. That's all - about 30 minutes a day (with the caveat that once or twice a week more time is spent preparing beans and the like for the next few days). It's all diet dependent. We don't eat lunch - unless you have to eat frequently for medical reasons, there's no reason to eat lunch - skipping lunch gives three benefits (a) health - fewer calories consumed during the day (b) cost savings (no need to go out for lunch either) and most importantly (c) time savings... you cannot even imagine, how much time is gained by not having your mental space occupied by lunch issues (choosing, making - or going - consuming, toothbrushing).

We don't consume baked grain products, such as bread, on a regular basis, with the exception of mini whole wheat pitas from TJ's, a couple of times a week, though there may be many weeks where we don't even do that - we do that on health grounds, but the benefit is zero time spent baking bread, cakes and the like. Occasionally my wife will bake a cake for guests.

Veggies: if you eat mostly raw, all you have to do is rinse and chop, splash some olive oil and squeeze a lemon - 10 minutes. Done. For the more involved veggies: light cooking, steaming and the like takes literally a few minutes - faster and healthier. Throw some spice. Done. Minutes - literally. Once or twice a week, more involved: peel and bake a squash or sweet potato, or beets - a few minutes peeling, rest of time wait for it to bake; make a dip: non-fat yoghurt + crushed garlic + pinch of salt - 2-3 minutes; or throw a spoonful of honey on the squash. Done.

Fruit: rinse; sometimes only peel (citrus), or only cut/chop (melons). 1 to 3 minutes. Done.

Protein. Breakfast: protein powders - fast and healthy (you control the amino acid proportions), piece of low/non fat cheese for calcium. Dinner: a couple of times a week eggwhites from a carton, a few mushrooms, chop in a couple of veggies, onion etc. - time is about 5 minutes or so; three or four times a week, beans - this can be more involved, but only happens about once a week as prep/cooking - big batch of beans soak overnight, then cook with spices for a couple of hours - and you got them for three or four days, where all you do is throw it in the microwave for a few minutes; once or twice a week fish, open a can of ocean caught salmon or herring, mix with some veggies, onions - minutes. Done.

Cleanup - minutes.

Re: variety - endless veggie combinations, different spice combos on the beans etc. - not a problem. Important: generate a set of recipes that provide variety within the same basic format, about 3 weeks worth, and rotate them, so no time is spend agonizing or thinking over recipes and what to buy etc.

Additional tips: a couple can make all this even faster. We work together - for dinner, I rinse everything, while my wife chops and cooks, I set the table, prepare the supplements, make tea and so on. By the time I'm done, she's usually finished too - often we are able to cut dinner prep and cooking down to 15 minutes or so.

To sum up - very, very healthy diet - time factor: MINIMAL - 40 minutes shopping once a week, 30 minutes food prep a day, 10 minutes cleanup. Occasionally when baking beans etc. once or twice a week, a bit longer.

So it can be done. But it costs money - it is NOT cheap (mostly on account of our buying expensive ingredients). And no kids are involved. And we live in Los Angeles, close to well-stocked stores.

But time spent on food prep: it can be, and as far as I'm concerned must be minimized.

Of course, if you make elaborate meals, with multiple steps, a lot of meat prep marinating, boiling, simmering, slow-cooking, sauces etc. well, yeah, you'll spend time in the kitchen. But none of this is necessary for health. So it's a choice - if you eat mostly unprocessed food, a lot of raw veggies and fruit, if you don't insist on baking, if you minimize your meal frequency and eliminate snacking, you do not *have* to spend a lot of time on food at all. In fact, you can spend less time than would be involved in eating out counting transportation time for most people.

The simpler your diet is, the less kitchen tools you need. Someone mentioned the crappy oven they have. Well, we never use our stove oven - we have a small electric oven where you can easily bake a squash, or beets, or the occasional bread/cake for guests. The little oven can be bought for under $20. Microwave - get it for $25 or so, speeds up stuff. Cooking on a stove - zero for breakfast (except Sat & Sun when I indulge myself with some oatmeal) apart from boiling water for tea, and minimal cooking at dinner. You can get more tools, but you're not compelled to have them for either *health* reasons or time reasons. It is absolutely 100% your choice. If you don't like this diet - fine. But don't tell me it's on grounds of health. Again, caveat for kids, food deserts and low funds.
posted by VikingSword at 5:07 PM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think this conversation about food is incredibly important and I'm glad it's happening. I'm glad it's happening on mefi and I'm glad it's getting traction in America at large.

Significant changes in what America eats and how we grow it are necessary (if not sufficient) for improvement in so many connected areas: Population health, healthcare costs, public and private finances, environmental quality, petroleum dependence, water use, humane treatment of animals, extortionate trade issues, and on... so much if it comes back to food, and we urgently need to figure out how to it right.
posted by kprincehouse at 7:08 PM on September 23, 2011


Beyond food costing Friese doesn't include things like labour costs to make the meal, or clean it up which are things KFC would factor in their costs. On KFC's side they leave off things like their ability to buy chicken at next to nothing compared to a lone shopper. Both are distortions.
posted by squeak at 7:30 PM on September 23, 2011


Unhealthy / junk / processed food is not always the cheapest, it sure as hell isn't always the healthiest, it's often not the quickest to make.

But here is what it is: convenient, consistent, good enough in terms of taste, variety, availability and ease. In short, it makes life simpler. This one reason will trump everything else for most people.

With healthy foods, there has to be a consistent, long-term effort and investment of time and energy.

Saying that poor people should have no trouble switching to healthier food is like saying that if only they invest $1k in the stock market and wait 30 years for it to appreciate in value, their money troubles are over.

Here's just one example from my recent experience. In the last half a year, I became a really big fan of organic raw* almonds that can be bought from Whole Foods. Sure, they're quite expensive but they're also extremely delicious, healthy, there's lots of protein in them (being a vegetarian there's not that much variety in protein sources), and, obviously, take 0 minutes to prepare.

But here's the rub: I keep buying them every time i go to WF and almost every time they taste different. Sometimes really great but with different flavour, other times, ok - quite better than regular almonds but a lot worse than usual, and the last time I bought two packs (12oz each for ~$6/ea, Ow), most of them have a slightly weird, a bit unpelasant taste, although about 10% of them taste great.

Contrast this with buying something like a snickers bar. It can be found for less than a dollar (unless my snickers knowledge is, ahem, out of date), and you always know exactly what you get. Same with chips, hamburgers, fries, soda. When you only have enough money left to buy a single serving (I've been there often enough), it's extremely reassuring to know you won't be disappointed in your expectations.

By the way, in my experience, almonds are not an exception. I've noticed the same thing about romaine lettuce, cucumbers, apples, brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts, milk and generally a lot of other fruits and vegetables. And you have to pick and choose which ones are fresher and which ones are stale or beat up or have cuts.

And right next to the nasty, unpredictable, perishable, inconsistent vegetables you can always see bright packages of candy bars and chips, fresh as paint, or maybe as platonic symbols of crisp new-ness.

Processed food is hard to beat because it simplifies life - and that's the most sought-after commodity in the world.
posted by rainy at 7:46 PM on September 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


* the almonds aren't really raw, US producers are required by law to steam pasteurize them, but that's close enough.
posted by rainy at 7:47 PM on September 23, 2011


people actually buy buttermilk? I figured that buttermilk was for people who actually churn butter. I just sour my regular milk with a bit of lemon juice. Actually, when it was just the SO and I, we had enough milk go sour the regular way to make biscuits with. Watered down plain yogurt makes good biscuits, but I have a hand blender now so the yogurt gets saved for lassis (so tasty).

But yeah - all this is predicated on a large, clean kitchen and lots of cupboard space to store ingredients. Most renters don't have a pantry, let alone a chest freezer. They are an awesome investment if you an get one - my mother's is finally being retired after 30 years. But replacing it with a smaller one will still cost $400.
posted by jb at 9:20 PM on September 23, 2011


also: all fresh food like vegetables (including onions, potatoes) and fruit and even bread must be kept in the fridge or else the roaches will get in it.
posted by jb at 9:21 PM on September 23, 2011


r. I just sour my regular milk with a bit of lemon juice.

You can do that and it works just fine. But yeah, you can buy a quart of buttermilk and freeze it, and it has an unctuous flavor that soured milk just doesn't have, so it's a nice treat.
posted by Miko at 7:26 AM on September 24, 2011


also: all fresh food like vegetables (including onions, potatoes) and fruit and even bread must be kept in the fridge or else the roaches will get in it.

Though I've now lived in two nicer neighborhoods where you had to do this will just about all your non-canned food anyway, because of pantry moths.
posted by Miko at 7:27 AM on September 24, 2011


PANTRY MOTHS? Good god... I am blessed never to have seen one. That sounds terrifying.
posted by desjardins at 8:00 AM on September 24, 2011


They're pretty awful.
posted by Miko at 8:01 AM on September 24, 2011


I will never forget one night many years ago I was at the grocery store pretty late. There were two people checking out, me and a middle-aged guy two lanes down from me. I happened to look over at him, he was buying the cheapest loaf of white bread, the cheapest generic sliced cheese, the cheapest bologna and a tomato. He didn't quite have enough money to pay for everything and with a pained expression on his face he told the cashier to put back the tomato.

Had I been older and therefore, braver, I would have paid for that dang tomato.

At the time I was in college and pretty poor myself. My diet consisted of eggs with hot sauce, baked potatoes with hot sauce, ramen with possibly some frozen broccoli thrown in, martha gooch macaroni and cheese which cost $0.33, but had a coupon on the back of the box for $0.25 off your next purchase, hot dogs (to go with the mac 'n cheese) and totino's pizza when they were 10 for $10 cause anything higher than that was too expensive. I knew several people whose meals the days before payday would be white bread and bologna.

You don't really know what it is like to try to eat when you are poor until you actually have to do it.
posted by ephemerista at 12:01 PM on September 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


Has anyone ever read Dicey's Song, where the (formerly homeless) teenage girl who was taking care of her brothers and sister ended up with a home-ec assignment: design a food budget/plan for a family. She failed, because she used real examples, and the middle-class teacher wrote angrily on the paper that no one could eat that way.

There are so many things I want to say when I read this article and then the thread. But I can't, because there's too much emotion wrapped up in food and class and money and upbringing and politics, and today, the day before my birthday, I want to be happy.

So instead maybe I will go reread Dicey's Song. That always makes me happy.
posted by thelastcamel at 4:02 PM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


thelastcamel -- I always think of that when I read about these kinds of debates. Love that book.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:12 PM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The always wonderful Mark Bittman addresses these issues directly in an today:

THE “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, “when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli ...” or “it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.”

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)


Honestly, I think he downplays the time issues too much, but he makes some good points as well.
posted by Forktine at 7:40 AM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


That was meant to read: ... Mark Bittman addresses these issues directly in an article today.
posted by Forktine at 7:40 AM on September 25, 2011


THE fact is that most people can afford real food. Even the nearly 50 million Americans who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) receive about $5 per person per day, which is far from ideal but enough to survive. So we have to assume that money alone doesn’t guide decisions about what to eat.
That literally made me gasp. Do you think Mark Bittman has ever tried to feed himself on $5 a day?
posted by craichead at 8:37 AM on September 25, 2011


I don't think it's so crazy. And actually, Mark Bittman has been talking about his diet a lot lately, which includes things like how he eats lentils for breakfast, and all vegan for breakfast and lunch. Yes, he eats more than your average amount of fancy dinners out, but basically I imagine he can easily eat for $5 a day, given his repertoire. As I said, my grocery budget is usually not more than $60/week for two people, which is a lot less than $5/day.

Again, I totally get that I have advantages - time, equipment, inclination - which make this possible, but no, as an amount averaged over all meals, it's not out of the question. I'd say the question isn't whether $5/day is enough money to eat well out of your own kitchen, it's what other obstacles prevent that $5 from being used in the healthiest ways.
posted by Miko at 3:06 PM on September 25, 2011


not more than $60/week for two people, which is a lot less than $5/day.

Shoulda done the math - it's $10 less. Still, I'd say that counts as a lot when it represents 1/6 of the existing food budget.
posted by Miko at 3:08 PM on September 25, 2011


Yes, $5/day or even $4/day may not be that hard to manage. It depends on how much time you have, whether you have a fair amount of space in the kitchen, how much of a picky eater are you. There's tons of students who spend about that much a day, if not less; I'm sure I've spent $4/day or less for months at a time.

In particular, soup is very economical - it feels to be just as filling with 50% less ingredients, and you can add just a tiny bit of more expensive stuff at a time and it'll add to the flavour, while adding the same amount to cooked rice or lentils would not be noticeable at all.
posted by rainy at 3:25 PM on September 25, 2011


One of the things I lived on when my annual salary was $14000 in the late 90s was this soup I made every week, usually on Sunday evenings. It was a bag of dried Goya 16-bean mix ($1.19), 1/2 a package of ground pork sausage (I think this was about $2.79 at the time, or $1. 40 per recipe), 2 potatoes, which would be about 75 cents, 1 onion, maybe 40 cents, a clove of garlic (.50 for the whole head), 1 can of tomatoes at 99 cents, and sometimes 1 bunch of kale at 1.50 or so, of which I'd use half in this recipe. That would be an $8.12 outlay at the grocery store, but the recipe cost if you went with the kale version would be $5.98.

You take a big pot, like an 8-quart, and in the bottom of the pot you brown the sausage, add the onion and garlic and saute in the fat, then add the presoaked beans, diced potatoes, the can of tomatoes and a couple quarts of water, and let simmer away. This is a fantastic recipe for time pressure because after the chopping and browning stage, which is maybe 10-15 minutes, you can basically walk away from the stove and leave it alone with a lid on for a few hours, so I would do my lesson plans and stuff in the evening while this was cooking. This process would make well over than a gallon of hearty, thick soup that was super filling and very delicious. I would eat it for lunch and dinner for a couple consecutive nights, sometimes with veggies or bread on the side. Very cost effective supper, and really easy to vary. You can make it veggie by leaving the sausage out and browning in a little oil instead; you can use rice instead of potatoes; you can add other veggies like carrots if you want; you can leave out the tomato; you can change up the greens or leave them out; and you can spice it differently.

More often than not I made it richer by using chicken stock instead of water. I save veggie scraps and chicken bones in the freezer and turn them into stock about once a month (also a stovetop, non-time-consuming process, as long as you can be home). It's essentially free and is really good for making stuff like bean soup taste better.
posted by Miko at 3:52 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ok, then. That settles it. If low-income people could just subsist on lentil soup, they wouldn't need to buy unhealthy food. While we're at it, we can issue them all gray jumpsuits, to save them the needless expense of varied clothes. I'm also not sure why they need TVs, when the Gideons would happily supply everyone with a free Bible to read. Actually, it would probably be easiest just to bring back Victorian workhouses.

Jesus Christ. Are you listening to yourselves?
posted by craichead at 4:04 PM on September 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


As I said, it depends on a number of factors. I sure don't want to be restricted to lentil soup, lunch dinner and supper, every day. I know that it's possible, and once you get used to it, delicious and fairly easy to make. I also think you're missing the point that lentil-based recipes are very easy to vary; in India, tens of millions of people happily lived on it for thousands of years, and by happily I mean it wasn't considered a kind of food to look down on, to barely survive on when you're down and out in Delhi and Calcutta.

I think a bigger problem with cheap healthy food is that it doesn't match processed food for consistent taste, availability of good ingredients (that is to say, they may be available at one time and not the other - which makes planning more complicated), easy of preparation and amount of experience and focus you need to make a good meal. For example, at first, when I was learning to make soups, I would often forget to add something at the right time - oil should go in at the beginning, some types of vegetables need to be added at the beginning and others nearer the end, salt - a few minutes before it's done and so on.

In many poor areas supermarkets do have vegetables but the displays are truly disgusting. Stale, wilted, rotten vegetables and fruits, sometimes flies are hovering above them, often you can find mold on strawberries or blueberries. The really cool thing about WF and TJs is that they keep an eye on things like that.

Before we have a chance of solving anything we need to have a clear idea of what the problems are. If you're arguing that healthy food is expensive, you're setting up a position that's trivial to shot down. There is a different set of complicated, hard to categorize, subtle problems that make healthy food challenging.
posted by rainy at 4:36 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I also think you're missing the point that lentil-based recipes are very easy to vary; in India, tens of millions of people happily lived on it for thousands of years, and by happily I mean it wasn't considered a kind of food to look down on, to barely survive on when you're down and out in Delhi and Calcutta.
I shared cooking responsibilities with my Bengali roommate for several years, and she would never have considered lentils a complete meal. We always cooked at least two other dishes, not counting rice and/or chapatis. We also completely relied on weekly trips to the Indian grocery, which were only possible because I had a car. If we'd been limited to the groceries available in our neighborhood or places easily accessible by public transit, we would either have been spending vastly more money or eating a much less varied diet.
Before we have a chance of solving anything we need to have a clear idea of what the problems are. If you're arguing that healthy food is expensive, you're setting up a position that's trivial to shot down.
I am arguing that this is not just a cultural problem, and to ignore issues of access and time, as Bittman does, is really wrong-headed.
posted by craichead at 5:30 PM on September 25, 2011


craichead: lentils cooked with vegetables (or lentil-based soup with vegetables) ARE a complete meal. Protein, carbs, fat, fiber, minerals and vitamins. You're making it sound like we were talking about 100% lentil meal with nothing else... come on!

I would always add some vegetables that were on sale or just cheap at the time - zucchini, red cabbage, celery, kale, etc; I lived in Brooklyn back then and prices were rather high but you could always find some type of vegetable on sale and of course lentils and brown rice (which I often added to lentils) are always cheap.

I am arguing that this is not just a cultural problem, and to ignore issues of access and time, as Bittman does, is really wrong-headed.

Access and time != healthy food is inherently expensive. I think we agree more than we disagree, I think you're missing the point that if you argue that healthy food is expensive, most people will know from their personal experience that's simply not true, and will ignore whatever else you have to say, however valid the rest of your argument may be!
posted by rainy at 5:50 PM on September 25, 2011


Before we have a chance of solving anything we need to have a clear idea of what the problems are. If you're arguing that healthy food is expensive, you're setting up a position that's trivial to shot down. There is a different set of complicated, hard to categorize, subtle problems that make healthy food challenging.

This is really well put, and I feel certain most of us already agree on this point.
posted by Miko at 6:16 PM on September 25, 2011


This thing about time, I don't get it. All over the World, people have jobs, have kids, spend time commuting just like Americans. But only in the US cooking a meal is too time-consuming to handle. Fast food is everywhere, and there are people without cooking skills all over, but I don't hear this argument about time outside the US. And I don't really understand it, either. Yes, it takes 30-45 minutes to prepare a meal, and what is the problem with that? It's time the family can spend together, it's nice. Eating is essential, so it makes sense to take it seriously and enjoy it.
posted by mumimor at 11:37 PM on September 25, 2011


The short answer: this is a discussion about women, although the smug food moralists seldom come right out and say it, and women in the US work much longer hours than women in the rest of the developed world. According to the OECD:
While the working week for men in full-time jobs in Europe is only marginally shorter than for US men, women in Europe work far fewer hours than their counterparts, and are more likely to hold part-time jobs. Both genders in the US work on average 41 hours a week, women a little less. In Europe, women work just over 30 hours, compared to around 38 for men.
So basically, European women have approximately 11 hours a week more than US women do to devote to food preparation.
posted by craichead at 4:21 AM on September 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I ain't giving up my full-time job.
posted by Miko at 5:00 AM on September 26, 2011


I think commuting is also a huge factor in the US. Our general suburban sprawl means a ridiculously large number of people live pretty far from where they work; I lose 2 hours a day to commuting, my partner nearly 3. This is the biggest thing that has changed about our household food economy over the last five years. When I lived in the town next door to where I worked and had a 10-minute commute, I never felt rushed to make food decisions, or that I didn't have time to go shopping or plan meals. But the stress of commuting (it's inherently stressful) combined with the lost time means everything else gets telescoped painfully into the two or three hours of a weekday evening in which I can remain somewhat functional. Having less time to deal with food at first meant a real decline in the quality of our diet and a concomitant rise in our food costs. Recently I've got it back under control, but I have to focus on it a lot harder as a priority that edges out other priorities, even relaxing or keeping in touch with people, rather than one of many things I'll be able to get done in a day. Commuting is definitely part of the issue.

I know some Londoners who have insane, NY-area style commutes, and certainly am aware that most major cities have a 'commuter belt' around them, but would love to see country-by-country data on average commute like that in the NYT graph above. Add to that the non-work effects of sprawl in America - spending tons of time in the car to run errands, ferry kids around to far-flung locations - and you just lose a lot of time in transit. And this is all if you even have a car, and aren't at the mercy of a public transport schedule that can be thin or irregular. I have a thing Monday nights where my class gets out at 7:30, but my next train home isn't until 9:30 - chalk up two hours in which my time has to just go to waste and certainly can't be used for either shopping (nowhere to shop nearby) or food prep.

It's another dimension of the problem: our relationships to place, and urban design.
posted by Miko at 5:10 AM on September 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I ain't giving up my full-time job.

You'd likely be a lot more willing to give up that job if you received excellent public health care, education subsidies, and other goodies without needing to work, and if you were facing significant barriers to keep working from your family, friends, and employers:

Despite a battery of government measures — some introduced in the past year or so — and ever more passionate debate about gender roles, only about 14 percent of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6 percent of those with two. (source)

Craichead is right: the lack of time for cooking is all about women. In a lot of places in the world, it is normal to have wives, mothers-in-law, aunts, or low-paid female servants available for domestic tasks to support the main breadwinners in a family. In parts of Europe (as in the above article), public subsidies and barriers are structured to keep more women available for those domestic tasks. The US is interesting in that we do neither -- we don't provide the subsidies (and in fact we subsidize land use forms that actively make life more difficult for women, an observation made by Delores Hayden and others decades ago), and we also mostly live alone or in nuclear families, without having access to domestic help from (unemployed) female relations and live-in servants.

And since even in our "egalitarian" modern age women here do most of the domestic tasks, all these calls for more cooking are really calls for women to take on additional work, there's a subtext to this that makes me a little uncomfortable. I had the privilege of growing up in a house where my mother was a housewife (aka domestic engineer, homemaker, etc), and she had the interest in and time for cooking from scratch, so we ate very well. But that's not an option for many people -- either both people need to work, or, more likely, it is a divided household and the woman is raising the kids on her own. I wish we could find it in ourselves to reframe this discussion away from all the extra tasks these individual women should be doing in order to be better mothers, and towards the structural changes that would help all of us eat and live better.
posted by Forktine at 6:21 AM on September 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


In many poor areas supermarkets do have vegetables but the displays are truly disgusting. Stale, wilted, rotten vegetables and fruits, sometimes flies are hovering above them, often you can find mold on strawberries or blueberries. The really cool thing about WF and TJs is that they keep an eye on things like that.

I just wanted to add that this weekend I - "shabby genteel" is how I'd describe my class position - went to the poor-neighborhood Rainbow Foods near my house where I do a lot of my shopping. This Rainbow has actually been pretty okay since I started shopping here - started boycotting Cub in conjunction with the "you treat your cleaners like crap, now stop it" campaign. But this week there were racks of rotting produce right out there for sale - obviously too much for it to be a mistake. Avocados that were all, to the last one, dried or rotted; tomatoes rotted; a whole rack of soft and stinking fruit.

If you live in the suburbs or in a nicer neighborhood, you never see this. You don't know how gross and demoralizing it is to know that our corporate masters think that you should pay good money to eat something that's already decayed, and to have your plans to - for example - buy some goddamn tomatoes go irretrievably off the rails.
posted by Frowner at 7:04 AM on September 26, 2011


You'd likely be a lot more willing to give up that job if you received excellent public health care, education subsidies, and other goodies without needing to work

Oh, definitely not. I love my work and get a lot of satisfaction from it. If I had those sorts of subsidies I might choose to do some different things within my working life, but there sure wouldn't be any less of it.

and if you were facing significant barriers to keep working from your family, friends, and employers

Possibly, but in any case, my point is that my full-time work is not keeping me from cooking and planning. Other things impact the time available for that, but not my full-time job.

I wish we could find it in ourselves to reframe this discussion away from all the extra tasks these individual women should be doing in order to be better mothers, and towards the structural changes that would help all of us eat and live better.

I disagree with the idea that all this is aimed at women. The distribution of household labor may not yet be at all egalitarian, but that's negotiable on an individual level where there are two or more adults in the home. I remember discussing this at length when an op-ed piece about how the food movement hurts women came out, and I didn't find it a convincing case. Women may be, in general, more interested in it, and more likely to consume the kinds of media where it's discussed. And women as mothers are the target of a lot of messaging about nutrition, but that's nothing new under the sun, and it's always been a somewhat problematic reality - I don't think one can lay that at the feet of the food movement. I don't find that there's a control-of-women agenda embedded in the issues; they are real issues that we need to deal with at the policy level as well as at the family level, and involve us all. And I know too many men who are deeply involved in the food movement as well to think that it's solely impacting women. it's not that I don't think how women and men are impacted differently by concern over the food supply is worth examining, so much as I don't think it means much of anything with regard to the importance of the issue.

I do agree that it's really changes in the infrastructure of food, not individual solutions, that will solve the problem for the majority, though. I just flatly reject, from lived experience, the idea that individual solutions are always impossible where they're wanted and the infrastructure is already in place.
posted by Miko at 7:40 AM on September 26, 2011


...so reframing that conversation really means reframing that conversation, and getting away from whether it is/isn't possible to feed a family of X on X dollars, and instead talking about the issues I outlined in my very first comment in the thread - which are mainly structural.
posted by Miko at 7:42 AM on September 26, 2011


There are a lot of good points in this discussion. Now I understand how American families are in a really difficult situation. I'm a +full-time working single parent, but I live in an area where I can find good and cheap groceries around the clock. My friends and family who live in suburbs or exurbs have part-time jobs, either shared between a couple, or all taken by one parent, mostly the wife, but even they have reasonably good stores close by (less than 15 minutes by car), because we have planning laws which forbid mega-stores.
We all have access to cheap and safe child-care, schools and health-care, which means the family doesn't go directly into poverty if the breadwinner loses her/his job (though naturally it would be a really bad thing).
I guess all of this is too socialist for the US.

Still, I really think a good home ec program would help a lot. I really don't spend much time cooking from scratch, and my oldest child manages quite well too - she can even cook for a party of 20. It isn't that difficult. You just need to know a few basic tricks.
posted by mumimor at 3:39 PM on September 26, 2011


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